Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Emily McGiffin, Subduction Zone

You know what? Enough with my recent anxieties about my approaches to poetry: I loved Emily McGiffin's Subduction Zone.

ASLE chose well to make Subduction Zone its 2015 winner of the Creative Book Award. McGiffin shows great range in her form, moving from villanelle to free verse without the form ever seeming either obvious or unnecessary. More than that, she consistently manages the neat trick of bridging the conversational and the poetical, writing for example of how to learn a language in another country (the Philippines, in this case) through understanding place above all:
In the evenings, I write out the new words.
By day, transcribe them onto the landscape.
("The Work," p.53)
Subduction Zone memorializes places of significant human cost, such as Bolivia’s Cerro Rico, the mountain above Potosí that claimed roughly two million lives to mine silver for Spain, as well as ongoing catastrophes for the non-human (as in “Red List,” on endangered species, or “Levee,” on a denuded industrial landscape). Its opening sequence draws its inspiration from specific Burtynsky photos, each one anchoring its description of the capitalist monument (ship-breaking, giant mines) in an ancient monument (the Sphinx, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon), and it’s one of the most powerful, striking poetic sequences I’ve read in a long time.

It's possible that this collection could become a minor classic, appreciated for a long time, even if I might be reading nostalgically. After all, there's something a little old-school about McGiffin's stylistics, which place her on the side of Don McKay (who's noted in her acknowledgements) rather than, say, Lisa Robertson, and these days I feel both old and old-school myself. But McGiffin's achievements in classical poetic form marry beautifully with her readings both of large-scale environmental crises and of personal journeys in a scarred, inexplicable world, and it's the kind of book I want to share.

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