Off on an Angle

Reviewed by Hilary Clark

Where do a poet’s words come from? In Catriona Strang’s Reveries of a Solitary Biker and Sharon Thesen’s The Receiver, poetic intention is ghosted: poetry involves the arrangement of fragments gleaned from a reading life (Strang) and the reception or uncanny return of other voices and stories (Thesen).

In her afterword, Strang explains that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire was her book’s “starting point.” Imitating Rousseau, who took long walks in the countryside and jotted notes on playing cards, Strang cycled around Vancouver, engaging in “a slow, non-deliberate thinking, an almost subconscious contemplation,” stopping at points to write on cards. In the book, the finished poems are arranged into the four suits of cards. Strang meditates on large questions. “What is to be done?” How can we live within a “hyper-capitalist society” yet still live “counter to” it? One answer: the “saddled / subject” (“8?”) of ideology can get on a bike saddle and ride off, meditating and composing poetry, which can be a form of “sedition” (“Q?”) if it undermines poetic norms. Although unlikely to bring down the one per cent, poetic sedition resists the dominant model of an original (and aspirational) poetry feeding a competitive industry of literary prizes and “stars.”

Full of wordplay (“bike my ride”), the poems are also densely intertextual. The weighty writings of Marx and Darwin (among others) have been snipped up and worked into the bicycle-notes. For example, in “8?” Marx is heard in “great hostile camps” and “tree of industry” (The Communist Manifesto), while Darwin surfaces with “fine transitional forms” and “thick fossiliferous formation” (On the Origin of Species). Such formal diction clashes with the informal: “‘do you want Chinese, or chicken and beer?’” Some of these borrowings are set off with quotation marks, others not. By contrast, in the sequence “On Not Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Strang’s sources are not Great Books but old cookbooks and history pamphlets scavenged from book exchanges around Vancouver. From their scraps, Strang has composed striking poems juxtaposing references to food and unvalued female labour: “[o]ut of puddings, aching limbs.”

Thesen’s title, The Receiver, seems ambiguous at first. In the first poem, “The Receiver,” a Hollywood heroine lifts a telephone receiver and reacts with “pleading” and sobs. What does she hear? “I imagine the receiver holding / the whole story inside.” What story? In “Daphne in the Headphones,” Thesen touches on an uncanny poetics of reception, “an annunciation-like situation, intimate and magical.” A poet’s words may seem to be hers, but they are channelled from elsewhere: from stories of family, from other poets’ letters (between Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff) and interviews (with Boldereff), from dreams and myths. In “Morning Walk by the Lake,” the walker receives omens: a hawk “yellow-eyed & full of grace—,” a dog’s “face exactly halved black and white.”

Stories of family form a good part of the book. Stories vary from teller to teller over time—ambiguities addressed most explicitly in “Auntie Eileen,” which tells the story of Thesen’s mother’s aunt, who was abused by her husband and ran away to a new life, leaving her children behind. Her mother tells one version of this story; a relative tells another: “It will be awhile before everything / is sorted out, and this is why it’s a story” (“The Receiver”). Thesen’s stories from her own life have gaps as well. For instance, in “My Education as a Poet,” a dream of her dead father leads to

. . . my grandmother’s coral brooch—
Grandma: pianist, good-time girl,
the brooch I lost one night at one of those
it took days to recover from, beating
myself up—
the good lickins with wooden spoon . . .
with belt with whatever was to hand & we
were lucky[.]

Such skips and associations link poetry, dreams, and the unconscious. In “The Oddness of Elegy,” the speaker refers to her mind as “the mind of me / who does not remember anniversaries”—as another who sabotages intentions but returns with gifts of inspiration.

This review “Off on an Angle” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 168-169.

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