Antony Di Nardo’s Alien, Correspondent seems at first like a potentially fresh contribution to Canada’s long tradition of travel poetry: early colonial long poems about the alien Canadian backwoods, Earle Birney’s scathing postcolonial critiques, Gwendolyn MacEwen’s delicately empathetic explorations, Karen Connelly’s more overtly political verse, and so on. Some of this trajectory is implicit in Di Nardo’s volume. His division of the book into three sections—“Alien,” “Correspondent,” and “Birthplace”—alludes to the uncertain and shifting boundaries between home and away, insider and outsider, tourist and witness. His difficult negotiation of such concepts can be found in the opening poem, “Oh the Streets of West Beirut,” which juxtaposes the foreignness of Beirut with a series of Western cultural referents (Bob Dylan, Starbucks coffee, Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory”) as if to suggest an irreconcilability between the poet’s own signifying system and a foreign signified, evoked only through negation. Di Nardo’s collection, however, is deeply uneven. At their best, his poems are playfully tongue-in-cheek, an impressive deployment of simple rhetorical devices and pop culture references that sidestep heavy-handed politics in favour of self-reflexivity. At their worst, his poems are bogged down with formal devices and bland symbolism (a plane is described as “a gas-glutted Pegasus silvering past the sun”  while the desert, seen from above, is “a woman’s body on her bed” ).
Di Nardo makes frequent use of the city-as-woman, landscape-as-woman, poem-as-woman metaphor, pointing to a genealogy of the masculine bard figure. This figure is subtly apparent in “The Simple Truth,” a poem that celebrates the honesty and integrity of the Poet. But a piece such as “Gaugin’s Mistress”—in which “the maid from across the street” becomes “an exact duplicate of Gaugin’s mistress / in that painting where the island / lifts its skirts up from the sea and offers us a peek” (71)—reveals the complicity of this figure with the image of the feminized/exoticized space. Consequently, even poems like “You Were Wrong,” which pays homage to Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, tend toward a fetishization of the poet-as-rugged-individual. Its claim that “poetry still unlocks forbidden doors” (65) thus suggests a privileging of the masculine poet’s all-consuming gaze.
“The Tourist” is Di Nardo at his playful best. His speaker careens down a narrow dirt road in an unsafe tour bus and vows “to be a better tourist,” to “buy sunblock and drink rum” (18). As in “Alien,” in which Di Nardo literalizes the outsider perspective through references to “the call of the mothership” (29), these playful moments distance the poet from the city of Beirut; he speaks only through the veil of Western cultural codes and self-aware strangeness. In other moments—as in “Speechless,” his love poem to Beirut—the desire for immediate access to the truth of the foreign space renders his poems both simplistic and self-satisfied: “And here’s someone all the way from home — / her lips too red, her mouth wide open — / who walks into my conversation with this city, / and I’m speechless” (54).
The other moments in which this collection excels are the handful of personal and domestic reflections that end the book. A contemplation of a dead fish found on a pantry shelf, “Fish” narrows its gaze to a single decaying object and a memory of a representation (“I remember now a similar fish / in a photograph of hers”). Effectively, the scene calls into question the relationship between the object and its image: “Now here upon this pantry shelf / another fish is dead. Or could it be / the one she rescued from the photograph / she took so she could watch it waste away” (78-79). Other poems echo this intimate moment of the poet imagining himself into his lover’s mind. “Arabian Nights,” for example, elegizes a single act repeated indefinitely and so expands the scope of the domestic to that of the mythic. Similarly, “The Physical” is an elegiac reflection on aging that tentatively equates adult relationships with childhood imitations of domesticity.
Di Nardo’s best poems are his most focused ones. When his poetic voice is given a limited scope it often displays an intimacy and playfulness that is genuinely delightful. Alien, Correspondent stumbles, however, when it reaches into the terrain of international politics and the meaning of art. The poems themselves are too often sacrificed for—or falsely inflated by—the idea of poetry.