Slivers and Gaps

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson

New poetry collections from Tammy Armstrong, Jennica Harper, and Alex Leslie showcase the breadth and depth of contemporary Canadian poetry. These poets are fearless in their voices and their approaches to subject matter. Travelling from skyscrapers to airplanes to rural walks in Nova Scotia, each of these collections highlights these accomplished poets working at the height of their talents.

Jennica Harper’s fourth book of poetry, Bounce House, is a long poem that “contains the uncontainable.” The collection navigates the uncertainty in raising a child while caring for a dying parent. Harper writes, “This is not a story. I want to narrativize / but the planks don’t meet clean. It’s all / slivers and gaps between the slats,” and this quite accurately summarizes the way the poems shift and overlap, the way each poem both builds and responds to the next, as if they are in an intimate dialogue. The poems balance, sometimes uncomfortably, between the brimming joy and liveliness of childhood, and the grief and sorrow of death. Harper is not afraid to dig beneath the surface of the poems to reveal the honest—and sometimes difficult—truths in life: the imperfections of parenthood, the frustrations of death, and all the messes in between that make up the human experience.

The poems in the collection are created in a four-couplet shape which acts to further “contain” the poems, resulting in an appealing compression. She writes, “Once, within twenty-four hours, I’d washed / both their hair. Each fine & lightly waved,” and this parallelism is indicative of the many ways that the poems act as mirrors to one another, the light catching each moment just so. Harper’s style is spare, but her images and turns of phrase arresting; the intimacy she renders in mundane moments such as washing hair illuminates the intimacy and physical intensity that comes with being both a parent and a caretaker for a dying loved one. Despite the darkness in some of the subject matter, Harper’s poems remain airy, due in large part to the physical structure. There are no easy answers or easy solutions within this collection, but the long-poem sequence lets us immerse ourselves in the experience.

Tammy Armstrong also seeks to immerse her readers in her collection Year of the Metal Rabbit, her fifth book of poetry. The poems in this collection travel the terrain of often-rural Nova Scotia, drawing heavily from the natural world. The poems are populated with flora and fauna, and the atmosphere becomes thick and weighted, fully revealing specific landscapes. Armstrong writes, “I barely noticed / when summer swaggered off / and autumn’s low burn cindered / its mobile weather,” and this captures the meditative quality that runs through these poems. The poems are lyrical in their construction, the language careful and fresh to reveal the narrative.

Landscape, in general, is an important aspect to Armstrong’s work. This ranges from the blustery Maritimes to coastal Mexico, and Armstrong is particularly adept at allowing these dynamic landscapes both to ground the reader and to further amplify the surprising turns in the poems in unexpected ways.

Unexpected is also an apt word to describe Alex Leslie’s second poetry collection, Vancouver for Beginners. Leslie’s poems are ingenious and complex, following versions of Vancouver past, present, and future. The poems both document and interrogate the city itself, considering the positioning of its habitants during the rise of development, the opioid crisis, and all the other daily realities of life in a busy, frustrating city. Leslie explores pivotal moments in Vancouver’s history, including Robert Pickton, the inevitable earthquake threat, and the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside. Leslie is a thoughtful and cerebral writer, and these demanding and difficult topics are explored in a precise and profound manner.

The pieces within this collection fluctuate between prose poems and more traditional poetic structures—some dense, some shorter vignettes, coupled with startling language and sharply drawn images: there is a “house built of fishbones and compasses,” “a taxi bargains with seagulls,” and “bodies were dragged down with the timbers for counting.” Leslie creates reverberations within the poems, and the collection feels like a collage, fragments of a larger narrative, each one essential. Every poem is assured, every word chosen for its weight, and the result is a beautiful collection that is both inspired by, and lamenting for, a city that is never satisfied.

This review “Slivers and Gaps” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 30 Nov. 2020. Web.

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