Chelene Knight’s second tome Dear Current Occupant and Al Rempel’s third collection of poetry Undiscovered Country investigate physical and emotional vacancies in the Canadian west. For Knight, these vacancies correlate to a nomadic childhood in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood—they are vacancies of fixed locations, and dispossessions of homes, objects, securities, and routines that make a child feel safe, grounded, and connected to a place and to others. For Rempel, the undiscovered country of his text is a vacancy beyond earthly knowing: What is on the other side of this life, he asks, and how do those left behind come to grips with the unknown locales from which their deceased loved ones have departed?
Winner of the 2018 City of Vancouver Book Award, Knight’s Dear Current Occupant joins a vital compendium of Canadian literary texts (including Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed and Sachiko Murakami’s The Invisibility Exhibit) that explore one of the nation’s poorest and most socially complex postal codes, V6A. Dear Current Occupant is a scavenger hunt of items hidden in pockets, of homemade forts, and of other imaginatively recreated temporary encampments, realized through the affective force of trauma: through fractures, shards, and semblances of the autobiographical speaker’s childhood self. Unlike Knight’s first text, a collection of poetry, Dear Current Occupant is a work of creative non-fiction that fuses epistolary forms, photographs, short essays, and free verse poetics. In the text’s endnotes, Knight writes, “I have two photos of myself when I was young. Two.” Thus, the multiple forms Knight marshals intimate the spectres of trauma: trying to reassemble a narrative from disconnected, painful, and out-of-reach moments through the visitation of formerly inhabited rooming houses, apartments, tenements, streets, and shelters in East Van. Knight’s speaker moves mercurially between child and adult perceptions, demonstrating the incredible survival skills of the former: “when all else fails,” she tells us in the poem “Neighbour, this is for your daughter,” “build a fort.” Dear Current Occupant presents a textual fort, forged from memories; this text, like the self-excavation Knight has performed, will not go unremembered.
In Undiscovered Country, Rempel’s free verse entrances, switchbacking between the ubiquitous and the ethereal. Rempel’s speaker seeks the lost selves of relatives who have departed the landscapes he reveres in his collection: Rempel currently resides in Prince George but hails from Abbotsford, with close ties to the Gulf Islands. This collection tends to employ a present tense marked by the deep roots of loss, of the realities of passing time. In “Occasional Poem for a Birthday,” the force behind Rempel’s work crystallizes: “what I think is this: we can’t hold / all our love inside our hearts, some of it / always spills over.” Rempel’s text is what spills over, full of love for the living and his cherished British Columbian locales and longing for those who have passed from its bucolic yet quotidian days.