Adele Barclay

If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You

By 
Adèle Barclay
Nightwood Editions, 96 pages, $18.95
2016
Reviewed by 
Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt

“Where are our time machines?” asks the narrator in “Dear Sara I,” the first poem of Adèle Barclay’s debut collection, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You. Pulsing with an old-world, occult feel, Barclay’s poetry draws the reader back in time with its tarot readers, bearded ladies, riding caps, griffins, and witchery. Alcohol, cigarettes, and erotic desire lend a theatrical, 1920s-era noir feel to the reading.

Yet Barclay’s poems are both contemporary and relevant. Millennial anxieties are a common thread (“I’m so tired / I can’t even curate / a good life” or “our stupid hands / scratching at glass screens”), as is the desire for digital-era connection (“I watched the new Grimes video / hoping to find you in feathers”). The wry, often humorous voice of the narrator feels intimate and familiar, like that of the friend you’re in a semi-permanent state of physical separation with but still speak to every day, by “dial-up telepathy,” text messages, and handwritten letters. But here, the longing is also carnal, marked by blood, bruises, blisters, and body heat. If I Were in a Cage wonders aloud whether closeness is sustainable from afar. 

A variety of expertly rendered settings reinforce this question. Within the first two poems, Barclay moves from the “slick jaws / of Brooklyn” to small-town Ontario, where “a grunge trio’s name / references Alice Munro.” In Montréal, “darkness in winter is anyone’s game,” while the Pacific Northwest is all “witchery, rain, chanterelles, and moss.” “I have destinations / to tally” writes Barclay, and whether it’s San Bernardino, Paris, Michigan, or rural Alberta, her deftly observed details safeguard the reader’s perception of each place. 

“There’s language / and then there’s language” claims the narrator in “Grammar by the Minute,” and Barclay’s language is both keen and vivid (“The faucet / is a siren, the pipes freeze a rusted melody”), while sensations are contorted (“I’ve / turned Saturn / in my mouth / like an olive pit”) to defy our expectations. At times, it feels like Barclay is a magician pulling back the curtains of perception and memory to reveal something more enduring. The opening poem is one of six Dear Sara’s interspersed throughout this collection, and by “Dear Sara VI,” the final poem, time has passed and place names have changed, but it’s love that appears to endure. In its exploration of intimacy, If I Were in a Cage is at its most reverent and mystical. 

Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt’s fiction has recently appeared in (parenthetical), Matrix, Cosmonaut’s Avenue, and Room’s Canadian Gothic issue (39.3). She lives in Montréal, where she is at work on her first novel. Visit her at carlyrosalie.com or follow her on Twitter @carlyrosalie.

Work & Days

By 
Tess Taylor
Red Hen Press, 72 pages, $15.95
2016
Reviewed by 
Adèle Barclay

Tess Taylor’s Work & Days performs a moral, political, material, spiritual environmentalism. This calendric cycle of twenty-eight poems studies the relationships between the local and global, and organisms and their changing seasonal landscape. In Work & Days, Taylor casts the physical attributes of the ecological world in a deeply poetic light. 

A poet, avid gardener and cook, Taylor was awarded the Amy Clampitt Fellowship, which secured her a rent-free cottage for a year in Western Massachusetts. Her plans to write in isolation and finish her first book of poetry shifted when she chose to intern on a farm instead. The daily tilling informed her writing and she began to compose poems to track the labour of small-scale agriculture. 

The resultant collection emotionally bears the signs of this quotidian physical labour—its pacing articulates how time becomes qualitative when tended to ecologically rather than when we regard it as a finite resource under neoliberalism. In contrast, Work & Days keeps qualitative time: “Branches shuttle icy rosaries”, “They cut a furrow—a line between the winter and the spring”, “As we slice, the day hovers / Soon it will not”. Taylor measures out days and seasons with earthy, embodied images.

The turn to the pastoral in Work & Days isn’t a refuge or escape from modern anxieties. Taylor’s speaker is a citizen and organism, caught in political and environmental webs. Her poems contain the awareness that “we are not self but species.” The poem “Apocalypto for a Small Planet” opens with “& the radio reports how in 2050 / farming Massachusetts will be like farming Georgia— / all’s flux, no one can say what will grow in Georgia.” While the poem grapples with cynicism and helplessness in the face of global warming—the speaker’s friend “says my hunger / to be near zucchinis // will not save the planet from real hunger”—Taylor’s deft lyric holds all the tensions of living under the threat of ecological disaster and degradation. The poem endures to beautifully suggest “these cucumbers are more art than science” and, despite all uncertainty, the speaker returns to the small but mighty task at hand: “here I work a plot that also grounds—” 

Taylor knows the poetic pathways of Hesiod and Virgil that lead to farming the land and she brings her own wry yet sincere modern sensibility to the genre of the pastoral. The speaker contemplates her exigency and place in relation to her proximate ecosystem and larger global systems. In “Elsewhere Food,” she observes concerns both immediate—“Failures gnaw the crop”—and faraway— “Elsewhere famine, elsewhere flood. / Rainforest clear-cut for pasture.” Taylor’s strength is that she brings both the local and global perspectives into view. Deceptively quiet and simple, Taylor’s poetic vision grasps both granular textures of the seeds she plants in the earth and the looming, pressing concerns blooming on the global scale. 

Adèle Barclay’s poems and criticism have appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, PRISM international, The Literary Review of Canada, and elsewhere. Her debut poetry collection is If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You (Nightwood, 2016). She is the 2017 Critic-in-Residence for CWILA. She lives in Vancouver.

CanLit Shout Outs: September 2016

Welcome to CanLit Shout Outs, Room's new monthly blog series. On the first Sunday of every month, I will post a list of recent publications, awards, and other literary accomplishments by past and present Room contributors, board members, contest judges, interviewees, and friends. Think of this as a "what's-awesome-in-CanLit" celebration by someone who likes books a little too much, or, better yet, as your monthly feminist shopping list.

Currently on Newsstands

  • Room 41.2, Changing Language
    Edited by Kayi Wong

    In this issue:

    Manahil Bandukwala, Fang Bu, Allison Graves, Kadijah Guillaume, Ava Homa, Ashley Hynd, Amy LeBlanc, Vanessa Lent, Tasslyn Magnusson, Chloe Yelena Miller, Amy Oldfield, Alycia Pirmohamed, Mia Poirier, Victoria Prevot, Michelle Purchase, Jade Riordan, Ellie Sawatzky, Bren Simmers, Dahae Song, Anne Stone, Susie Taylor, Katherena Vermette, Kayi Wong, Hiba Zafran, Shellie Zhang

    .

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