Adam Dickinson, $15 paper 1-894078-22-5,
100 pp., 5-1/2 x 8-3/4, Brick Books, May
Reviewed from unbound galleys
Too often young poets embark on their first book as casually as they’d submit to a first date: with little to lose and seemingly nothing better to do that night. So it can feel like a tremendous relief when a collection as distinct and deliberately constructed as Adam Dickinson’s Cartography and Walking comes along. Ambition is written all over this debut: the book is generous in length, yet it so minutely explores the themes of nature and, yes, cartography, that even if those subjects are not your cup of herbal tea, the collection must be admired for its craftsmanship.
Dickinson, whose childhood was spent amid the woods and lakes of the Muskokas, savours the natural landscape so keenly that he repeatedly pulls off remote but spot-on comparisons: “The snow threw itself against the glass/like sluggish house flies at the end of the summer,/their bodies aiming dumbly.” This penchant for naturalistic effects is balanced by a language of cool, clean abstractions. Even the poems’ titles contain stylistic flourishes – readers will be surprised to learn what “I Tell You This Is What I Do Not Tell You” is actually about.
It’s refreshing to find a young poet who echoes the precise, detached baroque of Wallace Stevens. Dickinson is nowhere near as ornate, yet when he describes the effects of a strong wind on a woman shaking out sheets – “Her mind is unrehearsed,/it is close to her and forceful,” – or talks about a snowy forest – “There is a need for this in winter./The hemlocks take it upon them- selves/where no other voice is possible,” – the results are bracing and vivid.
The average urban reader, cooped up in a condo in some sector of urban sprawl, may see little of her own life in 69 poems about trees and clouds and lakes, though. Also, in places, Dickinson leans too heavily on facility with similes. But these are mere peccadilloes. It’s exciting to see a young Canadian poet really wrestle with structure and symbolism and language.
– Jana Prikryl, a poet and the books editor of the Hamilton Examiner/Toronto Women’s Newspaper