Personal Political

  • Madeline Sonik
    The Book of Changes. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at
  • Patricia Young
    Night-Eater. Quattro Books (purchase at
  • Zöe Landale
    Einstein's Cat. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. (purchase at
Reviewed by Scott Inniss

Landale, Sonik, and Young each write poems that are lyric, narrative, and autobiographical in their orientation. Their recent collections also traverse similar thematic terrain: domesticity, marriage and its (dis)contents, aging, loss, illness and mortality, familial relations, sex and love. This poetry is broadly feminist in that it explores and gives priority to women’s lived experience. But it is politically normative to the extent that it neglects to link the personal to the social or to query in any way its other demographic locations (settler, hetero, broadly middle class). To varying degrees, these three texts are successful—at least in the terms they establish for themselves. Each is entirely capable of garnering approval from readers who regard craft, introspection, or attention to the “small moments” of daily existence as the sine qua non of poetic vocation. For this reader, however, literary categories themselves are always necessarily political categories. From such a perspective, these books register not simply as poetic documents of particular subjective and embodied experiences. They also evidence the socio-aesthetic limitations and complicities particular to contemporary mainstream Canadian (verse) culture.

In Einstein’s Cat, Landale’s language is crisp, her images exact. Landale has a real talent for the tenor-vehicle relation, of which she makes copious use. Impressively, even her most diegetic poems give as much attention to the syllable as to narrative requirements. Still, Landale’s vocabulary is often expected, familiar, (work)shopworn. Poetry favorites like “runnel,” “arabesque” and “skein” certainly bring an admirable specificity to the object (or object correlative) under consideration. But their overuse also has the effect of turning them into de facto signifiers for the poetic as such. Back jacket blurbs describe Einstein’s Cat as “dialogical” and “double-voiced.” True, the book comprises two long poetic-narrative sequences, the second operating in counterpoint with the first (whose own internal structure is already antiphonal). But these are strictly formal doublings since they never really confront or converse with any actual difference or alterity. Landale’s is a poetry in which family members “leave / trails through the house, / meteors flashing and streaking light / behind them.” Metaphorical truism or bourgeois metaphysics is for the reader to decide.

Sonik’s The Book of Changes comprises a single series of short, numbered lyrics, each of which takes its title from the I Ching. At their best, Sonik’s poems are tough and unsentimental with a slightly gothic demeanor. Importantly, Sonik’s writing works to expose gender violence in intimate, familial, and sexual relations. But it also often conceals as much as it reveals (as when it articulates gender and other antagonisms within what the dust jacket calls a “non-causal worldview”). Sonik often begins poems with a concrete object, scenario, or detail, from which she attempts to extrapolate some universal meaning or personal epiphany. Almost always, however, this striving for the absolute in the particular falls flat, unable (among other things) to sustain the pressure of generic (lyric) expectation. As a result, many if not most of Sonik’s poems feel incomplete, more like drafts or sketches than fully worked through material. On occasion, Sonik’s treatment of gender (and class) opens onto the political in a manner altogether foreign to Landale’s writing. But Sonik’s poems frequently struggle to produce a sense of formal, symbolic, or socio-cultural consistency and necessity. As the back jacket tells us, “one doesn’t need a copy of the I Ching to appreciate these poems.” But is this a compliment or an indictment?

In Night-Eater, Young offers a reinvigoration of sorts of the domestic lyric, her primary genre. The chief strategies with which she accomplishes this are humour, reiteration, and displacement. Young combines an autobiographical empiricism with a generous helping of soft surrealism. Her book documents such life events as “Daughter at Thirteen,” First Date,” and “The New Baby.” But it does so while giving equal privilege to witticisms-metaphors like “spilled / vegetable blood” and “The night’s a loopy salad.” Young organizes a number of poems around repeating words and phrases (with differing degrees of variation). The result is a form of estrangement that is still entirely accessible. (Lyn Hejinian’s My Life at times comes to mind, but without the syntactic fragmentation, to say nothing of the concern for the relation between language-gender-capitalism-the lyric I.) But most compelling is Young’s ability at once to evoke and avoid (or at least modulate and defer) the call of epiphanic closure. Young is not at all consistent in this, unfortunately. For this reader, however, these are the moments where her work is both most enjoyable and (potentially) liberating.

This review “Personal Political” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 167-69.

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