This Hole Called January

ARC Poetry Magazine 92, Summer 2020
Reviewed by Dessa Bayrock

Turmoil, transformation, and escape: exploring the explorations of Conyer Clayton, Catherine Black, and Paula Jane Remlinger

[The review discussion of the three books below is so intertwined that for the sake of context we are running the full review that includes Thistledown author Paula Jane Remlinger's This Hole Called January.]

Conyer Clayton. We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite. Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2020.
Catherine Black. Bewilderness. Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2019.
Paula Jane Remlinger. This Hole Called January. Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 2019.


The poems in Conyer Clayton’s debut full-length poetry book feel haunted, in the way that old fairy tales feel haunted: not by ghosts, but by something uncanny or just out of sight. They’re haunted by the thing Clayton is only just beginning to be able to bear to look at: the possibility of escape.


And it’s not just Clayton who struggles with the idea of escape: so, too, do Catherine Black, in Bewilderness, and Paula Jane Remlinger, in This Hole Called January. The idea of escape winds its way through all three of these collections, and feels difficult to face in all of them, too. Clayton’s search for escape feels the most urgent in its obsession — an urgency that becomes strangely tantalizing, especially given the fact that we never get a clear look at what, exactly, is holding her in place.
Then again, do we ever recognize our captors, until we’re free of them?


There are omens, hints, warnings that whatever has tricked Clayton’s narrator into stasis cannot possibly continue to hold her. Whatever magic has pinned this narrator to this place, like Merlin trapped in a tree, it cannot possibly hold — and so Clayton prays “to catch on fire / to get caught up in a mercifully lightening storm / burn my body back to earth” and thereby return to herself (“Seeds”).


We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite, then, opens a microcosm of emotion which tells us: to be caught or even stuck is not to be in stasis, but is instead a struggle, to be “crawling / as ants crawl, legs unseen, / thin / as moss between shoe / bottoms and rocks” (“Shower”).


In this way, Clayton’s natural world signals both an escape and an impossible, painful task: a place in which the un-naturalness of everything else can be seen and, perhaps, unpicked like a tapestry. Nature begins to return our narrator to herself — a transformation which proves painful, necessary, and dangerous.


The magic to return Clayton’s narrator to herself could be anywhere, and she searches for it desperately: in treks through the forest, in dreams, in drunken parking lots in the middle of the night, in her own skin.

Nothing is the key, nothing provides freedom, and yet we “can feel the rising edges, peeled / away by a pulsing tide, salt” (“This Is the Bandage”). We can sense the rising waters, the healing wound, and we can tell: change is coming.


It is a truth that can only be seen slowly, from the edges, an idea all too ready to be spooked like a horse. Even so, it begins to be corralled. “I’ve showered, salted, snipped, and fallen,” Clayton writes (“I Can Finally See You”), until finally “we shed our skin / like dynamite” (“Reach into the Hollows”).
She transforms. She rebuilds. She finds the key to a lock that can barely be seen, and she escapes.


If Clayton’s natural world is a space for revelation, for realization, then Catherine Black’s natural world, in Bewilderness, acts similarly but disparately: as a space for reflection, recognition. In contrast to Clayton’s calm landscapes, Black’s nature is imbued with the same cacophonous, shrill, self-absorbed flaws replete in humanity. This natural world has nothing to do with peaceful exploration and everything to do with making some kind of statement: loud, unabashed, committed to outdoing what has been done to you.

“If you peel some of that bark off the shrill birch, you can make yourself a little mask of it, a paper mask, and you’ll haunt the forest with your tattered eyeholes and luminous face,” Black writes. “That would be something.”

She writes: “Scare the rabbits onto their rumps, watch them stretch out in terror, then feel apologetic.”

She writes: “That will kill an hour or two” (“This is About the Forest’).


Black’s poems read like an I spy: a crush of beloved items, textures, ideas. People are described by the objects in their houses, by the things they gather and guard. It feels like pastiche, like a dream, like watching an enterprising songbird build a nest out of foraged scraps and garbage, out of “glass and ash, nests of cigarette butts and pigeon down” (“A Home from Nothing”).

Black writes: “I know the panic of assembling a home from nothing.”

These poems seem to whisper: even nothing can be made into everything you need.


