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Review: Phoebe Wang’s Admission Requirements and Shane Rhodes’s Dead White Men deal with the legacy of colonization

Admission Requirements

McClelland & Stewart, 105 pages, $19.95

Dead White Men

Coach House Books, 128 pages, $18.95

Phoebe Wang’s Admission Requirements is a lyrical meditation on identity, migration, family and community. It examines invisible – and indivisible – connections and boundaries. Wang opens with a question: “Are we done at last/with the idea of breaking ground/now that every bit of terra nullius has been subdued?” Terra nullius is Latin for “nobody’s land” – an expression that informed international law and enabled occupation. This open challenge announces Wang’s incomparable voice and vision, as she proceeds to break new ground on every page.

Admission Requirements swells with bodies of water, longing across distances, the unpredictability of currents when swimming and the loaded menace of foreign species, as in Invasive Carp. In Night Ferry, Wang writes, “Like the deck of a Ouija board, the boat crawls” toward a city that is “burning its birthday candles.” There’s something necessarily unsettling about the relationship drawn between what’s ominous and what’s universal.

The book is lush with public gardens – manicured spaces with defined perimeters and visiting hours. In The Japanese Garden, she whispers conspiratorially, “If you’re still waiting/for your invitation, there’s another/way in.” These poems critique well-meaning gestures toward “multiculturalism” while advocating for reclamation of space.

Another motif in Admission Requirements is paperwork – the demand for documentation necessary to establish one’s legitimacy in a new land. Her poem Application Form is a black comedy about red tape. ID fields on a form spin out into anxious, tangential interrogation: “What name did you blurt in your sleep, the one/you never betrayed? What epithet couldn’t fly/past the watchtower[?]” Another challenge to one’s autonomy is hypervisibility: “I didn’t have to ask, Where are we from?/But I would have to answer it, again and again/Like someone on trial.”

While Wang looks at what it means to be a global citizen in today’s world, Shane Rhodes’s book travels back in time to examine the era of European explorers and scientists – those creators and beneficiaries of terra nullius. Rhodes approaches Dead White Men as historical poltergeists whose world view still haunts us, but perhaps doesn’t shock us enough with their ethos of: “My darling project/come to me with no other canopy than the sky!”

Rhodes is an experimental poet, incorporating assemblages of source texts, employing erasure and cut-ups. Poems in the book are “after” historical figures, making reference to the writings of James Cook, Jacques Cartier, Galileo, Mercator and scores of others. These techniques serve to interrogate official versions of history, to call into question assumed authority.

Like Wang’s, Rhodes’s book is split into two sections. His, however, has the sections inverted to each other, flipped on its axis. One side opens with the title poem, Dead White Men, an indictment of explorers who are “fixed to the horizon.” He compels the reader to “See their dead white faces in the crumpling map-scrolls of surf?/This is men, dormant in their element.”

The poem Imports into the Ports of London and Rochelle in 1743 is a list, leaving the scale of resource extraction to unfold without commentary. The poem Labrador examines what kind of culture made the slave trade possible: “The books by white men I have read/contain no record of the captives’ display/in the streets where, soon, a bored king/would loose a rhino upon an elephant/for sport[.]”

The flipside of the book features a long poem called Transit, about the 1769 measurement of the transit of Venus, an international collaborative project. Boats sailed to such disparate locations as Tahiti and Canada’s Arctic in order to make observations. As such, this section is an eclectic combination of languages, incorporating translated phrases from Tahitian and Lappish.

Both writers, in vastly different ways, are doing important work in dealing with the legacy of colonization. These ideas also go toward what it means to be a writer at all – to accept the responsibility inherent in witnessing and documenting the world.

A famous poet once wrote that it’s “difficult to get the news from poems,” but every now and then, certain books emerge that are as timely as they are beautiful. Admission Requirements and Dead White Men are two such books.

Stevie Howell’s first collection of poems, Sharps, was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.