Theophylline: A Poetic Migration by Erin Moure

To say that Erín Moure’s poetry is experimental or avant-garde is to state the obvious. Her latest collection, Theophylline: A Poetic Migration, is an experiment within an experiment, generous in its generation of shared meaning and multiple voices. Her poetic migration entails a series of migrations in a quest for identity and identities: (even the accent above her name migrates from the aigu over her í to its occasional appearance over her final e.) In intriguing and intricate ways Moure interacts with Muriel Rukeyser, Elizabeth Bishop, and Angelina Weld Grimké, but other poets migrate across her pages in surprising guest and ghost appearances.

            Her title Theophylline refers to the name of the drug taken by asthma patients, such as herself and Elizabeth Bishop, and breathing becomes one of the themes in this book. But the word may be broken into syllables, beginning with an ironic Theo god and ending with “line,” the site of her words. Yet lines themselves migrate and form different shapes and patterns in her text. Although Phylline is a medication for asthma, its homonyms would include love of the poetic line and the feline of cats that form the design of her childhood dressing gown. One remembrance of things past: “A dressing gown with red piping and red cats on it.” Nothing avant-garde about that.

            But her subtitle wanders farther into realms of the avant-garde, for it also appears as “an aporetic migration,” as letters insert themselves into words to shift meanings. An aporetic migration is oxymoronic since an aporia is a stumbling block or halting place in rhetoric where opposing forces cannot be resolved. In her exploration of three lesbian writers, Moure examines stumbling blocks that interfere with their reception by society (referred to as “socia”) and their own writing strategies to circumvent their identities. As a translator Moure translates more than just languages: she translates identities, cultures, politics, and designs in postmodern, postcolonial, and post-structuralist thought. Transcendence through transgression; trans-location of place(s), trans-locution of language(s), and trans-inhalation of asthmatic breathing.

            Moure’s postmodernism runs with the modernisms of Rukeyser, Bishop, Grimké, and others. Theophylline is an intertext, subtext, under-text, and trans-text, thanks to the multifaceted typesetting and designs of House of Anansi. The epigraph from Claire Harris’s “Of Survival” provides one entry:

            “I walk          as my mother did

                                                stoking the



Similarly, Moure’s own imagery flutters and migrates across pages in every shape and form. Follow her feminist footsteps as they lead to an open circle on her first page, looped without beginning or end. At the top of her circumference: “Languages too have peaks & valleys.” At the inverted bottom: “Its water still sings below us, listen — .” On the left side “murmur” in different languages; on the right, a cascade between peaks and valleys, and subterranean murmurs. “The Iroquoian trail between these summits heads north along a creek born in this plain.” Her Indigenous homage murmurs, sings, gives birth to breathing languages, and stokes fluttering images.

            Gone are modernism’s still point and sublime dance; enter instead Moure’s postmodern migrations, breathing life into Rukeyser, Bishop, and Grimké. At Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room she listens and breathes from her own asthmatic past with the aid and interruptions of an alter ego, Elisa Sampedrin, her undependable shadow poet, her ES reversal of SE (Something Else). “Her presence, like that of the shoe, worries the book.” Sampedrin writes the poem, “Something Else,” for she is elsewhere, where else, and where as – a shadow, a reflection, a “synonymal.” Sampedrin is also a simile, “like a shoe,” and the design of a shoe moves through the pages of Theophylline.

            Since Moure’s family members were not able to return to the United States from Ukraine, they settled in Canada. She confronts America through Rukeyser: “listening to her ‘Bronx accent,’ (they say).” In her polyphony Rukeyser quoting Käthe Kollwitz: “What if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” And Moure fissures many worlds and truths as she crosses out and italicizes “thrashing through the woods at night.” For Rukeyser, poetry is a “giving out,” a public, political witnessing of experience. Rukeyser suffered from strokes in the final 15 years of her life, and Moure relates to her laboured breathing. Moure’s dialogue with Rukeyser’s documentary voice shifts to her own experience with a train crash. Her poem “Seebe” appears at the bottom of a page that is mostly blank, except for a line at the top – “The vast emptiness.” Her blank page enacts that emptiness, while her footnoted poem at the bottom is “fallen apart,” its disintegrating lines imitating the splitting and receding railway tracks, as well as the traumatic train crash.

