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The Predicament of or

by Shani Mootoo

As the title suggests, Vancouver writer Shani Mootoo’s first collection of poetry catalogues the many “in-betweens” formed by a world of either/or choices and definitions. As in her award-winning novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, Mootoo paints a complex landscape in this book where “In-between is a place” and “or” is a predicament.

Mootoo’s poetry is written in the language of longing – a longing to belong and to live beyond the “or” of binary oppositions. Mootoo, who was born in Ireland and grew up in Trinidad before emigrating to Canada, knows all about this longing for a place to call home: “Then let us talk of home:/Does one come home/Or/Does one go home?”

But place is only one kind of longing presented in The Predicament of Or. There is also the longing created by living and writing between languages – where the rhythms of Mootoo’s Trinidadian childhood resonate between the Irish, Punjabi, and Hindi languages of her history, and the Canadian/ American dialects of her present.

Where all of these longings for the in-between converge is in the luminous middle section, titled simply “Or.” Here, Mootoo explores the intersections of place and language on the longings of skin and bodies. The poems here chart the glacial cracks and crevices of sexual desire between two women, particularly when that desire happens over a long distance: “As she was turning again towards the gate I scraped breath/for a lips-to-fingers kiss/that was probably too hesitant, wet with intent/weighted with wonderings and promises to fly/In any case, she’d already turned, resigned.”

As might be expected from an accomplished novelist, Mootoo is a wonderful storyteller. The vivid landscapes and characters she creates in her more narrative poems represent the most compelling writing in the collection. It is also, ironically, in these narrative moments, and not in the more formally poetic pieces, that the poetry of Mootoo’s language truly comes alive, seeping through the page in between the spaces and the words.