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.
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.
for a garrulous garrison nation
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.
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.