Anita Lahey introduces The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2015
This fall, Tightrope Books will bring out The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2015, edited by Jacob McArthur Mooney. The anthology, which seeks to curate the best Canadian poems that appeared in magazines the previous year, is overseen by series editors Molly Peacock and Anita Lahey. Today, Partisan is pleased to publish Lahey's introduction to the new edition, which launches formally at the International Festival of Authors on October 30. (Stay tuned for Mooney's introduction tomorrow.) And for something a little different, here's William Logan's bracing review of David Lehman's various forewords to The Best American Poetry books, which Partisan published a few weeks back. All of these pieces, we hope you'll agree, are thoughtful, passionate, and partisan.
THIS YEAR'S COLLECTION of the best Canadian poems published in English opens with a gripping plea, John Wall Barger’s “Urgent Message from the Captain of the Unicorn Hunters.” Just about every sin humanity has enacted, reenacted and perpetuated throughout history is housed within the imagined world of this poem, in which unicorns have been demonized, tortured, enslaved, and hunted for their healing and aphrodisiac properties. Think any of a half dozen genocides. Think Abu Ghraib. Think seahorses and impotence, shark fins and cancer. Human trafficking, child prostitution. The “Captain,” in a passionate shout of remorse, calls to a halt the greed, cruelty, racism, speciesism, superstition and plain old violence that have fueled what we, as readers, can intuit has been nothing less than a war on magic, beauty and myth—all those ineffable qualities truly embodied by unicorns—all those elements we need, not to live, but to live with any hope. Let the long-suffering unicorns “loose in their fields of sorrow,” the captain commands, warning, ominously, that the unicorns’ recourse, once set free, is out of his hands. “First, let them go. And then we wait.”
We wait. These days, we wait upon an impressive range of apocalyptic fates that—like the unicorn hunters who so dutifully followed orders—we have by all accounts brought upon ourselves. We’re well down the road toward devastating climate change, wholesale species extinction, and island countries vanishing under rising sea waters. Drinking water is due to dry up. Deserts are expanding. Civil war and terrorists proliferate. In supposedly defending ourselves against the latter, we meekly relinquish all manner of hard-won rights and freedoms. The most despairing among us might be wrong about where all of this leads. Human beings are instinctively braced for devastation, real or imagined. We can only operate on the evidence before us, passed through whatever concentration of perspective we’re able to concoct. By these parameters, right now, from what we can see and comprehend, things have never looked so bad. As American author Jonathan Franzen writes in a piece called “Carbon Capture” that was published in The New Yorker on April 6, 2015—an essay every bit as urgent as Barger’s poem—“drastic planetary overheating is a done deal.” Though this is an introduction to a collection of poetry, and he may be the furthest thing from a poet in the world of writers, let’s stick with Franzen for a moment. His question is whether it’s OK, in the face of our current reality, to care about the fate of a particular species of bird. A warbler, say. Warblers are likely to die in the thousands if a glass-walled stadium is erected in New York City. If protecting that bird distracts us (and any resources and smarts we can muster) from the larger problem of climate change, are we wrong to do our best, nonetheless, to protect it? Franzen conducts a neat flip in moral compassing, calling our focus on climate change easy because it’s a big, vague, everywhere problem: everyone’s and therefore no-one’s fault. He comes down on the side of the warblers, whose problem is more personal, for them, for him, and for the builders of the stadium: you can’t help this bird without making actual, nameable people and organizations uncomfortable, and culpable. There’s no dispersing this problem like so much leaked oil in the Gulf. Franzen writes, “We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming.” Or, he proposes, each of us can choose to focus on “helping something you love, something right in front of you.” Put another way: “The Earth as we now know it resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy.”
