Thursday, February 22, 2024

Chimwemwe Undi, Scientific Marvel: Poems



Build a province of our absence,
and that province comes to pass

And it passes legislation, and the legislation
is profuse with the absence you allege.

I suggest your unseeing has its consequence.

I suggest the coasts unmoor you,
and those distant cities fit your heads.

Your bad spell echoes in this centre
of emptying centres. We measure wheat

in seeds. Your insistence follows
your gaps, a needle

leaving two holes and one stitch.

From 2023-24 Winnipeg poet laureate Chimwemwe Undi comes the impressive full-length poetry debut, Scientific Marvel: Poems (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2024), a sharp and self-aware assemblage of prairie gestures, lyrics and examinations. “Good practice is dissolving my beloved / into traits,” she writes, as part of the opening poem, “PROPERTY 101,” “either useful / or distinct.” Undi is well aware of Winnipeg streets and prior descriptions, citing specific local markers such as prairie sky, Portage and Main and the works of John K. Samson and Guy Maddin, two other Winnipeg artists deeply immersed in articulating their love of this shared space. Undi’s is a love equally thoughtful, critical and filled with light, offering sparkle and wit, humour and deep critique. “A beautiful country,” she writes, to open the poem “GRUNTHAL, MANITOBA (2019),” “so full of breath / The sky as wide open as a howling throat // My throat as wide open as a prairie sky / As blue, as hungry to ungive what’s been taken // You can’t give back what has been taken / Unname the place named what it already is [.]”

This is an impressive collection, one comfortably powerful, without the awkward stretches of so many other debuts; she knows full well what she is doing, without any sense of showiness or hesitation, but a calm understanding of her own lyric, her own strength. “Taking its title,” as the press release offers, “from a beauty school in downtown Winnipeg that closed in 2017 after nearly 100 years of operation,” the lyrics of Undi’s Scientific Marvel investigate and interrogate the landscape of Winnipeg as city and cultural space, articulating alternate perspectives on what had so long been assumed, presumed or simply ignored. She writes a field guide of gestures, expectations, absolute delights and utter losses. “every horizontal edge the city hesitates,” she writes, as part of “FIELD GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA,” “and they die in such numbers / with such specifity that scientists / name it and watch unmoved [.]” Undi tethers her lyrics to these local histories, that sense of Winnipeg space, fully acknowledging the self-described lineages through lovely, performative gestures, guttural markers and lines composed as direct offerings turned sideways. “It is bigger than its targets,” the short poem “IN DEFENCE OF THE WINNIPEG POEM” reads, in full, mid-way through the collection, “& still small, & there is nothing to do // & so much to be done, & here // at the centre of a bad invention, // it is, in fact, pretty cold.”

Undi includes, sprinked through the book, a thread of erasures out of the text of “Baker v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration),” a landmark decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, in which Mavis Baker, a Jamaican woman who had lived in Canada without status for more than a decade, appealed for fairness in regards to potential deportation, in part due to her having given birth to four children while living and working in Canada. Undi uses these erasures to write of erasure itself, a kind of prairie insistence to set aside what might not fit neatly into presumed categories. Through her interrogations, Undi continues a thread of articulating prairie Blackness that has become more prevalent over the past few years, sitting alongside books such as Bertrand Bickersteth “Writing Black Alberta” through The Response of Weeds: A Misplacement of Black Poetry on the Prairies (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2020) and The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology, ed. Karina Vernon (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2020). For Undi, specifically, it is Winnipeg, the city that loves to hate to love itself, and all within. “What else // will we cleave? The light before / and after,” she writes, as part of “SPRING, OR SPIRAL IN THREE PARTS,” “the smokeless air.”


No comments: