The Long Poem Migration

Photograph by Tea Gerbeza

The long poem can be challenging to define as a genre. In “Pushing the Limits of Genre and Gender,” Lynn Keller makes a “partial list” of the form’s varieties, including: “narrative poems, verse novels, sonnet sequences, irregular lyric medleys or cycles, collage long poems, meditative sequences, extended dramatic monologues, prose long poems, serial poems, [and] heroic epics” (3). Despite its broad categorization, however, the long poem has, from its inception, been a vehicle for mapping the journeys of specific peoples and histories. From The Odyssey’s ten-year-long homecoming to The Divine Comedy’s pilgrimage, long poems provide the space and time to depict transformative trajectories. A long poem’s journey need not be geographical or even physical—Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s book of six long poems, Heavenly Questions, follows the path the bereaved embark upon when at the bedside of their dying loved one. Additionally, the voyage need not be linear or arrive at a conclusive “home.” Grappling with his worsening mental illness, the speaker of Stuart MacKinnon’s The Intervals admits that he is “an uncontrolled wanderer in [his own] body” (49). For MacKinnon, the long poem was the form best suited to wending along the path of a roving mind. But the long poem does not only depict migration; it is itself a migration.

            By enacting the idea of migration on the page, the long poem becomes a corridor that moves both readers and writers “from room to succeeding room” of ideas (McLennan). In an interview for The Paris Review, Anne Carson describes the poem as “an action of the mind captured on a page,” suggesting that the reader enters into that action through the process of reading and that “by the time [they] get to the end, [they’re] different than [they] were at the beginning” (Aitken 203). The long poem links these actions of the mind, increasing the depth and breadth of the possible journey through excess and digression, documentary and accumulation. My own work in the form became a process of gathering in and spreading out, even as I returned again and again—more deeply, with greater concentration, or from new angles—to a central idea. Tim Lilburn names this central idea a poet’s “preoccupation or lasting, persistent loyalty or yearning” and suggests that the long poem “can look like transformative power, a large story—visionary recital—of many parts that pulls readers in and stretches them” (“The Long Long Poem”). The long poem traces the poet’s pursual of a lifelong preoccupation over the course of an extended and ongoing transformation, and it carries readers along the same path.

            The two major anthologies of Canadian long poems, The Long Poem Anthology and The New Long Poem Anthology, include statements from their authors, and many discuss the long poem in relation to movement, or as a demonstration of passage and process. According to Michael Ondaatje, long poems “show a process of knowledge, of discovery during the actual writing of the poem” (13). Robert Kroetsch suggests that this process depicts the passage of “the self returning from the self” (312). Both writers imply here that the experience of engaging with the long poem, as reader or writer, is frenetic and ongoing—“not the having written, but the writing” (311). To Don McKay, “the long poem is an imaginative space… a time for meditation, travel, metamorphosis, loitering” (321), while Daphne Marlatt describes the form as “a movement around, based in return” (317). The emphasis these poets place on the long poem’s peripatetic nature solidifies the ways in which the long poem can invite readers into a metamorphic process or migratory journey. 

            While the long poem’s journey does not always resolve with an ultimate destination, migration does raise the question of home. The homeplace is certainly a focus for seminal Canadian long poems such as StevestonSeed Catalogue, and Long Sault, in which Daphne Marlatt, Robert Kroetsch, and Don McKay parody the idea of the traditional, heroic epic (Brandt 250), while simultaneously asserting that B.C. fishing villages, rural Albertan farms, and small towns along the St. Lawrence Seaway are each worthy of a long and epic attention. These and other Canadian long poems function as myth-making texts, impacting readers’ understanding of Canada as a homeplace and “form[ing] our consciousness of the past” (McMahon 74). As such, these texts can hold significant cultural weight and can persuasively support aspects of pervading societal thought. 

