The Conformalists

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Am I getting old, is that enough of an explanation? Straight white male shaking fist at sky? (Wait. Is anyone actually writing what they think in reviews anymore?) Or is the lyric poetry Canada produces currently coasting after the leaps and bounds of growth experienced in the aughts and early 2010s? After the doldrums of the nineties, in which the poets who had a pulse could be counted on two hands—most of them women (e.g., M. Travis Lane, Daphne Marlatt, Sylvia Legris, Dionne Brand, M. NourbeSe Philip)—Canadian poetry underwent first a sonic revolution, and then a reinvention of metaphor, both of these likely brought about by the Internet and easy accessibility to writing from elsewhere. In short order, Ken Babstock set the table for the sound of our talk; Jeramy Dodds pumped energy into how our people, places, and things might be reconceived; Jan Zwicky and some others offered the lyric as a place for spirit and philosophic reflection; Karen Solie seemed to synthesize all these elements. Then, in the latter half of the 2010s, lyric Canadian poetry widened to include far more contributions from diverse and marginalized communities. We cranked the sound; metaphor became emboldened; poetry seemed as if it might pray, albeit in a secular way; and poetry’s demographic changed markedly. The latter change suggested, at least to me, that the aesthetic growth experienced in the field would continue apace.

But I don’t think it has, and perhaps the stall was foreseeable. For we had so, so far to go in aesthetic terms to escape the undertow of our hegemonic styles. For example, what David Solway called “Standard Average Canadian,” a Purdy-like rambling, anecdotal style, was embarrassingly common; so, too, was an Atwoodian high-irony-by-way-of-imagery style. That a few of our poets didn’t succumb to these two mediocritizing trends is a credit to them, but a funny thing about such trends is they become trends because they seem new; only when they’re tapped out and recognized as tired do many of the poets try, finally, to make it new. Canada has a sediment of trends, an anthropologically searchable record, and the most recent ones—jacked sound and zippy metaphor—will persist until our present writers understand their doomed periodization.

In 2019, I look at lyric poetry in my country and ask: is this all there is? Why do we (the privileged and the marginalized both) largely seem at rest, renovating the old trends with new content, but with no formal change? Though the expansion in content and awareness are welcome, when will it be time to acknowledge that poetry is much more than what is said—it is how the thing is said?

Thus I come to these books for review that, in isolation, are hard to fault.  Dominique Béchard’s debut from Gaspereau, One Dog Town, is emotionally powerful, striking me as a book entirely about despair with a lyric “I” oriented in a poetics of reflection, astute with sound and rendered into stanza structures that make the stuff seem as if cut from granite. Consider this snippet from “Dance Macabre with ‘Sot’s Inventory’”:

Meanwhile, I am inadvertently drunk, mistook

the cheer of a moment as foretelling—I predict

an enforced solitude and time

to prepare the next day’s inventory: tomorrow

I will wake to fresh snow and canaries; I will

chance upon unseasonable

blueberries, and I won’t forget to eat them

this time.

Check, check, check—it’s pretty good, right? Béchard’s talented, and her book certainly marks her as someone who, I predict, could write an idiosyncratically beautiful one in the future.

But according to the familiarities I mention above, Béchard’s work is also terribly familiar, indistinct from what everyone else is doing in our ongoing Canadian poetry project of formal conformity, just as every other nation’s dominant trend is always conformity over time—with the rare exception that, because of the shock of its newness, sets the table for decades worth of meals in emulation.

Outside of style, though, there is the obvious matter of content to get to—the great frontier strip-mined in the latter half of the decade. Kerry Gilbert’s Little Red, albeit not as dynamic or evocative as Béchard’s book, is, from the macro view, little different. The poems are arrayed in stanzas that are predominantly unrhymed couplets and tercets. Sound is less modulated than in Béchard’s poems, and comes a little more colloquially inclined; the emotional effects are displaced from a lyric “I” to that of a narrator’s observation. Gilbert, though, does access a dominant trend in Canadian poetry by invoking identity politics. The conceit is a retelling of the Red Riding Hood myth from a feminist standpoint considering missing and murdered women and girls:

then pretend the field is the forest and they

work their way to grandma’s house—the old

truck at the end of the yellow, full of seed


they act out the whole bedroom scene

wolf/grandma/red on the roof of the truck

but somewhere in between the battle-dance


they lose their footing and fall in

seeds work their way into three sets of lungs

and stop air, like trying to breathe in fur[.]

Atwood, of course, did this sort of thing already in The Penelopiad; and there’ve been many instances since of feminist revision of folklore and myth, including a redo of Atwood’s own efforts in verse with Sue Goyette’s Penelope (2017). But to zero in on Red Riding Hood: Atwood used the Red Riding hood myth in The Handmaid’s Tale (admittedly a prose book), and Anne Sexton rewrote the myth from a feminist perspective in a poem from the 1960s called “Red Riding Hood.” To literally touch on Gilbert’s text, I mention that Cornelia Hoogland, one of the blurbers on the back cover of Little Red, published Woods Wolf Girl in 2011.

My point is not that such reinventions shouldn’t be done, because obviously the point of myth is for it to somehow inform contemporary life, as it has been doing for millennia! (And to dip into the vast scholarship available about the Red Riding Hood tale, as well as its countless adaptations over the years, is a testament to that fact.) No, I welcome such reinventions and acknowledge that they just might be the path to something new. My point is instead to simply ask two questions. First, is the current era of Canadian poetry not marked by the diversity of its representations, but rather by the linguistic sameness of its identity-based projects in search of material? (I write this being a vigorous participant in the same projects. Sorry, hand that feeds me!) Is what could be called “Canadian Poetry’s Red Riding Hood Sequel 10457” the natural product of an era that encourages representation of marginalization and politicization of aesthetics so extremely that we might actually begin to not wonder if, according to the old adage, everything is political, but rather that everything must be?

In this way, there really is something cunning about just writing single, unlinked poems from a solitary consciousness à la Béchard. But then again, how is work that is of a piece with much contemporary Canadian poetry renovating aesthetics along the lines described at the beginning of this review? Where is the beautiful, surprising work that will condemn so many of our poets to emulate it as the new orthodoxy? Perhaps the latest orthodoxy is here to stay.

This review “The Conformalists” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 20 Jul. 2020. Web.

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