The title of Calgary writer Monica Kidd’s fourth collection of poetry, Chance Encounters with Wild Animals, suggests an exploration of the risks and rewards of wilderness travel, the kind that makes possible rare encounters with wildlife. However, the poet’s actual meetings with animals in Antarctica, where she travelled as an expedition guide, are brief and surprising. Seared by the bile-inducing “honking stench” of Gentoo penguins, the poet describes the birds as anthropomorphically dressed in “filthy tuxedoes/ punch drunk and dragged/ through the muck to the/ children, threadbare, begging.” A stinking wilderness slum.
Symbolically, some of the wild animals implicit in the title might be the historical explorers drawn to the geographical and psychic extremities of Antarctica. In “Waterboat Point,” Kidd poetically explores the experience of a young English couple who, in 1920, spent a perilous winter in Antarctica conducting research from an overturned boat, rather than return home in failure. The poet is a kindred spirit, drawn as she is to “the end of the world,/ [where] trees bend to the east, peg-legged by the wind”; where she and her fellow travelers are “Jonah, adrift in this/ breathing thing” of a boat travelling under a “gunmetal sky,” where one experiences “what it means to stand here,/ made small by a mountain of ice/ and wait for it to fall.”
Extreme travel here is balanced by stillness and acute observation, skills honed by Kidd’s experience as a biologist, journalist and family physician. A clue to this balance lies in the poet’s choice of an epigraph by Thoreau: that it is easier to travel to the ends of the earth through countless travails than it is to “explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone.” The poems I kept returning to were not the ones that sent me to the endnotes for historical explanations, but rather those that traced a careful, loving witnessing of the world, poems steeped in the gravitas of grief, in attentiveness to the beauty and ephemerality of life.
The collection opens with 15 grief poems, written in the wake of a father’s death, an emotional “nuclear winter” made bearable by a list of so-called survival skills, such as “performing whispered pectoriloquy” (a lung test where the physician listens intently to patient’s whispered words through her stethoscope); and delivering a baby by “slipping the throbbing umbilical cord over the neck.” These extraordinary events are paired with more quotidian survival skills, such as knowing long division and “parallel parking a minivan in front of a pack of bikers”—the latter a testament to the poet’s stamina, self-confidence and wit.
—Jannie Edwards is a poet, teacher and editor in Edmonton.