Mariner Janes. The Monument Cycles (Talonbooks 2013).
Wanda John-Kehewin. In the Dog House (Talonbooks 2013).
These two books raise a number of questions about what we call ‘political poetry.’ Not ‘political poetry,’ what is it? But ‘political poetry,’ how does it work? Wanda John-Kehewin is a First Nations writer who announces in her Preface that these poems ‘discuss taboo topics . . .; what it is like to try to understand all these experiences as part of the creative writing process…’. She sees In the Dog House as ‘a healing journey of sorts, a way to stand in my truth, and a way to give others, like my mother, a voice.’ Mariner Janes ‘works in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and he aims to incorporate the multitude of voices he encounters there into his work, through found poetry, transcription, and storytelling.’ Janes is not quite so personally inside the lives he represents as John-Kehewin is, but both writers clearly seek to give voice to those who usually do not have on, especially in poetry. how do they do this?
John-Kehewin writes with great honesty about living a life in which those taboo subjects ‘like alcohol addiction, abandonment, religion, and sexual abuse,’ interpolate their way into every day’s living. The problem for this reader is that her writing works best in the story telling mode, one which tends to lack the rhythmic intensity of the poetry I most admire. So the more narrative pieces move me, but more for the truth of the story than anything to do with their shaping on the page. Perhaps as ‘spoken word’ performances they would have greater impact. Take ‘Colonial Pest-aside,’ with its angry riffs on the ‘colonial pesticide’ of ‘flaming words of righteousness’; on stage this would catch an audience’s interest. A lot of these pieces use abstract terms but do not utilize them satirically against themselves so much as simply registering their oppressive power, which is itself useful. Rather they seem to be a fallback vocabulary that fails to get inside what they present.
There are some sturdy lyrics of pain & love, including the title poem. ‘Luna,’ about an isolated whale, does a better job of finding images that carry the poem: ‘Mist / across the mountain jags’ & ‘when you’re all alone, / you can hear her cry / through the mist — / clotting the air with longing.’ Nevertheless, I found the little memoir about her father teaching her ‘The Medicine Wheel,’ which appears as a kind of Afterword, perhaps the most powerful piece in the collection, with its straightforward narration cutting right to the bone.
Janes also takes on concepts of power & powerlessness, more in terms of the poor & wasted of the inner city. One way of suggesting the difference between his writing & John-Kehewin’s is that he sees words as themselves material not just pointers toward the material lives beyond. So, although he too tells stories, he does so by finding a charged language of each story he uncovers in the language of its teller. There are a lot of personae in The Monument Cycles, although there are also angry statements by the author. Nevertheless, the ‘I’ of these poems is an ever shifting person lost in the maze of ‘i / many / i’ who all too easily finds him or herself
- off the train and walking
- but the shipwreck loomed in the corridor
- right in my path
- prow jutting out of concrete
- with a gorgeous woman
- erupting out of the bow
- no way around
- left only to gape
- and wonder what
- is happening to me
This is Janes at his best. Elsewhere, he utilizes headlines, signage, graffiti, & various overheard conversations to create collages of the found & rehabilitated language of those he serves in his day job. He does tell stories, in the noirish prose of ‘in the shangri-la,’ the jagged fragments of many verses, or the rangy narratives of musicians like Robert Johnson. This is often exciting because much of it’s lean, & it leans into the material world it represents with energy & thwarted love.
Both these books speak from personal worlds most readers will not know well if at all. Both are telling in their different ways.