Shifting Grounds

Reviewed by Jenny Kerber

Sarah de Leeuw’s latest collection, Outside, America, combines a geographer’s eye for landscape with personal meditations on travel, dissolving human relationships, and environmental change. The poems are frequently built on surprising juxtapositions of imagery, location, and scale; the opening “Rogue Stars,” for instance, links astronomical phenomena with the retro toy Lite-Brite, while in “Drone Notes on Climate Change,” digital footage of belugas in Hudson Bay reveals “white punctuations on an old / elementary black board.” Meanwhile, “What Women Do to Fish” draws women’s daily bodily care practices (e.g., taking birth control pills, exfoliating) into dialogue with aquatic life as at once victim and ally, raising complex questions of threat and self-protection. The first half of the collection also movingly explores the conflicted mixture of guilt and relief that accompanies the illness and death of a loved one who lives far away.

The second half of the book tours American sites ranging from Brooklyn to LA to Oklahoma, doing what de Leeuw’s writing often does best: using a geographically distinctive element to illuminate human relationships and the subtle ways they disintegrate or coalesce. In the final poem “Honeymoon Island State Park, Florida,” the shifting sands of a relationship conclude in the lines, “there was one island, but now / there are two, slender and separate.” There is great tenderness in these poems, yet the emotion never feels overwrought, counterbalanced as it is by a high degree of craft, formal experimentation, and keen attention to a series of manufactured and natural curiosities woven uneasily together into a common life.

Kelly Shepherd’s Insomnia Bird adopts a narrower focus on the city of Edmonton, but echoes themes that arise in de Leeuw’s work, especially concerning life in resource-dependent communities. Shepherd’s poems portray a city wrestling with rapid growth through the 2000s oil boom, and test fashionable vocabularies of the “green city” against the actual pressures of accommodating the flora and fauna that thrive and struggle there. The results are often bracing and sardonic, illuminating the risks of forgetting a city’s natural and cultural history amidst a rising tide of consumerism and suburban sprawl. Magpie appears as a wry observer throughout, playing the role of augur, disturber, and opportunist in ways that parallel the city’s human inhabitants and their pecking orders. The poems quote liberally from urban heritage proposals, municipal ordinances, and PR communications, offering glimpses of how the urban actors they are designed to manage don’t necessarily conform to the best laid plans: caraganas crack sidewalks, coyotes snatch housecats, and jackrabbits nibble gardens. Shepherd’s magpie strategy of quoting from civic documents doesn’t work equally well in every poem, but in many moments this aesthetic throws into relief the devil’s bargain of building communities on fickle resource economies. Such fickleness emerges clearly in a poem like “#ALBERTASTRONG,” which illustrates how the tightening of the oil patch revives social resentments formerly buried under piles of money:

You’re either with us
or you’re against us, say the people
who only a week earlier
hated the place they had to go to work.

If Alice Major is the laureate of the city’s office towers, Shepherd asserts a strong claim in this collection to writing its blue-collar experiences from the ground up.

Sudbury-based poet Kim Fahner contemplates several forms of landscape in These Wings—especially the shores of Lake Erie and northern Ontario. The collection includes many ekphrastic poems addressing works by well-known painters such as Alex Colville and J. M. W. Turner, but in places Fahner also offers an innovative twist on the approach in sequences that variously address a series of photos of Frida Kahlo and of Janet Cardiff’s sound installation The Forty-Part Motet Sequence. In the former, Fahner takes the reader into experiences of illness and frailty while also conveying the persistent inner strength of a fellow artist; meanwhile the latter nicely captures the shifting slivers of sound and sensation generated by Cardiff’s multi-voiced, ephemeral work. Late in the collection there is also a memorable sequence that contemplates the practice of floriography in an exhibition at the Canadian War Museum. In these poems based on a soldier’s letters home during the First World War, flowers become a language of sensuality, fragility, and endurance. While the collection as a whole is less unified than de Leeuw’s or Shepherd’s, much of the writing is nonetheless polished in craft and presentation, and illustrates a writer deeply engaged with her surroundings, whether snowshoeing on a starlit evening or exploring the darkened corners of a gallery.

This review “Shifting Grounds” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 150-151.

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