Probably everyone has experiences that they look back on and wonder why they acted in the way that they did. Maybe they sat by passively when they wished they had acted, or cried when they wished they had gotten angry, or got angry when they wished they had sat with their emotions to understand them better before acting out. Memories of these experiences can play out again and again, sometimes helping us understand ourselves better, but sometimes these memories just baffle. Curtis LeBlanc loves crafting poems out of memories. This helps to flesh out the character that is his poet-speaker, but LeBlanc’s poems also capture these moments of past self almost inexplicably acting and reacting in ways that the poet-speaker thinks is expected of him.
The poems in LeBlanc’s debut, Little Wild, are almost all driven by a narrative of what would seem to be a single poet-speaker growing up in St. Albert, Alberta. Tales of playing Sociables and driving drunk and getting threatened over Red Willow Park make the poet-speaker out to be a survivor just for coming out of his teen-years alive. LeBlanc’s newest collection, Birding in the Glass Age of Isolation, is somewhat a continuation of the narrative-driven, nostalgic poems that filled LeBlanc’s first collection, but with a few layers added and more formerly repressed experiences mined for deeper poetic expression. LeBlanc brings into these new poems more engagement with mental illness alongside his already established interest in conversations surrounding masculinity and certain toxic performances of masculinity. This is evident in the collection’s title poem, “Design Stage Failure Analysis”, and in “Stubborn Properties”, a poem which sees the speaker “refus[ing] to let my friends question my grit”. Despite the poet-speaker’s constant wrestling with how to act, many poems in Birding celebrate relationships—with friends and family—that seem to help guide the poet-speaker into becoming a person he is more comfortable with being. Like Little Wild, there is promise that the poet-speaker in Birding—a kind of everyman—can grow and develop into a more aware, caring, and mindful person.
Organizationally, Birding is split into three sections that mirror Little Wild, which seems to be a comfort-blanket for LeBlanc. The poems and the grouping of them together in Birding follows a temporal structure, as LeBlanc reveals in an interview with Andrew French on the podcast Page Fight: “the first section sort of feels like past and I’d say the last section kinda feels like present and the middle section is something that kinda ties them together.” LeBlanc goes on to explain how the poems in part two of Birding detail and are titled after symptoms of Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, which LeBlanc experienced in his late-teens/early-twenties. These minimalistic and imagistic poems are effective; “Floaters” and “False Perceptions of Movement” are two list poems that, one following the other, emphasize the unnatural visual disruptions of HPPD. However, the grouping of these short poems all together in this middle section of the collection don’t do justice to each individual poem’s strengths. Whereas Little Wild’s middle section—a narrative sports-themed long poem entitled “Bucky”—holds up amongst LeBlanc’s other narrative-driven poems in that collection, Birding may have worked better without sections and instead interspersing the poems of the middle section throughout the collection. HPPD is a spectre in many poems in Birding, which could have been even more haunting with these symptom-poems appearing amongst the narrative poems.
With this new collection, LeBlanc is clearly refining his poetic craft. As he said in an interview with Nathaniel G. Moore for The Ormsby Review, the poems in Birding feel “more deliberate” and more thoroughly explore the themes of masculinity, memory, and mental illness that were initially established as LeBlanc’s interests in Little Wild. If it isn’t nostalgia that drives LeBlanc’s writing, it is deep and unique respect for the past as an inescapable and formative piece of one’s character. However uncomfortable the past might be, those moments that everyone replay over and over in their head, perhaps with grief or embarrassment or regret—those moments and how we let them shape or form our identity are important. In the opening poem of Birding, “Frankenfish,” LeBlanc writes, “I’ve been a sucker for the tragedy of memory.” However hard or painful some memories may be, LeBlanc is a steadfast proponent for embracing these parts of our past and letting them make us stronger and more certain people. As much as this collection advocates for mental health awareness, in some ways it also encourages readers to reminisce and reflect on those hard memories in order to understand ourselves better.
Birding in the Glass Age of Isolation
by Curtis LeBlanc
Nightwood Editions, April 2020, 96 p.p., $18.95
Chris Johnson (he/they) is the Managing Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine and a member of the creative collective VII. His recent chapbooks include Listen, Partisan! (Frog Hollow Press, 2016) and Gravenhurst (above/ground press, 2019). Chris currently lives in Ottawa, the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg. @ceeeejohnson