Before we had to move, I had heard of Ellie Sawatzky’s debut poetry collection None of This Belongs to Me (Nightwood Editions, 2021) and was intrigued by the title.
I interpreted it like a confession, and I sensed sadness and loss.
When I visited Toronto in May right after the landlord put “our” house in Vancouver up for sale, that house was almost the only thing on my mind. Language is slippery. It was our house but it was also not ours. It took visiting Toronto to write a poem about what we were losing in Vancouver. The idea of ownership (what actually belongs to me? what can I call mine?) haunted me. Sawatzky’s title returned. None of this belongs to me.
When I heard she was giving a poetry reading at Massy Arts this past September, I was determined to go and finally buy the book from the author herself (provided I liked what I heard, and I did).
In her collection, I found coming-of-age poems, ex-boyfriend poems, Kenora (Ontario) poems where the author grew up, Vancouver poems where the author lives, vacation poems, and work poems.
My favourite section of the book (where the book’s title comes from) are these “work” poems that offer vignettes of the speaker’s role as a nanny looking after a three-year-old girl called “B.”
Take these lines from the poem “Nounou” that also relate to language:
I sit with B in her kitchen, discuss
a Safeway bouquet
of lilies. I say lis. B says
None of this belongs
That twinge of sadness and loss is amplified in “Forgive Us Our Trespasses” where Sawatzky writes: “The first girl just wants something to belong to her…”
While the book covers multiple subjects, the connecting thread of “playing a part” was most evident for me. Playing the part of mother, of adult, of being responsible. The joy in reading the book was discovering what “this” in the title refers to. The lines quoted above make it explicit—“B” doesn’t belong to the speaker, but there are many other examples of what doesn’t belong to her throughout the collection.
Adulthood, with all its revelations, loneliness, and losses, is another one.
B doesn’t know
she won’t always be a child,
the way I didn’t know I’d be
thrust into this thistle-stitched
ditch of adulthood.
I love the assonance of those short ‘i’s, echoing the narrowness of a ditch, as well as the spitty awkwardness of those “th” and “ch” consonants that suit the thorny journey to adulthood.
On a road trip at 24 with her parents, Sawatzky writes in “Recalculating”:
In the silence now
we’re all adults and no one knows
And in “What Blue”:
With Grandfather dead,
we are three single women, sisters, girls, absorbing
the mysteries of the world comparing blues.
These are poignant lines, but there is also humour and sass in Sawatzky’s writing, like in “Blessings Upon U and Ur Bullshit” that she dedicates to her neighbour “who threatened / to have my car towed / bc it was parked in front of / ur house…u’ll understand when ur / a mom u said / u’ll understand / when ur a homeowner / but I won’t / I will never be like u”.
Her house doesn’t belong to her either, and how many other renters can relate to the feeling conveyed in the line “i pay her / so she owns me”?
Sleep doesn’t belong to the speaker anymore when she’s at her father’s bedside in a hospital room in the opening poem. Rob Taylor beautifully analyzes “Overnights at the Hospital” in his Tyee article, “Be Brief and Tell Us Everything.”
A self-conscious voice emerges in some of Sawatzky’s poems. A surprising number are self-referential (I began counting how many have “poem” in the poem) and felt they could have been stronger without this (but I am of the school that doesn’t usually like the fourth wall broken). Sawatzky mentions in this interview with Rob Taylor that she likes playing with expectations of poetry and drawing attention to its process, but I found those poems detracted from her otherwise strong theme.
Sawatzky is at her best when the poem isn’t obvious, when it fades into the background and the reader is left with images and sounds that haunt, punch, linger, explode; when she’s working out what does and doesn’t belong to her and subverts readers’ expectations of girlhood and female desire. The reader might assume someone who wants kids or who does want them but can’t have them would pursue work as a nanny. But not so. In “Crystals,” Sawatzky declares, “I tell my mother I never want kids.”
By the end of the collection, I notice a movement from naming and/or lamenting what doesn’t belong to her towards claiming what does belong to her…even the unpleasant parts one doesn’t like to admit.
In “Self-Portrait as Ostrich,” the second-last poem, she sounds the most vulnerable and mature:
I do dream regularly
that I’m gathering eggs
And I thought it was because I used
to look after children
Or because I’ve rewatched
Fly Away Home
so many times and maybe that’s true
but maybe also
I’m finally taking responsibility for me
Anger has a shape too
Ditto shame ditto pride when it unfurls
when I rise
Up off my knees to become
the biggest bird alive
Here is a speaker who accepts she doesn’t have it figured out (“maybe that’s true”) and holds numerous possibilities out in her hand like seed for a bird, not sure which one will take. But the uncertainty doesn’t shrivel, paralyze, or keep her on her knees. Rather, it emboldens her to the extent that she stands up to become “the biggest bird alive.”
Coming out of (and soon approaching another) season of uncertainty, as is the way life ebbs and flows, None of this Belongs to Me felt like a gift at the right time. I am prone to anger too, prone to complaining about life not being fair (and yes, the old adage who said life was fair? always plays in my mind in response), and there is a sisterhood, so to speak, in Sawatzky’s words and in the kind message she wrote in my copy of her book:
Sending care as you settle into your new space. Hope you enjoy the familiar and strange in these poems.
I have been so focussed on our old house, our old city, what we lost and left behind (and there is a season for mourning) but I think it is now time for me to look ahead, not only for myself but for the sake of my child, who very much belongs to me even as she simultaneously does not belong to me. Oh language, oh the paradox of both/and.
The future is as it always was, a quivering
night lit occasionally by lightning. World