The Canadian Book Challenge was one of the first community reading events/challenges that I joined online. For ten years it was hosted by The Book Mine Set, then The Indextrious Reader hosted for the past two years and, now, the baton has been passed to Canadian Bookworm, who will host the challenge from July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020.
When all his hard work was behind him, to celebrate his decade of hosting, The Book Mine Set awarded a stack of books by Canadian and indigenous authors, one book to represent each region of the country, to a random recipient – me!
Most of the books were donated by the acclaimed poetry press, Brick Books, with a couple of additions from John, to represent Nunavut and the Northwest Territories (his home turf). In the summer of 2017, these books arrived and I literally had to clear a shelf for them. What a delightful “problem” to have!
Since then, I have been reading them (all but two of the authors were new-to-me), enjoying the sense of moving across the land, on the page. Along the way, I’ve been making some notes, which I’m pleased to share here, beginning with the novel and children’s book that John selected personally and, then, touring through the selection of Brick Books’ volumes of poetry.
Witness my clumsy arrangement, with blankets and sheets bunched up and lined up to represent Vancouver Island to the west, the southern geographic border with the United States, and a sliver of the northern lights above.
Inhabit Media is “an independent publishing company with a mandate to preserve and promote Inuit and Northern culture through the telling of Arctic legends, myths and adventures”. (This article is an excellent introduction to their early publications and mandate.) Sweetest Kulu is a picture book, written by Inuit throat singer Celina Kalluk and illustrated by Alexandia Neonakis, containing a lullaby which describes the gifts from many northern animals, which are received by a newborn.
Marissa is trying to leave it behind: “that moment, after three or four drinks or the right amount of drugs, when everything comes together and you find yourself connected to the universe…when you are suddenly larger and you no longer feel like shrinking into yourself”. But it’s hard. Annelies Pool’s Free Love (2015) is this Yellowknife author’s debut novel and it switches between those moments and the other moments, the ones that make her ache for that high, so she is partly in the 1960s as she recalls painful moments from her childhood and partly in the 1980s trying for sobriety. Kitchens smell like tomato sauce and coffee, living rooms have orange and brown afghans and braided rugs: these are ordinary scenes, ordinary people navigating losses and disappointments and dreams. There’s dust under the coat-rack and mud near the door and “the midnight dusk … settled on the ice of Yellowknife Bay”.
Jane Munro’s Blue Sonoma (2014), her sixth poetry collection, won the Griffin Poetry Prize. (Brick Books) With more than two decades of living in British Columbia (on Vancouver Island and in the city of Vancouver), the coastal landscape permeates the work. In “Old Man Vacanas”: “Doe on the driveway / with this year’s fawn / and last year’s, now full grown, / eating salmonberry leaves.” And, in “A small doll nested in hollow dolls”, “water knows to be water / a spruce grows into a spruce / in a crevice / buckling down, living on less”.
Méira Cook’s Monologue Dogs (2015), her fifth book of poetry, boasts impressive-sounding blurbs by Molly Peacock and Steven Heighton. Cook was born in South Africa but now calls Winnipeg home. Whether inspired by history, myth or poetry, these verses are rich and accessible. In “Her Mother”: “It’s getting late, light flashes off the windows / of buildings and streetcars The year runs straight / off its tracks.” And it, like the others, has a short note at the back of the book with some writer’s insights and observations (a terrific addition). (Brick Books)
Ann Shin’s The Family China (2013) combines some of my favourite elements. The poems have strong narrative threads but simultaneously play with form. So readers can situate themselves in scenic and detailed passages but also enjoy extraordinary definitions of ordinary words which run alongside the verses, which often contain even more scenic and sensory-soaked details. Although she grew up on a farm in the Fraser Valley in B.C., she now lives in Toronto and has established an impressive film career as a director of short and feature length pieces. “Ancient ravines choked with asphalt, / a sky bristling with office buildings – / the emerging face is a geometry / mapped with the crisp clarity / of intersections.” (From “Forgotten Fields”, via Brick Books)
Born on the Prairies and now living in Nova Scotia, landscape and geography figure prominently in Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s poetry. There are many striking images in Lost Gospels (2010). “Together you walk into the open field of prairie wool / toward the ravine, its scattered harvest of old combines, rusted / limbs locked in a last plié, pocked and peeling and fired / by the sun.” (From the eponymous cycle of poems) There is also a cycle of poems inspired by Simone Weil and another by the Saskatoon Lily. Snippets of published journals and recorded songs appear, alongside memories and musings. (Brick Books)