            At the same time, in offering multiple, fragmented, and contradictory historical accounts from an array of voices, the long poem form can also work to undermine and resist systems of power. Susan Stanford Friedman draws attention to the exclusionary politics at work in the genre, writing that “big-long-important poems have assumed the authority of the dominant cultural discourses” (10). By taking this “big-long-important” form into their own hands, marginalized writers have radically challenged and re-centred Canadian discourse on history and place. Louise Halfe’s Blue Marrow, for example, rewrites the “Lord’s Prayer,” translating the religious words of the colonizer into Cree and invoking the voices of her grandmothers. In Debbie: An Epic, Lisa Robertson upends expectations of the heroic subject, “dispers[ing] the tropes of the traditional epic so that the ancient male politics of Virgil’s Aeneid undergo a female subversion” (MacEachern). In a similar vein, Sue Goyette retells The Odyssey from Penelope’s grieving and rage-filled perspective in Penelope in First Person. With its wide scope and “long look” (Ondaatje 12), a long poem can both document particular places as well as challenge dominant understandings of those places.

            The act of reading or writing a long poem is an act of migration, and through the process of departure and return, the long poem transforms, unearthing and discarding and cultivating ideas of home. Barry McKinnon writes that the poem “helps us build up ‘new little habitats’ in the detritus and helps us live because it also contains our affirmation, hope, and joy” (368). The roaming spirit that runs through a long poem constructs, along the way, hopeful little habitats, which are found and lost, left and returned to over the course of the poem’s migratory route. The long poem extends, embarks, but always returns to the question of home. 

Works Cited:

Aitken, Will. “Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88.” The Paris Review, no. 171, 2004, pp. 191-226.

Brandt, Di. “The Multi-genre Multimedia Disjunctive Poetic Narrative Dream Text: ‘New Epic’ Attentions in Contemporary Canadian Experimental Writing.” Green Matters: Ecocultural Functions of Literature, edited by Maria Löschnigg and Melanie Braunecker. Brill: Leiden, 2019.  

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “When a ‘long’ poem is a ‘big’ poem: Self-authorizing strategies in women’s twentieth-century ‘long poems’.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, vol. 2, no. 1, 1990, pp. 9-25. 

Goyette, Sue. Penelope in First Person. Gaspereau Press Limited, 2017.

Halfe, Louise. Blue Marrow. McClelland & Stewart, 1998.

Keller, Lynn. Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women. University of Chicago Press, 1997. 

Kroetsch, Robert. Seed Catalogue. Turnstone Press, 1979.

—. “Statement.” The Long Poem Anthology, Michael Ondaatje, ed. The Coach House Press, 1979.

Lilburn, Tim. “The Long Long Poem.” Writing North 10: Turn West, 25 January 2020, St. 

Andrew’s College, Saskatoon, SK. Session Presentation. 

MacEachern, Jessi. “On Lisa Robertson’s ‘She Has Smoothed Her Pants to No End.’” Lemonhound, 2011, http://www.lemonhoundcom.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/jessi-maceachern-on-lisa-robertsons-she-has-smoothed-her-pants-to-no-end/.

MacKinnon, Stuart. “The Intervals.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

Marlatt, Daphne. “Statement.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

—. “Steveston.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

McKay, Don. “Long Sault.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

—. “Statement.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

McKinnon, Barry. “Statement.” The New Long Poem Anthology, edited by Sharon Thesen. Talonbooks, 1999.

McLennan, Rob. “The Penultimate Long Poem Anthology.” Rob McLennan’s Blog, http://www.robmclennan.blogspot.com/2011/10/penultimate-long-poem-  anthology-edited.html.

McMahon, Fiona. “Robert Kroetsch and Archival Culture in the Canadian Long Poem.” Études canadiennes / Canadian Studies, vol 74, 2013, pp. 73-85.

Ondaatje, Michael. “Introduction.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

Robertson, Lisa. Debbie: An Epic. New Star Books, 1997.

Schnackenberg, Gjertrud. Heavenly Questions. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

*

Essay by Sarah Ens, writer and editor based in Treaty 1 territory (Winnipeg, MB). Her poetry has appeared in Prairie FireArc Poetry MagazineContemporary Verse 2Poetry Is DeadRoom Magazine, and SAD Mag. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly‘s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest and placed 2nd in Contemporary Verse 2‘s 2-Day Poem Contest. She also won 1st place in Room Magazine‘s 2018 Short Forms Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, launched Spring 2020 with Turnstone Press.

Lisa Bird-Wilson and Poesis: Making the Absent Present in The Red Files

The Red Files, Lisa Bird-Wilson’s 2016 poetry collection, deserves renewed attention for the honesty and grace with which it examines the truth of Indigenous intergenerational trauma and the healing possible in the course of reconciliation. The collection is artistically nuanced and skilful, and emotionally and psychologically complex. It continues to be relevant: socially, inviting our collective, on-going engagement in Canada’s truth and reconciliation process, and artistically, demonstrating poesis, the transformation of absence into presence.

Family snapshots of relatives who attended residential schools sparked the book’s concept, in the context of the cultural genocide residential schools perpetrated. Of individuals lost, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation reckons “the number of children identified by name, as well as unnamed in death records, is about 4,200” (Mussa CBC.ca). Black-and-white institutional photos appear on the book’s covers while images Bird-Wilson found in Ottawa’s General Synod Archives of the Anglican Church of Canada provide the collection’s frame.

The literary practice of ekphrasis has come to mean verbal reflections on visual art materials. However, Bird-Wilson’s use of the rhetorical device is also reminiscent of the original Greek. According to Ruth Webb, “To compose an ekphrasis is to tell (phrazo) in full (ek)” (Webb 13). Bird-Wilson does so, with a tonal range the material merits, from the poignant to the pejorative to the possible, while evoking the inherent difficulty caused by cultural erasure.

The title of The Red Files refers to the Canadian Government’s naming system for documents related to residential schools. While the tragedy’s nameless, numbered students are the primary focus of Part One, Parts Two and Three wide-angle the lens to encompass the Canadian Government’s systemic genocide from first contact annihilation and starvation policies as in “Daybird” (“white men / standing like sterile hunters / atop mountains / of bleached buffalo skulls”) to the deliberate undermining of Indigenous cultural continuity through and beyond residential schools, to the Sixties Scoop, to, despite the Apology, “this / thing that is still in the doing” (61, “The Apology” 56). 

The Red Files was nominated for the Saskatchewan Book Awards’ poetry category in 2017. Herself a child of the Sixties Scoop—a government scheme begun in the 60s that removes Indigenous children from their mothers for adoption into non-Indigenous homes—Lisa Bird-Wilson is an award-winning Métis and nêhiyaw writer of prose and poetry widely published in Canadian literary journals and anthologies. Her artistic and leadership contributions, particularly to the Ânskohk Aboriginal Writers’ Circle and the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Literacy Network, garnered her the Saskatchewan Arts Board’s 2018 RBC Emerging Artist Award. Bird-Wilson’s fourth book and debut novel, Probably Ruby, is forthcoming in August 2021 through Doubleday Canada.

The Red Files, her first book of poetry, features a voice that finely modulates and models being “glad for speaking the truth” and variously uses bilingualism—Cree words appear amid English in titles and text—and multiple poetic forms: free verse, prose poem, and, in one notable example of found poem form, erasure (“Hundreds of Boys—A Response” 45).

In “The XXXX’s Situation,” Bird-Wilson exposes the Government’s cover-up of a residential school’s travesty by adding quotes and lineation to an archival letter to the Superintendent of Education, Indian Affairs, effectively co-opting a censored and redacted Government document under the guise of poetic erasure (46).

Regardless of form, her poetics organically serve her subject’s stories and themes, making the absent present and the invisible seen. As in “Girl with the Short Hair,” (“it’s in her bones to lope under the prairie sky … / … / for miles in all directions                now this is more like it    there   she   is,   the breathless one       the one with the wind-knotted hair” 16), the prose poem enacts, in part through assonance and rhythm, the transformation that recognition of identity confers. In poems such as this, Bird-Wilson’s poetry embodies what specialist in Aboriginal literature and creative writing, Warren Cariou, envisions in the spirit of reconciliation: that the verbal quality inherent in the act of poetic creation, regardless of the origin of the term poesis, moves “across the lines of class and race and epistemology toward something more elemental in us all …” (Cariou 32). 

The Red Files is vibrant with metaphor, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, pun, irony, enjambment, and imagery like “against his antler-velvet skin” (“‘Within the Circle of Civilized Conditions’” 29). In Bird-Wilson’s hands, these devices convey the tension between cultural invisibility and visibility, absence and presence, and the dignity of agency, love, spirit, voice. She even applies poetics to punctuation.

When rare punctuation is used, it emphasizes declarative colonial entitlement. For example, the sentence, “Saturday is his day to take / a boy.” opens “The Finest in the Dominion” (26). Enacting absence, many poems have no end-line (except the occasional em-dash) and no final punctuation, perhaps mirroring the continuing ramifications of cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma. In “The Apology,” for example, “the story endures— / a sucking wound” (57).

The collection’s launch occurred just after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final December 2015 report with its ninety-four Calls to Action, including the Canadian Government’s still un-adopted UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

One achievement of The Red Files is that it dares to make palpable not only truths of the traumas Indigenous peoples experienced from genocide and attempted genocide, but it conveys the vulnerability of Bird-Wilson’s own questioning around the process of reconciliation. The collection continues to invite readers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to experience parallel journeys. In “Sweep,” one of the final poems, the speaker says, “I have to live with the memory: …/ and the question/ what does it mean to be full of grace/ … and make things out of your hands” (75).

Works Cited:

Bird-Wilson, Lisa. The Red Files. Nightwood Editions, 2016.

Cariou, Warren. “Edgework: Indigenous Poetics as Re- Placement.” Indigenous Poetics in Canada, edited by Neal McLeod, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014. 

Mussa, Idil. “Remembering Children Who Died at Residential Schools,” CBC News, 30 Sept. 2019, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/remembering-children-who-died-at-residential-school-1.5302955.

Webb, Ruth. “Ekphrasis Ancient and Modern: The Invention of a Genre.” Word & Image, vol. 15, no. 1, Jan. 1999, pp. 7–18. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1080/02666286.1999.10443970.

Susie Hammond is an emerging Seattle-based Canadian poet, and University of Saskatchewan MFA in Writing 2020 graduate. She is the 2019-2020 Edney Masters Scholar for International Understanding Through the Humanities and Fine Arts, with residencies from The Banff Centre, Catalonia’s Faber, and France’s Musée National de Préhistoire. She’s an editor, youth mentor, Community of Writers poetry alum, and Yes!
Poetry
’s October 2020 Poet of the Month.

Examining Allusion and Apparition in Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin

Terrance Hayes’s poetry collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, is a compendium of America’s ghosts. Published in 2018, the collection contends with America’s past, present, and future selves from the vantages of racism (on micro and macro levels), systemic oppression, and toxic masculinity in the age of the Trump presidency. 

Book cover of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by American poet Terrance Hayes
Terrance Hayes’s collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, 2018.

Hayes takes inspiration from Wanda Coleman’s work on defining the American Sonnet (Hayes 91); throughout the collection, Hayes’s seventy poems then critically resist and embrace the traditional form, seeking to forge his own American definition. The sonnet, pioneered by the likes of Petrarch and Shakespeare, typically contains fourteen lines; a set, regular rhyme scheme; the volta (or turn); and a thematic emphasis on love or romanticization. Here, Hayes mostly conforms, writing each sonnet with fourteen lines and many with identifiable turns. In the collection’s entirety, however, he abandons rhyme, opting instead for free verse. Each poem bears the same name—“American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin—and through this recurring title and form, Hayes’s poems immediately challenge their reader: “How do you even begin to write love poems to your once and future killer?” 

Additionally, once you are killed, what do you become? Ghosts are a recurrent motif in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Hayes channels ghosts in both literal and figurative, direct and indirect, meta and intertextual levels; often, Hayes’s ghosts work on all planes simultaneously. In one sonnet, for example, he writes of ghosts directly: “After blackness was invented/ People began seeing ghosts. When my father/ Told me I was one of God’s chosen ones,/ He was only half bullshiting. Probably each twilight/ Is as different as a father is from his son” (39). Here, Hayes reflects on the hysteria of racism and othering, as white Americans turn black Americans into bogeymen, or “ghosts.” Hayes then draws a parallel to his father, both men of twilight, both half bullshitting, both not God’s chosen, but both certainly bogeyman to fear, bogeymen that haunt. 

Moreover, this example of Hayes’s ghosts works indirectly as an allusion, as well. In American media, ghosts are a common image in referring to the Ku Klux Klan, given their white hoods and robes. The subject, “people,” can alternatively be understood as black victims experiencing “ghosts,” or racial hatred and extremism, for the first time, as race became a permanent social construct in American society with the invention of blackness (39). Here, the “ghost” is figurative and invoked indirectly. 

