Emily Ursuliak’s first book of poetry, Throwing the Diamond Hitch, contributes to the Canadian road trip genre with a story full of gusto and verve. The book chronicles an actual trip in the Summer of 1951 by Ursuliak’s grandmother and a friend, as they travel from Victoria, British Columbia to Red Deer, Alberta and back, the first leg in a car named Jason, and the second leg on horses named Monty and Peaches. As the colourful naming of cars and horses might already suggest, Ursuliak includes a cast of main and supporting characters at the beginning of the book for dramatic effect. In fact, one of the most memorable characters proves to be Pedro, the ladies’ “mischievous packhorse,” a character that seems like an unintended allusion to Rocinante, the horse Don Quixote rides on his own adventure and the name of John Steinbeck’s camper in Travels with Charley.
The cover of the book, with a beaming blue background that you can only see in the umbrella-like expanse of a Canadian prairie sky, includes a photograph of the two women, Phyllis and Anne, in matching Western shirts and hats, with kerchiefs around their necks and technicolour rosy cheeks. In their hands, they hold forks ready to take a bite, the tines full of something unidentifiable: perhaps humble pie, perhaps life itself. Like most road trip yarns, this one also emphasizes the journey over the destination—primarily a pursuit of “the diamond hitch: the packer’s knot.” In an early poem called “The Press,” Ursuliak writes that when a “reporter imagined / a meticulous itinerary,” the ladies respond with confidence and disregard:
Plan? There’s no plan—
that’s the point.
Their flippant answers,
their careless appearance,
push his plot off course,
the story veering—
While Ursuliak bases the book on a shared “travel diary” and takes only a “few liberties,” she treats their adventure “like a coil / of rope” or “a web / of stories” susceptible to being “unstrung,” “uncoil[ed],” and “fray[ed].” In other words, she renders a narrative into strands of lyric.
Six sections compose the book, covering different parts of the trip, which takes place between Monday, June 18, 1951 and Tuesday, August 14, 1951. Each section begins with a photograph and a caption from the diary that the ladies kept, and the book begins with photos from the first leg of the trip by automobile, along with handwritten captions. The end of the book includes a terrific photograph of the freight bill for the three horses transported from Vancouver to Victoria. While Ursuliak keeps the narrative arc of the adventure intact (bookended by prologue and epilogue) and often relies on prose paragraphs, sometimes the poems broken into lines feel like pared down prose from a writer more comfortable with fiction, stretching her hand, testing the reins of poetry. Still, the book includes some evocative and sonorous imagery that benefits from the isolation of line breaks:
sodden bread a pulp
that clings to my teeth and gums.
Feet burp into sodden boots;
saddle pads slap
the wet backs of the horses.
Or, take the following haiku-like portrait of Pedro, the packhorse, from a piece called “Getting Directions”:
at the junction.
Pedro stands in the centre,
his eyes fixed
on the road sign
These examples show two of the book’s three overall forms, columnar lyrics and staggered lyrics, forms that capture fragments like the distillation of time in a photographic still. The third form in the book, prose paragraphs, serves to represent the diary-like entries in the voices of the two characters. Ursuliak captures the personalities of Phyllis and Anne well, representing their differences in subtle ways and showcasing their sense of humour, humility, and humanity developed and tested along the way.
Overall, Ursuliak delivers a well-organized, smart, and polished collection of poems that would certainly make Phyllis and Anne proud. While I do wish that we could have heard more from their experience of driving to Alberta, on a highway yet to take the name of the Trans Canada, the object of the trip was not about speed, but “a rebellion against any / straight path on paper.” In fact, the staggered lyrics demonstrate, as lines literally “skittering off the paper,” that it was the unforeseeable moments, the detours, the slow pace, and the trotting that meant the most to these inspirational adventurers. In that sense, poetry offered Ursuliak the only suitable means to do justice to the narrative, which she definitely does in her debut.