Riot Lung

Canadian Literature 222 / Autumn 2014

Horlick’s book of sixty-two short poems juxtaposes the memory of land as remembered as a child—simple, sensual and elemental—with the growing complexity of sexual awakening and intimacy. While some poems, like “saskatchewan sex ed” are wryly funny, Horlick contrasts an early holistic oneness with land, animals, nature, bodies and friends with the growing complexity of puberty and gay and lesbian love in a richer, more diverse but fragmented urban world (“Meat Market,” “Yarzeit,” “The Visit,” “Night Shift”). Beginning with her initial fitful memory of land, light, and wind upon her family’s arrival in Saskatchewan (“I can tell you this much about the light”) the collection ends the cycle in “Blood Oranges” and the fullness of landscape in all its variations—imaginary, prairie, tropical, sensual and human—drawing together in fruition. Riot Lung, Horlick’s first published collection of poems, leaves one looking forward eagerly to the next. — Moira Day

Room, vol 36.3, September 2013

Riot Lung is a series of erotically charged love and coming-of-age poems that begin in childhood, then weave through adolescence and into early adulthood. The voice is consistent throughout the collection, expressing a growing awareness of queer identity and left-wing politics, explored in a series of poems about urban activism toward the end of the collection. The poems are accessible and conversational, though some are dense, full -paged, and prose-yo Elsewhere Horlick relies on pithy words to convey a single strong image.

Horlick's Saskatchewan is vivid: rife with prejudice, a place "where a cree girl couldn't buy Iysol / if her clean floors depended on it." a harsh environment where the narrator is told, "foreplay is when you pull her hair first / and if it don't fall out, she don't got aids." The land itself reflects this harshness, and Horlick is at her best when she juxtaposes this with the memories of a first sexual encounter "this blush twining up my neck / some affectionate sunburn / or hint of something blossoming / where before there was only white." These lovely erotic images are the strongest aspect of the book and, when they occasionally seem overwrought, also the weakest.

— Jennifer Zilm

ARC poetry magazine  summer 2013

“Palpable desire” aptly describes Leah Horlick’s Riot Lung. The collection is marked by defiant, whole-bodied loves and political commitments. Horlick is at her best when describing a hard-scrabble coming of age, often set in rural neglect,  somewhere / the highway goes through.” She hails from Saskatoon, and the rougher side of prairie life emerges in poems that one gets the feeling would be inclined—like the mother in the ironically titled “Welcome to all the tourists and  portsmen”—to “shoot the next neighbour” who says “a waving wheat field / is like the ocean.” Tough-minded, these

poems are unafraid of “jaundiced” Coke signs and the “gas station robbed dry”—Horlick has an acute eye for just such telling details and often works with quick, deft imagery. Nor are the poems afraid to risk political incorrectness, describing best friends who become “cougar, coyote, jailbait” and cold nights “when the reserve girls hit the rink.” I’m not sure how I would feel about being portrayed as “other” if I were a “reserve girl,” yet the poems are grounded in a particular perspective, one to which such language seems to belong. It’s a dicey topic, and I’m willing to be corrected, but my sense is that the attitude toward the “reserve girls” is respectful, and that Horlick is reproducing such language in an attempt to portray a particular place, including its tensions. Elsewhere she refers to a “rural municipality / of rumours and racism, a place / where a Cree girl couldn’t buy lysol / if her clean floors depended on it.” The tone there is clearly sympathetic toward the Cree girl.

For all its tough-mindedness, the collection also shows a tender side through its many love poems. The inclusion of these poems is a wise move from the point of view of balance and range, but they tend to be among the weaker poems in the collection. Here Horlick often falls into stock language and sentimental imagery—see, for example, “surrealust” or “Dry Spell.” On the other hand, poems such as “Decisions” avoid these missteps and achieve what some of the others seem to reach for: the grounding of a romantic relationship in place. The allusion to “Grace Fletcher’s headstone / at rest on her pile of bison bones,” among others, helps to concretize what would otherwise be a somewhat abstract emotional state. — Sue Sinclair


Saskatoon StarPhoenix, December 29, 2012

These are streetwise, garden-loving, alley-prowling, fresh-faced poems full of wit and energy.