I don’t bring this up as a call to arms, but to underline that this is the context in which today’s poets are composing. Every spring melt and rolling cloud bank brings threat of catastrophic flood. Each inching upward of the annual temperature corresponds with the cracking and vanishing of an ice shelf as vast and weighty as the landscape of your childhood; its every revelation, confusion, triumph and disappointment laid end-to-end and dashed into Antarctic waters. We’re in the midst of an unprecedented mass extinction event. The lay of the land is bleak, so bleak that those tired old questions—Why poetry? What is poetry good for?—can’t help but rear. Is it not the height of farce, when the whole show of existence is crashing down around you, to spend the morning at your desk seeking a reasonable rhyme for “spring peeper”? Stretching your legs, reheating your coffee in the microwave, glancing out the window at the rain, sitting down to get back at it?
Creeper. Sleeper. Deeper. Keep her.
O, THE UNCOUNTABLE and impressive variety of ways in which we have failed and are failing our planet, and our very selves. An air of dismal recognition infects line after line of the poems in this year’s Best Canadian Poetry anthology, thoughtfully and enthusiastically selected by guest editor Jacob McArthur Mooney. We have here poems as mea culpas, elegies, pleas for forgiveness, ironic (and revealing) twists in awareness, narratives of tragically preventable mistake, the straightforward beats of God help us, look what we’ve done. This time. Again.
Bleak? Hell, yes. But also thrilling. Eye-opening. Funny (occasionally side-splitting). Dare I say it? I’ll almost say it. Nearly, a little bit, barely a whiff: redemptive. These poems reveal our contemporary keepers of the craft pulling off a complex, gripping, often breathtaking dance of political and emotional sophistication. These are poems that mean, and poems that perform: poems that win the heart, the mind, the eye; the secretly optimistic skeptic within us all.
Where to start? In “Truth, Power and the Politics of Carbon Capture,” Lesley Battler takes on the unappealing role of poetic conscience for the oil and gas industry, as well as for academia’s potentially toxic habit of intellectualizing, in a poem that entangles the scathing cultural critiques of Michel Foucault with the government’s weasel-like habit of discrediting environmental science and even individual experience. “Though activism didn’t exactly / begin with the Silent Spring business I believe / that sordid affair provoked numerous questions / around Power and Knowledge.” Julie Bruck’s “Two Fish” is a piercing examination of the discomfort imposed by survivors on those responsible for their suffering. Which neglected fish, Bruck asks, is more chilling, the one “distorted / as in a funhouse mirror, one eye bulging,” or the one that, inexplicably, lives? “The hideously damaged one, or the one / who moves on as if this was what it meant / to be entrusted to your care? Which fish?” Consider the teeth mailed to Washington by the mothers in Anne-Marie Todkill’s “Strontium-90,” a peace protest and attempt to prove “that death’s particulates have fallen” from test bombs, from human error, from an endless, ongoing history of poor decisions. Even one moment of failure, a single lapse, can reassert itself and claim some kind of reparation—or choose to refuse it. In Jonathan Bennett’s “Palliative Care Reflective Portfolio,” a dying physician accepts kindness from a social worker he once treated with disrespect, who now “intuits what no one else can.” Bennett writes, the line dripping with desperation, for the narrator’s hour is close at hand and a clean conscience is the only thing left to secure: “I apologize to her all night.”
There are no apologies in George Elliott Clarke’s merciless recounting, through reconstituted news report texts, of a group of slaves trapped in a burning house: “I had to navigate fluid meat” and “The dead were largely invisible under my boot-steps” and “The burnt-over area resembles gravestone shale / or a tar oasis.” Nor are there any in Lucas Crawford’s remarkable “Failed Séances for Rita MacNeil (1944-2013),” which, with an underlay of intimacy and wry humour, transforms the late MacNeil into a talisman for every marginalized person, and by extension, every misunderstood or underestimated or overlooked or wrongly judged living thing, past and present. Crawford declares, “Rita, we are both members of the fat neo-Scottish diaspora. / Don’t tell me it doesn’t exist, sweet darlin’ / until you are the only fat transsexual / at a Rankin Family concert in Montreal.” Crawford’s elegy is raucous and raw, a twinning of fierce politics and honest emotion, rarely to be found in poetry or elsewhere. So, too, Karen Solie’s elegy “For the Ski Jump at Canada Olympic Park, Calgary,” which asks the obsolete ski jump to stand in for a lost, better humanity, one that may never have existed, one in which tourists on the observation platform might see more than “the accelerating ritual of supply / and demand.” Solie’s final, cold dismissal of the ski jump is surprisingly affecting, as if something living and breathing has been forsaken, because her metaphor is so well-wrought, her tone spot-on: “You’ve outlived your design. / Would need to be retrofitted for safety / and who has that kind of time.”
