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East and West

by Laura Ritland

The conjunction in the title of Laura Ritland’s exceptional debut testifies to the poet’s comfort with amplitude. Ritland eschews the forced decision in “east or west” in favour of inclusion and breadth. Accordingly, the poems in the collection range widely, juxtaposing manufactured settings (train stations, a duplex in Toronto’s East York neighbourhood, barbershops, and bars) with nature and art. The poet also demonstrates a highly allusive style, making explicit or implicit reference to – among others – Marianne Moore, Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Tennessee Williams, and Gwendolyn MacEwen.

“How you hate poetry,” Ritland writes of the eponymous month in “April.” “That compulsive overflow of too much / emotion, coupling feeling where feeling / has no place to be.” (The line break in “too much / emotion” is scalpel sharp.) By contrast, the early spring month would “rather speak in water, unequivocal, voiceless.” It’s impossible to read a poem titled “April” without thinking of the opening line to “The Waste Land,” but unlike Eliot’s baldly declarative statement (the single most definitive moment in that entire poem), Ritland resists the categorical, choosing instead to weave in and out among ambiguities. Her April is a “season for strangeness”; notwithstanding the imputed desire for the month to remain “voiceless,” the speaker in the poem recognizes that “it has always been you // here tapping your language like a coin against / the window’s glass.”

Ritland’s poems operate in the liminal space between poles. “In the middle ground, species thrive in the violence / between elements,” she writes in the collection’s title poem. “Stay anywhere long enough, the contradictions resemble love.” Juxtapositions and divergences abound: in “Outpost,” the speaker notes, “When I arrived at the station, the crowd was moving in two / directions.” The opening lines of “East of Error” move from the Biblical creation story to “a small galaxy of Cheerios” in a breakfast bowl. And “The Location of the Wreck / The Last Confessions of Captain Franklin” locates the HMS Erebus “under my breastbone, a weak rib / wonderfully preserved in sonar.” (The final line of that poem – “It was a Sunday in Canada” – also recalls the observation in Alden Nowlan’s “Canadian January Night” that “this is a country / where a man can die / simply from being / caught outside.”)

As might be expected from a collection titled East and West, location and dislocation are persistent themes. (The four sections of the book are designated by the four cardinal directions on a compass.) Settings roam from Toronto to Vancouver to war-torn Syria. (“Test Case for Syria” is the book’s most political poem and – by some measure – its angriest.) But Ritland also addresses temporal dislocation (“I heard the future singing above me on steel rails. / I knew then I’d missed it by two minutes”) and ontological dislocation.

There is an element of uncertainty inherent in much of this but also an attitude of defiance, like the sea spider that threads its sightless way across the bottom of the ocean floor (“Eyeless, it persists”). If Ritland is absorbed in a kind of ontological questioning, this is coupled with a dedication to resilience and perseverance: “Try living in the grand scale // of things,” she advises early on. “If you fail, / you can always turn back.”