The Mother of all Disasters: A Review of Danger Days by Catherine Pierce

It’s the end of the world and Catherine Pierce knows it. Her most recent poetry collection, Danger Days (2020), provides an unflinching reckoning on the fraught relationship between humanity and nature and how war between the two ensures the eventual destruction of both. At times bitter, sardonic, nostalgic, and fiery, Pierce uses both the past and present to paint a future in which humanity must suffer the repercussions of their material excesses. It is a bitter prophetic pill, sweetened with dry wit, conversant form, and tender thoughts on motherhood.

Exploring the origins of apocalyptic endings, Pierce’s poems often investigate the contradictory qualities of beginnings. “Anthropocene Pastoral,” a ruminative and oddly romantic account of a natural disaster finally realized, claims: “In the beginning, the ending was beautiful” (3). Rather than fearful, the poem’s speaker appears almost entranced by all the wondrous symptoms of their failing world: deserts blooming with flowers, air overcome with flora (3). “At least it’s starting gentle,” they note (3). Envisioning a somewhat different kind of catastrophe, “Fable for the Final Days” opens with a similar statement: “In the end, it was an asteroid” (71). Alongside the horrific details provided is a tragic denial made domestic, humans playing board games like “Clue, Battleship, Sorry,” as outside “streets [are] humped with bodies” (71) and “the soil [is] still sizzling with roaches and earwigs” (72). Perhaps no poem better argues the complexity of beginnings than “All 21 of Mississippi’s Beaches Are Closed Because of Toxic Algae,” which borrows its title from an actual CNN headline. Arranged in couplets that almost look like journalistic subheads, the poem repeats many of its sentences with the phrase “it begins” (“It begins with a sister’s / call from a car,” “It begins with a gone / jetty”) until the words become an almost anaphoric chant, culminating in, “It begins and keeps beginning. / With a sidebar headline and a bummer” (29).  

 Pierce examines many of her fears through the lens of motherhood, adding a deeper layer to her collection that is at once compassionate, witty, distressed, and intensely personal. “Strategies for Motherhood in the Age of This Age,” a sardonic tongue-in-cheek survival guide on how to be a mom when disaster feels imminent, campaigns for resiliency even as it notes the prevalent sadness of its world: “Now with that starving polar bear / now with the ‘Gun-Free Zone’ signs on the doors / of the kindergarten… So what if we recite state capitals / in the shower’s echo chamber, or avoid the sad / billboard eyes of the boat donation girl?” (18-19). In “Instructive Fable for the Daughter I Don’t Have,” a speaker pleads with their child to appreciate nature in all its gritty glory as long as she can, urging her to “wear your hair uncovered. / Wear your mouth unset. You may not find / the jewels, the mirror, the stag. But you may find / a bare possum skull… You entered the woods lost. Leave that way” (47). “Inheritance” is an epistolary poem to Pierce’s children that acts as both apology and warning, ironically noting that “when we were children… we understood that the future / was a country our parents would have / to navigate but had nothing to do with us” (15). Pierce’s maternal poetry does little to soothe the anxiety wrought by the rest of her collection; rather, the poems act as a reminder of the complications of becoming a mother in a world that seems to hold such little regard for life.

Despite the gravity of its themes, the collection is not entirely devoid of playfulness. A series of four poems is written in the style of encyclopedia entries from a fictional “Compendium of Romantic Words.” Other poems engage in conversational play with their titles: “I Spend My Days Putting Away,” begins with the line “the small blue car here” (33), while “I Kept Getting Books About Birds” starts with “as if recognizing the yellow-winged one / at the feeder… might somehow / become enough” (65). “Poem for Quicksand” employs the formal romanticism of an ode, complete with its archaic opener: “O you gorgeous torture” (64). The result is a masterclass in balancing horror and humour, a demonstration of Pierce’s ability to cover a broad range of emotions that ultimately makes her poems feel complete and completely human.

Brief moments of levity aside, there is little hope for future happiness in this grim collection. Pierce warns us that dangerous days exist and will continue to exist so long as they are ignored. Effective and explosive, Danger Days covers the death of this world from a variety of nuanced angles. But while the subjects of the poems often change, one sentiment remains unaltered: it’s the end of the world as we know it, and Catherine Pierce does not feel fine.

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Works Cited:

Pierce, Catherine. Danger Days. Saturnalia, 2020.

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Review by Gunnar Ohberg. Gunnar Ohberg is a member of the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in Writing program. His poems and short stories have recently been featured in The RacketThe Mark Literary Review, and in media res. He is currently working on a dystopian novel set in South Carolina. Sometimes he plays in rock bands.

“these hard little dreams”: Nostalgia, Heartbreak, and Resilience in Sarah Ens’s The World is Mostly Sky

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Sarah Ens’s debut poetry book, The World is Mostly Sky (2020) is a stunning collection full of vibrancy and teeming with tenderness. Each poem, like each tooth in the first poem, “By the Skin,” is a “hard little [dream]” given to readers in the “square white envelopes’’ of each page (Ens 3).  The World is Mostly Sky is composed of three sections: “Silos,”“Wuthering: A Comprehensive Guide,” and “Powerful Millennials on The California Freeway.” In these three sections, Ens’s poetry first soars through childhood nostalgia and anguish, dives through thick waters of heartbreak and longing, and finally crashes up through clouds of young adulthood with ice coffees raised like chalices to the sky. 