Note the absence of a question mark.
It’s nothing new to contend that poetry confronts what we would sometimes rather look away from, be it the unbearable ecstasies of love or the searing pain of grief—or the horrors caused by our very own actions and inactions. In his essay “Education by Poetry” Robert Frost makes an eloquent case for the necessity of what I’ll call metaphoric literacy, because, he deftly illustrates, metaphor is embedded in the most innocent of exchanges, and also in the ways we review and consider everything from our behaviour to our very existence: “unless you are at home in metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere . . . you are not safe with science, you are not safe in history.” He describes how poetry begins in “trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘grace’ metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have.” That is simply because, as Frost reminds us, “Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.” The beauty of metaphor, Frost contends, is in the fact that it eventually breaks down: metaphor can only take us so far. And we must be deeply intimate with its ways in order to know when we’re approaching its limits. “You don’t know how much you can get out of it, and when it will cease to yield. It is a very living thing. It is as life itself.”
Metaphor is simultaneously our way out of, and back into, our own reality. It drops us back in with our vision punched into focus, having encountered words—the fittest words, tightly coiled and sparely employed—as fists. Writing and reading poetry is no escape, but a bracing procedure for facing-up, for taking it in the eye. For being shaken loose and righting ourselves, and through that dust-up, blessedly, if briefly, “being” in a way that is more whole, more solid, than our usual mode of being.
Now, I’m not suggesting that recording our sins and failings in winning rhythms, filtered cleverly through metaphor, wipes them away. However persistently the two have been equated over time, poetry is not the confessional. Indeed, I would propose that what we’re dealing with here are post-confessional poems. Poems that see your admission of guilt and raise you one conflicting yet utterly true moment of wonder; that see your shame and raise you a two-step of deep, still observation; that see your determined witnessing of atrocity and raise you a counter-quartet of alchemic linguistic layering. We have heard this before, and known it before, and every poet who sits down to write, every reader who confronts a lined text, is in some aspect of her being remembering: poetry is a way through. Not the way through, but one way. And it happens to be the way that’s equipped to consider and weigh, illustrate and enact, the nature and efficacy of all possible alternatives.
Make no mistake. There’s joy in these poems, huddled in the midst of their catastrophic subject matter, bubbling through their remorse and their regret, their rising panic, their “How will we ever fix this mess?” There’s joy in their making, and in the many ways they infiltrate and shake up the atmosphere while being read. Especially aloud. Try them aloud. Hear that last line of Elena Johnson’s “I Don’t Bother Canning Peaches” clunk down with its self-deprecating loss of faith embedded neatly (and sadly) in faith’s stubborn declaration: “Food will drop from the sky.” Hear the plea of Kasia Juno’s Yeti crab, from the dark depths of Lake Vostok, as this heretofore undisturbed creature prepares to contend with the invasions of science: “We’re not ready for the age of air / of polar wind / and sunshine.” Recite A.F. Moritz’s “Entrances,” follow that voice into “the chasms of / minor darkness,” and into “the space in earth the shape of the absence…” Let your voice ring out as the mother in Hoa Nyugen’s “A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure” first mistakes the munitions for fireworks, then, a scant few lines later, prepares to disown her baby. Hum along with the discomfort, boredom, and fear (read: rising sense of mortality) that pervades Brenda Schmidt’s “A Citizen Scientist’s Life Cycle.” Bellow Bardia Sinaee’s unsettling discovery: “The human heart, despite its plumbing / and catalogue of attachments, can’t signal before it turns.”
