Feature Friday: Better Nature by Fenn Stewart

In this week’s edition of Feature Friday, we are pleased to bring you an excerpt from Better Nature, Fenn Stewart’s first poetry collection. Much of the language that makes up this book is drawn from a diary that Walt Whitman wrote while travelling through Canada at the end of the nineteenth century. But rather than waxing poetic about the untouched Great White North, Stewart inlays found materials (early settler archives, news stories, email spam, fundraising for environmental NGOs, and more) to present a unique view of Canada’s “pioneering” attitude towards “wilderness.”

 

In a review for This Magazine, Lauren Matera writes, “With bounding lines that seamlessly blend the archival with the contemporary, Better Nature stitches together its source material with precision. The result is pure poetic wit and a timely perspective on the shaping of Canada’s landscape.” Griffin Poetry Prize-winning author Liz Howard adds, “With linguistic fervor, dancing intellect, and blissful urgency Stewart unveils the seemingly everyday horrors of our cruelly optimistic (would be) unsettling lands.” Claire Caldwell in The Goose calls Better Nature “a rich, thoughtful, text that urges us to decolonize — starting with our own minds.”

 

We hope you enjoy this excerpt from Better Nature. Happy Reading!

 

From Better Nature:

 

if Walt Whitman encountered the world primarily through the making of lists, Domesday style (i.e., fish, fruit, land, other people, institutions, prestigious concepts, stuff he has, stuff he wants, stuff he’s figuring out how to get); if he were working on a list of all the fish in Lake Ontario in a certain hungry mood.

 

alewife

bigmouth buffalo

bloater

bream

brooktrout

calico bass

common eel

common sucker

lamprey eel

muskellunge

pumpkinseed

splake

sturgeon

sunfish

walleye

 

*

 

if Walt Whitman, hired as a Don Cherry replacement, were asked to whip up some patriotic fervour before the big game, & took the opportunity to wax poetic re: his summer cabins.

 

sing O

for a garrulous garrison nation

 

transcend

the hairy limits of invention’s leg

 

gird up your inward granite threads of spine

 

scale sheer affinity,

& set your best spelunking lights to “singleness of purpose”

 

assume this fractious crouch                     snap at some heels

like Leash’d in like hounds, yelp

“fresh and glorious,” “profuse bloomings,” and “refulgent moons”

 

(o thanks for asking—as it happens—

I just got this chorus off some summer Pas

who, dozing in their Adirondack chairs,

do hem me in & hold me up)

“O vasty fields!” “O woody and rocky islands!”

“O handsome young fellows and girls!”

 

there’s no beyond the lands I’ve garbled up

my range’s piney scope of homes

 

there’s no beyond these pages, no beyond my vasty coasts

 

where shrill and temporary ships

their engines roiling tirelessly

 

do sunder warmish seas

 

look here: within these summer leaves I’ve caught

the endless nations queries flung my way—

 

Why should one thousand tracts be give one man?

For simple digging of a fire-pit hole?

Why must we stock our vicious children full of tins?

 

(speak quick, the torch gets pitchy)

 

and as my crooked little finger does Attest,

there’s decimation much—

historical catastrophes—there’s often much to say—

 

such as, of late, some

well-rehearsed and boreal dismay —

 

don’t let that stuff on your imagination work—

 

consider my staked claim

Admit my habitat into this history

let me & galloping carnage off the hook

yon lake-side legions do approve my swelling seams,

with every ogling eyeball peeled

 

so why don’t you?

 

*

 

if Walt Whitman were washing dishes in a kitchen in East Vancouver, listening to the coyotes through the screen door while her daughter slept in the other room.

 

it’s late, i’m doing dishes in the company of moths

the streetlight’s out between me and the park’s black trees

between me and the dark there’s a coyote killing something

my child’s asleep in bed, curls dark in shadows and with sweat

eyelashes like mosquito legs

in sunlight i can almost see the lake behind the house but not right

now: it’s dark

the streetlight’s out again

a former bog, a skating rink, a mill pond, water for a brewery

they stopped up all the creeks to put the houses in

a sort of unattractive fish here now, an unattractive name

i read that once, before the creeks were filled, a seal could swim

this whole way from the sea

 

Order your copy of Better Nature here.

 

Credit: Anton Nonin

Fenn Stewart lives in Vancouver, where she teaches literature, writing, and research. Her poetry has appeared in The Capilano Review, Open Letter, The Arcadia Project, and in the form of three chapbooks, An OK Organ Man (shortlisted for the 2013 bpNichol Chapbook Award), Vegetable Inventory, and from Waltzing. Her research on Canadian culture and literature has appeared in various journals, including ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature and Law, Culture, and the Humanities. Better Nature is Stewart’s first book of poetry.

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