'From the Poplars' and beyond: A call for social justice

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Canadian poets raise the bar. Always.

British Columbia has a knack for harvesting poets focused on creating work that spends equal time in language experiments and social justice; these poets include Jeff Derksen, Nikki Reimer, Michael Turner and Daphne Marlatt.

The concept of 'activist poet' might not be a moniker that fits easily as a category in the expanding and always subjective world of Canadian poetry. However, those who touch on the spiritual and political in their poetry should be admired, regardless of possible labels that could be affixed to their creative approaches, because they raise the bar on social and environmental issues.

Though this doesn't guarantee the poetry will be taken more seriously -- a poem about Lady Gaga could insight empathy on any number of issues if executed properly -- or held in higher regard, it does offer another portal into issues that continue to thrash around in their contemporary struggle beyond the completion of reading the work.

This is where poet Cecily Nicholson comes in with her new book of poetry From the Poplars.

Nicholson puts Poplar Island, a small unpopulated island in the Fraser River in New Westminster, B.C, and a suburb of Vancouver, into a studious spotlight.

The former home of the Qayqayt, a people devastated by smallpox, the island is now owned by the British Columbia government, and over the years has primarily been used as a giant shipyard. Unoccupied for some time now, the revived (and displaced/homeless) Qayqayt First Nation has been working to regain control of the island as their traditional space. Qayqayt is the only such group registered in Canada without a land base.

In this, her second collection of poetry, the poet excavates and exclaims these spaces for her readers both nearby and nation-wide and brings a unique spotlight on New Westminister's growing history.

While the collection is described as a long poem, it uses elements of style that range from lyric poetry to language poetry to the prose poem format, and finally the epistolary form. It is in the epistolary form that Nicholson delivers an engaging "found" dialogue between her subject and the reader.

The minor recurrence of this form works as a call and answer, which takes place largely in late 1912 between the province's then premiere Sir Richard McBride and Mary Agnes Vianin, a woman from the Qayqayt First Nation, who seeks compensation for her land being used to build boats.

Lifting the words from a hundred years ago, found in archives and transported in the mix creates a singular voice and life brimming from the past. "There is no use me telling you all over again my troubles," Mary writes the premiere. "Please write me soon in care of Mr. Wm. Levine and oblige."

This personal tone adds a resounding layer of authenticity to the work. Pages later, the reader gains privilege into the conversation between John Lee, a business developer, and the premiere in regard to Mary's land being used and the trouble he has gone to ensure his activities on her land were legally sound.

By prying apart historical documents and blending them into the poem's bloodstream so to speak, Nicholson reinforces the emotional dregs the book is siphoning, much like, as she writes, "history that no one holds of interiors only imagined homeless encampment slats and garbage bags full of newspaper."

Or later on, when she writes: "live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing / live not knowing rather than having an answer that is wrong."

Attempting to write "for" the voiceless rather than "about" the voiceless subjects in her book, Nicholson's work must be admired for its large ambition and redemptive and sometimes tender offerings.

Nicholson, a New Westminster resident, who has been working as a social activist for many years, including organizations such as the Social Housing Alliance and the administrator of Gallery Gachet. In a 2011 interview with Jacket Magazine, Nicholson said "Poetry is ["not a luxury"] in part a stabilizer -- how to process brutality, brash capital injections,  perpetual loss and confusion."

These experiences seem to motivate the poet to levels of fraught realizations, compelling the poet to take note of her immediate surroundings, and to examine the deeper truths.

However one imagines surmising the style of the collection, its intent is to document and share historical striff and current gripes and attempts to resolve, at least partially, the undermining of New Westminister's sacred land.

From the Poplars is a compelling blend of poetic research, personal infusion and historical subjectivity while remaining urgent and insightful. It's a call to arms for environmental consciousness, and a text monument of loss and shame.

Former Toronto writer Nathaniel G. Moore now lives on Protection Island, B.C. with his partner and daughter and is the author of Let's Pretend We Never Met (Pedlar Press) and Savage 1986-2011. He is working on a new collection of short fiction called Jettison.

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