Jessica Rose

Songs of Exile

By 
Bänoo Zan
Guernica Editions, 148 pages, $20.00
2016
Reviewed by 
Jessica Rose

The poems that populate Songs of Exile, Bänoo Zan’s first English collection of poetry, aren’t autobiographical; however, they reveal a deep empathy for those who face, or have faced, political or geographical exile. Zan—a poet, translator, and the founder of Shab-e She’r, Toronto’s most diverse poetry reading and open mic series—knows isolation and longing as a newcomer who left her beloved Iran and landed in Canada in 2010. 

Powerful in its brevity, Songs of Exile explores displacement, intimacy, and fear in short, chaotic bursts. “I’m not committed to a narrative structure,” writes Zan at the end of the collection. This is no more evident than in her poem “Toronto 2012”: “You answer my call / by calling / me / What does it mean / to mean / nothing?” she writes. Throughout the collection, these short, almost choppy lines, characterized by minimal punctuation, force readers to take pause, allowing them to easily digest Zan’s deeply affecting poems. 

In Songs of Exile, Zan commits to the use of a number of literary devices, most notably repetition, as evidenced in the collection’s third poem, “Phoenix (III)”. “Feathers are together / phoenix is alone / Phoenix loves death / Fire loves life / Phoenix is fair / beauty is foul / Phoenix fears immortality / Fire fears death,” she writes. Repeating syllables, words, and entire phrases, Zan uses repetition for emotional impact, especially in moments exploring love and death.

Songs of Exile is often allegorical, brimming with familiar faces from religion and Greek mythology, among them Plato, Athena, Moses, and Oedipus, who, of course, imposed self-exile. 

Zan juxtaposes these mythical figures against the struggles newcomers face coming to Canada today, reminding readers of the world’s long history of exile and longing for freedom. Footnotes provide readers with context and translations that are crucial to understanding these sparse, but complex, poems. 

Zan is playful with language, exploring not only words themselves, but her role as a storyteller and wordsmith. “Language / is the music / my body is playing,” she writes in “Words (III) “I was not made / for this melody / nor the one before / I am forever silent.” 

Songs of Exile is above all about longing—longing for a homeland, longing for a lover, longing for a better understanding of one’s self. “I had left my treasures to poverty / my story to those who prevail / I had left my self behind,” writes Zan in “Journey,” one of the collection’s many poems that force readers to consider the pieces newcomers leave behind in their homelands, and their ongoing struggle to recreate a place in which they feel they belong. 

Jessica Rose is a writer and editor living in Hamilton, Ontario. Since earning a degree in journalism from Carleton University, she has written for publications across Canada. When she isn’t writing, she’s organizing. She currently sits on the board of gritLIT, Hamilton’s Readers and Writers Festival as Director, Program Advisory.

Boy Lost in Wild

By 
Brenda Hasiuk
Turnstone Press, 147 pages, $19.00
2015
Reviewed by 
Jessica Rose

The protagonists who inhabit Boy Lost in Wild, Brenda Hasiuk’s debut collection of short stories, exist in the brief space lodged between childhood and adulthood. They hail from diverse backgrounds and unique circumstances, but each broods with emotions synonymous with adolescence—anger, fear, and confusion among them. 

Whether she’s describing a defiant Iranian sandwich artist or an inner-city youth speaking to a hushed crowd, Hasiuk has a knack for grasping the anxieties of youth, carefully crafting characters that are complex, yet realistic. Each of the eight loosely connected stories that make up Boy Lost in Wild take place in Winnipeg, which is also the city Hasiuk calls home. 

It’s no surprise that Hasiuk has chosen to write about teenagers. She has previously written two novels for young adults, Where the Rocks Say Your Name (2006) and Your Constant Star (2014), both of which also are set in Manitoba. While her stories aren’t autobiographical, Hasiuk does draw on her own experiences working in Winnipeg’s not-for-profit sector. 

