Malahat Review 165 (Winter 2008)

The current number of The Malahat Review, which if you don't know the journal is among Canada's strongest and most storied literary periodicals, is on a subject near to my heart: "The Green Imagination" is its issue title. It contains works from a number of writers nominated for Governor-General's Awards over the years, including a few winners. At the number's core, in spirit if not by page number, are separate interviews by Jay Ruzesky with Jan Zwicky and Tim Lilburn, who to some extent stand as progenitors and muses for a specific thread of Canadian poetry about the environment.

(Poetry about the environment? Environmental poetry? Environmentally engaged poetry? Ecological poetry? Nature poetry? Nature writing? Etc.)

And this is both a strength and a limitation of this volume. There are few poems here that stick out as not belonging to a common set of formal allegiances, and it was striking to me that fully a dozen of this issue's poets could share a stage unproblematically for its launch. There are differences in approach between, say, Patricia Young and Philip Kevin Paul, and it's not that I get mixed up when I try to figure out which poet wrote which poem. But there's a kind of "school" feel to much of this issue, and this means two things: that there's a consistency and cumulativeness that together generate a positive reading experience for those who feel somewhat inside the school, and that there's a sameness and repetitiveness that together fatigue a reader who doesn't feel connected.

And yes, I know that this isn't a school in the traditional form, and some of these people I'd lump together wouldn't accept the link themselves. (I also don't think every work in this volume fits in the school, but more about that below.) Me, I feel deeply connected to the concerns (both the environmental ones raised in the poems and the intellectual ones raised by Jan Zwicky in her essay "Lyric Realism: Nature Poetry, Silence, and Ontology"), but I need to say that I don't feel particularly connected to the poetry and poetics.

Individual poems within the school do work well for me (Don McKay's "Song for the Song of the Sandhill Crane" and Melanie Siebert's "Because they are good at lying low"), but not all of them have that effect (Arleen Pare, John Steffler, Tim Bowling). Some of them, really, leave me at best cold and at worst cringing.

For me, by far the most memorable poems are two that don't fit within what I'm tempted to think of as a school: Sina Queyras's "Her Dreams of the Expressway" and (even better, to my ears/eyes) Sonnet L'Abbe's "L'abitat." I'm a sucker for Georgic poetry anyway, since I worked on it in grad school, but L'Abbe has managed a rare feat here: a respectful but self-ironizing version of a poetic form that I really thought was past use. It doesn't quote well, but trust me, it more than deserves its place in the Malahat, even though I think it fits somewhat awkwardly in this particular issue.

I enjoyed the volume quite a bit on my first time through, but I've been less excited on subsequent reads. Not just because of who and what isn't in the volume, though that's part of it: with the verse, I get the content but want something different formally, and with the prose, I don't see my view of the world being represented. I don't have the energy right now to say much more than that, but I'll keep working on it.


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