I count Shani Mootoo as one of Canada’s most gifted writers, her first novel Cereus Blooms at Night being one of the first queer books I read after coming out and still one of my favourite books of all time. So I was interested to learn a while back that she had published an early collection of poetry. If I remember correctly, actually, I found my copy of The Predicament of Or in the discount section of Little Sister’s, Vancouver’s queer bookstore. The poems in this collection are often about identity, desire, and place; about immigration and colonization; about feeling neither here nor there; about life’s small moments of beauty and revelation; about the words women and queer folks use to describe themselves.
Unfortunately I liked, but didn’t love, The Predicament of Or. Likely my expectations of this book were a little too high, given that it represents really early work of Mootoo’s. In fact, it seemed like as the collection went on and the poems got older I liked it less, which is probably a testament to Mootoo’s growth as an artist. So I’m gonna talk about some of the poems that I loved, which were the ones in the beginning of the book, and her most recent.
One of my favourites was the one of the first sets of poems in the book, actually. In a series called “Beach Compositions,” Mootoo attempts to capture the ephemeral beauty but also the harsh reality of, well, the beach—in stark contrast to the exoticization tourist industries make of beaches the world over. In the third “Beach Composition,” she writes:
There was a camera, too—
in my hand and loaded—
but I could not bring myself to use it
for fear of what I would make:
romancing the crumbling
The good thing about pen
the plan to ensnare and remember
is a true, a final,
a most perfect forgetting.
The title poem of the first section was probably my favourite: “The Way You Bounce Off a Pane of Glass.” I’ll just show you it in its entirety and you can see what you make of it:
you talk of futures
etch your name
in vain with mangrove quill
you claim name-length portions of sand
coconut tree come all the way,
from the western shores
today is today, you say,
just as the sea crawls up the sand,
washes your name away
moments used to be few
and far apart
now they line up
a stream of dots, islands,
vivid as sunlight reflected in glass
Or maybe I change my mind, and this, the short, first part of a series of poems that give this collection its name was my favourite:
It is remarkable
how I am with you
how you are with me
There are a few breath-taking moments in this collection; I’ve highlighted which ones those were for me, but maybe those moments might be different for you, if you decide to pick up The Predicament of Or.