Personal Places

Reviewed by Neil Surkan

The debut collections of Joelle Barron, Curtis LeBlanc, and Mallory Tater add their charismatic, compelling voices to contemporary Canadian poetry’s flourishing ecosystem. All three books explore the relationship between identity, memory, and place. Reading them is like dropping into a Google Street View of each poet’s personal history: by rendering memories into precise, vibrant vignettes, each poet inscribes specific locations with poignant intimations.

Fierce, brave, and vivid, Barron’s Ritual Lights merges traumatic memories and inventive imagery in a relentless sequence that grieves without giving in, and celebrates renewal without ignoring the past. Since the speaker warns in the opening poem that “rape yarns are seldom / what they should be,” the book twists and turns through snarls of unsettling events without aiming at resolution; rather, powerful recollections of pain and suffering are constellated with fleeting moments of self-discovery and connection. Tinted by a “bitterness” Barron likens to “an oily glaze on the surface / of the water,” this book accrues, to borrow one of the poems’ titles, “Bright, Heavy Things”: sexual assaults are enumerated and described, deaths and miscarriages are memorialized, past lives are relived. Thus, moments of meditative awe are all the more striking when they occur. Take, for instance, Barron’s description of sand fleas in “Savary” (a standout poem):

On the beach, legion sand fleas

dance. Heads back, mouths open, drinking sun
from my leg hairs. Reverent of the merest existence,
their small bodies turned toward God.

As Barron dramatizes the speaker’s hard-earned instants of healing and relief, we readers bear witness. Fittingly, near the end of the collection, Barron offers an illuminating ars poetica: “moored by a person who will / never know me; this is poetry.” Ritual Lights moors us in a deep, exposed bay.

LeBlanc’s Little Wild also invites us into his speaker’s memories, but his poems about dangerous situations, addiction, family dynamics, and the deaths of adolescent friends eschew a tone of sarcasm or acrimony. Instead, these elegiac, conversational poems consistently assemble evocative scenes before the speaker makes a startling, poignant observation or a surprising, brazen assertion. Reading Little Wild is like thumbing through a family album where every photograph, when flipped, is labelled differently than expected. As the book proceeds, one can’t help but be amazed by LeBlanc’s knack for suddenly shifting focus, so that familiar occurrences shine in new and peculiar ways, or chronicled events relay unexpected lessons. Take, for instance, the turn in “Pembina River, August ’09” when, after describing his friend Dan tuning his guitar, the speaker remarks how

Certain noises rest within
the hollows of my body
and remind me
it’s been a while
since I’ve heard anything
for the first time.

In “Public Works,” after a thirty-five-line stanza describing a construction job the speaker worked at nineteen and the light it shed on his relationship with his father, a tercet follows that shifts the poem from a particular memory to a dictum about the nature of parenthood: “That uncertainty in raising a birch tree, / whose roots could be spreading anywhere, / taking hold of anything, underneath.” LeBlanc dares to peer into our human being with an earnestness one can’t help but admire.

Tater’s This Will Be Good portrays her speaker’s struggle with an eating disorder in the tumultuous intersections of family, friendship, and adolescent relationships. Every poem in this razor-sharp collection shuts us into a narrow room of fervent feeling. Tater has a gift for swift, curt sentences that, coupled with her riveting eye for detail, crackle on the page like live wires. From the opening sonnet—in which a bag of frozen bagels, “a dozen freezer-burnt fists,” gets slammed on the table by the speaker’s mother so they burst “like angry stars”—Tater signals her love of striking, brain-wringing images. Her speaker’s mother and father, “soured with uncertainty,” sit “in the lemon juice light of morning”; her bereaved grandfather ignores a puzzle on his coffee table “for four years,” as more and more pieces of “interlocked sky” are “consumed by the exasperated chesterfield”; and she herself tries to become “the first girl ever / alive who could survive on skim milk, / water and peaches.” Though these poems fixate on illness and death, they are brilliantly alive with memorable details. Though her speaker claims she wants to “learn how to love falsely and alone,” these poems captivate because of Tater’s unabashed honesty.

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