Kate Sutherland’s How to Draw a Rhinoceros is a curious little book, presenting a series of poems about rhinoceroses with a focus on their commodification as spectacle over the course of western colonial history. The result is a book as much about that history as about its putative subject, with poems drawing from the language of the various menageries and emporiums that put rhinoceroses on display; the poems become menageries of their own.
Much of the poetry here consists of found text drawn from various lexicons: advertisements, newspaper articles, letters, travel memoirs, natural histories, and other sources. The use of found text in contemporary poetry is certainly not unusual, and indeed the blurb on the back of the book compares the writing here to a “Kroetschian documentary poetics.” The possibilities of such a tactic are manifold: to recontextualize non-poetic discourses within a poetic frame so as to place those discourses under the sign of irony; to reveal latent poetic elements within them; or to lay bare their ideological assumptions.
But Sutherland’s method doesn’t necessarily accomplish – or even aim for – any of this. Rather, the borrowings read more as citations within a historical document, which was quite possibly the poet’s goal. She also employs lists as a form a number of times; this, too, is a mode rife with potential, and not uncommon in contemporary poetics. An example from the current collection would be “Going, Going, Gone,” which catalogues 20 “lots” drawn from descriptions of rhinoceros-related items on online auction sites.
This is Sutherland’s first book of poetry, and constitutes a shift away from short fiction, as she notes in her acknowledgments. The transition can be seen in the verse itself: often line breaks are employed not so much as enjambment to tweak meaning or heighten ambiguities, but rather as a sign of “the poetic.” That is, much of the verse reads as prose arbitrarily broken into lines: in “Magrath the Giant and the Rhinoceros,” for example, Sutherland writes, “His skeleton is one of the most / treasured possessions / of the Trinity College Museum.” At other times – in “Elephant vs. Rhinoceros” for example – line breaks are employed to torque meaning: “The rhinoceros attacks / surprises / opens the fight with / overcomes the elephant by.”
The most interesting poems here are the least lyrical, such as “Officials Said,” which presents text borrowed from newspaper reports of rhino poaching in India in 2013, but does so in a way that uses repetition to heighten urgency and remind us of the precarious existence of this remarkable animal: “attacked shot at fired at opened fire on gunned down shot dead killed killed killed killed.”
Adèle Barclay’s If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You comprises five sections of free verse lyric love poems, many of which employ a variation on the epistolary form: poems written as a missive to a specific “you,” but which often end up, as she puts it in the opening poem, as “Another poem I won’t send.” These are poems of same-sex love, subtly expressed, and it is a love that moves between eros (“And the way you demand to be smothered and bruised, / the fetishistic quality you assign to women’s clothing”) and philia (“We eat cabbage, / potatoes, and pickled herring, / dream in neighbouring bunk beds”). They are also reflective poems that recall less the ecstatic moments of a shared life than its quotidian, domestic details: “I’m most like you when selecting apricots / I pinch and smell them, opossum thumbs / and toddler cheeks.”
The epistolary overtones of the book suggest a poetry attempting to connect over distances, and the poems range from Brooklyn to East Vancouver (“You’re drunk in Bushwick / while cherry blossoms / rank and clog the gutters of / my East Van neighbourhood”) to Alberta, where the lovers “Never step in the same puddle of warm beer twice,” to Montreal, where “You play a nun / as an extra in a film, skate in Parc La Fontaine / across from Les Dauphins.” Overall Barclay’s lyrical style tends to the ornate, piling up adjectives and employing tropes of comparison, as in, for example, “Suburban Sonnet”: “drunk as a busted patio umbrella / barbs the crank of old bike chains up anthills.” I prefer the straightforward clarity of a poem like “Eau Clair”: “I feed ducks barbeque chips in the park / while northbound clouds cast shadows / over what is buried in the basement of the tower.”
These are both promising first books – the one more ambitious in its overall project but with room for improvement in execution; the other pursuing the well-worn path of love poems but doing so in ways that often surprise.