Annick MacAskill Reviews Bren Simmers Work of Labour and Inheritance
“I know how hard it is to break a pattern, that we carry the unfinished work of our ancestors forward.” –“Inheritance”
If, When is Prince Edward Island author Bren Simmers’ fourth book, her second with Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press. A collection of poetry, If, When is deeply preoccupied with its speaker’s connection to her ancestors, and with connections in general.
The book examines the labour within the different industries (mining, tourism and recreation) in and around Squamish, British Columbia, drawing on Simmers’ own experiences, as well as the stories of her great-grandparents, who immigrated to the mining town of Britannia in the early 20th century.
Almost all the book’s poems are narrative lyrics, a standard mode for contemporary English-language Canadian poetry, though a few structural and stylistic choices set them apart. Most notably, the table of contents presents the poems in four categories—“Industry,” “Groundskeepers,” “Ancestors” and “Returns.” These categories are not ordered linearly, but instead crisscross and overlap: the first poem “Accident, Lions Bay” appears in the grouping “Returns,” while the second, “Half-Life of a Company Town,” falls under “Industry,” and so on.
In addition to their unconventional organization, the poems make frequent use of direct discourse, with quotations from speakers, signs, slogans and other text set off in italics, creating a sense of polyphony. Similarly, Simmers includes a surprising number of contrapuntal poems, in which columns or lines of text can be read in succession or together, lending themselves to multiple readings. All these choices serve to reinforce the overall themes of connections and interdependence.
In its exploration of labour in a rural setting, If, When reminded me of another recent Gaspereau Press title, Boom Time by Newfoundland writer Lindsay Bird, as well as BC poet Kate Braid’s superb Turning Left to the Ladies, published by Palimpsest Press in 2009. Much like those collections, which depict their authors’ experiences working construction, Simmers centres the social ecosystems of the industries she represents.
The emotional trajectory of If, When is perhaps its most complex trait. While the author communicates sympathy and even admiration for her ancestors, the book ends on a certain ambivalence (as suggested in its title) towards her settler heritage, leaving the reader to consider the long-lasting effects of capitalism and colonization.