Nightwood Editions has recently published inaugural poetry collections from Lisa Bird-Wilson and Kim Fu. Both authors have previously published full-length prose works: Just Pretending and For Today I Am a Boy, respectively. Their turns to poetry—Bird-Wilson’s The Red Files and Fu’s How Festive the Ambulance—portray the authors’ acerbic wit, ironic tone, and deft control of language through new forms. Kevin Connolly wrote that a very good poet “sees the things others miss.” The Red Files unearths experiences of victims of the Canadian residential school system overlooked by society at large, while How Festive the Ambulance challenges sensory perception, provoking readers to hear and see the world through a plethora of alternative subjectivities.
Bird-Wilson credits the Saskatchewan and the Anglican Church archives for her source materials for The Red Files. Her collection’s title is taken from the federal government’s name for residential school archives. While Bird-Wilson acknowledges her gratitude to these archives, her source materials contain omissions, such as the specific details of student stories, identities, and injustices. These omissions impel her poems. For instance, she describes an act of cultural evisceration for young women entering the schools: having their hair cropped short. You can imagine the author seated in a dusty archive, poring over endless school photographs like the one selected for the book’s cover. In uniforms, and with stock bowl haircuts, the children appear as carbon copies. With an impetus parallel to that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and through imaginative reconstruction, Bird-Wilson works to imbue figures disregarded by history with affect and individuality. In “Girl with the Short Hair,” she writes: “if I wanted to describe the girl to you in a poem I might say the short-haired one but they’ve all got short hair and she’s more than that anyway . . . she has a name but history hasn’t recorded it.” Unlike prior government records or a photograph caption, the poem contains no punctuation and sparse capitalization. It is loosely organized as two paragraph-long stanzas and often uses multiple spaces between words in lieu of line breaks or ellipses. By the end of the poem, what is revealed about the girl is what is “in her bones”: her preference is “to lope under the prairie sky to slap her feet down on the long grasses,” which results in her “wind-knotted hair.” This poem echoes many others in the collection—such as “The ———–’s Situation,” which deploys the omission of proper nouns to demonstrate the usurpation of individual history in the face of residential school historical accounting. The Red Files, like the Girl with the Short Hair who dreams of exhibiting her freedom under the prairie sky, acts to “dance on the graves” of residential school perpetrators because, according to the lyric “Cremation,” if these poems won’t, “who will?”
In the poem “XXXIII” from the collection Thirsty, Dionne Brand defamiliarizes the recurring wail of an ambulance siren, registering it instead as the portent of “life collapsing.” In How Festive the Ambulance, Kim Fu further reinterprets this sound. Unlike Brand’s poem, Fu’s titular poem is hopeful: “The sirens sing / their sweet confirmation: not-dead, not-dead, not-dead.” The anaphoric cadence of this line mimics the siren’s cry, altering the way it resounds in the reader’s mind. Fu’s collection retrains the eye and ear through her creation of speakers with varying sensory capabilities. In her “Lifecycle of the Mole-Woman” poems, the mole-woman meets a mermaid who describes the “scene” for the benefit of the mole-woman’s “scooped-out darkness.” Though the mermaid eventually concedes that “we are staying in our place, as ever always,” Fu argues that there is value in attempting to understand another’s perspective despite being unable to fully inhabit their subject position. Fu’s free-verse poems vary in line length and form, from paragraph poems to the aforementioned cycles. A longer poem, “Let Us Change Bodies,” is composed of eight stanzas that range in length from two to seven lines. In the poem, Fu provokes readers to imagine switching bodies with another person “as we might change seats.” She then launches into the second person, causing the reader to inhabit a world made unfamiliar by its being perceived through a melee of speakers’ interpretations of disparate events: “Now you are climbing a mountain / because the landscape forms the profile of a witch / and you were drunk and wanted to prove a local legend wrong.” The effect of these lines is arresting, causing readers to question whose legends they believe in and whether or not they are the correct ones.