Reviews for Until You Make the Shore:
What else is a poem to do but give voice to what we can’t speak of? In his brilliant and deeply moving debut, Cameron Conaway somehow creates a postmodern, penal version of Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. He conjures poems in the voices of the young women of the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center, imploring them to speak, to scream, to whisper, as they desperately swim toward the far shore and a possible horizon where life might be a little better, where hope isn’t some banal platitude. It’s been debated whether poetry makes anything happen. The players in this book don’t give a damn. Along with their poet-creator, they wade into the fray of hurt minds and savaged bodies to expand the world we’ve permitted ourselves to see. This book’s unflinching gaze ultimately is about mercy and forgiveness. As one of the young women says, “i can’t take this shit and sweep it clean,” and, of course, that’s the myth Conaway explodes. Forgiveness and mercy are hard work, and, although art transforms us, none of us is coming completely clean. As one of the detainees declares, and as I’ll attest after reading this astonishing book, “For the first time in my life I had fun crying.”
Cameron Conaway’s Until You Make the Shore breaks my heart and reminds me of the ironies of justice and of the fine line between injustice and punishment in a world where you have to “come close” to see that “sometimes this house is realer than the real world.” Where many contemporary poets shrink in the face of pain and heartache, Cameron’s powerful words dare us to come close, to not only see, but also discover the young women whose freedom to use language defies their incarceration, where the power for language breaks the barriers that separate the poet’s imaginative power from the storyteller. It is as if Cameron Conaway were telling his own stories without telling his own stories or telling our stories without telling our stories. We are immediately among the “insiders,” no longer among the “outs.” Page after page, the poetry is freshly surprising in its depiction of the new world of the young who must not only be the parents, but also be the children of the parents. Cameron’s Until You Make the Shore explores the voices of those whose world is lost without this complex weaving of their tales, the stories are so sadly real, they become ours. These are contemporary poems in the finest sense, poems for today’s youth as well as for the old. They are urgently necessary. These poems will break your heart even while healing you because they are poems of hope and freedom. They will draw you into the speakers’ world and into their souls, into the poets’ vision of what the world is if only we could come close enough. These unforgettable stories in this untraditional telling will remain with the reader forever. This is Cameron’s first book of poems, but already, it is a wise depiction of our world as it is today. Like one of the book’s speakers whose boyfriend writes that “if the moon were an eye/ and i could be the moon/ i would watch you/ through beige curtains/ all night while you slept/ cause i would never/ need to sleep/ only change perspectives/ and so see you from infinite angles…” we are invited to see another world through a different lens as we “haven’t before.” These poems are an amazingly different, but necessary voice.
For those who fear poetry, namely for its potential lack of coherency, narrative, or obvious purpose, here is an entry point.
…each realismburning tale is an urn painted in succinct, sonnet-like revelatory turns.
~ Kevin Kvas, Ottawa Arts Review
As one might expect there is a great deal of righteous anger here but there’s also a great deal of humanity, a surprising dollop of humour and a more than intermittent flash of hope. These young women are all very interesting characters and the stories they don’t so much tell as speak around or allude to are filled with details about family, environment and life that repeatedly score with the reader by being individual and completely convincing. This collection spoke to me in the same way a lot of really good plays can speak to me, through a group of fascinating characters who had affecting stories to tell. I knew I was reading poetry but somehow felt as if I was reading drama as well.
Equally fascinating as the language in this book is the space between the language- there are gaps between words, odd placement to some of the lines and brave spaces of white occupying the largest part of certain pages to indicate lapses or alternations in thought and speech. As a man who’s made his living writing dialogue for all sorts of media I know very well how the most difficult thing for the writer to indicate, for actors or the reader, are those spaces in communication where nothing is being said. In the theatre it’s often indicated by the words BEAT or PAUSE. In film or television the writer devises a bit of business or the description of a changing facial expression to indicate the character has something happening internally that can’t really be expressed externally through words; things like allowing a thought to be processed, a decision to be made, searching for the next word or phrase, trying to suppress a sudden urge to do something emotional or physical or even those strange “white noise” moments we can have in our brain when we can’t really explain what’s been going on in our head at all. In a normal conversation these moments can last anywhere from a nanosecond to several long minutes.
The need for theatrical compression truncates these moments in art but they are still crucially important in any convincing exchange of contemporary dialogue and this is particularly true for people who end up in the penal system who are, often, not quite as articulate and glib as those who write plays or poetry. With Cameron’s visual work on the page, as well as the punctuation that evolves as the manuscript progresses, the reader is not just given a story but they’re also given a very strong sense of how the audio delivery of that story takes place, the rhythm and thought process behind the story. There are points where I feel the reader’s thoughts rushing in to fill the voids between text entries are very close to what the character’s thoughts were as the story was being related. It’s an effect of such brilliance in its subtlety that most people won’t even register it’s happening- which is exactly how these kinds of things work best.
~ Brad Fraser, author of award winning plays including Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, Poor Super Man, True Love Lies