Science at the Heart: Five Recent Canadian Books of Poetry

  • Susan Swan and Gillian Savigny (Author)
    Notebook M. Insomniac Press
  • Matthew Henderson (Author)
    The Lease. Coach House Books
  • Kristian Enright (Author)
    Sonar. Turnstone Press
  • Nora Gould
    I see my love more clearly from a distance. Brick Books (purchase at
  • Andrew McEwan
    repeater. BookThug

A survey of the fifty-two first books of poetry published by Canadians in 2012 (entrants in the Gerald Lampert Award) reveals that five, each from a different press, treat science as a central concern. These five are Kristian Enright’s Sonar (Turnstone), Nora Gould’s I see my love more clearly from a distance (Brick), Matthew Henderson’s The Lease(Coach House), Andrew McEwan’s repeater (BookThug), and Gillian Savigny’s Notebook M. (Insomniac). The aspects of science they explore vary widely: human psychology, veterinary medicine, gynecology, industrial technology, computer programming, zoology, and botany. In the article which kicked off 1983’s science-themed issue of Canadian Literature, J. R. Nursall defined three categories that remain useful for this discussion: basic science research (“experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundations of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view” [14]); applied science (“original investigation directed primarily towards a specific, practical objective, i.e., science with intent” [16]); and technology (“systematic use of knowledge and practical experience directed to producing, installing or improving processes, systems, and services” [16]).

Kristian Enright’s Sonar—which received the Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Book by a Manitoba Author, and the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer—exemplifies all three of Nursall’s categories. Sonar is a highly allusive “long poem, with some narrative [which] has been a Bildungsroman and become aKunstleroman” (Enright 128). The events take place largely within the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg (3) and follow protagonist Colin Verbanofsky’s struggle to create a psychology applicable to his own mental health problems (3).

In Sonar, the word “science” usually refers to medical technologies—drugs—controlled by pharmaceutical companies. After watching a Prozac commercial, Verbanofsky observes “the voice of science is linked to healthy images” (21), and later asserts “giving suffering a dignity and meaning is something that is going to be difficult. Why not when science is like a Prozac commercial? It distills our tears backwards” (39). According to Sonar, science-as-technology exists to prolong illness, ensuring long-term drug sales. Verbanofsky justly suspects such monetized technologies.

Verbanofsky’s diagnoses differ according to the training of the people doing the diagnosing. Nursing staff report he suffers from “what appears to be severe depression tempered with considerable mania, likely bi-polar” (13). His psychiatrist Dr. Earwinker initially wonders whether Verbanofsky is schizophrenic (48, 50) because of the voices in his head—voices of authors and characters of Verbanofsky’s extensive reading. Like its protagonist, Enright’s book is informed by multiple authors; it owes “much to the work of Jorge Luis Borges, Jacques Derrida, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, as well as Jack Kerouac” (151). Sonar also alludes to Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Whitman, Benjamin, Eliot, Auden, and others. Fortunately, Earwinker correctly determines these voices are not, in fact, symptoms of schizophrenia (138). Thus, in observing Verbanofsky—in coming up with and discarding various diagnoses—the nurses and psychiatrist practice applied science.

In one of several passages that arguably elide narrator and author, Verbanofsky self-diagnoses as “a creative mind repressed by human disconnections” (137), and reluctantly lays claim to psychosis, depression and “obsessive-compulsive disorder, which some might think is obvious . . .” (138). Recent research by Simon Kyaga et al.found that “being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders [such as OCD], substance abuse, and suicide” (Kyaga et al. 83), and that there is “a trend for authors without diagnosed psychopathology to commit suicide more frequently than controls” (86). Ultimately, Verbanofsky realizes “a new language is needed” because many “diagnostic terms are fundamentally though ironically flawed” (Enright 49); he undertakes the basic research of redefining the tenets of psychology in order to achieve mental health for himself.

Over the course of Sonar’s narrative Verbanofsky slowly reimagines himself as a more conventionally sane person, but not because of the pharmaceuticals (technology) judiciously prescribed to him, or the talking cure of Dr. Earwinker’s applied science. The most significant component in this reimagining is the basic science of his writing cure, which has the side effect of producing the manuscript for Sonar.

Nora Gould’s I see my love more clearly from a distance received the City of Edmonton Robert Kroetsch Book Prize, and was a finalist in both the Gerald Lampert Award and the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry. In this autobiographical collection, Gould chronicles her experiences as a woman, a rancher, and a veterinarian. Although some poems explore ranching technologies, most of the science in this book concerns applied science derived from her experiences as a doctor and a patient; her experiences are distinct from those of Colin Verbanofsky in part because Gould embraces the fatalism typical of health care professionals.