Truly, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is a trove of allusion, a device that is the collection’s driving force. Hayes’s reliance on allusion builds the collection’s compendium of specters—where politicians, poets, protests, and history are evoked (some named and others not) as apparitions, left to repeatedly echo within the confines of Hayes’s sonnets and across their pages. 

At times, when celebrating protest and/or blackness, Hayes embraces the sonnet’s traditional romantic intentions. In one poem, Hayes shapes the sonnet into an ode as he proclaims his love for U.S. Representative Maxine Waters. Hayes writes:

“Maxine Waters, being of fire, being of sword/ Shaped like a silver tongue. Cauldron, siren,/ Black as tarnation, black as the consciousness/ Of a black president’s wife, black as his black tie/ Tuxedo beside his black wife in room after room/ Of whiteness. My grandmother’s name had water/ In it too, Water maker” (23). 

Later, Hayes intertwines a second allusion, writing to Waters, “I love your mouth,/ Flood gate, storm door, you are black as the gap/ In Baldwin’s teeth, you are black as a Baldwin speech” (23). Like other black thinkers, writer James Baldwin is a figure returned to again and again throughout the collection. Baldwin is even given an ode of his own, where Hayes admires Baldwin’s wrinkles like “the feel and color of wet driftwood in the mud” (16). 

From Ginuwine to James Baldwin, from Langston Hughes to Odysseus, Hayes’s use of allusion also alters the very form he has chosen by resisting the romanticization of the sonnet and invoking more angry or even somber voices. In some poems, he namelessly references Donald Trump. In one instance, he writes, “Are you not the color of this country’s current threat/ Advisory? And of pompoms at a school whose mascot/ Is the clementine” (10); later, the sonnet turns: “You are the color of a sucker punch/ […] a contusion before it swells & darkens” (10). 

In other poems, Hayes transforms the sonnet into elegy. “Suppose we cannot/ Forget about what happened in Money. Suppose/ You’re someone who celebrates Thomas Jefferson’s/ Birthday. Suppose he was someone whose love/ For a black woman was blinded by blackness,/ Hers & his, yours & mine. I ain’t mad at you,/ Assassin. It’s not the bad people who are brave/ I fear, it’s the good people who are afraid” (63). In this example, Thomas Jefferson sits at the forefront of the sonnet; however, the poem has tragedy deeply embedded within its lines. First, tragedy is buried within the allusion of Money, the town in Mississippi where fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, one of America’s worst hate crimes. Second, the poem alludes to Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by Jefferson and later discovered to be the mother of six of his children. Till and Hemings emerge here as unnamed apparitions, echoing at the edges of the piece, their memories distant and their experiences haunting—echoes which Hayes reiterates throughout the collection. 

Taken together, Hayes’s allusions beg the question: who is his assassin? Between his father, Waters, Trump, and so many others, Hayes’s assassin is a shapeshifter. Sometimes, when Hayes writes conversationally, “I ain’t mad at you,/ Assassin,” the antagonist becomes the reader herself (63). Ultimately, Hayes’s assassin is not one person or one thing but again the collection’s compendium of ghosts. Hayes’s assassin is America: her history; her hate; her culture; her love; her past, present, and future zeitgeist (a word which translates literally from German as “time ghost,” by the way). The collection’s assassin is framed by the work’s recurrent title, “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” where the present is disregarded and the past and future are regarded as one in the same. In the sonnets’ titles, time is rendered simultaneous, even absurd. Be it Trump or Till’s murderers, America’s toxicity and racial inequity constant; they, too, are merely shapeshifters. Or maybe time travelers.

In fact, Hayes bolsters this greater theme with yet another allusion: the television show Doctor Who. In one of the collection’s final poems, Hayes declares, “In a parallel world where all Dr. Who’s/ Are black, I’m the doctor who knows no god/ Is more powerful than Time. […]/ A brother has to know how to time travel & doctor/ Himself when a knee or shoe stalls against his neck” (77). In America, black men must always be prepared to return to a Jim Crow, pre-Civil Rights era, where violence is imminent, because, despite illusions of progress, violence still is. 

