Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets
Edited by Lorna Crozier
and Patrick Lane
Nightwood, 200 pages, $24
Readers of the first edition of Breathing Fire, published nine years ago, will remember a formidable collection of young voices largely unknown to Canada's poetry scene. In Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane's second introduction to "Canada's New Poets," the results are even more impressive. So are their credentials.
Born between 1970 and 1980, the 33 poets in Breathing Fire 2 include magazine editors, book publishers, translators and teachers. The accolades earned by contributors read like the curricula vitae of some of our most seasoned laureates, and include the Earle Birney Prize for Poetry, the Gerald Lampert Award, New York Times Fellowships and nominations for the Governor-General's Award and the Pushcart Prize. Most have published their own poetry collections (or barring that, novels), and the ones who haven't write so adroitly I found myself wishing they had, so I could go out and buy them.
Yet even with all this recognition and savvy, Crozier and Lane suggest, writers of this generation have to get by "in a world that doesn't reward such an esoteric endeavour." There are new faces here. Some were unfamiliar because their work appeared in small presses that focus on regional marketing: I discovered Mark Callanan, Jason Heroux and Chandra Mayor. Others were right in my back yard, but had yet to make their debuts, such as Lasqueti Island writer Amy Bespflug. Still others I knew by reputation, by their published collections with presses such as Brick Books, Nightwood Editions, Coach House and Thistledown, or by their presence in literary magazines across Canada, the United States and Europe (Brad Cran, Zoe Whittall, Alison Pick, Gillian Jerome and Triny Finlay, to name a few).
Such diversity suggests an unevenness of quality, something often inherent in cobbling together so large a body of work. But Breathing Fire 2 contains none of the asperity often seen in anthologies making stabs at thematic issues. The collection is glued together by a number of things, the most notable of which is its poets' ability to poeticize their particular place in history.
To begin this daunting task, contributors explore a variety of subjects. Geography features largely in these poems, rooting in landscape poets like Adam Dickinson, who tells us in Glad Animal Movements, "Pine is the renunciation of caress,/ it is the furious immodesty of a desire/ whose blood is the resin in the grasp." Pages later, Laisha Rosnau takes us, inebriated, to the town "where we lined up to enter/ a community dance, too young then to understand/ nausea, the room spun out, a wheel of sparks/ off us, and all we could think was/ Let it always be like this . . ." A strong sense of place, whether solid or shifting, is just one of the common threads in the book.
Others include tributes (to starfish, to John Newlove) and fears (of being asked to dance, of dying to the wrong song). While this may be standard fare for writers of any age, these are also poets whose minds have been imprinted by restlessness, by privation, racism and the weary hum of a generation fluent in things like travel, sexuality and sadness. The clarity of their visions is so astute, the book begs to be read in small servings. Each poet demands to be heard in isolation, and each poem bookended by silence.
Attempting to speak to the ever-present question of identity, another subject permeating the collection, Shane Book writes in Offering, "I do not think of my mother speaking in the kitchen// Late at night of our leaving, my father forever silent,/ In what I came to imagine was the thin music of shame." In What You are Not, Jada-Gabrielle Pape approaches the same lament, this time with the shrewd irony of a people displaced from their own soil: "we have skin the colour of river clay/ we have songs carried on heartbeats// we have columns of statistics that back up/ like a septic tank on a hot summer day/ all over newly planted grass . . ."
And there are other standout examples: Amanda Lamarche writing on car crashes, Anita Lahey personifying a character in a Colville painting in her Woman at Clothes Line. The list goes on -- so far, in fact, that I started to think Crozier and Lane's summary of the work as "new and startling" in the introduction was a huge understatement. More than astonishing and dazzling (all those tired adjectives), Breathing Fire 2 brings together the collected works of writers poised and skilled in their facility with language, united in their ability to give voice to a generation that has so far been bludgeoned by definitions negating its depth and motivation. As a gathering of poems, it is as precise as finely cut diamonds; as a look into the lives of others, it is canny and unsentimental.
For poetry lovers young and old, even for readers who have given up on the form because of misgivings over inaccessibility, Breathing Fire 2 breathes new life into Canada's poetry tradition, suggesting the esoteric endeavour is alive and well and in very good hands.
Shannon Cowan's first book, Leaving Winter, was published in 2000. She is the editor of http://www.youngpoets.ca and doesn't like the term "Generation X."
The final snow-removal trucks
arrive like liberating troops. Up and up
the streets they sail to roses thrown
from roofs. Winter's a storm window, gone.
This is clairvoyance, this single pane lifted,
light just beyond what's always been there,
the headiest, sweetest unseen. These are the days
of pre-cognition when memory reverses and
time speeds up--the uncombed hair
of the summer willow is more than a shelter of dream.
Dreaming is easy in hours like these,
pavement damp with growth and ferment,
but troops are troops, red-petalled or not.
And still I haven't said what I mean:
time is a ghost in the children's garden
trailing her hem in the dirt. Or,
what's unbroken isn't healed but only stitched back up.
Ice in the harbour, for instance, returned
to shadow the meaning of spring. The Quakers,
for instance, who worship the silence that empties
the outline of words. The shattered things, which is to say
the cool of your palm against my thigh, which is to say
there is no saying for human despair or desire. There is no
perfection. My broken parts have always been broken --
touch me. Touch me there.
-- Alison Pick