Canadian Soul

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Sonnet L’Abbé. Anima Canadensis. Toronto: Junction Books, 100 numbered copies, 2016.

Guest review by Bruce Whiteman.

It takes guts, or something, anyway, to call a book of poems “The Canadian Soul,” in Latin no less. Was there ever a Canadian soul? Is there one now? Does Kateri Tekakwitha embody the Canadian soul? Louis Riel? Maurice Richard? Leonard Cohen? Harold Innis? Or perhaps a young writer with the undeniably perfect name for a Canadian poet, combining a poetic form with a French surname, although she writes in English? The Canadian soul should comprise poetry, bilingualism, and youth. Or so it seems to me, at the beginning of a year in which Canada will celebrate the sesquicentennial of the British North America Act (30 Victoriae Cap. 3). Anything that has a sesquicentennial surely ought to have a discernible and veritable soul.

This is Sonnet L’Abbé’s third book. McClelland and Stewart published her first two books, A Strange Relief (2001) and Killarnoe (2007). Anima Canadensis is a much more modest book than the McStew collections, consisting of just thirteen poems in a book of thirty-two pages that looks and feels like many a Coach House Press or Porcupine’s Quill book (Zephyr Antique Laid paper, etc.). It consists of two sections, the first entitled “Permanent Residents’ Test” and the second “Love Amid the Angloculture.” Ten of the poems are prose poems, in various ways, and only three are conventional lined poems. “Permanent Residents’ Test” parodies questions presumably asked on such a test, with questions that sound, well, not unreasonable (“Answer the following questions,” etc.), though the body of the answers is always a bit surreal. That is her point: take a semi-reasonable question, put a bit of spin on it, and fantasize an answer that goes off the deep end of poetry. This will yield an unsatisfyingly stultifying line such as “Our [blank] rituals and quarterly rituals are a social medium of ritual,” a strange line such as “Everywhere the green smell of cis-3-hexanal” (apparently what you smell when you smell freshly cut grass), or the rather repulsive line, “They [the bugs that live in our gut] know bad milk and bad touches and can transform into a stun spray of defensive puke.” Well, maybe, but as poetry? I don’t think so.

“Love Amid the Angloculture” is equally unsatisfying, unless you like lines like these:

Light leaves
and I am grounded.

My motility lays itself in a bed
of cotton.

Sleep closes
the corona of datastream.

“Sleep closes/the corona of datastream” is just a clumsy way of saying that, when you fall asleep, you stop dealing with input from your senses. It’s not really very beautiful, frankly. If you hear Christopher Dewdney behind these lines, you would not be far wrong. The scientific language sounds unintegrated to my ear, and hence pretentious. And yet, in that same sequence, occurs a poem of brightness and a down to earth quality that shows what L’Abbé is capable of when she is more direct. It is a prose poem entitled “The Trees Have Loved Us All Along,” and it eschews the words which, in other poems, will send every reader to the dictionary, if every reader cares to take the trouble. It opens like this:

That trunk there is alive. Up out of a paved patch in the concrete sidewalk at Main and Broadway and strung with blue lights in the middle of summer, that trunk there is alive. I’m in its space. It doesn’t give me a hard time about it.

This is real language imagined to respond to a real experience, and the fact that this poet can locate such language, even once, demonstrates her talent. I wish she had written more poems like this one, and fewer that hover at the edge of accessibility and play among a vocabulary that is not that of real poetry.

Bruce Whiteman is the author of Tablature (McGill-Queen’s Univesity Press) and many other books of poetry.

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