With his clever artistry of allusion, Hayes manages to craft an ultimate, meta allusion, which is used as the very scaffolding and premise for his entire collection. In his evocation of Baldwin and his usage of the love-addled sonnet, Hayes enacts Baldwin’s own poem, “A Lover’s Question.” Himself alluding to “America” by Samuel Francis Smith, Baldwin cries to America, his unrequited, even abusive lover: “I have endured your fire/ and your whip,/ your rope,/ and the panic from your hip,/ […]/ yet, my love:/ you do not know/ how desperately I hope/ that you would grow/ not so much to love me/ as to know/ that what you do to me/ you do to you” (Baldwin 60-1). Just as Baldwin questions America’s torrid affair with its black citizens, Hayes writes America love poems—some unrequited, some hurt, some scornful, some mournful, some even celebratory. Hayes begs Baldwin’s question: how can you, a black man, love a country that derides you? How can you forgive a country that can’t (or won’t) reckon with its ghosts? How can you serenade your home that is also sometimes your Hell? Nearing the end of the collection, Hayes concludes, “This country is mine as much as an orphan’s house is his” (71).

Works Cited:
Baldwin, James. Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems. Beacon Press, 2014. eBook.
Hayes, Terrance. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Penguin Poets, 2018. Print.

Essay by Hope Houston, co-editor of the RVRB. Hope writes short literary fiction, as well as speculative fiction for middle grade and young adult readers. Her work has appeared in Mystery Tribune and the Nexus Lit Journal. You can find Hope on Twitter.

Examining Structure in Tiana Clark’s “Nashville” From I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood

In the poem “Nashville” the narrator is walking down Second Avenue in Nashville with their white husband when a racial slur is yelled at them from an unknown source (Clark xiii-xv). The poem hinges on this moment. The “four violent syllables stabbing my skin” sets Tiana Clark on an investigation into the legacy of Nashville that is gentrified by people who “don’t know about the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s / Half Acre” (xv, xiii). The narrator also examines their own history—“my mother’s mother’s mother—Freelove was her name, / a slave from Warrior, North Carolina” (xiv). Clark uses sound, rhythm, and concrete imagery to great effect in “Nashville.” Further to this, the author’s structural choices strengthen and unify themes of place, public and private histories, memories, race, family, and mythology.

Tiana Clark’s most recent book of poetry, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, 2018

“Nashville” consists of fourteen quatrains with equal line length, except in the last stanza. The poem is sectioned into two parts with the racial epithet used as a bridge and a barrier to connect and contrast two histories. The first section refers to the city of Nashville and the second is a personal reflection. The structure of the poem’s stanzas can be looked at in a 6,1,6,1 formation.

The first six stanzas investigate the legacy of Nashville by comparing it to “hot chicken on sopping white bread with green pickle / chips—sour to balance prismatic, flame covered spice / for white people” (xiii). Here the enjambment is such that the stanzas merge into each other: “or maybe // they’ve hungered” and “where freed slaves lived // on the fringe of Union camps” (xiii). What is interesting is that the lines have freedom to move into the next stanzas. Contrast this with the social divide of the South where their own food— “hot chicken” is now curated by white people and their economic resources taken from them with the “I-40 that bisected the black community / like a tourniquet of concrete” (xiii).

The seventh stanza is where the racial slur occurs and in the same stanza: “Again. Walking down / Second Avenue, I thought I heard someone yelling at the back / of my husband” (xiv). This stanza acts as a link to the next section of the poem, triggering the narrator to reflect on their personal history. Had the racial slur been placed at the start of the poem, the bridging and contrasting of the two legacies as well as the poem’s shift towards a personal response would have made less of an emotional and intellectual impact because the racial slur would be decontextualised.

It is worth noting that while the seventh stanza acts as a bridge to the poet’s personal history it also acts as a barrier between the gentrified people in the first six stanzas who “don’t know about the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s / Half Acre”(xiii). In Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder states, “life is mirrored in…our use of language: we start forgetting the true significance of words and using them quickly, thoughtlessly, to function socially, and to stand in for certain experiences” (42).

