1871 ‘Heralding the future’
By Dale Tracy
Vancouver, BC: Anvil Press, 2022
$18.00 / 9781772141986
Reviewed by Harold Rhenisch
If you’ve been looking for a new book of poems that bends reality, your search is over. Derelict Bicycles is a perspective-bending book. Sometimes it’s like looking at consciousness inside out, such as in “Stomach End of the Tongue,” which begins with “I ate my own shadow,” and ends in a doubled world: “Finally, I catch a corner emerging from my mouth / and pull it to the ground. / I stand on it.”
If you’ve been looking for poetry aware that it’s sitting in a coffee shop watching you watching it watching you, Derelict Bicycles is a first choice. It is aware of every line laid down in it and delights in playing with their intentions and the ghosts of those intentions, and even out-running them. Or is that Dale Tracy doing that by heralding the future? Well, have a look:
We fly the songbirds in from accounting school to herald dawn:
day’s coming, they say. They don’t check, but count on future
occurring now, always.
If you are looking for poems that use words precisely to send twentieth-century existential philosophy off to the junked bicycle shop, Tracy shows you how to clear these old phenomenologists out of your life with a philosophy linking the sharp edge of wit back to the origins of life itself, with verve.” One stands apart,” she writes in “Recurring,” “reciting a word: perception.” Then she takes her voice and mind apart like a derelict bicycle: “I do what I’m asked: I walk into a circular saw, so to speak. I truly behave, so the saw doesn’t kick at all but brings me close with its teeth.” This close association of disassociation, dismemberment, and distance with searing closeness is wide awake.
In “Tracks on the Ocean Floor” look at Tracy wrestle Martin Heidegger’s perception that we exist because we are aware of the world into a box with Schrödinger’s Cat and leave him there out of breath:
The bubbles hide
what swimming up kicks up.
It’s time to breathe—the bubbles prove
that someone is breathing.
Instead of perception or breath, a herald of them somewhere, somehow.
Tracy has more tricks than that, too. Look at her walk right out of Fortress Canada somewhere in the map that is Margaret Atwood’s definitive book of literature in Canada, Survival. In Atwood’s fort, Canada is a series of stockades, around which there is a hostile wilderness. Tracy just walks through the walls: “The flower-of-an-hour is the one that gains ground, the ground that holds it,” she writes in “Transposable,” neatly severing being from connection without preventing them from carrying life together.
Every line in this book is a derelict bicycle like that. That’s to say that every line was pretty useful for getting around on once but was left behind and just became a problem that had to be carted away. Sort of. The carting doesn’t remove them. They linger on in Tracy’s thoughts, and ours. Fancy dances over them. Look at the delight in them, even in the book’s closing sentiments (in “Where Ends the Keratin Sheath?”) about the protective structure for a new feather:
Art keeps our minds
less exactly than our brains’ fire.
But it glints. I keep spitting it out.
The tongue, art and words, as feathers, always flying, always being made new. Things might get carted off here, but they pile up.
The derelict bicycle refers to a program at an institution Tracy once worked at, that packed up all its derelict bicycles one day and vanished the lot, causing her to meditate on the changing nature of usefulness. One day, those bikes got people somewhere, but they didn’t prove adequate for getting them away again. Instead, they became something other than bikes and useful only as something to be removed and contemplated in removal. This cutting away and regeneration is at the heart of Derelict Bicycles, and at the heart of its delight, such as in the playfulness of a kind of self portrait here in “Replete”:
A fish stands on its hind fins.
It splashes water at the sink’s mirror.
375 million years of evolution in two lines. Now, that’s concision.
In Tracy’s words, ”The derelict bicycle struck me as symbolic somehow of institutional breakdown—something rundown that’s meant to travel onward. The bureaucratic mechanisms struck me too—these ruined bicycles should be getting people somewhere, but instead someone had to compose an email about them so that someone else could collect them all and bring them somewhere for someone else to deal with somehow.” Tracy doesn’t claim ownership of solutions. Instead, in “Recurring,” she writes, “I whistle into clever space.” Note that this is not empty space. Instead, Tracy observes in “Frame for Shaping,”
I recoil, a soft human folded in a shell.
Fitting this world’s cavity, I stop.
This improvised “somehow,” its balance between stopping and beginning, is integral to the book as it explores notions of negation, of making things go away, so deeply that it becomes the delight of life itself. As Tracy writes, the “way poems work—with their patterned, looping, recursive, intuitive structures that can be both idiosyncratic and built from inherited conventions—helps me think.” Me, too.
Derelict Bicycles is a superb debut, as a book of surreal poems, as a work of scholarship, as a personal testament, as a series of deep and delightful meditations, and as a cutting-edge work of philosophy. Only very occasionally does Tracy take a small mis-step, emphasizing plot over reinvention, making these small moments into instances of thought instead of joint thinking-through.
To be one of her readers is a deep honour. It’s life-affirming to meditate on the words along with her. “The poems record my thinking across several years,” she writes. “I guess I haven’t finished answering the questions that these poems ask, since they keep asking them.” Reading them, I find myself asking them as well, and delighting in the paths Tracy follows through them, in her world, where—in “Échappatoire”—she looks at
ink as a circle
for getting away,
with whatever we want.
Harold Rhenisch has written some thirty books from the Southern Interior since 1974. He won the George Ryga Prize for The Wolves at Evelyn (Brindle & Glass, 2006), a memoir of German immigrant life from the Similkameen to the Bulkley valleys. His other grasslands books are Tom Thompson’s Shack (New Star, 1999) and Out of the Interior (Ronsdale, 1993). He lived for fifteen years in the South Cariboo and has worked closely with the photographer Chris Harris on Spirit in the Grass (2008), Motherstone (2010), and Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2016), as well as on The Bowron Lakes (2006), all published by Country Lights; and he writes the blog Okanagan-Okanogan. He is working on Commonage, a history of the Okanagan region, highlighting the American history of Father Charles Pandosy and situating the roots of the Commonage land claim in the North Okanagan in American colonial practice in Old Oregon. Editor’s note: Harold Rhenisch has recently reviewed books by Dominique Bernier-Cormier, Selina Boan, Joseph Dandurand, Délani Valin, Robert Bringhurst, Rayya Liebich, Sarah de Leeuw, Roger Farr, Stephan Torre, Don Gayton, and Calvin White for The British Columbia Review. His book Landings (Burton House, 2021) was reviewed by Luanne Armstrong; The Tree Whisperer (Gaspereau, 2021) was reviewed by Adrienne Fitzpatrick. Harold lives in Vernon.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster