Poetry for Our Time

Reviewed by Neil Querengesser

It is a privilege to review these books by three of Canada’s finest poets. Their poetry speaks convincingly to the uncertain world that we all now inhabit, offering wisdom, insight, and, perhaps, some measure of reassurance, demonstrating, as Yvonne Blomer says, “Language in a line of poetry wants to tell you the truth of the matter” (100). While that truth may at times be painful, it can also be full of hope.


The title term of Nancy Holmes’ brilliant newest collection, Arborophobia, was likely coined, according to her notes, by Robin Boyd in his book The Australian Ugliness (1960). Like its counterpart, “dendrophobia” (neither of which is yet included in the OED), it refers to a fear of trees. But while a dendrophobe sees trees as terrifying, someone with arborophobia apparently sees them as more of an aggravating nuisance, destroying them “in the name of aesthetics and culture” (85). Regardless, arborophobia is an apt coinage whose connotations are developed in some satisfying ways throughout this volume; however, the term’s opposite, a love of trees and the natural world, is also manifest in several poems as well, particularly in the first poem. The odic “A Tribe of Grass,” begins with a nod to Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” in its opening lines: “Give me your spikelets, your glumes, / your lemmas and paleas” (2) and concludes inspiringly by calling the planet’s grasses “the feathers of the earth, / that bird of the sun” (2). In the title sequence, however, the narrator dramatizes her complex love-hate relationship with endangered ponderosa pines, personified variously as juvenile delinquents, deities, beauty queens, and crones. The style of these lines varies remarkably, incorporating, among others, slapstick, Old and New Testament allusions, romance, and elegy. Many of the book’s poems present, in the words of “Ways and Means,” “both a baffling and a showing” (77) and encourage deep dives—or digs—into the natural elements: “don’t be repelled by / the fungus-fingered / groping of the world” (71). Poems to and about various saints, including Lucy, Veronica, Ursula, Cainnech, as well as the often-revered Julian of Norwich, reflect ambivalent attitudes towards nature, the human body, and its various components. “Julian of Norwich” movingly combines passages from the anchorite’s Showings with the poet’s own responses and expansions on those themes, to great effect. Other poems cover a variety of topics. “The Milk Chute,” for example, moves from a nostalgic memory of a small functional passage in older prairie homes to a reflection on its symbolic connections to childbirth and motherhood. “The Time Being” begins as a whimsical exploration through its twelve sections of the various connotations of the title’s words, with a midnight conclusion simultaneously light and profound. Elsewhere there are moments of anguish at being witness to attempted suicide, dementia, and all the trappings of growing old. While some of these poems may indeed reflect a fear of trees, the book as a whole expands much beyond that, exploring in some deeply philosophical ways the relationship between the natural and spiritual selves and the manifold ways in which one may negotiate the complexities of living a life bound up in both.


Yvonne Blomer’s The Last Show on Earth includes no fewer than ninety poems, each of them recommended reading during this precarious time in our planet’s history. An evidently considered (but not ultimately adopted) pre-publication subtitle, Poems for the Anthropocene, speaks to the challenges of humanly caused climate change and environmental destruction. Many of the poems certainly address that topic, cries of alarm but also of hope for a world that yet remains in the balance. Poet Laureate for the City of Victoria from 2015 to 2018, Blomer has an exceptionally keen ear for the spoken voice. Her stories draw one in, and by the book’s mid-point she has deliberately confronted and established an almost uncomfortably intimate relationship with her reader in “The invited guest enters your psychological space” (68).  She is, in the best sense of the word, a captivating raconteur who draws widely and deeply for her subject matter. Well over a third of the poems are written “after” or inspired by painters (especially Robert Bateman), intellectuals, photographers, sound recordings, and other poets, filling the volume with intense intertextual richness and allusiveness. The geographical settings of these poems range widely, from Vancouver Island to Zimbabwe to Lithuania to the Arctic Circle and places in between, covering such topics as esoteric elephant facts, unusual feeding habits of orca whales, circus freaks, the holocaust, an autistic son, an elderly parent, and a bittersweet serio-comic stream-of-consciousness in “Overheard conversation with self” (66). Poems about circuses reflect and develop the titular theme, although the book’s final section, “The Last Show on Earth,” expands the idea of “show” to the globe, with a series of love songs to and elegies for many of the earth’s endangered species, particularly in the Canadian north-west. Overall, this is an inspiring and moving collection. If humanity is moving toward the last show on earth, Blomer’s poems offer some navigational guidance, or, perhaps, enough wisdom to ensure that the current show will not be the last.


Mari-Lou Rowley’s Catastrophe Theories bends the light of ordinary events through lenses of challenging scientific concepts, resulting in some profoundly elucidating insights. Its four sections—Precognitions, Catastrophe Theories, If/God, and Hypatia’s Lament/Markov Echologues—extend throughout space and time. The book’s title, originally designating a modern mathematical framework, invites continuous creative deconstruction of the term “catastrophe” in its literal, literary, and (more neutral) mathematical senses. The imagery of the Precognitions poems glides teasingly between the real and the surreal, inspired variously by dreams, anti-depressant medications, tourist attractions, and sheer imagination. Although the poems may flirt with catastrophe, they do not necessarily precipitate it, suggesting but not insisting on a way back from the edge. Much of the next section draws significantly on the work of mathematician René Thom, the founder of catastrophe theory. Four of these poems, titled after specific mathematical catastrophes—“Fold Catastrophe,” “Cusp Catastrophe,” “Swallowtail Catastrophe” and “Butterfly Catastrophe”—are applied imaginatively with creative polynomial formulas to sexual relationships, international conflicts, precarious travel, and general world chaos. In other poems of this section, propositions of mathematicians Euclid and Diophantus (often considered the respective “fathers” of geometry and algebra) are appropriated with gendered overtones, illustrating themes of female bereavement and desire. “Ode to Alan Turing” is a moving tribute to this heroic computing science and artificial intelligence pioneer of the Second World War, marked by its subtly sophisticated use of logical and computational allusions to his life, sexuality, and tragic demise. Poems in the If/God section depict, as the ambiguous title suggests, several life events open to interpretations through both theological speculation and programming logic. The final section, Hypatia’s Lament/Markov Echologues, consists of a brilliant heroic crown of sonnets—or sonnet redoublé—in homage to fifth century female polymath Hypatia of Alexandria, who was brutally murdered by religious fanatics. The first fourteen of the fifteen formal sonnets, printed on the verso pages, are “echoed” on recto by their computer-generated counterparts created through a Markov chaining algorithm, with stunning effectiveness. Overall, Catastrophe Theories should not disappoint anyone interested in the fascinating connections between poetry and mathematics, and how intimately such things inform human nature.


All three of these books are full of wisdom and insight, created by poets with hearts big with love—and sorrow—for humanity and the world.

This review “Poetry for Our Time” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 1 Sep. 2023. Web.

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