Reviewed by Cameron Anstee
Night Gears. Wolsak & Wynn, 2010.
“Just how far beyond four walls can we go / before turning back?” (67).
Bren Simmers poses this question near the end of her first poetry collection, Night Gears. This question is central to a book that dedicates the greater portion of its pages to establishing the boundaries between what is inside “four walls” and what is outside. Pondering such things, Simmers’s poems are often insightful. She does not confront this inside/outside binary in simple terms, but her work is most engaging when she explores the liminal spaces that obscure the boundaries implied in her question. As well, the inside/outside binary organizes many others: natural/unnatural, city/country, community/isolation, stasis/movement. These contrasts are further explored in the structure of the book, where the shorter poems interrogate the four walls of the city and the longer poems explore what is beyond in serial forms. In this regard, the serial poems “Weather Observation Record” and “Northern Postcards” are the true accomplishments of this collection. Night Gears evidences great promise. Simmers’s willingness to consider uncertainty and contradiction in her poetry is a quality to be celebrated and one that she will hopefully continue to develop in future collections.
The short poems of the book depict cities, museums, rush hour, and offices. Simmers presents “Genetic marvels / we once clamoured to touch” (“Painted Bodies, Mounted Heads” 11) and “All we let slide / into the soft tissue of our bodies - / car alarms, pesticides, oxygen, sleep” (“Mapping the Body” 17). In these poems, Simmers considers the toxins of urban life and the appearance of preservation and sanitation that turn abruptly into stagnation and rupture with the past. She asks “What roots / are left among the labyrinth of pipes and cement, / which we once took for solid earth” (“Road Work” 44). These short poems feel formally constrained within their single-page lyric structures, mirroring the constraint of city life Simmers describes.
Simmers is at her best in “Weather Observation Record” and “Northern Postcards,” where she finds movement both in form and subject matter. The speaker of “Weather Observation Record” works in a park, reporting and recording weather conditions. The speaker is isolated, “the radio plays nothing but smooth / jazz and you’re stuck inside a fire tower, / / peeing in a jar” (25). The section is arranged in pairs, the left page a prose poem set at the top of the page, the right page a brief lyric set at the bottom. The prose poems are marked by struggles and failures to communicate (“translate weather into letters in radio alphabet” ) and an almost paranoid anxiety (“Against all sense I hunger for contact, for the cloud’s shutter to snap, a bolt to swivel, split a nearby tree in half” ). In the lyric sections, there are small victories of knowledge and contact (“Etched into the summit’s marker, / initials of those who came before” ). The speaker undergoes a process of shedding material concerns (“No need for keys, for locks. / Empty your pockets” ) that is picked up again in the final section of the book, “Northern Postcards.”
“Northern Postcards” is a road trip poem. The poems move from the city (“The itch of new subdivisions, / smog all the way to Hope” (59)) to the open road (“Toe in, the current’s strong and we don’t trust it” (59)). An idealized road trip is set against the restrictions of road travel, the pollution and dirt of vehicles, and the inability to travel outside the path already laid. The speaker and passenger drive,
The car takes on a sinister violence: “dragonflies / by the pound, click, click, click. / / The windshield a tiny killing field” (64). Simmers acknowledges that the means of travel and apparent freedom, the vehicle, is part of the system that is stripping the “bolt of boreal green” from the world. The figures in these poems can travel to these disappearing sites only by using the very mechanisms that make such sites increasingly rare.
Finally, the travelers confront their inability to live in perpetuity on the road. They “[turn] back / to four walls, we put on a clean shirt, bra. / Loose geometry gone” (72). They are left with the knowledge of a continued longing:
First the city, and now –
over three thousand clicks later – the craggy trees
and lichen rosettes of the north,
we miss what we leave behind. (72)
In Night Gears, Simmers asks thoughtful and probing questions on the natural and constructed worlds of North American life. The “four walls” of the short poems are shown to be difficult to escape, with the serial poems returning to similar questions and fears. It is the spaces between movement and stasis, between city and country, which prove most productive, performing the work of unsettling expected and predictable understanding.
Click here to return to the current issue
At press time: Cameron Anstee lives and writes in Ottawa ON where he runs Apt. 9 Press. He will be pursuing a PhD in English Literature at the University of Ottawa in September 2011.