By Dionne Brand. McClelland & Stewart, 100 pp, $17.99, softcover.
The Good Bacteria
By Sharon Thesen. Anansi, 98 pp, $18.95, softcover.
By Rob Budde. Signature Editions, 94 pp, $14.95, softcover.
Home of Sudden Service
By Elizabeth Bachinsky. Nightwood Editions, 78 pp, $16.95, softcover.
The mantra “The personal is political” manifests itself in the work of four poets who examine the effects of the way we live our life, what we see walking down a city street, what scenes we choose to remember in a movie, or what signs we take note of driving past a gas station.
Start with Toronto poet Dionne Brand's book-length Inventory, which takes epic stock of the moments, both defining and seemingly unremarkable, of our time. She writes the knowingness that gets pushed aside as we respond to wars raging on streets other than our own. She constructs poetic monuments to remind us not to have faith in the familiar:
you wonder, was this the same
so many years ago,
uranium enriching your stomach,
these monuments that survive
everywhere, in essence signs of the
among us, look at the cornices,
the fretwork, evenly taken for love
or reverence, if we sum it up…
The great thing is that Brand doesn't preach, just takes readers by the hand and asks us to look at things differently. She keeps track of what's happening presently: she continually updates a “bristling list”—not to mark the accumulation of events, but to put us inside the flicker of action, rather than leaving us passively watching the news on a television screen. She connects here to there to point out an alternate possibility at the end of the day:
she's never liked twilight, you know,
when it comes, it only confirms
we've failed at every
it only arrives to insist,
what a waste,
it says, I at least end things, I
understand perfection, deep
at its source it isn't power,
nothing so small, so edible
there, it is immaculate possibility
That possibility is picked up in Vancouverite Sharon Thesen's The Good Bacteria, which continually connects everyday moments with larger issues. The book laments the loss of the good with the bad, the cure that's as bad as the disease, as in the title poem:
She pressed upon the part of her mind
that was titanium…
Perched on a pear
leaf leaning out to see
insect heraldry. And to call
for a change in government.
The writing continually calls for shifts or changes in how we look at what passes for the familiar, always questioning our version of events:
later on you'll try to remember if it
or whether you just got carried away
by the long dark road and the twin
miracles of each other
& the radio.
Like Brand, Thesen also seeks to mark particular moments, but with a lighter, quirky touch as in the poem “Nowadays”:
How long does “nowadays” last
Since the mid-eighties, mid-nineties.
Since Mulroney anyway. They
couldn't remember a time
When magazines were different
Or when people weren't so
high-strung & managed.
Her use of humour is cutting enough to be credible: humour on a mission, humour with a purpose. She slices open events like a huge forest fire, a friend dying, and instead of looking for the universal emotion that connects us all (as if such a thing existed), she examines the specific details that constitute these events and puts us at the eyepiece of her microscope to see the way she does.
If Thesen looks at things full on, Rob Budde sees what glimmers at the edge of our peripheral vision. Flicker presents a series of prose poems that sometimes connect obviously and at others ask us to build our own connections, stringing them together, clicking them back and forth. Budde, who teaches at the University of Northern B.C., captures precise domestic moments and builds his monuments to them: “Boredom is given a bad rap. Boredom can ease its way into a day like a thick afghan or wind you down like a good spanish coffee. Boredom is emotional ergonomics; the relationship couches all the accumulated tiredness and stress. You catch me that way.”
He catches those moments to create emotional simulacra, like when he writes about the domestic space of fatherhood: “Today she is eight and entirely worldly. Patterns of everyday no longer entrance; she wants the exception, the magical, the gruesomely odd. She stops and studies a crow feather, ponders the tip that connected with the bird, looks for blood or sinew. She is long and lanky like her mother, bird-like in her movement. I seem lumpy, a stocky tree stump around her. She often leaps onto me to see further, look over heads in a crowd.”
He lets the reader use him in a similar way, perched up high to see both the screeching crashes of nightmares and the beauty of deep sleep, the most sought-after condition of any parent.
A parent's worst nightmare is the subject of the poem “Sometimes Boys Go Missing” in Elizabeth Bachinsky's debut, Home of Sudden Service. The poem is “inspired by” a real-life event, but Bachinsky, who lives in Maple Ridge, refuses to be maudlin about it:
It's when the handmade posters go
up, you know
desperation. The crude lettering. The
kicking themselves they've only got
from Christmas three years back,
and that one's none
She examines these cultural markers as objects of study in their own right, speculating poetically on the events that caused their creation. She doesn't let any sign pass without spinning out possible signifiers. And she sees the signs everywhere: from the local suburban valley to a drive across the country, in punk-rock boys and outcasts.
Her acute attention to place asks us to look again at the suburbia so easily dismissed, as in the poem “Valley”:
cold suburban cartography
falls where it falls, like breathing, or
Your faults are mine and mine
yours. When we kiss, you light my
Yours is the trailer park fire of the
a vinyl-sided wet dream…
She forces us to desire the places where we grew up, places we both yearn for and long to forget.