Frontenac House Poetry Quartet 2018

By Christine Wiesenthal

Frontenac House
2018/$19.95 each

Fresh from the blazing success of last year’s Griffin-winning publication of Billy Ray Belcourt’s This Wound is a World, Calgary-based Frontenac House is justifiably proud of its annual poetry quartet series. This year’s selection stands out for the diversity of poetic styles showcased—a richness further enhanced by the artistic range of the individual poets themselves: Laurie Anne Fuhr and Tanya Evanson are musicians and performers as well as writers; Jim Nason and Basma Kavanagh are both multi-genre artists who also work as small press/artisanal publishers. There is something here for poetry fans of many stripes.

Place-based poems and the familiar tropes of Canadiana populate Laurie Anne Fuhr’s debut collection, Night Flying. Dedicated to “military brats everywhere,” Night Flying takes readers on a tour of various postings—Ottawa, Winnipeg, Cold Lake—exploring local landscapes, culture and relationship challenges from the perspective of a child of parents stationed with the Canadian Armed Forces. Prairie gothic Alberta winters pervade this world, punctuated at intervals by the screams of F-18s and ATVs. Along with poems that exhume the pain of constant relocation, the strongest moments in Night Flying include experiments in perspective such as “Vanishing Point” and the playful “Mud Pie,” where Fuhr’s imagery stretches time and space in wonderfully unexpected ways.

For a more sustained immersion in the surreal, readers can turn to Jim Nason’s Rooster, Dog, Crow, which features its title critters as main characters in an allegorically driven, carnivalesque, queer political satire. Poetry peopled with animal characters seems to be trending these days, but the quixotic imagination at work in Rooster, Dog, Crow also reflects Nason’s own evolution, in his sixth collection of poems, to a place where (as he said in a recent interview) “poetry is merging with fiction, fiction is merging with politics, [and] politics is merging with religion.” The blend here is trippy, often funny and incisive. In its final section, Nason’s animal parade rewards readers by lifting into view a deeper human drama, a love triangle that transforms the surreal into the recognizably real.

More specifically language-oriented are the works by Tanya Evanson and Basma Kavanagh. Nouveau Griot is the second poetry collection by Montreal-based writer/dancer/performer Evanson, who in addition to directing the Banff Centre’s Spoken Word Program, is also a trained whirling dervish. (Really!) The poems in Nouveau Griot are collected from Evanson’s four studio albums of spoken word and music, and transmit, even in print, the energy of live performance. These are rambunctious, quick-witted, sonorous poems that slide up and down emotional scales with distinctive rhythm and cadence as they probe themes of travel and place, language and identity, relationships and the poet-singer’s own dual Antiguan-Canadian affiliations. In West African and the Indigenous Creole culture of the Caribbean, the griot, a travelling storyteller, poet or musician, serves as a community’s custodian of oral traditions. Evanson taps into this tradition, but also expands it from her own uniquely diasporic perspective.

As a counterpoint, Basma Kavanagh’s Ruba’iyat for the Time of Apricots sounds a subtler but undeniably accomplished note. Titled after the traditional Persian verse form it adapts, Kavanagh’s Ruba’iyat is a long poem that unfurls as a “sea of words,” lapping “against you in measured waves” of quatrains. Returning to “the root of the root of your self,” the poet traces a family tree of largely silenced foremothers, striving to learn the Arabic of her mother’s tongue, and commemorating both an illiterate grandmother (who nevertheless “memorized the Quran”) and a mother “who sheltered us from a stifling past, from strict rules just/ for girls.”

Kavanagh’s occasional use of the ruba’iyat as a mode of exhortation can at times seem overly formal, but forced notes are few in this elegant rumination on feminist filiations and themes of fertility and growth. A skillful manipulation of perspective, and capacity for stunningly precise imagery, is immediately established in the poem’s opening sequences:

Why do we say day breaks, like an egg or a wave? Waves dash
against sand, form again. An egg breaks once –splits or shatters.
Day sweeps and smoulders, seeps, smoky-slow. Day blinks, an azure
eye opening –morning lifting the heavy lid of night.

Last night’s rain steams from my neighbour’s ploughed field, stirred by light wind,
warm air. A hundred plumes turn alone, and, slowly, as one,
dervishes made of moisture. I am writing from within
the nucleus of an atom, eye of my own small storm.

“In the time of apricots” is a “rustic proverb,” but there is nothing rustic about Kavanagh’s craft. “My apricot tree didn’t take on our northern island,” the poet eventually confesses, but her book itself yields a sumptuous harvest. Here is a stone fruit poet of earthy, sensual intelligence (and a designer of art books) worth watching.

Christine Wiesenthal is a professor in the department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta.

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