Seas Move Away by Joanne Leow

Joanne Leow’s Seas Move Away is a book that was over two decades in the making. And indeed, this slim volume has the weighty feel of much careful self-examination and reflection. It also shows a courageous intelligence on the part of the poet, a capacity to unearth and to question the impacts of colonization, across oceans and continents, from Singapore to Saskatchewan.

Dedicated to “those who move away”, Seas Move Away speaks to the intimacies of longing for what has been left behind among family and friends; and to the need to leave. In a new homeplace,  the poems indicate how what once was foreign, unknown, and unimagined can  become over time, a new kind of ordinary—still infused with the sensory memories of what was and now is not:

“But where I am, no bird cries like the
the koel. There are no such jewels in 
this air, cut and faceted. Just
the sound of my breathing, my lover’s
restless sleep, my children
in the next rooms, the frost collecting
on the windowpane…..”  Asian Koel 
“….I want you
to know that I am settling into my self
leaving traces of my body in this dust.” A Year in Saskatchewan 

One of the magical powers of poetry is its capacity to use the tools of words and space and line breaks and diction to reveal far more than it says. Singapore is famous throughout Asia and around the world for strict laws regarding social behaviour and ambitious land reclamation projects. The first two sections of this book include poems which could only be written by someone who knows daily life in Singapore. Eden: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore is a masterfully crafted poem in seven skillfully written parts, interrogating  `Reclamation’—“ask where this land came from”; ‘Improvement’; ‘Documentation’—“feet balancing on/scaffolding/”; ‘Selfie’—the role of the willing visitor to the conservatories; ‘Equilibrium’—how do you find meaning in the pump…; and ‘Exit/Gift Shop’—

“Love is
as much
as this artificial system
of mist and coolness
will allow
                    ​​just so”.

Poems in the book’s second section take as their inspiration some of  Singapore’s laws and regulations, providing a counter-narrative for life in a mandated and constrained context of implicit and threatened violation:

“Take our bodies, take the words we write
take the recordings we make: of ourselves
and of you	We become illegal according to your
amendments…..”  With Such Force as Is Necessary: Films (Amendment) Bill 2018

The latter sections of Seas Move Away are written in the aftermath of a move to Canada. The poet finds here, despite the changes of climate (“Who can blame/the birds for taking their incredulous/ flight to warmer latitudes” October) and landscape, a familiar kind of colonial dispossession of stories, of history, of place:

“This country seems so placid
it wears its past so lightly…..
but do we know what histories are interred
in the enclosure of fields…..”  Lake

Circle is a respectfully crafted poem resonant with a personally-felt connection to the losses inscribed by colonization and imperialism on the landscapes and Indigenous peoples in what is now called Canada, “where harm and unsettlement preside”. “I know without knowing” the poet says, as she tells us

“My ancestors worshipped their own ancestors
made offerings to trees, to rocks, to mountains, to rivers….
“I know some small things….”, she says, “But so much else was cut away/ taken/ made dirty….
I’ll have to relearn everything now.”

We are privileged to relearn along with the poet, as we read this book.  I was born and raised in Canada, and have spent much of my life living in Ontario. Yet I too have moved away, at various times and in various ways. I too am relearning everything now. I am grateful for Joanne Leow’s humour, her tenderness, her powers of critical analysis, her clear-eyed vision, and her willingness to share with us these skillful, reflective and frequently intimate poems.  

Joanne Leow is an Associate Professor at the University of Saskatchewan. Her essays, fiction, and poetry have been published in Brick, Catapult, Evergreen Review, The Goose, Isle, The Kindling, The Town Crier, QLRS, and Ricepaper Magazine. She grew up in Singapore and currently lives on Treaty 6 Territory (Saskatoon, SK).

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Turnstone Press (Sept. 7 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 120 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0888017537
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0888017536