Gould’s specialist knowledge saturates the book, from vocabulary—“axilla” (49), “fetopelvic” (68), “amnion” (73), “freemartin” (101), etc.—to subject matters, imbuing the poems with the fatalism Elaine Drew and Nancy Schonberg observe “tends to be used [by health care professionals] extensively” (165). Over and over, I see my love more clearly from a distance records how Gould feels death’s cold breath upon her neck, from the early poem “In this dearth some pack a .22 in their calving kit” (24) to the later description of how

Last spring, with wire, I portioned twins inside a cow:
their hair and hooves sloughing, I pulled them out piece
by stinking piece—head, forelimb, hind leg with hemipelvis—

until she was empty . . . (102-03)

Nor is Gould’s fatalism reserved for animals; she applies it to both the personified Prairie and herself, who between them make up two of the three corners of a love triangle completed by her husband Charl. Gould writes, “His hand on my back, one finger lifts, / falls, on my scapula // But it’s her he holds in his sleep, dreams in his hands, Prairie” (11). The book’s second poem describes how Prairie “came in season” and was impregnated by the constellation Orion (12). For eons Prairie was fecund with Orion’s seed, but now she has been penetrated by technologies: “pipes in sections, each joint rigid, / drilled deep in her parenchyma, have shifted, mixed / her fluids, frayed, broken her” until “she tastes air- / borne emissions” (12). Suffering accompanies Prairie’s fecundity.

Gould suffers similarly: “First one / ovary, big as a saucer. Blood / and fibrin bound it to my uterus, glued / ureters, bladder and loops of bowel / together” (41). After surgery

the doctor exhibited me to residents

. . . here, proof that

a woman with endometriosis

can have children; see the cervix pulled

to one side by the scarring. Tell them

how many children you’ve had. (41)

Where Sonar’s Verbanofsky provided health-care professionals the opportunity to practice applied science, Gould becomes part of medical residents’ training in applied science. However, her suffering has no place in their education, any more than Prairie’s suffering does in oil-workers’ professions.

Unlike Verbanofsky, who deconstructs the mental health care system to achieve an idiosyncratic cure, Gould remains professionally complicit:

For ten days I was left
believe I have ovarian
cancer: this was good.

I’d been praying for
an anesthetic death. (38)

This poem, taken in context with two others describing the fictional autopsy of Gould’s body (29, 49), constructs a protagonist acquiescent to the inevitability of not only death but her body’s violation at the service of science.

A few passages eschew the fatalism of applied medical science. Despite a plethora of losses, Gould claims she doesn’t “rush to deliver” death (44), and goes on to catalogue a few shining successes amongst the losses (see Gould 53-55, 73, 92, 93). Typically, however, her statement about not delivering death comes in a poem about euthanizing pets. “I sign my letter to my daughters / I press my cheek to yours” (88) revisits the treatment of her body after death, but in this case as a loving interment on the Prairie with whom she so identifies. However, these and other positive incidents inevitably come in the context of death stories demonstrate the fatalism of Gould’s sensibility, shaped by both experience and formal training in applied veterinary science.

Mathew Henderson’s The Lease was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award and the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. A memoir of a period in “your” youth spent working in the Alberta oilfields, it describes “your” struggle to develop self-identity in a dehumanizing context. The second person point-of-view closes the distance between reader and subject by evoking technical instruction as well as anecdote. The science is applied, using extractive technologies, which puts you in a mutually exploitative relationship with the land leased to the oil companies. Where Gould alludes to the oil industry as an ominous, pervasive alternative to ranching, in The Lease ranch life is a shimmering chimera on the oilfield’s horizon.

The Lease’s only mention of the word “science” comes in the book’s second poem. “Fenceless,” describes the actual leased acreage:

There are no signposts, no old men waiting
to tell you here. This place repeats itself:
everywhere you’ve been is folded into grass
and dirt, and you blame chance, not science,
for putting the iron here, like no seismic charts
were read, no holes drilled, as if wealthy men
and god just wanted you sweating in the mud. (8)

In this context, “you” turn from seventeen to eighteen (33), a time crucial for identity formation. Initially, you feel alienated on the oil-patch; “you are no part of it. You can only watch . . .” even though you “feel everything as the oil turns your face brown” (14). Before long, you’ve learned to “lay pipe like limbs along the lease, / hard shapes, hollow and straight”; even at night “your arms push and pull at the air above your bed, miming the rig in” (29).

