If you’ve been to the prairie provinces, then you’ve likely fallen in love with the fields and the sky—with the vast, open spaces that make you feel humble and quiet inside. If you read Joanne Epp’s Cattail Skyline, you’ll begin to think—again, likely—of how landscape and place form and transform us. Epp’s poems take the reader from the open spaces of the prairie to memories of a 1994 trip to Cambodia, and then even into Ontario on a train trip. The numbered “Cemetery road” poems lace themselves through the collection, as one of the key motifs of journeys—by foot, car, plane, and rail—is explored by the poet.
The first poem in the Cattail Skyline, “Cemetery road 1,” invites the reader in, makes them long for a wild road trip without a specific destination in mind. Epp writes: “A crow call. Open space and a road. Not just any road,/but this one leaving the little town where you went to/high school, where you still come every summer.” In this first piece, the poet establishes the idea of how people tend to return to their earliest origin places, traveling back to first homes and towns with a mix of excitement and dread, wondering how those places might have transformed themselves over the years.
Hers is a poetry that is observational and full of keen descriptive detail. In “Lanigan Creek,” Epp writes: “Swaying on cattails, the blackbirds--/yellow-headed, red-winged—see it all.” In “Image in a country church,” the first line sings: “Sunday, white clapboard unbearably bright.” Here is a little church, in Horse Lake, Saskatchewan, where glory is “declared/in morning rays through arched windows,/shining the varnished pews.” In the “Omand’s Creek” series of poems, the poet writes a poem for each month of the year, letting the reader experience how the landscape of the creek shapeshifts through the seasons. There are warblers, mourning doves, maples, sparrows, catfish, and footbridges. It’s refreshing to be able to sink into these twelve calendar poems, taking into consideration whether humans do enough to mind those wilder spaces. In “Alert (March),” she writes: “You, too, watch for signs/of what’s coming. You listen hard/for the sound of meltwater, wait to be told/how to love the world.” Reading Cattail Skyline reminds you of how to look very closely, mindfully, and then asks you to consider your place—in your life and in the world.
The Cambodia poems, cushioned in the centre of the book, are just as detailed as the Canadian prairie ones. In “Breathless,” Epp speaks of the culture shock that comes with visiting a new country: “…knowing coconuts grow/on trees is not the same/as tipping a fresh one to your mouth/and drinking its sweet juice.” There are girls who hold bowls full of flower petals, heat that makes a person wilt, “three broken Buddhas,” a temple where there are old nuns and monks “in orange-yellow robes,” and a length of vibrant silk that is “sapphire blue shot with purple.” There’s a different kind of vibrancy here, in contrast to the imagery of the Canadian prairies, but the same careful attention to detail and senses in the imagery.
The notion of travel, and of coming and going, but also of practicing how to be still and observant is a through line in the book. In “Here,” the poet writes of her family history, in terms of how it is fixed to a specific place: “This is the tamarack we planted./These are the spaces in our midst./This is where we gather in the evenings.” The train poems clustered together in “Thirty Day Pass” let the reader escape a bit, travel alongside the poet. There are images of trees and lakes that “flow through our sleep,” place names that pass by with quick shutter clicks, and sleep that will only come after midnight when “fields give way to forest, when the chain/of moonlight breaks.” Hardly wanting to miss a minute of watching what passes by outside the train window, Epp speaks, too, of how what happens inside a train—while watching and meeting new people—is transformative. In “Chance,” the scent of bergamot in Earl Grey tea is a nudge to think of how life’s experiences often slip “into memory’s inner pocket, where only chance/could find them.” So much of Cattail Skyline is about how place, memory, history, and being mindfully present in each moment is valuable.
The poems of the prairies, though, are the ones that—for someone like me, who has grown up in Northern Ontario—seem especially evocative. Maybe that’s just because any new landscape is exotic and something new to explore, but I found the expanses inside the poems—of sky and fields and long prairie roads and life—made me think of how we travel back to our home places in so many different ways. Joanne Epp’s Cattail Skyline is a collection that sings of the beauty of the prairies, and of how memory and nostalgia is tied to landscape, and of how poetry can root itself firmly in all of these things.
Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. She was poet laureate in Sudbury from 2016-18, and was the first woman appointed to the role. Kim's latest book of poems is These Wings (Pedlar Press, 2019). She's a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Ontario representative of The Writers' Union of Canada (2020-22), and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim can be reached via her author website at www.kimfahner.com