Poetry Reviews by John Stintzi

Claire Caldwell, Invasive Species (Hamilton: Wolsak and Wynn, 2014). Paperbound, 72 pp., $18.

Kerry-Lee Powell, Inheritance (Windsor: Biblioasis, 2014). Paperbound, 80 pp., $18.95.

The similarities of Kerry-Lee Powell's Inheritance to Claire Caldwell's Invasive Species seem more random than stylistic. Both are debut collections, both authors have won awards from The Malahat Review (Powell the 2013 Far Horizons Award for short fiction, Caldwell the 2013 Long Poem Prize), and both titles begin with the letter “I.” Otherwise, their poetics seem to fractal—slimly overlapping and curiously skittering apart.

InheritanceAfter reading Powell's Inheritance it is no surprise to learn that the author studied medieval literature. Her poems, particularly in the first of the book's three sections, have an Anglo-Saxon intonation, reminiscent of Old English elegies like “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.”  This is not overt, especially to those unfamiliar with Old English verse, but her language evokes the comparison through word choices like “limbs pilfered mid-nap,” and “firstborns,” as well as through modifying phrases like “cold froth,” and “luckless heads.” Powell’s use of such constructions, as with the Anglo-Saxons, adds a tonal texture to the images in her poems. (“The Wanderer,” for a rough comparison, uses modifiers such as “sorry-hearted,” “ice-cold sea,” and “weary spirit”).

In similar spirit, the first section of Inheritance has a strong elegiac tone. It dwells on action that precedes the life of the speaker, the defining moment being the poem “The Lifeboat,” where Powell retells the story of the shipwreck her father endured during the Second World War. The book locates this as the origin of his struggle with the post-traumatic stress disorder that leads to his eventual suicide. All Powell's poems seem to be affected by shard imagery, of wreckages, sinkings, and the return of the broken past, where “night after night the reassembled ship // scattered its parts on the shore of his bed.” Inheritance is a stormy book, colourful and furiously flowing like a Romantic landscape painting. But perhaps the poet’s best gift is her ability to shift focus from section to section. While the first is especially haunted by the speaker's father (the whole book is), the second moves into much more charged, passionate, and directly personal language. It is the speaker's interactions with her world, a kind of Bildungsroman. In the poem “Whiskey Mantra,” the speaker says “I raged, I swore / I contemplated becoming a whore, / all for the world.” Other exemplifying poems in this section are “Skinnydipping,” the “Bachelorette” sequence, “Russian Brides,” and “The Rich,” where “we daughters blew the rich / boys hard, as if / our lives depended on it.” These poems are chock full of images that stand unique in comparison to the other two sections; images of campfires, witches, nightclubs, and blowjobs, mingle with Powell's glance back to the fairy tales and Greek myths that root these poems into the book’s overarching interest in the past.

Invasive SpeciesIn contrast to the haunted quality of Powell's Inheritance, Claire Caldwell's Invasive Species deals in more forward-looking content through poetic techniques like parataxis, humour, and juxtaposition. The focus of Caldwell’s poems shows through the tangential joining of disparate bits. For example, “La Gamine” begins: “As expected, the circus tigers escaped. Paris blinked / away the haze of August. An orange time, a pageant / of baby carriages.” As the title of Caldwell's booksuggests, a majority of her poems involve animals. The final poem, “Osteogenesis,” (co-winner of The Malahat Review’s 2013 Long Poem Prize) uses a blue whale that died in the Sea of Cortez as its central image. In a Malahat website interview, Caldwell said of the poem: “As soon as I began writing about the whale, some other narratives and images I'd been working with were sucked into its orbit.” It is interesting how much animal imagery has invaded and enriched her book, as though the language was merely sucked into their orbits. Other poems memorably featuring animals include “Invasive Species;” “The House with Snakes in its Walls;” and the sequences “Grizzly Woman;” “Anna and Nicola;” and the hilarious “Bear Safety,” where we are warned “If a bear charges, remain casual. / Send a friendly, noncommittal text.”

Caldwell's poetry fully tilts into verbs, using them as fulcrums in order to gain powerful, internal momentum. Caldwell's poems slither, burrow, stamp, and snap. They're feral. The energy in Caldwell is in the sonic flick of her language and it’s through this linguistic verve that the book achieves moments of humour as a natural by-product. In “Invasive Species” she writes “Cougars insinuated themselves / into major cities, scaling condos / like cliffsides.” Caldwell's humour is powerful because, while present, it's never the point. It's just something that happens.

If the strength of Powell's Inheritance stems from image and evocation, its variations of tone and focus, from elegy to fury and back, the power of Caldwell's Invasive Species is its playful linguistic energy. It's a book of bestial awareness and enlivening surprise.

—John Stintzi

As in The Malahat Review, 191, Summer 2015, 87-89