Slave po­ems keep their hor­rors in plain sight

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE - By Jonathan Ball

The Fam­ily China (Brick, 78 pages, $20), by Toronto’s Ann Shin, has al­ready won the Anne Green Award (a prize for artis­tic works that ex­plore and chal­lenge tra­di­tional forms of story and nar­ra­tive): the sto­ries chal­lenged here are those of Shin’s fam­ily.

“Old wounds die half-lives, their / poi­son ef­flo­resc­ing ra­di­o­log­i­cal forests / splayed from the brachia of his mind” — Shin bal­ances dense im­agery like this against straight­for­ward lines like “a de­ci­sion can / take years to sprout / reper­cus­sions and / you find your­self in / the wrong job, the / wrong skin.” Dense, but not dif­fi­cult, Shin’s po­ems deftly nav­i­gate the dark waters of his­tory, a river you never step into twice.

“When she is fif­teen / she finds beers like / shiny trea­sures,” writes Winnipeg’s Kather­ena Ver­mette in North End Love Songs (Muses’ Com­pany, 108 pages, $15). Ver­mette’s po­ems are spare af­fairs, quiet and cin­e­matic. She has a knack for turn­ing an im­age in a new di­rec­tion, as when a child hap­pily pick­ing dan­de­lions all of a sud­den notices that “they stay so yel­low / even when / they are dead.”

In another poem, a mother clips out a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle about her son, with the head­line “Na­tive Man Miss­ing Af­ter Binge.” In­stead of the ex­pected med­i­ta­tion on how the me­dia con­structs and supports stereo­types, Ver­mette notes that “she thinks he would like / that they called him / a Man.”

It’s a pow­er­ful, af­fect­ing twist, and a good ex­am­ple of how Ver­mette, at her best, plays with and re­fuses what her au­di­ence might ex­pect.

The ti­tle of Toronto’s Ta­nis Ride­out’s Ar­gu­ments with the Lake (Wolsak & Wynn, 70 pages, $17) is a metaphor for swim­ming as a species of strug­gle. The po­ems con­cern an imag­ined re­la­tion­ship be­tween Mar­i­lyn Bell, the first per­son to swim across Lake On­tario, and Shirley Camp­bell, who also swam com­pet­i­tively in Lake On­tario in the 1950s, but twice failed to cross.

Ride­out earned ac­claim for her 2012 novel Above All Things, a his­tor­i­cal reimag­in­ing of Ever­est climber Ge­orge Mal­lory and his wife.

The re­la­tion­ship in Ar­gu­ments with the Lake, which Ride­out imag­ines as another sort of strug­gle, avoids most of the ob­vi­ous tan­gles. She also man­ages to per­vade the col­lec­tion with wa­ter im­agery with­out drown­ing the reader with clichés. Af­ter Bell’s tri­umph, the “bou­quets come in waves to her door” but Ride­out avoids the ex­pected shift into sen­ti­men­tal, na­tion­al­is­tic ap­plause to fo­cus on the frus­tra­tions of Camp­bell in­stead.

The po­ems of­ten work in this way, avoid­ing the too-fa­mil­iar to fo­cus on the odd­ity of the “lost things” in the lake: “a favourite sweater, that heavy-headed clown / doll, who whispers se­cret names and swims away.” ET us drink to the rot, and the rot­ting souls of men” — this line pops up about half­way through Cot­to­nop­o­lis (Ped­lar, 120 pages, $20) by Halifax’s Rachel Le­bowitz, and serves as a fit­ting toast for a suite of (mostly) prose po­ems about the in­ter­twined cot­ton and slave trades of the 19th cen­tury.

“When I be­came a man, they took away my child­ish things. The com­mons, the green grass, the blue sky, the pure white of win­ter snow.” Now, mar­ried to the slave trade, the cot­ton trade blood­ies the grass, black­ens the snow. Le­bowitz’s po­ems are, at turns, chill­ing and more chill­ing. Then, near the end: “We are sorry to in­form you there is no end.”

Un­re­lent­ing, but nec­es­sary, Cot­ton­po­lis keeps its hor­rors al­ways in plain sight. In do­ing so, it sug­gests and serves to coun­ter­point the in­vis­i­ble pro­cesses of mod­ern, global economies, of­ten pred­i­cated on keep­ing th­ese same things hid­den.

In this way, Cot­to­nop­o­lis man­ages to de­velop metaphor­i­cal res­o­nance with­out re­duc­ing its his­tor­i­cal sub­jects or forc­ing them into po­etic servi­tude.

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