In Her Element

  • Daphne Marlatt and Susan Holbrook (Editor)
    Intertidal: The Collected Earlier Poems, 1968-2008. Talonbooks (purchase at
Reviewed by Tanis MacDonald

There’s something great about hefting the firm weighted mass of Intertidal, and readers will get a second happy jolt from the subtitle, because this nearly six-hundred-page volume of Daphne Marlatt’s poems collects only her earlier work. The way this tome takes up space on a shelf practically shouts “slow down and read,” and it flies in the face of thinking of a poet’s output as “slight”—to the detriment of our foremothers who wrote their hearts out. This material history of feminist poetry in Canada as practised by Marlatt since the early 1960s earns every word of its twenty-two sections covering four decades of Marlatt’s work. Reading Intertidal offers evidence of what can be repurposed and re-seen, of what can be, in Marlatt’s words, not the wreckage of history but poetry’s conscious recuperation via challenge of location and form: to be “in her element in other words. blurring the boundary.”

Susan Holbrook’s introduction to Intertidal reminds us that the fight for women’s language is a material fight. Pulling together the “textual complications [that] comprised the very compositional features that distinguish and energize Marlatt’s work,” Holbrook has curated not only Marlatt’s poems but also her prolific poetic practice, including her invention of stanzagraphs and other methods devised to walk the tightrope between poetry and prose. Holbrook’s introduction outlines Marlatt’s peripatetic biography and influences while sharing the principles with which she (Holbrook) organized this volume of collected poems, the first of two. These principles underscore Marlatt’s career-long interest in the exploration of edge-places and the liminality of belonging.

An essay by Marlatt, “Further Thoughts,” offers her understanding of her poems as musical scores and her interest in revising, revisiting, and otherwise working with texts that have already seen publication, as she did when she rewrote 1972’s Vancouver Poems to become the reconfigured and reconsidered 2013 volume Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now. Marlatt’s dedication to reconsidering her earlier work is more than an exercise in boundary-blurring; it is also an archive of salvaging as a feminist act and an entirely welcome approach to work of such breadth and ambition. Marlatt’s negotiations with linguistics, feminism, and second-wave modernism via the 1963 Poetry Conference at UBC mixes in Intertidal with a sampling of the work of some of the visual artists with whom she has collaborated, including Frances Hunter’s drawings in 2008’s Between Brush Strokes, Marlatt’s JackPine Press chapbook about the life and work of Okanagan artist Sveva Caetani, reproduced in facsimile in this volume.

The poems themselves—their linguistic play, their formal demands, their documentary recuperation and refusal—make up the bulk of this text. Within the poems, the trope of exploring where land and water meet becomes something more than an elemental metaphor or a poetic one. Marlatt’s poems are always watchful, and she is careful to note the way that poetry telescopes the self, or as Marlatt writes in “Locative, for Phyllis”: “writing reaches, stretches intact in turns and just beyond the pen- / (its quick fluid motion, its unread remembering) -manship.” That split penmanship, that playful reach, shows Marlatt engaging the fluid motion of the intertidal as sustained inquiry. How do we watch shifts in water and in ground? How do we unread remembering? Politically, these are perennial questions; poetically, they are constant questions.

On the back cover of Intertidal, Fred Wah calls the volume “the breathtaking shoreline of forty years of poetic practice.” Wah’s cartographic metaphor for a life spent writing “the literal and the littoral”—exploring the in-between zones between prose and poetry, between nations and cultures, between river and delta—is apt. To read a volume of collected works is to be invited to read together what has been “collected” until then only in the writer’s mind, and it should be said that one of the things we gain from reading these poems together is the enormous power of propinquity. For Marlatt, a poet who has always been fascinated with how objects and people change when they are read adjacent to each other, be it environmentally, linguistically, or semantically, this propinquity does more than suggest the kinship of works created and developed over forty years. It offers another way to think of what lies (and what matters) between one state of being and another, between Marlatt’s past and her present, and between her sense of history and the undeniable present of her writing.

This review “In Her Element” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 161-162.

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