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Book Reviews

How to Avoid Huge Ships

by Julie Bruck

river woman

by Katherena Vermette

Bec & Call

by Jenna Lyn Albert

Katherena Vermette prefaces the opening section in her second collection of poetry with an epigraph from Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” This may seem like a counterintuitive choice for the poems that follow, until one remembers that Elvis was repeatedly castigated for appropriating the music and styles of other cultures to turn a profit. This sort of cultural theft – by white Europeans at the expense of a racialized minority – is very much on the poet’s mind in river woman.

In her poem “new year’s eve 2013,” Vermette paints a picture of revellers at the corner of Winnipeg’s Portage and Main streets, dancing on ground that was occupied long before French and British interlopers found their way there. “Elders starve for words / settlers refuse to give,” Vermette writes, and the double meaning in the verb “give” provides a sharp rebuke to a settler colonial culture that will neither budge from the land it has taken nor speak about authentic restitution that would represent one small step toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Vermette proves adept at using settlers’ own vernacular as markers of collective culpability: “trolls circle their wagons / across the internet frontier / injuns! they cry.”

The centrepiece of Vermette’s collection is a suite of poems inspired by the Red River, a historically significant geographical location, though Vermette refers to the 1869 “rebellion,” with the word in quotation marks; her preferred term for the Métis uprising is “resistance.” Correcting the historical record is only one part of Vermette’s project in this book; the “red river” section explicitly aligns water with womanhood in all its permutations: “this river is your mother / it flows on and on.” The poem in which those lines appear ends with the acknowledgement that “this river / of course / is red,” once again playing on a settler colloquialism for Indigenous people and turning the derogatory epithet against itself.

Throughout river woman, Vermette eschews capitals and punctuation, at once disavowing the grammatical rules that have so long been imposed by Europeans on Indigenous people in a naked attempt at cultural erasure and carving out a style that resembles oral, incantatory speech. The result is a book that is at once deeply personal and politically charged.

Acadian poet Jenna Lyn Albert also addresses political subject matter in her debut, the slyly titled Bec & Call (in Acadian French, “bec” means both “kiss” and “beak”). This is most evident in the prose poem “Ten Ways to Protect Yourself from Sexual Assault,” which is a corrosively ironic guide for women who must navigate the rocky shoals of rape culture. “The onus is on you,” the poem begins, combining equal parts anger, fear, and disbelief. The piece counsels avoiding certain types of rough porn online: “If a stranger pinning you down and taking you violently gets you off, don’t speak it, you deviant feminist.”

Albert is direct and trenchant in these poems, some of which seethe with righteous anger, while others lay bare more personal travails. Which is not to suggest that she can’t also be deeply, raucously funny. “Tongue-in-Cheek,” about the poet’s grandfather introducing her and her sister to a particular East Coast culinary delicacy, is uproarious. It ends with the two young women vomiting into the washroom toilet, the tile floor “not nearly / as comfy as the prie-dieux at church.”

The language in Bec & Call is steeped in the regional argot of New Brunswick – Albert refers repeatedly to “Mémère” and “Pépère” – and the sense of place is palpable, though the collection is denuded of the bitterness and disillusionment that characterized the early work of fellow Acadian poet Herménégilde Chiasson. In their place, Albert has provided something that is part feisty political declaration, part Anne Sexton confessional, a brash and headstrong debut shot through with an undercurrent of vulnerability.

Julie Bruck follows up her Governor General’s Literary Award–winning 2012 collection, Monkey Ranch, with a melancholy volume focusing on disappointment, aging, and mortality. Numerous poems take up terminal illness and the death of elderly parents. “The Cold” finds the speaker ruminating on the only part of her father left alive after his demise: the virus that ended up killing him. “Perhaps / my body loved its father better than / I did, wants to make amends.” “Flipped” involves the sale of a parental home after the speaker’s mother decides it has become unlivable. And “Subscriber” addresses the survivor’s responsibility for cleaning up ephemeral detritus in the wake of a mother’s death.

Bruck’s lyrics are formally conventional, but no less interesting for their relative lack of technical innovation. The use of alliteration and assonance is subtle and effective: “Over the bent banks / of migrants, miles of lettuce and strawberries, / to the Monterey shore.” Line breaks are precisely calibrated to provide emotional heft or surprising reversals on the turn and the sombre mood is leavened by poems – “Dow Jones Starts Middle School,” “Report a Problem with This Poem” – that only in retrospect seem out of place in the collection.

How to Avoid Huge Ships opens with a poem in which the speaker gives an itinerant teenager directions to the Golden Gate Bridge, then wonders after he has vanished whether he intends to throw himself off it. The final poem is about a horse that has fled its enclosure. The theme of disappearance in these bookends is prevalent (or threatened) throughout the rest of the book, which becomes a meditation on how we deal with loss and the things it leaves behind.