1037 Lee’s listopian reading

The Shadow List
by Jen Sookfong Lee

Hamilton, ON: Wolsak & Wynn (Buckrider Books), 2021
$18.00 / 9781989496282

Reviewed by Michael Turner


A condition common to all the arts concerns how practitioners identify with their work. Consider visual artists who prefer to be introduced as landscape painters, or musicians who announce themselves as rock guitarists. Writing is no different. If anything, it might be more polarized. I have participated in enough writers’ festivals to note the condescension of the novelist towards the poet, just as I have witnessed the vituperations of the poet directed at the fleeing novelist. That I have been all these writers is beside the point: categories persist, and as long as retail upholds genre as a book shopping “convenience,” readers and writers will suffer its expectations, as well as its limitations.

Much has been made of the writer’s migration from one genre to another. In that contested mythos we call Canadian Literature (and all its CanLit barricades), Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje arrived first as poets before making their mark as novelists. That this is discussed as a CanLit rite of passage (recall Flaubert’s recommendation that writers begin with a “pastoral” before taking on an “epic”) assumes a linear progression — that poetry, like our teenage years, is a phase, and that novels are more important because that’s how grown-ups earn a living. Though Atwood and Ondaatje continue to publish work in both genres, the division blurs when one considers the lyric poétique in Ondaatje’s novels and the declarative equivalent in Atwood’s.

Burnaby writer Jen Sookfong Lee. Photo by Ian Stewart

Jen Sookfong Lee works in a range of writing and publishing activities common to today’s professional writer. Fiction (novels), non-fiction, editing, broad- and podcast journalism, social media (Twitter), event programming. That she should now be publishing a first book of poems seems more an inevitability — the result of an enquiring mind eager to explore new forms — than something to question, as a blurb on her back jacket asks portentously: “But what happens when a novelist writes a debut poetry collection?” Well, allow me to talk about what happens when a reader reads it.

The Shadow List is divided into three parts, with an “Introduction.” This structure is reminiscent of Irish community theatre, where the three-act play is humbly yet humorously introduced by its carpenter who, after setting the stage materially, sets the room at ease with opening night homilies that encourage audiences to leave behind whatever antagonisms they might have towards their actor-neighbours for the sake of the play, its story and its language. In music, this function is formalized as an Overture designed by the work’s composer to introduce the sonic and emotional motifs a listener can expect throughout the course of the opera. The Shadow List is similar, for in its “Introduction” it tells its “you” — and its reader — what they will “need to understand.” That it does so using words like “blame,” “insult,” “never,” “love” and “dead” in each of its first five lines, respectively, contributes to the terms by which the reader is to experience its book.

The eight poem segments that comprise the “Introduction” (none more than a half-page) appear in an alternating left-margin/ right-margin pattern, with the former “shout[ing] … through the open windows” a list (the Shadow List?) of knowns (“This is what you’ll need to understand”) and the latter an eddy of resignation and Beckettian despair (“So you will always try. There is no alternative, is there?”). The final page marks a break in the pattern (the “alternative”?): “Tread softly, your friends say. Be quiet,” which the narrator laughs off, and later “Writers are supposed to be introverts,” which the narrator laughs off “even harder.” After a break, the “Introduction” concludes with a three-line stanza that could serve as the book’s summary:

The hurt will fuck you up
But you will appear fine and this,
Above of all, is your gift.

By now it is clear that the narrator and the “you” to which the narrative voice refers are one and the same — the confessor and its penitent’s shadow embodying a single, frustrated subject. The first poem in Part One is another list, this one numbered. “Rider” riffs on the requirements promoters are contractually obliged to supply performing artists, except in this instance the list is not technical equipment, booze or food but the makings of a night out (and back), beginning with “1. Fake leather pants” and near the end “8. Coffee in the morning” and “9. If possible, sex in the morning.”

Less inventive, though no less edifying, is the eleven-quatrain poem that follows. “Infestation” is the domestic counterpoint to “Rider”’s out-on-the-town ideal. As the narrator seeks out the source of her moth problem (it is appropriate that we don’t know they’re moths until halfway through the poem), she tours us through the rooms of her home, her closet and clothes, the food she eats, her neighbours next door (“The elderly Chinese couple … it must be them”), how these moths “know you read at night. / They know you are alone.”

As Part One proceeds, a middle-aged single-parent mother of a son and the daughter of a mother emerge. The narrator continues with her lists (“A Scientific Treatise”), the cold outside and its bundled up loneliness (“your version of Lent, virtue via numbness”), a review of past breakups (“During sex, he said he loved you/ You pretended not to hear him”), the device that’s her lifeline (“Text Etiquette”) and a well-placed pastoral intermezzo (“Community Garden”). The section concludes with a right-margin long poem: “Playlist.” Dedicated to X Factor discovery Harry Styles, the narrator recounts a dream where Styles “is singing to you, mournfully, // and you think he might kiss you, notes and tongue/ in your mouth simultaneously.” What threatens to congeal into a baroque Lynn Crosbiesque poem veers off into semi-consciousness brevity:

You sit up. The speakers in your house
have come on in the middle of the night
and are playing sad Cyndi Lauper

The narrator wonders if Styles was outside her house (“close enough to connect with your WiFi”) and we sense she doesn’t mind the uncertainty. Without trying, she’s funny (“He installed a dimmer/ for your dining room light”), but there is, as always, the hurt (“you crawled away, crying, he ignored your texts”), the loneliness (“over and over again. You wait”) and, like the list that structures “Rider,” the eponymous poem that bookends it, a dream that keeps on giving (“He never yelled. As if that made a difference.”)