Torch River (2007) is Saskatoon writer Elizabeth Philips’ fourth book of poetry. This collection took me the longest to read, because I regularly set aside the volume to reflect on the connections knitted between her observations and my experiences. This is the reason that I first started to read poetry: a sense that someone else could fit the indescribable into words. My favourite is “The Hanging Tree”, a poem she dedicates in the notes to her mother and father, and to Jake, the horse. Because the perspective steered me around a corner before I knew to turn away. But I have many other favourites too. (Brick Books)
The Good News about Armageddon (2010) by P.E.I. native Steve McOrmand is one of the most compulsively readable collections, despite the heavy subject matter. Even pairs of lines have weight. “The day has swollen ankles. We slow-mo / through thick sulphurous air.” (Fortunately the verses in this sequence are only printed on the top halves of the pages. Presumably so they can settle downwards as their significance holds sway.) Often bloody, even when there is dancing, they unfold against a landscape of the human condition. Only occasionally does geography take hold: “Waiting to board the ferry, we watch an ill wind pounce on a black truck tarpaulin, sink its teeth in and pull.” (From “Strait Crossing” via Brick Books)
From views of the Crystal Palace to the Children’s Zoo, from scenes in the red light district to the weave of a tapestry, from bear pits to sanctuaries: Stephanie Bolster’s poems reflect and refract throughout her fourth collection, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth (2011). Born in British Columbia and now living in Quebec, there is little of Canada in these verses; readers are more likely to find themselves in New York City or France. In “Eden or Ark”: “The child is taken there to see the world. Look, there is this and this.” Readers, too, are meant to marvel. A much-decorated poet. (Brick Books)
My favourite poem in Lynn Davies’ The Bridge that Carries the Road (1999) is “Dishwasher” about the dismantling of a kitchen appliance, about children riding down a hill in its basin. “Hands gripping the rim for the right-angle turn to the sidewalk. Shifting their weight to steer around the concrete heaves and cracks, for one wild ride to the bottom of the hill.” There are several glimpses of children in this collection, against the backdrop of a quiet melancholy and other instances which draw attention to bittersweet moments. This is her debut collection and I enjoyed it enough to seek out her others. She writes from New Brunswick, but her borders expand: “I met my cowboy on a car ferry sailing to Newfoundland. Heeled boots, bright Stetson all the way from Kamloops, B.C., distant land back then. On the ferry deck a wild east wind blew my poncho to pieces, furious speech I was grateful for.” (From “My Silent Days” via Brick Books)
Nora Gould writes in east-central Alberta. Her collection, I See My Love More Clearly from a Distance (2013) was her debut and her follow-up Selah was nominated for the Governor General’s Award four years later. In a CBC questionnaire, she says that Canadian writers do not need to write about Canada. So many of her poems feel universal and recognizable. “He nudged his dog across the truck seat. Off to the spring in the north field, he rolled his window up, almost closed. A crow cawed.” And the land is a constant presence. Which makes sense, given the opening to her Open Book “At the Desk”: “I write in tractors, the John Deere 7810 while I pick up grain from the combine and the 4230 and 4440 when hauling bales. For the latter, I move as needed to facilitate the loading then lumber down the road, meet the returning outfit, and exchange. I grab my cloth bag — pad of lined yellow paper, pens, and water bottle — and emerge into fall air colder than the sunshine suggests.” (Brick Books)
Michael Crummey’s Hard Light (1998) considers a landscape. “Darkness of spruce trees, maples scorched by the coming of winter.” And the “outrageous autumn-red pulse fading as the house moves deeper into night, the incandescent warmth of it slowly guttering into darkness”. But it is populated, by a woman who “dug the garden, watched [her] belly swell like a seed in water” and the “gulls out over the harbour, the slosh of water on the rocks”. And by a kind of stillness: “[p]redictable vegetables, sturdy and uncomplicated, tasting of the winter root cellar, the warmth of darkness smouldering beneath snow” and a “dark mahogany radio sits expressionless in the kitchen, a little Buddha, contemplating silence”. Crummey is one of my MustReadEverything authors, and I was thrilled to have a reason to settle into his debut, now one of the Brick Classic editions.
Joanna Lilley’s The Fleece Era ( 2014) is so of-a-piece with the landscape that I feel like I’ve inhabited it myself. It’s more familiar than I expected it to be, the extremes of weather still recognizable. “Kicking snow on the way to the bus stop / it jangles as it skitters, / lit by star and street-lamp glitter.” (Parhelion) “Ceiling fans spin, pretending it’s hot. It’s not. It’s as cold as any dwindling / Yukon August.” (I can’t Hear a Thing You’re Saying) My favourite poem in the collection is “If I Had Children” but, overall, I found these works to be accessible and evocative. So much so that I scurried to see what other books she’s written: a few, and a novel too. (Brick Books)
So it’s taken me more than a year to enjoy these thirteen volumes, but what a pleasure. Thanks, again, to The Book Mine Set and to Brick Books and to all these authors, who took me so many places on the page.