Before I read Fallout, the new book of poetry by former Saskatchewanian Sandra Ridley, I had never heard of “Downwinders,” “trinitite,” or “the Tumbler-Snapper Test Series.” “Atomic Cowboys?” The term sounds like an apt name for a country punk band, but in the Notes section of the Ottawa poet’s book we learn that these cowboys were hired by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to “herd cattle over Ground Zero just after detonations – for the purpose of studying the effects of radiation on animal tissue.”
Indeed, all is not what it seems in this distinctive book, released in 2010 by Hagios Books. The back cover copy reveals that the collection “appears to be about the legacy of the nuclear age,” and many of the poems do deal with the Fallout the title suggests: illnesses spawned by “Radioactive particles blowing past the Dakotas” and the “blind rabbits, broken Joshua trees” at the Trinity Test Site, for example, but these poems are interspersed between pieces about childhood, rural life, and a broken family, and the book closes with a long poem in ghazal form – “Life: Ghazals for C.,” – about the poet’s sister who died at age two.
The latter text especially showcases Ridley’s strong voice; it was previously published as a Jackpine Press chapbook and earned a bpNichol Chapbook Award (Ridley was co-winner), plus it garnered the poet a finalist position for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Impressive.
Perhaps most striking is the writer’s effective use of irony, beginning with the opening poem, “Funeral”: “First time the Officer rides in high style is four days after he dies.\His hearse is polished spotless, screw-you dignified.” Sometimes irony is achieved through clever line-breaks, as we read in the ghazal sequence, “Lift”: “We ask the Fates to respond & they do\with nothing but dread for our questions”.
Novelty and danger are sisters in this book, as they sometimes are in the flesh and blood world. After bomb detonations, “the wind shifts west, shimmers rain.\Children run outside, spin and catch water drops,\small mouths open.”
Much of the book concerns serious matters, but injections of humour balance the tone. In “No Water,” for example, we read that “Luxury was having a summer outhouse\with not one seat but two.”
Saskatchewan readers will appreciate the numerous nods toward prairie realities. Ridley writes that at the Foam Lake elevator, “there’s always a shaft of dusty light\and specks of mouse shit swept into the cracks of old floorboards.” The images are frequently blanched with sadness, as in “Farm Sale,” where a barn is “asunder with drifts” and “cattle are half-starved,” and despair is palpable in rhythmic lines like “she cries by her hand pump in the kitchen\for the morning’s dead gopher in the well.” Suggestion is the key here (and always).
Finally, a note on the book’s design: it’s lovely. Wider than long, and compact in overall size, Fallout is a book made more for the hands than most. May it fall into yours.
THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM