Review of Pebble Swing by Isabella Wang and None of This Belongs to Me by Ellie Sawatsky

First books by young women poets seem to be at a new high, though the stats are lacking. Is this due to the proliferation of MFA programs for which initial publications are signs of success? Likely, in part (the thanks in the back makes it seem as if these texts were written by committee!) But of course, this says little about the quality. When, at 25, my first book came out, I recall garnering at least nine reviews. Now there are more books published and more anxiety about status, and thus an author is lucky to receive two reviews. And so.

Pebble Swing by Isabella Wang from Vancouver is a collection of poems that, at times, might be more potent in prose. Why? Because often the lucid storytelling surmounts the song, despite Wang’s delicious facility with the ghazal, particularly in the more traditional Ghazal for Heirloom Family Recipes (“This is a spell we are currently under, but I promise it won’t stay bitter”) and the modern Springtime Ghazals (“Autumn sunshine pulls through/the rim of a glass mug”). Pulls. A unique verb there. As when Wang chooses “embraced” to connect to the processes of “dough.” Other times, clichés predominate such as “moved to tears,” “arms of children…like trees,” “spreading like wild fire” and dew “like strings of pearls.” Poetry needs tough edits to resonate. Wang’s necessary subject matter, of her Asian family and its dislocations, its exquisite foods and its intimate sorrows (“Death fell in petals on the funeral floor”) demands greater attention to diction decisions. That said, it’s a debut and Wang impresses with her vivid potential here.

Ellie Sawatsky’s None of This Belongs to Me, though also a debut, is by a somewhat more honed voice whose subjects vary from her nannying jobs to road trips, the remnants of childhood, and cultural signifiers like Google, Burning Man, Twitter, Xanax, Tinder and IKEA. At times, these allusions seem like merely “shorthands for my generation” and thus, insufficiently elaborated, but Sawatsky’s sophistication with form and length often enables these pieces to transcend such superficialities.  There is nursery song love, Plautdietsch history, incensed ecology (“Re-colonizers,/we’re not supposed to be/here either”), human fragility and endurance (the gorgeous pantoum “Chihuly’s Mille Fiori” along with the sharply hewn pastoral, “Three Days and the Next However Long”) and personal poetics (the fantastical line,“Poetry: the way the night/tries to make sense of its day”). When Sawatsky chooses “u” instead of “you” or removes the slash from b/c or overuses anaphora as in “Forgive us our Trespasses” where “a girl” doing this or that is repeated to excess, there is tedium in the read. But there is little in the way of tired language here. So I have hope. One way or another, amid the apocalypse’s many faces these days, writers like Wang and Sawatsky persist in “some kind of flight.”

Isabella Wang is the author of the chapbook On Forgetting a Language (Baseline Press, 2019). She has been shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s Far Horizons Award for Poetry, Minola Review’s Poetry Contest, and was the youngest writer to be shortlisted twice for The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Wang’s poetry and prose have appeared in over thirty literary journals and three anthologies, including Watch Your Head: Writers and Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis (Coach House Books, 2020) and They Rise Like A Wave: An Anthology of Asian American Women Poets (Blue Oak Press, 2021). She studies English and world literature at Simon Fraser University and is an editor at Room magazine. Pebble Swing is her debut full-length poetry collection. She lives in Port Moody, BC.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Nightwood Editions (Oct. 16 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 112 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0889714061
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0889714069

Ellie Sawatzky is a writer from Kenora, ON. She was a finalist for the 2019 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and the recipient of CV2’s 2018 Young Buck Poetry Prize. Her work has been published widely in literary journals and anthologies such as The FiddleheadPRISM InternationalBest Canadian PoetryThe Matador ReviewPrairie FireThe Puritan and Room. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and lives in Vancouver, BC. None of This Belongs to Me is her debut poetry collection.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Nightwood Editions (Oct. 16 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 128 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0889714088
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0889714083

Catherine Owen, from Vancouver, is the author of 15 collections of poetry and prose. She also runs a podcast, publishes a magazine, hosts a performance series, and writes poetry book reviews from her 1905 home in Edmonton.