Fieldnotes: First Volumes

Reviewed by Kirsten Alm

Kelly Shepherd’s Shift establishes his preoccupation with ecological poetry just as his poetics suggest apprenticeship to a number of ecologically minded poets. Grappling with the inheritance of influential predecessors, aspects of this volume impress the difficulty of clearing ground in the overgrown field of ecological poetry more than they succeed in articulating a “new idea of wilderness.” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose,” for example, looms beside the dark highway in Shepherd’s “Greyhound Night Song,” where “small bits of / of conversation [come] from the back of the bus.” Gary Snyder’s vision of unifying wholeness echoes throughout the collection, most notably in “Walking Path”; one of Snyder’s essays, “The Human Skin,” is the source of a found poem of the same name. Some of the ideas and images borrowed in Shepherd’s poems have been so often repeated, though, that they have lost their power and currency. Nonetheless, lines that sing in Shift—and there are many—are more often than not found in the poems that explore the ethical contradictions and moments of paradoxical beauty in the world of manual labour, where “[d]ays of this employment become like water hitting a rubber suit.” The poems that treat human experience in an industrial economy are the bright points in this collection—“a river full of colourful stones” shining “in the cement-mix gravel”—suggesting that the mud and waste of a resource-based economy may be Shepherd’s fertile ground.

Readers of Michael Johnson’s How to Be Eaten by a Lion might be surprised to encounter East Africa instead of the West Coast of North America in the volume’s first section, which begins with an epigraph from Robert Hass’s “Songs to Survive the Summer” and an opening poem dedicated to Robert Wrigley. These poems revisit a childhood spent “there”—sliding down a hill in the mud after rain, attacking a wasps’ nest with a group of determined boys—and turn with awe toward the rhythms of life and death in a place strikingly different from the mossy Pacific Northwest that dominates the latter two sections of the collection. The concerns in this first section and its evocative imagery—a father’s “sweat on my arm like a seed of sun”—introduce a pleasant diversity to the volume. However, there is also a naive quality in the backward glances of these poems that is occasionally disconcerting. For example, “In Praise of Pain” leaves unexplored the fact that it is not the male children, who actually attack the nest, but African women who suffer the pain of wasps’ stings, “screaming praises / to the wasps, the pain, through her tears: Bwana asifiwe! Praise the Lord,” in accordance with a pastor’s lesson. In attempting to once again see with the clear eyes of childhood, Johnson hasn’t asked some of the questions about gender and race relationships that might have added depth and nuance to such a depiction, which begs further insights into patriarchal colonization.

Caribou Run, Richard Kelly Kemick’s first volume, finds abundance in the Canadian tundra. With a suite of poems that takes its inspiration from the yearly round of the Porcupine caribou herd, the volume is well conceived and executed, and displays the results of careful research, which enriches the poems and leads to surprising and delightful contrasts and metaphors. The numerous epigraphs in each of the collection’s five sections draw on Indigenous knowledge, scientific studies, and travel writing and poetry from a variety of authors including Al Purdy and Don McKay, who edited the volume. Indeed, one senses McKay’s influence on Kemick’s poetics, most notably in his adoption of a pattern of careful attention to the physical world. He contemplates the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum of the caribou stomach in one poem, and “Caribou Moss, Cladonia rangiferna” in another. These meditations tend toward revelations about the unity of all things; caribou moss, for example, is found to be fractal, “its pronged reach growing / into a million small antlers” like those of the caribou who are sustained by it. Although these general notions might be familiar, the angle of approach in this volume, in conjunction with Kemick’s pithy witticism, lends them a freshness that is further enhanced by the artistry with which the poet alternates between inner reflection and exterior observation. The collection is beautiful and Kemick is a poet to watch.

This review “Fieldnotes: First Volumes” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 159-160.

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