Gibsons, BC, V0N 1V0
2016, 96 pp., $18.95, 9780889713246
If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You
Gibsons, BC, V0N 1V0
2016, 96 pp., $18.95, 9780889713277
There are many ways to examine our collective past. Owain Nicholson’s poetry debut, Digsite makes this exploration literal. A working archaeologist, Nicholson’s naturalistic lens elevates our human history while firmly grounding it in the earth. His experience working in the Alberta oil sands and boreal forests informs the collection.
Digsite is divided into four sections. From the very first poem, “Diggin’ in the Rain,” metaphor is key: the land is us; digging is introspection.
Aspen are pale femurs thrust skyward
and we traverse into layered silence
beneath their roots
beneath our trespasses
The very next poem, “Arrival,” takes the reader from allegory to realism, depicting the speaker’s first day at an excavation site. “Sometimes holding a double major is killer,” the speaker laments, along with the ravens that “have shat all over / the rental truck.” These subtle observations underscore the already palpable sense of isolation. “Distance is a mantra, and it says, This is not everything. / But you are here, and this is not your room,” the speaker confides, despite being at the very beginning of this venture.
Distance affords the speaker time to ruminate on the past that tangibly exists in the present: “There is no place like the past. Tomorrow/ he will dig where bones laid” (“Atlas Excavates”). That said, the speaker doesn’t overly romanticize their work, either: “There is nothing for us but the assembly line / of our own skeletons.” In this first section, Nicholson strikes a careful balance between nihilism and cautious optimism, alluding to the need for connection and stability in “HhOw 53”: “We haven’t found a hearth. It gnaws that absence… / A hearth means people stayed.” While navigating an unresolved agnosticism, this internal struggle is externalized through pathetic fallacy: “Sometimes I think, there is meaning in people. All night, / thunder, the clash of two rocks underwater. I am often wrong” (“Omens”). The underlying sense of yearning imprints itself on nature and the body, culminating in a need to purge the self of conflict, as in “Catechism”: “Heatstroke comes without irony / but what does it matter? / And there is nothing else but to vomit.”
Nicholson’s speakers sparingly but tellingly use self-effacement for levity: “the point of an arts degree / you postulate, was to get away / from the stuff ‘never to be used’ wasn’t it?” (“Without Treatise”). This section gestures toward a possible explanation for the speaker’s apathy in “Celebration,” the penultimate poem of the section. This piece illustrates the relationship between the speaker and their grandparents, whom they have lost. Through a series of vignettes that detail memories of their family, this poem shows us a possible root for the speaker’s brooding. However, this poem, and this section, is not effective in showing us the way in which this apathy developed. We get a sense of why (perhaps the loss of family or love) but not how. As a result, this nihilism feels a bit too cryptic to appreciate, a bit too self-indulgent to create a real connection with readers.
In Digsite’s second section, loss and desires become cyclical. “The heart suffers / because that’s what we earn,” the speaker tells us in “The Water’s Cycle”; our pain is merited, if not self-inflicted, as is expressed in “The Loyalist’s Cycle”:
And you hurt yourself with every night
you recall laid next to another
and chose to roll away rather than endure
In “The Coward’s Cycle,” the third and final “Cycle” poem, withdrawal is a logical reaction to this pain: “tomorrow, all manner will pilgrimage your threshold / as if they have earned that rite. / You will keep your home locked and send all away.” Much like in the first section of the book, the cause of the speaker’s pain is never fully made explicit. Their agnosticism remains a consistent though unexplored theme in “Under the Lungs of the Sun.” This narrative poem describes the events that occur during a few months of excavating. Ravens steal their equipment. The crew follows old river valleys. The poem reminds us that all is useless: “This living is a sin condensing / like dew into the morrow because it’s all an assimilation, / all a migration, all a hopelessness we share.” The speaker’s shovel breaks against a root. A bear chews through its own leg to escape a poacher’s trap. Again, we are dissuaded from infusing meaning: “How we dig into our own and find nothing, / and move a few metres along and cut into our own nothing.”
