Karpinski on J, 'Ripping Down Half the Trees'

Author: 
Evan J
Reviewer: 
Max Karpinski

Evan J. Ripping Down Half the Trees. The Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2021. ix + 94 pp. $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-228-00546-9

Reviewed by Max Karpinski (University of Toronto) Published on H-Environment (October, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58128

Evan J’s debut collection, Ripping Down Half the Trees, addresses the reader with a clean and minimalist cover. A chainsaw juts out from the edge of an otherwise uncluttered, flat blue background; the image reads straightforwardly alongside the title. But a closer look reveals that the chainsaw’s teeth have been replaced by what appears to be a suburban tableau of repeated cookie-cutter houses and pine trees. Before we arrive at the poems themselves, the cover—designed by David Drummond—alerts us to a set of thematic concerns. Ripping Down Half the Trees is about the deep embeddedness of various forms of extraction and the settler-colonial nation-state. This is a collection at pains to show how the ongoing violence of colonization inheres in everyday life, how the logics that underpin a comfortable life—a single-family bungalow, a lawn—tear apart the relations and the land on and with which we live.

Given the images and associations called up by the book’s title and cover, as well as its focus on small-town, northern Ontario experiences of inequality, it is interesting that Evan J chose to open the collection with a Toronto subway poem. “Bloor-Yonge” feels traditionally lyric, located in the “I” of a single, speaking subject; the poem moves quickly, its lines often enjambed and its images spilling over, unfurling in dependent clauses. Indeed, these are formal features that recur throughout Ripping Down Half the Trees. Crucially, “Bloor-Yonge” also articulates a kind of poetics of witnessing: “Some always jam in transition, like I, / and it’s here that we transcribe the city ... / Down here the lights are always off, / but you know, the eyes adjust” (p. 3).

In the same way that the collection’s cover points the way to a number of interrelated themes, this opening poem functions as an ars poetica, advancing an argument for a mode of politically and socially conscious lyric that Evan J elaborates throughout the remainder of the collection. This is a poem about learning to see in a particular manner—“the eyes adjust”—without turning away from the pain, suffering, and struggle that surrounds us. At this point in the collection, however, the poem feels unable to meaningfully move beyond that initial act of cataloging. “Bloor-Yonge” concludes by falling into the repetition of those “suffering,” “grey” voices everywhere at track level: “Can someone / please help me / with somethin’ / to eat?” (p. 4). There’s something instructive to be said about this four-line stanza, which repeats three times before a concluding, modified couplet: “Can someone / please help me” (p. 5). Written out as a full sentence, the stanza adheres to anapestic tetrameter: u / u u / “Can some | one please help |” u u / u u / “me with some | thin’ to eat?”

But Evan J’s line breaks refuse to allow this phrase to circulate in untroubled poetic meter. The choice feels crucial in the context of the collection’s attempts to bear witness; its self-reflexivity about the complexities of ethically representing another’s pain (especially when the speaker-poet identifies his complicities with that pain); and its anxieties about both the aestheticization of violence and the efficacy of poetry to incite some mode of redress. The voices of the “suffering” appear harnessed to a recognizable meter, but the poem itself rebels against this aestheticization, cutting the line in the middle of its anapestic feet (“Can someone / please help me / with somethin’ / to eat?”) and leaving the reader with an off-kilter stanza that embodies the ambiguity—compassion, inadequacy, sometimes discomfort—of recognizing our proximity to the suffering of others.

After “Bloor-Yonge,” Ripping Down Half the Trees shifts between Winnipeg, Ottawa, and northern Ontario, hewing closely to Evan J’s biographical movements as laid out in the acknowledgments at the text’s close. Indeed, the collection’s second half prominently features the people and day-to-day life of Evan J’s work, in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, where he “operat[es] a drop-in adult education centre used primarily by the local homeless community.” Returning to the discussion of the lyric mode, mentioned above, this is a collection where, in my reading, we are invited to collapse speaker into poet. A “Note to Readers” underlines that the poet is “a white, cisgender, male, able-bodied settler” who recognizes that he “speak[s] from positions of privilege that oppress others” (p. 89). The collection threads this needle: to speak to, address, and catalog structural violence and inequality in order to potentially move toward a more just and equitable world, while always remaining aware of one’s privilege and the power dynamics reproduced by uncritical acts of representation.

