Identity questioned in fabulous fragments

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Jessi MacEachern’s debut collection offers six long poetic sequences that swirl around the maelstrom of a female speaker caught in a process of crafting and disassembling her identity.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/03/2021 (682 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Jessi MacEachern’s debut collection offers six long poetic sequences that swirl around the maelstrom of a female speaker caught in a process of crafting and disassembling her identity.

“She keeps a notebook labelled dreams to have,” begins the first sequence, establishing a core tension between the dreams she is supposed to have versus the ones she wants to have. Is this notebook filled with prescriptions or desires? What would it mean to “have” a dream? Are they process or possession?

MacEachern plays with the subtleties of this sort of doubleness in fragmentary phrases that lack the kind of context that might pin down and fix them, and therefore develops long poems where story gives way to scope. Other voices break in: “It is proper that the women should remain indoors,” says someone, something.

“Unclean lives / are best suited to indoor rain // Best considered against a wall against / which the only mirror // Has fallen.” Has the mirror fallen over from the weight of the images it is expected to hold, the ones women are expected to embody?

Half of the joy of MacEachern’s lines lies in questioning their purpose in this way, and how one crashes against the other in a manner suggestive of so much, without confirming anything.

Later poems pull in a bureaucratic tone, inserting the concept of social and political governance of gender identities, as when an “automaton locks a door. The subjects are left with Kafka.” Never good to be left with Kafka for long.

If all this sounds too esoteric and clinical, it can be, but the poet manages to wend into it all threads of visceral affect. Higher-level discourse around discourse itself can seem abstract and academic, but manifests in dark, cold realities on the ground.

“It looks like she / tried // to call // for help.” This statement seems more straightforward than it might actually be — is this an after-the-fact autopsy of some horrible event, or is this a meta-level confession that MacEachern is trying and failing to make herself heard in these poems?

Either way, it’s a startling and sad moment in a smart and stellar debut.

Other notable poetry

Museum of Bone and Water, by Nicole Brossard, translated by Robert Majzels and Erín Moure

(Anansi, 120 pages, $17)

A republication with a special introduction by its innovative translators (who themselves happen to be two of Canada’s best writers), Brossard’s classic is as strange and startling as the day it first appeared in 2003.

Chimera, by James Knight

(Penteract, 56 pages, $24)

Visual poems constructed out of phrases from Bram Stoker’s horror classic The Lair of the White Worm and nightmarish, symmetrical computer art resembling monstrous waveforms. Engrossing and disturbing.

Coconut, by Nisha Patel

(NeWest/Crow Said, 106 pages, $20)

The debut collection from the Canadian national slam champion, which finds the poet questioning the social roles assigned to her and what she desires for herself, in this world of paradox where “the life of the party shows up alone.”

Jonathan Ball’s newest book is the short story collection The Lightning of Possible Storms (Book*hug, 2020). Visit him online at jonathanball.com.

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