The first section, “Silos,” orbits around themes of change, loss of innocence, and growing up. In “World We Rise,” three children witness a teen destroying a bird’s nest, resulting in the death of the baby chicks. In this moment, the children witness death and loss simultaneously. The mother bird “frantic / at the hydro / wire… shrieks” (10) at the loss of her babies while the poem’s speaker reflects, “did she / think she / could still / save them / & us” (11). “Silos” moves into a meditation on growing older in “Choreography of Bounding,” wherein the play of two sisters concludes with the elder sister, the poem’s speaker, stating “the choreography / of our bounding / too obvious, / & none of it real” (15). This moment, while saddening to the sister, whose face “slump[s]” (15), is also a moment of growth and maturing as the poem’s last words “before flight” (16) signify reaching for the outer world of adulthood. “Straddled” and “The Sacredness of Sleepovers” portray a darker side to growing older: the imposition of sexuality on young girls. In “Straddled,” the speaker sees girls that “straddled everything” in posters “leaning over bikes” (17) while in “The Sacredness of Sleepovers” the speaker becomes the confidant of a friend who was “touched… when [she was] just a kid” (18). “Silos” concludes with “I Promised No More Poems About the Moon,” a poem of softness and vulnerability and searching for meaning in “footprints in the field… & the faded moon” (28).

The middle section, “Wuthering: A Comprehensive Guide,” deals with love and loss, heartbreak, and longing. In “Early February & He Built Her a Nest,” a gannet falls in love with a stone bird, evoking Ovid’s Pygmalion myth in a fresh way. The bird “shape[s] her beds of seaweed, twigs & dirt” (31) despite her inanimacy. The poem “Wuthering: A Comprehensive Guide” captures falling in and out of love through bodily and disembodied movement and response. This long poem begins with capturing the movements of love: 

The body burns

red in triangles, maps

Circles from your collarbone

to your chest, pokes breath to

your inner ear,

            seeks sun, craves water

& also you.

            The body unfurls. (53)

The breaking apart of the relationship is then embodied by “huge / & heavy silence, the inevitable / sinking” (58) followed by the eventual recovering and resilience of the body in the final stanza:

the body learns to dance whole 

Routines, cook soups & stews,

sleep soundly. (61)

This poem exemplifies the primary message of this section: the coexistence of love, heartbreak, and resiliency. 

In the final section, Ens showcases the beauty and power of millennial friendships. The prose poem, “Communion,” turns the mundane to spiritual, highlighting the sacred in moments of quiet friendship. Here, “ritual” is “dyeing each other’s hair in the bathroom… [searching] the carpet for claws the cat has shed” and “[sitting] around on the kitchen floor” drinking wine (75). In these moments, bonds are formed in the “telling[s]” and “teachings” between friends, and in the ritualistic chanting of “me too, me too” (75). The power in these friendships peaks in the second to last poem of the collection, “Powerful Millennials on The California Freeway,” which evokes the freedom of becoming lost in a moment, screaming to songs on the highway, and “waving iced coffees / to the sun” (89). With details like this, Ens reminds the reader of the title, The World is Mostly Sky, giving a final salute to hope and the serendipity of everyday life. Moving through memory to heartbreak to resilience, this is a debut collection you won’t want to miss. 

Work Cited

Ens, Sarah. The World is Mostly Sky. Turnstone Press, 2020. 

Review by Delane Just. Delane Just (she/her) lives in Saskatoon and is a current graduate student in the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan. She has had work appear in In Medias Res and The University of Saskatchewan Undergraduate Research Journal.

Have Courage: A Review of The Long Walk by Jan Zwicky

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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. 

Work Cited

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.

Reconstructed Homeland: A Review of Bittersweet by Natasha Ramoutar

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Natasha Ramoutar’s debut poetry collection, Bittersweet (2020), reflects on a “reconstructed homeland” of the Indo-Guyanese diaspora and Scarborough, Ontario (Cover copy). Playful, inventive, and poignant, the artfully titled Bittersweet asserts poetic creation as a tool to explore the persistent aftertaste of racism, colonialism, and the self, while asking: “How do you unravel a history of trauma, that which is woven / within you?” (Ramoutar 72). 

In answering this question, Ramoutar is like a cartographer, drawing maps from “home to home, from Toronto to Guyana to South Asia” (Cover copy). Meanwhile, Scarborough remains omnipresent as a “city of travellers” (32) within which Ramoutar weighs her life against history, like tea leaves, shifting “back and forth, / reading for the past instead of the future” (5):

Ask me where I come from and I will tell you: from the remnants of melted sugar cubes, from the rough grains ripped from stalks, from spices and saccharine scents, from a sweetness that mixes with cardamom hanging in the air. I come from a line of bittersweet women, women shrewd enough to empty pockets, to upturn kingdoms, to launch ships to war. On a journey long ago, I witnessed the origin point: fields of cane standing tall like soldiers on patrol. But cane is raw, just long stalks, unbridled and wild and free. (2)

What is striking in this poem, “Cartography I,” is the associative imagery between “remnants of melted sugar” and women. Both are “rough grains ripped from stalks,” reduced from “fields of cane standing tall like soldiers” to something bittersweet (2); pleasure tinged with suffering. This layering effect underscores Bittersweet as Ramoutar returns to different “origin points” to collect pieces of her homeland and explore her third-culture identity (2).

