Air Salt: A trauma mémoire as a result of the fall

By Steven Ross Smith

by Ian Kinney
University of Calgary Press
2019/$18.99/128 pp.

Ian Kinney’s poetry is shattered. Or, in more literary terms, in Air Salt he uses disjunctive or cut up compositional methods, a non-linear form in keeping with an “accident” and its implications, as suggested in the subtitle.

Kinney, an Alberta poet, fell seven storeys from an apartment balcony, apparently under the influence of ingested mushrooms. The book is evidence that he, miraculously, survived. He has parsed his story in a way that captures how such an event scrambles, defies and reassembles much of life—body, logic, memory and even, for the memoirist, writing itself.

While this debut collection collects a series of discrete poems, it’s really one long poem, as themes, images and phrases recur throughout. Amplifying and unsettling the reading experience are 29 illustrations that depict X-ray images, often showing orthopedic implants—body repair hardware—attached to joints and bones. These medical images are sometimes overlaid or underscored by poetic text.

Captions under the images “Fig 66F & G” sum up the compositional result: “The narrative may also contain amnesia… The amnesia may also contain narrative.” Beside the image of a foot with a metal bar through it, the poem “Consult to spine” narrates, primarily in medical-speak, most likely a nurse’s report: “transfer to trauma unit as per dr. / confused but better than yesterday / extubate today. remove drain.”

The interjection of different elements—police and EMS reports, eyewitness comments, excerpts from emails or personal, hospital-room conversations, physiotherapy activity, the author’s journals, and “neutral” found material from real-estate listings and hospital brochures—shifts the tone of the language and point of view. The patient/author is identified sometimes as “pt.” or “17(I),” and as “you,” “he” and “I.” He asks, “who is I?” “17(I) sketches // in precise // pain” and, “pt. continues to chatter. he hits the ground.” Moments of human connection are incised, adding emotional pull: “many hugs and we hope that you continue / to heal” or “we love you / you are very very ill” and “the curtains tighten // when she leaves.”

While Kinney’s recombinant narrative is not a poetic norm, it is not without precedent among poet-experimenters. In Air Salt the disjunction aptly mirrors the content. In this context it is worth noting that Kinney has been shortlisted twice for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. The work’s eccentricity invites rereading, which offers reward—new discovery, new pleasure and connections, and unnerving empathy with the poet, his traumatic fall and the result of his attempt, touched on in the title poem, to “imitate // the sky.”

—Steven Ross Smith is Banff’s 2018–2020 poet laureate.

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