Something Attentive

Reviewed by Ryan Fitzpatrick

Russell Thornton’s The Broken Face strains masculinity through a series of narrative reflections, linking intergenerational familial culture to a wider culture of not only carcerality and abuse, but also to the potentials embedded in the warmer moments emerging from memory. Thornton’s long view keys into a white, working class perspective grounded in the wake of the extractive resource-based economy of the Lower Mainland, specifically North Vancouver. In particular, Thornton’s extended serial takes on parenthood balance on this working class masculinity as he looks for moments of connection amidst the emotional distance. Reflecting on a thread of happiness around bicycles, Thornton’s speaker slides between his father blowing air from a bike pump in his face to his great-grandfather’s hand-built bicycle, posing that “my moment with my father is the forebear of my son’s happiness” (39). This affect crosses generations as Thornton asks what carries forward and, in a reflection on the Salish names for some North Van creeks, what fails to carry forward. “[T]he more names I have learned leave me,” he poses, “the more the number of names I would like to learn increases – and I learn Chay-chil-whoak Creek, Kwa-hul-cha Creek, and then these names too gather like mist, then move off and away like mist” (55).

John Donlan’s Out All Day flips between ecological regions, turning an attentive eye to the intersections between human and nonhuman relations. His direct and attentive language dwells on the mixed spaces he shares both in the bush and in the city. Out All Day plays through a tension around the connections and separations between nature and culture, posing no easy answers and instead dwelling in the complications of the ways we approach the nonhuman as something we treat as separate and extractable. At their best, Donlan’s poems subtly shift between registers, image pools, and geographies, sliding between a hawk’s claws and coal-fired factories in China or between Bloor Street westbound and the migrating George River caribou herd. Donlan’s language is direct, but despite this I do wish that Donlan engaged more directly or deeply with the sour moments in his text that engage with race and Indigeneity, moments that approach but never take a position on the centrality of whiteness to his landscapes. One of several moments that invoke race, the book’s final poem “Chuck Berry” reflects on the Black performers of the 1950s (“the Hollywood Flames, Little Richard, the Coasters”), posing both that Donlan “didn’t even know they were black” and that “they were brown-skinned handsome men / singing us into a new kind of freedom” (78). This poem leaves me wondering about Donlan’s invocation of an “us” that he’s not necessarily included in and how that question of freedom is connected to his considerations of ecology. What would happen if nature poetry critically addressed its own whiteness?

E.D. Blodgett’s final book Nothing Is But You and I completes his life long poem Apostrophes with a rumination on life, fragility, and time. The book ends with a farewell to his addressee as the poem ends, dated seven and a half months before Blodgett’s death from cancer. The book has an abstract, inward quality, presenting landscapes that are quietly unspecific and dwell on natural and spiritual imagery, but driven by bracing unpredictable sentencework. In a book that’s constantly thinking about its (and the author’s) end, Blodgett’s sentences continually delay their completion, turning themselves and their content over and over and over. Blodgett’s lines are elegant and a little airless, or, at least, it’s difficult to breathe in them. And if they make it hard to breathe, it might be in the way they intimate a lot in their tracings of intimacy, but don’t anchor us to much. And in this way, Blodgett’s poems are very different than either Thornton’s or Donlan’s, reflecting on the experience of having one’s experiences behind you without relying on the specifics of memory. Instead, the poems formally reflect on time and duration, death and whatever comes next as our human matter unravels.

This review “Something Attentive” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Jan. 2020. Web.

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