Canadian Poetry Review

current issue
featured poet
poem of the week
lives of the poets
poetry near you
about us
contact us

Some Streams in Current B.C. Poetry
reviewed by Paul Falardeau

Undiscovered Country: New Poems
Al Rempel
Mother Tongue Publishing



Songen: New Poems
Patrick Friesen
Mother Tongue Publishing



Tanya Evanson

Ekstasis Editions


If the arts in Canada have been known for one thing, it is the exploration of nature and our priceless inheritance of wildness. In the wilderness Canadians such Emily Carr, M. Wylie Blanchett, Farley Mowat and Robert Bringhurst have undertaken the challenge and vastness of the natural world and found in it unflinching majesty, brutal hardships and even a deep spiritual balance. Though there is reason to regard such tropes as tired or overused, a new clutch of releases from Canadian poets dips into that well again. These include veteran poet Patrick Friesen’s Songen, Al Rempel’s Undiscovered Country, and Tanya Evanson’s Bothism. What these poets find are much more than the same old thing. These are exciting new explorations into time, death, duality and beauty.

In Undiscovered Country Rempel has created a masterful, engaging work. Largely set in northern British Columbia, Rempel, a resident of Prince George, does not write about nature. Instead, he lets it inhabit his work. Like the northern setting, there seems to be a blurred line between woods and city; everywhere the veneer of civilization and order cracks and is grown over. Far from despair or collapse though, these poems are simply snapshots of the world as it is; of what might be taken, and of what there is to give. The wild has its own lessons to teach. Rempel, to his credit, does not fawn over beauty nor does he whack readers over the head with overdrawn isms or philosophies. Instead, his poems exude a simple, subtle vitality that provides the reader with a lived-in feeling. “All I Have to Do is Go to Work & Come Home” (a title that aptly exemplifies that inhabited quality) opens with “The trees are heavy with rain. They lower themselves/ over the walk onto my shoulder & neck & head.” and later ends with the speaker struggling to open the front door of their own home, wet, tired and stunned by the oppressiveness and repetition of the daily grind. Rempel, himself a teacher, is aware of a lesson being taught and does a truly memorable job of capturing moments in detail that is sparse but lush and heavy with meaning.

Like “All I Have to Do,” many of the poems in Undiscovered Country look at the small moments that make up a lifetime. Together they splash the reader with waves of beauty, sadness, responsibility and the yoke of time. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Into the Cloud of Unknowing” one of the two long poems that bookend the collection. The poem, a meditation on the inescapable flow of time, demands multiple readings. This, not only because it weaves somewhat erratically amongst a tapestry of images and scenes, but because Rempel deftly creates his own inescapable flow within the work. It starts with the memorable image of the cars of working folks disappearing in morning fog (“a procession of exiles —/and yes, that’s us, going to work,/ disappearing into the thick of it/ down by the river, one vehicle/ after another; the far end of the bridge/ an unknowable mist”) sets the tone of the work that will deal with the death of loved ones and the realization that we are all travelling into that same fog. Later in the poem, Rempel thinks of a childhood fear of spiders and imagines “you can feel the tips of their legs tapping you/ on the wrist — you’re next. you’re next” Nature is often the herald of time’s onward march, yet here is the crux of things, here is Rempel’s undiscovered country: there is no fighting time or aging or death, but one may revel in its certainty; that we are part of this cycle and that we have what we now do. The poem ends “you could be anywhere —/ but you’re not, you’re here. Call it fate or karma if you will, Rempel seems to echo Gary Snyder’s late life masterpiece, This Present Moment in which he too is confronted by age and death, and offers the similarity freeing “this present moment/that lives on/to become/the distant past.”

