Poetry Reviews by Laura Ritland

Julie Paul, The Rules of the Kingdom (Kingston: McGill Queen’s, 2017). Paperbound, 120 pp., $16.95.
Rhonda Ganz, Frequent, small loads of laundry (Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue, 2017). Paperbound, 80 pp., $19.95.

The Rules of the KingdomNarrative poetry might be an official national preoccupation. At least, I’ve always wondered about the long romance between Canadian poetry and the story (think Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid, Bolster’s White Stone, Carson’s Autobiography of Red…). Julie Paul’s and Rhonda Ganz’s debut collections cut very fine figures against this favoured ground. With mastery and invention, both poets take the storytelling poem to new heights.  

“Lanark Village, middle of nowhere / Eastern Ontario / pop. 800”: Paul opens her collection with an excavation of this small town’s history and traditions. The first two sections of the book track both Lanark’s pioneer origins and the speaker’s experience growing up in, and leaving, the town from the sixties to the eighties. For the pioneers as for the speaker, “[m]emories present the problems” (“Rules of the Kingdom”): the condition of displacement from “a land / where castles exist” to the wilderness of early Eastern Ontario parallels the speaker’s own conflict between an “ancient impulse” (“Confessions of a Migratory Speaker”) to leave home and a desire to reclaim the place that shaped her. Rules of the Kingdom thus offers an anthropology of Lanark but also a kind of auto-anthropology—it is a collection about “me of the village, the village of me,” to use Paul’s elegant formulation (“Revision”). The following two sections expand these themes in poems about motherhood and love. In “Gazing Across the Venous Lake,” a Xeroxed ultrasound presents a “site where past and future / had fought, a whole / evolutionary struggle”— “the separation” or individuation of the child “already begun.” Addressing the speaker’s beloved, “The World’s Smallest Republic” represents the speaker’s body as a country: “Girlian Republic, Womanysia, / Vaginica, Loveland, Nunugolia.” Paul carefully blends metaphors of place and territory with a life’s story to achieve a subtle range of shades between poetic conceit and documentarian truth. Her art never lapses into artifice or contrivance. Indeed, her respect for the unrecordability of experience seems to inform her choice of technique in poems like “Paint by Numbers: Lanark Fire, 1959.” Here, Paul counts the devastation “not officially tallied” in the Lanark fire: “x # of homeless, jobless, hopeless / once the smoke cleared” or “x # of bed sheets marked with a body’s ashy fingerprint / after a few hours of nightmared sleep.” Paul lets these absences echo and resound, respecting their silence but also soliciting our attention to the losses they encode. In the stunning “Other Versions of the Dream” in the collection’s final section, Paul again works via negation, but instead to render the hypothetical and imagined startlingly actual. The poem begins: “There were no forts in these dreams, / no peepholes where we could spy / on the British”; it then enumerates disturbingly familiar atrocities: “no one peeled human skin off another / because it was the wrong colour” (“Other Versions of the Dream”). The nightmarishly fantastic becomes a hauntingly evocative depiction of twentieth-century events.

Frequent, small loads of laundryThe line between the fictional and the real blurs beautifully in Rhonda Ganz’s Frequent, small loads of laundry, where dreams, nightmares, and psychosis intersect with narrations of characters’ lives. The collection begins with a series of vignettes narrating characters in the middle of romantic plots. Ganz’s narrative scenarios are eccentric, funny, dark, and immediately compelling. A woman takes a lover “only in months having thirty days // or when she wanted to rearrange the furniture” (“Frequent, Small Loads of Laundry”). Persephone, post-Hades, reminiscences about her former husband: “Sniffing burned toast in the elevator, / all I can think about is you” (“Persephone Tries Internet Dating, But Every Man Reminds Her of Hades”). In “Dactylophobia,” Alfredo sends a severed finger to his lover, “his tribute not for ransom, but proof / of devotion”; in return, she buys him “a dozen pairs of kidskin gloves.” The organization of the collection into seven sections—“Monday” through “Sunday”—offers a standard of normalcy in playful contrast with the strangeness of these poems’ subject matters. This otherworldliness becomes quite literal in “Keepers,” for example, when aliens invite the speaker to “keep company with the man / in their zoo”: an “IKEA, circa 1983” “habitat” with “an oxygenated atmosphere similar to New Brunswick in July.” As the collection proceeds, Ganz’s poems take an inward turn to explore mental conditions, dreams, the psychologically askew or faintly diseased. “Sickness // is changing my brain. To clarify: / I keep stepping in the same bucket of eels,” says the speaker in “I Mistook a Streetlight for the Moon and Could Not Stop from Howling.” Suicide emerges as one such “sickness” in poems like “Early Warning System,” where Ganz sidesteps melodrama with humour: “My head under water when the concierge walks in. He pokes / my collarbone, and reports me to the hot water police. / Felony submersion” (“Early Warning System”). In these latter poems especially, Ganz’s style takes on an experimental, nervy energy, making bold associational leaps between ideas and images, such as in the final poem, “Permit Yourself an Afternoon of Wailing II”: “Gratitude is the corner my mother made me stand in. / Appreciation: a sinkhole big enough for both our houses.” Not only has Ganz proved her mastery of both the whimsical and the nightmarish, the comic and the absurd, her poems show great technical virtuosity.

Both Paul’s and Ganz’s collections boast skillful technique and ambitious variation in their approach to telling a story. Both should be toasted as wonderful debuts.

—Laura Ritland

As in The Malahat Review, 200, Autumn 2017, 151-153