Everything Colin Browne has made up or invented in The Shovel seems written in prose; everything in it he has “unearthed”—from research, the stories of others and source texts—appears as poetry. In this extraordinary book, he has inverted the way we have been defining and privileging forms of language in English for the last century; self-expression becomes prosaic, the recording of history, poetic.
While The Shovel contains a range of styles and voices—everything from concrete poetry to “recollections of things past in tranquility” to delightfully humourous accounts of the poet’s accidental encounters with prominent philosophers—this book lives and sings through its epic passages. Ezra Pound defined the epic as “a poem containing history,” and in these necessary poems Browne is a restless prowler through history’s layers, sudden veerings and terrible, wonderful intersections. The Shovel is a book composed in wartime, an act of reckoning, a record of unkept anniversaries and possible histories (in texts devoted to the likes of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Linton Garner). In exhuming the mesopelagic shades of the 20th century, The Shovel collapses, at last, the reigning fiction of time.
Every age demands a poetry to contain it, and here Colin Browne takes a measure of both the privileges and the appalling costs of service and citizenship, from colonial British Columbia to World War I Mesopotamia.
Colin Browne has published five volumes of poetry. His most recent publications are Entering Time: The Fungus Man Platters of Charles Edenshaw (Talonbooks, 2016) and The Hatch: Poems and Conversations (Talonbooks, 2015). His books have been nominated for a Governor General’s Award and the Dorothy Livesay Award / B.C. Poetry Prize. He is a celebrated filmmaker; his experimental documentary White Lake was nominated for a Genie Award for Best Feature Documentary. His recent exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I Had an Interesting French Artist to See Me This Summer: Emily Carr and Wolfgang Paalen in British Columbia (2016), explored the brief encounter between these two Modernist artists in Victoria, B.C., in August 1939, and presented the first extensive exhibition of Paalen’s work in Canada. His collaboration with composer Alfredo Santa Ana, Music for a Night in May, was presented at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in May 2018. Recent essays exploring the links between Surrealism and the art of the Northwest Coast have appeared in exhibition catalogues in the U.S. and Europe. He is currently working on new curatorial projects and preparing a collection of essays for publication. Until recently, he taught in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where he is Professor Emeritus.
“The Shovel is a major work, confirmation of Colin Browne’s exacting artistry, his ability to bring such a wide range of materials into a single, epic (in the sense that Pound gave to that term), and devastatingly concentrated unity of purpose. One of those necessary books, it earns and deserves our closest attention.”