Poetry Reviews by Jacob McArthur Mooney

Deirdre Dwyer, The Blomidon Logs (Toronto: ECW, 2016). Paperbound, 150 pp., $18.95.
Jordan Mounteer, liminal (Winlaw: Sono Nis, 2016). Paperbound, 158 pp., $15.95.

The Blomidon LogsTwo new books present explorations of the wild on the wilderness’s terms. Both Jordan Mounteer’s debut collection, liminal, and Deirdre Dwyer’s Blomidon Logs take as their theme the tension between human occupation and natural (dis)order, but do so very differently. Mounteer takes an isolated human position and writes outward, addressing old lovers, work, and his own self-awareness. Loneliness is liminal’s minor chord, and wonder is its major. By contrast, Dwyer’s humanity is communal, the book lists a family tree and its poems focus on kin keeping. The collections share a common problem in Canadian ecopoetry, an uncertainty around what exactly a poem should do, to whom it should speak, and what, if anything, is owed to the wilderness. I use “wilderness” here aware of a multitude of definitions, but with some context found in the sources of Mounteer’s first few epigraphs: Lorca, Heidegger, and Robert Bringhurst. That trio feels representative. Not named but felt acutely are Don McKay’s essays on poetry and nature. McKay’s late-career books might represent a shared uncle of both collections.

liminalMounteer’s debut splits into work poems and travel poems, or poems of labour and poems of leisure. Studded throughout are wistful references to a departed lover and an approach to loneliness both intimate and wary. Mounteer has big, adaptable talents, and his lineation and prosody fit well with the kind of poems he seems to want to write: poems whose form is essentially vehicular, in that it exists to transport the more impactful components of the poetry, in his case, imagery and metaphor. This is most clear in the book’s first quarter, which gives up almost completely to the play of metaphor. There are poems here that exist as simple lists of tenor/vehicle pairings that manage to be diverse and surprising enough at the level of the phrase as to not feel repetitive at the level of the suite. An example is “Jellyfish,” wherein “their bobbing masses gleam like ganglia,” who “bloom like translucent genitalia,” who are “a budding orchid, splayed deepness.” Mounteer manages the potential for overmixing here by letting single ideas take longer than explicitly needed to hit their mark, by mixing in the serious and the silly, and (often, but not always) by avoiding the recycling of favoured images across poems.

Most of Mounteer’s metaphors are human-wilderness translations, in that they describe a human concern through a plant or animal allusion. In “Girl, Sleeping (II),” the author tells of “The pinecone of her body, / waiting to stretch,” and then, in “Risk,” two lovers are “clumsy as osprey / learning to fly from nests of knotted sleeping bags.” Every poet has their own code regarding metaphors and their role. It’s dangerous to guess, but perhaps, for Mounteer, a metaphor is a kind of temporary structure built to introduce one world to another through a common element. His poems are sometimes concerned with fauna that exist only to unite two human isolates, as the osprey do in “Risk,” when that poem’s human lovers end up, like adolescent birds, “closer to [their] fear of falling than each other.” Mounteer’s sense of how the animal and human encircle one another is evident in how he mediates between them and in the setting of his poems themselves. One quarter of liminal takes place amid tree-planting camps in the North. For all the acuity of the book’s opening set, these work poems are my favourites, recalling both early John Steffler and, especially, Mathew Henderson’s The Lease with their descriptions of a shared labour that is protean, militaristic, and almost messianic in its craze for physical hardship.

In its second half, liminal opens up into suites on love and travel. The switch from work poems and ecopoetry is so total, and the dedication to new tones so absolute, it feels like two books pushed together (an impression aided by the book’s length). Highlights here include the Ben Lerner response, “December 31, Kyoto,” where lines like “You could join them, but little more would be resolved / in leaving your third beer or the cafe’s 1920s creole jazz / or the timid sidelong glances of the Swedish girl / one table over” feel almost plentiful after the mix of prosodic minimalism and sweaty labour in liminal’s first half.

Mounteer is tied by necessity to the rhythm of human exchange but, at his core, his speaking position is solitary. That makes him an interesting counter to Deirdre Dwyer and The Blomidon Logs, a domestic, deeply relational collection set on Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy. This is Dwyer’s third book, and, at 150 pages, it is also a lengthy one and presents itself as essentially ecopoetic. But, unlike Mounteer’s poems, which tend to start out in the wild before turning to a human relationship, Dwyer’s poems are human-focused from the start. The book’s leads are home and family, and not the isolated voice of the author.

