How do you choose the best in language and say this is the finest?
In Best Canadian Poetry 2019 editors, Anita Lahey, Amanda Jernigan and guest editor, Rob Taylor, would have searched through thousands of submissions to discover why a certain poem would be enjoyable and thought-provoking. The poem would have to be vibrant and compelling. What a task that must have been, to find a poem that stood alone, that begged the question, were you transported? As well, they would look for the sound of the poem that resonated above all others, to say it could stand the tides of time, that by returning to it again and again, the reader would find it as refreshing as the day it was composed. It would have to reach the heart, above all, and shed light where none shone before.
Dallas Hunt’s poem, ‘Cree Dictionary,’* is one such poem. Each line is a treasure and brings a gasp of delight, an astonishment of understanding, and the knowledge that beauty and wisdom is alive with the placement of words. The repetition of the phrase ‘the translation for…in Cree’ emphasizes the strength language plays in making the ordinary extraordinary. For instance, ‘the translation for joy/in Cree is a fried bologna sandwich.’ Imagine as you read that you can hear the sizzle of meat cooking. (37)
Another example is ‘the Cree word for constellation/is a saskatoon berry bush in summertime.’ (37) The idea that a berry bush could be compared to a star seems far-fetched until you realize as you gaze upon it that the small berries on that bush resemble that faraway star, and you are holding them. And the last lines, ‘the Cree word for poetry is your four-year-old/ niece’s cracked lips spilling out/ broken syllables of nehiyawewin in-between/the gaps in her teeth’, bring home the message of keeping language strong by speaking it from an early age.
Catherine Hunter explores language with her poem, ‘The Reader’,** by employing the glosa, a form she describes in her commentary. She writes, ‘you take four consecutive lines from a poem you love, create four stanzas, each ten lines long, ending in one of the four lines you chose.’ (119) She borrows from Richard Wilber’s ‘The Writer’, creating a new poem that turns out to be outstanding. She persuades us to see that she is the girl at the typewriter, the parent hovering, the ‘bird in the room,’ all trapped by walls and ceiling longing to be free. (71)
In ‘My Mother Gave Me’ by Souvankham Thammavongsa, the poet paints a vivid picture of a younger brother, of what it’s like to be second in line. Thinking he is the ‘favourite one’, the girl, a woman now, realizes the opposite is true. Surveying the photo, she sees a poignant portrayal of imbalance and thus loss. Quietly written, the poet gives us a sense of exquisite sadness of a girl moving on her bicycle, of a boy remaining static, ‘waiting for his turn.’ (56)
The poem, however, that exemplifies the idea of the finest n poetry is Kathleen Vermette’s ‘Anishnaabewowin’. A short poem, it speaks for itself saying what is most important to the world. Vermette defines it as ‘it was this/that called the world/into being’. (28)
The title of the poem is a puzzle to those who don’t know the language of the Métis but once translated readers will know the immediate joy that this poem brings. I’m going to leave it to you to unravel the mystery.
These poems and more make up the best for 2019, a collection to be read and appreciated over and over, a collection that offers excellence and stirs the soul.
Best Canadian Poetry 2019
Guest Editor: Rob Taylor
Series Editor: Anita Lahey
Advisory Editor: Amanda Jernigan &
Biblioasis, 2019, 136 pages, $22.95
Mary Barnes is a writer living in Wasaga Beach, Ontario.
*Fun Fact! A version of “Cree Dictionary” by Dallas Hunt appeared in Prairie Fire & CV2‘s joint-issue ndncountry!
** Fun Fact! A version of “The Reader” by Catherine Hunter appeared in Prairie Fire‘s 40th Anniversary issue!