“wish you read more poetry”

  • Jordan Abel
    Injun. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Jónína Kirton
    page as bone — ink as blood. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • M. Nourbese Philip
    She Tries her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Ragweed Press
Reviewed by Kyle Kinaschuk

Jónína Kirton, in page as bone—ink as blood, her debut collection of lyric and prose poetry, offers a thematically capacious and spectrally elegant constellation of poems. She traverses a formidable landscape “heavy with memory” that deepens and complicates the vexed interrelations between autobiography, embodiment, and historicity. Kirton, a Métis/Icelandic poet situated in Vancouver, implicitly and explicitly reveals traces of her own embodied experience through finely crafted voices that tell narratives of corporeal pain, erotic pleasure, systemic racism, apparitional visitations, half-worn memory, and sexual violence. Nevertheless, Kirton’s poetics undo the sovereignty of subjectivity by foregrounding the entanglements of collective history and the body, which compellingly destabilizes the primacy of ipseity that often tyrannizes lyric poetry. Each of these poems—following the call of Jeannette Armstrong—becomes a monument to the political vitality of voicing living histories of pain engendered by settler colonialism in Canada: “shared suffering never articulated leaves a residue / causes an itch that cannot be scratched.”

The body, for Kirton, becomes an archive of intergenerational, subjective, and historical feeling. “I am still suspicious,” a voice tells us, “of my body’s story / leave a trail of marooned memories   frozen fragments.” The body becomes a contested, albeit generative, site for memory to oscillate across the historical wreckage of ongoing settler colonialism in Canada. In particular, Kirton illuminates concrete sites of life that are inflected by histories and presents of settler-colonial violence, dispossession, and displacement. Kirton, moreover, deftly orchestrates the metaphorical registers of both bone and blood in all of their multiplicities and ambivalences. Blood, for example, comes to function as both a site of violence and a place of creativity: blood is thought beyond the simply biogenetic. Each poem, however, is never determined by the operative conceit that haunts the collection in its entirety. In page as bone—ink as blood, Kirton crafts a collection that sustains and rewards careful attention, so much so that one would be grateful to be one of the ghosts who appear in “hungry ghosts” and who “look over your shoulder” and “wish you read more poetry.”

If Kirton’s poetic project recalibrates the limits of the lyric subject through embodied spectralities of affective intensity, then Jordan Abel, a Nisga’a writer, enacts a poetics of reclamation in Injun by unmaking the language of settler-colonial texts not only to resist and subvert enduring colonial projects, but also to articulate Indigenous existences and agencies from within the very corpus of texts that perpetuate epistemic and material violence against Indigenous peoples. Injun, Abel’s third book of poetry, complements the projects of erasure, context, and reclamation he commenced in The Place of Scraps (2013) and Un/inhabited (2015). In Injun, Abel carefully unwrites ninety-one Western novels in the public domain, as he culls 509 sentences that contain the word “injun” from the novels to form the units of composition for the long poem. In turn, Abel produces stunning, terse couplets that populate the first part of the poem: “he spoke through numb lips and / breathed frontier.” While Injun is conceptually difficult and, indeed, demanding in the most productive of ways, the remarkably condensed, although potent, lines that Abel uncreates from within the body of such a disturbing collection of texts are demonstrative of his unique ability to converge conceptual, political, and affective registers seamlessly.

The sections of the long poem, which are organized according to the letters of the alphabet, spatially disrupt the act of reading, as footnotes lead one to the back of the book to encounter words that participate in logics and lexicons of settler colonialism—such as “redskin,” “discovery,” and “whitest.” Each of the preceding words is repeated in different contexts from within the ninety-one texts that Abel repurposes, which is indicative of his commitment to disassembling the archive to open up resurgent spaces. Injun destabilizes the very linearity of the book as such. Each line falls apart through a poetics of cutting and erasure, which is reminiscent of M. NourbeSe Philip’s evisceration of the English language in Zong! Injun recasts the book as a textual object insofar as the text at times necessitates being turned upside down to remain “legible.” It is no wonder that Abel has received so much critical attention, as he is one of the most innovative and thrilling poets writing today.

Abel’s formal experimentation with language and fascination with the archive lend themselves to the poetics of M. NourbeSe Philip. Both poets apply a certain critical strain to the English language; as Evie Shockley writes in her foreword to the new edition of She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, Philip “breaks English to fit her mouth.” It is, to be sure, a difficult task to review a text that is a cornerstone of contemporary poetics. The first edition was published in Cuba in 1988 by Casa de las Américas. Philip won the Casa de las Américas prize for an earlier manuscript form of the collection. In 1993, the collection was published in Canada by Ragweed Press, and the new edition was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2014 with a new foreword by Shockley.

Since its initial publication, poems such as “Discourse on the Logic of Language” have been anthologized by Laura Moss and Cynthia Sugars in Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts and by Kate Eichhorn and Heather Milne in Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics. It is nearly impossible to imagine students of Canadian literature missing the sheer power and brilliance of Philip’s work. This is a gorgeously bound new presentation of a formative and inventive collection of poems that demands to be read within and outside the university. Shockley, perhaps, puts it best: “Someone wants—someone needs—this poetry. Luckily, it is here for us again, in a beautiful new edition. Whether we come to be healed or to be schooled, to be amazed or to be unleashed—whatever brings us to Philip’s work—we are fortunate to have found it.”

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