Note: I wrote this a book review months ago, but wanted to bump it up a bit because of some recent and amazing news. Liz Howard, the author of Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, just won the Griffin Poetry Prize for this book. She is the youngest recipient ever, and this year is the time the prize has been awarded to a first book. One of the great things about the Griffin is it draws readers — something I aimed to do in my own small way when I enthused about this groundbreaking book.
It’s been said that a book review is an exercise in both sympathy and competition. That is a combination that’s inherently fraught, and one that’s high among the reasons I’ve considered no longer reviewing books—but that was before I encountered Liz Howard’s first book of poetry, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent. It’s in the most sympathetic and non-competitive spirit that I say you should read this, and it.
Part of Infinite Citizen’s success is the way it mends tensions: Howard is from northern Ontario, and moved to Toronto to obtain a degree in cognitive neuroscience. She moves between both systems with the trademark ease that comes from expertise: “If you are in need of an answer/consult a jiisakiiwinini/scientific rigor/psychoanalysis/the unconscious a construct.”
Jiisakiiwinini, according to the brief glossary, is a spiritual healer who conducts the shaking tent rite, and those lines are from a pivotal poem in the book, called “Thinktent,” which reads, in part:
the city bound me so I entered
to dream a science that would name me
daughter and launch beyond
grief, that old thoracic cause
myocardium: a blood-orange foundry
handed down by the humoral
anatomists and not be
inside my own head perpetually
not simply a Wittgenstein’s girl
but an infinite citizen in a shaking tent
This is inherently powerful because each of us, in our own way, needs to expand upon or construct a new umbrella. But a different power radiates from the phrasing (to borrow a musicological word, which I think is appropriate here). Her style of line breaks create a cantilever effect, transforming potential into kinetic energy at each turn.
Howard’s mastery isn’t only at the line level, but is holistic. Each poem has its own integrity and is in conscious communication with the rest. While it’s apparent the book has a central thesis, it doesn’t read as a “project”—it imparts no mental image that a tidy “to do” list was being struck through as each poem was drafted.
A poem called “Neural Cascade: A Chandelier of Forest Bones” opens with “Maybe I do know you”—at first glance an engagement with the reader. But the speaker is addressing an array of decomposing creatures in the woods. The poem trudges forward resolutely, where Howard ends:
my bad shoulder
to the floorboards
with adrenaline, a hare gone
to rut in the reverb of
let me live
The harrowing cry—“let me live”—has an urgent meaning not only for the narrator, but for all of us in our current political climate. The sociologist C. Wright Mills once wrote that “the personal is political,” but just as much, Howard makes the political personal.
In the poem “1992,” she writes about the memory of a childhood home, a duplex, “our welfare half,” where “logging trucks and trains/shake the foundation so/much I mistake them for God.” Howard’s book affirms there is no clear-cut way through points of intersectionality (i.e., gender, race, and class). And needing things to be clear-cut is perhaps its own issue.
Progress, after all, can be a convoluted and potentially oppressive notion—who gets to decide what is an appropriate way to live? Or a valuable goal to aim for? Who gets to name things we have to refer to? There are four poems in this book with the same title: “Standard Time.” They’re not equidistant and each is slightly longer than the last. All are tercets. Each is languid with memory—“the day with its pit between my teeth”—embodying a timelessness out of sync with man-made zones and boundaries.
Similarly, “Ring Sample: Addendum,” the penultimate poem (a poem I do wish had closed the book) is a “recombinative sonnet” that utilizes lines from the book’s first fourteen poems. The seamlessness of this poem adds to the book’s taut cohesiveness, its surface tension like water. But this technique is also a tool that morphs time and space, toys with the convention of form, and confronts the desire for resolution.
A line like “let the RICO of heaven come clean” is worth its weight in counterfeit, even if you need to Google the RICO Act to get it. And that brings me to another point: the actual language of this book could appear a potential hurdle for some readers. It shouldn’t be. Howard integrates vocabulary both from her cultural background and her formal education (as we all do), but aspects of both may be new here to some readers. It’s important to remember that easily searchable terms that appear (myocardium, thoracic) apply to all of us. They enhance our understanding not only of the poem but of our bodies and our world. What nature and biology and writing all share, Howard illustrates, is that they are great equalizers.
The best art evokes sympathy and admiration; competition simply cannot compute. Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent is one of the most distinct, uncompromising, and rewarding books of Canadian poetry in recent memory. But don’t just take my word for it.