In Boy Lost in Wild, Hasiuk’s characters are conflicted. They’re desperate to explore. Their parents hover, and they’re intrigued by strangers. They feel alienated, lost, and alone. It’s Hasiuk’s attention to detail and meticulous character development that makes Boy Lost in Wild memorable, as evidenced in this description of one of Hasiuk’s most complex characters, Monique: “Monique’s presence is about small oppressions: the way her thighs brush together in jeans, the way she huffs through every-day tasks, the way she chews, her peanut butter breath, her flowery lotions on top of body odour; the way she will appear, huffing, demand something of him he knows not what.” 

Despite its smart and concise prose, Boy Lost in Wild falters in each story’s prologue. Instead of cleverly weaving together fact and fiction, Hasiuk begins each story with a list of what she calls “carefully chosen trivia,” which ultimately have little relation to the stories that follow. While it might be interesting to learn the inspiration behind Paul Simon’s 1986 hit song You Can Call Me Al, it’s irrelevant. These random factoids fail to add texture to the work, instead jarring readers from Hasiuk’s otherwise competent collection. 

The characters in Boy Lost in Wild may not all share the same story; however, they do share a city. In their attempt to navigate Winnipeg, Hasiuk’s characters learn to navigate themselves, exploring the isolation, both personal and geographical, that dictate their lives.

Leak

By 
Kate Hargreaves
BookThug, 112 pages, $18.00
2014
Reviewed by 
Jessica Rose

Each word in Leak, Kate Hargreaves’s debut collection of poetry, is deliberate, carefully chosen to test the boundaries of the English language. In Leak, nouns become verbs, verbs become nouns, words shift meaning, and prose flows loosely, free of punctuation. These aren’t the mistakes of a sloppy writer or a novice editor. Rather, they are part of Hargreaves’s careful exploration of the relationship between language and the body. 

Unlike the bodies plastered on billboards and in fashion magazines, the bodies in Leak’s poetry and prose have been damaged by common plagues. They’re bruised, stitched, pinched, and punctured. They leak. They bleed. They scab. As the bodies in Leak falter, both mentally and physically, so does Hargreaves’s use of conventional grammar. 

It’s no surprise that Hargreaves is drawn to broken bodies. Her first book, Talking Derby: Stories from a Life on Eight Wheels (2012) was inspired by her experiences as a roller derby skater. In Leak, her poem “Self-Portrait with Bruises” follows suit. “Some women marry roller skates / soles fuse to plates and wheels  / slip of the tailbone / scrape wrist / trip toe,” she writes.

The speakers in Leak are ambiguous. It’s never clear if the narrator is one person, or multiple. However, Hargreaves writes about body parts as though they are characters, autonomous in action and unique in thought. 

“Her belly demands discipline. Her belly lacks willpower. Her belly laughs annoy the people two rows behind at Pineapple Express,” she writes in “100% All-Natural Organic Blend,” a piece of prose in “Heap,” the first section in Leak. Each of the book’s six sections is given a pliable title: “Heap,” “Chew,” “Skim,” “Pore,” “Chip,” “Peel.” 

One of Hargreaves’s strongest poetic tools is repetition. For example, words repeat as her characters experience obsessive compulsive disorder. “Obsessive obsessive obsessive-compulsive OCD OCD of of of of of on on over own,” writes Hargreaves in “Treatment,” a selection from “Pore,” Leak’s fourth section. Another tool Hargreaves utilizes is onomatopoeia. Leak is littered with words like Frrrrrrrrip and thfooooo.

Leak is a sensory and tactile gem. Readers can’t help but feel “wet hair under a terrycloth hood” and “mattress damp and chunky with rotting tomato and banana leak” because of Hargreaves’s gift for description. The collection is best read aloud, the tongue tripping over Hargreaves’s delightful lyrical trickery. With each play on words, her love of language is evident, right down to each descriptive stanza. 

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