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Domain

by Barbara Nickel

While so many poets follow up successful or promising first efforts with a rushed sophomore volume, it’s been 10 years since B.C.-based poet and children’s author Barbara Nickel published The Gladys Elegies, her award-winning debut collection. Domain is well worth the wait.

As one might expect of a book so long in the making, Domain is very carefully plotted. Nickel’s own domain is the familial and the domestic, and she builds her collection around seven “rooms,” each providing the title of one poem (“Master Bedroom,” “Living Room,” “Kitchen,” etc.) in a linked series of sonnets.

The counterpoint to the theme of the domestic in this book is that of the diaspora. These poems place us not only on the Canadian Prairies and on the coasts, but also in Russia and Germany. For every home, a departure; for every instance of circular unity, a rupture.

Nickel is a master of formal technique. Besides the aforementioned sonnets, the reader will find here poems in couplets, triplets, terza rima, blank verse, and quatrains; a triolet; a sequence of glosas; one of the finest sestinas I’ve read in recent verse; and poems in subtle nonce forms. What the reader won’t find is cloying, singsongy metres and rhymes. Nickel’s handling of rhyme and line is so textured and subtle (the slant rhyme is a favourite device, as is internal rhyme) that the structure of the poems, even in such self-conscious patterns, never foregrounds itself, but rather blends seamlessly with subject matter. Nickel, a true poet, understands that the unity of subject and structure is the very definition of form.

One might expect so carefully crafted a book to be marked by a coolness of tone, but the opposite is true. The tautness of the poems is tested constantly by the flood of intense emotion. Nickel herself sums it up best when she asks, “What cries/outside our neat phrases?” With this book, Barbara Nickel establishes herself in the first rank of her generation.