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from saturday's books section

Reviewed here: Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems A Verse Map of Vancouver

Two of the best-known ideas of what is distinctive, what is Canadian, about Canadian literature involve "our" relationship to nature, or more specifically, to "wilderness." Margaret Atwood said CanLit was about survival, that the Canadian identity which seeks to survive in the shadow of American cultural dominance has its roots in the struggle of early settlers to stay alive in a harsh, unfamiliar landscape. Northrop Frye projected his own terror of the wilderness onto all he read, and decided that we Canadians were all about hunkering down and fending off cruel nature: the garrison mentality.

So it is surprising that, until now, no one has ever put together a collection of Canadian nature poetry. An important new anthology, Open Wide a Wilderness, is the first such collection.

  • Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems, edited by Nancy Holmes, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 511 pages, $38.95

In Atwood's and Frye's formulations, "we" refers almost exclusively to people who wrote stories in English and French and put them in libraries, not the "we" for whom that wilderness was already home, or the "we" too busy working the land to write about it. For decades, reading our poetry for national identity, we have imagined ourselves having a particular relationship with the land, a relationship bound up with the story of colonial arrival and settlement. By starting with an interest in our many senses of wilderness instead of a nationalist quest to pin down an "us," Open Wide a Wilderness has real potential to break open conservative frames of Canadian identity's relation to nature, to wildness and to the land.

Editor Nancy Holmes explains that the sheer volume of Canadian work written in the past two centuries that could be classified as nature poetry meant limiting the selection to poems written in English, by Canadians, about "wild" Canadian flora, fauna and landscapes. The result is a 500-page anthology presenting surprisingly diverse approaches toward the natural world.

The fearsome or violent nature for which poets like Earle Birney, E.J. Pratt and Robert Service were canonized sit beside the reverences of Al Purdy and Pat Lowther. The haunting shapes of Gwendolyn McEwen's pines and Margaret Atwood's animal faces sit next to John Terpstra's and Elise Partridge's detailed naturalist observations. Robert Kroetsch and Brian Brett look with an agricultural eye on untamed nature, Susan Frances Harrison's early taxonomical delight in Canadian flowers bookends Adam Dickinson's 21st-century taxonomical mash-up of chokecherries, black bears and homo sapiens, and Fred Wah thinks if you were out "Settin chockers ... you wouldn't even wanna look at a goddamned tree let alone write about em."

This is a great book. It collects in one volume some of the best poetry this land has produced, it's a perfect cottage read, and it is downright fascinating to trace the evolution of the Canadian nature genre from the late 18th to early 21st century. Genteel forms of British Romanticism do not survive long without adapting to the unique Canadian climates to which they have been transplanted. Over time, the European-descended "high" aesthetic seems to gradually learn first not to fear, then not to romanticize, then not to dominate the environment it calls "wild."

Meanwhile, the aesthetic of indigenous voices, speaking through a language transplanted from a far-off isle, stays relatively consistent over two centuries: For these poets, the verbalization of respect for nature as sharing the hard work of being is spiritual, not ornamental. The two aesthetics, transplanted and indigenous, are only recently beginning to approach one another as the book's youngest poets grapple with the reality of environmental crisis and species interdependence, and express feeling the lack of boundary between the civilized and "the wild."

Open Wide a Wilderness perhaps closes the book a little too soon, having missed some of Canada's most cutting-edge, ecologically minded poets, such as Rita Wong and a.rawlings, but it does set the stage for the new eco-poetics to be understood as reformulating a larger Canadian nature tradition.

Poetry grows vigorously out of the urban landscape too, in the celebratory and civic Verse Map of Vancouver. This large-format, glossy coffee-table book was conceived and realized by Vancouver's first poet laureate, George McWhirter. In it, poems written by residents are paired with colour photos of the places that inspired them.

  • A Verse Map of Vancouver, edited by George McWhirter, photography by Derek Von Essen, Anvil Press, 208 pages, $45

McWhirter's goal in Verse Map is to bring poetry into "the everyday consciousness" of Vancouverites; for the rest of Canada, he provides a many-voiced, intimate and unpretentious portrait of the city. The Vancouver presented here is not a tour of official sightseeing stops, but rather a ramble through the varied and sometimes seemingly "featureless" places that have held enough meaning to people that they were inspired to write about them.

Contributors to Verse Map vary from Governor-General's Award winners to relative unknowns, and the poems reflect this scope of experience. Al Purdy's Piling Blood, about warehouse work on Granville Island, is one of the best of them, as is the more difficult but acutely conscious take a st. and, by Rita Wong, which sings the streams of water and aboriginal memory running deep under the city streets. Oana Avasilichioaei's Museum is a wonderful example of how a poem can formally capture the movement and spirit of a place, in this case the amusement park of the Pacific National Exhibition. Great poems by Zach Wells, Stephanie Bolster, Brian Brett, Shannon Stewart, Evelyn Lau, Kuldip Gill, George Fetherling and Elizabeth Bachinsky all contribute to the refinement of the book, and there are even a couple of surprises from newcomers such as Jennifer Getsinger, who writes about Kitsilano with percussion and sensitivity.

Photographer Derek Von Essen is at his best when he has the sharp geometrics of large-scale urban or industrial architecture to work with, as with Vancouver General's forlorn walls, the red framed lines of the airfield's lights, or the grids of bars on East Hastings' closed-up shops. Purdy's poem may have got the best visual treatment of any, with Essen's haunting, blockish image of a warehouse alley. The images of Vancouver's tree-lined streets or hedged suburban areas, however, are flat, and Essen's eye finds little focus amid the more mottled colours of parks and gardens.

Verse Map of Vancouver appeals to me much more as a new Vancouverite than as a critic. Having read Douglas Coupland's City of Glass before moving from Toronto, I've never quite felt that Vancouver lived up to that slick Helvetica hipness, and wondered if I just wasn't yet experiencing the city like an insider. But this literary take on Vancouver, more quotidian than cosmopolitan, does capture what it is to be here. It is this handsome book, not Coupland's, that I would give to visitors or to my folks back east to say, This is where I live.

Sonnet L'Abbé is the author of two collections of poetry, A Strange Relief and Killarnoe.