Fast Commute

By Kelly Shepherd

by Laurie D. Graham
McClelland & Stewart
2022/$19.95/96 pp.

What happens when the entire landscape becomes a sacrifice zone? Or when we have so successfully insulated ourselves from the natural world around us that we actually believe we’re separate and above it? What does it say about us when every other species of life has been reduced to either décor or enemy? And what happens when our towns and cities prioritize the well-being of cars over the well-being of human beings? Are we really all working and striving this hard for what Robert Bringhurst has called “the stupidest goal in the world”—money and jobs?

Laurie D. Graham’s third book of poetry, Fast Commute, takes an uncomfortably close look at the ongoing colonial experiment that is Canadian society: our entitled consumerism, our sweeping-aside of Indigenous cultures, languages and ways of knowing, our unswerving devotion to industrial development and technological progress, and the impacts of all this on the natural world.

This book is about human disconnectedness: We are all trapped “in the living rooms of our vehicles.” Feeling like a tree uprooted by construction machinery, the poem’s speaker wants to find home and put down roots but can’t afford to.

This might make the book sound like an essay, but it’s better read as a chant or song, a collection of “incantatory verses.” Formally, this is a book-length poem made up of lists, couplets and blocky prose stanzas. Practically speaking, Fast Commute is an inventory, a checklist of damages. The book describes the honest face of our culture’s “myth of unlimited growth” and catalogues the scars and desecrations all around us—from strip malls to oil refineries (with their “manufactured cloud formations”) to residential schools. The speaker observes city workers covering up graffiti, and that action becomes a metaphor for the endless encroachment of industrial development and suburban sprawl: “[t]hey’ll cover it all in grey rectangles. They’ll make this place a desert yet.” Always looking at the ground, hoping to be grounded, the speaker sees the “curled tongues of failed sod. The sickness of soil along the road”; the city is composed of “crudscape and monuments.” As a society we eschew the clean “for the cheap and the quick.”

Yet in the middle of these lists and all this damage are glimpses of something real, even sacred. A young willow tree pushes through concrete; a garden speaks nêhiyawêwin. The land remembers. It’s not too late: “To understand that I am present here,/ that I am sensed, that the soil feels me,/ that the mourning dove knows my species/ better than I know its species,/ and with this understanding to start to hear—”

Kelly Shepherd is the author of Insomnia Bird (Thistledown).

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