The StarPhoenix Review - Wolf Tree

Reviewed by: Bill Robertson

Love poems for the land and its people

The StarPhoenix

June 2, 2007


Wolf Tree

Alison Calder

Coteau Books, 96 pages, $14.95

Alison Calder, raised in Saskatoon and now a professor of Canadian literature at the University of Manitoba, balances well in her life as an academic and all that she owes to it with her life as a poet of plain old, lived existence.  In her first collection of poetry, Wolf Tree, her intellect sparkles neatly on topics of scholarly interest and on matters very close to her heart.

In the book's first section, Sooterkin, she gives voice to the marginalized of conformist society.  Working from books of photographs of what we once cavalierly called circus freaks and of Civil War dead, Calder is true to post-colonial ideas.  These freaks and oddities are all there to assure members of the dominant society that they are just fine — after all, you're not a bearded lady, are you? — and that elephants and monkeys they have stolen from their natural habitat, just like the buffalo, passenger pigeon, and dodo before them, like to be shot or dressed up in clothes and made to smoke cigars.

 In the clever Speak, Taffy! / Taffy Speaks we hear from the little dog who thinks it's doing a fine job protecting its masters from all harm.  What is really wants to do, though, is have a proper voice in family discussions, not just be a yapping in the corner.  It even harbours dark designs: "Did I not love you quite so desperately/ I would kill you as you sleep." Sounds like the little fellow knows all about our complacency.

 In the section Gravity, Calder pays attention to the strong tug of mortality as it pulls down members of her family, and then in Wolseley, named for the area of Winnipeg in which she lives, examines her new life in a house, a neighbourhood, a marriage.  While in Gravity she writes of cancer and of sudden death, and in Wolseley she questions the morality of tidy houses and green lawns amidst homeless people and displaced wildlife, she is really writing love poems to her husband, coloured by grief and suffused with immense gratitude for where she has ended up and with whom.

 In the book's final section, Sexing the Prairie, Calder hits on the perfect marriage of the academic and the prairie poetic, of the funny and the serious.  In the four-page title poem, one that will make its way in to many Canadian literature courses, she tries to create a dialogue between male ambition and its building of the west  — "Grain elevators. Telephone poles. Church steeples. False fronts. What goes up, must go up. Get the picture?" — and a humorous and gentle female response: "This prairie was built on the principle of the grid, or rather, the square. Lemon squares, chocolate squares…." But the boys aren't coming into the kitchen. They will not have that "real good talk."

Wolf Tree is a book of love poems for the prairie and for her people and the hard learning they've done and still must do.

Reviewed by Bill Robertson for The StarPhoenix.

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