Although I often introduce writers in this blog by telling readers where they come from, it seems particularly apt to do so with mixed race queer feminist poet Leah Horlick: she hails from Saskatoon, but is currently based in Vancouver. Horlick’s places are such an important detail to me because her poems in the recent collection Riot Lung above all else made me think about place: place in a conventional sense, when Horlick evokes specific spaces like the prairies, but also more figuratively: the people these poems are peppered with are geographies unto themselves. There’s something about the specificities of the folks in these poems that made them stand out to me like lands to be explored but never quite known.
Horlick excels at expressing both geographies of the people and the land variety. In the poem “Welcome to all tourists and sportsmen,” the speaker’s mother, “a maritimer, will shoot the next neighbour / who, for housewarming, tells her a waving wheat field / is like the ocean”; I know this ache for the ocean when you feel trapped and land-locked so well. The poem tells us: that place is not this place and it never will be. But in other poems, you get the sense that it’s possible to see some of where you call home in another’s home. Let me tell you about all these places, Horlick’s voice says; in fact, one of the poem titles is “let me tell you where i come from.” “where i come from” is a hard place to tell: “a place where the answer / is never long enough,” where “a cree girl couldn’t buy lysol / if her clean floors depended on it” and you know to never hitchhike wearing lipstick.
The human beings in these poems can be hard too, but there’s also love in their geographies, even if it’s often lost. In one of my favourite passages from the entire collection the speaker asks her lover: “if you were to die / and your body decayed into a thousand stars / could I be your sky?” In another poem, she asks: “what if love made me live here / on the land that made you?” Is a person like a town that you get stuck in? Are they a home you always keep coming back to? How much of where you come from makes who you are? When you lose a lover, do they become a place you can never go back to? How do we know who we are when we come from “towns too small / to name ourselves”?
In the collection’s title poem, “riot lung,” the boundaries between a person and their place become blurred:
in brooklyn i want your grit
on my face, your subway in my bones
to rattle and cement an ache under my feet
the city grown over me in streets that shimmer
with catcalls and clouds of heat hanging from my collar.
In Vancouver, street corners take on new meaning: “Corner of Broadway and 11th, the first / person to ever kiss me / in broad daylight.” Places feel like people: “the prairie and its razorbilled horizon” miss someone out sunbathing on the west coast’s Wreck Beach; or is it just the speaker who misses her lover?
There’s something just so damn beautiful about Horlick’s poems, even when they’re heartbreaking; perhaps that’s part of it, actually. They’re the kind of poems that make you remember that you’ve been missing poetry in your life. You can talk about trust and its importance for relationships all you want in prose, but you can never express what Horlick does in a short line of poetry when she speaks of “carrying trust like a bowl of honey inside me.” I loved, loved, loved this thin volume of poems, especially for reminding me, a tried-and-true fiction reader, of why I need to make room for poetry. There’s a possibility in poetry, in the empty spaces between lines: the possibility of places and people to visit, like the geographies of land and human described in Riot Lung. I just want to leave you
with one of my favourite poems in its entirety:
dizzy with art, i notice you
reading–a journal of frida kahlo’s
turning the pages so delicately
i wondered if you were afraid
to smudge the overripe blossoms
onto your fingers, and then
if you were to touch my face
again, or snatch my hand into yours
(charcoal under the nails
we’d both be a mess of secondhand colour,
red shawls, green hummingbirds
and maybe i’d feel
the way kahlo felt
about a woman
Leah Horlick is having a book launch for Riot Lung tomorrow (Saturday November 24th) in Vancouver at Rhizome Café. I’m super excited about a) this launch in general and all the rad literary queers who are going to be there, and b) because I’ve been wanting to check Rhizome for a while, having heard great things about the space and the kinds of awesome events they host there. Joining Horlick are two other queer poets, Adrienne Gruber (also from Saskatoon and Vancouver-based) and Megan Backer (from upstate New York); it promises to be a fantastic night of poetic queerness, queer poetry, and any and everything you might guess that comes with that. I’ll see you there!