Where the Wild Things Are

Poet Dani Couture walks the fine line between urban life and the natural world

By Stacey May Fowles

Canadian poetry has a long tradition of exploring and surviving the wilderness. Pratt, Service, Lee, Atwood — all have been interested, obsessed even, with a landscape both beautiful and terrifying. In fact, it’s become cliché that our national poetry is infatuated with the wild and man’s place in it. For this reason, Toronto-born Dani Couture is the much-needed urban update of our national literary obsession with a natural world.

Born on a military base to a Francophone father and an Anglophone mother, Couture has lived everywhere from Vancouver to North Bay, and while her work shows a reverence to the wilds of the canon that came before her, her sensibilities are firmly rooted in an awareness of the concrete coldness of her Toronto home. For Couture, disconnection to our environment is the source of our modern failings. Her poetry, while populated with bears and blue herons, tree bark and frost, is also heavy with the modern panic of illness and mortality.

Couture’s infatuation with these two extremes inspired her to create her online project Animal Effigy (animaleffigy.com), a photo essay that she refers to as “tracking urban prey” and that obviously has a strong connection to her writing. “[Animal Effigy] focuses on the strained relationship between urban life and the natural world,” she says. “We’ve divorced from our environs. We’ve razed the earth and repopulated it with animal effigies. Defanged and neutered, these animals live static lives in corporate logos, on T-shirts, as plush toys. We wear them, we sell them, and sometimes we make them sell their flesh to us: happy cartoon chickens offering plates of fried drumsticks.” The project is a fitting one for someone who describes her relationship with animals as “adoration, respect, and in some cases, a healthy dose of fear.”

“If writing poetry is like a three metre springboard dive, then writing fiction is to swim across a lake and back again a half dozen times.”

Couture’s Sweet, her recently released second collection of poetry, pushes the collision between the modern life and the wild even further. With its consistent references to the natural world, the book is often preoccupied with the very opposite — artificial, sterile hospital spaces and man working against the process of decay. “Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the connections between poetry, the body and illness. Poetry reminds me of the loose order of the body,” says Couture. “When the tension and order of words are perfect, we barely register what makes it so. It is the same with the body. When the body is healthy, we do not question its functions and processes. We take for granted that the hand picks up the glass from the table, that the heart beats automatically, pushing blood through endless highways of veins. It’s only when there is a new pain, lump or weakness, that we look inside, that we question how things work.”

When asked about the reoccurring theme of illness in the book, Couture is candid. She says she’s spent most of her life watching a close family member endure a long-term illness. Doing so has changed her in way she says she didn’t realize at first. “Anything can become normal if you keep its company long enough. So writing about illness, for me, is like writing about lunch.”

With two collections of poetry to her name — Good Meat in 2006, and this year’s Sweet, both from Pedlar Press — Couture is currently at work on her debut novel, aptly titled Black Bear on Water. “I enjoy both [fiction and poetry] equally for different reasons. If writing poetry is like a three metre springboard dive, then writing fiction is to swim across a lake and back again a half dozen times.”

Fittingly, when Couture was asked where and how her work was best read she responded succinctly: “Over a campfire.”

Poems from Sweet (Pedlar Press)

Children, here are the crayons you need
to correct the stories. Break into
your schools and shake loose
the grey metal shelves, the lies
we’ve been telling you so you’ll sleep.
The bears want not
the honey, but the bees. Carry a swarm
in your pocket to feed the beasts you meet

War Games
Some lives we measure in
war movies.
Hamburger Hill at fourteen. Platoon
at nineteen, Full Metal Jacket
at twenty-five.
Those times outside North Bay
we play Apocalypse Now
under the wooden raft–
a whole world fatigued
and a fist full of quotes:
I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.
It smells like victory.
But it is already dinner and day
a far-off rumble.
The thick thunder of helicopters
tick off heavy jungle minutes
in a temperate way.
Born on a military base
the opening day
of The Deer Hunter,
your life in epaulettes begins:
a K-ration in your purse,
a metal fork, a foolproof plan.

Mechanical Baby
Outside the subway station, a teenager leans over her
crying mechanical baby. Cotton-stuffed body, plastic
head, arms, legs. No clothes. She places it on the
sidewalk, considers the issue, lights a cigarette. Half-
finished, snubs the butt out on a brick wall, pinches
the end, stuffs it into her coat pocket. Commuters are
careful to avoid stepping on the child, but some still
do, then apologize to unblinking eyes. The teen palms
the voice box that’s sunk into the baby’s foam chest,
stuffs it into her knapsack, the small tin cry muffled
by canvas, a calculus textbook, old gym shorts, the
lunch that she’s going to throw out. She doesn’t need
the baby until fifth period anyway. It’s only worth
twenty-five percent of her grade. Like a Christmas
kitten returned to the pound at Easter, the child will
be recycled a dozen times. Soon missing a finger,
an eye; pressed up against the flat chest of another
young mother looking for a place to muffle the cry