Antecedent by Juleta Severson-Baker

There is comfort and coziness to spare Juleta Severson-Baker’s Antecedent. As Juleta Severson-Baker looks back on significant people, events, and aspects of her earlier life, her virtuosity as a poet is evident. The lines are carefully crafted and metatextual references are woven into the fabric of the poems seamlessly. Antecedent is intimate and tender, and the focus is often inward.

However, as much as I enjoyed the many beautiful lines and poems, the work as a whole feels unaware of its deep investment in the mechanisms of settler-colonialism. One could argue that this is the world the author lives in and that she remains true to the dictum of “write what you know”—but is that enough at this point in time? These are homely poems, carefully crafted but safe. In as far as the poet experiments with form or content, it is done from within the bounds of the known. Many of the poems speak to an almost unconscious privilege—when the author writes about leaving home in “remember Range Road 85,” it is a choice rather than a necessity, as it is for many. The author writes about rural life in a world demarcated by the mapped symbols of colonial expansion; a cultured and controlled wilderness. In a similar fashion, Blomidon Provincial Park is a space to be enjoyed in leisure time, and the experience is curated through firmly-set western sensibilities.

In the milieu Severson-Baker’s creates in “forgotten song of life,” jazz, a musical form defined by risky ventures into improvisation, is tamed and becomes noted and notated, framed within the structures of western science: this is a world controlled by the rational. In keeping with the sense of detached scientific observation of a phenomenon, no composers are named, and there is no acknowledgement of the genre’s African-American roots: what remains is only ahistorical sound, an observable abstraction. By contrast, the next poem, “a molecule of oxygen speaks about what it’s like to be sung by a talented soprano,” is placed firmly within a known historical tradition, and names a specific composer, Johannes Brahms. It is a telling choice, for in this collection Severson-Baker, like Brahms, comes across as more of a traditionalist, innovating and experimenting within the strictures of convention. Just as Brahms draws on the compositional techniques of Classical Masters, so too does Baker; this is the world she is comfortable in and in which she excels.

The solitary Cree word that appears in “remember Red Deer”—moniyaw—feels out of place in a collection in which Indigenous People are otherwise absent, and in which no other languages besides English appear. It is also the only word that is glossed in the notes, which highlights its otherness. The only other word that is italicized in the poem is “christian,” setting the concept of whiteness in direct relation to Christianity. But where moniyaw is bounded by a period and remains isolated at the start of the line, “christian” is followed by a comma, opening the concept up to a larger train of thought. The reflection that happens in the poem is not on whiteness but on the Judaeo-Christian faith. Set out in this way,  the use of the Cree does not feel like an attempt to expand the author’s sense of being and knowing beyond the Euromerican world she inhabits. We see this disjuncture again in “Epilogue,” where the speaker in the poem tells us “how white and now and where she is;” yet despite this acknowledgement, there is not much evidence of interrogating this position of privilege.

It is this lack of awareness of the larger social and historical context within which these poems function that detracts somewhat from the power of these poems. Still, Antecedent is an adept collection of poetry, with many pieces one can turn to for succour and refuge.

Juleta Severson-Baker’s first book of poetry, Incarnate (Frontenac House, 2013) was short-listed for both the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. She lives, writes poetry and works as an Assistant Principal at Calgary Arts Academy in Treaty 7 territory.

To purchase: Antecedent | Frontenac House Ltd.