Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent
McClelland & Stewart
98 pages, Paperback $18.95 CAD
LIZ HOWARD”S DEBUT COLLECTION of poems, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, is astonishingly capacious: It is an extended metaphor for the mind. It is a fiery, radiant rollick through language. It is a meditation on Indigenous lineage and muted origins. It is the type of hard, crystalline speech which illuminates the social-scape from its gutters, a song gifted by an absolute Other, eerily coalescing at the junction of race, class, and gender. The poems which make it up celebrate the natural world while simultaneously attuning themselves to the toxicity of its rivers.
The collection could be described as a supernatural invocation. It could be described as a science of Wonder, a discourse on Wonder with a neuro-scientific diction. It channels scientific language as if it were part and parcel of its mother tongue. It speaks Anishinaabemowin also. It is an appropriation of various giants: Plath and Wittgenstein, many others. It is a neural riot. It is emotionally prodigious. Like the infinite citizen it is named for, the text, too, is startled by some big thing which rattles its stars; it, too, stands with a gaping maw, gobsmacked and in love, reaching beyond itself, fearlessly.
The Shaking Tent rite, in various Indigenous traditions, is carried out by a spiritual healer for the sake of procuring knowledge from the great abyss of the beyond. The healer, the shaman, is enclosed in a tent, whose quaking movements, observed from without, signal the presence of supernatural entities presumed to assist with the mediumistic enterprise. The shaking tent, in the context of this collection, is a metaphor which rebuffs the figure of the solipsistic, self-made self: Howard’s speaker proclaims that her guiding desire is “to not be / inside my own head perpetually / not simply Wittgenstein’s girl / but an infinite citizen in a shaking tent.” Within the metaphorical tent, she is thus positioned so as to be open to a variety of ‘others’: A temporal other in the form of events which have not yet occurred (hence she can “receive / the call that comes / down the barrel / of the future”) and a human Other (an Autrui): “I know myself to be a guest / in your mind a grand lodge / of everything I long to know and hold / within this potlatch we call / the present / moment.”
These others are, of course, not quite amenable to being grasped. If they are grasped at all, they are never grasped fully. The speaker’s desire for knowledge is, as the title of the collection suggests, infinite: inexhaustible, but also asymptotic (“this is my delta my neural asymptote”). That is, the speaker approaches, verges on, that which she reveres and longs for, but never reaches it. Only desire which is asymptotic can be, along with the pleasure which accompanies desire, indefinitely sustained. Only desire which is asymptotic, moreover, is compatible with wonder: it is an active curiosity which cannot conquer, and which is thus at the same time a non-violent ‘leaving be.’ The beyond, the remainder which is never colonized but which touches these poems, at times lends the collection something like a religious quality: The text nods its head to something sacred and inhuman, almost god-like (“What auspice will lend me a sacred belt?”), and possibly imperilling (“What little there is beyond impermanence / conspires with half a mind on the original / to sew us closed”).
The poems are riddled with references to time, to standard time, to time ephemeral (“the time zone of some desperate hour”) and to time unending (“O creek, bleeding hills, census inveterate / let me sleep five more minutes just five / minutes more before we default on / eternity”). How these references fit together, or fit into their respective poems, is occasionally mysterious. This is because Howard’s lines at times defy conventional sense: “I have as much stake / in speaking this / as the water / which also / discloses futurity / in a little black dress.” Lines carve out logics which exceed those of everyday communication. Many (not all) of Howard’s poems run on semantic discontinuity, on the imaginative leap: “I remove my belt / and snap it / at the stakeholders of the commonplace / at a crucifix / at the tariff of longing / at the dawn / at my own name.”
The experimental poet Charles Bernstein has observed that sense is irreducible to connotation and denotation, that meaning’s reach is total: acoustic sense (the sense, for example, Howard’s lines make to the ear, if not to the schooled mind, which is trained to unpack propositions and carry out theme-based exegesis) is still sense, even though—because at a remove from reference—it is more difficult to theorize about. The infinite citizen herself insists that “our only limit / will be of language”; “feral,” she tells us, “I enter / the court of words,” where “tangents come to take you away.” It would be wrong, then, to reduce the time-related mentions so ubiquitous in Howard’s book to anything like a series of genuinely-intended claims—which is not to say that they are never genuinely intended—and to hold their enigmatic character against them. Still, we can say that temporality exists as part of the book’s conceptual-scape. It is a conspicuous motif:
The speaker casts a casual eye toward an apocalyptic future (“we’re just friends / hanging out / in my apartment / until the world ends”). At times the world, the “whole earth,” seems to have ended already, seems to have already “retired from intimacy.” Elsewhere, the speaker is preoccupied with the present, “LOLing / in the middle / of mere existence.” Several of the poems included in the collection (e.g., “Look Book,” “Boreal Swing,” “1992,” and “Bildungsroman”) are essentially portraits of the speaker’s past, glimpses of poverty, records of the sensory impressions and memorable communications of the speaker’s youth (“This is our welfare half / a duplex with mint green / siding shrugged between / rail yard and main street”; “when I was / small and somewhere my / birthfather is drunk and / homeless, half-mad when / the cops ask him for his name / he’ll say, December”). These poems are, to a certain extent, set apart from the other poems in the collection in that they participate in a slightly different aesthetic; still, they exhibit continuity with the other poems insofar as they participate in the temporal triptych (past, present, future) Infinite Citizen is, elsewhere, constantly alluding to.
