Lit Up Like a Glowstick

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson

None of This Belongs to Me and Pebble Swing are two vibrant and assured debut poetry collections from Ellie Sawatzky and Isabella Wang. While first collections can often be uneven, this is not the case with these—each writer thoroughly inhabits their own distinct voice, as they reveal a strong sense of aesthetics and style. Both poets are precise in their language, approaching a wide variety of subjects and forms within their collections, from memory and nostalgia to dreamscapes and the natural world. There are moments of levity within the poems, commentary on pop culture, discussions of the environment, showing how these poets are taking chances with their remarkable work.


Ellie Sawatzky’s lyrical, narrative poems explore identity and belonging, the sometimes awkward and arduous shift into adulthood, and the fiery landscapes of desire. In her collection—broken into four sections, each documenting different moments in the author’s life—she creates portraits within the poems, using language to deftly explore a specific place and time. The poems include, and often confront, pop culture and social media, revealing the ways in which they affect and influence our contemporary landscape. There are poems about Instagram ads, Astro Poets astrological tweets, Facebook posts, and items discovered on Craigslist—but these topics are woven into complex and layered poems that hold the mirror up to our intimate lives. The voice throughout is close and confessional, detailing crushes and disappointments, pleasure and the pain of endings—we see risky sex with a knife thrower, painful and messy breakups, fetal heartbeats played over cafe sound systems. The poems are visceral and full of sharp, startling imagery. In “Ways to Write a Poem,”


Imagine how you might be murdered, but

make it beautiful.


Think about sex but never do it.


Unlearn how to swim. (96)


The result is intoxicating, compelling regardless of the subject. The poems move from childhood through to adulthood, often exploring relationships and love in its many forms. We see familial conflicts, moments of quiet contemplation, and the intricacies of womanhood and motherhood. Section III, the titular “None of This Belongs to Me”, details the speaker’s time working as a nanny to a young girl; the speaker is often mistaken for B’s mother, and this in turn begs the question of motherhood and mothering, of identity and belonging.


Despite the often dark overtones to some of the subject matter, Sawatzky’s poems retain a light and airy feeling on the page. Every word is measured and purposeful, the images building to a crescendo: “love leaves its trace, / lit up like a glowstick” (75). Sawatzky’s poems allow us access into these snapshots of moments in time, and her voice as a poet is as clear as the crystals that she describes sparkling on a bedside table.


Isabella Wang’s debut collection, Pebble Swing, is accurately summarized by the blurb on the back jacket by Jen Sookfong Lee: “Isabella, with her direct and clear-eyed poetic voice, takes on the markers of Canadian poetry—landscape, identity and place—but makes them entirely her own.” The four sections of the collection—“I remember,” “The last sketch of a retracting spring,” “Rain falls, falling,” and “Hindsight”—begin with explorations of memory and nostalgia, family and the complicated dynamics there. Wang uses language to move her lyrical poems forward, building to explore family connections and disconnects, her continued engagement with cultural touchstones, and the everlasting burdens of both personal and cultural loss. In “On Forgetting a Language,” Wang writes, “If I return to my birthplace, Jining, now / I will return as a foreigner/ like the time I stepped onto this land ten years ago” (31). This push and pull of place and identity echoes and reverberates throughout her poems.


Wang uses form in very distinct ways, balancing her free-verse lyrical narratives with the more formal ghazal structure in many poem sequences. We see “Ghazal for Heirloom Family Recipes,” “Ghazal for a Snow Day on the Mountain,” and “Ghazal for My Grandmother.” The intricacies of the ghazal’s structure work well to explore traditional topics like melancholy, longing, and love in Wang’s poems. The third section of the collection is completely a ghazal sequence—“Thirteen Anti-Ghazals after Phyllis Webb,” as Wang titles the long poem. This section holds many echoes of Webb’s lyrics, a kind of tribute and dialogue with the poet. It speaks to another common theme in Wang’s poems; as you get deeper into the collection, you notice the many poems written to and for other poets. This creates a kind of allusion, a callback to the poets and poetic traditions that have come before; this, again, serves as a way to explore identity and community.


Place—both geographic and emotional—remains a main component in Wang’s work. There are echoes of the city of Vancouver throughout the collection, from “August,” to “It’s Been Weeks of Forest Fires,” and to “This Winter in Gastown,” where Wang writes,


The Victorian architecture stands from 1867

as Gassy Jack had left his own tavern, right down

to the cobblestones, to the horse-drawn carriage

running through this triangular peninsula at night. (13)


Her poems are distinctly set, and within them we see the beauty of Vancouver—the mountains and trees, the water and beaches, the architecture and the crowded downtown streets—while also acknowledging the ways in which we have failed Indigenous peoples, the destruction of the seemingly yearly forest fires, and the Site C dam, as these elements are all connected, forever linked to each other. In this way, Wang continues her interrogation of the past and the present, and the everlasting reverberations of memory. As Wang writes, “it takes more than one person to remember” (24).

This review “Lit Up Like a Glowstick” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 23 Sep. 2022. Web.

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