Writings / Reviews: George Elliott Clarke

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X: Poems & Anti-Poems
by Shane Rhodes
Gibsons, BC: Nightwood Editions, 2013
126 pp, $19

The Fleece Era
by Joanna Lilley
London, ON: Brick Books, 2014
105 pp, $20

Shane Rhodes’s sixth book is X: Poems & Anti-Poems. The title is exact: The poems project Malcolm X-like, anti-racist rage to protest the “X”-ing out of Indigenous Peoples’ rights to culture and prosperity in Canada; they do so in unapologetic, experimental style.

Ottawa-based, Rhodes was the 2013 Queensland (Australia) Poet In Residence, and so he has had a front-row-seat, so to speak, both nationally and internationally, in observing Native struggles for equality.

X suits our times; it documents Canadian reactions (some supportive, most not) to the Idle No More movement. This past spring, the United Nations received a new report slamming Canada’s treatment of First Nations and our theft of their resources.

But back to the poems: It seems Rhodes has studied the Oulipo movement and read closely one of its best, Canadian adherents, namely, M. NourbeSe Philip. The look and style of his book recall her epic poem, Zong! (2007). Like Zong!, X is also playfully difficult.

Rhodes’ poems riff on treaty legalisms; the “anti”—or unreadable—poems are either concrete poems or pattern pieces based on repetition of terms, overprinting of phrases or sentences one atop the other, upside-down page arrangements, or deliberate omissions and/or ink blotches and/or white (out) spaces.

The energy of these poems reminds one of Wilfred Owen’s Great War sonnets, where “The Poetry is,” said Owens, “in the pity.” In Rhodes’s case, the poetry is in the unflinching rage.

“Warning: this book is not about distant lands, Greek and Roman philosophers, Japanese haiku masters, and Elizabethan poets will not be discussed / This book is about desire / the desire to look elsewhere / This book is about where I live….”

Thus, Rhodes dismisses the entire academic class of Canuck bards who look to Europe or Asia for their tutelage rather than face our “native” heritage of oppression.

I admire the radical sport of Rhodes’ lyrics and I admit my total support of his politics.

Yet, I prefer his lyrical movements to his brash, harsh, avant-gardism: “god save the Queen / god save the barely planted late in spring wheat / god save the chickens from the mink… / god save the cured and salted meat… / god save me from the church and from the poor… / god save this rifle so I can put a bullet / through the life god has saved me for.”

There’s a Poundian quality in this lyricism: “these women / stone faced stone backed / stone hands… / they had so little need for men / who get them with child / and parted from work and drink / only by death // each woman, unto herself, / a country….”

Rhodes takes us down twisty, dangerous roads—of conscience and consciousness, forcing us to recognize the sins of our Confederation….

Joanna Lilley’s first collection, The Fleece Era (Brick, $20), is as introspective as Rhodes is outré. Her concerns are traditional: to see the self in all its psychological subtlety and geographical domesticity.

A Briton from Suffolk, but once also of Wales and Scotland, Lilley is now settled in Whitehorse, Yukon. Her poems conjure the genealogical (“Spliced by sisters, / pinched between parents”) and the local: “Leaving the post office, / I bend to a tub of pansies / on the sidewalk and sniff / the blood-thin petals / already covered in ice crystals.”

I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s semi-mystical, epigrammatic lyrics, but also Elizabeth Bishop’s pointillist portraiture—the exquisite image and restrained emotion.

“For my mother, conversation. / A thin wrist reaching for / a hand in a lap…. // For me, home-child, a riddle // she didn’t answer before she died: / whether there is more suffering / in having children / than in bearing none.”

Lilley allows a lite feminism: “He knows his way around your body / better than you do. / After a snooze in your spleen, he tickles / your hippocampus… / He slides down your intestines / as you sleep…./ It’s the orifice your sister warned you about / whenever you both lay on grass, / except she only told you / spiders would get in.”

Lilley is as precise as Rhodes is passionate: “She doesn’t regret not having / children; she regrets / not wanting them.” Her insights are visionary: “cows / are the shape of the United States.”

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