Speed and Syntax

Reviewed by Geoffrey Nilson

Selina Boan and Gary Thomas Morse write poetry at different speeds, each with a syntax that reflects a unique textual purpose. Undoing Hours is a slow, aromatic text, each poem like a simmering soup pot, simple ingredients combining to make more than a sum of parts. Boan’s syntax of understanding employs sentence-based grammar and strives to communicate clearly. In contrast, Scofflaw fires lines in rapid succession like a linguistic gun-fight where the reader must duck for cover. Morse’s syntax of confusion promotes double meanings and a grammatical openness which often disavows the sentence. These divergent texts present two perspectives of contemporary Indigenous life in Canada.


Undoing Hours, Boan’s debut collection, centres thematically on a narrative of learning, discovery, and reclamation. The speaker journeys into nêhiyawêwin (the Cree language), slowly integrating the words of her paternal ancestors into her vocabulary. Usage begins as simple definition—“i am learning to name. // sâsâpiskisikan   frying pan / tahkascikan   fridge / wasênikan   window” (30), employing roman orthography common to most European languages. The arc of the narrative culminates with the speaker developing her nêhiyawêwin to a skill level where she can integrate Cree syllabics into her poetic practice, as with the poem “ᐸᐢᑎᐯ.” Water floods Undoing Hours like “river melt / running” (24), yet Boan’s diction stays carefully controlled, words soft as if drawn in sand, plain-spoken in a register recalling fellow Nightwood author Gregory Scofield. These poems at the pace of memory develop a continuity of voice across the collection. Paratextual elements suggest an autobiographical correlation between the speaker of the poems and the poet herself, even when disguised behind a third person narrator: “a girl clicks beginner / cree on the internet” (19). Boan’s lyricism is without any particular metaphor or line break a reader can point to in critique. The poems hit beats and notes in the correct emotional places. Well-crafted lines to be sure, but sometimes so technically articulated they feel sapped of human quirk. The most effective moments in Undoing Hours throw out the workshop rulebook and perform flairs of form or language, reader be damned.[1]


Where Boan is ultra-conscious of the accessibility of her text, Gary Thomas Morse has no such concerns. Scofflaw refuses to “make sense.” With an “I,” an unknowable “we,” and cast of different characters, polyphony shifts between voices, dialects, and vocabularies. The text is brutal, jagged, and demanding at times; at others, playful, ironic, and breezy. It’s a standoff with the settler state—punning, wordplay, twisting idioms and pop culture references into original phrases, a “trickster / plum out of pancho tricks // & spaghetti themes // bordering on uncool” (36). Almost disgusted, Morse turns English back on those who would use it as a weapon: “One day we get wind of the factoid the Air’s changed / (say fake news one more time / I can’t even)” (58). The notes mention a long gestation for the text, yet Scofflaw retains a spontaneity that keeps it exciting. Morse reverses the length and slowness of the postmodern long-poem. A reader might expect the poem to layer meaning in small bits over many pages (à la Robert Kroetsch). But Scofflaw is just over sixty pages, and so the reader screams through it unwittingly, arriving at the conclusion with both the confusion and desire to start again straight away. Morse spoofs US poet Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger and cuts down CanLit “Prairie Poet” John Newlove, two quite different poets that nonetheless both represent a certain white-male brand of North American settler postmodernism. “[S]tuff that in your vape & toke it / not another word about fields of pure yellow” (24), Morse writes, interrogating Newlove’s legacy. This poem in real time engages the COVID-19 pandemic zeitgeist with dark humour: “Censor any anti-viral spirals gone viral / Wander lonely as a social bearing cloud / Reel in all bonspiel super-spreaders / Reboot apology tour with ethical breathables” (56). Scofflaw knows the food scarcity, housing instability, and lack of adequate health care that Canada faces during COVID-19 are not exclusive to the current pandemic but perils faced continuously by Indigenous communities.


A scofflaw is defined in the OED as “one who treats the law with contempt, esp. a person who avoids various kinds of not easily enforceable laws.” Morse’s scofflaw can be read as flouting both the laws of poetry and the laws of the Canadian settler state that would seek to assimilate, control, and erase Indigenous peoples. Boan might declare Indigeneity where Morse declines, but it would be wrong to assume she practices a politics of recognition. Her speaker does not “tell / the whole story as i know it,” (75) even if she recognizes “you want / the piece of the story // that is clandestine” (86). The fundamental difference between Scofflaw and Undoing Hours comes down to the purpose of poetry. Boan’s lyric realism focuses on emotion, identity, memory, and narrative. Her poems still believe in the redemptive power of the form. Morse’s surrealism is intertextual and propelled by subversive desire. His poems undermine the very form he wields and the canon of avant-garde poetics he summons as influence. Undoing Hours pins meaning to its sleeve, while Scofflaw holds meaning close to its chest.



[1] The review author sources all Cree translations and syllabic typography from Online Cree Dictionary, creedictionary.com/.




This review “Speed and Syntax” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Jul. 2022. Web.

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