Best Canadian Poetry 2020 is a radical and wholly revelatory re-imagining of the country’s poetry canon. As Amanda Jernigan, advisory editor of the well-regarded series states in her preface, guest editor Marilyn Dumont’s carefully curated collection “is not English, exactly; certainly not ‘the King’s English.’ It is, rather, ‘something else’—something emphatically not less, not half, not lacking. It is pleasure not doubled but multiplied fifty-fold.” (12)
This should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the Metis poet’s work. Dumont has tested the limits of language and resisted colonial structures from the beginning, as evident in her ground-breaking debut poetry collection A Really Good Brown Girl, which was first published by Brick Brooks in 1996 and re-released in 2015, a collection of what the publisher aptly described as “Indian poems; Canadian poems: human poems.”
Something similar could be said of Best Canadian Poetry 2020, which also offers immigrant poems; BIPOC poems; LGBTQ2S+ poems; and so much more. Poems chosen, in part, due to Dumont’s self-proclaimed “subversive desire to challenge collective or self-limiting social norms or taboos around language, belonging, religion, marriage, sex, and gender.” (15) Poems like “Origin Story” by Kazim Ali, which, in its opening line—Someone always asks me “where are you from” (63)—offers “stinging indictments of Canada’s official multi-culturalism.” (15)
In her introduction, Dumont confesses that prior to editing this collection she had no idea how anthologies were assembled. She was mindful that the anthology she created would become “a record of literary history.” (13) To begin, she read dozens of journals and magazines published in 2019 and created a longlist of works by Canadian poets. Then, in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dumont, Jernigan, and series editor Anita Lahey narrowed the list down to 50 poems (four of which were first published in Prairie Fire).
What constitutes a “best poem” is, of course, highly subjective. The poems that compelled Dumont shared some common attributes. Often, they “used language to expose attitudes inherent in the English language” (14) as in “Remember When” by Parliamentary Poet Laureate Louise Bernice Halfe—Sky Dancer (77):
In Cree country when people speak
of a man or a woman, they refer to them
as he and she. They know that spirit
is neither and is all.
Another poem that “disrupts settler colonialism” (14) and notions of indigeneity is “Cree Girl Explodes the Necropolis of Ottawa”. In this poem, Billy-Ray Belcourt challenges poetry conventions as well as “a trend in Indigenous art-making that risks a politics of freedom in the aestheticization of suffering” (119). He envisions a world in which: (29)
Nothing but NDN possibility would flower everywhere outside the frame.
Poems like this one don’t just imagine what is possible. They dare us to face what is, and to reflect on how we got here. The anthology compiled by Dumont is undeniably political and deeply philosophical, but never at the expense of prosody. This is demonstrated beautifully in “light/cage,” a sonnet by Erin Noteboom that was first published in Prairie Fire (50):
… and once inside our loss
they exhaust themselves in turning, in making the beams
flash with wings as white as moth or mirror.
Best Canadian Poetry 2020 is an outstanding record of diverse voices and lived experiences reflected in Canadian poetry, and it is one that I will undoubtedly return to in the years to come.
Best Canadian Poetry 2020
Edited by Marilyn Dumont
Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis, 2020
172 pp., $22.95
Shelley Marie Motz is a settler living on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Her work has appeared in Room Magazine, The Timberline Review, and The Globe & Mail among other publications. You also can find her on Substack, where she explores wicked problems and horrible histories through the work of academics, artists, and activists each week in her newsletter Sift. Shift. Lift.