Five Canadian Women Eco-Poets
I’m in Canada right now at the biennial conference for Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE). In honor of my host nation, I thought I’d write about a few Canadian women poets whose work I enjoy.
Since I’m at the ASLE conference, thinking about the intersection between poetry and discussions of human impact on the environment, I should start by talking about Di Brandt. Brandt has been concerned about these issues for most of her career. In a review of her collection Now You Care, Jeff Gundy of the Georgia Review writes, “Brandt roams this industrial landscape like a feminist environmentalist postmodern Apollinaire, one who finds beauty and destruction wherever she goes.”
One of my favorite poems in the collection reads as a transcription of that terrified and terror-inducing back seat driver most of us have had the eventful misfortune of sharing a car with at least once. This poem ramps up to a frothy fear as it rolls along the border between Detroit and Windsor:
See how there’s no one going to Windsor,
only everyone coming from?
Maybe they’ve been evacuated,
maybe there’s nuclear war,
maybe when we get there we’ll be the only ones.
See all those trucks coming toward us,
why else would there be rush hour on the 401
on a Thursday at nine o’clock in the evening?
I counted 200 trucks and 300 cars
and that’s just since London.
See that strange light in the sky over Detroit,
see how dark it is over Windsor?
You know how people keep disappearing,
you know how organ thieves follow tourists
on the highway and grab them at night
on the motel turnoffs,
you know they’re staging those big highway accidents
to increase the number of organ donors?
My brother knew one of the guys paid to do it,
$100,000 for twenty bodies
but only if the livers were good.
See that car that’s been following us for the last hour,
see the pink glow of its headlights in the mirror?
That’s how you know.
Maybe we should turn around,
maybe we should duck so they can’t see us,
maybe it’s too late,
maybe we’re already dead,
maybe the war is over,
maybe we’re the only ones alive.
(Di Brant, from “Zone: <le Détroit>” in Now You Care)
This book is full of long, wonderful riffs. The twelve section “Songs for a Divorce” is one of the most intriguing perspectives on the subject in awhile, and the twenty seven section “Heart” shifts between heartbreak and elation, covering most emotions in between. “Interspecies communication” is the most graceful poem about the collapse of the bee colonies I’ve come across thus far:
And then everything goes bee,
sun exploding into green,
the mad sky dive
through shards of diamond light,
earth veering left, then right,
then left, sweet scented,
the honing in,
the yes no dance,
the quantum leap into
open swoon of calendula,
yellow orange delphinium starflower,
ultraviolet milkweed forget-me-not,
caress of corolla carpel calyx….
(Di Brant, from “Interspecies Communication” in Now You Care)
I love how the language in this poem grows more complex as the ecosystem surrounding the bees appears. At first the details of their “yes no dance” come easily off the tongue, but then we get to the “open swoon of calendula” and the “caress of corolla carpel calyx” and suddenly everything is more intricate than we had presumed it to be.
Equally applicable to this talk about women poets living in Canada and writing with an eye for the details of the natural world is Elise Partridge’s book Fielder’s Choice. I’m struck by Partridge’s attention to the specific components of each of her subjects, which you can read in this online example of her recent work.
Rachel Rose’s Notes on Arrival and Departure has several poems I’ve come to enjoy revisiting. One is “The New GRE,” riddled with Rose’s particular brand of sly wit and insight:
1. Write an essay on why the most popular TV channel during Christmas is the picture of the Yule log burning.
2. North American adults replace their dining-room table on average as often as they replace their spouse—1.5 times in a lifetime. Discuss….
7. The average worker bee gathers a thimbleful of honey in her lifetime. The most precious Persian carpets were a life’s work for the girls imprisoned their entire lives to hook a single carpet.
a) Express the value of the carpet in an inverse ratio to the value of the girls.
b) Calculate the weight of each girl to the nearest thimbleful of honey.
(Rachel Rose, from “The New GRE” in Notes on Arrival and Departure)
Throughout Notes on Arrival and Departure and Rose’s other book, Giving My Body To Science, you’ll find Rose’s mixture of common and esoteric knowledge woven throughout poems written in a variety of forms. One of my favorites is “Sestina of the Geographic Tongue” which begins with an epigraph from the New American Dictionary which describes the “geographic tongue” as “One with raised areas due to thickening of the surface cells, giving the appearance of a map.” Rose takes this tidbit and runs. And oh how she runs!
I would be remiss to close any post about Canadian ecologically-minded women poets without mentioning Erin Mouré ‘s Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person or Stephanie Bolster’s Pavillion or White Stone: The Alice Poems. I could go on for quite some time discussing these three engaging books. In fact, I would like to go on further, but I’m in Canada, after all, and rather than sitting inside writing about women poets whose writing engages the natural world I’d like to go outside and be a woman poet who engages with the natural world. Thanks for obliging me.
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...