Shane Neilson’s New Brunswick is an homage to his native province and, more importantly, homeland. It begins in a dramatic and unorthodox manner: a dedication that includes a verse by John Donne and an epigraph comprising the text of a song that won honourable mention in a contest held by the New Brunswick tourism department. This is followed by a “Timeline Legend” poem, the structure of which both supports and denies its own reading and acts as a fascinatingly creative portal into the primary narrative.
Immediately evident in Neilson’s writing is an attentive musicality, which counters what Carmine Starnino once labelled as “the tin ear of Canadian poetry.” The second notable facet is contained in the extensive and grounding imagery that runs throughout part three of the collection, a long poem titled “Broken Crown on the Neilson Family Table”: “Base an old trunk, the treated roots fire-singed / and dipped in varnish, swung to one side … Bark ridges the rim in rippling waves / the table-ends leaving a live-edge V … Only four souls can dine – the Neilson clan. … My place: at the right hand.”
The table becomes a metaphor for all that exists between a father and a son in a remarkable elegy saturated with depth of emotion and poetic craft. There remains a sense of care and love for place, time, and people.
Another gem is the coming-of-age poem, “Oromocto”:
With the girl, I lay down in the grass.
The Burton Bridge as backdrop,
her breasts in my face. A good NB girl,
made of corn, coal, and ginger ale.
With boats skating past, the grass high,
“I love you,” I said. A good NB boy
made of mixed gas, plaid polyester,
and corduroy. “I want to take you away.”
Neilson’s sharp observations entice. New Brunswick rings in tone and tribute as a moody historic elegy.
By contrast, My Heart Is a Rose Manhattan, from Calgary poet Nikki Reimer, arises out of the topos of complaint. It is an existential reaction to city and state, told with a heaping dollop of fugue and refrain. The structure mimics modern dissociation with the perceived world. The words somersault over themselves to create a vibrant linguistic trickery, flowing into an ironic deep grief where the revelation of the self is intimate and steeped in pathos and current cultural vernacular. Some poems comprise idiosyncratic textual forms, some are steeped in laugh-out-loud cynicism.
Moments of humanity appear tangled within Reimer’s theatre of absurd: “i am trying to be a person / rather than a bone frock / dross / effluent / inside the vessel, a cadence / tragedy porn > authenticity whores / inside the cadence, electrical surge / teeming on the shores / abort my neoliberal cow.” The lament, directed at an ill-fated life, rails against capitalism and vanity.
The complaint tradition is best indulged in tumultuous times and Reimer embraces the chutzpah to maintain this underutilized form. She howls at injustice, death, and the ridiculousness of the visceral body, and does so with autobiographical humour: “if you’re thirty-five and you’ve selfie-diagnosed ADHD”; “do you like my new fatpants?”; “welcome to the catastrophe of the human spirit.” Social concerns, public art, and the conditions of the physical self are all considered targets in the way they appear right now, in these troubled times: problematic and, yet, what we are stuck with.
Brian Henderson’s Unidentified Poetic Object attempts to answer existential questions: how? Now what? The lilt of the poet’s words forms an incantation, a calling forth of attention; the lack of punctuation insists that interpretation is flexible and slippery.
The book feels like finding something delivered from the sea, both ancient and valuable for its otherworldly form and wisdom. “And even though the language is not / Even though the language is not mine to carry / Matter is dreamlike.” If it is the reviewer’s job to observe the artistry, craft, and technique of a writer, it would take awhile to explore the evident mastery of the linguistic acrobatics and enjambment in the poem “Is”: “Is unfinished sky mud drift / Glacial karst meltwater / writing some words in landscape shale creatures / Muskrat snapping turtle catbird cattail.”
Henderson is a shapeshifter. His sleight of hand begins with a focus on an object, but the engine of metaphor morphs objects into loss, paradox, desire, water, a homeopathic tincture. Take, for example, these lines from “The Rain Book”: “Text bleed acknowledges the fragility of the attempt to fix / Memory and emphasizes writing’s fluidity or perhaps // That the writer had suffered a recent or recurrent loss a kind of / winter a summer storm can render / A page illegible in a matter of minutes // But there is no such thing as a clean slate regardless of your desire ink / Is always the colour of water // And water is always the colour of something else.”
Any sommelier of metaphoric craft could find something in Unidentified Poetic Object to admire. It is a book to return to.