All over the country in classrooms that smell like apple cores, students of Canadian Literature discuss nature as a malevolent force in poems and stories. Snow is personified, then demonized as it keeps weary travellers from getting home, particularly if home is the prairies or northern Ontario. Part of a movement to revise the standard view of our relationship to the natural world, Canadian writers like Tim Lilburn, Sharon Butala, and Don McKay write about wilderness as a centre of spiritual renewal rather than as a threat. In his debut poetry collection, Cartography and Walking, Adam Dickinson situates himself the new naturalists. His poems are rural: full of references to weather, forest and ponds, and they work to poeticize the landscape of the Muskoka Lakes. There is tension in his poems that has to do with weather or not humans belong to the wild, and the sense that comes across through most of the poetry is that we do.
Dickinson’s language is fresh and often surprising. His best images juxtapose the human with the natural world; a truck rusts in a field with its “headlights cracked on corduroy roads” (“Driving Home”) or fossils lie “still stiff in their mantles,/ like Loyalists pointing seaward” (“Reinforcing the Watershed”). In “Or Was It the Smell of Cut Wood,” Dickinson describes the rain as something that “organizes itself on the pavement,” and “clouds are burned towels draped / over the oven doors of buildings.” The poem highlights the tension which still exemplifies life in rural Canada by suggesting that when the “forest keeps beyond streets” it keeps its distance as a “concession/ to the nerve it took to stand among these spruce.” When Dickinson personifies them, the woods are more sympathetic than threatening.
His ability to develop inventive metaphors and similes is a strength; I often found myself impressed by imaginative steps and startling images. In other poems though, like “The Cardinal,” the poetic argument is more unified. The short lyric is Dickinson’s chosen form in Cartography and Walking, and he has a way of compressing ideas into a small space that makes the poems worth contemplating. A cardinal “confirms your sense of injury,” as it appears on a branch “like a fresh cut on a forearm,” and the idea of wounds, injury and indignation carries the poem to its lovely ending where injury is “flushed upon the lips or prayers, broken open.” Here, as in much of the rest of the book, the voice is confident and accomplished.