Given the collection’s attention to issues of social justice, it feels important here to also note Evan J’s broader, literary community work when thinking through Ripping Down Half the Trees. This is a collection that emerges from deep self-reflection about the possibilities for literature and the role of literary work. In a regular column that he keeps for the digital literary magazine Cloud Lake Literary, and for which he serves as fiction editor, Evan J has written about some of the trends visible in the journal’s submissions: “2SLGBTQIA+ topics were only present in about 3% of our submissions. Race-related topics were present in roughly 5%.... Our literary journal, and the literary community as a whole, has much work to do at making the submission process safer and more inclusive.”[1] There is a roadmap here that Ripping Down Half the Trees traces, toward one possible mode among many for white settler-poets to simultaneously attend to positionality and privilege while also engaging the systems and structures that continue to visit violence on the racialized, marginalized, and poor people living under the auspices of the settler-colonial nation-state.

When I noted early in this review that Evan J “elaborates” the poetics of witnessing of “Bloor-Yonge” throughout the remainder of Ripping Down Half the Trees, I meant that the reader feels the process of revision, feels the poet identifying modes of address and speaking positions that work, or don’t. Put differently, if, to this point, I have presented the political and ethical work of this collection as a fait accompli, it is crucial to note that the text is also shot through with anxieties and self-doubt; this isn’t a case of the poet patting themselves on the back but laboring to find a voice adequate to the subjects they want to address and the experiences they want to honor. Indeed, the whispers of this poetic struggle surface early in the book. In an elegy for Alan Kurdi, the two-year-old Syrian boy whose body was photographed in the surf of the Mediterranean Sea, and who became an emblem of the refugee crisis in 2015, Evan J writes: “Poets, we are cowards, / we could not have helped you,... / we will not stop a tank or the terrorism of teeth / and our rhythm will not help you float” (p. 15).

This sentiment—an anxiety about the efficacy of poetry, or the ability of poetry to do or change something in the world—is felt throughout the collection. What good is “rhythm” in the face of another’s anguish? Worse still, what if the impulse to turn to the page is itself a “cowardly” act of retreat from the world? We might read this anxiety as Evan J’s version of W. H. Auden’s oft-cited line “poetry makes nothing happen”; but we would do well to also remember that Auden’s poem continues: “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”[2] Survival, ultimately, is where Ripping Down Half the Trees concludes, with the poem “Pottery, an impossibility,” which closes on an understanding of poetry as one kind of artful crafting among many: “In our silent crafting I find / humanity. And by humanity I mean / instinct, the humbling, humane drive // to lessen another’s suffering, / to add an umpteenth effort to straighten // a crooked democracy, / to exhale // into beads and needle / all that is vicariously burdened upon me, // to exhale, for all my friends, / into a pencil” (p. 87).

For all its moments of self-doubt, Ripping Down Half the Trees ends in a poignant assertion of the possibilities for poetry. One key here, in my estimation, is the colloquial “umpteenth,” a recognition of the need to write again and again, to elaborate a poetics that opens onto better relations and then to rearticulate it. This vision of artmaking is both the grounds of community (“for all my friends”) and a minor, palliative gesture (“to lessen another’s suffering”). Finally, and crucially, the various forms or modes of craft enumerated in the poem are each presented as life-giving and life-sustaining in their attachment to the “exhale[s]” of the poet-speaker and his “aging friend” (p. 87). Ripping Down Half the Trees never loses sight of the fact that writing poems like this is difficult, intensive work. But it feels right to leave the reader here, with the closing lines of “Pottery, an impossibility,” and the (im)possibility of imagining a world where poetry, pottery, and bead- and needlework are each simultaneously vital and common as breathing.

Notes

[1]. Evan J, “Topics I Don’t Want to Read About,” On Writing (blog), Cloud Lake Literary, November 22, 2021, https://www.cloudlakeliterary.ca/blogposts/topics-i-dont-want-to-read-about.

[2]. W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” 1940, Poets.org, accessed September 9, 2022, https://poets.org/poem/memory-w-b-yeats.

Citation: Max Karpinski. Review of J, Evan, Ripping Down Half the Trees. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58128

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