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Engaging heart, mind, and body, Jan Zwicky’s collection of poems, The Long Walk (2016), invites readers on a journey through a lifetime of memories, intimate moments of personal loss, grief and joy fused with images of environmental and cultural devastation. Throughout, the poet skillfully weaves metaphor with detailed descriptions of nature and difficult subject matter to tell a story of strength and returning home. This is stated with elegant simplicity in “Haydn: The Unpublished Sonatas,” the last poem of the collection:
A winter night after snow,
the long walk home, faint smudge of moon
And climbing the stairs at last, then,
and lighting the fire,
and slowly, gently, taking off your coat (75)
The poem “Courage,” offered as a prelude to the four sections that comprise the collection, reminds the reader that there is much yet to be done: “And now you know that it won’t turn out as it should, / that what you did was not enough” (8). The reader is urged to witness a world that enables environmental devastation and social injustice, and to have the courage to take action, however weary they might be: “Come, step closer to the edge then. You must look, heart. You must look” (8). The line foreshadows the need for the reader to brace themselves for the difficult subject matter that follows.
The first section of the collection opens with “Into the Gap,” a poem that, along with the last poem in the collection, describes a return home through childhood memories detailed with images of an altered landscape. This poem flows like a song with a rhythm that captures the wind:
To set out west, into the windbreak’s gap,
and through the memory of the poplars roaring on the night
your father died, the memory of the bench, not house,
he built high in their branches – you could look out
to the first rise of the foothills – and the tunnels
in the caraganas underneath, dog-
haunted, their dry and scented shade. (15)
The land is explored through memories of ice-clotted mitts, mushrooms, fallen logs, wild strawberries and events that took place years earlier. The last few lines of this poem incorporate a theme that is woven throughout the collection: “The body / knows before the mind collects itself: what held you / is what held you up, at every step, / to set out then / into the walk that keeps on walking. Coming home / without a roof” (17). The experience of coming home as a sense of completion is embodied through memories of the land despite, or perhaps because of, painful losses along the way.
The second section uses the language of machinery, nature, and contamination to enable readers to feel in their bodies, in the way physical relationships are felt, the impacts of environmental destruction. The brutality of progress is captured through a powerful use of defamiliarization, exemplified in the poem “Near”: “that put the steel in our forearms… the axle of our will is seized” (30). The individual body is conflated with culture and nature; bodies, machines, even child soldiers are implicated as labour-saving practices that promote progress. At the end of the poem, Zwicky urge the reader to take action, to speak up, “Louder. Louder” (31).
The third section continues the journey, incorporating sorrow and joy, personal and environmental transition, departure and violation. The poem that strikes me most in the collection is “No,” in memoriam to Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, a young Somalian girl who had been raped and subsequently stoned to death to pay for the sin of being raped and reporting it. This poem again calls on the reader to witness the politicization of women’s bodies through the repetition of the words, “Because she was a woman”:
Because she was a woman
she’d been raped.
Because she was a woman
there was no excuse. (50)
As in the first three sections, the fourth has moments of beauty and joy that intersect with science, geographical distance, and environmental destruction. The world expands and contracts simultaneously and seamlessly, rendering inherent contradictions visible.
This collection of beautifully written, pragmatic yet theoretical poems invites readers of diverse backgrounds and interests into a world of pain and joy, despair and hope. It invites them to open their hearts and join the writer on a journey home along life’s streams, gullies, and roadways.
Zwicky, Jan. The Long Walk. University of Regina Press, 2016.
Review by Karen Wood. With roots in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, Karen’s writing is fueled by a deeply held commitment to addressing gendered violence, informed by years of working in the community and conducting research in social work, education and health. New to the world of creative writing, she continues to be delighted by the extraordinary capacity of artistic activities to create space for social and political engagement, activism and change.