Celestial Navigation

by Paulette Jiles
ISBN: 0771044054

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A Review of: Celestial Navigation
by Zach Wells

Paulette Jiles is an author whose contemporary presence is quite prominent. Since the original publication of Celestial Navigation, Paulette Jiles has published a great many books of poetry and prose, including a bestselling novel in 2002 called Enemy Women. The poems in Celestial Navigation display a tenuous connection to traditional verse forms, yet, paradoxically, her work seems to have aged less well than the work of poets like Layton and Van Toorn.
In 1984, Jiles not only beat out Van Toorn for the Governor General's Award, but also took home the hardware for the Pat Lowther and Gerald Lampert Awards. Celestial Navigation is a case study in the inability of awards juries to identify work that will be of lasting significance; a book whose theme and technique speaks to the concerns of a given historical moment often has a limited shelf-life. To be sure, there are elements of Jiles's poetry that merit praise. Some of her metaphors and similes are at once odd and propos, as when "the long-legged runner's/Long legs are folded like jackstraws in a windfall." ("Dallas") The effectiveness of this trope is due not only to the original and apt comparison, but to the consonantal pattern of l,' f' and d' sounds. There is also much wit to be found in this book, often in snappy one-liners like "The Night Manager has a hard time managing his nights." ("The Brass Atlas") Jiles shows herself to be a dab hand at the dramatic monologue, as in a piece spoken in the voice of "The Tin Woodsman": "Rusting is painless./I will settle/in the shadow of this dry rock/and be metal." There are a few powerful poems in this book, particularly in the first section, "Waterloo Express" (dealing mostly with tropes of travel and themes of dislocation), and in "Northern Radio" (based on her time as a reporter in northern Ontario). Ultimately, however, this is not poetry that insists we must keep it onboard. This is due in part to a too-close resemblance to certain key precursors, most notably Adrienne Rich ("We came here by chart and intention,/with calipers and T-square, past shoals/marked XX like a kiss with teeth.") and Sylvia Plath ("We come bearing supper/our heads on fire."); to a slipshod approach to craft, prosy longueurs, awkward and arbitrary line-breaks; and to a predilection in many poems to be heavy-handed in her message, to allow politics to take over and control the poem. This is a flaw of Rich's as well, and of Layton's for that matter, but the payoff in the case of these two is much greater than it is with Jiles. Although it will probably make its way onto some university course lists, this multi-award-winning book seems ultimately destined to be a footnote in CanLit history.

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