In the 1960s, Dwyer’s parents moved to a cabin at Blomidon, the postcard-ready natural beauty overlooking the Bay of Fundy. The “logs” of the title document the transition. The book details Dwyer’s childhood, with her cousins, in the rural communities of the Annapolis Valley. The logs appear in various ways, from found text to passing reference, and act as one of the collection’s two binding agents. The other is Glooscap, the great hero of Mi'kmaq mythology. Dwyer has picked two useful motifs to anchor a poem to the book’s broader project or tie a line down to the specifics of place, often essential to the success of individual pieces. Glooscap’s super-humanness is especially constructive: he speaks and stands and uses tools, but is never more than a quick personification away from becoming a stand-in for the land itself.

Within this envelope of memory and place, many of the poems express the tensions of adulthood as relayed through a child’s partial understanding. As in Sue Goyette’s recent Ocean, the natural world acts as a fourth wall for family dramas. Through addresses to this natural other, the book achieves its clearest philosophical tones; in the same way a theatrical fourth wall lets a playwright explore a character’s insular world through a soliloquy. The youth of Dwyer’s narrator, and the time between her and the events she is remembering, provide two pillars of naïveté and nostalgia that give her book a softer edge than Mounteer’s. Dwyer’s book unfolds in chronological episodes, but the consistency of tone and pace make it feel more like a long poem interrupted by titles, rather than a traditional collection. This consistency holds down to the level of the phrase, as sentences of similar size unfold at an orderly leisure, whether the specific event is recalled in mourning or joy. Dwyer’s book flirts with overlength as much as Mounteer’s does, but because of the poems’ internal similarity it doesn’t feel like too many movements, but rather a worry she may be overplaying the same one note. Two poems with superficially distinct topics display this homogeneity. Consider these lines from “Heirlooms”: “And you in your wicker rocker— / smooth curve of its back, / its arms unraveling / to my great-grandmother / painting, blending / red ochre, burnt umber / for the colour of the cliffs.” Now compare them to these, from “Halo”; “In the photograph they’re awash / in butterscotch: mother and child, / the cabin in the cafe au lait / trees. They’re sun-touched, / bronzed by balmy August.”

There’s a danger in idling too long over the tonal sameness of a collection. Internal consistency is not, inherently, a flaw, and we should pay attention to the host of things Dwyer does well, such as her ability to walk a very specific philosophical line, attuned to the environmental morality of her subject. Hers is an environmental consciousness grown organically out of an ecological affinity. An example is “The Soul of this Place,” ostensibly describing a house but quick to drift out the window, using another of those long, branching sentences:

It’s in drawings: Dad “splitting wood”—
she may have meant snoring,
balmy snooze after lunch—
but her sketch of a round mountain
—shape and size repeating—
implying heft, the axe.

In his Redstart: An Ecopoetics, the California poet Forrest Gander describes the hinge by which nature poetry gave way to contemporary ecopoetics: “I’m less interested in nature poetry,” he writes “—where nature figures as a theme—than in poetry that investigates—both thematically and formally—the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception.” By this definition, many Canadian ecopoets are actually just nature poets. Don McKay may have given them agency with his influential essay “Baler Twine: Thoughts on Ravens, Home, and Nature Poetry,” (1993) where he defined wilderness as both a poetic ideal and “not just a set of endangered species, but the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations.” This inspired a generation of nature writing in unlikely areas like biomedical science and urban planning. It also inspired a branch of Canadian poetry to forfeit the investigative urgency in Gander’s definition as incompatible with the blissful unknowing of McKay’s. McKay’s thesis was always more nuanced than that, but simplification is one risk of readership. Ours is a culture that respects the power to elude and is often reticent to appropriate. Neither liminalnor The Blomidon Logs fully escape this cultural context, but their struggles in its wake are constructive and beautiful. These books employ all that makes up the self-referentially human: language, domicile, perception, and more, as intermediaries between the human and the non-human. Because, as much as ecopoetry should exist to love and mediate the spaces between us and the natural world, as a communicative act poetry is bidirectional, and its two poles—reader and author—are always human. Neither Mounteer nor Dwyer really investigate nature, but they don’t let it eludethem, either. They let it touch their skin and whistle through their windows. Their new books honour this closeness, and hint at something more.

—Jacob McArthur Mooney

As in The Malahat Review, 198, Spring 2017, 95-98