“Burning Province: Poems” by Michael Prior

Michael Prior (photo: Rocio Anica) Michael Prior (photo: Rocio Anica)

Michael Prior’s second poetry collection Burning Province opens with a stark image, one that speaks to the trauma and intergenerational memory that carries through the volume.


In some, the luggage lies open
like a mouth mid-sentence.
In others, closed zippers grimace


“A hundred and fifty pounds” comes with a quote from the BC (British Columbia) Security Commission in 1942 stating that “each adult will be allowed 150 and each child will be allowed 75 pounds of baggage.” History and generational narrative (Prior’s maternal grandparents spent time in a Japanese-Canadian internment camp) are reflected through the possessions chosen:


lacquered chopsticks, silver forks,
a hammer scarred by rust



Burning Province" Poems,Michael Prior (McClelland & Stewart, March 2020)
Burning Province: Poems, Michael Prior (McClelland & Stewart, March 2020)

Prior’s collection is set in British Columbia against landscapes of the wildfires of 2015 and 2017, and the poems explore family, identity and history—his own personal Eurasian heritage as well as the stories of his parents and his grandparents.

“Tashme” opens with “At ten, I thought it sounded Japanese”. The names “Taylor, Shirras, Mead” neatly italicized underneath the title hint at something different; Prior explicitly explains in his author’s note that “Tashme” is an acronym for the BC Security Commission officials who organized the Internment. The opening line lingers—it’s one that forces Prior to ask


Is this the signal or its foil?
That I thought the name was Japanese.


A second poem called “Tashme” appears later in the collection: this time, an observation of a wedding party as


they straggle
into a Jeep, retreat behind tinted panes
past where the shacks once stood.


The wildfires are never far away: “fires metastasize through the Interior”.


Prior often twins together the two themes—in “Portrait of my grandmother as the burning province”, Prior writes of his ill grandmother:


You, already husk and halving
watched breakers of ash collapse towards the coast.


The imagery of flames (and perhaps all that is flammable) comes through in “Pastoral” even when Prior isn’t writing of the wildfires—“molten  glass”, “rocks are choked with millwort” and then it is over a fire where, achingly, “the family friend said, Jap, not Japanese.”

While very much exploring personal history and experiences, there also remains that sense that the specific details are, in fact, universal. Prior’s observations are pointed, but there is a musicality to them, even—or perhaps especially—to the ones that jolt.  In “Pastoral” Prior writes


For every measure
an equal and opposite erasure.


And in “The light from Canada” Prior observes:


To say the light falls or is from
is misdirection:


it has no discernible mass,
belongs to no one.