Field Notes For the Alpine Tundra & The Year of Our Beautiful Exile Re-re-review (Gaspereau Press, 2015)

I have decided that my reviews are not only never overviews but they aren’t just reviews, whether gushing or acidic. Instead they are more re-re-reviews in which I express various approaches to looking at the book in question or alter my attitude to the text as I read, hoping, at the best, for my own education in the process.

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That said, both of these texts from Gaspereau are, needless to note, exquisite in proportion and texture, though their contents don’t always rise (and perhaps, how could they, design possibly being easier than singing) to the memorable beauty of the covers. Elena Johnson’s first book is, as its title makes clear, a brief assemblage of jottings, some attaining lyricism, others only scant traceries of moments spent on the tundra where she was Writer in Residence in 2008. I am glad I read this collection twice. The initial read was over in about 15 minutes, leaving me feeling a bit cheated of further depths, elaborations, angles into intimacy. Of course, there is the registering of Gary Snyder echoes or even Robert Creeley from the get-go, along with Johnson’s inclusion of species charts and topographical features, recalling me to Bren Simmers’ use of such devices in her recent book Hastings-Sunrise. But on the second entrance I was more, well, entranced. Drawn into the spare Eastern-style mode that mirrors the barren or at least tree-less terrain perfectly, I was able to slow down and relish words like “talus,” “lichen,” “saxifrage” and “sphagnum,” as well as the delightful measures found in lines such as “macaroni; curry with rice;/spaghetti; curry with rice. Otherwise, the days entwine,” or “wind keens the ropes/that tie shelters to stones.” With such short pieces though, the poet must be even more stringent with their aural impact so I wondered why “each pulse through the wire/a faint click” wasn’t enjambed “each pulse/through the wire/a faint click” to mimic and thus emphasize the sound sequence or why “Petals of a buttercup” wasn’t “buttercup petals” for instance, as each word truly needs to hold its weight in the slender sketch. As in the Han Shan haiku that closes the book, Johnson will only grow as a poet by spending time next to the creek of language to “purify [her] ears,” even more than she already has for this haunting song of the land that is Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra.

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Monica Kidd’s book deals with an ostensibly wider realm than Johnson’s, from the Alberta floods of 2013 to evolutionary theories and travelogues but the scope is also narrow, focused on the impact of most experiences on the speaker and her young family, Kidd frequently appearing to “wrestle” with the presence of her “son’s sticky fingers/ to put words to page.” Of the five sections, three are relatively strong: “Deluge”, “Intertriginous” and “Coming Home” and two weaker in form and intent: “On Wildness” at the start and the second to last section that contains too-vague delineations that ache towards elegy but never quite flesh out their sorrows, “Other Kinds of Hunger”. When Kidd’s poems falter it is mostly due to clicheed laxness: “struck dumb,” “sky pulsing with stars,” “perfect teeth,” “those words we choose, how they elude us,” “Nobody ever wins a war,” the end of days,” and so forth. When the pieces shine it is usually in the prose poem form, making me yearn a little for Kidd to write a novel about these occasions instead. I loved “Ghost,” a piece in the Deluge sequence with its sonorous witnessing: “In the great reveal as the water receded, gravity became/a wobbly table…In the cafe, a dead girl passed” and another that starts, “Nobody thought about the fish.” Also the one from the part on evolution in which lizard becomes verb: “Sun on skin, we lizard in this clearing, two cups of coffee/and an orange between us. It’s something I read once,/that love is sharing an orange.” While instants of humour are few, when they flash out, fun glints amid the poignancy as in, “I Marry my Husband’s Smart Phone,” a device that “always knows the right song to sing…and recharges anywhere.” Quiet glimpses snitched from the grinds of beloved work and domesticity, suffused with the dailyness of loss, the certainty of uncertainty, Kidd’s collection moves through its exiles and remains within them, commemorating.

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2 thoughts on “Field Notes For the Alpine Tundra & The Year of Our Beautiful Exile Re-re-review (Gaspereau Press, 2015)

  1. What is so problematic with many contemporary Canlit reviews is that the reviewer loses sight of the ultimate purpose of the review — to gauge whether or not the writer or poet has succeeded in accomplishing the aim of their collection (not to function solely as an advertisement on behalf of the publisher). That said, you do a splendid job critically examining the elements that make up these two titles. You never tell the reader what to think; instead, offer alternative entrances into both books, allowing the reader to take it from there and decide for themselves. Excellently done!

    Liked by 1 person

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