Poetry Reviews by Danielle Janess

Tanis MacDonald, Mobile (Toronto: Book*hug, 2019). Paperbound, 120 pp., $18.

Elaine Woo, Put Your Hand in Mine (Winnipeg: Signature Editions, 2019). Paperbound, 92 pp., $17.95.

MobileAptly, Mobile, Tanis MacDonald’s fourth book of poetry, opens in motion. “We walk. The city unfolds its blocks,” asserts the speaker. “Better / that a woman should walk these streets than make one’s own vicinity a cattle / chute, a gauntlet to be run. Better that / women should
be seen and not hurt.” Nimbly, in the book’s first three stanzas, MacDonald conveys a sense of the setting that will pull the reader through
these pages. With the opening poem, “Flâneuserie,” acting as prelude and the closing as “Requiem,” Mobile leads us down three main routes: one, a remake of Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies; two, a roving elegy for Jane, an urban wanderer bearing the white settler burden; and three, into the slippery microlevels of sexual politics in the modern workplace and in women’s history. This is Toronto, narrated by an incisive feminist wit.

Six interconnected “Sybil Elegies” make up the first section of Mobile, a suite MacDonald cites as “in conversation with” Dennis Lee’s 1972 Civil Elegies. Those who haven’t read Lee’s seminal book (I hadn’t) may be helped to know that it is comprised of nine numbered and interconnected meditations that explore the struggle to live as an urban white settler in a colonized space. For Lee, Canada has been colonized by the United States, and the effect of “selling out” to this cultural oppression is a sickness mirrored in both the nation and the self, where the suffocation of Canada’s natural spaces and autochthonous national identity cause the speaker’s very breathing to “clog.” In “Sybil Elegies,” MacDonald ventures beyond international politics to those of gender and class. The voice of the male speaker (commonly taken to be Lee himself) has been replaced by the “I” of a young woman who struggles to freely inhabit her body in a sexist and sexualized society.

Prairie-raised, navigating her way through Toronto’s urban geography, MacDonald’s speaker casts herself (in Elegy 2) as “a foot soldier / in an unregistered / army of young women walking / home from dirty jobs, grey with grease.” She contends with long hours at low-paying service jobs, classist disapproval from “old-Ontario stock,” the condescension of an “Upper Canada Boy” who lectures her on intellectual matters, and the practice of constant vigilance over the safety of her own body. Such vigilance, necessitated by the ever-present threat of harm to any body perceived as female in a colonized space, is a lifelong burden rooted as far back as childhood. Many readers will relate when the speaker recollects an early rehearsal of physical
defence: “in January dark / walking home with my skates / over my shoulder and / thinking of how fast a skate blade / would go through a neck.” Yet despite the risks of harm, the speaker insists on her right to live and move freely in the world. Her decision to walk the city alone at night comes not only from economic necessity—“I walked / the twenty blocks home … / at 2:00 a.m. / because every dollar was too / hard to earn / to waste it on safety”—but also in defiance of the silent restrictions placed on women’s everyday movements: “we receive advice … / to stay in, / better to void / the scandal of being / than to call ourselves bloodied.”

Thickly allusive and intertextual, the poems throughout Mobile converse with a host of artists, scholars, and texts, from Yeats, Borges, and the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to Emily Dickinson and American theorist Donna Haraway. Mobile’s ideal reader either is or wants to be educated. I took the invitation as generous, for how it occasioned new-to-me encounters with voices like Sonya Huber, whose “Shadow Syllabus” MacDonald credits as an influence on “The Bluestocking’s Opening Lecture,” in the book’s third section. My enjoyment of the work deepened on multiple readings, but it engages the reader even on a first pass. Mobile’s strength lies not so much in its emotion, though MacDonald at times elicits that too, as in the poems that follow Jane’s apotheosis in the second section. Rather, the voice of this Mobile crackles with a sometimes-caustic humour, with wordplay, music, and confidence throughout. It speaks to us not merely as if from across the airwaves, but as if fully animated by a body in motion, asking what it means to take up city and citizenship in a female form.


Put Your Hand in MineLike the first card in a tarot reading, much is revealed by the first poem in a book. The poet tips her hand and everything spills from
there. Where Mobile sets us on a walk that in turn “unfolds” the urban environment, Elaine Woo’s second book of poetry, Put Your Hand in Mine, opens darkly on an inner landscape. Consider the first poem, “Embrace,” and its first line: “Inside: an octopus writhing.” Immediately the effect is visceral, moody, and because of how Woo sets the words “embrace,” “inside,” and “octopus” against one another, deliberately oppositional. In a poem of eight double-spaced lines, the overall direction in which we are heading is not yet clear, but clues like “wavering bands” and “blunt-struck” suggest concussion, perhaps literal or figurative. Here, an injury has made neither living in the now nor looking to the future possible. This is a vexed speaker who can “merely comb through history / enumerate … the grunge of errors.”

With each poem standing alone, not grouped into any corresponding sections, the book’s organization suggests the isolation and longing of its temper. Like singular raindrops, the poems appear forlorn, at times so private in meaning they read elliptically. In the seven-line poem “Writhing,” I’m not sure whether “scraping cochleae / woodlands aural-raped” and “synthesized explosions” describe the site of
an outdoor rave, a piece of theatre, urban construction, or none of the above, and the poem offers no speaker, save that of machinery, to guide me. But though their voices are at times muffled by what may be intentional obscurity, the poems do share concerns. Many call out to each other across the pages. The poems “Picking at a Scab on My Wrist” and “Gazing at My Internal Warts” both employ the metaphor of bodily sores to suggest inner turmoil. “Father and Daughter” is reflected later by “Mother and Daughter,” where, though each poem differs in shape, they share ten lines set in the domestic sphere. “The Myth of Barbie” memorably rejects both the consumer culture and structural racism of the ubiquitous “doll all the girls on the block owned.” Although Barbie “speaks egalitarian: my friends include Hispanic Teresa and African American Christie,” the speaker cuts through the doll’s polished pretension with her own sharp observation: “All her friends bear dubious Caucasian features.” By the poem’s end, the speaker, who once desired Barbie’s emblematic “fairy tale credits” and stunningly disproportionate proportions, now credits her own mother for dispensing with their allure. “This cultural icon doesn’t live in my wide waist or psyche,” she tells us. “Kudos to you / Mom: you wouldn’t allow me one.”

By its final poem, Put Your Hand in Mine has flashed us through no less than eighty-six scenes depicting family, friendships between women, toxic relationships, and the medicine of the urban natural world in what feels like Vancouver, not directly named but present through the book’s alleyways, raccoons, trees, and oceanscapes. Although I found these poems at times difficult to follow, I appreciated the spaciousness of their forms and their moments of piercing effect such as here, when winter becomes a vampire: “nature’s winter ennui / chill sinks its incisors / puncturing eyelet in my neck.” Like the uncanny visual of the two wooden mannequin hands that dangle from thin wire on the book’s front cover, at inspired points the hand within surprises us with curious movement and unusual illustration.

—Danielle Janess

As in The Malahat Review, 212, fall 2020