Poetry springs from everyday life in East Vancouver

By Bren Simmers
Nightwood Editions
96 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Cole Mash

East Vancouver, like the rest of the capitalist world, is an area in a state of constant decay and repair. Parking lots are paved for the condos beside them, followed by people and their cars to fill those parking lots. Hastings- Sunrise, the second collection of poetry from Bren Simmers, gives us one full year of the everyday in the growing and crumbling neighbourhood of East Vancouver, a place Simmers once called home. She has previously published one book of poetry, Night Gears (Wolsak and Wynn, 2010) and won the 2006 Arc Poetry Magazine Poem of the Year Award. Though she muses on Vancouver, like so many Canadian poets before her, Simmers resides in the more rural Squamish, B.C.

Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle states that one cannot measure an object’s speed and position at the same time. A moving object cannot have a fixed position. Simmers recognizes the fluidity of the urban place and proves the exception to this principle. Distilling East Vancouver into letters, Simmers gives us a concrete world that, while fixed on a map, is in constant motion. The book moves through the year beginning in March, and each section is marked with dates alerting the reader to the season, each date accompanied by a beautifully packed sentence (moment): “Petals strung like popcorn/March 21.” Sunrise runs, crosses crosswalks and changes lanes, but it rarely sits. The book cultivates this velocity through rapid imagery describing the amassing and oscillating stimuli of a growing city, “Hong Kong Bakery, Pies 2 for $7, Keys Cut Here.” In this quotation from the unnamed first poem we have a number of signs which move the reader down the street, each sign and location packed with a narrative of their own in only one sentence.

Simmers maps the city carefully, appealing to all of our senses with crisp vignettes and a diversity of form and language. “What’ll it be today, Henry,” a barista asks among the roar of steaming espresso machines and the smell of chai and Scrabble. Most of the poems are titleless, which allows every poem to be about the time spent between two sunrises on Hastings. Many of the poems appear to sprawl across the page in a formless free-verse structure, but the enjambment of sound and step propel the reader forward over each crack in the sidewalk that Simmers brings to life. There are visual poems in the form of maps, like the table of contents which represents the streets of east Vancouver, though “not to scale” as Simmers playfully reminds us; footnotes; fill in the blanks for an hours log; and even a Venn Diagram illustrating the contrast of the busy Vancouver and the pastoral constitution of the fictional “Saska-Wollup.”

Most prominently, among the delight in form, Simmers has a lyric eye that poignantly and carefully captures and illuminates the everydayness of life. Despite being a book about a specific place, in this way Sunrise becomes universal. Simmers writes, “I still covet a fireplace, a hammock/doors we can close.” It is due to this combination of specificity and universality that I found Simmers book so engrossing. Often when I read poetry, I find myself reading a poem or two and then putting the book down to let the poems settle; however, with Sunrise, I read it almost straight through. I wanted to feel a year go by in an afternoon and be guided by Simmers through a part of Vancouver I didn’t know very well. Now, after reading the book, I feel like I’ve spent a whole life there, and it was a good one.

Cole Mash holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from UBC Okanagan. His poetry has been published in UBC Okanagan’s Papershell Anthology and The Eunoia Review.