Our Mortal Neighbours

Reviewed by Monica Sousa

In Glutton for Punishment, Toronto-based poet Christopher Doda modernizes the glosa, a fifteenth-century Spanish form where new poems are created using four lines borrowed from another poet. Four ten-line stanzas are built, each concluding with one of the borrowed lines; typically, lines six and nine rhyme with line ten. At times pushing his poems to their limits and at times choosing when the rules will be slightly broken, Doda is still consistently loyal to the atmospheric tone of the hard rock and heavy metal bands whose lyrics he selects from to create his poems. The bands that he engages with are widespread in national origin, ranging from North America to Europe to Asia, and he selects from a broad range of bands, from classics such as Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver, Metallica, and Iron Maiden to a more recent twenty-first-century act, the Iraqi trash metal band Acrassicauda. Doda’s collection is embedded with nuanced musical and cultural references, and he also includes a thoughtful “More Than You Need to Know” appendix that provides a little explanation for each poem. Doda uses engaging wordplay in his musical references, such as in the title “(Don’t Fear) the Reader,” a poem that alludes to Blue Oyster Cult in title but strays from the predictable by forming the glosa with lyrics from Anthrax. His reoccurring use of anaphoric “I am” statements is at times jarring, philosophical, and thought-provoking: in “Downward Spiral,” he writes “I am a shot glass hurled in disgust . . . I am an electric chair gathering dust”; in “Portrait of the Poet as a Psychopath,” he claims “I am a child lost at the mall . . . I am an extra begging for lines. I am a disappointed mother who wishes.” Doda ponders many ideas, from modernity, politics, and the stresses on individuality, to the dragging pull of mortality.

While Doda’s work reads as more of an internal reflection, Dan MacIsaac’s debut poetry collection Cries from the Ark focuses almost exclusively on the external by giving considerable attention to the history and inhabitants of the earth. MacIsaac’s work is categorized into six parts: “The First Bestiary,” “That Bloody Pool of Trouble,” “Raucous on the Wing,” “Printmakers,” “A Brambled Kingdom,” and “Deluge.” The collection is crowded with many non-human and human characters, from sloths, bison, tigers, and owls, to Biblical figures, such as the brothers Cain and Abel, and Malchus, a servant who participated in the arrest of Jesus. His work also engages with the paleontological, such as in “Archaeopteryx,” and with the tragic and catastrophic, such as in “Chernobyl.” The first-person voice is limited in MacIsaac’s collection, for he instead wishes to capture the emotions and daily lives of his earthly characters through an extensive catalogue of our mortal neighbours. Filled with rich and eloquent language, MacIsaac’s poetry is empathic and reads as a cry to action in reassessing human connections with the environment, animals, and their ancient stories. His work at times considers the affairs of the heart, such as in “David,” with the opening lines: “I throw myself into the perfumed sea / Of Saul’s harem but cannot drown you”; at others it critiques the accepted morality in Biblical tales, such as in “Cain,” which describes Abel as “more sloth than shepherd” and presents a visceral image of his slaughtering of a baby goat. In “Jellyfish,” MacIsaac gives attention to the materiality of bodies and establishes connections with the environment, as he writes that jellyfish

shall inherit
the irradiated sea
placenta pumped
with clear ichor
eternal as
everclear plastics.

While carnal and primitive, MacIsaac’s collection is also exuberant and refreshing, and begs you to stop and consider the world around you.

Eleonore Schönmaier’s Dust Blown Side of the Journey similarly takes an ecological approach with its rich selection of nature poetry, but her collection is also intimate and self-reflective, offering snapshots of many characters and reminisces of a childhood in Northern Canada. Her poems range in national settings, from the Canadian boreal forest, to the Balinese jungle, to the Greek islands, to the “remote mountains of Ecuador.” Schönmaier demolishes the nature/culture argument in her collection by capturing the beauty found in the differences between moments in nature and wilderness and moments in big and buzzing city settings. Depictions of bicycles and riding reoccur throughout her collection, and it is in these moments where she captures the experiences of daily life, such as in “Vertebrae of Humans and Art Animals,” where she writes of cycling, witnessing an old man hanging a bird feeder, and seeing

a sculpture
of Mandela and the real
Desmond Tutu stepping
down from the podium.

Schönmaier also joins nature with the human-driven feeling of sentimentality. In “Love Letters,” she writes:

in her beehives
she hides
her husband’s prison letters

while an ant
drags a white
rose petal over
the rubble.

Schönmaier finds appreciation in the sidelines as she captures the neglected musicality of nature and urban settings: in “Music,” she writes of “treble clefs” seen “in the nature reserve / as she cycles past / her silver graffiti.” In “How Not to Hate a Pigeon,” when a woman asks how to kill a pigeon, a man responds with “I thought you were a pacifist?” to which she replies: “Does / that have to include unmusical birds?” Schönmaier thus eloquently captures the sadness of only appreciating the non-human realm for the immediately noticeable beauty it offers to humans. Capturing moments of human greed and human kindness, of striving for community, and of unapologetic joy, Schönmaier’s work is rejuvenating, and offers both a sense of peace and a time for introspection.

This review “Our Mortal Neighbours” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 139-141.

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