The back cover states that when writing Bittersweet, Ramoutar meditated on “memory—[personal and collective]—prompted by photographs, maps, language, and folklore.” The collection draws from these sources to evoke metaphor and renovate form. For instance, “All Inclusive” mimics an advertisement for an all-inclusive vacation package (34). The poem parallels “white-sand beaches, / places we can dub nirvana” with colonialism: “six days of escaping, / six days of imposing” (34). Ramoutar’s inventiveness with form, such as creating an all-inclusive vacation, a fire-starting guide (9), and recipe (67), subverts the positive multi-cultural identity of Scarborough, revealing it as problematic. She does this by taking familiar markers in western culture and defamiliarizing them to show their harmful nature. Most importantly, Ramoutar confronts readers from outside the Indo-Guyanese community with challenging subject matter, asking them to reflect inward and create something positive in the process. 

Whether it raises awareness of systemic racism or begins unravelling readers’ relationship with trauma, Bittersweet has something for everyone. While the audience for some poems is primarily those outside the Indo-Guyanese community, others speak directly to “diaspora babies” (13) who “walk on eggshells” (69) and are made to suppress their identities: “never add your own flavours. They’re not a good fit” (67). These poems share stories of resilience in marginalized communities by celebrating the parts of language, dance, cuisine, and history that are retained and reclaimed. These bits of collected memory blend with a constant yearning to know a home that was stolen, as exemplified in “Us Diaspora Babies, We Do Not Sleep”:

This boat, it rocks back and forth like a cradle on the Essequibo 

            River,

us diaspora babies swathed in red life jackets,

the steady shifting trying to lull us to dream.

[…]

This boat tries to comfort,

but us diaspora babies,

we do not sleep —

only dream with eyes wide open, 

grasping at the water of our homelands, 

droplets slipping through our fingers with each midsummer 

            breeze.

Us diaspora daughters, 

listening to our parents’ stories of the golden era 

of a far off youth.

We know of home through photographs and UN reports, 

but what of seeing with our own eyes?

What of divided states of being?

What of us diaspora babies, 

Us diaspora daughters,

exiled before birth? (13)

Bittersweet by Natasha Ramoutar is a “sugary syrup” (61) of sensory details with an aftertaste of racism and colonial violence. The poetics are clever, the form and content engaging, but the real reason to read Bittersweet is that it validates Indo-Guyanese diasporic experiences as being as true and important as any other. As Ramoutar unravels internalized trauma and explores her identity, readers are invited into a space where they can safely do the same. One must read the collection to reach Ramoutar’s conclusions, but rest assured, “it comes together / slowly” (72).

Works Cited

Ramoutar, Natasha. Bittersweet. Mawenzi House Publishers Ltd., 2020. 

Cover copy. Ramoutar, Natasha. Bittersweet. Mawenzi House Publishers Ltd., 2020.

Review by Aliza Prodaniuk. Aliza graduated from McMaster University with an honours BA in English and Cultural Studies. She secretly enjoys sci-fi and fantasy but will tell you she only reads literary fiction. She is currently creating and exploring in Dundas, Ontario, where her work dabbles in murder mystery, eco-fiction, and realistic fiction. Her writing has been published in various business, science and travel magazines/journals, with her most recent work appearing in the Canadian Journal for Medical Laboratory Sciences. She’s currently happy to have time to focus on her work while learning alongside other writers at the U of S. 

Capturing the Magic in Honey

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Honey. That viscous, golden-amber liquid produced by bees has been praised for centuries for its delicious taste as well as its medicinal (and sometimes magical) qualities. Many ancient cultures considered honey and milk acceptable gifts to the gods. It comes as no surprise then, that the poems and short prose in Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month (2010) draw upon the sensuous and mythical qualities associated with the golden nectar.

Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month

The Honey Month had its beginnings in a set of twenty-eight different types of honeys that had been given to El-Mohtar as a gift by a friend.  Inspired by this collection of exotic honeys, she set out writing poems or pieces of prose for each flavour of honey she tasted in the following month, preceded by short sections of sensory notes describing the smell, taste, and colour of each sample. Written in a journal-like format, each day has a new entry of honey-inspired poetry or prose to whet your sweet tooth. The pieces in this collection are dripping with language that excite the senses and expand on the sensory notes given at the beginning of each entry. They also pay homage to the mythical history of honey by telling tales of daring, lonely, and not-altogether-human women and the enchanted worlds they inhabit. El-Mohtar mixes honey with fairy-tale worlds so well that honey itself takes on magical qualities, as seen in “Raspberry Creamed Honey”:

‘Where, if you’ll pardon my asking,’ I cleared my throat slightly, ‘is the dawn?’

‘Being swallowed by the ogress,’ murmured the river. ‘She’s pulled it from me like a tablecloth, and I am bare and cold when I should be warm.’

‘Why now? The dawn has risen for every day of the ogress’ long life; why should she fancy a taste for it now?’

