Years ago, after my ex-boyfriend had moved out of our shared apartment, I found silverfish eating away at the binding of my books. A hardcover Tom Sawyer fell apart in my hands. It was distressing then, but now serves as a potent metaphor for the poetics of these two collections of poetry. Stewart’s first collection and McEwan’s second, both released by BookThug in 2017, eat away at existing texts, revealing in extant narratives cracks and fissures that were, the collections argue, always there. So, imagine my surprise to find that the first poem in Better Nature describes “some silver fish / inside my ribs.” The space between “silver” and “fish” notwithstanding, Better Nature positions its writing as parasitic insect, eating away at settler narratives of Canada’s natural landscape as uninhabited, undeveloped, and unoccupied.
Both Better Nature and If Pressed use found phrases, lexicons, and quotations from a variety of source texts to construct new narratives, new framing techniques, to talk about their respective subjects. Better Nature repurposes Walt Whitman’s diaries from his tours through Ontario and Quebec, as well as other books, letters, and documents describing the Canadian landscape. If Pressed mines Goodreads reviews (and a Twitter bot that used to retweet book reviews), ads for crystals, environmental reports, early studies of depression, and the title of this reviewer’s favourite Bauhaus song. Read together, the collections signal a distinct trend in conceptual methods of remix, cut-up, and found poetries. Such projects are no longer viewed or marketed as apolitical or purely experimental; these methods are ways of eroding dominant narratives and making space for new ways of viewing issues like mental health, environmental concerns, settler-Indigenous relations, and global capital.
Stewart’s collection shines most brightly in “if Walt Whitman got a job writing spam . . .,” where Whitman’s Canadian diaries are irrevocably enmeshed with spam emails Stewart received from fashion retailers and environmental NGOs, resulting in a humorous interplay of tone and content. “Now here’s the best good news—,” the poem reads: “it’s humpback whale month! / Have you got yours?” And later:
I don’t need to be hard.
The truth behind my strappy sandals is:
I just don’t need to.
But I am.
Here, Better Nature most strongly interrogates the Whitman diaries’ masculine, settler approach to nature not as an archaic view from the past, but as a colonial mindset that permeates our contemporary digital context.
McEwan’s collection reaches peak parasitism in “Depression Inventory,” borrowing from and echoing the vocabulary of Beck’s Depression Inventory, a standardized diagnostic survey that this reviewer will admit to having filled out more than once. In “Depression Inventory,” the BDI language is merged with larger socio-economic issues, putting the responsibility of mental health on the reader, but also on the capitalism that breeds alienation and crisis. “I do not feel like a failure,” the poem “Past Failure” begins, only to be followed with “welcome to the crisis economy.” The onus for our depression, it seems to say, is (or must be) shared globally, at least in part.
It’s worth noting that a discussion of eating away at problematic source texts tells only half the story of each of the collections. Better Nature, for example, boasts a startling and joyful ear for aurality, with tongue-in-cheek wordplay that begs to be read aloud. The first section, “if Walt Whitman were a youngish woman walking to work . . .,” contains some of the collection’s most gorgeous lines. They recall Whitman with an almost Dadaist charm:
I know the flukes will feed on me
(they always threaten to consume the seas)
But who but me could sympathize, could
With all this colour, all this zeal?
If we are too wrapped up in the cut-up poetics and found-poem politics of the collection, we risk losing sight of the poems’ clever sonority.
If Pressed, on the other hand, suggests an almost ergodic turn, as is hinted by the wordplay of the title. Beyond the potential responses to Beck’s Depression Inventory in “Depression Inventory,” “Uncertainty Measures” encourages further engagement with the poems therein. This section instructs readers to “Speculate on current climate,” “Cry for help,” or “Choose symptom(s),” assuring them that the poem values “Your choices.” Eating away at earlier texts, it seems, makes space not only for the authors, but for readers, too.