Aidan Chafe’s Short Histories of Light is a largely autobiographical debut that looks at trauma, addiction, religion, migration, and myth. A key preoccupation of this book is the institutions that shape our lives – whether the hospital, the school, the church, or the city itself.
Chafe is skilful in making lyric out of memory: “I remember the piercing wail of the man’s wife. / The altar boy letting go of the wine” (from “Our Father”). He is also adept at providing just the right amount of mystery, as when describing mental illness: “i think about sharp things / on Saturdays.” The formal choices Chafe makes are subtle but dictated by the individual poems’ needs.
With most of the five sections of this book containing only eight or nine poems and taking up a similar number of pages, the section dividers feel unnecessary and somewhat distracting. The units are so discrete that the separation inhibits each poem from functioning as a line in the greater poem of the book, refusing to allow the book to arrive as clearly as it could at its volta.
“Sharpest Tooth,” which is the last section and the book’s longest, is exceptionally good, blending the violence of human and animal activity in the woods and invoking everything from gun to wolf with crisp and memorable imagery: “See his fang, how pure a pickaxe.”
A Generous Latitude, by Lenea Grace, is a debut that purports to trouble Canadiana but more closely resembles the travelogue of a restless and uprooted speaker. Poems are located in Quebec, Sudbury, Vermillion Bay, Nova Scotia, and beyond. The observations are often hasty and without nuance, such as in “On Yonge Street,” which reduces the busiest street of the most diverse city in the world to “Papery women festooned with earrings, wigs / to fool themselves young. Mocha lattes […] even the babies are wearing designer scarves.”
Poems located in Montreal and elsewhere in Quebec are the most numerous and, as a result, the most developed. In terms of scope, they cover the iconic – poutine, Leonard Cohen, Guy Lafleur (“Proofs”) – and the intimate (“Just Grit”).
Least successful are the poems that offer social critique through mediated images: a ridicule of America (“Mr. Peanut”); a send-up of David Hasselhoff (“Germans Love David Hasselhoff”); and a swipe at a good percentage of everyone alive (“Faceblue,” which contains the lines, “Your friendship means / a lot to me – no really, / I want to thank you // for sharing your daughter’s / first bowel movement. The video was inspired. // Twelve ‘likes’!”).
In terms of structure, A Generous Latitude would have benefited from an organizing principle – say, poems grouped by location. It also would have benefited from more surprise; the text often feels overdirected in its use of all-caps and italics, and some poems (“A Man I Never Loved”; “Mercy Fuck”) employ their final line as the title, thereby undermining whatever they had intended to reveal.
At first glance, Chelsea Coupal’s debut could not be more different in tone and scope, featuring poems of careful and quiet reflection, deeply rooted in rural Saskatchewan. But restlessness, vehicles, men, and alcohol also figure prominently in this collection, even if things play out quite differently than in Chafe’s and Grace’s books.
Sedley is populated with friends, family, and teachers, but land and weather combine as the main protagonist. Opening with the lines, “We smell Fall before we see it: / cinnamon, smoke, the sulphur spark,” Coupal primes the reader for the passage of time as irrevocably intertwined with attunement to seasonal shifts. She illustrates how waiting (for rain, for the harvest, for the weekend) is a way of life.
The book is broken into four sections arranged in somewhat chronological order from adolescence to adulthood. These poems fluctuate between odes and laments, sometimes within the same stanza: “Some of us keep hope folded / in our pockets. The rest / have held it up to lighters.” Coupal’s use of form is sparing and effective – pantoum (“A Plain Run”), villanelle (“Her Own Fading Light”), and sestina (“Sestina for the Party”) cycle through the pages like crops with different harvest dates.
While a few topics may be slightly overworked – there are ample descriptions of boredom and dust – there is an abundance of gorgeously rewarding stand-alone poems. “A Horse Named Breeze” is particularly poignant – the animal “had what looked like a map of the world // on his back” and “grazed a halo / around himself.”
Coupal’s book reframes the romanticized notion of wide open spaces as sites of claustrophobia: “We knew prairie could pin you / down to the ground like a graveyard cross, / so some of us couldn’t leave, even if we wanted to.” But having left, she is able to look at the town with the warmth that distance affords: “Love follows like a familiar horse: head low, / slow, ears forward. It doesn’t charge or / rear up, just plods behind, trusting / I know the way home.”