Species of Spaces

Reviewed by Will Smith

Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal introduces two time frames: the third-person narrative of the titular last Neanderthal, Girl, and the first person narrative of Dr. Rosamund Gale, an archaeologist working on a startling discovery in modern France. In the first, we see life forty thousand years ago as visceral, immediate, and storied, whilst the second, less distant than we might imagine, gradually echoes the precariousness of human relationships and fundamental questions of life. Gale spends her professional life moving between dig site, museum space, and media narrative, considering how intimate connection with the past might be presented. Cameron’s novel is reminiscent of two other Canadian novels: Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone and Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault. Cameron cites The White Bone as a touchstone, and her novel resonates with the force and immediacy of Gowdy’s. The novels by Cameron and Michaels share sensory poetic aims and the use of the potent lens of the modern archaeologist to think through the possibilities of spaces to reconnect to the past.

Initially Girl’s life is framed by her immediate family, whilst the presence of Big Mother hints at a connective chain of learning in which prior generations and the codependent group work together or merge. Girl also experiences a kind of merging in what her language knows as “warm,” or what Cameron’s glossary defines as “‘family,’ but the word had a connotation of physical warmth and safety of the kind that brought peace of mind.” Girl feels the root of this “warmth” in the family’s communal sleeping pattern. Cameron’s use of a separate vernacular for Neanderthal life within a glossary preceding the text gives the novel the feeling of both case study and recovery; the book also includes the paratext of Girl’s family tree. Cameron departs from conventional ways of seeing, opening up questions of our origins, the divisions of species alongside a wider understanding of kin. The novel’s sense of kin attributes much significance to the strange figure of Runt, but could just as easily be read for the powerful non-human presence of Wildcat, another key participant in Girl’s feeling of “warm.”

then/again, Michelle Elrick’s second poetry collection, is motivated by similar questions of origin and the meaning of place-making. Opening with a powerful personal history of understanding home, Elrick draws on Doreen Massey and Yi-Fu Tuan to explore the poetics of how “bodily apprehension makes place count.” Using personal and family history as a map, Elrick traces “the homes I’ve inherited through ancestry,” visiting and revisiting them to unpack what becomes familiar and what traces of dwelling can be recorded and communicated. “A Sea” alludes to the process of accumulation and departure tracked in these poems. Dwelling in place also means to “hear a sea swaying back/forth, then/again, once/more into edges.” The frayed tidal tension of sensing meaningful space is also present in “Rathven: Burn and Grave Fort,” which meditates on the eroding stone etchings of graves with their “mellow dents, slow blooming lichen.”

The shifts between countries and provinces in Elrick’s collection seem apt, reflecting Don McKay’s observation in Another Gravity that “homing loves leaving / home.” Place, or more particularly home, is an evasive quality all the more acutely felt in Elrick’s acknowledgement of digital mediation and the language of such infiltrating encounters with place. “A Sea” notes how “cold fingers fail to activate the screen,” whilst in “Square” the Red River is subject to “wave pixilation.” Language is also such a mediation, and felt throughout is the pressure to distill, record, and observe becoming entangled by the imprecision, the rewilding expansion of definition. The final poem, “crow (v.),” is a long observation of urban nature which continually reflects on the role of the “observer, I.” It is this observer who adds details to definitions of the scene whilst being drawn to “look up the origin of crow.” Evolving into a conversation with the crow, with language, and with dwelling, the poem returns and reorders previous phrases into an impressionistic but still located conclusion.

These two very different books find common ground in their desire to understand the spaces of human habitation and the histories which imbue them with meaning.

This review “Species of Spaces” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 135-136.

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