The poem “What hands do” explores the synecdochal implications of characterizing workers as “hands” which

. . . lift and hammer,
mark oil in and oil out. They wade through gas
that sits thick as wet wool inside your lungs.

Hand scrub trucks, rack pipe and paint bins . . . (48)

The rig’s hands are extensions of the technologies defining their communication, too; though hands “don’t speak” (48) they do “throw tongs and catch string like a conversation” (14).

Rodger Wilkie notes that every definition of “cyborg” includes “the configuration of the organic and the technological into a single system” (n. pag.). Thus, Henderson’s narratorial “you” is a cyborg—an organic element in a technological system whose body must be modified to fit the equipment. “Under Air” begins with the admonition “All men must be clean shaven, a small moustache is acceptable / but the rubber has to seal,” and ends after a cautionary fantasy about dying of “H2S-anus contact. / All employees must wear latex underwear, bums must be clean / shaven. A little hair is acceptable, but the rubber has to seal” (32). More seriously, in “Self-portrait in oil” you have become an extension of the machinery:

You gauge the flowback, and the dipstick
sends your reflection swirling, bouncing
through the fluid to the steel sides of the tank
back to when your mother’s arms could hold
you still and clip your nails. (43)

The Lease focuses on ways you serve technology. In “Remember Charlie,” the title character’s burns are “darker and redder than the yawning / mouths of dogs who terrorized your youth” (31), supplemented by the “half-circle, barrel-edged nub” of Joel’s amputated wrist (31). Jared’s missing fingers (30), the guy with PTSD (52), the “airgunners from Lakeside” who “wake up screaming most fucking nights” (52), the two dead after the blowout at Newell, where “the pipe swung so fast it took one guy’s face / clean off” (54), Clint’s supe who burned “so hot they had to pry bones from the metal” (63) all index the danger inherent in the human/technology interactions of the lease, which leave you so anxious that “though you do it every day, the panic / you feel before opening the well never fades” (49).

Cyborgs are identified by what they do (Wilkie n. pag.), and what “you” do is work the lease, drink at the bar and have an increasingly vexed relationship with the few women around. Though you know “we all need to couple” (65), and though you have become skilled at pushing iron into and out of the earth in sixty-foot lengths, you know that proficiency at technologically fucking the prairie isn’t good coaching for human intimacy. You fear becoming as desensitized as your co-workers: “you will call women whores, measure distance / in cunt hairsand encourage a man to go get him some gash” (64). Even though you “quease and pull away” when James rhapsodizes about rape, you suspect you can’t help but “grow a little / more like him for all your shutting up” (64). Take comfort; you got out soon enough to avoid that, and when you later hear Caitlyn is pregnant, “you worry the kid / is yours” even though the most you ever did was hug (66). More realistically, you wonder “is it feet and hands that grow in her, / or something as lustful and sad as empty / as its father and the way it was made?” (66).

Where Gould derives a sense of self through identifying with the personified Prairie and the generations-deep and prairie-wide culture this figure sustains, Henderson’s The Lease personifies you, his narrator, in the context of the testosterone-charged, ahistorical (though anecdote-rich), world of the rig hand; a world that misshapes, deforms, and renders contingent your understanding of yourself. Like your co-workers, the narrative “you” functions as a cyborg hand serving the industrial technology of oil extraction. That service renders you and your co-workers intimately dysfunctional—impotent, brutal, or obsessed—off-site.

Where Henderson’s The Lease uses anecdote and observation to narrate the distortion of personality experienced by oilfield workers, Andrew McEwan’s repeater, another finalist for the Lampert award, features an artificial intelligence as the narrator; it strives for enough personality to achieve anecdote and observation. repeater contains twenty-six eight-line poems, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each of these poems’ eight lines begins with 0 or 1 to form the ASCII code for the letter that titles the poem. These ASCII “letters” in computer language are the eight bits or octet that conventionally make up a byte. An appendix contains five poems that expand on the book’s aleatory project.

