BC Book Prize, Poetry: Cecily Nicholson, From the Poplars (Winner)
In the North Arm of British Columbia’s Fraser River lies an uninhabited island. Guarded by water from the city of New Westminster’s bustling industrial and shipping district, Poplar Island is lush and unspoken, but storied. It is the traditional territory of the Qayqayt peoples. Made into property, a parcel of land belonging to the “New Westminster and Brownsville Indians,” it is the location of one of British Columbia’s first Indian Reserves.
Polar Island is a landscape marred by colonization, where Indigenous smallpox victims from the south coast were forced into quarantine, substandard care, and burial. Once their peoples were decimated and the land taken, wrangled and exchanged between levels of government the trees were clear-cut for industry, including shipbuilding during the First World War and booming anchorage for local sawmills. From the Poplars is the poetic outcome of archival research and of keeping an ear to the ground – of listening to the stories of an earth scoured by colonization, inequality, and extraction. It is a meditation on an unmarked, twenty-seven and a half acres of land held as government property: a monument to colonial plunder on the waterfront of a city built upon erasures.
From an emplaced poet and resident of New Westminster, this text contributes to present narratives on decolonization. It is an honouring of river and riparian density, and a witness to resilience. It tempers a silence that inevitably will be heard.
parcel bought and sold as the record shows stolen
quarantine and bury there the government
not taking graves into account
warships were built view down a launch ramp
Cecily Nicholson, from small-town Ontario via Toronto and South Bend, relocated to the Pacific coast almost two decades ago. On Musqueam-, Squamish-, and Tsleil-Waututh-occupied lands known as Vancouver, she has worked, since 2000, in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, most recently as administrator for the artist-run centre and mental health resource, Gallery Gachet. A part of the Joint Effort prison abolitionist group and a member of the Research Ethics Board for Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Cecily was also the 2017 Ellen Warren Tallman Writer in Residence at Simon Fraser University. She is the author of Triage and From the Poplars, winner of the 2015 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.
“This work that is this place, British and Columbia. Oh bravery where the town of towns is un/covered, o beloved place of my youth, where injustice, where absence, where silence. With a break into language that un-settles the ideology of settlement, Cecily Nicholson flenses the historical surface: this is a writer unafraid of investigation, in whose hands juxtaposition is an art, a poet tuned enough in the ear, to create a rhythm that embodies what I call L-A-N-G-U-A/lyric. Nicholson not only extends the praxis of the line, she crafts a new subaltern blues. The pages of this book vibrate; they are the material of the genuinely new: growing up here by the Fraser, attending high school up on the hill, I’d hear about ‘what happened on the Island.’ This book illuminates. Nicholson is one of a very few poets whose skill combines tender precision with flint-like intellect, and her arrow pierces. I set out to read From the Poplars in measured fashion, taking my time. The book took hold and I could not put it down. The last section of this collection scalds with discovery: we journey to The Island, ‘under bridges between ramps across from the parking lot’ and become ephemera … This is poetry to change you, to stop you in your tracks, those that run creosote soaked, down by the river. You will say the words of this book out loud, again and again. You will get in your car, get on that bus, you will board the train and visit the town of towns, oh ghosts, that sing. And, Cecily.”
– Renée Sarojini Saklikar, author of children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections
“In this subtle construction, Cecily Nicholson invigorates the long documentary poem. Through the investigation of the history of use and ownership of a seemingly surplus space – Poplar Island in the Fraser River in the deindustrializing area of New Westminster – Nicholson poetically points to the central social and economic contradictions of the present. Like her previous book, Triage, From the Poplars is a work of great conviction and poetic attention that activates what T.J. Demos calls ‘the force of the political in art.’”
– Jeff Derksen, author of The Vestiges and a New Westminster Secondary School graduate
“Nicholson writes through and around Poplar Island, working from historical research, observation and an eye towards social justice, exploring what Dorothy Livesay famously called the ‘documentary poem,’ providing a kind of poetic, historical and critical portrait of the island, its people and those who have impacted upon either or both. … a long poem that does more than simply replicating information, but using that information to help shape a series of collage movements in the form of the long poem.”
– The Small Press Book Review