Flyway by Sarah Ens (Turnstone Press, 2022)

First, a note again about my reviewing style for those I think I should constantly be “nice” and especially “in this climate” (egads and yikes!). I critique books of poems (and have for over 15 years) from the perspective of a learner, a teacher, a thinker with decades of experience reading, engaging with and yes, loving poetry. I’m not your book’s paid promoter nor your buddy composing a blurb. I do this work mostly for free and out of a passionate respect for the art form. The content of the work is important but it’s not my priority. For poetry, it’s form, rhythm, sonority, diction, the line and other prosodic aspects. If the language becomes lazy or the form lax, I’ll say so, not out of personal malice (I regularly shake my head at any such presumption) but from a desire to educate, offer a lexicon, a way of hearing that may draw us into a more profound mode within this ancient kind of address to the world. I want Canada to create a fierce literature and produce fearless makers. And that’s my hope behind my writing of poetry reviews (which I call positive when offering balanced criticism, negative only when empty with either cruelty or praise).

Ok, that said, Sarah Ens’ supremely timely Flyway, a collection dealing with the plight of three generations of her diasporic Russian Mennonite family as they journeyed from Occupied Ukraine to the former Yugoslavia to Germany, prior to resettlement/unsettlement in Manitoba from 1929-1945, then from 1948 on, enduring hunger and cold, the deaths of children, losses of land and lineage. Threaded between these narrations and framing them are the tall grass prairie ecosystems, their birds, river, trees and, laced within, moments of words from other Mennonite, eco or prairie poets, such as Patrick Friesen’s haunting query: “do you understand we’ve come from memories?” Despite its segments, some defined by titles, it’s called a long poem as it is designed to be read as one polyvocal composition elaborating displacement, longing, divestment and survival.

“Birds, like poems, follow the river” – but one instance of a potent statement, set singularly on the page, a space that allows breath, the profound pacing of silences, holding the gaze with awe. Other pieces in the Tall Grass Psalmody parts begin with powerful questions: “What brings you to nest?” or “Will you get on your knees?” or “Have you succumbed to despair?” It is in these pieces that Ens most clearly reveals her ability to hear vowels, sibilance, the need for enjambments. Listen to these lines: “Sundrop, cynthia/deep needlegrass, dropseed, feel these/roots eking one long thread/maps, /lightning-forked/but tender, converting/the dark.” While the sections detailing the tragic invasions and escapes are less potent with aural pleasures, yielding more flatly to the essential facts (shaped always through the imagination), the sounds of that time and place ring out in words for food: ” translucent leaves of cabbage, holloptsee slopped/to bowls” (Soviet Village) or other sensory details that remain within erosions of time: “his sweater, blue wool a bright scraggy flag” (Kronsthal, Occupied Ukraine) or “bright summer marigold plucked from the spool” (Mountainside, Lower Styria, Occupied Yugoslavia).

In the final sequence of historical accounts, Un/Settling, Ens writes: “nightingales known/for their lament – they kill themselves when caught/in cages,” and her syntax throughout is a dance of fleeing war, oppression, refusing to remain for long in a couplet, a prose paragraph, loosening always to “rattling/song” over the white, the last notes of the psalmody that concludes Flyway “restless with loss,” knowing the family has been violated, dispersed, the grasses reduced to “less than one percent” (Prelude) and that the poet, only, in the end can but, needfully, “take note.”

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