Jen Sookfong Lee's new book is The Shadow List.
I am not a natural poetry reader, in the way that I imagine very dedicated poetry readers exist. I have always pictured them poring over poems, interrogating each word and line break, ferreting out the purpose in every authorial decision. This is probably a myth, but the fact remains that I have never read like that.
I am a big picture reader. I read quickly on the first pass, then go back for more, dipping in and out in spots where I feel the need to bask in an image or a line or a single word. I am the sunbather of poetry readers. A beach fan of poems. A poetry drifter, even.
Genre is not something that defines my writing and it certainly doesn’t define my reading. There are moments of poetry in many books of prose that I love, and narrative threads in many of the poetry books that I have treasured. This list will be a bit of mishmash, but then so is my brain.
The T.E. Lawrence Poems, by Gwendolyn MacEwen
I have been a fangirl of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s since I was 17 years old, and my love for her has never wavered. Of all of her books, The T.E. Lawrence Poems capture how much I believed she wanted escape. There are deserts, clear night skies, smells and textures, and whenever I read this collection, I think of the very few photographs of her that exist, and the kohl liner she drew around her eyes, as if to signal that there was somewhere else to be, if only you looked closer.
Stilt Jack, by John Thompson
I don’t know how many people read John Thompson, but no one in Canadian poetry used images as effectively and unapologetically as he did. I often think there are parallels to be drawn between his ghazals and how we now are learning to write and edit diverse authors. There is no need to explain a food or a language or a cultural celebration. These things just are and are just life. John Thompson knew this, as he sat, unapologetically, in his cabin in the woods, with a glass of whisky in his hand.
Pear Tree Pomes, by Roy Kiyooka
No one wrote heartbreak quite like Roy Kiyooka in Pear Tree Pomes, and he did it in a book set entirely in his backyard in East Vancouver. I was in love with the sadness, but I was also in love with the damp lawn, the smell of the working inlet, the pear tree that still bloomed.
Mythical Man, by David Ly
No one quite gets to the heart of desire and longing and urban loneliness like David Ly does. It’s fascinating to me how contemporary his voice can be while also exploring eternal truths about love, unrequited love, queerness and othering.
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart
If one book prodded me into writing The Shadow List, it’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Elizabeth Smart writes the female body and its urges with razor sharp clarity, but also with an analytical distance, as if the narrator is sometimes outside herself. It’s all here: reflection, self-examination, and an attempt to understand love.
Disappearing Moon Café, by SKY Lee
SKY Lee was the very first author who taught me that Chinese Canadian woman could write and, more importantly, write about anything they wanted whether it was respectable or not. In Disappearing Moon Café, her Chinese characters misbehave, are slaves to their own bodies, and try to scratch out their own spaces in a world that doesn’t want them. One of the very best.
In these devastating lyric poems Jen Sookfong Lee unfolds the experience of her narrator, following her through frost-chilled nights and salt-scented days, as she pulls at the knot of accumulated expectations around her trying to create space to want and to be. The Shadow List is a book filled with desire, where we question the politics of who gets to choose and who doesn't and where the narrator creates hidden lists of what she really wants. With a novelist's way with character, Lee builds a deep connection with the narrator of the poems, yet each individual poem creates a vivid snapshot of moments many will recognize. The slick of black ice, the killing light of day, the cheap, plastic diamonds—they are all pieces of a life we gather and put in our pockets to remember with.
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