Patrick Friesen sets out to plumb similar depths of aging and time. His poems are shorter, each a single extended sentence. Perhaps because of their brevity, Friesen seems a bit less melancholic about the whole thing, the title being Songen after all (as in songen and dancen). Indeed, here, though the poet is aware of the same inevitability as his peer, he seems to skip along the path a little more gleefully, perhaps already having reached the acceptance Rempel apparently acquires. Friesen also situates himself in the grand flow of things by including snippets of low-German and middle-English. Language too changes and evolves over time and of course that is of interest to a poet. He combines language and death and nature wonderfully:

flautrijch, he says, meaning heart
some kind of finch on its perch beside
an open door, agitated and ruffling
its wings, waiting for the right moment,
you don’t simply, leave, everything
has its time, but you must be ready,
and he is, he thinks, the yellow bird
cocking its head, and his heart fluttering
a little more every day, flautrijch like
a flame in a cave.

Each poem has, like flautrijch, an impetus or titular image. The poem is the breath that follows like the words after a semicolon. That these short poems have a kind of levity to them does not detract from their serious exploration of the human condition in its later years. That they are an exploration of later life does not detract for their liveliness. Like the sketches at the beginning and end of the book of playful old men, these poems represent a synthesis of natural and artificial, language and knowing, what is ruled by time and what exists outside of it.

Bothism, a fine effort from Antiguan-Canadian poet, Tanya Evanson, take this exploration even further. While Rempel and Friesen have written pieces centered on the inevitable realizations of later years, Evanson presents us with a burning exploration of time and nature through experimentation. What is hinted at in Undiscovered Country and danced through in Songen is full center here: How can two things, seemingly opposite, exist at once in the same space? Evanson harnesses the wisdom of Sufism, Taoism and other philosophies to attempt to answer this, as well as the natural world in the form of cell division, mushrooms and the human body, itself an implacable mystery as it moves and reacts to the world around it.

Impressively, Evanson also employs a variety of forms from concrete poetry to lists to short fiction. Some of the standouts in this work though are the impressive visual poems that include Zen style paint brush circles and the beautiful “Cell Variation I & II” which bring to mind Fritjof Capra’s seminal work, The Tao of Physics. With her words, Evanson is able to experiment with the nature of opposition, propping stanzas of competing narrative up against each other in parallel columns allowing them to initially compete, but inevitably support and strengthen the work as a whole. Furthermore, many poems can be read backwards, forwards, simultaneously or interchangeably. The form truly is a deep exploration of the subject.

To look at how the poet has experimented with the use of words is imperative to the work, but it would be a crime to ignore her beautiful wordplay and thoughtful diction She writes, “the honey collected/ from a good kiss/ is the very ambrosia/ of survival,” and elsewhere, lays out stunning passages like this one from “Crepuscule”:

Our long Muslim robes both
hide and reveal and equilibrium
witness to lightning and
middle night.

The pillow of my bosom was
made for this. For the resting
head of all things. Dust to dust
Returning to itself.

In other words, Evanson never lets her experimentations exorcise the beauty she has seen in the world from her work. In fact, it seems like that is the answer to her queries. The comfort of uniformity is replaced with the chaos of multiplicity. Yet, this is only a problem if we fight it. If we should choose to accept this as the state of all things and find in it the beauty, we can rise up. Bothism is a celebration of the principle that is not only becoming increasingly ubiquitous in 2018, but which may be the key to our survival as a species on this planet.

All three of these poets have created fine work that should earn them repeated, close readings and a place amongst the many notable Canadian poets and artists that have come before them. Like their predecessors, there is a debt to the natural world, whether it is Rempel’s northern imagery or Evanson’s exploration of the principles that guide a deep understanding of duality and interpenetration. In a sense, these poets do follow that tradition, but there is more. Each tackles the mystery of life in a unique and exhilarating way and expands that mystery in doing so. This is not an obfuscation though, it is an acceptance which all three seem to make. There is more to this than us, that we are larger than we can even imagine and that with that understanding, this place, right here, right now, matters just the same, perhaps even more so.

Paul Falardeau has been a regular contributor to PRRB for many years. He is currently concluding qualification training for a teaching career.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 24.