Horlick takes influences such as Langston Hughes, Cummings and Ginsberg and mashes them all up within the zeitgeist of texting technology and the Occupy Movement to howl wisely about injustice and speak softly of love.
Her collection's beautifully compressed title comes from a long (for her) poem about following social media on riots in Toronto while she's in New York.

When thinking of Canada Day, she cannot think of fireworks because she decides, "no fireworks for a country/ with this much tear gas." Then she talks of crossing north to Canada smuggling "a four-chambered hand grenade/ in the left side of my ribcage."

Love meets social unrest. She sings Kaddish for an atheist lover, calls a loved one home from Vancouver, and sings love poems down Broadway and up 20th Street in Saskatoon, the best of them being Itchy Legs, tabula rasa, If I Had To, Love poems from a bridge, with its gorgeous last three lines, and this ending of Who's to know: "There isn't a word for us yet, but I/ can feel it heavy as a gold coin under my tongue, nasturtiumur-/ muring in my ear before I fall asleep. Listen. You'll be the first to/know. — Bill Robertson

SPG Book Reviews, June 20, 2013

Leah Horlick's debut collection of poems, Riot Lung, offers its readers an inspired celebration of urban and small town experience that will perplex, transfix, enlighten, but also move, those coming of age in a radical time. Most of the poems (except one) are written in the confessional mode, that is, in the second-person. The poems are highly evocative, written with a keen eye for imagery and with a rhythm and free stanza structure that the poet has made her own. The range of subjects varies widely, from sex education in a Saskatchewan town to what the lights in St. Louis reveal in a transient moment of wishing. The poems in this collection demonstrate the complexity of feeling that the confessional poem can bring to those with a longing for life in their poetry.

The poems blossom with the senses, with breaks that seldom truncate their line, but rather, extend an image's duration and resonance. This causes the poems to flow without breath, without an inclination to pause or withhold. Yet, the poetic is somehow controlled. The images are free to arise and to coalesce around centers intuitively held and released, such as in this description of a beloved's most memorable feature, in the poem, "Grey Area":

It doesn't bother her so much, that grey area beneath her

collarbone--just that it's not

grey, the way a pigeon isn't grey. More like an oilslick, shift-

shining green and violet

over charcoal feather smears.

Horlick prefers streaks of incidental pigment and spontaneous splashes to a calculated composition of line. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poem, "Surrealust", in which the speaker contemplates a lover's interest in Frida Kahlo. By the conclusion of the poem, the speaker and her addressee "are a mess of secondhand colour,/red shawls, green hummingbirds/and bathtubs". In "Tabula Rasa" the Other, the ink, and the page engender a climax of blushing skin, an effect that is alarmingly immediate and profoundly tactile.

Several poems reflect upon the speaker's lovers and friends, past and present. "Menagerie" recalls moments when sickness and death visited the speaker's and her lover's pets. It is an intriguing poem, one that grasps the subtle differences in how death is understood and related to. In "Righteous", the speaker remembers the events surrounding her first kiss in daylight, in public space, at a time when the boundaries between self and world are interpreted and traversed.

There is an articulate distance present in the title poem, "Riot Lung." In it, the speaker and her addressee are in different cities, but linked in states of mind. From Manhattan, the speaker contemplates a close friend's activism at the G8 Summit in Toronto. A sense of the significant, of the urgent and audacious, appears in the speaker's awareness of her surroundings, after September 11th. It is a poem that contemplates the everything that's possible, while evoking an ethic beyond words, country, and geography. It is with an exuberantly poetic sensibility that Horlick possesses "a four-chambered hand grenade/in the left side of [her] ribcage".

— Justin Dittrick