Black pushes into transformation, through transformation, until transformation becomes not only quotidian but boring, and maybe even annoying. “[S]uddenly it’s all green light showering sparks from every tree,” Black writes. “In spring, we do our best to ignore it” (“Trip Wire”).

The miracles of nature, it seems, will have to do better. And who hasn’t felt the same way?


Here, not only the poet wishes for transformation and escape; everything does. “The lake wished it were Caribbean blue. The seagulls wished they were poetry professors,” Black writes. “The clouds wished they were mountains. The sun wished it were a concerto” (“Marooned”).

Nothing wants to stay as it is — a lesson ticking like clockwork at the heart of nature, and therefore at the heart of the poet.


And yet by the final poems of this collection, nature has no interest in humanity — and it’s finally revealed that the expectations we put on nature, that we see in nature, stem solely from ourselves. In some ways this feels like a sorrowful lesson, or at the very least a weary one. But there’s something freeing in it, too — something that smacks of relief, or maybe even of escape.

Nature reflects the eye that looks at it, Black seems to say; a bewildered eye will find only, fittingly, bewilderness.


Paula Jane Remlinger, too, struggles with exactly what Clayton and Black spend their volumes describing: entrapment, or bewilderness, or, in Remlinger’s words, “this hole called January” (“This Hole Called January”). These states of stasis or confusion or sorrow have trapped our poets, and from which these poetry collections aid their escape.


Like Clayton’s, Remlinger’s poems feel haunted. The collection is beset by the deaths of small animals, unsettlingly omen-like: mice lured out with double cream brie and then killed, a squirrel darting under the wheels of a truck on the highway, a fledgling crow fallen out of the nest, quickly dispatched and buried by a father’s hand, “steady as the long lean strop of a blade on leather” (“Crow”).

Here, Remlinger seems to say, we ought to notice not everything holds an escape. Some things consume us and keep us in their stomachs forever.


This lesson is echoed by the other collections, too: Clayton is eaten up by some secret left unsaid, whispered only by the wind in the trees and the last gulps of a beer in its glass; Black is swallowed by the brilliant pastiche of the world and its details, a tapestry as overwhelming as it is vibrant; Remlinger, in contrast, is literally eaten, and more than once — by Jonah’s whale, by Red Riding Hood’s wolf, by something akin to sorrow. Will she ever step out of it? Will any of them?

In the titular poem of the collection, Remlinger confirms what we already suspect to be true: “We live with what consumes us.”


And so Remlinger is stuck, quite deeply, in this hole called January.

She writes: “Winter days lie / dormant, a woollen itch that can’t be soothed or stopped” (“Old Man Winter I”).

Winter is an old man, a cancer, an empty parking lot, a butcher. In any reasonable world, it would be escapable. But is this a reasonable world?


Clayton is perhaps the only one among them to make an escape. Black’s escape is debatable—more a slowing of wild detail than a true getaway. And Remlinger never finds the ladder out of January; there may well be no escape at all, but only a deepening of life’s uncanny details until everything seems like a dream, an omen, a portent of possible danger. By the end of her collection, Remlinger has become Clayton at the start of hers: slightly wild-eyed, beginning to understand the depth and breadth of her magical entrapment, her clever eyes sharpening against the details, ready to leave beloved objects and their prophesies to themselves. She is a narrator both reliable and unreliable by turns who is equally likely to be “a mirror, a torrent, a knife in the drawer,” as she is “corsets unlaced and rum-soaked cigars, a good bra, a raincoat” (“Girls Named Paula”).

She is prepared for all weather, a tool for all trades. But she begins to think: who is allowed to pick this tool up, to put it to use?


And so the escape, we hope, becomes inevitable. This route has already been taken by Clayton and Black, who urge: we found a way out, and so can you. They pass us their poetry books, in celebration, in solidarity, in conversation, hoping that they can serve — for someone, somewhere — as a map.

—Dessa Bayrock

Saskatchewan Book Awards 2020

This Hole Called January

Judges’ comments.

The poems within This Hole Called January are lyrically sophisticated, and the language utilized in surprising and innovative ways. Here Remlinger plays unabashedly with the music of an everyday vocabulary to explore the relationship between interior and exterior landscapes. The result is a dynamic and immersive experience for the reader.