The poem succeeds in getting our attention by adding details that beg questions. The events of the dig are arranged by date: June 8, July 8, August 8, September 8. This sequence is inexplicably interrupted by October 12, then October 26. Where this poem fails is by not giving any clear indication as to why this break occurs. Passages like “If we were buried, would this alienated breathing / have mattered? [Laughter]” are also frustratingly cryptic. Why is “laughter” in square brackets? Is this a description or a direction? Again, the significance is obscured. And if we all share a hopelessness, if we are cutting into our own nothing, are we foolish to even consider the meaning? Perhaps the point of the poem, and the book as a whole, is to force us to meditate on our own need to create a narrative and a moral where there aren’t any. That said, this very point is lost in the collection’s ambiguity, never explaining why this is an important question in the first place.
Digsite is especially problematic in the manner in which it considers women. On the positive side, “3.7 Million Years,” likely a reference to the age of the world’s oldest fossils that evidence bipedalism in humans, works well as a commentary on the subjugation of women from the minute our species could walk on two feet. Lines like “Lucy…. / Predators will stalk the slash of your figure above the plain,” and “Lucy, darling, how ugly the curves of your hips when upright. / How will daughters ever cling to you?” speak to the treatment of women as little other than prey and child-bearers. The restrictions historically placed on women are a good starting point. The collection takes this one step further in “All the Others,” in which the speaker addresses an unnamed “you” and alludes to Canada’s murdered and missing Indigenous women, or perhaps to violence against women in general. The intent of this poem is important, but its tone is troubling. Perhaps passages like
Wearing jeans was neither hiding your vagina
nor being ashamed of it. You saved many skirts,
knowing the time and place for delicate lace
and when to bear denim
are meant to be subversive—illustrating culturally accepted misogyny—however, given the subject matter, they feel painfully reductive, as do lines about violence against women like, “The bruises never ended. / It was a boy’s world still” and
There were girls, in lace,
preserved in the river’s clay.
The boys could never understand,
and you pitied them.
It is possible the speaker is addressing a child, thus purposefully using such restrained language, but this possibility remains questionable as it infantilizes the anonymous, female listener. “Insert (Creed) Here” is confusing for similar reasons. The speaker conflates the landscape with the body, an often-used metaphor that could be compelling if reimagined and reinvigorated. Instead, the act of destroying land, of “crushing ancient lava bed for a garden never twice sat in,” seems to be compared to sexual assault. The use of the language of consent in this stanza is unsettling:
Be aware: if human touch occurs, the recoil
may shatter children’s toys, windows, passers-by
like a gavel bashing levees on all things passion,
and you cannot remember
how it was to treatise the treaties of
No means No and Yes is Yes;
how it may have been
to lay honestly against another.
In drawing parallels between the destruction of land and rape, this poem employs a worn-out and unhelpful metaphor. A more literal interpretation—that a human body is being touched—is equally disconcerting because it supposes that we need a warning that a harmed body would “recoil.” Why are we warned against the “recoil” more than the original transgression, the “touch”? And is the poem insinuating that there is an absolute truth that supersedes “No means No and Yes is Yes” by pondering “how it may have been / to lay honestly against another”? Again, perhaps this is an attempt to impersonate a violent speaker for effect. This lack of clarity, however, is harmful to the dialogue about violence against women. While dubious tone, language, and motivation may be used for effect in other parts of the book, here it reflects weak writing.
The last two sections of Digsite invite readers to indulge in existential pondering:
There is no revolution that may be bloodless,
only reform or extinction. Ask our ancestors
their ghosts tore the land (preparing for us). (“Hypocrisy Beneath the Sun”)
This parenthetical abstraction, “(preparing for us),” lends to further mythmaking. Were these ghosts preparing for us by making the land fertile so that we could prosper when we arrived? Or have they been preparing the land we will inhabit after we die? Do they know what we will need since they are now ghosts?
And while love is in the background throughout the collection, it is scrutinized in Digsite’s fourth and final section. In “Blastocyst,” it is planned defiance: “Love, you say, is to instrument a reckoning never allowed.” In “Love, At Distance,” it is equated with “Predation, ossuary, / Leviticus, prey, abrogation,” though the speaker does recognize their own callousness. Finally, in the titular and penultimate poem, there is a subtle shift:
Your own extirpation forcefully within you,
living, even all things redacted to dirt;
could you learn timeless love without
time limit; the mythology of love?
