The Shadow List
By Jen Sookfong Lee. Wolsak & Wynn, 88pp, softcover
What happens when a critically acclaimed novelist and former CBC Radio books commentator switches lanes and becomes a poet? In the case of Vancouver’s Jen Sookfong Lee, it’s a magnificent ride.
The Shadow List is a compulsively readable collection of poems touching on everything from moth infestations to former lovers, and from text etiquette to a common lie told by writers.
It’s tempting to describe the poetry as highly personal, though it’s uncertain whether Sookfong Lee is adopting the role of a narrator or simply baring her soul.
The title phrase comes up in a poem called “Wishes”, which opens this way: “There is a stray eyelash on your cheek. You pick it off, balance it on your finger, close your eyes, and blow. So. What do you wish for?”
What comes next in this shadow list is a deep dive into the passions of the mind.
So many other poems in the collection, including “Five Breakups With the Same Man”, reveal Sookfong Lee’s freewheeling style.
Here, she writes: “You sent him a very long text, the kind you have to tap twice to read. He didn’t respond. It was Christmas. During sex, he said he loved you. You pretended not to hear him, went home, and he didn’t call for six months.”
The Shadow List is not a meandering, safe escape filled with alliterative, rhyming passages that leave the reader wondering what the poet is trying to convey.
Rather, there’s an urgency to this text. It’s direct, detailed, and courageous. And it delivers rich, contemporary tales through vignettes in the narrator’s life.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise from the author of such novels as The Conjoined, Dead Time and Shelter, and The Better Mother.
Her brief, evocative descriptions pop up again in “Anatomy”, which is near the end of the book of poems.
“At eight, you knew never to cry,” Sookfong Lee writes. “At fourteen, you wrote furious poems. At twenty, you turned to a wall in the emergency room and answered no questions. At thirty-nine, you wept and he didn’t even listen. You press down on your thigh. It was the birth of your son, wasn’t it, that made you this soft?”
In The Shadow List, the storytelling always looms large. This makes it an ideal gift in National Poetry Month in April, even for those who don't normally read poems.