In the Footsteps of Marco Polo: A review of Lisa Pasold’s Any Bright Horse

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Any Bright Horse tells the story of a modern-day Marco Polo char­ac­ter trav­el­ling primar­ily through Afgh­anistan and China. Marco Polo was not only a trav­el­ler but also one of the world’s ori­ginal best-selling storytellers and guides, a muse even to Chris­topher Colum­bus. Pasold has writ­ten in many genres before, and, as a book of poetry, Any Bright Horse is hard to pin down. It is an epic poem in prose form and includes enough of a nar­rat­ive thread that it feels more like an impres­sion­istic novel—but it isn’t a novel, in the purest sense, because it doesn’t rely on plot or arc and isn’t driven by char­ac­ter or dia­logue as much as it is by imagery and language.

Pasold is bilin­gual and her writ­ing demon­strates a deep appre­ci­ation for acquired lan­guage: “[T]ravelling,” she writes, “I learned the value of rock, ill-designed though I was for anchor­ing.” How­ever, due in large part to ten­sion between the nar­rat­ive nodes and brev­ity of deliv­ery, not every line hits a lyr­ical high note or makes mean­ing­ful con­nec­tions. And although the art of trav­el­ling is often one of eco­nomy and deft­ness, I would have pre­ferred to see much more con­tent on numer­ous pages that fea­tured only a tiny frag­ment of text.

Any Bright Horse appears to be worth its weight, how­ever, as it was recently nom­in­ated for the Gov­ernor General’s Award, which is no small feat. And that’s also a good sign for Cana­dian writers, not only because Pasold blurs the bound­ar­ies of poetry and, more broadly, lit­er­at­ure, but because she also draws on a decidedly inter­na­tional frame of reference—challenging what has been appro­pri­ate and long-cherished ter­rit­ory for Cana­dian authors (primar­ily the rural and the domestic). On the other hand, the hybrid­ity of her work is really as Cana­dian as it gets, but cul­ture has a way of play­ing catch-up with demographics.

Pasold has said else­where that this book was an “oblique” com­ment on Canada’s involve­ment in Afgh­anistan. This con­text fas­cin­ated me and promp­ted an imme­di­ate re-reading. Unfor­tu­nately, the ref­er­ence is so oblique as to be obtuse. Per­haps the dis­tance of the nar­ra­tion is meant to be part of her com­ment­ary, as it is in visual artist Omar Fast’s film “5,000 feet is the best.” The man at the centre of Any Bright Horse is both there and not there—he’s elu­sive, and he asks us to make sense of his story for him. I have to admit that I felt all poten­tial crit­ical commentary—on Marco Polo as prob­lem­atic hero; on travel as a bour­geois priv­ilege; on the sub­ject­ive nature of observing the “Other”—was squandered. At one point, Pasold writes, “It is the respons­ib­il­ity of the listener to keep the story on track.” As per­suas­ive and exotic as the tales within this book may be, I was ulti­mately not con­vinced by that sentiment.


Published in Arc literary journal online, January 23: