canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Black River
by Kenneth Sherman
The Porcupine's Quill, 2007

Reviewed by Ailbhe Darcy

The problem set out in Kenneth Sherman's Black River is one familiar to a daughter of colony, an Irishwoman like me. Phrases such as "the end of identity" and "broken syntax" ring inevitable bells. Sherman's long poem – and the speaker's meandering voyage along the eponymous river – begins with an "unspoken wound". That wound is the invasion of a place by Europeans, the loss of native cultures, the requisitioning of "river deities" by
the Sunlight Detergent Company, the Simcoe
Dairy Factory, the Georgina Township
Water Authority…
Familiar in colonial literature, too, is the notion of self-exile – and of self-exile thwarted, happily or unhappily. Our guide is
…setting out for new territory
or so I supposed…
That the doubt in that "so I supposed" is well-founded, Sherman reveals skilfully. We see the speaker "cut free from family" fishing; the fresh beginning one with "the electric quiver at the end of the line." But later it is his grandfather – made marvellously vivid as Mr Nimble Thimble - who fishes with an effortless cast, "his ear tuned to the reel's ratchet." Our protagonist has not travelled so far from his origins as all that.

Sherman's poetry is rich with the complexity for which poetry exists. By identifying himself with the European explorers who inflicted that original "wound", the poet hints at the valid concern that by writing a place he performs his own act of colonisation: "Shall I paddle on like Radisson?" He shows a wry and witty awareness of his own place in the new order:
We're left with…
Award-winning poets who can't rhyme a line of verse.
And worse.
But he is confident enough to reject the role of a Moses lying in a basket, letting the waters take him where they will.
Better to exert the will of the wood-runner
while dreaming of a promised land
even if your fate is to land
at the dry, abridged docks of Sutton.
This is an elegantly produced book, illustrated with details from an etching that evoke the rhythmical journey underway. But poetically, Black River is an astounding achievement. It writes itself to a kind of peace, repossessing without dis-remembering. Even the wound is allowed its poetry – after all, "Sim has a smooth sound. Watery. / And Coe is fish-like. Cold." Resolution is found in the epigraph from Herakleitos, that "everything flows; nothing remains." The river, ever-changing, ever-continuous, becomes itself an identity:
Its seasons are a translation, or a shifting
from one language to another…
Responding to arguably the most urgent task of contemporary poetry, Sherman has rendered a whole thing in a fragmented, bewildering world.

Ailbhe Darcy was born and grew up in Ireland and has a BA in English Literature from University College, Dublin.






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