            “Seebe” refers to the site in Alberta where a train on which Moure worked stopped after fearing they’d hit a boy on a rail bridge. Written in 1985 and published in West South West 1989, (republished in Planetary Noise, 2017), the poem investigates the vast emptiness surrounding the event, not only the emptiness of the landscape, but also the vast gap between the writer’s description of the event and the muteness of the dead boy. This leads her to the question of a writer’s reception, whether Rukeyser’s or her own. In Moure’s case, reception includes both how she receives the impact of the event and how her reader receives her voice and experience of the tragedy. In Rukeyser’s case, the earlier poet never questions her audience to whom she “gives out” her voice and verse that have gone through McCarthyism and social responsibility. She speaks to “America,” the society (or socius Moure often refers to) that receives her words of justice. Rukeyser does not witness; she addresses or “rhetoricizes.” Moure critiques Rukeyser for the latter’s complicity in Empire, whereas Moure seeks humility and scratches Rukeyser’s cadences. Using her alter ego, her textual worrier, she places Rukeyser’s poem, “Flying to Hanoi,” under erasure. Worrier and anti-warrior interact on the page where Rukeyser’s final line, “My life is flying to your life,” gets post-modernised by a broken vertical arrow targeting Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” All of these flying signifiers point to the shoe at the bottom of the page, at once foot-note and migratory design. These shoes refer in turn to Heidegger’s discussion of Van Gogh’s shoes. The receiving reader puts herself in the other’s shoes handed down from modernism to postmodernism.

            Moure’s ear is also a receptor whether in translation or in listening to other poets. In the Massachusetts listening room she reads Elizabeth Bishop while listening on headphones to Rukeyser; then she inverts her experiment to read Rukeyser, while listening to Bishop. Rukeyser is expansive; Bishop juxtaposes taut images. Bishop’s migration from Boston to Brazil included loops to Nova Scotia. Her books – North and South, Questions of Travel, and Geography III – map her migrations. With her asthmatic breathing, Bishop is an inward poet who “gives it in.” Bishop’s maternal grandmother had one glass eye, which becomes a symbol for her own vision between normal and artificial sight. Moure’s asthma crosses paths with Bishop’s in postmodern intercalation: “Asthma, Bishop mentioned not breathing or smelling but seeing: a glass eye that sees sidelong in silence (sigh, lens)”. Moure’s parenthesis with its homophonic syllables is her postmodern tip of the tongue. Theophylline is a breathing between and a giving among. Moure’s coverage of Bishop’s life and writing is fascinating.

            The third part of this book is devoted to Angelina Weld Grimké, the least well known of the three poets. Faint typescript highlights her Blackness: that she “will migrate into silence, is a mark of white archival silence, i.e. my voice, not hers.” Moure sees Grimké through many lenses – from Hannah Arendt to José Martí – and in different voices that slant towards the future. Neither giving out like Rukeyser, nor giving in like Bishop, Grimké gives forward, “pointing to a future in a way my [Moure] words and position as white lesbian inhibit me from seeing …” From archive to archipelago, Theophylline breathes on and through each turning page, as it migrates across multiple thresholds. As she fits herself into the shoes of others and otherness, she walks the walk and talks the talk of postmodern poetry and translation.

ERÍN MOURE is a poet and translator (primarily of Galician and French poetry into English) who welcomes texts that are unconventional or difficult because she loves and needs them. Among other honours, she is a two-time winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Award (in poetry and translation), a winner of the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and the Nelson Ball Prize, a co-recipient of the QWF Spoken Word Prize, a three-time finalist for a Best Translated Book Award in poetry, and a three-time finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize. She is based in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ House of Anansi Press (Aug. 8 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 176 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1486724108
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1487011604