Sunday, July 10, 2016

Liz Howard, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent

The 2016 Griffin poetry prize went to Liz Howard and her book Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, and this was a very good call. At least, that's the official view of the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada (ALECC), which selected this volume as one of the top four entrants for its inaugural book prize, the only creative work to be so honoured. It's a very strong collection, with some remarkable poems:
If I moan from an animal throat it is in hope you
will return to me what I lost in learning to speak.
(“A Wake,” p.12)
Lines like these sparkle like gems, but to me, at least, they're impressive because they stand out from less engaging sections. This is a poetic mode that depends for its success not on accessibility but on intricacy, complication, sometimes the appearance of impenetrability. Howard's are highly polished poems, and Howard stands in good company with the mentors she acknowledges, Ken Babstock, Dionne Brand, Erin Moure, and Lisa Robertson in particular. More than that, I admire and appreciate Howard's efforts to link her mentors' poetic practice with the other practices and traditions in which she participates.

In terms of its content and thematics, I was taken by the intensity with which Howard takes on the challenge of bringing together human perception and nonhuman existence, the complicated relations between perception, being, and being perceived:
what else is a river but the promise of a text      this is my delta some neural asymptote    where else could you cull such a clanging nerve? (“Foramen Magnum,” p.56)
I don't mean this to be faint praise, because who am I to query the wisdom of the Griffin and ALECC juries? But regardless of its strengths, this collection hasn’t become a favourite for me. Just as there are many modes of fiction, there are many poetries, and my preferences lie elsewhere. These things happen: it's hardly the first prize winner that didn't work for me....

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