Memories of the Prairie Imaginary

Reviewed by Paisley Conrad

Three recent collections of poetry feature speakers rooted in the prairies, with its broad horizons, stark seasonal changes, and sense of endlessness. Jacob Lee Bachinger, Zachari Logan, and Kelsey Andrews consider both what blooms and what struggles in this intense environment. These collections, which emerge from a sort of prairie imaginary—a sense of human spirit that comes to being through communion with the expansive sky—develop an idea of nature that is creative, responsive, and reactive.


Jacob Lee Bachinger’s Earth-cool, and Dirty opens with a simple image: a gnarled potato, cool to the touch and exploding with tubers. This image of the potato, a root excavated and then stored, orients the interests of the collection: what we need is not always visible or beautiful, but is often directly within our grasp. Bachinger’s work is mired with ideas of slow, accumulated disruptions to the natural realm. The collection is a paean to remainders, a song to what grows in the seams of memory and in the crannies of one’s home. What lingers beyond the horizon of each poem is the idea of an absent or ignored cause, one that the speaker can only glimpse out of the corner of their eye. In “Map of the World,” written after Henry David Thoreau’s “Spring,” the speaker notes that the spring thaw reveals both piles of autumn leaves and mounds of scattered litter. Spring, then, is a period of self-propulsive excavation, stubbornly revealing all that one has discarded over the long winter months. Thus, the world of the poem is collated by “dead leaves and discarded wrappers” (3).


Among his references to Thoreau, Bill McKibben, Ecclesiastes, and Su Tung-p’o, Bachinger calls upon Heraclitus as a conspirator throughout the collection: one cannot step into the same river, memory, or emotion twice. Not because these things themselves have changed necessarily— “nothing is new under the sun” (13)—but rather because experience changes the individual’s capacity to perceive and understand. As “nature loves to hide / Where mould grows / on bathroom grout” (28), actual, pure knowledge of nature exceeds Bachinger’s speakers. Inside of trying to reveal a truth about nature as an entity in itself, one speaker imagines the incommunicability of nature as translating to an incommunicability of the self: “it’s not just out there but in here, too: tangle of the forest, tangle of the mind” (18).


In A Natural History of Unnatural Things, Zachari Logan also gazes out to a distant, flat horizon, while drawing on a wide range of intertexts, from advertising to Greek mythology to eighteenth-century botanic artist Mary Delany, to construct a queer prairie imaginary. The poems are founded on exacting images of discomfort, compression, and beauty. Tight, fractured sentences build up to declarations of expansive and difficult feelings: “so often stuck in the moment / when a burn feels like a rush / of cold water” (5). It often feels as though Logan’s speaker is in a state of recession from the present moment, both immersed in feeling and withdrawn in reflection. In “Ontological Stance,” the speaker reflects on the materiality of pain and the ineffability of death before concluding: “I can’t place things” (10). The question considers what it is to feel some sort of disconnection with the material world, while also acknowledging a deep embeddedness in that same materiality.


To construct this idea of the naturalized unnatural, Logan segments bodies, seasons, materials, and feelings. His speakers immediately fossilize their present emotions in the wake of a rapidly accelerating world. He writes:


we are precarious together.

There is a simplicity in our epoch,

quickening of skins; green, juicy,

bluing and pinkish (36)


Even as he keenly frames emotional tumult with measured restraint in order to preserve the intensity of queer embodiment, there remains a vital sensuousness, a warmth, even in this brutal ontology of the collapsed present.


True to its title, Logan considers how natural elements become fully intermixed with unnatural entities, to the point where it becomes difficult to consider manmade, or built, spaces as anything but natural. In “Streetscape,” one of the collection’s several “horror poems,” the speaker documents the moan of tree roots under the asphalt with an Imagist exactitude. Elsewhere, also buried under layers of concrete and blacktop, are signs of “something cognizant” that remains animate despite the flattening impulse of city infrastructure (9). By naturalizing images of the city, Logan proposes that the post-industrial era is an extension of the natural world. As he deconstructs any divide between the natural and the cultural, Logan considers how nature—particularly the sharp coulees and smooth prairies—construct the individual’s understanding of the self.


Kelsey Andrews documents her departure from Northern Alberta to coastal British Columbia in Big Sky Falling. Andrews seems to be searching for effervescent, ephemeral beauty throughout the collection. When looking at a lacewing that has found itself on a SkyTrain window in Vancouver, while looking known for its translucent wings, Andrews muses: “I just knew her wings / were like an answer / to a question Beauty asked” (27). She removes the insect and sets it down gently and bids her farewell as an unsympathetic and confused audience of commuters watches. The speaker is undeterred in her drive to commune with the lacewing, even whilst in an unfamiliar setting for both of them.


In “Land Rich,” Andrews considers the sensuousness of her prairie home and the inflections of the environment on taste, touch, and sight. “You can hold land in your hand” (26), she writes, considering how one can grasp an experience of wholeness in the palm of one’s hand. As the speaker gazes out at a wide field, smelling “dust and combines” (26), she watches the quick descent of the sky from sunset to an ever-deepening dusk:


Big sky falling

into darkness

and mosquitoes

which taste of blood. (26)


Even in moments of solitude, Andrews’ speaker remains in company, often with insects that would otherwise be considered pests. Here, the persistence of the mosquito is an inextricable part of the prairie evening, and less a pest than a feature of pure inhabitation of landscape.


These poems are founded on lessons from tiny creatures like lacewings, and mosquitoes, and snails. She writes of snails, “if we could hear them, / what words would tongues / loosened until truly free / have to give?” (36). She concludes that the snails would sing of gentleness, quietude, and green. Green, she acknowledges, means different things in different landscapes. In the prairies, where rain is sparser, “rain is relief” (58). There are fewer shades of green to be seen, but more miraculous encounters in the shades of brown that compose the flatlands. On the coast, however, where rain “is an expected nuisance” (58), green is a colour of shock, habituated intervention, and persistent richness. If brown is the colour of miracles, green, in its revelatory capacity, can “allow . . . lives unfolding” more gradually (79).

This review “Memories of the Prairie Imaginary” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 13 Feb. 2023. Web.

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