But Clark’s refusal to not “give a damn”, embodied by the narrator asking “Who said it?” shows the responsibility that a poet has in not forgetting the importance of language and how it is used (xiv). Clark says: “there is always a word I’m chasing inside / and outside of my body” (xiv). Not only is Clark chasing a word and its importance but she’s also in control. Clark is doing the chasing and the questioning.

The next six stanzas continue to flow into each other as Clark searches for definitions and histories of words, “scanning // the O.E.D. for soot-covered roots” (xiv). However, the thirteenth stanza ends with a full-stop— “four violent syllables stabbing my skin, enamoured with pain” (xv). This throws the structure off kilter, offering no exit.

The last stanza’s first line is of similar length to the rest of the poem but the last three lines are shorter and repetitive referencing the “breath…panting at the back of Daphne’s wild hair” in stanza thirteen (xv). “I am kissing all the trees—searching the mob, mumbling to myself: /Who said it? / Who said it? / Who said it?” (xv)

While the seventh stanza is significant because this is where the racial slur occurs, it is in the final stanza that the structure shifts. The formation of 6,1,6 offers a barrier with the structure mirroring the experience of Clark, who is outnumbered by the mob. In the last stanza there is no circling back as the structure has made this impossible. However, the structure of 6,1,6,1 offers the poet a way through the mob to get to meaning, no matter the pain that her search for “Who said it” causes herself (xv).

Works Cited:

Clark, Tiana. “Nashville.” I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood. University of Pittsburgh Press, September 18, 2018, pp xiii-xv. (You can read or listen to her poem “Nashville” on The New Yorker)

Zaprudur, Matthew. Why Poetry. Harper Collins Publishers, 2017, pp 42.

Essay by Taidgh Lynch, a poet from the South-West of Ireland. His chapbook, First Lift Here, is forthcoming from Jack Pine Press

Placemeant: The Impact of Form on Content in Aritha van Herk’s “In Visible Ink”

At its most basic, Aritha van Herk’s 1991 essay, “In Visible Ink,” is about her trip to the Arctic. She presents us with facts of this trip: she went in May; she drinks hot tea and eats bannock; she wears caribou skin and Kamik boots “of Inuit design” to protect against the cold; she rides a komatik pulled by a snowmobile (3). At one point, a runner blade on the komatik breaks, and her guide, Pijamini, repairs it with plywood and nails (6). A simple story, and yet the narrator agonises over not being able to accurately convey the story, the true experience of being in the Arctic.

Aritha van Herk’s In Visible Ink, 1991

How can we write an experience beyond words? Where does the writer belong in a wordless world? And, what if that world turns out to be not wordless, after all, but written, spoken, understood, in a language the writer cannot possess? How does the writer reconfigure herself in a world where ‘possession’ is not a concept? I will address these concerns in my breakdown of “In Visible Ink’s” narrative arc, showing how, where, and why the narrator comes to certain conclusions about the practice of writing within the space of the Arctic as contained by text. What van Herk’s essay wants to talk about is writing, and the invisible limits of writers.

“In Visible Ink” opens with a view of the landscape as text, as van Herk (the narrator) considers the land and sea “both consummate empagements, intagli in the white” (2). The land and sea seem equivalent to words and the snow that covers both becomes a blank page, as if the Arctic itself is written in invisible ink, waiting to be read. A clever gesture to the title that tells us much about the narrator as the consummate writer—this landscape of Arctic is interpreted as she would a text, in a writerly fashion.

After these initial descriptions, the narrator muses about the questions she will be asked of her journey when she returns home: “how long did the trip take? how far did you go? how cold was it?” (3). And in these questions is the echo of familiar questions asked of writers: how many words did you write? how long did it take you to write that book? how many rejection letters have you received? van Herk decides these questions—and here we can assume she means the direct questions about her trip and those pesky questions all writers face—are not without meaning, but beside the point. These questions accept only quantifiable measurements and cannot possibly convey the experience of either the Arctic or writing. And in this acknowledgement of the similarities between experience and writing, the narrator confesses a desire for temporary escape from words and writing, to have the same experience as writing without the act of it, which she finds in the Arctic (4-5). This newfound experience leads her to realise the impossibility of rendering the Arctic in words when she asks: “how to describe or even begin to evoke this landscape?” (5). And the reader asks back: but haven’t you done so? She may have described a setting, but she claims failure at evoking the Arctic (a failure of writing, a failure as a writer committed to render a truth).

