Reviews: Polygeographic Poems

2020-01-13 08:36:AM ago by kyle.flemmer

A Review of Kaie Kellough’s "Magnetic Equator"

by Geoffrey Nilson

Our existence as humans (and as poets) is perhaps most perpetuated by our constant arrival in the present of our behaviours and compositions. This coming-of-age suggests the self not as constant or static, but in a state of flux, the result of one individual’s ongoing learning from and mimicry of the collective. I’m thinking below the surface of the material, here, beyond the niches of identity we develop as we mature, to our base influence: the places, sounds, and vibrations that cling to our in utero and newborn bodies. For a time at the beginning of our lives, there are only other people; in the womb we have yet to vocalize our own sounding. Birth ushers us screaming into the world, our howl attuned to the dangerous, frantic energy of the moment. From that point forward, every self ‘becomes’ anew over and over through copying the world around it. There are no new ideas, new places, or new sounds; there are only new forms, “truth elusive, every line branching and rebranching into every other.” (84)

In Magnetic Equator, the third poetry collection from Montréal-based Kaie Kellough, one such foundational influence is “kaieteur falls.” (1) The poem takes its name from the world’s largest single-drop waterfall by volume—on the Potaro River in the Amazon rainforest, Guyana—and is a loosely readable mix of brackets, slashes, repeated letters, and portmanteau: “curvebetween…strangegrammar…river’smemory…anaturalhistory.” (2) I hesitate to excerpt more because it must present itself whole to the reader in its typographical variations, its vertical and diagonal readings, and words imagined by the eye where there are none. The poem announces a geohistorical origin point for the migration central to the book’s ‘narrative.’ The sound and power of all that water breathes through Kellough’s text, this pounding “frothed surge of a thought, a heron / hunting iguana amid low bush, a god folded into the body / of a golden frog.” (67)

These are poems of polygeography, made of the Canadian prairie as much as Georgetown, Guyana, of slave ships and suburbs, of city, ocean, rainforest and brick chimney, voices of influence “uncoiling into / a luminous clearing, light slowing to signal shadow along its surface / asemic coils unspelling over the rock drop.” (97) Composed from the engagement with (and copying of) various authors and materials, Magnetic Equator does not read as an assemblage. Lyric and visual poems connect the expanse of pages as if islands, found text like migrant language engulfed by the borders (covers) of the book. A reader who neglects to read the notes might never realize the sources. How easy it is for an abstract, removed, to be submerged in the whole and disappear, a footnote to the dominant culture.

But this is not a poetics of negation. No “interrupt of idle lyricism. what is true is not the poem.” (9) What is true is form in radiant multiplicity: “a body, a continental jut / a density of times past / an assemblage of others who are you, a being made of beings.” (13) Fitting then that one ‘arc’ of the book (there are innumerable possible readings and so much not covered here) is concluded with the speaker welcoming refugee migrants at the borders of Canada (“alterity”). Anaphora overcomes migration, hybridity, time, and even death to empower the speaker with the authority to grant entrance:

“welcome from ayiti after the earth liquefied

migratory aftershocks spread through new york

miami, houston, chattanooga for a decade welcome

working undocumented, and now montréal

living in flight, temporary as rent, as graffiti, as the turcot el

crumbling into st-henri” (87)

For Kellough, “the force that drives the drone in our ears” (99) is analogous to “the generations carried in [our] heads,” (88) whether that means the linger of suicide (“zero degrees”), the trauma of racist violence (“high school fever”), or the abstraction of topography from the rivers of our past (“bow” and “essequibo”). We learn these generations by listening, by copying, by absorbing, and by placing them in our work. We sound them through lips as our world ‘becomes’ the text.

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