Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Four Book Reviews: Karen Enns, Anne Campbell, Mika Lafond, and Dawn Dumont

"Cloud Physics"
by Karen Enns
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-780889-774612
She had me at "peonies of sound". She is Karen Enns, and the opening piece -and title poem - of her new poetry collection Cloud Physics, is refined and thoughtful, and it makes me ravenous for more.

A few poems in the first section have a dystopian edge, ie: in "Epilogue," "Nothing was questioned/after the last polar flares broke through,/and silence finally took over." Enns, however, never slips into melodrama, and often her pieces conclude quietly (yet profoundly). The aforementioned poem ends thus: "It was warm for a while/after the birds migrated east/in a single line." Yes!

I love the poet's use of understatement throughout the book, and her use of what I'll call "imaginings". She (or her subjects) ponder interesting "What if?" questions, ie: What if time worked in the opposite direction, "so we could live our lives from death to birth"? What would it be like to "bi-selve"? What if "middle syllables/were lost," and what if we are "made of what [we've] heard"? This last quote is from the list poem, "Ad Libitum," which concerns the diverse sounds that fill a life, from "barking dogs" to "blankets shifting, footsteps on the stairs,/a tractor coming down the tree row."

My sense is that Enns is hyper-attuned, particularly to sound - the sound of words, and the sounds of the world - and though there are no author bio notes in the book, it wouldn't surprise me to learn she's a musician as well as a poet. I'm also guessing she's a birder, for there's a veritable aviary of birds featured here, from owls to meadowlarks, and I'm particularly struck by her poetic facility with crows, "with their dark-knife forms," and their eyes that are "bright metal bits of judgement". The author also really looks, ie: into the back of the mailbox, "where a spider manages its web until a frost one night/leaves it curled and dried".      

Two poems in this collection are well worth the price of admission: "A Son's Story," about a father who wished to hear meadowlarks again before his passing, and "Solstice," about a group experience on a beach, and the moment when all realize that poetry's happening: they're living it. It's challenging to get this kind of piece right but Enns handles it like a master, and the "truth" uncovered echoes what the poet explores throughout the book: "We wouldn't live forever." ("We" reverberates because naturally we all own this truth.)  

I could say that the primary subject of these lyric poems is time and its passing. I could also say it is sound, or light, and that trains and flora feature often, but perhaps these are merely the elements that made the most impact on me. What I know with certainty is that this poet's marriage of language and intellect make for a most satisfying read, and I'll be turning to these provocative poems again and again for the singular beauty of lines like this: "All we can do is surrender to the bright complicity of birds". Karen Enns? More, please.  


"The Fabric of Day: New and Selected Poems"
by Anne Campbell
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-130-3

I do love "New and Selected" poetry collections, and so it was with delight that I opened The Fabric of Day: New and Selected Poems by Regina's Anne Campbell, who has been making poetry and sharing it with appreciative readers since her first book, No Memory of a Move, was released in 1983. In a retrospective such as this readers can track a poet's evolution, and I was interested to read the new work: what's in Campbell's poetic gaze now?

In the book's introduction Campbell explains that the prairies and "time" have been her major concentrations across the decades. In the newest poems I see that the trials of aging - the poet was born in 1938 - are also receiving attention on the page, and always, there is the undertone of love that's missed, or love that might have been.

In the poem "Retiring, Gone Missing," she writes "It's a puzzle at this late stage, a nuisance,/really, feeling the self, one used to be/      gone" and later in this poem, "it's odd/being with the stranger   I am/                  becoming". Certainly aging is a hard business, but juxtaposed against poems with titles including "Anxiety," "Ennui" and "The Dark Side, Redux," we see the poet celebrating life's lighter moments. One piece begins with the great line "I'm considering getting to know Walter Matthau," and in another, Campbell recounts visiting her mother's seniors' complex and, noting the resident women doing jigsaw puzzles, the poet says to her sister: "'Shoot me if you see me doing that.'" Then, after a minor surgery, she finds herself doing a jigsaw puzzle.

From her first book we've seen Campbell control her poems' tempo via indentations, white space, one or two-line stanzas, and, often, one-word lines, and this has been a stylistic constant for her, though she also includes occasional prose poems, including "The Beginning," which starts with this lovely line: "I picked up a stone that day walking in the hills, it wasn't the first." This ability to slow the reader and give certain words or phrases extra attention complements the "zen" feeling of much of her work. The meditative quality is particularly apparent in short poems like "More Slowly Evolved," which begins with the image of the poet at her kitchen window, viewing birds "ferret    for the tiniest seeds" to "find    whatever's fallen". I also appreciate how Campbell writes about everyday subjects, like "reheated bacon on thin crisp toast," or tacking shelf-paper in a Lazy Susan.
I enjoyed these quiet, introspective poems, perhaps because, like me, Campbell lives in perpetual awe "at the mystery in which we find ourselves". Yes, it's all about the awe, whether it's the memory of pine scents, amber around one's neck, valley hills, "green and shining grasses," deer like ballerinas, philosophy, or the work of angels and artists. Time "gentles down" for all of us, but few have the talent or courage to effectively document how that feels in the heart. Campbell succinctly and eloquently delivers "the fabric" of these days.  



