Flowing Across Borders

Reviewed by Kit Dobson

Oana Avasilichioaei, Sarah de Leeuw, and Rita Wong and Cindy Mochizuki have all penned new texts that focus on the structure of the border, and, in all three books, the border zones that water creates and invites us to consider. Limbinal, Skeena, and perpetual offer considerable grounds for comparison for their treatment of aqueous liminal zones that variously threaten, haunt, and sustain us. Their poetic responses are resonant and welcome us to pause and consider things anew.

Oana Avasilichioaei’s Limbinal is her fifth book of poetry, in addition to the five volumes that she has translated. Limbinal combines her practices of translation and composition: the section of the book titled “Ancillary” consists of Avasilichioaei’s translations of Paul Celan’s Romanian poems, while the remainder of the volume can be more immediately identified as “her” work. However, Limbinal is a text that is very much concerned with boundaries and borders—and how unstable these tend to be. Each section of the text is concerned with placement in one way or another: with titles like “Bound,” “Partitions,” “Line Drawings,” “Itinerant Sideline,” and “Peripheries”; with photographic images that erupt into the text; and with linguistic sliding between English, French, and Romanian. This disruptive text is constantly on the move. Look, for instance, at the bold opening of the text:

Border, you terrify. Border, you must dictate your own

dismantling or we will perish. Purge. Border, are you listening?

Are you empire?

Her interrogation of borders points toward their hegemony, the ways in which lines of demarcation govern our bodies and our beings. And yet, these are always in flux: the border is constantly interrogated. The text goes on to ask: “Border, are you listening? Are you hungry?” “Border, are you watching?” “Border, are you enraged? Are you bored? Are you longing for the fiction of enlightenment?” “Border, are you nervous? Nerves? Nodes? Are you a call to network?” “Border, are you primitive? Are you primed for capital, economics, policy?” Across this questioning and beyond, we watch the poetic voice in the act of “defecting” to spaces in which words become unbordered: as the volume progresses, Avasilichioaei works with font density and size, text placement, page margins, and gutter spaces, working playfully, yet seriously, across the borders that the book itself establishes. These interrogations bring us to consider water in the section entitled “Thresholds,” a section that takes place aboard a ship. Water continues to guide and dictate the flows of the text in and out of its polyvocal, multi-lingual work.

Sarah de Leeuw’s Skeena, in turn, is a collage-driven text. It is de Leeuw’s sixth literary work, in addition to her academic writing. It is a soaring, epic telling of the Skeena River in northern British Columbia, running from its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. De Leeuw documents the river across its history, working with Indigenous knowledges of the place and with texts from the colonial encounter, white settlement, and up to the present, including, for instance, recent scientific studies of the river. Across all of this material, we see the river in its unruly nature, washing away roads and pipelines laid along the shoreline as it pushes against the voices of settlers that would contain or constrain it. Poems throughout the volume give the river its own voice, as in the piece “Tributaries”:

Before we had names

                                                            time was ice

being gone me

                        becoming                   ice.

Invertebrates nuzzling         my       bowels.

Light slipping to dark slipping to light

and then to dark: rutting moose.

The insertion of the river’s voice allows de Leeuw to work with the longer memory of the Skeena, well before the settlers arrived, and allows her to break, moreover, from the anthropocentric challenge that the documentary collage otherwise risks imposing. The poet can, as a result, engage in the following interrogation, in the poem “Raven”:

Is it true

                        great big black bird

that nothing in this world

surprises you anymore?


shocks or stuns or stops you

in your winging turning tracks?

Certainly nothing

                        not even a river like me

compares to your work.

Of making the world.

The book flows along the length of the Skeena, the final piece, “Pacific,” opening with the simple line “you are my ending.” As the book eddies downstream, readers witness both the physical and the social geography of the Skeena. The juxtaposition of texts and voices demonstrates an awareness of the contingency of life on the waterway, of its fragility, as well as versatility and strength, and of its renewal when the waters collide with the ocean.

Finally, Rita Wong and Cindy Mochizuki’s collaborative perpetual offers dire warnings about the state of today’s waters. It is a book primarily concerned with waterways in and around Vancouver; it is Wong’s fifth book, including her other 2015 book, undercurrent, and her first in collaboration with Mochizuki: Wong provides the text, while Mochizuki provides illustrations. As an interrogation of waterways in the land that both contributors live on, this book is a gesture toward taking full responsibility for the ways in which our bodies are rendered complicit by the spaces we inhabit. perpetual documents not only the lost waterways of Vancouver, but also a healing walk recently held in Fort McMurray in an effort to draw attention to the plight of the Athabasca watershed. As the text notes, “we each have a role to play in keeping water and spirit healthy”; Wong and Mochizuki demonstrate the ways in which their own engagements strive toward such ethical and spiritual health.

Across Limbinal, Skeena, and perpetual, we read established, accomplished poets experiment with, document, and plead for the complexity of the borderlines, the waterways, and the linguistic acts of creation necessary to life and beyond. While differing in their depth, complexity, and delivery, Oana Avasilichioaei, Sarah de Leeuw, and Rita Wong and Cindy Mochizuki deliver texts that prompt interrogation, conversation, and action.

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