Writing Their Way Home

Reviewed by Emily McGiffin

Julie Paul’s The Rules of the Kingdom tackles the human search for a sense of belonging to a community, to a place. The book begins with two sections in which Paul explores the history of the village of Lanark, Ontario, and her own upbringing in the community. It’s a small-town landscape of Sunday Mass, big rigs, and lilacs, stretching backwards and forwards through the generations. The second half of the book explores the world of an adolescent daughter and the speaker’s own adolescence, meditating on desire and sexual coming of age, before Paul brings us full circle in the final section, “Next Time the World Will Burn,” which binds present and past. In the poem “Revision,” Paul writes,

I went back to research the past,
to betray my blood or exalt it,
to look with an eye I do not possess—
that of the stranger, that of the fly.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Now, back on the coast, the desire to dig
    up the past
has just up and left me—a weariness in
    its place
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I’ve returned with what I took the first
a severely watered-down pioneer, a
    notion of home
to keep revising as I go along.

As Paul states, the Lanark history she explores does not start at the beginning; rather, she is “opening the book to the middle // where the pop-up village springs to life.” Yet the section title (“Settlers’ Descendant Reclaims the Past”), which is also the title of the opening poem, points toward questions of ownership, colonialism, and dispossession that the poems themselves steer clear of. At this moment in history, “settler” is a word laden with the baggage of Canada’s racist and violent past. Paul deploys the word boldly, but shies from discussing whose woods her ancestors built their log cabins in. This omission aside, the collection is rich with the evocative details of place and family life. The poems are skilfully crafted and attentively honed, making The Rules of the Kingdom a pleasure to read.

Like Paul, Bänoo Zan is displaced from the world of her childhood, and her collection, Songs of Exile is similarly concerned with questions of place, belonging, and the effects of history on the present. Zan, an Iranian exile driven out of her homeland and its language, writes with the weight of these experiences behind her, meditating on hefty states and sentiments—love, loneliness, exile, torture—that she isn’t afraid to call by name. Her poetry breaks free of contemporary literary conventions that favour lyric or narrative approaches anchored in concrete representations of emotions and concepts. Instead, Zan’s poems are steeped in symbolism and aggregate metaphors that hang in the air like constellations. In “Freedom Fighter,” she writes:

you are the eternal dictator—
colonizing the land of
spoken dreams,
suppressing the voice of
Celebrate your liberation from me.

There is an alienating effect to some of the abstract language in the collection, which seems an effective way to speak about the depth of displacement and loss these poems grapple with. For example, in “Phoenix (II)” Zan writes,

Fire-feathered phoenix—
the torch of fate—
denied death
the chaos of harmony—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Unbind her
unbind me

from the rock of immortal injustice[.]

Zan’s form seems apt for her subjects, often leaving the reader adrift on a raft of metaphors or exiled in mythologies or subject matter that may be foreign to some Canadian readers. She writes of freedom fighters, acid attacks, and Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, in pensive lines at times jewelled with Persian.

While the subject matter and approach are fearless and compelling, and the stylistic approach freeing, I found these effects were difficult to sustain over such a lengthy collection (120 pages). A selection of the best of these poems in a book half or two-thirds the length may ultimately have been stronger. Instead, Zan has erred on the side of generosity, offering a weighty collection of courageous poetry and a unique voice in Canadian literature. Songs of Exile is a book to return to again and again.

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