‘Why not?’ shrugged the river. ‘She’s an ogress; you’ll find they’re always hungry. Perhaps she ran out of raspberry creamed honey and thought the dawn an appropriate substitute.’ (31)

The poems and prose are laced with magic, injecting the otherworldly into their lines. The dream-like mood of these pieces transports the reader into new and intriguing worlds, while the sensory language helps ground them in real smells, sights, and tastes. The book itself is a work of art, with beautiful illustrations interspersed among the entries. The images reflect the written poems and prose in bewitching washes of vibrant colour that are as pleasing to the eye as El-Mohtar’s words are to the mind.

With Rhysling Awards for Best Short Poem in 2009, 2011, and 2014 under her belt, El-Mohtar’s skill as a poet is well recognized. In fact, the poem that won the 2011 award, “Peach Creamed Honey,” is in The Honey Month. Anyone who has read El-Mohtar’s other poetry will be familiar with the speculative lens through which she frequently writes, and this collection is no exception. The book oozes with magic, mystery, and intrigue and will leave you guessing at what has truly taken place at the end of each work of prose and poetry.

The tone of El-Mohtar’s magical pieces oscillate between whimsical and coy and something far more oblique and dangerous. The more cheerful poems and short fiction use the motif of honey and sweetness to emphasize pleasure. In “Peach Creamed Honey,” the poem is lighthearted, a tale of playful young lovers under the summer heat:

I’ll see her lick her lips, and I’ll see her bite a frown,

and I’ll see how she’ll hesitate, look from me up to the town

and back, and she’ll swallow, and she’ll say: ‘can I try?’

and I’ll offer like a gentleman, won’t even hold her eye.

Because she’ll have to close them, see. She’ll have to moan a bit.

and it’s when she isn’t looking

when she’s sighing fit to cry,

that I’ll lick the loving from her,

that I’ll taste the peaches on her

that I’ll drink the honey from her

suck the sweet of her surprise. (17)

Other pieces hint at the darker side of these charmed, magical worlds. Often, these depict the destruction of a naïve or lonely young woman who ignores her gut feelings or the advice of others, and ultimately meets their end. In such works, honey is like bait in a trap, luring girls in with surface-level beauty or pleasure before they finally succumb to hidden danger. These are cautionary tales about the magical intoxication these honeys can bring. “Lemon Creamed Honey” is one of these bleaker tales:

The lemon road is long, the lemon road is wide,

The lemon road is pleasant maid-sung song;

The lemon road will have you for its bride.

When first I ventured my feet from the salt-stitched tide,

They told me I was foolish, told me I was wrong.

‘The lemon road is long, the lemon road is wide,

It will sour all your footsteps, sour you inside.

Stay here with the brine, with us, where you belong—

the lemon road will have you for its bride.’

I laughed at their warnings, but I couldn’t—though I tried—

put them from my thoughts while I walked myself along.

The lemon road is wide, the lemon road is wide,

and I felt myself pucker, felt a tightness in my side,

a frown on my lips, with the whisper growing strong:

the lemon road will have you for its bride. (25)

Whether it’s for the magic, delicious language, or beautiful layout, The Honey Month is the perfect book for anyone who likes a bit of magic and honey in their lives. This wide array of honey-inspired stories offers something different with each entry. It’s almost guaranteed that you won’t be bored, as Amal El-Mohtar is a master of sensory language and enchanting poetry and prose reminiscent of fairy tales. Read it like a sampling and enjoy your own honey month.

Work Cited

El-Mohtar, Amal. The Honey Month. Papaveria Press, 2010.

Review by Amanda Dawson. Amanda grew up in rural Alberta, Canada, where she spent her time reading books, stargazing, and searching for a door to the Faerie realm in the forest near her house. She is currently pursuing a MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan.

Shapeshifting Realities in Louise Halfe’s awâsis – kinky and disheveled

The painting on the cover of Louise Halfe’s latest poetry collection, awâsis – kinky and disheveled, is jarring at first glance: An Indigenous person with electrifying hair, a fox’s tail, one muscular arm draped with white fur and a pair of serpents, and the other in a pink dress next to a protruding breast. This character is the namesake of the collection, awâsis, which means child in Ininiw, but the literal translation of this word is being lent to a spiritual being. As Halfe’s opening poem explains, awâsis is a relative of Wîsahkêcâhk—a trickster figure in Cree legend. Like Wîsahkêcâhk, awâsis is a genderbending shapeshifter who lives through story, and Halfe is the written witness. She indicates in her acknowledgements that this collection was inspired by numerous Cree storytellers from a variety of communities and is meant to honor the tradition of oral storytelling, as well as the inner-child that adults seem to lose touch with as they age. awâsis is also an examination of the English language and the colonial borders of gender, and plays with these through awâsis’ constantly switching pronouns.

The collection opens with a poem from the speaker’s perspective. “I like the way awâsis’s âcimowinis, story darts / up and down my bones” they say, and awâsis nearly bounces from the page, shapeshifting from coyote to weasel to wind in this piece (11). awâsis’s gender, human/animal form and the setting change with each subsequent poem, and the speaker has no qualms about the shapeless structure of awâsis’s story, noting: “Who am I, the otâcimow, storyteller to dictate / his thoughts, his actions? / I just do what I’m told” (13). The reader is then able to enjoy awâsis’s adventures as they morph with every poem, travelling from across the rez to around the world.

