Identity,experience reimagined in verse connections


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Toronto-based writer and editor Natalie Wee’s collection, Beast at Every Threshold (Arsenal Pulp, 100 pages, $18) is a deeply relational exploration of the thresholds of identity and experience.

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Toronto-based writer and editor Natalie Wee’s collection, Beast at Every Threshold (Arsenal Pulp, 100 pages, $18) is a deeply relational exploration of the thresholds of identity and experience.

The way Wee makes poetic connections across generations, species, language and form continually reimagines the threshold where self and other meet: “Every sentence I start about a man who hurts me ends/ with the sentence about the man who hurt my grandmother.”

The hope in these poems is not the hope of progress; rather, Wee shapes hope out of openness and vulnerability. In My Next Life As A Fruit Tree, the speaker acknowledges the “deforestation rates & forest fires” that stand in the way of that aspiration. The poem pulls forward the thread of “everything chrysalis, relentless/ & becoming, & watch me become/ bedrock, root of the root/ wild & wildling,” and articulates the foundation for hope: “if I must believe in anything, I choose this: my lover/ whispering, in my next life, I want to be/ the bird that rests in your branches —/ knowing the whole while/ in my next life, I want to be/ is already a complete sentence.”

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With a riot of colour and fractured rhythms, award-winning novelist Shani Mootoo returns to poetry with Cane | Fire (Book*hug, 150 pages, $20), her first collection since 2001. Mootoo’s family’s migrations — from Ireland to San Fernando to Canada — contextualize her re-imagining of childhood and coming of age.

The images and sounds in these poems are often suggestive of violation and abandonment. For example, in The Crick in the Crack, Mootoo conjures: “a pet cobra likes to be stroked/ but must be milked/ of their poison at least three times a day.”

This poem, which is framed from the begining as “a metaphor to temper truth/ quell libel/ is an angle//that softens which, and whose blow,” is punctuated by the recurring “crick crack” and fractured nursery songs and hymns: “rock-a-bye baby on the treetop/ the sun shone down, as if/ nearer my God to Thee/ cars went by the roadside, as if/ even though it be a cross that raiseth me.”

This cutting and repetition produces an impressionistic and overwhelming sense of fragmentation that foregrounds the emotional shape of deeply personal experiences.

Mootoo’s artworks, most of which feature some sort of collage and reassembly, shift the effects of memory, of line, of sound, of relation and amplify the transformative possibilities of these poems.

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In Miraculous Sickness (At Bay Press, 112 pages, $20), Edmonton poet and writing group facilitator Ky Perraun undertakes a poetic cultural and autobiographical history of schizophrenia.

Powerful, empathetic and understated, the speaker in these poems moves assuredly from praying that she is “poet/ enough to give voice to those whose silence/ screams to be acknowledged. Invisible victims, whose suffering/ at the hands of healers was inexcusable,” through the history of (mostly badly) treating schizophrenia, and onto her own history, diagnosis and healing.

In the most animating poems of the collection, Perraun really interrogates what it means to recover and heal. There is a real energetic tension in the poem Recovery between speaker’s desire to attain metrics that seem like recovery to the observer — “‘A home, a job, a date on the weekend’ —/ this is the experts’ definition of recovery/ from the most serious madness” — and the speaker’s desire for a more soaring, ephemeral sense of herself. “remnants of my grandiosity whispering/ in the corridors of my consciousness,/ that my words, not the time cards of some factory,/ will survive me./ [… .]/ Guilty secret, this prioritizing for the future/ while the present decays.”

Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen is a Winnipeg writer and critic.

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