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Pale Red Footprints

by K.I. Press

This polished debut collection of poetry is loosely based on the memoirs of author Karen Press’s French Canadian grandfather, Donat Sylvestre, which were translated from the French by Press’s mother, Mariette. Pale Red Footprints is very much a family affair. The poems chronologically trace Sylvestre’s footprints across geographies, beginning with his childhood in northern Ontario, travelling through his years as a young settler in northern Alberta during the Depression, and ending with his retirement years in Arizona in the early 1960s. But Press offers more than a family portrait, as she writes in the opening poem: “My forming these letters/is translation: across/divisions, oceans, geological formations … across/generations, grandfathers to granddaughters … from the paper dead/to the paper living.”

This act of translation is really an act of remembering – of putting together the pieces of a history to recreate a story. Press assists this remembering by allowing the more narrative elements of the story to be told through excerpts from her grandfather’s own writing: “On the 18th of December, 1974, Mariette gave birth to Karen. Soon after, I bought a new car, a Ford Montego.” In general, these “found” passages illustrate the intervals and interconnections between Sylvestre’s own story and the poetic story Press weaves around him.

Far more striking are the many other layers of story and history that Press unfolds through metaphor and poetic structure. In the poem “Not Work,” for example, Press describes her ficto-historical grandfather’s “not work” of shovelling coal in 1936 through a series of figures and line-breaks: “You have only seen it in movies./Black and white. Arms of a farmer./Yet another new layer/of skin./ Squinting/for air.” Though Pale Red Footprints follows a well-developed history, there is little doubt that the most marked footprints Press leaves are pressed in poetry.