When, combing through hundreds of poems for a journal or magazine issue, I spot what looks like a trend, it can sometimes be hard to be sure that I’m not just selectively seeing what currently interests me. If this issue’s crop of poems is more about what I’m into than what’s trending out there, then I’m in a fury: furious at sexualized violence, furious at the pressures to live gender norms and to ignore white supremacy, furious that—whatever our intentions—our own bodies will not always relinquish the pleasures of aggression and domination, and will not always do health on our terms.
But this issue’s selection of poems was made with lots of input from The Puritan’s editorial team, and it turns out that The Puritan’s sensibilities were pinged by the same writers that made me stop and reread. So, assured that these poems resonate with other rigorous discernments than just my irritable own, I find myself strangely comforted that so many excellent poets writing now are plumbing, in the personal way only poetry can, the angry and aggro energies that seem to dominate this global cultural moment.
I wonder about how anger informs poetics. Thich Nhat Hanh has said that in us, anger is like a seed that we must avoid watering. Basically, this is the “whatever-I-put-my-focus-on-becomes-more-prominent-in-my-consciousness” argument, which is why a poetics of attention, like Don McKay’s, for example, would not so readily turn toward anger or aggression: why represent more of what we don’t want? Meanwhile, feminists, Black writers and Indigenous writers working in predominantly white spaces have to negotiate their complex work being stereotyped and dismissed as “angry,” while at the same time they may find that activist fury the only mode in which their writing is reliably recognized. Over in the neuroscience corner, researchers like Ronald Potter-Efron make a distinction between predatory and defensive aggression, suggesting that the former requires a cool detachment, and only the latter is “imbued with the emotion of anger.” If that’s the case, then what kind of relation are we readers to have with the poem that, in its exploration of toxic masculinity, reaches into, say, rapey, cruel or violent urges?
So many of the men in this issue want to talk masculinity: John Wall Barger’s little prince will crush his own chance at love before letting go of his image of a powerful body; Barger’s condo-dweller is unable to articulate a stable male domesticity; Barger’s Fox and Crow act out the unofficial mythology of colonial race aggression. Kyle Kinaschuk’s speaker has “lost the man script” and the “u” addressed, and perhaps gagged, seems to be the key to finding it. Artelle’s speaker, which addresses a girl with the name of a hentai porn character, finds her “so beautiful” he wants to “break every tree” in her, and “at daybreak” grows horns: is there more here than the Picasso-like depiction of male lust as goatlike and Satanic? Jake Byrne’s lyric portrait of a male predator of young men also reaches for animal images; when Byrne’s speaker searches for some essence of personhood in the depths of the body, he finds a hollow, a lack of feeling that is yet the source of voice. George Murray, whose speaker will on the one hand “draw a circle around us with piss,” on the other says no to rapey videogames, and calls upon the poetic line to be a new articulation of the boundaries of ethical manhood. Barry Dempster’s poem, which brings me right into an experience of Parkinson’s, is elegiac for a lost power to punch and uses the strength of voice to say fuck you to bodily feebleness.
Jane Eaton Hamilton’s prose poem is another kind of fuck-you, this time to the smugness of a medical professional; yet her pissed-off speaker maintains a fierce loyalty to her own seriously ill body. Nicole Chin’s voice is quiet, but something strong thrums underneath this speaker’s “bitter tongue,” something I think is just beginning to “unfurl”: an anger waiting to be unleashed in language? Maria Matuscak’s violent urges, in contrast, are right at the surface: “the real Maria Matuscak … will [someday] kill someone”—I was very interested in the obvious meta-self-fashioning going on in her work. The sarcasm of Natalie Wee’s “press that flag inside me” speaks of generations of gendered, suppressed anger. Tanis MacDonald tries to accurately name, in order to effectively call out, the aggression that fuels colonial expansion; in “Green Belt Buckle” I feel her taking aim at capitalism’s displacement of mobilizing anger about environmental change into animal motifs in hipster design. Stevie Howell focuses her sharp attention first on the mirror on humanity held up by Tay, an AI chatterbot taken offline for her offensive tweets, which were cobbled together from what she learned from humans; then Howell turns her attention to the way, young people “crushed each another into our sex,” and on the boys who might be learning, right now, to come into manhood the same way.
For anyone who hasn’t muted their news feed for the past eight months, it’s been a year of seeming unrelenting aggressions, ranging from revelations of pop heroes’ domestic violence to police brutality to hate-fuelled bombings and attempted coups. The poets in this issue each demonstrate, with exquisite wordskill, how these widely circulating energies play upon the writer’s psyche.
I’ve included three emerging voices in this issue: Jill Talbot, who killed it at a reading on Gabriola Island earlier this year, despite having almost never read before. Her voice is a mix of small-town-girl angst and Steven Wright dry wit—look how she gives voice to the ubiquitousness of domestic unrest; Lorin Medley, who writes from central Vancouver Island—I love that image of a resentful housewife staking her own heart, aorta propped like a red-pink tree; and Lauren Marshall, who offers us a respite from anger but not from gore, in her sweetly understated tracing of the meandering, gutty resonances of entrails.
Enjoy, grrr, and feel all the feels.
Dr. Sonnet L’Abbé, is a poet, essayist and public speaker. The author of two collections of poetry, A Strange Relief and Killarnoe, L'Abbé was the editor of Best Canadian Poetry 2014 and was the 2015 Edna Staebler Writer in Residence at Wilfrid Laurier University. She has taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia - Okanagan and at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. Dr. L’Abbé is also currently a creative writing and English instructor at Vancouver Island University.