The Essential Anne Wilkinson selected by Ingrid Ruthig is a new edition of Anne Wilkinson’s poetry published by Porcupine’s Quill as the eleventh title in their Essential Poets Series. It includes poems from Wilkinson’s two published books of poetry, Counterpoint to Sleep and The Hangman Ties the Holly, as well as from her unpublished manuscript, Heresies and Other Poems, and from her copy-books.

Wilkinson’s poetry reads as an address from poet to reader, most obviously in her frequent use of the first person, where she literally speaks as an “I” to an audience that she sometimes specifies (as in “Letter to My Children”) but most often leaves unnamed as the implied reader. This effect is reinforced by a conversational quality to her verse that is rarely informal but that nevertheless creates an intimacy in the space of the poem. For example, in “After Reading Kafka” she writes,

Here at my door I swing between obsessions:
Hall by day, corridor by night.
I am obsessed with exits, bound
to qualify the latitude of light.

This passage is almost confessional, confiding obsessions to the reader, offering an invitation into the experience of the poet, and this sense that the poem opens the poet to the reader runs throughout the collection.

Wilkinson’s poetry is also technically strong, especially in her command of pace and rhythm, sometimes playing with formal metres, sometimes including them sporadically to highlight otherwise free verse, and sometimes discarding them altogether, but always arriving at the cadence most appropriate to her subject. Her capacity to play with rhythm for effect is remarkable, as when she says,

We shut our eyes and turned once round
And were up borne by our down fall.
Such life was in us on the ground
That while we moved, earth ceased to roll,
And oceans lagged, and all the flames
Except our fire, and we were lost
In province that no settler names.

In this section she positions “up borne” and “down fall” in the second line so that both words in each phrase must be accented, though the rest of the passage keeps a fairly regular iambic rhythm, a wonderful rhythmic tension that the rest of the stanza goes on to resolve.

The strength of the collection is in the combination of these qualities, in the interplay between its intimate voice and its careful technique, and it rewards a reading that it attentive to both these elements as well. It is a strong addition to the Essential Poets Series and should serve to raise the profile of a Canadian poet who is still too often neglected.

I found this in my notebook. I don’t remember writing it, but it’s in my handwriting, ad it sounds like the crap I write, so I assume it’s mine.


The open stairs coil to the upper floor
and to a lamp hung bright with the promise
of something higher still, some further-up
and further-on that might be reached, surely,
if the spiraled stairs could be followed past
their visible end, out along the steps
that will appear, each as they are needed,
one following the next, til they have pierced
the husk of the building and found themselves
become endless flights, urged ever further
by the light of lamps and by the windows
hanging on air, all stretching who knows where,
urging the stairs into infinity.

I want to go creeping about the edges of the world, the places that history has never remembered and so can’t possibly forget, neither ugly nor beautiful enough for anyone to recall them, but I would run them through my hands like smooth pebbles, let them cling to the roof of my mouth, drift in them half-submerged, and I would remember them, as the universe remembers, each moment worthy of eternity.

They are both of them looking in my direction, watching from their table, watching me write, and then one says, “Excuse me, are you a writer?” and I say, “Yes,” though what we mean by the word is probably too different to reconcile, and the other one says, “The writer’s life! What’s it like?” and I say, “It’s like yours, just a different table in the same cafe,” but she looks hurt, and so I tell her, “Don’t worry, you can try my seat when I’m done with it.”

The unreasonable complexity of every moral question should never obscure the fact that we know there is good and evil. Every moral act, and therefore every act, is morally ambiguous, but this ambiguity appears only within the moral certainty that goodness is good and evil is not. Moral ambiguity does not imply a lack of good and evil. It implies that choosing the good over the evil must always be without certainty or guarantee. It also implies that this choice always remains to be made.

One of my constant intellectual and spiritual obsessions is the impossibility of a world that is nevertheless obviously possible, often in the most banal and ridiculous ways. This poem speaks to this obsession.


The mystery of things peels like paint,
clings to the bottom of teacups,
makes vapour trails of the clear sky
and veined deltas of river mouths,
sifts sand, flings ash, cracks porcelain,
drives worlds with lazy, reckless speed
in star-circles, lets fingers feel
the water’s tain as passing time.

I don’t get many chances to spend quiet Saturday mornings anymore, so when I do, they’re worth a poem.


This is the taste of espresso
in a mostly empty room, slow,
and the day improvised through half-
closed shadows and decades-old
radio chatter, cut with cold
bites of sound and the hiss of steam.


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