160 pages
ISBN 978-0-88922-605-0
DDC C811'.54





Reviewed by Douglas Barbour

Douglas Barbour is a professor of English at the University of Alberta.
He is the author of Lyric/anti-lyric : Essays on Contemporary Poetry,
Breath Takes, and Fragmenting Body Etc.


Rob McLennan has a terrific knack for finding highly quotable epigraphs for his poems, and in Gifts he has chosen a bunch of fine ones for the four sequences that make up this collection. The only problem is then writing something that reads as well as its epigraphs. At his best, McLennan writes a poetry that hovers on the edge of syntactic breakdown but doesn’t quite fall over it; the poems then offer readers a kind of comprehension that holds back just enough to whet the imaginative appetite.


The title section, poems written to a series of friends, seemingly based on phrases or words they may have provided somehow, seems too fragmented, its parts never quite feeling whole. Things get better in the other three, however, especially “weightless” and “[sex at thirty-eight] unfinished shield notes; letters to g.” There are even some lines that might end up as epigraphs in some other writer’s work.


In “weightless,” the writer wanders a city of words and wondering, trying for find a purchase, some weight, in a world continually refusing it. Yet he must also admit that sometimes weightlessness is good: “what is happening between blades of grass / what is weightless”; or not: “what is harbouring a mean streak / what is weightless.” Somehow the poem reaches a balance and accepts that.


In the final sequence, the poet writes while crossing the Canadian Shield, in homage to such mentors as McKinnon and Kroetsch, and a lover unnamed: “I am writing you now / in discovery; just as you // would write me.” The land and the body provide an image bank for the poem’s meditation on love and loss. As a whole, this is one of McLennan’s best pieces, and a fitting finale to Gifts.



McLennan, Rob., “Gifts.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024,