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Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada

by Anne Compton et al., eds.

In his poem “The Squall,” P.E.I. poet Milton Acorn muses on the odd fact that rowers must face backwards, “taking direction from where they’d been,/With only quick-snatched glances at where they’re going.” It is fitting that his lines appear in Coastlines, for they describe the peculiarity of an anthology that claims to represent “the present renaissance in Atlantic poetry” while presenting 60 poets, only four of whom were born since 1970.

An effort to be forward-looking was part of the collection’s mandate. Yet the anthology seems to issue from an earlier era. In form, the majority of the poems are expertly crafted modernist lyrics, untouched by post-modernist experiment. The poets’ subjects are largely drawn from a domestic and rural world unblemished by highways, bereft of computers or cell phones, unharassed by the rhythms or urban attitude of rap music. The Atlantic Canada of its poets still appears to be a land of fish, forests, and weather, whose inhabitants have a familiar feeling for nature, a long-cultivated facility with language and rare insight into human relationships.

The result is page after page of reassuringly splendid poetry. How could it be otherwise in a region whose poetic heritage includes Acorn, Alden Nowlan, and the two great Elizabeths, Bishop and Brewster? And whose present-day poets include the meditative Don Domanski, the virtuoso George Elliott Clarke, the consummate Michael Crummey, and the achingly precise Sue Goyette? Yet the sense of the future seems outweighed by admiration for the past, and whole aspects of life, whole handbooks of formal possibilities, whole mountain ranges of subjects remain unvisited.

Still, the youngest poets selected offer bright prospects. The most luminous of these is Sue Sinclair, whose lines claw at the reader’s memory long after being read. Matt Robinson’s allusive poems also offer a distinctive voice. There are almost certainly more where these young poets came from. If there are future editions of this worthwhile but overly retrospective anthology, perhaps the editors will find more space for the new.