The Ethical Vanguard

Reviewed by Michael Roberson

If, as Simon Critchley suggests, “ethics is the disturbance of the political status quo,” then the newest books by Vancouver poets Catriona Strang, Cecily Nicholson, and Rita Wong enact an ethical poetics grounded in the belief that poetry can function as an alternative form of knowledge about our current sociopolitical moment.

Catriona Strang’s Corked contains two sequences—“Unsetting” and “Corked.” The first presents an excerpt from a “frizzily” homophonic rendition of Franz Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin. Dedicated to the late Nancy Shaw, the sequence carries forward the lamenting “heart’s ruffle” of the original sequence, but also opens the cage doors at the “Ear zoo.” Take, as an example, the Germanic crunching and pooling in the following lines:

Will’s laugh zooms for lichen’s

jagged wool, out-ditched hiding

and hugging (.)

The title piece, by contrast, juxtaposes letters to Marcel Proust with “tempered fragments”—individual poems with jags and glitches that represent “shaky transitory moments external to capital’s seemingly omnipotent pulse.” While these poems inevitably engage the Proustian theme of memory’s precariousness, they work hardest to advocate for the “unprofitable” and “unproductive” work of domestic life—the “weight women carry daily.” In a poem called “Integral Information,” she writes:

[T]o explode in hordes

of our own budding


so mightily our

labours linger


tentative, and still I

cannot bid or outsupply, I


cannot consequent

upon, or imagine (.)

Changing “versus” into verses, Strange offers poetry, contaminated by overt tentativeness and “over-earnest[ness],” as a “gentle resistance” to the “current situation” in which “love and caring continue to suffer obliteration.”

In From the Poplars, Cecily Nicholson uses poetry as “method” to investigate an archive of material about Poplar Island—an island in the Fraser River that now sits occupied by “wild cherry cottonwood English ivy / black willow empathy,” but that also includes a deeply fraught colonial history with “patriarchal velocities.” By interweaving the “speech acts wrested” from official, title documents with impressionistic, “roving fragments,” Nicholson interrogates how governments and businesses (“the Corporation of the City”) collude, and manipulate language to define, entitle, occupy, and exploit spaces with little deference for history or ecology. To this reviewer, the poems themselves are pyritic—alluring, but deceptive, awkward, but poignant—as in the following favourite lines:

[F]ree atoms split to render the egg yolk of autumn

reaches an art to alchemy artist fashion

the spine gilded paint syntax

Like Strang’s Corked, Nicholson’s book invests in poetry as “recursive,” as “imaginative militancy” capable of confronting “officially spoken boundaries borders and property.”

Rita Wong’s undercurrent presents an accumulation, but not a culmination, of writing and activism pertaining to “water ethics”—what Wong calls “our obligations as earth dwellers” to the water that sustains all life. In a series of formally varied poems—vertical, horizontal, split, compressed, found, and generated—Wong strives to be thorough and expeditious, emphasizing that “underneath all the words, we are one troubled water.” In fact, the subtext to all water is the series of lettered formulas for chemical pollutants—side effects of plastics production, petroleum processing, and resource extraction. While the poems are direct in their moral current, they inevitably serve as “alpha bets” that poetry can help increase our “fluid wisdom.” Less impressive overall for innovations with language than their conviction, the poems, prose anecdotes, and polemics throughout the book contextualize Wong’s personal investment and offer as much credibility as they provide examples of how others might also participate intellectually, socially and, politically in the “anthropocene.”

This review “The Ethical Vanguard” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 140-41.

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