In her acknowledgements of the collection, Halfe writes that she is unapologetic if awâsis’s interchangeable pronouns confuses readers. In the poem “otâcimow – The Storyteller,” the speaker says: “awâsis, awâsis. I’ve heard / the settler is confused / about your shape-shifting / You can’t decide / if you’re an animal or a human / if you are a he or a she” (11). It can be surprising, as a reader, to find awâsis in one poem as a man cutting his face on a razor and with a pregnant stomach in the next. The thesis statement of the collection lies in the poem “Remember When,” which closes with: “In nêhiyaw, Cree country, when people speak / of a man or woman / they know that spirit / is neither and is all” (18). This statement can also be true for things beyond the gender binary. It reminds me of something I heard the two-spirit elder Barbara Bruce say at a Manitoba two-spirit gathering a few years ago. Bruce explained that the divide between genders is much like the assumed dichotomy between good and evil within humanity and nature—it is self-imposed and constricts real-life experience. awâsis is a melting pot of dichotomies.

The shapeshifting nature of each poem in awâsis embeds the reader in a web of wild and urban settings, from a forest resembling a pregnant woman’s body to Salvation Army and the portage of a lake. awâsis’s transformations into various animals and other non-human forms in these settings further remind us that humanity is not detached from nature. While we cannot literally morph into bears or lightning strikes, awâsis is a reminder that we can and often do resemble their characteristics in our own ways.

In the poem “One in a Thousand,” it is said that awâsis would “lazily pick something off the ground / and wear whatever she’d decided to be that day” (26). The speaker remarks a few times that they are envious yet love awâsis for their ability to walk through the world with child-like joy—that could even be madness. And it is evident throughout the collection that awâsis moves with an air of freedom difficult to embody: “She’s the woman wearing work boots / driving a transport loaded with fruit / going cross-country” (18). awâsis is Halfe at her best. It is a celebration of the Cree storytelling tradition, an ode to the trickster figure Wîsahkêcâhk, and a gift to Indigenous two-spirit and queer communities.

Works Cited

Halfe, Louise. awâsis – kinky and disheveled. eBook ed., Brick Books, 2021. 

Review by Özten Shebahkeget, a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation and an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. She grew up in Winnipeg’s North End and holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg. Her poetry has appeared recently in CV2Prairie Fire and The Winnipeg Free Press.

“The souls are growing under the fields”: Allan Safarik’s Blood of Angels

*Note on the text: because of constrictions of WordPress, poetry excerpts are formatted as closely as possible to the text, but discrepancies might appear.

Filled with evocative images, stunning beauty and violence, Allan Safarik’s Blood of Angels (2004) is a collection I would recommend to those who typically avoid poetry. With fifty years of experience, Safarik’s work is often surreal and imagistic, probes human complexity yet is accessible to a wide audience. Blood of Angels was written following his time as Writer-in-Residence in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, which included weekly sojourns to St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster. Inspired by monastic life, there are poems about monks working the field and wracked by age, devotion and changing seasons, but also religious fervour and bloodshed. In one ten-page stretch, Safarik leaps from Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, to a gruesome “portrait of truce” in no-man’s-land, to elegizing a slain El Salvadoran Archbishop. Reading this collection reminded me of the eclectic conversations in Safarik’s creative writing class at St. Peter’s College. It showcases a curious mind, activated by the raw material all around him.

Book Cover of Allan Safarik's Blood of Angels. A photograph of a tree with the sun behind it, illuminating a field. Above is a faded angel wing with the words Blood of Angels in the wing.
Allan Safarik’s Blood of Angels

The first section, “The Harvest of Souls,” offsets austere reflection with surreal, even humorous insights. “The Sowing” asserts that “life turning lonely and small, depends / on a handful of dried seeds planted in time” (10). By contrast, in “New Year’s Resolution: St. Peter’s Abbey,” Safarik pictures himself as the “Mouse Man of Muenster,” chewing cream “and whole grain bread into a thick pap / before I feed the naked baby mice / with an eyedropper from the monk’s infirmary” (32). Safarik does not lack imagination and is clearly indebted to Imagism. “Blood of Angels” demonstrates his penchant for short, concrete lines:

Blood red

underneath white

grey-fringed clouds

evening piling up

in the western sky

sun peering above

the horizon like

a half-cooked egg (12)

One could interpret clashing colours in the sky as symbolic of the clashing expressions of faith this collection portrays. Fittingly, the standout poem of this section is “Harvest of Souls” (27-28). With its neo-Beat repetition of “The souls,” everything from vegetables to flowers, geese, vacationers, transients, and departed ancestors are put on equal spiritual footing.

