More Life

Reviewed by Neil Surkan

New collections by mid-career writers Mike Barnes, Brenda Leifso, and Shane Neilson capture bewildering experiences of grief, upheaval, intimacy, and wonder, but differ in their treatments of form based on the poets who inspired them.

Opening Mike Barnes’ Braille Rainbow feels like hang-gliding into a hurricane. Beginning with “Admission Suite”—a series of poems written in 1977 when he was a patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital after being misdiagnosed with acute schizophrenia—the collection immediately lives up to its (fabulous) title by confounding the senses with “radical incoherence.” Rife with illusions and ambiguities, “Admission Suite” hurls us into the turbulence of Barnes’ past: in the poem “nightmare,” for instance, the speaker ricochets between sedation and immense suffering as “the body” (which he notably does not refer to as his body)

sends its prickling missive
warning of the skin-web and the filth of the spider
sitting hairy-legged where the hair was
holding the head rigid preparing to suck
the mouth an incredible jelly-bag of filth

Conversely, the rest of the collection rides in the eye of the storm. As might be expected from poems written years later, the disjunction between “Admission Suite” and the rest of Braille Rainbow is palpable. Barnes’ turn to more meditative, balanced forms seems inspired, at least in part, by early Chinese poetry, of which he describes himself an avid reader. Even as Barnes writes about his mother’s struggle with dementia, a sense of equanimity persists; in “Drinking Frappuccinos on a Dementia Ward,” for instance—one of the most riveting, subtle, and moving poems in the entire collection—the speaker and his mother sit in “peace” while “sipping, being beyond / names.”

Whereas the poems in Braille Rainbow span forty years, Brenda Leifso’s Wild Madder begins in autumn and travels incrementally through months and seasons, with titles that linearly follow the calendar, as her speaker marks changes within herself and in the landscape of Kingston. Confessional and earnest, Leifso’s poems interplay the tension between the set schedules and routines of domestic life—parenting, housekeeping, walking the dog—and the cycles of death and renewal she sees in the natural world. Inspired by Louise Glück, Jan Zwicky, Don McKay, and, most explicitly, her mentor Anne Simpson, Leifso often privileges careful observation of her environment, described with vivid metaphors: docks that “surrender like skeletons to grass,” ice pellets “with the flash and certitude of salmon scales.” And yet, much of the collection dramatizes the speaker’s battle to overflow her “high-walled heart” as she endeavours to write “one fucking thing that’s true / or calm or reads like one long, slow exhale.” The poems strive to arrive at moments of awe or wonder, but they often end with the speaker lamenting her inability to feel as profoundly as she thinks she should. Even at her most dejected, though, Leifso perseveres. In “Navigation in Winter,” for instance, though the speaker despairs that “maybe the door will always be closed, / a music-less cold / that will not crack open to meaning,” she reminds herself of her responsibilities: “the children will want / bagels for breakfast / with honey and jam.”

In his latest excellent collection, New Brunswick, Shane Neilson also focuses on the particulars of place. His poems, however, expand and contract to take in political, economic, and cultural concerns while somehow doubling as moving, intimate elegies and meditations on family. Somehow comes to mind repeatedly when reading this collection: the book’s six sections are as ambitious as they are impressive in the ways they renovate and reimagine the long poem form. From its opening timeline-poem, to sequenced stand-alone lyrics, to hybridized crowns of sonnets, New Brunswick consistently surprises. Philip Larkin, Patrick Lane, Robert Lowell, and Alden Nowlan lurk in Neilson’s melodic rhymes and persistent rhythms, but his courageously genuine intimations make his voice unmistakable. In Part III, “A Broken Crown on the Neilson Family Table,” a riveting elegy in which the speaker remembers his father, fraying form merges with surges of overwhelming emotion as the speaker thinks through what it means to “come from the same / land but differ.” The poem begins with stand-alone sonnets before its stanzas begin to run together then break down as the speaker relays how “Grief came // to judge imperfections by causing further flaws. . . . Some call this purpose, others // call it pain.” Subtle and multifaceted, these are poems that juggle more feelings and more forms than most—and more life.

This review “More Life” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 130-131.

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