Reviewed by Jenna Butler
Alice Major’s newest collection, The Occupied World, is a vibrant exploration of what is at the heart of a city. Based in Edmonton, where Major lives, The Occupied World moves fluidly between the traditional and the modern. It effortlessly sweeps from Roman rituals for the selecting and naming of a city’s birthplace, to downtown encounters with local youths and those living on the street. Major even makes the leap beyond Earth itself, taking a hard look at why we insist on casting our small lives out into space, hoping and dreading the resulting possibility of contact. This is no light read; it’s a collection that requires the innate trust of its audience, as it speeds from global view to city-specific in a short few pages. Once immersed in this book, there are no easy answers when Major questions what home really is.
I have rarely encountered a current collection where the vox populi is used so brilliantly and to such effect. I found myself hesitant at the start to delve into the first section of the book, worried that I would find the objective descriptions of the naming rituals alienating. Rather, I was instantly intrigued. Major melds the Roman naming rituals with an awareness of the vulnerable nature of those seeking to belong in the city they are helping to create:
To find a city, accept
the guidance of whatever calculating god
has taken you in care.
(“Locate the Site” 13)
Equally aware of the need to explore the fragility of the city’s roots, yet not lose sight of the small human experiences within the vastly disinterested whole, Major succeeds in creating an objective voice that is simultaneously very aware of the humanity around it:
A city needs three names – the public one, the priestly,
and a secret, sacred name
for the god we do not realize protects us.”
(“Give the City Its Three Names” 23)
Part of the beauty of this collection lies in Major’s instinctive understanding of the disenfranchised in everyone; how even those who have come to this city by choice may carry a sense of unease about them for having forsaken their own countries. She examines the rituals necessary in ancient times for appeasing the ancestors when one has deserted one’s home country in lieu of a life elsewhere:
Dig a pit. Cast into it
clods of earth from the mother country –
avert the impiety of leaving land
where ancestor lies buried
by asserting, ‘here
is also home.’ Cover the mouth
of the mundus with stone.
Build over it the city’s hearth, light
the founding fire.
Sections of the book move to the deeply internal, as Major recalls such events as the death of a close young friend from cancer, and meeting a street person who shares Major’s first name (the poet herself never quite owning the name in the same way again, it having acquired another history in the meeting). She does not shun the colonial aspects of city-making, either, in her personal examination of what it is to call a place home; rather, Major acknowledges the manner in which Edmonton itself was founded on land taken from others:
You’re on Indian land, man.
The woman’s voice dies quickly
away. Not loud enough to overmaster
the past. Behind unreflecting windows,
we lie awake, uneasy, hedging.
Trying to disown.
Not prepared to give it back.
(“What Is Buried Under the Walls” 19)
Home is located in more places than simply those external to us, Major notes. In the section entitled Kore, she explores in a very intimate way one woman’s search to understand and feel centered within her own body. Without this sense of self and an attentiveness to one’s own soul needs, Major seems to say, location in the physical world is merely a half-life. Balancing the internal and the external is the only means of achieving a real sense of belonging:
What kind of womandoes not want a child? A heart beating enormously. A purse opened to pay the price. An accident of landscape. A river that sinks into its stone bed, emerges somewhere else.
(“A Woman In A Landscape” 73)
Above all else, though, through poems written both in the voice of the people and in a quietly personal tone, is an awareness that a sense of belonging, of home, is in itself transitory. Just as time can engender a sense of identity in a city, and of belonging in the people who live there, it can also cause ruin. Identity, then, is not a continuous thing; it is, rather, picked up by others from those who have laid it down and passed along:
Cathedral windows weep the slow tears of time;
their fragmentary, stained-glass eyes have blurred –
nor crystal after all, but liquid. The seeping truth
of centuries distorts the view beyond. Wings of birds
flash changing in the sun. Light ripples on the retina,
pattern held for a heartbeat. The watcher, gone.
(“Glass Is Not True Solid” 92)
The Occupied World is a collection of incredible luminosity, embracing both the objective and the personal and fashioning from them something quite rare. As Major herself says toward the end of the book:
In all the ephemeral collisions
between humanity and space, there’s hope
we might achieve a balance on the side of grace,
a slight preponderance of beauty.
(“A Slight Preponderance” 94)
Jenna Butler is an educator and poet who makes her home in Edmonton. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including CBC’s Alberta Anthology, and has been widely published in journals, anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the founding editor of Rubicon Press.