Neil Surkan’s debut poetry collection, On High, grows out of his chapbook Super, Natural (Anstruther Press 2017). Surkan’s wry wit combines cutting criticism of consumer culture and a deep respect for natural environments. However, this criticism is tempered by a desire to understand and create community; Surkan memorialises the attempts of a teenage boy to impress a girl at the mall (“Opportunistic Mystic” 56) alongside the death of a spider under a hiking boot (“Decreation” 80) and in doing so, gives each moment equal weight. Divided into four parts, On High begins at a surface-level documentary of the quotidian and gets deeper into the political and the personal with each section.
Opening on a path between a house and a beach, the first poem, “Directive,” does as its title suggests, ending with the missive and reassurance to “think less/ of your destination, more on where/ you’re bound to go. Or try walking at night. You won’t see what I mean, but you’ll know” (Surkan 3). In this poem, the speaker takes us down to the beach, through the summer sun and into the snow, getting distracted by cacti and other trails, and encouraging the reader to both put aside personal worries and to allow themselves to get lost within the following poems. “Directive” invites the reader to momentarily step into the speaker’s footsteps, to test out the intense attention to mundane details, before committing to the entire book. What follows in the first section are intimate descriptions of human environments: city streets, a bar with live music, a dilapidated strip mall, a family kitchen.
The fastidious recounting of a subject is maintained throughout On High, and the speaker’s voice emerges as a Canada-traversing-earnest-but-disillusioned companion incapable of failing to note human peculiarities. In “The Branch-Breaker,” the speaker documents the lewd conversation of a group of teens as they walk by. Instead of critiquing the boys, the speaker reflects that he does not have access to their inner lives, and turns his focus away from the boys: “May the look I gave the branch-breaker,/ mostly hatred, grow every day a little more/ compassion. Tonight I’ll raise a growler/ to Angela, to skin that breaks but persists/ and to goodness—the kind that’s wordless” (5). The position of this poem as the second in the collection sets the tone for the book; though intent on observing all details, the speaker refuses to fill in gaps and insists on believing in the best of people.
Bridging the first two parts, the last poems of part one follow the speaker to spaces between the human/natural: the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island, a hiking trail in Kananaskis, and on an unnamed mountain. “On High,” the first of two title poems, sets the speaker on a mountaintop as he considers the landscape as a “room” for the natural; a “room” inseparable from what it contains (21). Part two lunges into the relationships between humans and animals, focusing on how humans interact with non-humans and setting the tone with “Pelt”: “We hurl rocks/ while he’s stretched in the sun, the weasel./ He killed our entire coop/ but now has nostrils for eyes” (25). Again, the speaker avoids condemnation, but this time inserts himself into the action with “we,” acknowledging his complicity in the action that killed the weasel, regardless of whether the speaker was present (25). Instead of a harsh criticism of people who use or harm animals, the speaker shows the social and cultural milieu that results in these interactions. While the title of the book suggests a bird’s eye view—an amount of distance, or the separation of the speaker and subjects—Surkan’s speaker rejects this role by continually stating his presence and place within the subjects.
Parts three and four further the earlier themes by peopleing the spaces explored in the first half of the book: a white, suburban church goer is caught stealing funds because he feels owed (“Teardown” 54-5); a Serbian Uber driver heckles his passengers (“The Opposite” 45-7); the Penticton Reserve stands in contrast to tourists, businesses, and the celebratory First Nations statues (untitled 66-70); a mayor urges tourists to ignore the smoke from nearby wildfires (untitled 71); and, the speaker drives home to the Okanagan Valley, then leaves (“Verges, Now and Forever” 88-98). Throughout these sections, the speaker shows the failed interactions of humans with each other and nature as equal, and himself not an immune bystander, but an active participant. The poems become neither explanation nor justification, but an acknowledgement of human folly and apology. And yet, the book refuses to fall into melancholy. The metaphors and juxtapositions are fresh and playful, as in “Fawn” when the speaker notes that the hoof of a deer recently turned to roadkill is “black and sticky as bong resin” (82). This comparison is not irreverent, but the opposite, as it provides a new lens with which to view the interconnectivity of human and non-human life.
Surkan’s attention to poetics (rhythm, rhyme, line breaks, etc.) throughout On High serves to communicate these themes of human and non-human interactions and reciprocal responsibilities, while providing a tangible connection to the ‘real world’ through writing-back. A list of notes at the end of the book cites a range of sources from Keats’ canonical poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to a YouTube video from 2016 of a group of men attempting to ride/hunt a moose while on a raft (101). Surkan draws inspiration from these sources, but also allows those perspectives into his work in the form of titles.
At turns witty, sarcastic, and blunt, On High contains stark observations from a speaker who loves humanity but recognises that “shame runs deeper than love” (“Apology” 74). Surkan’s speaker desires to observe interactions truthfully, though does so with an eye toward compassion and self-improvement, and through this mindset, asks readers to reconsider their own behaviours in the context of community.
Review by Allie McFarland, editor of the RVRB. Allie is a co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, which publishes antilang. and soundbite. Her chapbook Marianne’s Daughters, was published by Loft on EIGHTH in 2018.