The speaker finally, albeit briefly, opens themselves up to the possibility of becoming someone who understands love, who might let go of their resentment. This change, however, is not a full metamorphosis, since a sense of detachment from the world lingers: “Skyscrapers plummet the cities of kestrels / and there is nowhere left to belong.” The speaker’s resistance to hope feels deliberate here, as though punishing themselves for a crime we will never truly understand. And we want to understand it. As we’ve asked before, where does all this misanthropy and agnosticism come from? By evading these important details, Digsite often moves toward the Romantic sublime, but forgets to present us with enough nostalgia for it to succeed.
Contrasting this, Adèle Barclay’s debut, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You, is more concerned with now than anything else. The first line of this collection gives readers a sense of urgency: “Bees are dying and it’s not even winter” (“Dear Sara I”). This piece introduces us to one of the threads that will weave its way throughout the book’s five sections: letters to Sara, a friend. “Dear Sara I” is also a gentle preface. We are shown the places we are about to see, like Toronto and Brooklyn. We also begin to wonder about some of the speaker’s meaning: “The ink of your letters is so like you / I don’t need to read them.” How exactly is this ink like a person? Is it thick? Watery? Indelible? Within two short lines, Barclay quickly evokes curiosity. “Michael gave me the note / you wrote on a coaster / last night in Toronto,” the speaker reveals, again begging questions. What did the note say? What was communicated? In many ways, Barclay’s collection is a testament to the intricacies of, and possibilities within, language.
Take “Emily of New Moon,” for example, in which she writes, “I’m scared to confess coffee / with MDMA, how the key of G smells / like pine.” Here she interlaces sound and smell through distinct images, giving us a new way to consider sensory experience. Descriptions of Alice Munro, “small-town Ontario,” and L.M. Montgomery’s classic fiction position this poem in Canada. At the same time, there is a conscious distance between speaker and location, between the significance these places can hold for some and the knowledge that they might be meaningless to others.
A couple of pages later, in “Game Face,” the speaker tackles the personal with the same kind of detachment by making changes in character a matter of chance, alluding to the type of dice one would use in a role-playing game, here:
the many-sided die
of privacy rolls under your bed
who haunt your room
when the door’s closed
This poem also includes a new moon that will “rinse” these “selves” of “dread or responsibility.” Indeed, forces beyond language—beyond symbol—are at play in these pages.
In “Aubade I,” one of Barclay’s four contemporary twists on the song at dawn, divination influences a strained relationship:
The bearded lady and I read tarot and chain-
smoke Marlboros. I keep drawing swords:
she tells me that to swallow this love
I’ll have to drink from cups sharp as knives.
The poem “Return to Saturn,” possibly a reference to the planet’s movement and its ability to bring us into adulthood, looks beyond the terrestrial plane:
Witches and saints —
it is my job
to write about
because of my big hair
and because I left my family
in another century.
Is the speaker referring to reincarnation? Time travel? Are these perhaps the same? Barclay’s methodical abstraction creates a universe that is of our world yet beyond it.
Section II begins with “Dear Sara II,” in which themes from the first section converge with references to witchcraft and New York City. Even a “blind tiger” from the first section’s last poem, “Last Night,” seems to have walked into this second section when “leashed tigers … paraded in to pray / under the great hall’s open lungs” at Saint John the Divine, a cathedral in New York. Barclay gives readers an understated wink here, one that asks, Have you been paying attention? This has happened before.
The second section builds on the complexities of longing that were alluded to in “Aubade I.” In “When Does the Hunger Begin?” Barclay writes, “I say your name three times and your brother appears” and “you need me to be a fountain in a lobby of flamingos. / There are men smoking cigarillos in the sink, / they want my polka dots.” These non-sequiturs evoke a sense of appetite, of hunger, for the Other. A spell fails the speaker who yearns for an anonymous “you.” The “you” needs the speaker to be a certain way. The men want something of the speaker, too. Moreover, this poem is successful in conveying images that feel haphazard yet carefully chosen to arouse our senses. We hear the water in the fountain, see the pink of the flamingos, and smell the smoke.
