GO by Shelley A Leedahl (radiant press, 2022)

The word GO, minus an exclamation mark, is open to all the possible tones in the mind. Should I stay or should I go now? Go, go, go. Why doncha just go, g’wan, get outta here! Mostly, Leedahl’s mode of GO signals the inhabitation of contemporary restlessness as marked, at least in the pre-pandemic pieces, by forms of travel as the poems hop between Edmonton, Saskatchewan, the Sunshine Coast, Vancouver, Ladysmith, Reno, France, Manitoulin Island, and elsewhere, including those wondrous and weird byways of the heart that still yearn “to be whispered to across a pillow” (Ladysmith: Gratitude 2) into middle age, the pieces spanning at least a decade amid the later 40s and into her 50s.

A common condition too infrequently addressed in Canadian literature is our shared itinerancies. Rather than mainly regional writers these days, we are leapers, shifting provinces readily for work, family or due to a lack of affordability in our home cities (myself indubitably with Vancouver!). Leedahl writes: “When I walk in the rare snow, I know I’m born of prairie/but the Steller’s jays have adopted me” (Ladysmith: Gratitude 3). This dislocation, sometimes welcome, sometimes lonely, is evident in other poems such as Song for the Homeless as We Drive to Ruth’s Chris Steak House on a Thursday Night in June (“Nothing smells like carnations/here – not even carnations”), Deluge (“One becomes old/recalling rain…in a different city”), More Words for Winter (“One day I may move/a thousand miles west but winter…I know you’ll find a way to stick with me”) and I Keep Returning to the Blue-Lit Places (“I move city to village to metropolis…Everything is everything else”).

In general, I prefer these lyrics of Canadian hunkering and hovering, their lines strewn with what is left behind and how, in the end, one’s “legacy [is] only footprints/from the suburbs to the stars, in snow” (What I Left in the City) to the poems that touch on more exoticized locales like Salema, a piece that seems little more at times in its nine scratched bits than a list of what one sees briefly in passing: “white linens” or “Barking dogs and pear trees” or a “plum-faced cigar smoker.” Few travel poems escape this tendency and do so only through transcendent craft. As Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel asks: “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come/to imagined places, not just stay at home?”

Leedahl’s lyrics of midlife love are frequently stirring though, tapping into hunger’s unabashed foolishness, strongest in a piece such as Oarlocks, due to the more regularized couplet form (stanzas are usually erratic in GO, perhaps to emphasize the discombobulations of geographic movement?) and a sharp attention to sound in lines like: “After-scent of sex, coffee/and four fried eggs…shallow-dived into that brine of chemistry./Welcome bronze current of thighs, raw anatomy.” While I can pass on parts of poems that try to tidily wrap up their conclusions in too-pat statements: “The ocean knows something/about being a woman” (Lopsided), “God in you/God in me” (Christmas Prayer), “The present is the only page we have” (How to Love your Life) or “even the ragged moments are beautiful” (also in Ladysmith: Gratitude 2, which points out the middle class entitlement inherent in wanting to do “nothing” about war and hunger as one is, in this developed world, more usually “captivated” by “petty griefs”), I adored all the interactions with nature in GO. These nodes of awareness are born from Leedahl’s times of kayaking, hiking and simply instances of being in awe of “Light on the crabapples” (Goodbyes), “the way moss drips like that” (the randomized chattiness of Smuggler Cove Marine Provincial Park) or “the creek [that] still sings/its silver song” (The Quiet).

GO almost closes with the pandemic’s stop sign, temporary but marking us all with fear, the need to prepare “in case of anarchy, a bloodbath,” but its final note is the continuity, for Leedahl, of travel, nature and love in the ultimate sequence Manitoulin Suite where, yes, amid the scars of age, loss, anxiety, there is “a second day of sunshine” and “a small poem, irrefutably true.”


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