Poet riffs on intersections of humans, animals and machines

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February 24, 2013

The Flicker Tree: Okanagan Poems
By Nancy Holmes
Ronsdale Press, $15.95, 108 pages

Reviewed by Yvonne Blomer

The Flicker Tree’s poems praise the Okanagan’s living creatures, whether they be plants, birds, animals or humans. These poems note the see-er in the ecology of the poem and of the bird, the prickly pear, and the butterfly.

In the book’s opening poem, “Earth Star,” readers are placed in the wilderness where the human hand is ever-present, “Logged two or three times, the woods are grazed and thin,/ wrecked with beautiful litter: lichen-crusted/ branches, broken trees.” As I read, I couldn’t help but think of the poetic form the idyll and its overarching sense of paradise, its desire to praise the rural life. Nancy Holmes’s poems offer one caveat as part of that praise: they cannot ignore the human element, the spoiler in that idyll/ideal. This idyll-like stance holds in other poems, such as “Morning Dove,” “Swans in January” and in “Saskatoons,” where the natural world is imbued with the comparisons to the human–where “fat-ass fruit” is “piling up in the bank account” or in “Finch Feeder,” where the narrator is the dealer and the birds the drug users, “The junkies sit all day/ at the dangling syringe, shooting up black seed.”

Holmes’s use of simile from the human world, a kind of reversal from how poems usually find the wild in the human, continues in other poems.  In “Sagebrush Buttercup” for example, the buttercups are likened to buttons on a machine: “Let’s push these yellow buttons/ and start the spring.”

In the title poem “The Flicker Tree,” Holmes writes, “wracked by their own autumnal cries/ so piercing and sorrowful/ that when I hear them/ I too am candled/ by freshened embers of grief.” Holmes carries an awareness of the natural world as a place of worship in these lines where “candled” and “embers” recall the prayers and incense of other sanctuaries.

These poems reflect Wordsworth’s notions of “emotion recollected in tranquility,” but also convey  grief in what is offered by the window pane, the human observer, the machine. Hers not a poetry of the romantic because reflection reveals emotion centered on the loss inherent in environmental change. Holmes cannot observe the natural world and capture it in poems without also observing other impacts on that world, something Wordsworth did not face.

The first section of the book culminates in a long poem titled “Behr’s Hairstreak: Capture and Release.” This long poem focuses on the notions of “capture” and “release” so that these two things become riffs through the poem. Here, Holmes allows the poem to take leaps and trusts that the reader follows, such as, “bulrushes  brown and velvety/ like newborn foals.” A few lines later, “stiff upholstery/ like your grandmother’s chair/ let’s just stay here, stop moving,” followed by a calendar of things “I line up each day in neat rows (it starts like graph paper)/ inside me the moon waxes and/ withers like a growth (quadratic equation).” Science and poetry, scientist and poet also riff or merge in lines and images.

The other two sections in the book, on Okanagan’s places and people and on Woodhaven, “A Crisis of Place” include strong poems that did not capture me as powerfully. Some teeter too close to the political, leaning toward “message” which tends to bury magic or playfulness. That said, there are gorgeous lines: for instance, “the magpies write notes all over the mountain,” from “Giant’s Head Mountain Ghazal.”

Nancy Holmes is a spirited and wise guide to the Okanangan, its creatures and people, as well as the intersections thereof.


Yvonne Blomer is the Artistic Director of Planet Earth Poetry in Victoria, BC.  Her most recent book of poems is The Book of Places (Black Moss Press, 2012). Forcefield: 77 BC Women Poets (Mother Tongue Press, 2013) is forthcoming.


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