The second section, “The Holy Road,” counter-balances the peaceful and whimsical reflections that precede it. Warfare, paranoia, and persecutions populate these pages. A man muses on tribal conflict: “This war never really starts or ends / but like all wars simmers forever on the / hearths of storytellers and old scarred men” (“The Holy Road” 46). Safarik explores primeval impulses that consider “the letting of blood… a necessary purging” (“The Traveller At The Beginning and End of Time” 66). That some narratives of extremist violence blur together suggests there may be a few too many. Nevertheless, poems like “The Grave” (38), depicting a man digging his own grave, and “Cargo” (49-51), a chronicle of a colonial sea voyage gone awry, are both shocking and thought-provoking. A non-violent poem, “Things That Might Have Been,” imagines life around the Ganges River: “fragrant oranges in shaded grottoes / severed monkey hands in the bazaar / grey-headed nuns washing bodies” (63). Here, as elsewhere, Safarik layers image upon image, energetic as a child, deliberate as a bricklayer.

The third and final section, “Abbey Meditations,” is indeed meditative, set against a backdrop of seasonal change. In “Under The Apricot Moon,” Safarik slips away from “literary conversation about the poets / who moved out west and became movie stars” (73) into the refuge of a summer evening in Muenster. In “October Song,” he states:

Every tree in the shelter belt

a permanent resident

I represent the temporal

simply a visitor caught

up in a lifetime

reading and writing (80)

In “First Winter Storm,” while monks make “solemn music in ecclesiastic air,” Safarik struggles to write, “cannot empower the voices in my head / to speak to me about God, only poetry” (84). Throughout this section, spanning late-summer through winter, Safarik ponders what it means to be a West Coast writer in Saskatchewan, a “visitor” amongst disciples of God, a human in a holy landscape. But he avoids esoteric musings, worships at the altar of precise images: “dark-limbed spruce trees with hoary beards” (“Witness” 87) and “old monks in black robes” with “discarded onion-skin faces” (“Onion Skins” 88).

Blood of Angels may be inspired by sojourns to St. Peter’s Abbey, but it is no simple record. Flip to any page and one will find a mind transmuting regular experience into singular art. These poems, by an itinerant poet already “gone on / to the next accidental location” (“Epilogue” 95), evoke the universal in the particular, the spiritual in the secular.

Work Cited

Safarik, Allan. Blood of Angels. Thistledown Press, 2004.

Review by Brandon Fick. Born and raised in rural Saskatchewan, Brandon Fick writes realistic fiction (and some poetry) and reads a variety of genres, with particular interest in horror, war, and western novels. Brandon has been published in Polar Expressionsin medias res and The Society. He received a B.A. Honours (English) from the University of Saskatchewan and a Writing Diploma from St. Peter’s College, and was proud to be awarded the Reginald J.G. Bateman Memorial Scholarship in English and St. Thomas More College Creative Writing Scholarship, among others. Currently, he’s very grateful to be connecting with other writers in the MFA program at the U of S. 

The Unrepentant Rogue

Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest of hearts.   –Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind 

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss’ debut fantasy novel and first volume in the Kingkiller Chronicle, is seemingly the simple tale of one man’s life. However, it becomes rapidly apparent that Kvothe is no normal man, and this is no simple tale. Told through a frame narrative, it begins in the present day with Kvothe—a one-time hero now in exile—as he commits his life story to paper. The tale weaves between the present and past of Kvothe’s life, following him from his tragic childhood when his family is murdered to his time at the University, an institution committed to teaching mundane subjects such as grammar and arithmetic to magic. As Kvothe grapples with various challenges, from childhood homelessness to the class and economic struggles of University life, he remains determined to learn more about the mysterious group of people who killed his family, known only as the Chandrian.

The Name of the Wind manages to be an unique work in its genre, despite sharing many of the common characteristics of fantasy fiction. We get a vaguely medieval European setting, an orphan boy protagonist, and a school that teaches magic. However, the setting is written so well that one can almost reach out and touch it; the protagonist is compellingly flawed; and the school of magic is stacked to the rafters with tantalizing mysteries. The first-person point of view provides a deep, intimate look at the main character’s inner thoughts: Kvothe is incredibly clever, and he knows it. His intelligence and wit make him larger than life and a worthy hero of any tale. What he does not know—and what perceptive readers soon discover—is that he is rash, emotional, and prone to making bad decisions. He is a liar, a thief, and a trickster. Deliciously worse—he is unapologetic about it: “I also felt guilty about the three pens I’d stolen, but only for a second. And since there was no convenient way to give them back, I stole a bottle of ink before I left” (218). Kvothe is flawed, but despite his failings, he remains sympathetic. His characterization is refreshing in a genre oozing with knights in shining armour.

The novel employs a distinctive magic system that combines rule-based, logical magic with a more mysterious and unpredictable power. This combination allows readers to learn the rules of magic along with Kvothe, and later, solve problems along with him. It also gives readers the same sense of wonder at the more fickle, enigmatic magic that sometimes occurs in the book.

Rothfuss’ writing walks the tightrope between prose and poetry. He draws from legend and fairy tale to give his story an enchanted atmosphere, but often it feels as though the real magic lies in the words, in how exquisitely he describes the biting cold reality of homelessness in winter or the tragic destruction of Kvothe’s father’s lute: “My body was almost too numb to feel my father’s lute being crushed underneath me. The sound it made was like a dying dream, and it brought that same sick, breathless ache back to my chest” (150). These haunting, mythical passages drive The Name of the Wind into the territory of the exceptional, where his world becomes fully immersive. The nursery rhyme about the Chandrian, for example, is charming and bone-chilling at the same time:

When the hearth fire turns to blue
What to do? What to do?
Run outside. Run and hide.

