“Magpie: twilight bird–…//nest builder and robber of nests –//you hop and clatter on the road like hail.” – Kelly Shepherd*
Kelly Shepherd’s Insomnia Bird: Edmonton Poems (Thistledown Press, 2018)** is not a clichéd-flighty-fly-by-night book about the black-billed magpies set against a northern Albertan cityscape. It’s mind-warping, playful, and clever: an a(musing)-gathering-of-facts-and-twigs-and-words, (by a trickster bird) architecturally structured and constructed and carefully woven into a literary nest inspired by Edmonton’s urban growth.
CAUTION: Do not attempt to read this well-researched book in one sitting (especially at night). Each poem deserves a slow and careful read to fully appreciate the complexity and depth of the work. Reading the book several times is advised.
Layered with wit and dust and city noise, a cacophony of provocative sounds and images, some illuminated like LED billboards, some more subdued like sandblasted cement, this collection of 53 found and lyrical poems kept this country night owl awake: thinking and staring outside an imaginary bus window and into the hum of the glaring street lights.
Expect some travelling on highways littered with snake-skinned truck tires, and congested roads along homeless shelters, construction zones, city buildings, and trees that breathe with plastic bag lungs (p.97). I especially marveled at how the poems with couplets and tercets rhythmically reminded me of riding an early morning bus (or train), half-asleep like a zombie, void of emotion despite reading the daily paper and ripping out tidbits of information for future consumption.
And like newspaper headlines, Shepherd’s long and highly imaginative (sometimes bizarre) poem titles like “Do Magpies Dream of Electronic Sheep?” pulled me into poems that often made me shake my head from the absurdity of urban planners, government officials and politicians clutching dry technical manuals and facts. This is no glossy travelogue for vacation seekers and that’s okay. Shepherd offers a fair and realistic balance of material focusing on the city he now calls home.
Sometimes, a light giddiness (perhaps associated with lack of sleep) sneaks on to the bus, jars the reader to attention and you’re on a wild and humourous (sometimes frightening) ride through the city and/or into the bowels of the neighboring tar sands. Several times I found myself parked inside a wheelbarrow while rolled-up sod was unfurled at a construction site. As Shepherd quips: next year we’ll be back with the mechanical bison/to aerate your lawn. (p. 82)
Divided into three major zones: Reading (On) The Bus, Insomnia Bird, and Muster Point, the book’s frame thematically reinforces not only the rapid change of this growing city but exposes through its windows both the evolutionary blur and the stress-cracks between humans and nature. The magpies (in their starring roles) may have taken over Edmonton but other creatures such as rabbits, coyotes, pigeons, and even talking trees voice their grievances.
In the long poem “#Albertastrong”, Shepherd shares his concerns Man against Nature –- a grand conflict/as long as we’re winning (p. 78). In the poem, “Coyote Comes to Town (To Take A Class in Public Participation and Conflict Resolution at the University of Alberta)”, Shepherd speaks to the coyote: Traffic will never be your friend; but if it doesn’t//kill you it kills things you can eat (p. 56).
In the poem “You’ve Made Your Point, Said the Elm Tree to the Ford F-150”, he pens: In the photosensitivity of morning,/the city is an open window that can’t hear itself think (p. 23).
And perhaps, that’s the point of Insomnia Bird: Is anyone thinking anymore?
This is a collection that dares you to dust off your construction boots, slip on a safety vest and put on a ‘thinking hard’ hat. If you hesitate then that darn Magpie (with a capital “M”) like a God or a Goddess (with a capital “G”) will queg, queg, queg, queg or aag-aag and even pester you until you do.
In the poem “Don’t Let McDonald’s Into Heritage Days”, a Mapgie flew past/so close its tail feathers/left a razor cut across my forehead (p. 54). Or worse, it may just ignore you like in the poem “One for Sorrow (Or, Magpie Hits One Out of the Park)” – The Magpie doesn’t care about me,/sitting here writing./I’m an unnecessary comma, a vague pronoun,/an adjective to be discarded (p. 45).
How significant is the human race or nature in this fast-paced environment? Shepherd offers the reader so much to ponder!
One, two, three cheers for the outsider, the “unloved and unappreciated” magpie! Three more cheers and a five-star Goodreads rating to Shepherd for bringing some of these environmental issues to the marquee in such an original manner.
Coming soon to this blog: a Q & A feature with Kelly Shepherd, the poet behind Insomnia Bird. (UPDATED NOTE: Q & A posted here.)
According to the promotional handout from Thistledown Press, “Kelly Shepherd has worked as a kindergarten teacher in South Korea, and a construction worker in northern Alberta. His first full-length poetry collection, Shift, was published by Thistledown Press in 2016 and longlisted for the Edmonton Public Library’s People’s Choice Award in 2017. He has written six poetry chapbooks, most recently A Hidden Bench (the Alfred Gustav Press, 2017). Originally from Smithers, British Columbia, Kelly lives in Edmonton. He is the poetry editor for the environmental philosophy journal, The Trumpeter.”
Additional information about Shepherd and his books can be found on the publisher’s website.