Review of The Rapids
From Phoebe Wang , The Goose 12/13, November 2013

The Rapids by Susan Gillis

The Rapids by SUSAN GILLIS

Brick Books, 2012 $19.00


Pedlar Press, 2012 $20.00

In The Rapids, Susan Gillis delicately circumscribes the shape of things before they take shape. Gillis’ third collection of poetry does not attempt to pin down indefinable feelings or places, only to outline their constant shifts. They explore how our private lives are negotiated in spaces beyond the borders of our attention. The spirit of Ariel moves through these poems, but so does the voice of a mature self who now questions her prior understandings of the world.

Gillis’ work expresses a sense of the ungraspable and the ambiguous, which may leave some readers scrambling for something solid to rest upon. The poems convey that feeling of certainties sliding out from beneath you. Fear and panic often instigate insight. For instance, the speaker tells us, “Stepping outside the house at dusk I’m afraid / I’m stepping into another form, / my edges losing their edge, arms shading into the trees,” but the “chill air” beyond the open door “is not what I thought. / It is the lit and humming in here / rushing out of the frame.” It is not only the boundaries between the public and private and between domesticity and wildness that Gillis calls into question, but also between the spiritual and material world.

These boundaries do not merely dissolve; the world’s different spheres overlap in Gillis’ images. Doors are willed open by “our hundred exhalations,” a black bear moving towards us precipitates “the sudden brightness of knowledge, / the room inside us for it,” and an open window “admits more than I can bear… Closed it’s stifling. / Either way I can’t rest.” That restlessness drives much of the book’s movement and revelations. Yet moments of self-knowledge are quickly undermined by the world’s propulsive evolutions. As a result, the speaker must backtrack and reposition herself again and again: “Every morning / I walked through a world slightly altered, / taking a new inventory.” By taking stock of incremental changes, in how her “tracks begin to fill in, / smudge into the shade that settles on things. . . ” the speaker realizes, “My   apprenticeship has begun.”

Is it any wonder that she reveals a kind of helplessness, when air and dust are “wanting form” and her body seems about to dissolve? In the subjective experiences she holds up to the light, the reader is acutely aware of absences. A recurring figure is that of the young man at the edge of forest, whose perspective we can never have, and Saint Jerome, “searching the port and the neighborhoods / for entrances into the wild.” The shining pebble of the book is the long poem sequence, ‘The Rapids’, published in an earlier version in a chapbook with Gaspereau Press. This series of views and glimpses of the Lachine rapids gives the sensation of seasons passing in a blur, while a certain part of the consciousness remains sharp, yet wistful. The more that the reader attempts to derive some gist of the matter, the more the rush of images, like the quick water itself, can overcome you.

Concerned with how we are carried from place to place, how we are drawn into places and by unnamed forces “that propel us / into the storm,” Gillis’ poems swerve and pivot. Fragments, half-finished thoughts, exclamations and questions move the lines forward and keep them from stagnating. At times, it can be difficult to infer the speaker’s emotional trajectory or rationale, because these are not poems that jump to conclusions. They leave space for the reader to look up, like a house with high ceilings…

PHOEBE WANG’s poems have appeared in Arc, Canadian Literature, CV2, Descant, Grain and are forthcoming in Ricepaper Magazine . Her chapbook will be appearing with Odourless Press in Fall 2013. Born in Ottawa, she is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s MA in Creative Writing program. She is also reviewer and contributor to The Puritan and The Toronto Review of Books. More of her work can be found at

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