Everything Colin Browne has made up or invented in The Shovel seems written in prose; everything in it he has “unearthed”—from research, the stories of others and source texts—appears as poetry. In this extraordinary book, he has inverted the way we have been defining and privileging forms of language in English for the last century; self-expression becomes prosaic, the recording of history, poetic.
While The Shovel contains a range of styles and voices—everything from concrete poetry to “recollections of things past in tranquility” to delightfully humourous accounts of the poet’s accidental encounters with prominent philosophers—this book lives and sings through its epic passages. Ezra Pound defined the epic as “a poem containing history,” and in these necessary poems Browne is a restless prowler through history’s layers, sudden veerings and terrible, wonderful intersections. The Shovel is a book composed in wartime, an act of reckoning, a record of unkept anniversaries and possible histories (in texts devoted to the likes of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Linton Garner). In exhuming the mesopelagic shades of the 20th century, The Shovel collapses, at last, the reigning fiction of time.
Every age demands a poetry to contain it, and here Colin Browne takes a measure of both the privileges and the appalling costs of service and citizenship, from colonial British Columbia to World War I Mesopotamia.