Reviewed by Stephen Collis

Each of these three books is engaged with processes of poetic (to borrow Okot Bitek’s term) unsettling. Another way of saying this is to affirm that each of these books could only have been written now, at this precise moment in time, during the long tail of the pandemic and numerous other slow disasters, and amidst more noticeable, if still not adequate, responses to the various histories of colonialism, displacement, and dispossession. Such fraught histories are met, in these books—perhaps surprisingly—with tenderness, above all.


Gillian Jerome names this quality early in Nevertheless, her second collection of poetry: “how to care / for everything tenderly.” This is in a poem that also announces a search for “possibilities / for human connection,” in a book committed to the local and the quotidian (“What is ordinary saves us”). Thus, in lyric poems that feel like they are meant to pace out the years of mid-life with realist care, we encounter urban walks, motherhood, the death of a parent, the end of marriage and the beginnings of new, tentative relationships, and dance parties navigated via microdosed acid—all the normal lived “Odysseys the reading / world will never see.” The focus on the ordinary and everyday is not, however, in the service of eliding broader traumas: the speaker of these poems takes note of precarity and housing insecurity, pervasive microplastics, the heat dome, and pipeline protests on Burnaby Mountain, among other crises large and small—all these are part of the daily round too, and they are the real context for the call for tenderness. The early poem which first introduces this theme of care, “Atmosphere,” also takes care to embed the poet’s acknowledgement of the lands the poet writes from, citing Lee Maracle’s story “Goodbye Snauq” and the shores of False Creek, long the home of Coast Salish peoples. This is a poetry aware of the history of the lands the poet walks, and the care needed in taking those steps. While the poet sometimes might seem to be trying too hard to find significance in ordinariness (“Sometimes all it takes is / a garden”), I am nonetheless convinced by Jerome’s sensitivity to the passing movements of life, as well as the care she takes with the shape of thought and feeling—such shaping being the very work of poetry.


Jane Munro’s new collection, False Creek, her seventh, similarly situates itself at the heart of her city, along the titular body of water which she calls “Vancouver’s keel of grief.” The tenderness the poet calls upon here is


the tenderness

of witness—to hold what is unbearable

to bear it


This is to go to the root of tenderness—to the attentions (from the French, tendre, to tend or attend to), and the demand to pay attention and bear witness, even when it is “unbearable”: the “violence” of “inattention,” “ignorance,” the poet’s “family’s racism” and


how about assuming I’m not at fault

when my country’s government rips children

from their families, communities, cultures

traps them in residential schools


“It’s hard to see,” Munro’s speaker admits—because of willful or privileged blindness. But she tries to do so again and again, whether the unbearable to which she bears witness is the uncovering of 215 unmarked graves at a former Residential School (“graves sodded over . . . what is this war”) or the rapid approach of climate disaster as “ice melts, oceans overflow, Vancouver may wash away.” Munro’s reaction to “this history” that “was not related to me / though I grew up here” is remarkable: it is a Rilkean urge to “change” the self, to transform through close observation, no matter how difficult (and unsettling) that observing is. Thus while Munro, like Jerome, has an eye for the local and the everyday, she is generally a poet of a more philosophical cast of mind, interested in the “daft as a dream” oddities of the workings of quantum physics, as well as the entanglements of cosmology, biology, history, and culture that remind me at times of the work of Phyllis Webb.


Somewhere near the middle of Otoniya J. Okot Bitek’s new book, A is for Acholi, the reader encounters a single-lined poem, where each noun (they could also be verbs) carries a footnote: “Salt to land to sea to sky to story to land to threshold to step.” These are keywords running throughout the book, that relate to diaspora and to the complex dynamics of unsettling, settling, resettling, and ultimately the steady-state of being unsettled; but here at the heart of Okot Bitek’s wonderful book, her footnotes take us to a community of fellow workers on the project of unsettling: they simply name her influences and companions on the path, from radiant past examples like Toni Morrison to equally stunning contemporaries such as Dionne Brand, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Cecily Nicholson. This marks a key difference between Okot Bitek’s book and the others under review here: the poet does not centre herself as the experiencer of her world, but instead makes room for and calls a collective experience into her work.


The tenderness Okot Bitek invokes is directed towards this diasporic community. Thus while she begins with a seeming self-assertion in a prefatory invocation to the book—“I’m here I exist I’m good I’m fine I exist,” going to note “these poems are about that”—the assertion evolves over the course of the book, becoming a historical first-person plural subject to “slavers” who “came down the Nile     & marked us / us terrorized us enraged   us subdued,” and yet, she writes, “yet still here still here.” By the book’s last poem, that collective identity has become even larger, perhaps planetary (in the way Paul Gilroy or Édouard Glissant would use that word), sweeping up all who might find themselves post-colonial, post-anglicized, finding “ways to talk to each other across & from inside our bodies,” trying to “rename the world” and discovering again “we’re still here we’re still here & our tongues will carry the rhythm of how we came though all those past apocalypses.”


The expanding scale and reach of tenderness in Okot Bitek’s book is what marks it as truly stunning and a much-needed intervention in today’s world. Starting from seemingly small confines—writing as an Acholi woman (born in Uganda—the Acholi people are today in northern Uganda and southern Sudan)—Okot Bitek traverses a would-be “Acholi Alphabet,” a minimalist long poem where each letter stands “for Acholi,” unsettling the processes of definition and containment; to erasures (the poet calls them “excavations”) of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (in defiance and confrontation of Kurtz’s horrific “exterminate the brutes” cry); to poems of racism in contemporary Vancouver; to arrive at last at the universal need for space to breathe, in which I hear echoes of Cameroonian writer Achille Mbembe’s “The Universal Right to Breathe” (2021), “a right that belongs to the universal community of earthly inhabitants,” as Mbembe writes. Okot Bitek’s right to breathe comes in her penultimate poem, the utterly moving “Jacob’s Breath”:


& we are the ones again marking marching marking marching we can’t we can’t we can’t we can’t we’re already marking our present into the future breathe life mark life & we can’t breathe & when we can’t live we mark and we march we mark mark mark mark mark on the single page writing ourselves unto being.


There is of course a direct reference here to the murder of George Floyd and countless other (often young, male) Black people upon whom white supremacist terror has been unleashed. But I think Okot Bitek’s project is even larger than this—it is a broad unsettling of categories, a keeping open and undefined, an ethical “inconstancy” (as she names it at one point), a desire to unlock every geopolitical condition that has been locked-in. All this is carried by urgent, searching, experimental forms that never lock the reader out, always invite, and are, in the end, oriented towards that promised land that always must be kept open, undefined, and unsettled: the future.

This review “Unsettled” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Feb. 2024. Web.

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