Memory and Monuments

Reviewed by Cameron Paul

Questions of memory and memorialization lie at the heart of recent poetry collections by two Vancouver-based authors—Mariner Janes’ The Monument Cycle and Jordan Abel’s The Place of Scraps. As the city’s real estate development continues to expand and its Downtown Eastside faces increasing gentrification, the questions of memory and memory-making posed by these collections resonate within the context of a city engaged in the fraught task of simultaneously remaking and remembering itself. By leading readers from the momentous to monumental and back again, both these poetry collections interrogate the complex, constitutive bonds between memorials and memory-making that help shape our everyday lives and spaces.

Defiantly stating in its opening pages that, “no, we shout these moments across the now,” Mariner Janes’ The Monument Cycle examines the ways ongoing forms of loss are variously memorialized, materialized, and situated as monuments. Influenced by his own personal memories and shared experiences of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Janes’ collection deftly interweaves the many forms of memorialization both borne of, and contributive to, this much-misunderstood community’s lost, living, and longed-for voices. These poems collectively straddle the disparate geographical and historical ties underlying monuments and spaces, with entwined topics that range from the bombing of Hiroshima, to the conflicting urban experiences of Main and Hastings, to Stanley Park’s commemorative memorialization of E. Pauline Johnson. It is, however, always the monument around which this collection’s daunting breadth continually coheres, not into a cacophonous or sanctimonious frenzy, but rather in the pulsing echoes of a poetry aware of time and place, intent on making memory as well as memorializing, and passionately committed to “shout[ing] these moments across the now.”

Composed through the interplay of found archival materials and personal narrative reflections, Jordan Abel’s The Place of Scraps explores the entwined role memory-making plays in shaping one’s engagement with place, identity, and remembrance. Abel’s inclusion of found, composed, and photographed materials ingeniously calls on readers to consider the process of constructing, honouring, and remembering place and identity through artistic practice. Like its poetic uptakes of anthropological narratives outlining the transportation of totem poles along arterial waterways, Abel’s collection is itself a similarly mobile, aqueous journey of artistic creation. Largely free of formal structure, these sinuous poems wind through, wash up against, and suffuse the gaps of the very archival materials it so-often reinvents here through acts of erasure. In a collection that free-flows between found anthropological accounts and its own interjected personal reflections, readers experience here the simultaneously erosive and imaginative workings of an erasure poetry that continually sees archival authority receding and reworked under torrents of reinvention. As if spilling over onto their surrounding pages, the collection’s many anthropological photographs become visually flooded with the sticky residue of textual word art as viscous memories variously submerge, ebb, eddy, and cascade across each image. Collectively, these poems present acts of erasure that question the very limits of erasure, textual accounts that question the very limits of text, and photographs that playfully exceed their documentary frames.

This review “Memory and Monuments” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 120-21.

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