Reviewed by Mario A. D'Agostino
A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno. House of Anansi, 2011.
As Anansi announces on the book jacket, Matt Rader’s A Doctor Pedalled her Bicycle Over the River Arno carries within it “all the technique, vision, imaginative labor, and razor-sharp precision of Matt Rader’s first two collections, Living Things and Miraculous Hours.” Where it differs from these earlier texts, as the jacket also says, is in its ascent to “a new and luminous, demanding, particularized realm of the human.” Rader’s collection contains poems written in the form of the traditional lyric and features a diversity of classic forms including the sonnet, the sestina, the ballad, and the prospect ode. The result of such a poetic excursion is a technically and morally sophisticated investigation of family genealogies, tribal land rights, immigration, the banalities of war, and the limits of geography.
Rader’s book is divided into three sections: “Music,” “Customs,” and “History.” While this structure invites the reader to make connections amongst them, these self-contained divisions are complete on their own and feature no apparent affiliations. Poems appearing in “Music,” such as “Train to Brisbane,” are responsible for Doctor’s discontinuous and highly imagistic style, and ultimately test the formal limits of the book by taking on a particular tonal character and reflective strategy that interrogates borders and frontiers mapped for us by authority. The language of the poet-speaker—who communicates with bravery and humility—is precise and excites the imagination. The result is a poem written within the paradox that human universals must, by definition, inhabit the local and particular experience:
Through Roman suburbs, the airplanes
Departing Da Vinci on course
For London, Prague, Stuttgart, crucifixes
Hoisted on night’s worn shoulder—
Tell me, are you afflicted too, cursed by fits
Of cross-traffic when one order
Suddenly overtakes another?—A tremor
In the picture, a jab and judder
As the entire train whelms and now-or-
Never lurches into near future (27)
“Train to Brisbane” can be read as a meditation on the textuality of the world in which human consciousness and the ontology of place and space are interwoven. The poem is set in Australia and in it the speaker’s mind drifts to a memory of being on another train outside of Rome. Yet it is a poem that also features allusions to the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island (Rader’s home). In Rader’s book, self-understanding requires us to be conscious of both our present physical existence and our past experiences. Although Doctor includes poems set explicitly in Australia, California, Cuba, Germany, Israel, Italy, and Oregon, the enduring and intrepid characteristics of the Comox Valley permeate throughout, suggesting that the blending of intimacy and the unfamiliar can be seen as an enabler for self-recognition.
While Rader’s poetry tells a story of the identity of the poet, it also serves a corrective function that disarms Eurocentric misrepresentations of history. The series “Reservations,” in which Rader’s poems are all Shakespearean sonnets, is scattered throughout Doctor and explores the cultural divide between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in North America. In the following section, “Customs,” Rader’s speaker is no longer a subject-in-process, but becomes a meticulous and detail-oriented historian who upturns the received records of a case in which certainty is not available.
Rader’s exploration of a cultural injustice inscribed on Sumas Lake in southern British Columbia shows how locality can become a tool for disrupting hegemonic authority in order to create provisional and relative identities. “The Ballad of Louis Sam, Vancouver, 2008” incorporates archival material in order to disempower inherited ideas of Eurocentric history and to challenge historical injustice. In a similar fashion, the collection’s poet-speaker exhibits how impactful localities can create a sense of self-awareness and identity.
Despite some organization pitfalls, the poems in Doctor are an important and ambitious attempt at combining personal, local, and historical details to underscore the importance of homeland and domestic space. Rader could become a household name in Canadian poetry, not least because his contemporary lyric is rooted in ideas about home.
At press time: Mario A. D’Agostino is a third-year doctoral student in English at York University. His primary areas of research are Canadian literature, American literature, and historiography. He lives in Windsor, ON.
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