After the narrator acknowledges her inability to write the Arctic, she continues with her description of the place, presented now as a reading, not a writing. She ‘reads’ the tracks of polar bears and foxes and the komatik in the snow (6). Treating the Arctic as text, as a being to be read, is the highest level of praise from a woman who has made reading her career. But, again, she finds her limitation: “I cannot read these reaches” (8). She presses on. If writing and reading fail her, then what of speech? This is where van Herk realises that the failure is her own language: English is not sufficient. Inuktitut (the language of the Inuit) has the capacity, is as expansive as the Arctic, and can therefore encapsulate the landscape and experience as one, simultaneously. And as she has been absorbed by the experience, she finds herself only describable by and in those same Inuktitut words. Words that she refuses to repeat because they are not hers. She can borrow some, a small handful, while she is in the Arctic, but otherwise they stay with the Inuit, with her guide Pijamini, who gets the last laugh (did he know the Arctic would foil Southern attempts at articulation all along? Of course).

Throughout “In Visible Ink” we are confronted by the limitations of writing, and yet this essay is beautifully written. How can the form honour/uphold the content if the form is the essay and the content the inability to write it? If form and content were to truly mesh, wouldn’t that necessitate the essay to never have been written, to only remain a distant thought, an anxiety in the writer’s mind? Perhaps, if she were a poet.

As shown in my breakdown of the narrative arc, the essay moves back and forth from landscape and Arctic to ruminations on the Arctic that are ruminations on the practice of writing. This constant movement enacts a continual erasure and re/placement of the previous text with its forward progression.

Consider the words (those vessels van Herk finds so faulty). “In Visible Ink” is written with high-level diction—academic, and fearlessly inaccessible. As writers, we’ve been told to write simply, to invite our readers in. But van Herk breaks this rule, purposefully, to emphasise her point that the Arctic is not accessible, not for Southern readers. Journeying through the Arctic is a commitment that requires experience and a guide, so reading this essay needs the practice of reading academic / theoretical texts. And yet she maintains that the words fail.

The words are suspect (to the writer, the narrator, the reader), but readers tend to trust the narrator. We believe her struggles of articulation, and we know van Herk has been to the Arctic. The doubts she voices about her abilities regarding her portrayal of the Arctic seem genuine, rather than falsely self-deprecating. We believe that if she has failed at conveying the Arctic, she has not failed as a writer because she voices the anxieties associated with writing more generally. And she acknowledges the unwriteability of landscape, of Arctic.

The problem is in the multiplicity of Arctic. van Herk gestures to these versions of place (of self) with the tension between the present-tense narration and the second person addresses. Present tense exemplifies the act of continual erasure and points to the endurance of writing. The trying/erasing/trying/attempting to understand something/anything/erasing/trying, until, finally, some words remain on the page. This has the multiplied effect of mirroring the Arctic’s endurance and seeming timelessness, of amplifying the essay itself in its efforts to press forward, to rewrite what has already been written, and to speak to the practice of writing. The present tense keeps the narrator, forever, within the Arctic. In her state of wordlessness.

The second person addresses to “the reader” complicate this. The essay has already been written. It has been read. What is writing without a reader? The use of second person implies van Herk’s experience of the Arctic must be relegated to the past, along with the essay’s words as she writes them.

The Arctic exists outside of the boundaries we writers come up against and transgress—the Arctic has no need for boundaries, except where the snow melts. The Arctic is not a blank page on which to write, or which will reveal its invisible ink. The Arctic is not a book to be read. The Arctic is itself a writer, and it speaks a language other than English. Inuktitut. The Arctic is a writer in that English fails, has no better word for a landscape contiguous to our practice of writing. The Arctic wrote van Herk while she occupied that landscape, and in doing so reveals a writer’s reflection in the ice.

Works Cited:
van Herk, Aritha. “In Visible Ink.” In Visible Ink: The Writer as Critic: III. NeWest Press, 1991. pp. 1-11.

Essay by Allie McFarland, RVRB Editor and co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project. Allie writes novel(la)s—concise, women-centred blends of prose and poetry.