Gaspereau in the Wild

Reviewed by James Gifford

Every Gaspereau book delights with design, craft, and beauty. Lindsay Bird, Monica Kidd, and Bren Simmers do too. These collections embody the generosity and humanism for which Gaspereau is widely admired.

Pivot Point recounts a nine-day canoe trip through the Bowron Lake circuit, with short poems interspersed with prose and sketches. Simmers’ lyricism reflects the introspective nature of every journey and the book’s origin in drafts for a long poem, one largely reborn here in prose. The immediate comparison is to Amber McMillan’s The Woods: A Year on Protection Island, but Simmers’ lyricism concentrates in the scene providing her title: “I’m now attuned to just how far the canoe can tip before it rocks back to centre. / Each relationship has its own pivot point.” The impersonal natural world we might expect to capture the poet’s imagination, as if some invocation of the sublime with Kaza Mountain standing in for Mont Blanc, is not Simmers’ pivot. Instead, the lyrical concern is with relationships, where they balance, where they roll over, and how marriages and friendships navigate quotidian life. She unfolds the self-conscious, ironical experiences of modern urban life shifting to roughing it in the bush, with “boil-in-bag curry, mac’ n’ cheese, and soba noodles stir-fry” or “[a]pproaching mid-life, we take calcium to maintain bone strength and fish oil for memory.” Simmers also echoes the troubles of the rose-coloured glass of the Grand Tour of the Romantics and their landscape sublime—framed work of art for human enjoyment: “Using trees to scale the size, the eye moves left to right, takes in foreground, middle ground, before settling on the keyhole views between peaks.” Simmers proves Lawrence Durrell’s quip that “[t]ravel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.”

Bird’s Boom Time opens with her arrival in Fort McMurray and the oil sands, which makes the book’s black endpapers and cover all the more appropriate (they’re shared across all three books but speak differently wrapping Boom Time). “Boom Time” captures working-class struggles for “the good life” with sardonic half-rhyme and the depressed race “between bust and bust.” She overlays personal experiences living among workers, navigating labour, love, pleasure, and the liminal life in between jobs, places, and people in the interstices of a culture of extraction. As with Simmers, there’s a natural comparison: Garth Martens’ Prologue for the Age of Consequence, with which Boom Time shares manual labour conjoined with philosophical curiosity. Late in the collection, “Wood Buffalo” eulogizes nature’s desolation amidst bitumen extraction and the silencing of the poet’s voice as the pen falters, ink turned mud, difficult to wade through—the mud river ends poetic viscosity. Near the close, “Ariel,” an allusively heavy title, fires readerly anticipation. Bird doesn’t disappoint. Shakespeare and Plath settle to a Disney princess coyly wading through the black-gold boom, facing an end time, only to ask “[w]ill I shake my head” at such a past, a past made strange by a future hardly imaginable.

Kidd differs, centring the non-human in one set of poems among four clusters. The second, “Meeting the Eyes of the World,” concerns travels to Antarctica and will likely garner the most attention. The shades of white for the ice and the non-human feature strongly, such as “[t]he stench” of penguins in “Natural Selections.” In the same sense, “[t]his mantle of black debris / of whale bones and sailors” draws the reader toward the detritus that remains when presence becomes absences, in “Deception.” The recurring impersonal focus is on place, the animal, and the non-living. Amidst these, however, we see men drawn to Antarctica in human relations in the two parts of “The Origin of Shame.” This more lyrical mode permeates the other three sections, most strikingly “Chance Encounters with Wild Animals,” which lends the collection its title, and which focuses on Kidd’s European travels. The wild animals are not inhuman nature but the humane figures and spaces encountered, as in the stunning “On Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s La Fortune.” This reviewer visited the same 2017 exhibition in Toulouse, and both the images of the poetry and the notes at the end of the book on the translations accompanying the exhibit convey the Renaissance humanism of l’Hôtel d’Assézat and the living blush of the stone of La Ville Rose. Kidd points to the quotidian life of the city with “[p]iss humming on the banks of La Garrone [sic]. / Everything clear in the quiet of the cloister, / magnolia rattling,” which then seemingly juxtaposes the painting and the nearby Basilique Saint-Sernin.

This review “Gaspereau in the Wild” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 28 Aug. 2020. Web.

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