Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Andreae Callanan, the debt


Infinity dress

The infinity dress was a lie, and we all bought it.
A circle skirt of quivering, cool silk jersey, two

broad straps plenty long to drape over shoulders,
stretch across breasts, wind around and around

the waist and tie up in a tight, bright bow.
A little something nice to take us

from boardroom to ballroom to bedroom.
One cocoon to metamorphose any woman

into Marilyn on Monday and Farrah on Friday,
Helen on holidays and at the annual regatta,

her face launching a hundred rowboats. A dozen
cunning ways to be the bride’s best friend, a dozen

more to stand out or blend. But the joke
was on us: now we know how fifteen

feet of strap gets twisted and twisted
until the dress is not a dress at all, but

just enough rope.

St. John’s, Newfoundland poet Andreae Callanan’s full-length poetry debut is the debt (Windsor ON: Biblioasis, 2021), a collection of very sharp narrative lyrics centred around Newfoundland geography and history, colonialism and empire, being and industry. “She knits with a speed that seems / the stuff of cartoons: heroic, impossible.” she writes, to close the poem “Winter”: “But we are young, and our hands / are very small.” Callanan writes of cod fishing, Bond Street, radio whispers, classic film and the distance between “here” and what the television offers, such as MuchMusic’s Electric Circus. The distances between such are enormous, and Callanan’s narrator offers numerous portraits of now and then, writing poems as portraits and reminiscences; of what she sees, and of what she knows, and clearly remembers.

“We take care of the things that bear our names.” she writes, as part of the extended “Crown,” “We take care of our houses, cheques. Our children. / The rest is someone else’s business. What / falls outside the fence line—beyond the rock / walls, silvering softwood posts, the slipknot- / secured gates—that’s called Crown land.” The bulk of the poems included in this collection are short, lyric narratives but for the longer sequence “Crown,” a piece that works prose sections against line-breaks, composed after the prompt, seemingly, from Charter to Sir Walter Raleigh: 1584 by Queen Elizabeth I, as read to “an assembled crowed in St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1983” by Prince Charles: “[We grant our trusty and wellbeloved servant … free liberty and license …] to discover, search, find out and view such remote, heathen, and barbarous lands, countries, and territories [as are] not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people.” Callanan writes of the distances between rural and urban Newfoundlanders, and of accents, the loss of the fish and of what colonialism looks like, from the contemporary ground. She writes, lovingly, of Newfoundland, and all its “wild and weedy things,” and how she and her contemporaries acted in their youth.

Callanan writes of what is owed, and a debt to the place itself. Or, as the title poem offers: “We are all debtors here, beholden / to this jagged place for every lungful / of spruce-laden salted air, each slap / of ocean blasting rock and boat, dock / and ankle. Each berry-bucket filled / begs something in return. I pay / my dues with words: a no to harm, a yes / to harder work. I pay my dues in placards, / ballots, chants, in reckoning.”

“This fireplace mantel,” she writes as part of the poem “Mantel,” “is a white expanse against a wall as pink / as the smooth inside of a souvenir / seashell.” In the debt, Callanan writes a locale simultaneously centred and far removed from the world. Her poems write of tangible, physical places and objects, composing scenes that both look acknowledge where she stands as well as staring off into that distance. Really, in many ways, this collection is an articulation of that complicated relationship between home and away, writing her familiar and immediate, as well as what might be possible beyond the horizon.

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