When your bright sword turns to rust
Who to trust? Who to trust?
Stand alone. Standing stone.

See a woman pale as Snow?
Silent come and silent go.
What’s their plan? What’s their plan?
Chandrian. Chandrian. (568)

The setting is vibrant, the magic is unique and complex, but the real reason you will want to read The Name of the Wind is its protagonist. Through the frame narrative, we see Kvothe as an adult—defeated and in hiding—and then we are transported into his past to discover why he is in exile, and why he is no longer the hero he used to be. If the story is a tale of one man’s life, then we inevitably ask the question, who is Kvothe?

Works Cited:

Rothfuss, Patrick. The Name of the Wind. DAW Books, 2007. 

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Review by Amanda Dawson, an MFA in Writing student at the University of Saskatchewan.

Last Chance to See: Faith and the Environment in Susan Alexander’s Nothing You Can Carry

From the astute to the humorous to the intensely personal, Susan Alexander’s 2020 collection Nothing You Can Carry provides us with a collection that is both accessible and introspective. Given the subjective and malleable nature of poetry, it becomes less a matter of discerning what a poem tells us about the poet and more about what the poem tells us about ourselves as readers. 

Arranged into five sections, Alexander’s first suite, “Vigil,” is equal parts religious rumination and environmental elegy. Because of poetry’s ubiquitous relationship with nature, the trend of poets addressing climate change is echoed by Alexander with both grace and reverence. In “Anthropocene” (12), the gods of pre-industrial Earth retreat into fallout shelters to weather the storm of ecological meltdown (and the TEDX talks purporting to reverse it). In “Theophany” (24), we are trained to recognize divinity in the mundane; for example, “If God were a tree, this page / could be a sacred thing,” and in “Clamavi” (20), a prayer before God is directed back upon man and his runaway compulsions to manufacture and consume.

In the second suite, “Confessions,” Alexander maintains this conviction in writing about loss and familial growth. While “Behind the Door” (30) compares the rigours of childbirth to a “childbody lost / as if fairies raided the night,” through “Broody” (39) Alexander finds acceptance and affirmation of her role as mother in her daughter’s struggle to be born: “She sung me a body she’d been / building within.” In “Late, Again” (44), one of the collection’s most poignant pieces, Alexander attributes chronic lateness (for life’s major milestones, including being born herself) as the cause of missing her mother’s passing. Yet in grief, she finds renewed faith in the support and punctuality of the ones who were present: “Nurses refuse time’s slow number. / They hover above this silence on white linen wings” (44).

In rich contrast to the personal, the third suite, “Parables,” contains a series of poems that appeal to the imagination and the reader’s latent understanding of fiction and folklore. Each piece, akin to an abridged anecdote, contains imagery that evokes a particular narrative subset. “Fisherman” (54), for instance, is about a man whose only commitments are to the sea and contains distinct Ernest Hemingway overtones. Similarly, “The Pooka” (55) presents us with a literary archetype whose origins date back to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Bordering on the confessional is the suite’s closing tribute, “At the Group Home” (67), which finds home within the fantastical shown through Alexander’s use of imaginative medieval imagery and innovative use of repetition and line spacing:  “I gave a girl my soul      to keep it      safe” (67).

Appealing to the wanderlust in all of us, the fourth suite, “Pilgrimage,” serves as a type of spiritual travelogue, bridging place with event in a series of poems that augment and even redefine our understanding of “there-ness.” From an observance in “Molino” (73) running tantamount to an unexpected resurrection, to “Anatolia” (71) where the death of an artistic method proves to be one of the greatest tragedies of all, Alexander charts a course with verse that is both effortless and heartbreaking. Providing stark contrast to flying buttresses and jacaranda trees, “Hemoglobin” (76)—an extended poetic metaphor where the congestion of a busy freeway is compared to the internal workings of the human heart—provides an unsettling tableau to how we have advanced as a civilization. As Alexander states: “The product deteriorates / What is your age in heartbeats? / Yellow taxis begin to circulate” (76).

The final suite, “Matins,” is the most experimental of Alexander’s suites. Here, conventional free verse is juxtaposed with a chaotic spill of words across white space during a traumatic fall in “Moving Home” (88-89). Barbs traded between an unnamed land developer and an environmentalist in “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One” (93), “The Developer’s Curse” (94), and “The Environmentalist’s Curse” (95) gesture toward a dystopian outcome. The sweeping aside of microscopic ecosystems in “Commerce” (92) prefigures a fate we continue to dismiss. Interestingly, however, “Matins” refers to a canonical hour in Christian liturgy: the morning prayer. Is this Alexander’s way of reminding us that faith cannot be found within clerestory walls or the sacrament of communion? As her imagery of celestial bodies suggest, we should perhaps set our sights a bit higher. 

Works Cited:

Alexander, Susan. Nothing You Can Carry. Thistledown Press, 2020.

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Review by Jon Aylward, actor, playwright and eventual novelist from St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Lining Our Lives With Love: A Review of Daniel Scott Tysdal’s MAD Fold-In Poems

Trigger & Content Warning: Depression, thoughts of suicide.

