Tides of Memory and Change

Reviewed by Jane Willsie

Water, self, and parent are all thematic elements that tie the disparate elements of Shani Mootoo’s Cane | Fire together and which transcend the brokenness of the memories strung together throughout the memoir-like poetry collection. A memory of water pouring that opens the collection in “Did Water Fall?” recurs in “Answer” when the speaker’s mother confirms that “there was that day / everywhere / water” on a boat crossing (32), and mother and father appear throughout the collection as the speaker negotiates her identity in relation to her past and omnipresent parents. There are moments when Mootoo’s memory-filled poetry overwhelms in its sheer volume of detail. In “Inventory,” the child speaker creeps to her father’s cabinets to see the items inside, listing them in words strung together without breaks that evoke the breathless curiosity of childlike wonder. In their intensity, these dense lists overwhelming the page might describe, in miniature, the experience of Cane | Fire: flashes of sensory memory fragments flung across the page without breath. These brief impressions seem like flashbacks to childhood which an adult mind can make sense of only in hindsight, choosing from the particularly poignant moments that hold meaning for the past in the present. These flashes of impressionistic memories take complete shape in poems like “A True Story About Unreal Marble,” in which Mootoo takes hold of every sense to construct the scene of a wilful child’s flight from home, from the colours—“iridescent green, hibiscus red,” “purple paper,” “bevy of fuchsia poinsettia”—to the smells of “last night’s gutter-piss” and “lullaby-scents”—to the sounds of rooftops as they “creak and ping”—and of movement—“passersby jiggerty jig” (18-19). Yet, much like memory itself, Cane | Fire’s poems are highly selective in what they choose to leave out. For instance, in “on the left of his left,” the complexities of an opposition between two individuals is lost in the sheer bewilderment of that opposition being reduced linguistically to its most simplistic unit—a “left” and “right” binary (37)—only to be reiterated until the words lose all meaning.


If water is a thematic element of Cane | Fire, it is a central character in Shannon Webb-Campbell’s Lunar Tides. The collection is beautifully structured around the lunar calendar, giving the poems it contains a rhythmic ebb and flow that softens its linear pages into a gentle, natural arc. Lunar Tides circles inward upon itself to layer moments by feeling, impression, and meaning, rather than stacking them by strict chronology. In the first poem, “Time: A Biography,” only a few lines after a baby is born in a hospital room, her mother dies in palliative care in a similar hospital room. The cyclical nature of the poem puts these events together, the beginning and the end becoming overlapping moments where the cycle begins anew with grief and bodies in a room. Rigidly controlled time is questioned throughout many of Lunar Tides’ entries, for instance in “Tides,” which repeatedly poses questions such as “are whales deep thinkers?” to the tides and the moon at intervals of six hours and thirteen minutes or twenty-four hours and fifty-two minutes (22). The irregular time stamps of the rhythmically posed questions draw attention to the mismatch between human time and the time of the moon and ocean. The speaker never receives an answer to their questions, always seeming to be at the wrong time and needing to come back later and ask again. If the childhood memories recalled throughout Cane | Fire are fraught with brief, sensorily intense flashes of feeling, the images of childhood that Lunar Tides presents are softer, while interestingly also retaining an intensity of sensory input that evokes a childlike mind. Webb-Campbell’s poetry abounds with soft, beautiful lines that evoke fog-engulfed landscapes and “moonlit pinnacles” edging waves (41), interrupted by highly structured poems such as “Grief: Q&A I,” which undermine the natural rhythms of the collection with entries formatted as Q-and-A sessions or dictionary definitions.


While Webb-Campbell’s exploration of grief’s language disrupts the collection’s tone to interrogate the inability of words to fully express grief, Daniel Sarah Karasik’s Plenitude deplores the co-optation of the terminology of grief and healing by an exploitative political and economic system in their poem “stages of grief.” Karasik puts the process of healing from grief in the context of political and capitalistic mechanisms that “encourage us to mistake / disclosure for healing”  while continuing to replicate harm (18). At times imaginative, speculative poetry and at other times, political essay-like poems, Karasik’s collection blends the personal and the political in their poems, which deal with identity, sex, capitalism, and grassroots activism spanning from Toronto to Palestine, to Chile, to Hong Kong. Karasik’s poems offer insightful deliberations on the intersections of race, sex, and political power, gesturing to how these intertwining pressures are not separate categories of oppression but mutually reinforcing structures that inhibit justice. In “Among Other White Jews,” for instance, the speaker places guilt of privilege alongside rage at injustice, weaving race, nationality, and sex together into a depiction of frustrated desire for action. Plenitude digs deeply into an interiority at odds with an exterior in poems like “Dysphoria, Smoothed,” which deliberates on the onerous body-altering labour the speaker undergoes to “match the outside to the in” (53). This desire to “match what the world sees” reappears in “Visible to Vanishing,” the clearest depiction of Plenitude’s vision for a better world. This poem begins with despair and a “dull wish / just to disappear” (19) that is overcome by the second stanza in which the speaker explores a “paradox” that from this despairing wish to disappear could arise the ability to transform the world into a place “where to swing / from visible to vanishing / could be a kind of play” (90). Karasik’s evocation of play and fluidity is a substantial offering from a collection of poems: the vision of a world in which transformation is easy and disappearance a form of pleasure rather than of perishing.

This review “Tides of Memory and Change” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 15 Feb. 2023. Web.

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