Alice Major’s latest poetic offering begins with “End times 1: Record of pressure,” a poem that reflects on how her body has felt pressure as it has grown older, how there are “plate techtonics of aging.” She writes of her physical body as a parallel to the earth’s body, making reference to “my thinning crust,” and documenting her hips as “now misaligned plates/like cratons, sections/of ancient basement rock/stable over ages, while tendons/rift and rip around them.” The parallel is clear: there is a physical record of change—of pressure—and of “a slow,/continuous apocalypse.” This poem locates the poet (and reader) as being fallibly and undeniably human. What follows, to begin Knife on Snow, is the sadly prescient “A fate for fire,” which feels as if it is speaking specifically to the horror that is the summer of 2023, but which was written after the Fort McMurray fire of 2016.
The nine-part piece, “A fate for fire,” is a powerful opening poetic sequence. Dawn arrives as a dragon torn straight out of Beowulf, dragging “its grey tail/from sky’s flat surface and citizens woke/to no blue summer.” Here is a poem with images that haunt the reader. There are people with “burning eyes” as well as “fume-drugged highways,” as “continents consume themselves.” Trees “are torches, terrible angels,/crests of flame,” devouring trees, but also creatures whose “corpses lie/chase-victims, charred in smoke.” Around the city, “gripped/in the fist of forest,” large projects have destroyed the Boreal “down to its bones,” and “where forest crowds construction camps/and paycheques float on pipelines’ fates.” This was the fire that is still referred to as “The Beast,” forcing ninety thousand residents to flee, “the long road logjammed/with crawling trucks, creeping cars.” One road out.
Major moves from Fort McMurray to the landscape and geography of Iceland, a “fire-formed land, lava-layered,/where Earth’s plates pull at the planet’s crust.” Tourists—ten million a year—move through Iceland’s Keflavik Airport, and the poet takes note of the fact that “the birds’ road roars with metal,/soot and particulates, unlocked sulfates,/high-sky contrails.” It seems we humans can only ever think of ourselves, too often not realizing that “our fates are bound/by actions of others wanting only/to save their skins.” Where to go, the poet asks the reader? From Alberta to Iceland? Then where to? “Fire keeps coming closer to home/in the warming world.” From here, where I sit and write on an early July morning in Northern Ontario, more than a few days through late June have been days where breathing outside, where walking outside, is almost impossible. That smoke comes from fires in Quebec and Northern Ontario, and it feels as if the world is on fire. Alice Major captures that overwhelming sense of sad inevitability in “A fate for fire.”
In “Knife on Snow,” again a sequence of poems, the poet wonders how a knife has been thrown into a yard full of snow. Has it been thrown down from the heavens? Major suggests the ways in which humans have historically always been at odds with one another, how countries have destroyed other countries to colonize them, and how humans “always seek for portents/in the changing patterns of heaven.” There are thousands of landscapes that have been “claimed, colonized,/borders blurred by blood and burnings, blasts/of man-made armament, tanks massed,/rifle barrels and barrel chests/and borrowed time. Weapons rain,/the sky grows deadly.” The result is that “All war is civil war,/internal to ourselves.” The question is how do we stop ourselves from ruining ourselves and, more importantly, from ruining the planet for future generations?
It would be strange not to address the ways in which the world has changed in the recent pandemic years, how people have become less and less tolerant in so many cases. Major writes a series of poems that focus on anger and on how anger grows and spills over into the world in an unchecked manner. In “Paths integral,” she writes “Where do we/locate the sullen burn of grudge?” and “Where is that/ narrow territory where unnecessary rage roars up when I’m/hurt by something as minor as a stubbed toe?” In “Anger’s arithmetic,” she ponders the ways in which one person “shouting on the corner is a man/haunted by some demon” can morph into “nineteen people might become a mob/primed to lynch.” In “Alarums and excursions,” Major writes of how “now voices rise uncivil shouts/disorderly noise from a nearby street/urgent fragments profanity/indistinguishable angers breaking out/in emergency break glass.” Then, in “Immune response,” she writes of random Zoom bombers who enter virtual rooms to spread racism: “Anger’s/inflammatory response takes down the whole organism.” In the face of the pandemic and the climate crisis, dovetailing tellingly as they did, poems like “Progressive” also speak of how taking a stand for the environment and community can now be a firestarter of its own sort.
Alice Major’s Knife on Snow is a call to awareness and hope in so many ways. In “Tales of the apocalypse,” she states honestly: “we know we’ve launched this ship ourselves.” So many of us have become “accidental gods,” though, somehow believing that we are above the natural world when we are actually part of it. Forgetting that interwoven aspect of life on earth is egocentric and narrow-minded. Some kind of world will last, she tells us, but what will remain? As if to offer a possible notion, the last section of the collection is titled “Travels in the solar system.” A beautifully crafted series of haibun poems that end with reflections on our self-centredness: “Morning. Social media/the first light we turn to./Brain chemistry changes.” and “One more item ticked/off the bucket list. What to post next/on the photo feed?” Perhaps not much will remain after we disappear, as we’ve become so solipsistic as a society. Perhaps we ought to learn from the natural world before it’s too late.
Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. Her latest book of poems is Emptying the Ocean (Frontenac House, 2022). She is the First Vice-Chair of The Writers' Union of Canada (2023-25), a member of the League of Canadian Poets, and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim’s first novel, The Donoghue Girl, will be published by Latitude 46 Publishing in Spring 2024. She may be reached via her author website at www.kimfahner.com