When I’m in a depressive spell, I turn to art; whether it’s poetry or rolling paper strips and pinching them into designs, art is what helps me. The act of creation somehow offsets depression’s loop in my mind. Daniel Scott Tysdal’s recent chapbook MAD Fold-In Poems asserts a similar power in art by emphasizing poetic creation as the speaker’s method to garble depression’s cruel bark (Tysdal 33). MAD Fold-In Poems speaks to the complex, looping relationship depression has with the speaker and Tysdal frames the book between two direct addresses to depression:

 You—this mucky fire slathered in my mind’s 

           frame—are as committed to me as artists are

  to art. At times, your voice is constant—“kill

yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself”—fists

      punching clay with the aim to make me nothing 

 more than punched clay. (7)

What strikes me here is that the fists are punching clay, a medium that can be formed and reformed, indicating that something can still be created even while depression lights a fire in our minds. Tysdal is clever in comparing the “mucky fire” (7) of depression to the commitment an artist has to their art, since art is exactly what unclenches depression’s clutch in the end.  

 

The wavering lines in the poems are essential to understanding how to read Tysdal’s book. Inspired by Al Jaffee’s fold-in illustrations inside the back cover of MAD Magazine, Tysdal borrows the form for its capacity to reveal a punchline (36). As Tysdal explains, “the MAD fold-in poem is characterized by three features: 1) the poem does not end at the bottom of the page, 2) the reader completes the poem by making two vertical folds in the page, and 3) these folds reveal the final line of the poem nested within the original lines” (36). For accessibility reasons, the “fold-in” version of the final line is printed after each poem. The book’s form communicates that through the action of folding in, what is inside the bodymind is folded “out.” Through this “folding out,” the speaker can face what is inside them and create something from the findings. In “Gift,” Tysdal suggests that through the act of creation, we revive ourselves and continue on: “to give again, words to receive, unwrap within, and revive” (31). Poetry, then, becomes a tool in unwrapping what’s within, but it is the physicality of the fold-in that revives. 

“Why bother writing a poem?” (17) Tysdal asks in “Make,” before contemplating in “Method”: “Why poem and not / historical novel or sky writing? Why bullet / and not pill or bridge? Are we destined, / born into our craft?” (25). Across poems, we are confronted with questions that are tied to the sinister and difficult reality of depression; however, even in this devastating truth, there is a shimmer of another, hopeful truth to be found in craft. In the creation of poems, Tysdal can, as “Gift’s” fold-in reveals: 

Ma

  ke

      fa

      il

li

  ve

li

  ve

  l

ive:

(32)

The last “live” is accompanied by a colon, indicating that this poem, and the speaker’s life, is not over yet. The colon leads us into the closing poem, “A Mad Fold-In Poem,” which mirrors the poem that began the collection. In a nod to depression’s cycle, we’re suddenly looped back to the beginning; however, the poem does not linger in depression’s chorus this time. Instead, it gives rise to “another chorus” that “rises to surround you [depression]” (33). After this line, the poem changes its focus to how art and one’s community leads to love. The poem ends with: 

the magic of bringing nib to page and penning life

 with urgency and patience, word by word, with abandon

        and care. Even though I know it can never silence you, I love

this inky trick because it fills the blank before you can, marks

                 up your script, swallows you choking in a page-mutating 

              fold, so your cruel barks, garbled, almost seem to say: (33)

Tysdal acknowledges that the speaker “can never silence” depression but can use poetry to “pen life” into themselves through the act of writing a poem. Poetry’s power becomes life-giving, an “inky trick” that fills “the blank before [depression] can, marks up [its] script” (33). The poem mutates depression’s cruelty with a fold that creates a chorus of love in its place. The sequential fold-in final lines center this love and community, make depression finally say:

    frame 

 your 

        life 

  with 

 others’ 

           lines 

         and 

               you 

         line 

              your 

   life 

       with 

             love (34) 

This fold-in also suggests that love has always lived inside the poem, inside of us, even when depression makes us believe otherwise. Unfolding—or in the case of Tysdal’s poems, folding in—centers love, amplifies it louder than depression and society’s stigma against it. There is no period after “love,” demonstrating once more that love is what transcends, what continues. 

MAD Fold-In Poems takes us on a journey through the harrowing reality of living with depression and its social stigma, while reminding readers of the importance of community, of sharing our art, and how in our craft—like in similar struggles of mental illness—“what we are we are together” (29). Tysdal teaches us that it is precisely in the act of folding in that we can unfold what’s there underneath, and what’s there is love. 

*A note on the text: The quotes are formatted as closely as possible to the original text. However, some formatting could not be replicated due to WordPress constrictions.

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Review by Tea Gerbeza (she/her), a disabled poet and paper quilling artist creating in Treaty 6 territory (Saskatoon, SK, Canada). She is a current MFA in Writing candidate at the University of Saskatchewan and holds a MA in English & Creative Writing from the University of Regina. Tea’s poetry has most recently appeared in antilang., Spring, and We Are One: Poems From the Pandemic. Her poems have won an Honourable Mention in the 2019 Short Grain Contest. Tea’s paper art can be found at @teaandpaperdesigns.