Poet meditates on family history in new book
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This article was published 27/05/2022 (371 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A Wolseley poet navigates nature, history and conflict in a new work that shears away layers of her family’s past and combines them into a contemporary meditation on what it means to belong in the place one lives.
Flyway, a new long poem by Sarah Ens, follows her Mennonite heritage through time and space to present-day Manitoba. The book begins in the sliver of tallgrass prairie preserve near her hometown of Landmark, Man.
This location is home to the last one per cent of tallgrass prairie remaining on Earth — a fact that generates eco-anxiety for Ens, knowing how humans can transform an environment so wholly.
“I grew up in this place, in the prairies, in Treaty One, but I was starting to realize my relationship with this place was quite surface,” Ens said.
The inspiration for Flyway was born from Ens’ desire to understand the region beyond its colonial, farm town landscape; to get to know it in a deeper and more meaningful way. “And maybe even understand my complicity, my ancestors’ complicity, and my community’s complicity in contributing to the destruction of this landscape.”
To do this, she needed to unearth her family roots.
Ens’ grandmother grew up in a small village in Ukraine. During the Second World War, the family was forced from its home and eventually settled in Manitoba.
Ens grew up hearing shards of these stories. However, it wasn’t until she came of age that omissions in the narrative of Mennonite settlers came into focus. Namely, that Mennonites, too, displaced others on their journey — both in Europe and Canada.
With the help of an uncle who is a historian, Ens compiled family documents and letters into what she calls an invaluable collection of memories. The tallgrass prairie was the right setting to peel these memories apart.
“It was sort of made possible in this landscape that has been traumatized by industrialization and agriculture,” Ens said.
Flyway splits into three sections: Tallgrass Psalmody, Flight, and Un/Settling. Each tells the story through distinct poetic forms to achieve a different end, whether to relate stressful moments through fragmented text or to have two voices interacting with one another.
“I wanted to break it up by introducing letters. I quote from prairie long poems. I quote from the Bible,” Ens said.
The fact that Flyway’s recent release has coincided with Russia’s war on Ukraine makes its subject matter all the more potent.
“I hope it will function in a way that helps emphasize the importance of not displacing people from their homes and the atrocities that happen when violent invasions occur,” Ens said.
Ens, who also works as a promotions and publicity co-ordinator at the University of Manitoba Press and a freelance editor, began writing Flyway in 2018. It was her master’s thesis in the University of Saskatchewan’s writing program.
Ens worked on Flyway alongside her widely acclaimed poetry book, The World is Mostly Sky.
The World is Mostly Sky was shortlisted for a rather long list of awards, including the 2021 McNally Robinson Book of the Year award, the 2021 Word Guild Award for Best Book Cover, and the 2022 Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. The collection also won the 2021 Word Guild award for General Market Non-Fiction – Speciality book.
Flyway and The World is Mostly Sky can be purchased directly from the publisher at www.turnstonepress.com, or online and in-person at McNally Robinson Booksellers.
Katlyn Streilein was a reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review.