This section also asks how much of our interactions are driven by respect for the social contract instead of reality. “I offer my guests cream even though I don’t have any,” the speaker admits in “Take Photos of Cherry Blossoms Until the Memory of Winter Recedes.” The world can only deliver so much, but it promises everything. These themes mirror the longing in “Mean and Hungry”: “I grate beets for blood, mash avocados / like marrow.” The alliteration here is more than a device, it recognizes breath and vibrations through the way “b” and “m” distinctly move the air and feel on our lips. As such, Barclay’s work is physical as much as it is metaphysical.
While this second section also challenges our accepted understanding of time, Barclay does not make any concrete statements about time here, as though bringing it up will be enough to dismantle its divisions, its linearity. The back-to-back poems “What Transpires in the Night Before the Night” and “What Transpires in the Night After the Night” capture unquantifiable units of time, and this seems to be the point. This has happened before.
Section III re-focuses longing into a desire for creation and meaning. “I want to make another film before I die,” the speaker’s mom divulges in “Dear Sara III,” while in “Grammar by the Minute,” the speaker tells us, “There’s language and then there’s language.” This observation is self-aware without being self-conscious. It describes Barclay’s book, too. Some of her words communicate things we readily understand. Other words communicate something that lies in the space between comprehension and confusion. The effect is otherworldy.
This same poem asks for an airing of “your latest fears / untested allergies, / mistakes set into motion.” By the next day, the speaker will have
… sanded away
then the hardwood
until it’s all mud swept clean.
The speaker will go through the layers in our communication of feelings and impressions. By extension, they will examine the limitations of language. In “Gin Is All the Colours Because It’s Clear,” these limitations seem to parallel our inability to control our responses to stimuli:
When I feel Vaseline and sawdust,
I smell charcoal
When I smell charcoal and cloves
I hear a foghorn
Here, one sense prompts another. Do we direct our senses or do they direct us?
In the fourth section, Barclay continues to create meaning by playing with our expectations. “Nico, I got a crystal for your cane / on the Drive — the question is yes / and no,” she writes in “Dear Sara IV.” Changing the anticipated conjunction from “or” to “and” in the last two lines is simple yet profoundly effective. It creates a space for dialectical possibilities where “Everything / is possible until it is possible. Dogs don’t lie. / The bed still sinks without my weight” (“Aubade IV”). Our movement between places doesn’t mean we haven’t left a mark; they carry us as much as we carry them.
This movement is literal in “I Open the Dryer and a Robin Sails Out,” in which a bus drives across Alberta. In “The Latest Summer,” passages like “While you are driving, you split the night / into finer units of night” and “units of time are expanding to include / melancholy” highlight the effect pathos can have on the relative nature of time. Barclay also examines reality and pretense in this section, especially in “September.” Referring to Marianne Moore, the speaker tells us “I judge her restraint and pretend to / care about her mother.” “The barista / at the café where I’m pretending to work / says she prefers shopping in the states,” they go on to say. There is a degree to which navigating reality depends on the acceptance of pretense in others and ourselves, and Barclay seems to understand that knowing the difference is a deeply private act.
The book’s final section examines selves within selves—“the you you were before you met winter” from the collection’s titular poem. It also meditates on moments within moments, especially in relation to the tensions between love and sex:
now we’re trying to fuck
and you keep saying
as if we’re living
outside the moment
while totally enthralled
by its passing (“When General Anxiety Feels Very Specific”)
This desperate moment (possibly a nod to Inland Empire) is followed by a moment of resignation in “Sour Beer for Bitter Hearts,” then a moment of anger in “Unfucked”:
I am so angry at you
for standing on a hill
on an island
where I’d rather not even die
of old age
you say the verbal realm
isn’t a language of love
but some of my favourite poems
take place in your house
where I sleep so well
I’m practically dead.
Here again, Barclay holds our gaze just long enough then looks away. In that time, and throughout this debut, we are quietly invited to consider language as its own dimension, as space where we can experience yearning, disgust, joy, and fear.
“I want to gather all these threads / and knit them into a narrative to prove / I have been worn and have worn through the veneer,” Barclay writes in “Materials,” near the beginning of the book. She emphatically succeeds, and, in doing so, casts a silent spell so we can feel safe—even within our cages.
Erica Ruth Kelly is a Montreal-born writer, now based out of Toronto. Her essays, interviews, and reviews have been featured in an eclectic mix of publications, including the Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette, Maisonneuve, The Toast, Buzzfeed, She Does the City, Four Minutes to Midnight, and others.