Fist, Fire, and Heart

  • Michael Lista
    Strike Anywhere: Essays, Reviews & Other Arsons. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at
  • M. Travis Lane and Shane Neilson (Editor)
    Heart on Fist: Essays and Reviews 1970-2016. Palimpsest Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Neil Surkan

Despite their similarly combative titles, M. Travis Lane’s Heart on Fist and Michael Lista’s Strike Anywhere contain drastically different takes on reviewing Canadian poetry. The essays in Heart on Fist span an impressive forty-six years and were selected by Lane and her editor Shane Neilson from over 120 poetry reviews Lane published in Canadian literary magazines like The Fiddlehead, Canadian Poetry, and the Antigonish Review. Conversely, the essays in Strike Anywhere were mostly written over the five or so years that Lista calls “the halcyon days before my self-immolation,” when he wrote a controversial weekly column on poetry for the National Post. Both books pay homage to a span of time in which each critic was afforded the rare opportunity to make reviewing poetry his or her job. Lane and Lista achieved different goals within that time, as the introductory essays in each book make clear: in Lane’s case, discovering writers from “off the beaten track” was her top priority, whereas Lista strove to provide the antidote to “service journalism” by writing what he calls “skeptical” reviews.

Lane has demonstrated a critical stamina that may be second to none in Canadian literature. In a style Neilson aptly calls “mildly devastating,” the essays in Heart on Fist present Lane’s remarkable commitment to literary criticism, from early reviews of Phyllis Webb and Michael Ondaatje to recent takes on Karen Solie and Al Moritz. The collection guides readers on a walking tour of the last half-century of Canadian literature, as seen through Lane’s keen eyes, while, in tandem, presenting her central theses on how good poems work, where Canadian poetry can and should distinguish itself, and why women writers have earned their place in CanLit. What is most apparent throughout her essays and reviews is the fact that Lane is a very good listener: “sound” is the first thing she looks for in a poem, and she consistently quotes long passages of verse from the collections she reviews in order to let the poems speak for themselves. Even in hostile essays where she vehemently disagrees with a poet, the most obvious case being her 1976 essay on Robin Skelton, she still only proselytizes “a little,” reasonably teasing out points of disagreement with Skelton’s arguments in biting, balanced, aphoristic sentences. For example: “Only a person who makes a point of not perceiving the people who are not poets can believe that poets are more sensitive than anybody else.” Such a sentence epitomizes Lane’s approach to reviewing: clichés and generalizations wither in her fist, but the fist is bound to the heart.

Lista’s essays and articles in Strike Anywhere, which he jointly calls “arsons,” span the space between lighting a fire and burning something down. He was, and continues to be, committed to engaging where others back off because poetry is “useful” to him—worth fighting for. Contemporary poetry, for Lista, is like “medicine”: “It’s not supposed to taste good. That’s how you know it’s working.” When Lista likes a collection, he is unafraid to signal his approval by calling it a “masterpiece” (“Joshua Mehigan”) or “vital” (“Michael Robbins”). He also delivers split decisions on occasion, as in the case of Alexandra Oliver, where he declares, “Not every poem succeeds . . . When she succeeds, she succeeds entirely.” But Lista clearly thrives when he is fired up; he shines when he takes risks and writes skeptically. The most notorious examples are his reviews of Tim Lilburn, Anne Carson, and Don McKay: he likens Lilburn’s poetry to “behind-the-counter medicine that deserves to be strictly controlled,” calls Carson’s poems in Red Doc> not poetry but “prose—in my opinion, not super-good prose,” and points out lines in McKay’s work that are responsible for giving Canadian poetry “McKayabetes.” However, Lista’s more wide-angled essays, with titles like “Publish Less” and “Why Poetry Sucks,” also display his knack for controversial, convincing writing as he weighs in on the state of contemporary poetry. The final essay in the collection, “The Shock Absorber,” an in-depth examination of the militarized financial backing of the Griffin Poetry Prize, is especially impressive, courageous, and incendiary.

Lane and Lista are not similar critics, but the circle of Canadian poetry is lucky to include them both—fire, fists, and all.

This review “Fist, Fire, and Heart” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 155-156.

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