The colonial critique Infinite Citizen is carrying out is subtle. For the most part, it is not effected by explicit statements; rather, it is evoked by the politically charged vocabulary, or diction, Howard has incorporated in surprising ways into the poetry, a diction which, so-embedded, has become ambiguous without fully shedding its political resonances: Line sequences like “into the puffed metastatic coal became the water / into the affirmative action embryonic mortality / of the loon summit,” and “bioaccumulation became us Athabasca / sweet reconciliation spoke in / mercury, arsenic, lead, and cadmium” prime us, politically, without saying any one thing in particular. Isolated, creatively contextualized words in this way function as constant reminders; their associations haunt, invade, the text. We are not allowed to forget. The text refuses to be blatant, but it has found a way to do this, quite ingeniously, while simultaneously refusing compulsory silence. Even the text’s more positive incorporation of, for example, Anishinaabemowin concepts—such as the Shaking Tent—is a making-present, a kind of metaphysical assertion of a culture covered-over, if not outright killed, and of a portion of the speaker’s subjectivity which has been culturally minimized, or suppressed.
Infinite Citizen exhibits feminist preoccupations as well; the speaker, it seems, is a feminine subject; the colloquial language which, at times, erupts into what, at other times, seems like a specialist’s text (“hey, self / are you lovely yet?”; “with red needles I will ask you again / where is my good / gloss?”) calls to mind the work of writers like Margaret Christakos and Lisa Robertson, two of Howard’s former mentors. Wasn’t it Lisa Robertson, who, taking on the dead male poetry giants of the epic tradition, trying to outdo, or amp up, even their classical pomp, irreverently wrote “Hey Virgil / I think your clocked ardour is stuck…”? Both Lisa Robertson and Gail Scott, moreover, in different ways in their respective writings, have preoccupied themselves with ‘ornamentation’ and ‘surface,’ conceptions traditionally associated with femininity; they have made something out of these notions aesthetically as part of a feminist re-appropriation of writing itself (with Gail Scott producing texts which abandon plot in favour of imagistic and linguistic tangents, or, in other words, in favour of ‘ornaments’ which make up the text’s ‘surface’). Howard’s colloquial expressions, her speaker’s good gloss (deemed, by dint of inclusion, an appropriate subject for poetry), and the “punk psalms” she, at other times, refers to, elaborate and affirm a form of feminine subjectivity, as well as a politicized, dissident aesthetic which admits of only a recent history.
Throughout the text, Howard blurs the border between the subject’s cognition and the world which is external to it. The infinite citizen’s psychic geography is physical; it is made up of veins, blood paths, as much as it is populated with creatures and stones. A hare goes “to rut in the reverb / of precognition.” “The total psychic economy shimmers / a latent mouthpiece of maple.” The infinite citizen thus stands in relation to the environment as absolutely porous; the highway is ‘venous’; the snow is ‘hemodynamic.’ The mind and the body likewise reserve nothing from one another, extend into one another, become conflated with one another. In this text, there is only fluidity, never dualism; the spiritual is a good dirt; the spiritual is chemical.
At a technical level, Infinite Citizen is appropriative; the work, then, not only dismisses the boundary between the objective and the subjective, it does away with the territory lines gouged between texts. The poems in the collection help themselves to each other, as in the procedural poem “Ring Sample: Addendum,” which is made up of lines which occur in the book’s earlier poems.The words and rhythms of many other writers have made it into Infinite Citizen as well. Where Plath, for example, writes “O my God, what am I / That these late mouths should fly open,” Howard writes “could our late mouths ever know such a green word / as vertigo.” Where Plath writes “In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers,” Howard writes “in a daffodil chorus of posthumous laughter / this clapboard passport.” In one poem, Plath remarks: “All morning the / Morning has been blackening, / A flower left out”; in another, she speaks of a father figure at whom she cannot look much, since his “form suffers / Some strange injury / And seems to die.” Howard, who, seemingly moved by Plath, nevertheless refrains from embracing her totalizing bleakness, in a single poem, informs the reader: “All night the blood moon measures the dilation / of your pupil, pinprick or dinner plate / in this plenum where our attention fails to die.”
It is the plenum, nothing short of the plenum, which is, I think, the source of these new poems, as well as their resplendent infiltrator. Liz Howard has managed something extraordinary here, has managed, in fact, a number of extraordinary things: She has composed an incredibly thought-provoking, intelligent text and she has pulled this off in an impeccable, beautiful language. She has registered—expressed rather than turned from—life in its most gritty, sad, anxiety-producing manifestations. And she has managed to excite. And she has managed, also, ferociously, to marvel.
Liz Howard is a Toronto-based poet. She works as a research officer in cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Science degree with High Distinction from the University of Toronto and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals (The Capilano Review, The Puritan, and Matrix Magazine). Her chapbook Skullambiant (Ferno House) was a finalist for bpNichol Chapbook Award in 2012. Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent is her first full-length collection.
Natalie Helberg completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.
- See Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption”↵