Jen Sookfong Lee

The poems in Part Two are, by comparison, longer, longer-lined and more contemplative, observant of the passage of time (“Muddy, thick hours spent listening to the night pass”), its animals (a racoon, a chickadee, crows, seagulls, a cat) and a man she takes to bed, in whose poems she appears (“a sliver of your body in the middle of a line”), and another man who appears in hers (“with this man, she emerges, / hungry and mad for air”). She reflects on past homes, gardens, a marriage that ran its course, taking stock of the city’s geography — if only, like Ethel Wilson’s Maggie Vardoe, to more easily escape it. In “Wishes” we learn of the “shadow list, one saved/ in your head where its grime is obscured by work,” though by now we have sensed its ongoing presence. Still, and in the spirit of true confession, it needs to be stated, along with list items that some might find anti-social, if not objectionable: “You want a dog that hates everyone but you.” But this line, too, is offered gently, and it is here that the reader feels trusted.

Part Three retains the honest calmness of Two, with the narrator’s presence more in focus than the lonely nighttime self who haunts the previous sections. Contributing to this focus is her appearance in relation to those close to her, such as her son (“Detritus”), a visit with another mother (“Chiaroscuro”), an ailing friend (“This Is How You Answer Her”) and, supernaturally, a long-dead grandmother (“Stigmata”). A further sharpening, as it were, might also stem from what is chronicled in the ominously titled “Subtext,” the abuse the narrator suffers at the hands of “your mother [who] tied/ you to a chair with baker’s twine,” an incident the then-seven-year-old writer writes about — and reads aloud — at school the following day: “a little girl who overpowers a witch/ and bakes her unconscious, wart-covered body.” Yet it is also a witch who leads off the book-ending, right-margined long poem “Stigmata,” as evidenced by the mark the narrator bears on her palm, “when you were thrown into a winter-cold river.” Once revived and returned to the present, her grandmother’s ghost foretells her future. After asking “where can I find this man?” the grandmother (or is it the narrator?) says, “You’re the witch. You tell me.”

The Shadow List is a work of confessional poetry. This is not a last word assessment but a sub-generic identification that, like all poetry being published today, is deserving of an elaboration few have time for (as Boris Groys says of our contemporary global culture, “Everyone writes, nobody reads”). That this collection was written by a narrative writer (and fiction editor) late to book-length poetry is consistent with someone who bears that mark, who is more comfortable with grammatical sentences than the run of fragments or dependent clauses that lyric poets (and their readers) revel in. These are stylistic, apples-and-oranges differences that exist above any form of judgement other than that of personal taste, but they are operative insofar as style can serve a work of poetry in the same way chance operations determined the music of John Cage or silhouettes “colour” the murals of Kara Walker.

In an earlier Ormsby review I alluded to how the confessional open field lyric poems of Sachiko Murakami’s Render (2020) mirror the interior mayhem of her subject. The Shadow List doesn’t do that, nor is it interested in that form of representation. Instead, the interiority informing The Shadow List is mediated correctly and rhythmically using the grammatical rules of standard English and is thus therapeutically dealt with and presented as information — ironed, folded and neatly shelved. These narratives, to quote an anchoring sentiment from a segment of Lee’s first right-margin (left-brained?) “Introduction,” “make sentence-by-sentence sense.” To quote from its corresponding left-margin page: “The laundry doesn’t fold itself” (it is folded by its writer). To my mind, both methods are sufficient when it comes to Art and Life.


Michael Turner, photo by Brian Jungen

Michael Turner is a writer of variegated ancestry (Scottish/ German/ Irish, mat.; English/ Japanese/ Russian, pat.) born, raised and living on unceded Coast Salish territory. He works in narrative and lyric forms, both singularly, as a writer of fiction (American Whiskey Bar, The Pornographer’s Poem8×10), poetry (Hard Core LogoKingsway9×11), criticism and music, and collaboratively, with artists such as Stan Douglas (screenplays), Geoffrey Farmer (public art installations) and Fishbone, Dream Warriors, Kinnie Starr and Andrea Young (songs). His work has been described as intertextual, with an emphasis on “a detailed and purposeful examination of ordinary things” (Wikipedia). He holds a BA (Anthropology) from UVic and an MFA (Interdisciplinary Studies) from UBC Okanagan. Currently he is an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Graduate Studies, Ontario College of Art & Design University and a workshop leader at Mobil Art School, Vancouver. Editor’s note: Michael Turner has also reviewed books by Isabella Wang and Sachiko Murakami for The Ormsby Review.


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