At ‘the edge of cataclysm,’ poetry

by Matt Rader

Madeira Park: Nightwood Editions, 2024
$19.95 / 9780889714663

Reviewed by Marguerite Pigeon


How does poetry respond to forms of dissonance that threaten to fracture our experience? In Matt Rader’s new collection, Fine, poems are flexible devices we can use to take the measure of growing discord.

Fine treats Rader’s recent life in BC’s interior, including through 2021’s heat dome, forest fires, and atmospheric rivers. The poems approach these historic ecological breaches alongside other critical alterations at the personal level, through divorce and illness, and in culture, through technological saturation.   

A Kelowna resident, Rader (Desecrations) closely observes his immediate surroundings as they blend multiple levels of disaccord and re-accord: bodily, social, and environmental. A beach day with the poet’s reconfigured family on a lake in the Okanagan is joyous, but begins early to avoid dangerous heat. Wild rye poking through snow might be a disappearing form of seasonal beauty. A freight train passing near a lover’s apartment creates a moody soundscape, but might be stealing away with precious natural resources. 

Rader’s swift, spare poems explore such experiences of fracture as they occur alongside pleasure and appreciation. In putting together pain, loss, and good feeling, the poems articulate a human capacity for gear shifting amidst dissonance—however imperfect.

Just acknowledging these shifts, and the malleability of our view of the world, Rader suggests, is worth striving for, as in the poem “Blue-Eyed Mary,” written during a smoke event:

Days when the only ethic
is clarity. To know
where you are
under a titanium sky. To say I hurt
people I love

Real clarity is hard to come by. Swamped by choking smoke or self-justification, it’s likely impossible. Rader’s work places a priority on our efforts to squint, reflexively, towards a clearer view of our actions, the natural world, and our evolving inner lives. In this way, Rader rediscovers himself, as in “Selfie”:

I was raised on an island
at the western shore of an industrialized nation
in the last decades
of the twentieth century
I can go there even now
through a trapdoor
in the mirror
of my memory
a font of plovers
texting themselves across low water
the tideline refreshing itself continuously
pure impulse
pure signal
I was white in a midden of white things
I was myself finally just as a self was something
we might cease to be

At the edge of cataclysm, then, poetry makes use of what’s at hand as tools for lucidity; through it we might know ourselves better, mourn what’s lost, notice feelings, and observe what we can mend.

One poetic approach Rader tests is to repurpose the ever-present language of the techno-world. Rader imports terms like “autocorrect,” “pixel,” and “double spacing” into both personal and ecological experience, suggesting these have already become entwined with thinking. In his hands, this lexicon becomes oddly beautiful, augmenting the poet’s earnest desire to represent and express.

In “Doxa,” Rader exposes a natural meadow by documenting it and, presumably, putting it online for public consumption. The poem’s title plays on both the dogma of “sharing” culture, which insists there is a duty to put life on display, and “doxing,” which, in online parlance, means making someone else’s private business public. Rader evaluates his own approach to the meadow, aware that he’s acted on a belief in the continuity between virtual and organic realities. Immediately, he rues this thinking:

Reality is always virtual
I thought, looking beyond the screen
at the meadow
this is not mine but is a made place. A voice in the mind
connected the pixels on the screen
to the pixels of snow
only one of which was a perfect illusion

In this way, Rader blurs subjectivity, image, and natural phenomena. But he also surprises himself: his urge to record has exposed a presumption that technology’s figurations (or, indeed, those of writing) are a correlate of what is. Instead, he discovers, technological modalities are poor mimics of the natural world’s temporal complexity—a tense that cannot be captured in language. The natural world expresses an intelligence that precedes and works through us. Later in the poem, Rader playfully owns his hubris – “Lightform, winterseed, everlasting omen of what is // forgive me”–suggesting that, after all, even poetry can only go so far.

Matt Rader (photo: Maria Alexopoulos)

Fine marks another significant contribution for Rader, who has published five other collections, as well as short fiction. In his last collection, Ghosthawk, Rader grounded an exploration of desire, illness, and transcendence in close attention to local plant life. His recent book of non-fiction, Visual Inspection, was based on a research creation project in which Rader and two artist-collaborators (Jordan Scott and Carmen Papalia) walked with a group through Kelowna with eyes closed, documenting inner and outer sensory attunements while challenging ideas of a “normal body.” 

That book opens with a distinction Rader makes between pain and suffering. Pain is bodily, he argues, while suffering is “to refuse clarity,” to insist that things should be different. Fine represents another step along the lines of thinking Rader mapped in both those works. Here, the poet seems to urge us to turn away from suffering and towards the form of clarity that arises by witnessing our local place, however painful it is.

Whether we can bear this effort is unclear, but to read Fine is to witness a poet who’s trying. Rader’s light touch refuses panic, evasion, or worse, apology, for the environmental or personal damage humans wreak. Instead, Fine makes the case for earnest, if incomplete, poetic attention in a time of disharmonious change. 


Marguerite Pigeon

Marguerite Pigeon writes poetry, fiction, and reviews. Her latest publication, a book-length poem called The Endless Garment (Wolsak & Wynn), was named to The Globe and Mails Top 100 books list for 2021. Originally from Northern Ontario, she lives in Vancouver, where she runs a small editing and writing business, Carrier Communications. [Editors note: Marguerite Pigeon’s The Endless Garment is reviewed here by Heidi Greco. Pigeon has reviewed poetry by Joy Kogawa, Chris Banks, Nicholas Bradley, Cecily Nicholson and Arleen Paré in BCR.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online 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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This