In “Poetry as Prosthesis,” Brian McHale points out “in the estranging light of machine composition, all language use appears as a cyborg phenomenon—a human being coupled to a machine” (29). repeater’s mechanistic narrator strives to achieve the humanity required of a cyborg, by exploring the language of which it is comprised:

0 fossils tossed pell-mell into sedimentary strata

1  dirigible alphabet swerves

1  toward constant drift

1  as letters nest in migratory wayside

0  corpses hurled full-tilt into dregs of plot

0  petrean body squirms under coroner’s blanket

0  this moraine contains remains

1  utterance is perpetual archeology (27)

The double-spacing and initial binary character ensure that each line is read discretely prior to being read in the context of the others. However, in all the letter poems, adjacent “1” lines enjamb to create an extended syntactical unit investigating uncertainty in language. The “0” lines do not enjamb but restate; in “q,” the “0” lines concern life’s persistent residues: fossils, corpses, petrean bodies, remains. The repetitions make similar statements with diverging implications, demonstrating language’s inherent slipperiness and resulting in poems that balance linear isolation with two kinds of continuity—the self-similarity of the “0” lines and the tenuous narratives of the “1” lines. Thus, the letter poems take readers from the unequivocal clarity of binary through the combinations of binaries making up individual letters, which together interact in even more complicated manners to make up the words, sentences, and syntax of language.

The letter poems either do not contain humans or refer to them only abstractly. The abstraction of these referents ensures that the contingent narrative develops through the interactions not of characters but of phonemes. For example, “q” lacks even an abstract allusion to a human subject. Instead, the first three “1” lines express anxiety over what happens when enough binaries interact to become language: “dirigible alphabet swerves / toward constant drift / as letters nest in migratory wayside” (McEwan 27). When eight 0s and 1s combine to make a letter, duality becomes complex; as letters flock to become words they drift into unpredictable interpretive possibilities until, as the final “1” line puts it, “utterance is perpetual archeology” (27). In contrast, the “0” lines discuss inactive remains, enacting the fate of revenant bits of computer code whose function has been superseded. Thus, the letter poems perform the stuttering dynamism of the proliferating binaries making up language, with its potential for swerving meanings leading to proliferating interpretations.

Only the final work in the book, “appendix e pretext: embodied standard,” includes a first-person narrator. Literally marginalized, the narrator’s comments gloss the poem’s couplets which describe code as intelligence’s pre-text. “I” appear to be a programmed intelligence on the cusp of recognizing myself as a self, or becoming “embodied” (McEwan 83). Concurrent with developing awareness, I worry about corruption in the data upon which I base my awareness: “I seem to occasionally / detect error. // Thus I am deceived. // I think I am” (89). While chronicling a machine voice’s drive toward selfhood, “appendix e” also displays anxiety over language’s ability to sustain multiple meanings. Thus, repeater’s basic research finds that a language sufficiently complex to sustain intelligence inevitably also leaves that intelligence groping for stable meanings.

Like McEwan’s repeater, which humanizes an anxious machine, Gillian Savigny’s Notebook M humanizes Charles Darwin by plumbing the emotional history of the man behind the research that changed Western culture. Notebook M won the Lampert Award; it details a fictional history of Darwin’s thoughts prior to the publication of TheOrigin of Species; it takes its name from the notebook in which he explored “Metaphysics on Morals & Speculations on Expression” (Savigny 11).

In the erasure poem “Journal of Researches: Patagonia,” Savigny leads readers through Darwin’s early realization that God’s biological, zoological, and geological works contravene his Biblical word. As the pages of “Journal of Researches: Patagonia” pass, the font gradually gets larger; the chosen words are set in bold text, while those not chosen become grayer. From Darwin’s discussion of phosphorescence off Cape Horn, Savigny picks out “. . . my notes / scintillate with / bright / doubt” (24), and follows it with the assertion “One is tempted to believe” (25)—though it is unclear whether the temptation is to believe in the theory of evolution or in the Bible as the received word of God. A moment paralleling Christ’s desert exile comes on the heels of this statement: “I / die alone / of reason” (26), indicating the temptation is toward rational science.

As the poem continues, the erasures reveal further evidence of faith’s erosion while Darwin’s understanding of evolution grows: he observes animals congregating beneath his ship (34), which becomes the ark of evolutionary theory wherein “We / carry gravel / a considerable / distance from the parent / rock” (35). Saint Peter is the rock upon whom the church was built, and whose doctrine Darwin’s studies have left a considerable distance behind. The final two pages of “Journal of Researches: Patagonia” extend the imagery inimical to the church: “In / Patagonia / we / anchor / the ruins of / old men” (36); Darwin’s observations anchor the ruin of patriarchal Christianity, and he is faced with the realization “we / belong to / the / ground” (37)—dust, without a transformative afterlife. The increasing font size of these final pages indexes Darwin’s growing certainty and alarm about the theory he is developing.

