Lonely for the World

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson

Bad Ideas, from which this review’s title is taken, is BC author Michael V. Smith’s third poetry book. Structured in four sections—“Prayers,” “Dreams of Friends and Family,” “Queer,” and “Little Things”—the poems explore loneliness, the complexities of family, and the way we navigate the world around us. Smith’s poems read as personal, sometimes confessional, but they are most often political narratives. Thread through the collection are poems such as “Handy Tips to Limit a Queer’s Chances of Being Gunned-Down,” “Your Peers Die Like This,” “Wolf Lake,” and “Prayer for Gender.” In “Prayer for Gender,” we meet a young child who is asked to draw his future self in class. He draws:

A dress where there was no dress.
Heels where none had been before.


He senses the future is something more
than black ink, white paper.

With a specific eye for details, and an airiness to the poetry itself, Smith is able to transport readers into disparate worlds, revealing the fissures and chasms in the human experience.

The poems in Bad Ideas are by turns revelatory and dazzling; Smith moves from subject to subject, creating landscapes (and dreamscapes) that are intricate and still relatable. In “A Woman Dreams the Birth of Her Son,” the speaker grapples with new parenthood, exhausted by the baby. The dream-poem ends with:

Ube, it says, mocking me
with its blank-slate perfection
and rounded lip.  Ooh.
Ooh ooh.

            I am convinced
I will love this child
one day or the next.

In Bad Ideas, Smith explores all our bad impulses, surprising the reader with his honesty, his empathy, and the generous way he reveals us back to ourselves.

Adèle Barclay’s If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You, winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, travels to various locations, examining our understanding of our place in the world. Moving from physical geography to more intimate interior spaces, Barclay’s poems are often challenging in terms of form and structure, asking the reader to make metaphorical connections. Many of the poems within the collection act as a dialogue between themselves; poems such as “Dear Sarah I” through “Dear Sarah VI” are most effective when read together, images and symbols building along with the poems themselves. These poems range from dense to shockingly spare, but never fail to offer emotional resonance for the reader. In “What Transpires in the Night Before the Night,” for example: “Tequila. / Horses who had to swim. / Stories my mother wrote about Acadia.” While the poem itself is very short, Barclay uses subtext and an imagistic discussion between poems to create something larger. In this way, the collection reverberates, individual poems echoing their parallels throughout.

Kate Cayley’s Other Houses, her second collection of poetry, explores objects and myths, and the way that the past is constantly a part of our present. Cayley’s poems allow the dead to speak with us: the artists, the mystics, the self-proclaimed prophets, and their legends. In “David Bowie in Drag, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ Video, 1979,” Cayley writes:

Wig plucked off, lipstick


raising a red bruise, granny
lolloping over into wolfishness.


We’re in on the secret, aren’t we?
Even as we’re eaten.

These poems perform the magic trick of making explorations of the past both timely and relevant; their reverberations offer revelations about our current social landscape.

The collection is broken into three sections, “Writers’ Bedrooms,” “Other Houses,” and “The Library of the Missing.”  “The Library of the Missing” is made up primarily of one long poem, also titled “The Library of the Missing,” which details a library founded in 1884. The library houses exhibits of missing people and their artifacts. Cayley uses the poems to occupy other voices and other lives, giving weight and meaning through her lyrical descriptions and language. The images are crisp and engaging, such as in “Item #47564, Category 2, 2003 Wedding Ring,” where “The scratch marks on the ring may indicate use of force, or that / Vitric refused to remove it when doing the dishes.” In other moments, Cayley’s reimagining of these missing people creates vivid narrative poems. In “Item 9042422, Category 3, date unknown Comb and Five Hairs,” Cayley recreates a whole internal life for an anonymous woman via a single comb:

At night, she would pause on the stairs (the third or possibly fourth
stair) after she turned the lights off on her way to bed and feel the
silence that dwelt around her and inside her and even though most
people would find this sad, she found it to be the most peaceful
time of her day.

This ability to create so much from so little speaks to Cayley’s extraordinary skills as a poet, displayed throughout Other Houses.

All three collections attempt to answer how we relate to the world, the past and the present, the political and the personal, the physical and the metaphorical. The result is three distinct and accomplished books of poetry.

This review “Lonely for the World” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 131-132.

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