It is not that writing poetry will save us, or excuse us. It’s that we will, we must, write poetry whether we can save ourselves or not. This might amount to consolation, end-stop. Or it might amount to other things, as well. A little hatchway, say, toward the place where awareness—of sorrow, of guilt, of the march of time and its consequences—expressed frankly and artfully, leads. In “St. John’s Burns Down for the Umpteenth Time,” James Langer writes, “The way forward is more solitary but clearly defined, / and our consent in its direction can’t be otherwise.”
IN HER BLESSEDLY plainspoken essay at the start of Carol Ann Duffy’s recent collection, The World’s Wife, Jeanette Winterson revisits a subject she dealt with in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? That is, the value of poetry: what poetry can do for an ordinary person, on an ordinary day, in an ordinary life. In the memoir, her encounter with the poetry of T.S. Eliot at the local library rescues her from the despair of a mentally and emotionally straitjacketed upbringing, and even from the immediate crisis of being kicked out of home at age 16. “I had no one to help me, but the T.S. Eliot helped me.” Henceforth, for Winterson, poetry serves as lifeline, window, blanket, door. Now, in relishing Duffy’s verse, she speaks again of the poem’s numerous uses and delights. It’s an “ancient means of communication” that must be “an evolutionary necessity.” It’s a “shot of espresso—the fastest way to get a hit of mental and spiritual energy.” It’s a lie-detector, “a rope in a storm,” the world’s “longest-running workshop on how to love,” and “the acid-scrub of cliché.” It is many, many things, but at the bottom of all these possibilities lies the one that has given this ancient craft its longevity: “Poetry is pleasure.”
Poetry is pleasure. These are the three words that begin Winterson’s introduction, and it seems silly that she or I or anyone would feel the need to write them. And yet, because poetry bears so much responsibility for profundity, it’s a truth that bears repeating. I recently had a conversation along these lines with a retired English professor. He told me that when, as a young man, he was choosing the direction of his studies, he veered from philosophy to literature precisely because the latter offered a pathway into all the same meaty matter, with the bonus of entertainment. And why shouldn’t we dress up our existential struggles in a pleasing garb? Why shouldn’t we relish this work of questioning and comprehending—and simply contending with—life? Poetry is pleasure. The statement is not so simple as it first appears. Poetry is pleasure in its parts and in its effects, in its line-dancing and in its hypnotic call-and-response, in its making and in its tasting, in the stuff it tackles and how. The pleasure that poetry embodies and affords can be not just a means, but an end in itself, a form of salvation, or something that briefly feels like salvation, which, indulged in often enough, can amount to much the same thing. You know those studies on how the more you smile the happier you feel? The pleasure of poetry works this way, even, or especially when, it’s paired with the grimmest of realities.
One of humankind’s most enduring crafts and impulses does not require my defense. I’ll just say this. When we make our music amid the tumble and cry of impending doom we are carving out our own wilderness protection zone, a place where rhythms and rhymes and undiscovered metaphors may thrive, and the same principal that Franzen outlines with regards to discrete ecosystems applies here, too. If we do, after all, find our way through this uncommonly complex and sticky web of threats to life on Earth, it would sure help to come out the other side, twisted and bloody as we’ll surely be, with our poetic ecology intact. That means our stomp and beat, our lingo and lift, our intellectual and emotional discourse, our compulsive human conversation dissected, sculpted, scanned, recited, chanted, mined. Poetry needs its healthy habitat as much as any warbler or grebe. For those of us who read it (and write it), poetry is that “something we love, something right in front of us,” that we will put our all into protecting, because it is in our nature to do so. If we deny our nature, why would we care what happens to its home?
We offer you this “way forward.” Venture into these woods. Follow this trail of letters. Read the undergrowth and dappled light within. Who knows, by the time you reach the clearing, what may have rooted, sprouted, bloomed, begun to flirt with decay. Where the freed unicorns will be, or the gist of their intent.
ANITA LAHEY's latest book is The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture (2013). He most recent poetry collection, Spinning Side Kick, came out in 2011.