"nipê wânîn: my way back"
by Mika Lafond
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-129-7

In her first poetry collection, nipê wânîn: my way back, Saskatoon writer and U of S educator Mika Lafond pays homage to her Cree heritage, the landscape that nurtured her as a child, and various family members-with particular gratitude expressed for grandmothers and great grandmothers-in heartfelt and easy-to-read poems presented in both English and Cree. As the book's title suggests, the poems tell a story of a woman's "way back" to the lessons her ancestors taught to her in their quiet ways. Lafond writes: "Words are spoken in hushed voices/their sacredness not to be shouted."

Lafond's a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and, with a strong interest in education and the arts, Lafond and her cousin (Joi Arcand) initiated Kimiwan Zine as a venue for Indigenous visual artists and writers. A few of the poems in this book hint at some of the heart-breaking situations she's faced as a teacher and the difficult business of "[getting] through the walls" adolescent male students sometimes put up. One student is "always tired on cheque day" and though "winter is definitely here now-he still doesn't have a jacket".

The writer finds myriad connections between the natural and human worlds, ie: in the poem "elements," she writes that "teardrop/is the same shape as rain," and I was delighted to learn that in Cree, "fire" translates as "woman's heart". In "way back," I appreciated how stars are considered to be "the ones who have gone before," and this image (from that same poem) is terrific: "late at night they join hands-brilliant serpentine belt/in the northern sky/purple splashes on green-shawl upon skirt/great grandmothers". This is a unique way of seeing.

I enjoyed the poems in the second section, "niya/Me," where Lafond included more of the everyday details that make poetry come alive, ie: it's satisfying to know that the song spilling from the red truck's radio on a hot August day is "Big Yellow Taxi" – details like these make the work original and relatable – and I can hear the "constant patter against the plastic pail" while the poet and her family picked chokecherries with "pails belted to [their] waists".

We see the author's finesse with line breaks in "a letter to chief dan george": "it was a good day/to die." She turns back the hands of time and mixes things up, structure-wise, with the prose poem, "homebound," where the "loud claps of thunder applauded the passing storm". Personification-one of a writer's best tools-is at play again in "bird watching": "great bald eagle a tiny dot/weaving in the highest skies/blesses the day".

The poems in these 183-pages tell an interesting life story in snapshots, using colours, dialogue, images, and miniature poems-within-the-poems, like this: "nohkom smells of sage/and sweetgrass—/it may mean nothing now/but my heart will remember/the scent of smudge/in her braids". Poetry helps us remember those things that "may mean nothing now," but certainly will one day.  
Congratulations, Mika Lafond, and thank you for adding your voice to the collective music of Canadian poetry.

 "Glass Beads"
by Dawn Dumont
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-126-6

The cover image on Dawn Dumont's short story collection, Glass Beads, is an ideal visual metaphor for its content. The high-heeled Chuck Taylor sneakers embroidered with flowers that look like beadwork and a (notably faceless) woman in a First Nations' jingle dress suggest a contemporary twist on traditional First Nations' culture, and that's exactly what Dumont delivers. The book's twenty-three stories are real, relevant, and riveting, and Saskatoon's Dumont - an actor, comedian, newspaper columnist, and three-book author - was a "shoe in" to write these often hilarious interconnected stories about urban-Indigenous friends in the '90s and early 2000s. The tales are so credible-from the diction to the romantic disasters-one can easily believe the author, who hails from Okanese First Nation, is writing exactly what she knows.

This book's overwhelming success lies in its structure, realism, and its characterizations of four friends whose lives crackle with energy, humour, and heartache. All but a few stories are dated by month and year, from 1993 to 2008, and it's interesting to watch these characters both grow but also stay true to who they always were.

Nellie Gordon is the responsible one, and the majority of the Saskatoon-based book is told through her perspective. Razor-witted and ambitious, at university she's on the Native Student Council and earns a law degree. Nellie becomes the brains behind her friend Taz Mosquito's political aspirations: he expects to become Grand Chief. Taz is a "northerner": he speaks Cree, is "totally bush," and has "black-black hair and pale skin like old-timey vampires and a cocky confidence that comes from isolation and not knowing any better." He also has a severe drinking problem. Pretty and outwardly tough Julie Papequash is an eight-year-old running away from on-reserve foster parents when we first meet her; naïve Julie and confident Nellie become childhood and lifetime friends, though "Envy" was invisible Nellie's "knee-jerk response to all things Julie". (When Nellie applies for a waitressing job she tries to curl her hair "to emulate Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct-but every second she stood [there], her hair went from sexy murderer to electrocuted hedgehog".) Julie hooks up with Taz, and Nellie suffers through the years with Everett Kaiswatim: lackabout, womanizer, and "probably the worst drug dealer the city had ever seen". Everett moves from the Salvation Army into the home of a man who, two days later, "went over to his ex-girlfriend's house and shot her". This information's revealed so matter-of-factly, it offers readers a sense of how inner city "normalcy" differs greatly from what goes on in the 'burbs. Nellie joins a group that volunteers in Mexico, and Everett had "always meant to check where Mexico was on the map but never got around to it".  Nellie hopes not to get kidnapped; apart from her Mom, "her family weren't really the foundation-setting-up type".

Dumont has an ear for the real. I could hear the characters "ch," just as I remembered from my youth in Meadow Lake. I howled. I winced. I recognized. Hey, Canada? Please read Dawn Dumont.