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Question & Answer

by Alison Pick

What is the answer?” No answer came. She laughed and said, “In that case what is the question?” (Gertrude Stein)

In her debut poetry collection, Question & Answer, Alison Pick takes up Gertrude Stein’s challenge, selecting her “questions” out of the poetry of other contemporary poets, and crafting “answers” that redefine the nature of the question. It’s a clever conceit, one that enables Pick to write about a multitude of themes and subjects, and in a variety of poetic styles. Though we know that these questions are lifted out of other texts, Pick makes them, and the answer poems they generate, wholly her own.

In answer to “Anyone for tea before the night falls?” a line from Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “The Mountain: A Study in Relative Realities,” Pick shifts the poetic terrain to meditate on her grandmother’s death: “The way her breath/was a settling darkness,/a softness that licked the/night to an early falling dream.”

In this poem, as in so many others in the collection, there is an unanswered sensuality that undermines the strict dialectic of question and answer. In “Is it a refusal of desire (at which point, do we not refuse memory too?),” she writes: “This is the truth: there isn’t one truth. A woman/is the next, next is the man, desire shunting/like blood through a vein, spreading out/in concentric circles across the flat stretch/of the skin.” It is this sensuality that gives the collection its depth and substance, moving the poems out of the realm of the clever writing exercise and into that of mature poetry.

Question & Answer is a strong debut for a poet who, though never before published in book form, is well known in Canada. Her already lengthy list of awards and publications, including the Bronwen Wallace Award for the best unpublished poet under 35, suggest that, in the minds of juries and editors, Pick is already a strong writer. As a reader, I have to agree. Though the collection’s format verges on the formulaic, Pick’s writing is so compelling that misgivings about overly clever forms quickly pass into simple admiration. These are lovely poems that form a lovely answer to the question: What is good poetry?