A sense of place is crucial to a fully embodied poetics, the successful emplacement a fusion of land and language. “Where is here?” Northrop Frye famously asked in 1965, a question that both Daniela Elza in her first print book, “the weight of dew” (Mother Tongue Publishing Ltd, 2012) and Melanie Siebert in her debut collection, “Deepwater Vee” (McClelland & Stewart, 2010) elaborate on through their poems of Canadian landscape territories, Elza mostly through BC road trips and Siebert by means of her experience as a wilderness river guide on the Athabasca and North Saskatchewan. For a Canadian, writing place is rendered problematic by our fear of being dismissed as merely “regional,” thus of little interest to outsiders. However, as writers from Margaret Laurence to W.O. Mitchell and poets such as Al Purdy and Daphne Marlatt have realized, deeply acknowledging and even celebrating one’s region is a way of respecting one’s origins and, by means of this knowledge, drawing others towards the realm and its narratives. Both these poets enter place through the experiential, though Elza’s is filtered through the philosophical while Siebert’s channels out into history.
1/Daniela Elza’s the weight of dew
What Shines: Elza’s poetic sequences read as liquid shards of one long, undulating poem, complete with bright fragments, the halting re-bars of incomplete parentheses, floating letters and other evocative demarcations of breath. This book is a score for the land; a musical accompaniment for the reverie-space of road trips. Elza’s poems move through the Kootenays, the Okanagan, the Rockies, dream, childhood, the realities of war, mothering, the sensuality of such pleasures as: “a bowl of tomatoes/as big as two fists…un-sliced/bread… and white cheese.” Throughout, much that she has read and absorbed of philosophy and poetry surfaces, submerges itself again, interweaving perceptions, presenting the reality that all is entangled, entwined, and yet vastnesses of breath can still course within this seeing. If one can let go as a reader and enter these uniquely marked rhythms, then the journey moves on multiple levels and one doesn’t, quite, exit, at the close.
What Stumbles: Elza’s erudition is evident all through “the weight of dew” as evidenced not only by allusions within the poems but by epigraphs before each section and at the head of many pieces. Sometimes there are even two! After awhile, such quotes load down the poems and seem excessive. Oddly, for a poem such as “child asleep in the back seat” which ends with “the pines/that rise/like dark water/between them” and could have used a quote from its echoed source, Gwendolyn McEwen’s Dark Pines Under Water : But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper/And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper doesn’t feature one. Also, the use of italics and punctuation to emphasize obvious points as in the poem “the algebra of reverie” where explore becomes “ex.plore” and writes “w.rites” can feel somewhat forced, the theory then serving to quash the lyrical, which, when the two attain a balance, works so beautifully.
What it Echoes: Saussure, Bachelard, rob mclennan, Anne Marriot, Nelson Ball, ee cummings, Heideigger, Loreena McKennit.
2/Melanie Siebert’s Deepwater Vee
What Shines: Quite simply, all her water poems. As with forerunners such as Tim Bowling and Joe Denham, Siebert has made her living on the water, not as a commercial fisher like those poets but as a wilderness guide. Such experience lends her poems the veracity of lexical texture so when she writes: “River, slab of the weathered-down, low under the long hunger…low under the berms of the/ fat lip. Thick backs of murky sturgeon…the river slows, gull-flush and scavenging…/Inner wrist of what’s left” the reader feels the tangible weight of Siebert’s intimacy with this ecosystem and is thus able to relinquish doubt and allow the flood of place to enter. Before many of her topographical pieces, Siebert provides us with the co-ordinates of the zone she is singing as in “Alsek Lake 59 11′ 06″ N/138 10′ 38″ W”, again adding to the anchored feeling one has reading these poems, cradled in the difficult wisdom of her voicings. Amid these discovery passages of the here and now, Siebert recounts the explorations of the Athabasca and the founding of Fort Chip by Alexander MacKenzie, attending to the romantic side of his personality in musings to Kitty, his purported First Nations mistress, this tale serving to provide a foundation for her poems that recount stories told her by elders during her journey to the tar sands in 2008 with the Keepers of the Athabasca. Siebert’s river and lake poems allow the reader to enter a troubled beauty that lingers.
What Stumbles: An interspersed sequence of busker lyrics, though also overtly located, this time in urban zones as with “10th Ave, across from the rail yards” feels misplaced. Perhaps Siebert felt that shifting between the urban and the wild would strengthen attention on the latter but for this reader, it was a side foray into a clicheed subject, one Joe Denham has already tripped through awkwardly in his otherwise superb debut, Flux (03). Additionally, the forms these poems take could have been torqued from time to time to better emphasize the tributary feel of the book, lending it an even tauter flow to surge the eye and ear forward more smoothly within the coursings of its own organic passages.
What it Echoes: Tim Lilburn, Joe Denham, Tim Bowling, Annie Dillard, Ken Belford, Robbie Robertson, Tom Waits, Arthur Lismer, Tom Thomson.