In all critical discourse, the word “better” occupies a nebulous place. Viewed with suspicion by a culture steeped in the relativism of postmodern theory, the word conjures up all sorts of questions and qualifications. Who decides what is best? What do these decisions say about the biases, backgrounds or blind spots of the people who make them? Does determining what is best as a cultural marker rely entirely on the subjectivity of the judge, or are there objective standards that can be mobilized to support this effort?
Most practicing critics – or anthology editors – would probably argue that their decisions are at least to some extent based on some sort of yardstick. “I wanted stories that take risks,” writes Diane Schoemperlen in her introduction to “Best Canadian Stories 2021”. Bruce Whiteman emphasizes “[v]areas of interest and depth of curiosity ”as hallmarks of great essayists in his introduction to“ Best Canadian Essays 2021 ”. Guest editor Souvankham Thammavongsa comes closest to the postmodern pose in her introduction to “Best Canadian Poetry 2021” when she writes: “The best Canadian poetry is probably not in these pages, because the poet did not have it. not sent to a magazine, or did not have time to sit down to write it. Thammavongsa here recognizes what was excluded from the volume of poems explicitly considered the “best” of the year.
However, the argument can be made that the contents of these three volumes say at least as much about their respective editors as they do about the selections within their pages. Of the three, Schoemperlen turns out (perhaps unsurprisingly) to be the most stylistically adventurous. The 15 stories she chose span the gamut from the simple naturalism of Don Gillmor’s “Dead Birds”, about an extramarital affair between a rare book librarian and a man seeking a biography of John James Audubon, to the outspoken surrealism of the superb overture by Senaa Ahmad, “Let’s Play Dead” and “The Chronicle of the Lady with the Big Head” by Angélique Lalonde.
Elise Levine’s story “Arnhem” – one of the strongest selections in the anthology – centers in part on two female friends traveling in Europe; Levine’s characteristic lack of sentimentality and linguistic mastery separates his story from an essay co-authored by Jenna Butler and Yvonne Blomer in Whiteman’s volume. This piece, “On Leaving and Going Back: Femmes qui marchent”, is (somewhat paradoxically) a more poetic and conscious calculation of the subject.
Much of the “Best Canadian Essays 2021” material focuses on the buzzword of narrative non-fiction; history (both personal and global), sociology and culture are seen primarily through the first-person experience of an author’s “me”. Poet Rob Winger can speak for many contributors to the anthology when he asks: “[H]How do we stand now, with so many parts of the world still on fire, so many of us still locked up, so many pieces of gold still moving? The chime here with Frances Koziar’s piece “The Meaning of Poor” and “Upirngasaq (Arctic Spring)” by Sheila Watt-Cloutier is clear and resonant.
The twin poles of our current global crises – climate change and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – appear throughout the Essay volume, and even appear in Schoemperlen’s short fiction volume (in Lucia’s story Gagliese “Through COVID-Glass”). That’s not to say that these topics are missing from “Best Canadian Poetry 2021,” although they tend to blend into the subtextual background. “It’s the collapse of infrastructure,” writes Manahil Bandukwala in “This is not a monsoon poem”. “These are potholes / flooded with water / cars / falling into ditches / hit / run over / by / other cars. “Thammavongsa has mainly permeated his selection of lyrics which stick to a simple (but never simplistic) syntax that recalls his own approach to versification.
These three volumes have much to recommend, although the stylistic virtuosity exhibited in “Best Canadian Stories 2021” most explicitly testifies to a range of scriptures produced at this time. But it is Thammavongsa’s selection of poetry that offers the most surprising and memorable moment. David Romanda’s poem “We Really Love Your Writing” handles something in five short lines that few of the other writers of these anthologies even attempt: it makes his reader laugh out loud. And this has to be seen as one of the best results of a year of uncertainty, turmoil and conflict.