Navigating Disconnection

Reviewed by Emily Wall

In new books from Claire Kelly, David Zieroth, Lisa Martin, and W. H. New, poems offer us maps that are packed, border to border, with objects. All four poets use object listing as a way of trying to describe this chaotic country of life: living in the city, finding a neighbourhood, and searching for our stories. Throughout each book, we see a dislocation of self, and a longing to be located on firm ground.

In Maunder, Claire Kelly’s speaker gives us a landscape of disparate images, and then tries to find footing in the chaos. As we move through this landscape of disconnection, we find she’s speaking not only to herself, but to us as well, and often in the imperative voice. This is a book of advice, a book of navigation: “Pretend your partner is a stable / influence,” she offers in “Promenade,” and later in the same poem: “keep the horizon level.” Or more simply: “Let us live like Labs do. Dig / in the garden for the sake of digging” (from “Honing in the Too-Early Morning”). The honesty in this book is refreshing, but the poems don’t quite do more than hold up a mirror in one hand, and an unhopeful road map in the other.

David Zieroth’s the bridge from day to night also walks through a landscape of discarded images. He juxtaposes a rush of city images, but then most of the poems take a refreshing turn and provide us one image from the natural world that offers the unspoken yearning of our days: “their steel bellies have brought / the warm air of the ocean / from some island we can smell” (from “maritime clouds”). Like Kelly, Zieroth gives us a landscape of disconnection through ordinary objects, but he also gives us sensual memory paths. He names our longing for something more holy, as in “man at the bus stop”: “counting items on the ground / butts, bags, stones / part of a wing.” By naming that longing, he begins to search for specific roads through the chaos.

Believing is not the same as Being Saved tries to navigate the landscapes of love, loss, and spiritual belief. Lisa Martin’s stories are of a father dying one summer, of a girl who fell hard and the boy who caught her too late, of Christ dying on the cross. Like the other poets reviewed here, she maps her stories with objects: a Tupperware bowl, bare feet, a green pool. While her images are ordinary, they are less populous than Kelly’s and Zieroth’s, which focuses our attention on them even more. We want to think Tupperware instead of cancer. Martin uses images like “ball diamonds of hammered dust” (from “One thing”) and “light on the surface of that rock” (in the title poem “Believing is not the same as Being Saved”) to help us look at the painful stories at the core of this map. Her best poems are the ones that help us look anyway. In other poems, though, we have only the chaos of emotional abstraction (“grief,” “faith,” “love”) and its objects: silver-bright salmon, a glass vase, blue veins, a dirty grey feather. In the poems where she looks away from story, we get a little lost in the landscape of emotion.

W. H. New’s Neighbours is the strongest of the four collections. He embraces the local, and embraces the story, in nearly every poem. He locates us literally in a neighbourhood, in a yard, across a fence. In doing that, he locates us emotionally in who we are. In “Appleseed,” we live next to the old man who knows about leaves and aphids, and in narrowing to the neighbourhood, berry patch, leaf, or aphid, New positions us in the chaos. He says “we live on fragments” in the poem “Stream bed,” acknowledging the disconnection of contemporary society and its constant shifting, and yet he acknowledges, too, our need to hold still as “our fixed place travels / centimetres every year.” These are poems of yearning: for choosing the one right place to live, and in doing that, recognizing it is a way of choosing who we are. The poems are open, enticing, and laced with worry, but not with despair: “All you want is an ordinary place, safe enough / you can care about others / and vent at what you can’t control.”

All four poets use image well and with intention. Kelly spreads out the map of our chaos and lets us get lost in it, Zieroth tries to help us steer through it by finding small patterns, Martin offers us the rich images of specific stories, and New goes further by reminding us to name what’s closest to us, helping us navigate the bang and clutter of contemporary Canadian life.

This review “Navigating Disconnection” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 154-155.

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