KR Reviews

New Worlds Forever Measured by the Old: On Burning Province by Michael Prior

Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2020. 80 pages. $16.95.

In 2018, Kayla Isomura debuted The Suitcase Project at the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby, British Columbia. An art installation that focuses on the Japanese Canadian internment during the Second World War, Isomura’s exhibit consists of luggage packed by descendants of those incarcerated during the 1940s and is a poignant physical manifestation of how Japanese Canadians were stripped of their jobs, property, and rights before becoming prisoners in their own country. At the time, adults who were held captive were allowed only 150 pounds of baggage. The Suitcase Project invites observers to contemplate what they would pack if they found themselves in a similar situation.

British Columbia-born poet Michael Prior has written about the internment extensively, first touching on his maternal grandparents’ experiences in his poetic debut, Model Disciple (Signal Editions, 2016). His new book, Burning Province, is an even more focused meditation on family history, inheritance, and the racist legacy of Canada’s wartime measures, and begins with an ekphrastic poem based on The Suitcase Project. Titled “A Hundred and Fifty Pounds,” the poem sets the tone for the book, with Prior channelling internment camp survivors when he writes:

I was given forty-eight hours’ notice, twenty-four.
I passed ice and pines and plains.
I rode an iron serpent

into the Interior
beside four hundred others.
It was humid. It was cold.

If pain is remembered
to be dismissed. If fear still seeds
its rotting forest. This

is a gardener’s trowel, a blue skein of yarn,
a violin, a ukulele, a ukulele, a ukulele.
This is a porch light

flicked on and off in abscessed night.
These are pear blossoms falling
on the driveway like footprints in black ice.

Characteristic of Prior’s razor-wire diction, this passage is urgent while also grounded in the everyday. Collapsing time (forty-eight hours’ notice, twenty four), the poet captures the fear of those who were dragged to camps without more than a few days’ warning, and uses his facility with metaphor to describe the train as an “iron serpent” burrowing into British Columbia’s interior. After the exigency of the italicized lines quoted above, Prior brings the reader back to a kind of normalcy by naming common objects (a gardener’s trowel, a skein of yarn, several ukuleles) that prisoners would have brought with them from their former homes. A comment on the commonplace nature of evil, this return to mundane detail is a strategy borrowed from The Suitcase Project, and encapsulates the project’s mission by contrasting government-enforced incarceration with the comforts of peacetime. By the end of the poem, when Prior writes “What matters is not what you bring, / but what you keep” in reference to life in the internment camps, he clarifies that the trauma of the survivors, and not the named objects, is what lingers long after the conclusion of the war.

Though “A Hundred and Fifty Pounds” is an overt treatise on state-sanctioned racism, most of the poems in Burning Province approach the subject less directly, often conflating time and place. Take the finest poem in the collection, “My Father’s Birthday is the Day Before Mine,” a masterclass in metaphor where Prior flashes lines like “Acne’s red wing flames my face” and “The fireflies are sunset’s ash.” Emotionally charged while also skilfully balancing an intergenerational narrative, the poem nods to Canada’s history of xenophobia when Prior writes “I can’t take back / this skin.” In Prior’s British Columbia, this sentiment sits alongside the poem’s fireflies and sunflowers as a disturbingly representative experience.

Then, there’s “Pastoral,” which illustrates Prior’s ability to create sudden emotional revelations. A sonnet that embodies its title (particularly in the octave), the poem strikes a careful balance between rural scenery and the consequences of human interference in the natural world. Prior hints at the latter when he writes of seeing his “mixed face / split then doubled” in a “funhouse pane” before concluding:

            South, starlings rustle through the cedars:
brought by a man who spent his life importing
every bird in Shakespeare. New worlds
forever measured by the Old. For every measure,
an equal and opposite erasure. How, over the fire,
the family friend said, Jap, not Japanese.

From starlings, to Shakespeare, to a campfire where a family friend spits a racial epithet, the poem’s rapid-fire associative movement is powerfully specific. The poem’s knockout blow doesn’t resonate in spite of its bucolic setting but because of it—Prior effectively builds a false sense of security for his readers before demonstrating the way intolerance can worm into a heretofore safe space.

If there’s one aspect of Burning Province that stands out in today’s literary climate, it’s the collection’s formal edge. Whether boasting a refashioned triolet (“New Year”), rhyming couplets (“Whether”), or bravura use of anaphora (“In Cloud Country”), the book is brimming with technical dexterity. Moreover, Prior’s wide-ranging poetic toolkit allows him to confidently broach difficult subject matter without sacrificing complexity or complicity. “I saw my imagined nation nest in yours,” he writes in “Poem After the Gift of an Ammonite,” acknowledging the challenge of writing for a readership comprised of individuals from different countries and cultural backgrounds.

Prior’s meticulous attention to detail means that his primary strength can also be a weakness. Some poems in Burning Province are overdeveloped to the point that their lines struggle to breathe (“Self-Portrait as a Portrait of My Grandfather, December 8, 1941”). But most often, this remains a secondary complaint, particularly for those who enjoy the kind of poetic craft on display in pieces like “Theseus’s Ship” and “Wakeful Things.” Moreover, Burning Province proves itself to be the type of book that teaches readers how to parse it as they move through its complex web of allusions and images. When Prior ends “Whether” with a “burning city” that links to the next poem “Province,” to approximate the title of the book, he exhibits a deftness that makes him stand out among his peers and establishes him as a poet for whom the particular is paramount.