Review of The Back Channels

The Back Channels

Charles G.D Robert's poem "The Tantramar Revisited" poses a question about memory: which out to be more precious to us: our nostalgic "illusion" of a beloved place or its reality, subjetct to "the hands of chance and change"? It still seems a pertinent question in the Maritimes: whether to love more the past or the future, stasis or growth, "old-time sweetness" or harsher, newer truths.

In her debut collection, The Back Channels, Jennifer Houle sketches a New Brunswick unsure of whether it's being carved out of the wilderness or engulfed by it, where not the only French and English live side by side, but also the picturesque and the impoverished, the pastoral and the suburban. "One day we will / have this neighbourhood thing down," she promises in the collection's opening poem, "Tongues," but the promise is unconvincing. Just beyond themall's parking lot, shopping carts have been dumped onto the riverbank, where "exiled, Acadian ghosts" wander amid "freshets ferrying / winterkill through dirty grooves / in chastened, lukewarm runnels." The mall, the neighbourhood, might be swallowed by mud when the tide comes in.

Place is a significant concern here, and where Houle tends to it, the contradictions of modern life in a rural place are in sharp relief. The section entitled, "Shediac, New Brunswick," contains poems that capture the uncomfortable, zoo-like quality of life in a tourism econom. There is a pleasantly resentful edge to them, and to the other poems, such as "Urban Development Poles," which resists the magnetic pull of a place, asking: "So, what brings you home? An overdue apology, / le littoral, a death? I knew it was time when some / guy started calling on my cell, asking for Mathieu. / And I don't know any Mathieu—well, I knew twelve."

The Back Channels' strength is found in those satisfying poems where syntax is matched to setting with specificity. "Gathering" is the account of an awkward house party that waivers like a wallflower between English and Chiac: "Ej voulais pas que tu saves about ma / hell adolescence," the speaker admits to a lover, "The / way those French girls stare at you, like valley girls from bad films circa / 1983, but even more matérialiste." "If you Are Receiving This" renders the creepy dopamine fix of falling down an internet rabbit hole late at night. It begins slowly, "as ice chip, slid beneath / the tongue," but ramps up:

Unsubscribed, a lurker wants to monitor your sugar.
Have you ever cried for someone? Does that person
know you? What if you could kiss this person? Dno't
eb sprusired fi oyu acn raed tihs. Here is a list of fishy

miracles. Ask me: It is 1:51 a.m. I don't ever drink
any pop, well mayber ginger-ale if yer sick. Coffee???
Tequila. red summer waitress. This is getting way
too serious. Green apples. Single. Lexus, Shadow,
just that one time ;) in the graveyeard, over thirty, self-
employed, witch. I will never, never tell you...

It is in these places, where Houle interrupts her own cadence and seems to have relinquished power over the powem, that her work becomes most exciting. Perhaps there is a Maritime lesson there: that if we can embrace the new, there are richer days ahead.

— Abby Paige Arc Poetry Magazine

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