Full disclosure, reader: I am writing this review to take a break from marking undergraduate close-reading papers. Many undergraduate essays suffer the same problems: they identify literary devices, formal elements in the poems, and leave it at that. They only rarely tell me “so what?” I keep asking: “So? What is that repetition for? What is that alliteration doing?” And then today I sat down to read through Bertrand Bickersteth’s The Response of Weeds and it is impossible to just note the form—the delicate and then resilient, the flowing and then stopping form—of these poems without seeing what those words are doing. They’re singing.
I’ll admit, too, that it’s not often that I am fully drawn into a book of poems that I’m reviewing, but Bickersteth’s grip on his reader, like his command of poetic language, is unyielding. I kept finding myself saying, “Forget the marking, let’s just read one more.” I had only intended to take notes for a review and now find myself writing it out in full.
The Response of Weeds takes off at a blazing pace with a prairie revision of Langston Hughes titled “The Negro Speaks of Alberta.” This first poem is striking because of the—I am trying to find the eloquent way of saying this, but I can’t, so I’ll just say it—the balls it takes to start a collection by re-visioning Langston Hughes. But, make no mistake, the poem is not kitschy homage or poetic flex. It’s poignant and so beautifully written, setting the tone for a collection filled with musicality, where Bickersteth insists on a reinsertion of the Black voice that has so long been elided from the stories we tell (especially in poetry) about the Prairies. That first poem calls out, and a resounding echo persists throughout the collection. Bickersteth’s musicality here is made clear in his striking use of enjambment, with the poem’s (at turns tragic and joyful) cyclicism beating out “so on / and on and on” and still echoed in the “still you do not see me” of the poem’s final line.
A similar echo, a kind of call-and-answer where these poems both call and answer, manifests this collection’s musicality in the poems’ various refrains: the mirrored “watch your step!” (“The Peace”) and “[w]atch my step!” (“Notice”); the poems’ various other refrains of “we, too, wade in this water!” (“The Battle versus the Red Deer”) and the calling out to Black musicians, poets, writers shouting “Now go, Louis, and tell it!” (“Louis Armstrong on the Prairies,” emphasis original). And still there are beautiful alliterative moments, particularly in “The Peace” and “Harry Mills, the Music is Passing.” These poems almost demand to be read aloud, to be sung. One thing is sure to me after reading The Response of Weeds: Bickersteth is a poetic force to be reckoned with. He’s out there singing these voices into the prairie winds, and we’d do well to listen.
If Bickersteth’s work is beautifully bombastic, then Meredith Quartermain’s Lullabies in the Real World, also from NeWest Press, is a quiet but still insistent call to witness. Quartermain’s work here is also distinctly musical, but in a rather different way. The poetic voice is subtle but unflinching, demanding attention to the small things, advocating a kind of egalitarian redistribution. In “Pyramid Falls,” for example, Quartermain writes of a desire to “bow to / Not Kings” and to “sing of Not Spinoza,” wanting instead to “frisk in a world-class / Beethovenlessness.” Like Bickersteth, Quartermain is ballsy in her rewritings here, too. The poem “Ithaka,” for example, observes that “[s]o much depends / upon the lentil lens,” somehow taking Williams’ objects in focus and zooming in further.
The poems in Lullabies in the Real World are distinctly Canadian, beyond the fact that they are bilingual, with beautiful wordplay prancing from English to French with ease. Quartermain reinserts the Canadian into the literary landscape, insisting on an epic location for the quiet, understated poetic voice. She imagines “[m]ajestic dreamy Lotus Eaters” in the context of “Harris’s grounded icebergs” and places “Nausikaa / wash[ing] her wagonload of linen” in “Cullen’s scumbled snow-flurry sky.” It’s so distinctly Canadian, this desire to bring the epic here, to this landscape that demands epicness. There are a few surprises in Lullabies, too, like the use of a graffiti-style typeface in “Unreal to Real,” which appealed to me as a visual poet, and told me early in the collection that I’d have to pay attention to these details.
All in all, these are both beautiful collections that return me to the centrality of the aural, of song, in poetry. And though these poets could never have anticipated the cultural climate in which I read these poems—we are all away in our homes, yet so many of us are out in the streets—these poems do tell us something of our contemporary need for song, our need for these words singing in their different ways. And, as the piles of essays that I need to mark keep getting higher and higher, I’m grateful for these poems, because I really needed to sing.
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