The realization that he trusts science more than church doctrine leaves Darwin facing a dilemma subtly explored in the poems of the next section, “An Autobiographical Fragment”: should he undermine the church’s authority and risk a lifetime of controversy by publishing? In recalling the amusing lies of his childhood (48-49), the adult Darwin toys with the possibility of doing the same as an adult—denying the controversial science which will cause public consternation, and thereby shoring up the church’s comforting but inaccurate doctrine. In “The Laboratory,” science takes precedence: he recalls another period of childhood, when he studied the chemical properties of physical matter and saw “clearly, for the first time, / without a doubt . . . , the seams of the universe” (56-57). The Origin of Species will later unpick these seams, changing irreparably the social fabric that depends upon Biblical infallibility.

The eponymous third section, “Notebook M,” follows the process leading to the adult Darwin’s decision to publish. In the penultimate poem “Blind Cave Fish” Darwin admits he doesn’t owe fealty to ingrained falsehoods, however comforting they may be. He recounts how he “found god in a cave full of dead things” (89); “god is small and white and blind. Mostly he swims in circles and / has no sense of direction” (89). Nor is he alone; all these little gods “have forgotten the sun; they do not know they / are fish” (89). This poem presents a regretful repudiation of Christian doctrine from a man winching up his courage to publish the notorious Origin of Species.

Both McEwan and Savigny write process poetry; that is, poetry where the process of composition rather than the meaning is the focus. Nonetheless, the process itself exposes some of the ideologies that support our ideas of truth, God, and human reason. Where McEwan’s poems reveal how the simplicity of binary code leads to the compounding complexities of linguistic unreliability, Savigny’sNotebook M maps Darwin’s crises—the loss of his personal faith in Christian doctrine and his dilemma of public responsibility—and ends with the scientist’s recognition that he cannot accept privately accept the conclusions of his basic scientific research and go on to deny it publically.

These five books explore science as basic research, applied research and/or technology. In Enright’s mental health narrative Sonar, Verbanofsky derides pharmaceutical technologies, tolerates the applied science of the professionals, and undertakes basic research through authorship—the creative profession most often linked with mental illness. In I see my love more clearly from a distance, veterinarian Nora Gould constantly applies science to the life-or-death decisions required on her ranch. In so doing, her poetry demonstrates a fatalism typical of health-care workers. Mathew Henderson’s The Lease also examines human relationships with the prairie, focusing on oilpatch workers’ dehumanizing submission to the technologies of oil extraction. Andrew McEwan inverts that paradigm; in repeater, a nascent technological intelligence strives to achieve self-awareness even though the linguistic complexity which makes consciousness possible seems to make self-doubt and self-deception inevitable. Gillian Savigny’s Notebook M explores a different aspect of deception, showing how Charles Darwin’s basic science caused him crises of private faith and public responsibility. Thus, four of these five books use literature as a means to critique some aspect of science, with technology most likely to be depicted negatively; only McEwan turns the tables by using technology to critique language.

That so many examples of a fairly rare subset of Canadian literature—first poetry books published in 2012—focus on science indicates that, as Nursall predicted in 1983, Canadian writers celebrate science as “one of the great creative activities” available to us (Nursall 14). Furthermore, the number of awards and nominations recognizingSonar, I see my love more clearly from a distance, The Lease,repeater, and Notebook M, suggests science remains a fecund source of poetry which contemporary Canadian poets treat with intelligence, verve, and finesse.

Works Cited

  • Drew, Elaine M. and Nancy E. Schoenberg. “Deconstructing Fatalism: Ethnographic Perspectives on Women’s Decision Making about Cancer Prevention and Treatment.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 25.2 (2011): 164-82. Print.
  • Enright, Kristian. Sonar. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 2012. Print.
  • Gould, Nora. I see my love more clearly from a distance. London: Brick, 2012. Print.
  • Henderson, Mathew. The Lease. Toronto: Coach House, 2012. Print.
  • Kyaga, Simon, et al. “Mental Illness, Suicide and Creativity: 40-Year Prospective Total Population Study.” Journal of Psychiatric Research 47 (2013): 83-90. Print.
  • McEwan, Andrew. repeater. Toronto: BookThug, 2012. Print.
  • McHale, Brian. “Poetry as Prosthesis.” Poetics Today 21.1 (2000): 1-32. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
  • Nursall, J. R. “To Dare to Attempt Impious Wonders: Science and Canadian Literature.” Science and Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 96 (1983): 13-33. Print.
  • Savigny, Gillian. Notebook M. Toronto: Insomniac, 2012. Print
  • Wilkie, Rodger. “A Meditation on Modular Identity.” Cyborg Meditations blog. 13 May 2013. Web. 8 Aug. 2013.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.