Guest Review: Harlow on The Best Canadian Poetry

Morgan Harlow reviews
The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008

The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 is the inaugural volume of this series in Canada. Edited by Stephanie Bolster, the series editor is Molly Peacock.

“Who do you think you are?” asks Stephanie Bolster at the beginning of her introduction to The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008. It is a phrase, she explains, that refers to a “reluctance to pronounce a viewpoint,” making an apt launching point for a discussion on the responsibilities of the role of editor in a ‘best of’ series. “Who do you think you are?” echoing the Alice Munro story of that title, is also a political statement, for Bolster and in this context conveying a sense of what it is to be Canadian, to be a woman, to be a poet.

As an American, a United States citizen writing a review on The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008, I, also, begin by asking myself, “Who do you think you are?” Most of what I think I know about Canada, its literature, music and art, feels somehow mythic and iconic. Northrop Frye, the Group of Seven, Gordon Lightfoot, Stan Rogers, Leonard Cohen, several successful writers of fiction, and Anne Carson come to mind. And of the country itself, though I’ve taken three road trips through Canada, twice west and once east, with stops in many of its major cities, I’ve found that what I know best about Canada is that it is diverse, and not at all easy to define.

It may help to get a few facts in order, and a quick Google search brings me to—where else? –the CIA World Factbook where I find the most up-to-date, pertinent facts about Canada, including:

Area—Comparative: somewhat larger than the US

Nationality: noun: Canadian(s)
adjective: Canadian

Who do I think I am? The CIA World Factbook on the United States:

Area—Comparative: about half the size of Russia; about three-tenths the size of Africa; about half the size of South America (or slightly larger than Brazil); slightly larger than China; more than twice the size of the European Union

Nationality: noun: American(s)
adjective: American

Note that the United States is not described as somewhat smaller than Canada, and the identifying term for its citizens is American(s), not United Statesian(s).

Perhaps it has everything to do with that elusive ‘Canadian difference’ and why so many Americans are enthralled by such an idea, for it represents for Americans the possibility of getting outside of themselves to gain a different and valuable perspective.

Which is, after all, what reading poetry can do. Says Molly Peacock, the series editor, “As it turns out, our first volume of The Best Canadian Poetry in English is as different from its US counterpart as Canadian poetry itself differs from what is written to the south” (prologue, ix).

There are 50 poems here. Following these are the appendices: another 50 poems are referenced on a long list; also included are short list’s poets biographies and poem notes and commentaries, a list of magazines where the poems were first published and a list of magazines considered.
In the introduction Bolster describes the criteria on which she based her selections and makes a few observations about the range of work represented, ultimately believing that “what these poems share is a lively sense of the creative process.”

Many of the poems in this volume combine what Bolster calls “an interesting, even strange, sensibility or imagination” with elements interacting with or informed by some aspect of literary tradition, whether through homage as in Jeffery Donaldson’s “Museum,” experimentation with form as in Méira Cook’s “A Walker in the City,” or, as in Todd Swift’s “Gentlemen of Nerve,” cultural pastiche.

Also notable:

Maleea Acker’s “The Reflecting Pool”: A meditation on seeing and self, with nature as the captivating image rather than—or perhaps truly becoming one with—the self.

James Arthur’s “Americans”: Travel, place, introspection, love. The elegant timing recalls the best of Thomas Hardy’s love poems.

Brian Bartlett’s “Dear Georgie”: A found poem taken from letters written by Bartlett’s uncle in 1918, who was enlisted in the Canadian army and training in England. Thrilling in a way provincialism rarely is, through the authenticity of a voice as real as a tug on the sleeve and could very well have belonged to an acquaintance of the narrator of Edward Thomas’ “As the team’s head brass.”

J.R Toriseva’s “Encyclopedia of Grass”: A nature poem perhaps, but one with postmodern tendencies. Canadian prairie, grass, poetry, language, words and the interrelationships therein, across space and time.

But these are just a few observations on just a few of the poems. The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 is a collection of fascinating and worthy poems, a wonderful beginning for this series. The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009, A. F. Moritz, ed., will be out in October 2009.

Morgan Harlow is an American poet who reviews regularly for Eyewear.
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