Alice Major’s 11th collection, Welcome to the Anthropocene, continues her long engagement with science and poetry and explores our human impact on the planet. Here she offers a selection of recent books by her fellow Albertan poets.
Alberta’s poetry is as varied as its landscape and these books offer a sample of the territory. There are so many reasons to enjoy these writers: some grab you by the throat with their subject matter. Some are about ordinary life, written in a way that makes you think about the biggest questions.
Some writers turn language upside down and shake it until everything falls out of the pockets, making you pause and think about what words are and what they do. And some are simply appealing—humorous, observant, easy-to-read.
These are only eight of more than two dozen poetry collections published last year by writers across the province. Among them, I hope you’ll find at least one corner of our poetry landscape that you want to explore.
This Wound is a World, by Billy-Ray Belcourt
This book is a stunning debut. Chosen as one of the CBC’s best Canadian books of the year, shortlisted for the City of Edmonton Book Prize and now shortlisted for the Griffin Prize, it opens the wounds of being Indigenous, of being queer, of being dislocated (from Driftpile First Nation to Oxford and a Rhodes scholarship). Belcourt probes the damage and healing of sex and love in raw, aching poetry … Love is the clumsy name we give to a body spilling outside itself.
Little Wildheart, by Micheline Maylor
Little Wildheart is full of poems of chase and élan, where mortality’s questions are posed with verve. It’s a breathless ride: We can’t possibly know how or when the floor will drop out (“Drop of doom”). There’s a god-creator of dogs and humans who says jubilance is a stick, go fetch it. (“Three dogs and an old man.”)
Two standout prose poems capture, for me, the feel of the book. In “Constitution,” the poet chases back through time—the history of country/people/creation—to a point before even the idea of predator and prey. In “Between the trees” a mother chases death away from her son and into the future, “I see him all the time, flicker-quick, an early bat, a swooning moth that eats days and weeks and years.”
Listen. If, by Douglas Barbour
This book caps a long poetic career. Doug Barbour has been an important figure in the region’s poetry for decades and has taught and influenced many of its writers.
Barbour puts his willingness to pull language apart at the service of political protest (as in the compelling “a ghazal for the angry old man” where a penchant for war becomes a pen’s chance for peace). And he offers engagement with art as a kind of saving grace that may or may not be adequate.
The book concludes with a series of sonnets in which each poem takes a sentence from one of John Keats’ letters and uses each word of it to begin a line of his own poem, to create a kind of expanded dialogue with the young poet dying in Rome. This is the kind of playful transformation Barbour been doing for a long time, and here it is particularly moving: oh yes I can write myths / of gods and goddesses but the moon knows it’s only / poetry.
A Tincture of Sunlight, by Vivian Hansen
“A Tincture of Sunlight” casts flickering light on Old Man—shapeshifter? myth? "real" individual? He is WW2 soldier on the battlefields of France, Metis descendant, lover (cantankerous and not-always-truthful), long-time observer of the prairie landscape with its gophers, flea-and-tick surveys, winter mice, dusty cemeteries and medicine wheels. The poems are windows into a wonderful, coherent whole that I want to read again and again.
The Book of Sensations, by Sheri-D Wilson
Sheri-D Wilson turns language on its head, exuberantly coining new words that seem absolutely necessary—like arborolatry (a great word for idolizing trees). Her mastery of sound is hypnotic. (I amble the labyrinth she says in “Dreaming in Lost Languages.”)
If you’ve ever heard Sheri-D Wilson perform, you will recognize the rhythm of her voice in these lines. Many of the poems are ecstatic and incantational, and some of her most appealing ones have a note of self-mockery. In “Language of the Birds”, she imagines a mystical moment at Glastonbury Tor: you know, at the mists of Avalon, I don’t know / I thought, maybe I could take a selfie.”
Walking Through Turquoise, by Laurie MacFayden
MacFayden captures the sensory and physical intensity of love in memorable phrases (some moonstruck cardiologist) and unexpected imagery (the battle between love and science is like javex bottles bobbing on high waves. / it’s serious physics bordering on the comical.)
She writes of passion burgeoning in middle age (our fierce and jolly love) and of its complicated beginnings as a teenager, the inexplicable attraction to another girl, a kind of weird damp tingle. In this book, the past is as vivid as present—not a pale nostalgia but a boisterous walk through turquoise.
November, by Jaspreet Singh
Time is layered in this eloquent book. November is the month of the death of the poet’s mother and the month when thousands of Sikhs were massacred in 1984. The poems are full of tenderness and complexity: the portrait of the poet’s mother, his connection to his Punjabi mother-tongue, the intertwining of Sikh and Canadian immigrant experience, the complicated politics of India. It is also a learned book, weaving in strands of pan-European literature and the author’s own scientific background.
November opens windows into a history, geography, language that few Canadians are familiar with, offering us words with the scent of another continent: At times I kiss the Punjabi word / saffar / which means a journey.
More Life Coming Up, After the Break(down), by Shannon Kernaghan
This collection from Red Deer writer Shannon Kernaghan is approachable and often very funny. Her voice is quirky, observant, and the characters in her poems have a sitcom-like immediacy: the teenage boys (“considerably gassy”), the woman whose home reeks of lab-made lavender, the woman who becomes addicted to scanning other people’s cell-phone calls.
Alice Major observes the comedy and the tragedy of this human-dominated moment on Earth. Major’s most persistent question—“Where do we fit in the universe?”—is made more urgent by the ecological calamity of human-driven climate change. Her poetry leads us to question human hierarchies, loyalties, and consciousness, and challenges us to find some humility in our overblown sense of our cosmic significance.
Now, welcome to the Anthropocene you battered, tilting globe. Still you gleam, a blue pearl on the necklace of the planets.
This home. Clouds, oceans, life forms span it from pole to pole, within a peel of air as thin as lace lapped round an apple. Fair and fragile bounded sphere, yet strangely tough— this world that life could never love enough. And yet its loving-care has been entrusted to a feckless species, more invested in the partial, while the total goes unnoticed.
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