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Write On Ottawa: A Canadian pipeline dystopia in prose poetry

By Joseph Hutt on October 25, 2015

Joseph Hutt is a freelance writer and editor living in Ottawa. You can find him on tumblr  and Twitter.

Welcome to Innisfree, a home to free-spirits, nonconformists, and one very determined hipster-turn-elk-farmer. Nestled between the redefined “Can’tadian” provincial borders of “PC Columbia” and “Cowberta,” it exists within an idyllic sanctuary of self-governance, thanks to a handful of survey errors.

But there’s a looming threat to this pastoral paradise: progress, in the form of an encroaching nexus of oil pipelines, compliments of the Gasbro oil conglomerate. While the community can only divert the project that threatens to sweep across their land, there are forces at work that will not take this trespass lying down, and may very well be willing to destroy an entire town in order to preserve a way of life.

Josh Massey’s The Plotline Bomber of Innisfree is a curious collection of prose poetry and satire. Highly relevant to Canada’s current extractivist policies, Massey offers us a glimpse of a future that may not be as far off as we would hope. As narrated by the quaint and troubled-by-change elk farmer Jeffery Inkster, this book is lighthearted and humorous, tempered as it may be with disturbing visions and implications.

Gustave Dore's engraving "Dante and the River of Lethe", from the Divine Comedy. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Dore’s engraving “Dante and the River of Lethe”, from the Divine Comedy. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The book also draws upon layers of symbolism and meaning. Among other things, you will find that Massey isn’t shy of invoking Classical and Indigenous mythologies. While you don’t necessarily need to know what the river Lethe represents in order to understand the basic plot, even a quick Wiki search tends to lend an interesting colour to the narrative.

Personally, one of my favourite aspects concerns Innisfree itself. While Innisfree is an actual town in Alberta, it’s an important literary allusion as well. In 1890, W.B. Yeats reputedly mastered the Romantic style—a style rooted in pastoral nostalgia—with his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” He accomplished this just in time for the world to stop caring. Under the banner of progress, Romanticism was already being paved over to make room for the apocalyptic and urban poetry of the Modernists.

Having thought of Innisfree in this frame, I have trouble looking at in any other way. This triumph of progress, this devaluing of nostalgia in return for an unpleasant reality is a clear theme throughout Massey’s book: the connection that people have to the land that they live on, one that is both spiritual and practical, is stripped of its idealism, becoming toxic with the fumes of pumping stations and crude oil spillage.

For a book described as “poetic” and “experimental,” it may come as a surprise that these transitions are fixed within a comprehensible plot line. There is a very clear progression of events, as seen through the eyes of Jeffery Inkster, and there are even satirical news briefs to keep you up to speed if you’re feeling lost.

Despite this, you can’t read Innisfree like you would your typical novel. In one review, Brett Josef Grubisic  seems to try to, and understandably rails against the fact that you can’t. This book contains impressionistic digressions, phrases you’ll have to reread and mull over, metaphors and experimental prose that you’ll have to ponder.

The fact is that, while it just so happens to resemble a novel, Innisfree is in many ways a work of poetry. As much as it adheres to a clear sense of narrative, it still asks for a degree of flexibility when it comes to interpretation. But don’t let this scare you off. Even if this kind of interpretation isn’t your style, it doesn’t take a literature degree to understand what’s going on.

Now, aside from those with an interest in experimental prose and poetry, Innisfree will also appeal to lovers of unique dystopian fiction. The mounting sense of paranoia, the weaponized drone patrols, and the ideological resistance nested within indolence: Massey taps into some very classic (and some very Canadian) tropes of dystopian fiction. One of his most novel ideas is the network of spy satellites that, through a careful analysis of the landscape, can predict the actions of the pipeline terrorists in the form prose poetry.

While this book can be picked up by the casual reader, I feel that there is more value here for those who are willing to put in a little more effort. As for myself, I quite enjoyed The Plotline Bomber of Innisfree, and I intend to give it the reread it deserves.

The Ottawa launch for The Plotline Bomber of Innisfree was at Perfect Books on October 18th, 2015. Its author, Josh Massey, is also originally from Ottawa. The book is available from Bookthug, its publisher.

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