ONE THING — THEN ANOTHER by Claire Kelly
Review by Bill Neumire
From poor to rich, small town to big city, East to West, Fredericton to Edmonton, Claire Kelly’s second full-length poetry collection, One Thing – Then Another, from ECW Press, travels Canada’s vast landmass in a restless search for settlement. Kelly, author of Maunder and Ur-Moth, opens the book with a telling dedication to transience:
To wait staff and librarians.
To eagles, crows, and magpies.
To the Trans-Canada and Yellowhead Highways.
To Fredericton. To Edmonton.
Richard Hugo famously spoke of place and poetry in terms of a “triggering town” and Kelly’s poems burn with triggering towns, with a sense of the way place builds and atmospherically alters a person, the speaker asking readers to “[l]ook at the way the Western light / makes an embossed riddle / of the woman’s black hair.” Weather and topography figure heavily from a “riot of windstorm / in wherever” to a “desert spreading farther and faster than thought.” But always the spatial is twinned with a looming temporality, as in the Auden-esque lines from “Nobody Every Day Keeps Saying Nothing”:
For the last time is now
our mantra: for the last time,
this weather cannot hold
us. Or we cannot hold on.
Weather herein is imbued with pathetic fallacy, is harbinger and origin; it reflects nostalgic desire, as in “What wished for rocky outcrops / and runty, rain-starved trees? What stars / pockmarking , what degree of moon?”; it reflects regret and surrender chillingly in lines like “Now he’s a pulp and paper mill burning down near the dank earth, which is too far away in a country that’s too big to be of any help.” No matter the distance travelled, the speaker reminds us that “[w]e’re always nailed to our atoms, / our momentums, our impacts on others.”
The book is divided into three sections: “East” (Fredericton), “Then” (the move across the country), and “West” (Edmonton.) The opening section, “East,” takes place in a “have-not” province and explores debt, generational conflict, and a weather full of precipitation: “overhead another storm / isn’t breaking / but is moving on”; it’s a place where “[y]ou and the streets are companions of want.” These motifs of money and generation never dissolve, and the feeling of movement permeates poems wherein “railroad tracks [are] blasted to hyphens” and people “[l]eave / before answering questions,” people who exist as “just grit on the wind blown someplace better,” who “[h]old their wishbones inside for something to change.” In an interview with All Lit Up, Kelly said of her collection:
People are expected to relocate great distances for work and
education nowadays, often multiple times, and I wanted to
represent how that feels. There were also the intense differences
in environment: the Maritime damp to the Western aridity; hills
and flatness; even the wind felt different, steadier, less gusty. And
differences in economics; we did not have much money the last
few years in Fredericton and were often surrounded by others who
did not have much money. Alberta is plain richer.
At the center of all this movement, this large country full of topography and money and characters, is a speaker who catalogues a profound feeling of isolation. She’s
the sort of woman who spoils the fun,
though she doesn’t remember
real fun anymore, just an unsettled feeling,
like spinning on a schoolyard merry-go-round
that is her own molecular structure
centrifugally yanked: herself pulled
from her very centre.
Powerfully, her own decentering isolation makes her more capable of seeing it all around her as she notices “people sat and shat, bathed in / battery-suckled, handheld light— / the sin of mass diversion” and “[l]oneliness of the newscaster / sounding-off // on the awakened TV,” all of them emanating “berserker shriek silent / like it would be in outer space.” The confluence of poverty and geography and stunted urge for movement could not be better portrayed than it is in “Sophocles’ Jalopy.” The poem describes a father and son trying to start the son’s “piece-of- shit car” with the father’s effort “[p]ersistent as a racoon drawn on by the perfume of antifreeze.” The father’s ready to trash the car, but
the kid won’t stop, maybe can’t. His foot riding an arc of true
need down to the floorboard, the engine’s rough racket (…)
more alive than any car just off the lot—again and again, until
his mother—a solo Greek chorus urging compromise, dealing
with reality—comes out to serenade them inside. And the
play, whatever it stands for, ends. No curtain call needed, the
car’s deep-bowing silence, an empty stage, an uncrowned
king dying peacefully, the drama elsewhere.
It’s a desperate landscape of people “waiting for [their] jackpot number / to be called, for (…) life to finally / be different.” It’s “a space in the shape of our mothers, in the shape of their unpaid work,” where “even the beautiful young aren’t sure about mercy.” It’s a cauldron from which the speaker is willing to “trade you [her] TV memories” for “whatever ease middle age / garnered you.” And where she “practise[s] [her] song for student loan repayment.” Kelly’s poems range from forms akin to personal essay and short story prose poem to carefully lineated poems that explore the use of spacing as punctuation. She’s not shy about taking on a lighthearted, clownish tone or about metacognitively recognizing that quality, as her speaker welcomes, “Clown-heart, let’s all laugh at your greasepaint frown and pantomimic gestures.” She frequently delivers provocative titles such as “Neighbours Are Wormholes,” “Westward U-haul Gothic,” “Now Pick Up What You Can And Run,” and “Every Dusk, Mothertongue./ Mothertonguing Every Dusk.” This last poem is a prose poem of two stanzas, the second mirroring the language of the first in a villanelle-like effect. Kelly often demonstrates structural virtuosity; in one instance an anaphora of b/c structures a conceit employing Wuthering Heights as vehicle with lines like: “b/c Manitoba goes on and on in its miraculous flatness (…) b/c driving
west into the sun feels too deliberate (…) b/c ah, the never unfiltered voice of Catherine runs through those lines that are slowly becoming obsolete.”
In the end, this is a book of metamorphosis, but there’s no easy portrait of a butterfly. It’s an end haunted by the beginning: the speaker’s roots, geographically and economically and emotionally remain with her even over great physical and temporal distances, a debt not unlike her loans. It’s a speaker and a collection that contains the vastness of contrasting weather and ambiance and socioeconomics, of the sweeping mass of the country, of the concerns and stagnations of generational conflict, and of the storms ranging above it all.
Bill Neumire’s first book, Estrus, was a semi-finalist for the 42 Miles Press Award and his second manuscript was recently a finalist for the Barrow Street prize. It will be published in 2022 by Unsolicited Press. He serves as poetry editor for Verdad.