Skullambient
by Liz Howard
Ferno House, 2011

Reviewed by Fenn Stewart

 

not for lack of wolves

or inside of wolves

or besides the point of wolves

Liz Howard’s Skullambient makes tracks across the landscapes of anti-Ontari-ari-ario; it meditates on the bleak & vivid spaces of a Canada that’s been built & nourished on appropriated land, trees, water, art. Howard’s scene is the northern “wilderness” – Skullambient reminds its reader that this thing called nature does not precede history, culture, or politics, and that the great white north has certain deadly effects.

 

In the towns I wear a sash monogrammed “Jacque Cartier”

and paddle through the dessication of mute origin

Thus semi-disguised as the classic colonial explorer, Howard’s “I” strikes out across land “black from the mine,” wades through “currents / of embryos where his horse fell into a shattered femur” (6). Rather than surfacing in some clear and sunny water, this I crashes, narcoleptic, through the floors of a disheveled house, “leans into a “cadaver lake” “sleek as a grey lip,” strides through “ground seepage […] sulphur or hydrochloric” (8, 6).

And as she goes, this I describes an almost post-apocalyptic world: our own. The abundant wildlife of the imagined Canadian north appears here, as often as not, in the form of corpses, casualties of highway traffic: “a black bear / struck by a blue pick-up on 129,” a “rabbit under the scrap car” (20, 22). Or else animals appear as teenagers, loitering strangely in stripmalls: “coyote was this young man / in the convenience store / holding a piece of raw liver” (21).

This doesn’t mean that there’s no beauty here – but beauty’s fraught, & tricky:

            lichen for the stomachs of caribou you track me in this herd

the city now a denouement of the assimilative purge

“Assimilation,” as it unfolds in Howard’s work, gestures widely, coruscatingly, to colonial institutionalization, to the effects of resource extraction and development: jackpines, herons, and birch are “assimilated” into the factories, mines, and railroads of Chapleau and Sudbury. And as the caribou fill their stomachs with lichen, they accumulate the toxins that float north.

Howard returns & re-returns to science here (to medicine, geology, neurology). As a taxonomy it both obscures & illustrates; as an interpretive framework, it provokes mutations, ranks phenomena, scrambles sense perception. A delta becomes a neural asymptote, masses are detected, striations are filial (11, 15).

Another itch or rumination here is origin, ancestry, genealogy: it is an arbor vitae, habitat of dance, the site of green “moss sovereignty” (11). But fore-fathers can’t always be counted upon: in “(foramen magnum),” the I takes shelter in heredity, only to find it “a crosshatch of some rented weather” (11). And “(may-tea-non-state-is-abhor-original)” ends with a vibrating, unanswered question: “conjugate / the erasure / – whose name anon / – like am I not?” (17).

 

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Fenn Stewart reads and writes in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Open Letter, The Capilano Review, online at ditch, poetry, and in The Arcadia Project, a recent anthology dedicated to the “postmodern pastoral.” Her first chapbook, An OK Organ Man (above/ground press), was published in early 2012. She is currently writing a dissertation on de/colonization and literature in Canada; sometimes she helps out with Avant/Garden, Liz Howard and Shannon Maguire’s Toronto-based reading series.