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Where it Hurts

Sarah de Leeuw Where it Hurts Cover
By 
Sarah de Leeuw
NeWest Press, 128 pages, $19.95
2017
Reviewed by 
Lauren Kirshner

In the title essay of Sarah de Leeuw’s compelling new collection, Where it Hurts, a young mother new to a northern British Columbia town is nervous when a stranger asks to hold her baby. Too polite to say no, the young mother watches as the woman—whose name is Cowboy— grabs the baby and bounces her up in the air. For a moment it seems the woman will drop the infant. But, as it turns out, the woman is imperiled herself. In a few months, she will appear in the newspaper, found murdered on the side of The Highway of Tears.  

Such fleeting, haunted connections, and a tone of aching love, run through the essays in Where it Hurts, many of which share the theme of disappeared women. These women include Cowboy, along with nameless vanquished girls—the faces on the backs of milk cartons—who were abducted, murdered, or died young, in summertime teen prime. De Leeuw makes these lives visible through soaring lines that are poetic and visceral, like teenage girls “all lanky limbed in jeans a size too small, hair . . . shining elemental with peroxide gold.” Where statistics about human tragedies can leave one numb, de Leeuw’s luminous concrete description jolts with riveting clarity and empathy. It forces your attention on that hurt, and on the spaces and unanswered questions these women’s deaths leave behind.

Some of the women come from vanishing communities: old logging towns, truck stops at the top of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway—shuttered when the resources ran dry—and post-industrial northern townships, where, as she writes, a film festival comes by every two years. De Leeuw, a human geographer, poet and non-fiction writer, connects these dwindling towns to marginalized lives, subtly showing how remote geographies can make lives more prone to erasure. De Leeuw’s writing is a hedge against these women’s lives fading, combining images of corporeal decay (“plastic bags, snagged on brambles and translucent as lungs”) with the organic and beautiful (“soft mauve lilac flowers”). While elegiac, de Leeuw’s pencil has a fiery point and her writing is a revocation of silence. “Inquiries result in findings,” she writes, “and findings can be documented and published and circulated so people pay attention and search for solutions.” 

The essays in Where It Hurts are deeply felt, original, and a moving requiem for lives extinguished too early to have left a trace. De Leeuw writes with love and conviction while also asking important questions of the reader: how do we live with the empty spaces death makes? And as the living, how do we honour, and fight for, the women these empty spaces represent? 

Lauren Kirshner’s novel Where We Have to Go (McClelland & Stewart, 2012) was a finalist for the City of Toronto Book Award. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Hazlitt, Elle Canada, and The Globe and Mail. She is the founder of Sister Writes and assistant professor of English at Ryerson University.

Table Manners

Table Manners Catriona Wright
By 
Catriona Wright
Signal Editions, 88 pages, $17.95
2017
Reviewed by 
Jessica Rose

Table Manners, the debut collection of poetry by Toronto writer, editor, and teacher Catriona Wright, is a bold exploration of food, foodism, and food rituals. However, don’t expect it to make you drool with anticipation. The book’s dark and surprising poems are filled with fare that only the most adventurous foodies might crave, including bone marrow donuts, pickled lamb tongues, and antler velvet.

Centred on the primal thrill of eating, Table Manners begins with “Gastronaut,” a poem narrated by a gourmand with a deep fervor for the act of devouring. “I guess it’s as noble and as pointless / and as thrilling and as painful as any other passion,” the narrator writes, the first of many characters with an exaggerated and obsessive interest in food. 

Set at dinner parties and wakes, on balconies and in pubs, Table Manners brings readers to expected places; however, Wright’s inventive poems and playful use of language are anything but predictable. For every bowl of bran flakes, Wright serves “slow-roasted unicorn haunch” and introduces readers to “marzipanimaniacs” and “kale apologists.” She forces readers to see food, and the ritualistic act of eating, differently. In one of the collection’s most memorable poems, “Hitler’s Taste Testers,” she abandons the idea of food as nourishment, exposing it instead as a weapon. “We were lab rabbits twitching in our cages,” says the poem’s joyless narrator, a woman who was tasked with vetting Hitler’s vegetables and broth for poison. The young woman was the only one of fifteen taste testers to survive the war.

Laced with Wright’s dark humour, the poems that inhabit Table Manners move easily and quickly from elegance to vulgarity. This unsubtle, yet effective, shift is best exemplified by “Annual Tea Party,” a poem that appears midway through the collection. “Brass, glass, peaches and cream. Raspberries / shimmer on a tarnished pewter platter,” begins the poem delicately, with imagery of stacked cucumber sandwiches and pink-rimmed teacups. Soon after, readers are introduced to a comically crass cast of characters, among them Cousin Mildred who brings the poem to a close when she “projectile vomits with zero finesse.” 

Table Manners is an unsettling and deeply hilarious book of poetry that is best devoured like any good meal—slowly and with intention. Rife with hyperbole and razor-sharp wit, Wright’s poems emanate sensuality and desire. Each poem is filled with delicious details collected through careful observation that readers of this collection won’t want to miss. 

Jessica Rose’s book reviews have appeared in magazines, including Quill and Quire, Room, Ricepaper, This, and The Humber Literary Review. She sits on the board and committee of gritLIT: Hamilton’s Readers and Writers Festival, is a senior editor at the Hamilton Review of Books, and writes about Canadian literature for Hamilton magazine.

Bad Endings

Carleigh Baker Bad Endings Cover
By 
Carleigh Baker
Anvil Press, 168 pages, $18.00
2017
Reviewed by 
Candace Fertile

Bad Endings, Carleigh Baker’s debut collection of stories, is a weird and wonderful frolic through the vagaries of relationships, especially their ends and mostly from the perspective of women. Baker combines the quirky with the sensitive in a snappy style to reveal the importance of relationships and also how doomed they can be. Most characters have not reached middle age, so longevity is not an issue in romantic couplings or friendships. 

The first story, “War of Attrition,” is a splendid introduction: Corina prepares to leave her husband by getting a job. She hands out free newspapers at the SkyTrain station, and her rival newspaper distributor, a woman from Ukraine, cannot understand why Corina wants out as her husband gives her everything. And there’s the problem. Andrew has given her so much that Corina has lost herself. Physical comfort comes at a price. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum is “Baby Boomer,” in which Greg watches his daughter Danica give up her life for a loser who cannot hold down a job. Greg’s wife believes that Travis will get violent with Danica, but Greg refuses to think that. He’s wrong. 

And other family relationships are examined, such as in “Buddy Frank’s Steps to Success,” a heart-breaking story about mental illness in which Ella has left a care facility and lives with Vi, a woman who tries to keep her own illness at bay by extreme order. Ella knows it’s extreme, but she understands why Vi does it. And she worries that if she moves out, Vi’s obsession with Prince Edward and cleanliness will be out of control. When Ella’s sister asks her if she ever writes to Prince Edward, Ella responds, “No, dumbass. We’re not all the same—” And that line shows one of Baker’s lovely touches: life has humour even when people are suffering. 

Stylistically, Baker uses present tense, a popular technique that has its limitations, I think. The immediacy of the present tense works against a sense of reflection, which is fostered by the more conventional past tense. Somehow, the present tense is more ephemeral, and Baker may wish to play that off against her solid presentation of place and time. The stories have numerous references to contemporary culture (Starbucks, Tinder, drugs), and the language is realistic. Some stories connect; for example, beekeeping comes up in more than one. First person narration is reserved for female perspective, and overall Baker appears quite conscious of staying within a particular contemporary world of ordinary, troubled people while showering them with great insight. 

Candace Fertile teaches at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C., and has been a member of the Room collective for over a decade.

Force Field

If I think about what I’m doing, I’ll never get off the plane. After all, it’s ridiculous to believe a computer program can predict two strangers will develop a meaningful relationship. It’s even more ridiculous to test that prediction by flying halfway across the country after a few dozen hours on Skype.

My Name is a Typo

You know you’re ethnic as hell when your own smart devices immediately autocorrect your Korean name. Apparently, according to Apple, Jiyoon is incorrect. Instead, their devices offer a plethora of alternatives; the most notable being Jason, June, Jouoom (this one remains the most mysterious of the bunch), and even Jamie.

Selina Boan: Emerging Writer Award Winner 2018

Selina Boan

Selina Boan is a poet living on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. She has been published extensively in literary magazines across Canada, won the Gold National Magazine Award for poetry in 2017, and was shortlisted for the 2016 CBC Poetry Prize. She is currently working on a collection of poems exploring her Cree and European heritage. “Here we go” and “the plot so far” are poems included in this collection and appear in Room’s “Let’s Make Contact” issue 40.4. The love and genuine care that is so evident in Selina’s poems she also puts into the work of the people around her. She champions emerging writers and her friends, and she attends to strengthening community building at every opportunity. Her work is powerful, necessary, and utterly brilliant, and she is very much deserving of Room’s Emerging Writer Award.

Currently on Newsstands

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