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Two debut poetry collections mix technical language with themes of identity, selfhood and race

Liz Howard credit Ralph Kolewe

Ralph Kolewe

Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent

By Liz Howard

McClelland & Stewart, 98 pages, $18.95

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A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes

By Madhur Anand

McClelland & Stewart, 102 pages, $18.95

Spoiler alert: The key to understanding Liz Howard's debut collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, comes late in the book, but it's the first thing I'm going to tell you about. In the poem North by South, Howard's speaker describes a dream: "[I]t's evening/I'm to photograph/three women who face me/with their babies/bundled in their arms/poet scientist Anishinaabe/smile at me/and one by one/the babies/explode into flames." Later, her mother looks at a single boulder, split into three by a tree branch, and observes: "this is what life does."

The complex, impossible work of trying to resolve multiple selves into a single, coherent identity is one of Infinite Citizen's most crucial themes. The book is shot through with questions of assimilation, colonialism, appropriation and identity; whether they're explicitly stated or off in the periphery, haunting the language.

If it's that three-way split – poet, scientist, Anishinaabe – in Howard's own identity that informs the collection's thematic concerns, it's her desire to work those selves together that gives rise to the book's unique vocabulary; a Technicolor rush of natural imagery, scientific jargon, Anishinaabemowin, Western philosophy, sound poetry, straight narrative and grand gesture. In the book's opening lines (Terra Nova, Terraformed) she plants her flag as a hybrid of nature and sound poet, plus something more complex, all at once: "Spent shale, thigh haptic fisher, roe, river/delta of sleep-inducing peptides abet our tent/in a deep time course."

Try reading those lines out loud; it's the best way to understand the degree of authority and power in Howard's use of language, that high-wire rush of meaning and sound. Most of the poems in the book are just as polished, compacted and quick-moving as this; Howard's greatest stylistic and structural strength is her ability to weave together images, narrative and scientific jargon into a coherent and thoroughly authoritative voice. When she describes something like "hemodynamic snow/a terrarium of lung-fed prosody/tucked inside a small body of rusted air" it doesn't feel like she's crossing disciplines to force a metaphor – she's just writing in a new language, one of her own design.

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(This may also be why the middle section, Of Hereafter Song, a reappropriation and "remix" of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha, feels the least complete of any of the book's four. It's an interesting idea, and certainly thematically consistent with the rest of the book, but it still somehow feels as if it's meant to be a longer project, or to interact more directly with Longfellow's text and not have to concern itself with the rest of the book.)

Howard's use of language is impressive, but it can also be overwhelming. "I'm all in and over the limit," says the speaker in Thinktent, and there couldn't be a more accurate description for the effect these poems can have; it seems an odd complaint, but sometimes it feels as though they're so rich in compressed images and lush language that there's no breathing room. You have to slow or stop your reading on your own, or risk drowning.

There are some poems in the world that only really coalesce, or flourish, under a reader's sustained attention. Howard's poems aren't like that; they're a completely self-sustaining system. There's no better example of this than Ring Sample: Addendum, a sonnet comprised of lines from the book's first 14 poems. It doesn't read like a trick or a gimmick; it has a meaning and a rhythm that feels completely new. (I didn't even realize what the poem's form was until I got to the notes.) It's a perfect example of something that works entirely on its own terms. The poems in Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent don't wait for you to catch up, because they don't need you to. They're their own thriving ecosystem – completely in, and of, themselves.

On paper, there are a great deal of similarities between Howard's book and Madhur Anand's A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes: they're both strong debut collections from the same publisher; they both mix scientific jargon with broader themes of identity, selfhood and race. But Anand is a very different kind of poet from Howard; her work is more conversational, her use of narrative more straightforward and her sense of play a little sweeter.

Anand is a professor and research chair at the University of Guelph, and one of the book's most interesting features is the way in which she uses her own work. A series of footnoted poems that appear throughout the collection draw their vocabularies completely from her own scientific articles. Other poems simply borrow structure or language. In every case, Anand takes a clear and communicable delight in the poetic potential of scientific language, but there's a particularly satisfying play in the way she pulls a new set of meanings out of her own text.

In some of Anand's poems, the scientific jargon feels a little superfluous, simply because she's deft enough at building an image without needing it. But in poems such as This Is the Ring of Six ("Wedded years, gifts of sugar or iron/children, around the rosie […]/carbons: benzene, a resonance structure") things converge clean – and beautifully; a strong argument for aspiring poets to pursue a degree in science instead of creative writing.

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Emma Healey's poetry column appears monthly.

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