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The Snowbird Poems

by Robert Kroetsch

Robert Kroetsch has deservedly earned a reputation as one of the leading writers of what, for lack of a better term, has been called Canadian postmodernism. Kroetsch’s self-reflexive narration is well in evidence in his latest collection, as is his continuing struggle between love and death, which he alludes to in “beached 3” with his typical wry humour: “And yet, hey, I really feel pretty good. I mean,/put on your bifocals. Look at those bikinis.”

The title sequence of poems follows a self-conscious speaker, Snowbird, as he daydreams, reads, and converses with various women on beaches in Florida and Australia. The self-mockery of the man who suddenly realizes that he is a snowbird, and what that might say about him, is clearly in evidence, as are the darker implications of aging and death. The series consists of fragments in various voices, styles, and forms, varying from surrealism to recorded conversations between Snowbird and his companion Henrietta, who seems much more level-headed about Snowbird’s situation than he is. The series can’t decide whether to rejoice in shoreline pleasures – beautiful sunsets, beautiful women in bikinis, beautiful birds – or to make fun of itself for falling into the clichés of snowbird life. This is the whole point, of course.

The less successful pieces – some of the more epigrammatic sections of the title series, and the overly journalistic sketches of “Lines Written in the John Snow House” – read as self-indulgent play with little substance. Kroetsch is also capable of some compelling moments made all the more powerful because of the postmodern doubt they have to work through in order to achieve their effects. “Poem for My Dead Sister” uses dense, evocative language and, while refusing to divulge many significant biographical details about the figure in the title, manages to convey a sense of grief and nostalgia, as well as (and this is crucial) an awareness that personal grief and memory are ultimately untranslatable.

It is a resonant moment when postmodern techniques are used to transcend, rather than revel in, the limits of language. Such moments in this collection stand with the best of Kroetsch’s impressive body of work.