Together in Exile

Reviewed by Natalie Boldt

Mountain ash, snow geese, milk vetch, CN freights—all are seen from Shelley Banks’ exile on a grid road, a titular image that immediately calls to mind the lattice-like framework of Canada’s prairie thoroughfares. The book is Banks’ first full collection—though, as she notes in the acknowledgements, several of the poems have been published individually—and a full collection it is. Stylistically and formally varied (Banks has included, for example, a found poem as well as several haiku, a prose poem, and plenty of free verse) and rich with sensory language, Exile on a Grid Road is a remarkable first publication.

Loosely divisible into three groups of poems, Exile begins with a set of prairie-inspired pieces, conjuring up images of rural Saskatchewan that are felt, smelled, and heard as well as seen. Readers will hear as well as picture, for example, the “demolition thunder” from the hooves of “cinnamon-soft / Belgians” in “Agribition”; feel the unforgiving cold of prairie wilderness in works like “Carcass Walk,” “Prairie Icon,” and “Raw Desire”; and smell the damp and dank rising up from “backyard sinks” stricken with “two weeks of rain” in “Undone.” Banks’ collection, though, offers more than just vivid descriptions of prairie life and landscapes. Indeed, it exhibits a keen understanding of the mundanities, tragedies, and intermittent wonders of, well, existence that will resonate with most readers—prairie-dwellers or no. What I have deemed the author’s prairie poems, themselves profound reflections on being as well as place, are juxtaposed with a series of poems that reflect on the tedium of pedestrian living—strikes, layoffs, sick days—and the unexpected, but all too common, tragedies that upset it—cancer, heartbreak, death. Exile, in this sense, is not just spatial; it is emotional and existential as well.

Exile takes on a slightly different hue in the book’s third batch of poems, as Banks reflects on her experience growing up an outsider—as the daughter of Canadian missionaries in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. In this last part of the collection, bittersweet reminiscences of an “immigrant” child (“Vacant Lot, Kingston, Jamaica”) in pieces like “The Mission Field,” “Vacant Lot,” and “Green Mangoes” are reminders that the pain of exile may ultimately give way to new and delightfully different horizons—perspective, it seems, is the light at the end of Banks’ particular grid road.

In Last Stop, Lonesome Town, fellow literary newcomer Tara Azzopardi reflects on similar themes (exile, tedium, tragedy, and combinations thereof), but relieves the seemingly intractable gloom of life’s hardships in her own way—with a unique blend of macabre humour, oddball allusions, and biting satire. Unlike Banks’ collection, there is, it seems, no rhyme or reason to the order of the poems in this book; it is a jumble of viewpoints, subjects, styles, and time periods. This chaos, however, is undoubtedly part of the book’s charm. The poems jump from early-twentieth-century Brazil (“Brazil, 1908”), to Albania (“Albania, 1925”), to Alcatraz in the 1960s (“Alcatraz, 1962”), and touch on subjects as familiar as “The Great Depression,” as relatable as the adolescent insecurity we never quite grow out of (“A Date with Casper”), and as unconventional and unexpected as the tacit dos and don’ts of country music (“Nashville Rules”). Even the length of each poem varies dramatically: the shortest, “October, 1939,” is a mere two lines, while the longest, “The Ballad of Zerelda James,” is several pages.

Azzopardi, though, is a trustworthy and entertaining tour guide, expertly leading her readers through a carnivalesque world that would give Alice in Wonderland a run for her money. And, indeed, as in Wonderland, in Last Stop nothing is quite as it seems. Nearly every poem employs some kind of thematic upset or reversal—be it the “most eligible” doctor in “The Bachelor” who “can tango with an ostrich” and “gamble with an alligator,” but whose sexual exploits (“in a lampshade / in a dumb-waiter / at a grand ball”) make him decidedly less eligible by the lyric’s end; or the decidedly unsexy “Sex Club” that appears on the neighbouring page, replete with an iconic “red room” that is, in this case, haunted by the “phony / oh oh ohs” of Santa Claus.

A former clerk in a costume shop, contract archaeologist, and construction worker, and current artist, musician, and poet, Azzopardi is nothing if not skilled in the craft of compilation. In the case of this collection, the back cover has got it exactly right—Azzopardi has made a “quirky and beautiful vaudevillian debut.”

This review “Together in Exile” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 120-121.

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