Poetry is so thoroughly about negotiation. With the land, with the past, with identity, with other poets. Then, at a more micro level, with the line, the word.
Meredith Quartermain’s latest, Lullabies in the Real World, (from important new-ish imprint Crow Said) commingles the tangible and abstract in segments of a train journey from the West to the East Coast of Canada as “train letters cross word country” and the question lingers “where are you going” (Letter to Self), the where bearing so many palimpsested identities, names, scars. Rife with historical allusions and geographical realities, these track-bound poems seek to list, as an act of memory, and also the honouring of incantation, the poet’s aim to “unmap unseers/rub out their erasures” (Leaving Montreal). Although I hoped the skinny, often lower-cased form would shift at times, loosen, it can’t, if being accurate to the primary eras it addresses and the modus of its poetic muses (bp, Blaser), as well as to the rigidity of rails. The most potent parts are those which acknowledge such limitations and framings. From the poem, Styx: “poem mutters/wheels and wains…never outtalking vagabond river.” Or her quotes from Colin Smith on poetry mixed with VIA Rail’s Francophone insertions and such internalizing lines as “train of thought departs/seedy light on station pillar” (Half Way). Although echoes of bp can become a tad overdone, the poem “Letter to bp in Hornpayne” remains moving, more aural than many pieces in this sequence with its reverberations of sounds in “you too stood in Hornpayne at dusk,/the travel-weary train/stopped in a dusty truck lot,” and the darkly beautiful admission that “The name of death, you found,/was NOTHING.” The anaphoric weather reports of “Captain Montresor with General Wolfe on the River” and the powerful final piece, “Standing on Cabot’s Trail” (“I wish I’d come here before….I wish this poem could gather every forgotten forsaken being/and return them to where they are loved”) are particularly memorable “stations” on this intense journey. “Free the World Picture, Poet” Quartermain directs in these non-lulling lullabies. And she does.
While Quartermain has published quite a wealth of texts, The Response of Weeds by Bertrand Bickersteth is his first, a mid-life release that suggests a density of time spent absorbing and yes, negotiating with the issues and allusions he references, from racial to geographic identities and all their intersections. I’m not clear why Black poetry on the prairies is, as the subtitle claims, a “misplacement.” Surely if it exists here, in the communities that re-located to the flatlands, then how is it particularly “mis” placed. Maybe “alternately,” “additionally” or “re” placed? I love the structural framing of a Dramatis Personae of “Negro” historical characters that recurs throughout the book and most engagingly in this initial section, Rivers (featuring multiple “actors” from Kathleen Battle to Paul Robeson) as well as the focus on only 19th century writer-abolitionist Henry Bibb in the Now I’m the Only One that’s Looking section. Bickersteth is truly rupturing when he evokes the Blues in refrains like the one in the opening poem, “The Negro Speaks of Alberta” : “I know these rivers that flow through me/I’ve peered into their hearts and still you do not see me,” when he ranges his essential rages across the page in ragged lines that energize the loss of nomenclatures, of anchor (as in “What we used to Call it”), and in each piece that begins with the line: “Now I’m looking,” a grounding of displacement in positionality like in These Empty Flatlands where “There is a scarecrow looking/back at me…Two straw men/marking out the edges of these empty flatlands/stuffed with their essence,” a kind of Eliot’s Hollow Men reconfigured in the prairie vastness. It’s when Bickersteth becomes too polemical in tone, abstracted, that one detaches as a reader, aching for the sensory again, the somatic. Give me “the fields outside of Olds/on the 2A somewhere/after Didsbury or before Carstairs” (The Wrongness of a Word) or “Honey, today I came/out of darkness/with black ahead/black behind” (Out of Darkness) any day over “For here and here are occurrences/of egregious failings/and despite our systems,/our democratic aspirations…” (The Magpie’s Place). Snooze. Poetry can never just mean. If it doesn’t rouse the senses, stir the muses, evoke recollection and utter music, all the saying in the world, however crucial, doesn’t matter. Bickersteth’s faith in his particular rhythms will only grow, one hopes, and make his next set of rooted melodies worth yearning for.