I tend to hold a lot of skepticism toward poetry anthologies with really specific themes or criteria for entry. I find their exclusionary nature a bit problematic; and the so-called unifying force behind these types of books can often drown out the merits of individual poems. Crossing Lines, edited by Allan Briesmaster and Steven Michael Berzensky, does have a rigid formula for inclusion – poets born in the United States but who immigrated to Canada during (though not necessarily because of) the Vietnam War – but aims at the broader theme of Canada’s relationship with the United States in times of conflict and the impact of such a mass exodus of poets-to-be from one country to another during a specific time (1965 to 1975). In their introduction, the editors confess that these are somewhat wobbly premises on which to build an anthology, and have wisely allowed their poets to explore the themes however they choose, or to not explore them at all.
There are a number of extremely talents poets included in this anthology. These include Leon Rooke, Ellen Jaffe, Dave Margoshes, Bernadette Rule, George Amabile and George Fetherling. The work from these poets is nothing less than what you’d expect from them, and their high quality make up the heart of this book.
But like any anthology of this size and type, you’re also going find a mélange of poems that just don’t work, that are undone by their attempts to answer the book’s perceived themes. The subjects here are war, migration, a lost sense of home, as well as activism and protest, and the results are mixed. I can say the poems that explore the current war in Iraq or George W. Bush are uniformly bad. The conflict is too close in our collective conscious, the emotional response to its perpetrator too blunt and trite. Other poems spin their wheels trying to say something truly new about the Vietnam War, a cultural touchstone that has been blown well beyond its historical significance simply as a result of the dominance and hegemony of the Baby Boomer generation.
The best poems in this anthology are the ones that don’t forget to, well, be poems. That is, they don’t get bogged down by the theme to forget all of the techniques and artistry that can make a poem sublime. Thankfully, there are plenty of selections in Crossing Lines that stand up well on their own, that would count as great poems no matter where or under what circumstances they were published.