Mordecai Richler once joyfully pricked Edmonton’s civic pride, in 1985 in the New York Times, when he called Edmonton the “boiler room” of Canada. In Kelly Shepherd’s latest poetry collection, Insomnia Bird: Edmonton Poems, winner of the 2019 Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize, the author’s vision resonates with Richler’s cynical take on this raw young settler city. In these poems, the poet’s avatar is Magpie, a “nest builder and robber of nests” re-envisioned as a sleep-deprived, bus-riding flâneur moving through a city steeped in the erasures of colonization and repetitive boom/bust cycles fuelled by oil and gas.
The poet’s complex love affair with his city balances wit, anger, irony and lyricism in a cacophony of juxtaposed voices speaking in their own argots: urban planners, truck drivers, bureaucrats, architects, corporate spin doctors, rig pigs, tourism marketers, historians, developers, labourers, myth-makers, ornithologists, poets—sources all documented in end notes. It’s a city of revving engines; a city where coyotes take university-level conflict resolution classes; where “tattoo parlours make more money than bookstores”; where shopping malls thrive or die, “one mall’s/ liquidation sale irrigating another mall’s dusty plastic flowers”; a city that walks alone in the dark, listening to ghosts “speaking English, French, Cree, Michif,/ Blackfoot, Lakota, Tagalog, Ukrainian,/ Cantonese, Amharic, Punjabi, Spanish,/ Arabic, German, feral rock dove, traffic light, pedway…”
Shepherd’s Edmonton grows as an accretion of images: The city is “the haiku written by a dog and revised by a coyote in Mill Creek Ravine/ the “Oil Respect sticker with a hand-scrawled “S” in front of it.” Anger flares in poems such as “The Gospel of Prosperity and There’s Another World Coming So Who Gives a Shit About This One,” and in the erasure of First Nations culture replaced by “white and beige neighbourhoods/ which photocopy themselves.” But then, when you least expect it, there are moments of stunning lyric beauty: “Blossoms so purple/ on my way home from work/ last spring I stopped/ breathed them in/ then turned around/ walked back the way I came/ to buy a bottle of dark red wine—/ this is the tree.”
The book drew me back to Kroetsch’s The Seed Catalogue, where he asks “How do you grow a poet?”—a question posed in the context of a very different Alberta, where inspiration came from the annual seed catalogue and “culture” came packaged from Europe. Two generations later Insomnia Bird reinvestigates Kroetsch’s challenge. It’s a ride on a rush-hour commuter bus—crowded, noisy, fetid. Still, you can look out the bus windows to see “Rabbits browse among the constellations.”
—Jannie Edwards is a poet, teacher and editor in Edmonton.