Joanna Lilley, The Fleece Era. London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2014. Paper. Pp. 112. $20.00.
Gillian Wigmore, orient. London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2014. Paper. Pp. 96. $20.00.
Deanna Young, House Dreams. London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2014. Paper. Pp. 96. $20.00.
Since it was established in 1975 by Stan Dragland and Don McKay, London, Ontario’s Brick Books has been steadily publishing worthy Canadian poetry. Although they publish poets from across the country, even a cursory examination of their back catalogue reveals that they privilege what might be called poetry of place. Brick Books tends to favour poets who engage with the significance of place in day-to-day life. They favour poetry that embodies the condition John Dewey describes in his seminal work Art as Experience: “at every moment the living creature is exposed to dangers from its surroundings, and at every moment, it must draw upon something in its surroundings to satisfy its needs.” Dewey believed that art must be understood not just through experience but the immediate environment as well, “not externally but in the most intimate way.” Three new releases from Brick Books continue this tradition: these poets discuss the myriad ways their environment has shaped their experience.
The North continues to be a well-worn topic in Canadian literature. Its bleak and forbidding environment has traditionally been characterized as a masculine space. It is difficult to discuss the Canadian North without evoking Henry Kelsey, John Franklin, David Thompson, etc. Canada’s North, especially in its early history, has typically been cast as a barren frontier to be conquered by robust men. The Fleece Era, Lilley’s debut collection, ably disrupts that narrative. An Englishwoman, she now makes her home in, of all places, Whitehorse, Yukon. She is able to wrench some surprising instances of humour and pathos out of this idiosyncratic trajectory. Naturally, her English parents are dumbfounded by her decision to move to northern Canada: “she’ll see sense, she’ll come back. / I shouted once, I won’t!”. Her family believes that she’s run away from life and refuses to visit her in a “faraway place of half-year / winters, centuries of quiet, / where aspen shadows dress / the snow in long blue ribbons.” She imagines her parents looking down on her with Google earth and judging her life choices, which they could do, if they had a computer. For Lilley, the Yukon is both liberating and dangerous: “the drone / of danger has got so loud / I might as well live / next to an airport.” Although a relative newcomer to Canada, she has seemingly internalized its most enduring poetic forms, even penning her own poem about canoeing: “a red canoe complements / the deep green summer / that seduces me, kneeling / as I scoop and spoon / along a liquid highway.” Pauline Johnson would be proud.
The two main thematic through lines of The Fleece Era are parentage and inheritance. Lilley has a knack for distilling the intricacies of familial relationships to a single galvanizing image: “Once the will was read / and the sweater wasn’t in it / I knew it was my inheritance.” a mother with a rock collection, which serves as metaphor for her emotional baggage, imagines visitingher son who lives across the ocean by throwing “all her rocks into the ocean, / there might be enough for a bridge.” Lilley’s interest in filial relationships is partly informed by her decision not to have children. At times, she seems steadfast in that choice: “If I had children / I would have to stop / reading the book I’m reading.” other times, she wavers: “She doesn’t regret not having / children; she regrets / not wanting them.” this tension manifests in shifting pronouns throughout the collection, with Lilley employing the “I” and the “She” interchangeably, indicating a potential alienation from the self.
The freedom to start anew, out of the shadow of family, has always been one of the appeals of the North. This is something Lilley is conscious of: “No ancestors watch over me. I have no descendants to guard / My native land is a high street / of ford fiestas.” With no ancestors or descendants, it is up to the individual to make meaning of existence and what better place to do that than the Yukon: “Canada is the perfect place to come up / now that England is full up. The town’s are ugly, but / there’s space for everyone / in this megaland.” Perhaps, then, Lilley is not so much in search of the right place as she is enough space.
University of Ottawa