[Winner Poetry Award]


This Hole Called January, a debut collection of poems by Paula Jane Remlinger, explores the Prairie winter in fresh and personal ways.

“Winter for me suggests themes of darkness and confinement, loneliness, depression, and loss,” Remlinger says.“So many people, including myself, struggle with those things, and I wanted to acknowledge that. I’ve lost a number of people close to me, and it was important to deal with that grieving through writing.”

The poems that deal with the heavier themes of depression and loss, like “You Drift Away on a Thinning Breeze” and “in the days before your death, you fed us,” are interspersed with moments of levity. Poems about seemingly innocuous subjects, like a goldfish in “Ode to Horace (in the Freezer Awaiting Burial)” or crayons in “Burnt Sienna,” reel the reader in with humour before delivering a gut punch.

“In some ways, the collection is about finding your way in the world,” Saskatoon-based Remlinger says. “Trying different things, testing boundaries, searching for identity. It strongly reflects my own journey and my growth as a writer and as a person.”

Her editor, Michael Kenyon, was invaluable in selecting and ordering the poems. “He looked at everything I’d submitted and was able to arrange the poems in ways that I started to see more connections between them,” she says. “The narrative [of] childhood to adulthood, from innocence to understanding, was already there — it just needed to be shaped.”

For Remlinger, crafting a poem is more than finding the right words.

“If I can make a [line] break where it provides an interesting juxtaposition, or provokes a thought, I’ll choose that. In some poems, it’s more about the rhythm and the breath, but I do spend a lot of time trying to get the right structure.”

But, she adds, “The best thing is to make sure your poetry is reflective of who you are. We often get caught up in trying to write a good poem, and sometimes it’s more important to write your poem, to really think about what you’re trying to say, and then work on shaping it after. Not every poem has to be a masterpiece, but you have to write each poem to get to the next one. It takes practice.”

The care Remlinger puts into writing poetry is evident in this collection, and it’s clear that she draws inspiration from a wide array of subjects. Lately, she’s been exploring the Japanese paper craft of origami and its variation kirigami.

“The beauty is in the lines and folds and cuts. It speaks to me about the multiple layers that people have to navigate, and I’m curious to see where those thoughts lead,” she says.

It all feeds the poetry, and poetry feeds her.

I use poetry to explore and understand the world and my place in it," says Remlinger. "I often say that I don't know exactly what I think until I write it down. Writing for me is learning who I am at a particular moment in time. 

— Kayla Neufeld


I don’t know Paula Jane Remlinger, a poet from Beaver Creek just south of Saskatoon, so I wasn’t called in to help with the title of her first collection of poems, This Hole Called January (Thistledown, $12.95). That hole business, coupled with the gloomy cover image of a socked-in winter day, wants to label this a winter book, perhaps along the lines of Patrick Lane’s Winter.

Yes, there are a few winter poems, beginning with the title selection bemoaning the season’s grip, as well as the obviously titled "Winter Still," the lovely "Oranges" — “I’ve eaten so many I’m turning bright as Jupiter” — and the short, beautifully packed ”Old Man Winter 1” (there is no two, at least not here).

But this relatively short collection — part of Thistledown’s New Leaf series — is far more various in its tastes and subjects than that somewhat restrictive title would imply. "Gardening for Fun and Relaxation" would be a good collection’s title, especially since this poem begins with the provocative line, “You maintain a tidy prison.” Then there’s “A Crueller Trap,” about waging a war against mice but being unsettled by finding them dead in old wine bottles.

Remlinger includes poems here about wild cocktails — the howling “Salty Dog” — the pathetic difference between an online dating picture and the real thing — the language lustrous “Lavalife” — and the result of a news report that Crayola was considering retiring one of its colours — the charming “Burnt Sienna.” A couple of very strong pieces are “What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting,” a collation of all those brash and invasive assumptions active breeders make, and the multi-part “Artifice,” an Atwood-like, feminist re-telling of a cosmetics catalogue.

Though occasionally the poems get a tad pedantic — “The Superman Poems,” “In Every Story There’s a Wolf” — there’s much more to this collection than being stuck in a hole with winter. Remlinger’s poems, as three titles put it, have many origins, many phases, many auroras.

— Bill Robertson