Reviewed by Abigail Slinger
From the Poplars. Talonbooks, 2014.
Sufficiently troubled by what she perceives to be the shortcomings of traditional historical narratives, a thoughtful documentarian must expose omissions. The most recent winner of British Columbia’s Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, social activist Cecily Nicholson, performs this moral imperative in her 2014 book-length poem, From the Poplars. A longtime administrator of Gallery Gachet in downtown Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Nicholson paints an abstract picture of an island whose wilds, like so many marginalized human communities, have recourse to a half-heard, albeit ear-catching voice of dissent. Lucidity is therefore sometimes sacrificed: the fast flow of Nicholson’s lyrics, though able to echo the waters that hem in New Westminster’s uninhabited Poplar Island, tend to blur the poet’s argument. Assembling “pages damaged restored discoloured stained or detached” (1), Nicholson nonetheless maps the island as a locus of imperial stewardship. While “urban lit sodium” incandescent bulbs begin to illumine municipal trails (24), she sets about surveying the ecological fallout of white man taking up his burden. Obeying Kipling’s clarion call, imperial agents have harnessed themselves to a new-caught people; aboriginal land “watches, were it watching,” as colonists coolly tow “tree carcasses / severed” (54-5) toward the mainland in a “pledge of properties / outcome larger / drain[ing] toward doubt” (64). The eponymous hero of Nicholson’s poem, Poplar Island has become the custodian of unwanted, neglected histories.
Reconstituted from records, photographs, and correspondence, Nicholson’s island history echoes prevailing postcolonial narratives: unable (or unwilling) to speak the local language, licensed “tenure holders” continue to frustrate the transformation of land disputes into opportunities for reconciliation. Within the poem’s first dozen pages, explorer Simon Fraser and his crew – partly responsible for establishing Canada’s border at the 49th parallel – descend upon the island to create “officially spoken boundaries,” “call[ing] the river the Fraser / call[ing] these now the river lots” (13-4). Fragmented land use contracts and entails repeatedly intrude on and rhetorically “invade” Nicholson’s often cryptic images; accompanying rhythmic variations recall the tumult of repeated Crown appropriations even as they evoke the fervour of strong rapids. The intruders’ reliance on coercive diplomacy – that “extreme form of dialogue” (37) – is further underscored by the speaker’s allusion to the transformation of Poplar Island’s machine works into a World War I munitions’ manufacturer (38). Chiastically, “to serve men / men serve,” and so they have developed a “congenital insensitivity to pain” and memory (39).
Nicholson divides the text into eight sections, each with unique concerns. The marked concision of the middlemost section helps to highlight a letter of protest addressed to B.C. premier Sir Richard McBride on behalf of the unlettered “Westminster Indian” Mary Agnes Vianin (29). Appointed to office in 1903, McBride quickly aligned his administration with that of the federal Conservatives. In British Colombia, the party’s catchphrase of 1911, “A White Canada,” was designed to elicit the fears of working-class men (about whom Livesay would later write in “Day and Night”) who suspected that an abundance of “alien” labour would depress wages. However, a letter from a tenure holder later draws attention to the Establishment’s fear that the downtrodden had effectively begun to recognize their common interest (48): “but the [white] man [Mrs. Vianin] has around there wont [sic] stand for anybody interfering with their affairs” (49).
Since Mrs. Vianin is illiterate, her letter – penned by someone else – demonstrates how an advocate can become a surrogate storyteller. People and places whose “speech” is not suited to the ears of those “possessed of glorious purpose” (75) must use other mediums or channels that can potentially stimulate successful communication. Nicholson’s poem foregrounds the multiple mediations that can occur as visual images are converted into sounds, sounds into text, and text is reconstituted as speech. In this chain of representation, From the Poplars stands out as an instance of what Bolter and Grusin call remediation: the poem interprets work – including Mrs. Vianin’s dispatch – that has previously met with indifference.
Though “not your typical foment,” this documentary poem’s “use of language past / winded bleached individuation” and obsolete histories is a sign, submits Nicholson, that “our fight [has] just begun” (78-9). So raw is this rebel remediation, however, that signifiers risk degradation along lines that, similar to the “catenary curves of ivy” between living trees (4), are prone to split. Nicholson’s message is thus not always clearly received.
Upon completing her BA in English and Theatre Studies in 2014, Abigail Slinger began work on her Masters’ research on nineteenth-century, Canadian literature and material cultures at Concordia University. She quickly realized, however, that her true talents lay elsewhere. Ms. Slinger currently helps to provide various supportive services to members of Montreal’s homeless population as she pursues undergraduate coursework in social psychology.
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