canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Seymour Mayne
Mosaic Press, 2004

Where the Land Gets Broken
by Walter Hildbrandt
Ekstasis Editions, 2004

Reviewed by Ted Harms

It’s hard to imagine two different books of poetry.

Seymour Mayne is an award-winning poet and translator from Ottawa who has been writing since the mid ‘60’s. In Ricochet he packs every word with meaning as he has condensed the typical sonnet form – a fourteen line poem – to fourteen words, with each word being a line.

This added weight of importance and significance to each individual word can sometimes stall the flow of a poem as the reader can feel obligated to perhaps read too much into each word. At it’s best though, these poems are as evocative as the finest haikus. Indeed, it’s barely a stretch to read each poem as a haiku – there’s that sense that the poet has selected each word carefully and deliberately, that most poems have some allusion to weather or the environment, and that’s there something deeper underlying what seems to be a casual observation.

For example, the poem “Hail”:


This poem, like so many others in Ricochet, operates at several levels and all with a strict economy of words. Brief, yet detailed, these are the kind of poems that you don’t read in one sitting.

If Mayne’s poetry is the super-concentrated pill, Hildebrant’s is the epic and lavish, 12-course meal.

The poetry, both in style and topics, of Hildebrant’s Where the Land Gets Broken is vast and varied. Many poems have a narrative, almost prose-like aspect to them and sometimes engaging in an out-and-out telling of story or retelling some aspect of history or fable. Hildebrant’s connection to the land and its original inhabitants is considerable with his years of experience being a consultant for the Federation of the Saskatchewan Indian Nations, working with other native organizations, and his career as a historian, focusing on Western Canada while his credentials as a poet go back to 1991.

The most evocative and powerful poems in Hildebrandt’s collection is “ Battle Creek, Cypress Hills – night of June 1, 1873” which is followed by “In the shadow of the Cypress Hills”. I don’t think the poems were meant to be read as a set but they work well together.

The first poems tells the story of American soldiers massacring Assiniboine Indians and the failure of those responsible not being brought to justice; the second poem is broad history of the Assiniboine and their dealings with unjust authorities. Both poems have Assiniboine legends weaving in and out of them, both document the oppression that the Assiniboine have, and continue to, suffer, and both poems manage to convey a sense of looking back at history but also looking forward to the future.

If there’s one gripe about this collection, it’s that some poems rely on their visual arrangement to carry their effect – words being broken down with letters on individual lines or words spread out and across the page to evocate how they should sound – which gets in the way of the story.

Despite their differences, both collections are evocative and descriptive - Mayne’s in his compact and pointed observations; Hildbrandt’s in his courageous scope of history and landscape.






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