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Chapbook Review: Sharon Berg’s Odyssey and Other Poems as Existential Theory

By Terry Trowbridge

Photo: Terry Trowbridge

Cross-Canada Career Context

The Canadian poet Sharon Berg’s Odyssey and Other Poems (2017) is a saddle-stitched chapbook of 8 poems from the time before the pandemic. The chapbook itself did not seem to make a huge splash in Canadian poetry, but maybe it really should have been talked about more. Sharon Berg is an important figure in Canadian poetry. To a small extent, she always had the ability to inherit a place in CanLit because, for a brief conflict-laden moment, her mother married the iconic poet Al Purdy. Purdy has always inspired extreme relationships with other writers, either of devoted friendship or alienated indignities. The unsteady connections that make Berg’s family and Purdy’s family overlap are too easy to overstate. It was too brief, too fraught, and was merely one of many introductions of Berg to CanLit. Her career has been entirely her own, with multiple starts, pauses, and redirections.

As a traveler, Berg is the consummate Canadian writer of the 20th century. She lived in Sarnia, right in the middle of the Great Lakes in the middle of North America, obtained her Doctorate in Education from the University of British Columbia on the Pacific coast, and now lives in Charlottetown, a city on the Atlantic coast. As a teacher, Berg’s focus was on First Nations education and teaching elementary school. What is more important to CanLit is that Berg has been an active producer and promoter of Canadian poetry everywhere that she has lived. In this way she is archetypal for CanLit, attending literary events as an out-of-towner audience in Toronto, Burlington, and Hamilton, while being a literary publisher and local literary activist at home, in Sarnia. Her vocation is to experience the breadth of an entire continent.

From 2006 to 2017 she was the publisher of Big Pond Rumours E-Zine, and Big Pond Rumours Press, which would produce between 2-4 poetry chapbooks each year. Berg’s own poetry has been published in chapbooks and also on audio cassette and CD. Now, in Charlottetown, Berg runs the charming Oceanview Writer’s Retreat, thereby continuing her previous roles as an audience and a facilitator for poets. Writers (and painters and photographers) who attend Oceanview are therefore treated to the support of a learned publisher, but also have the opportunity to learn about the organizing groundwork for a literary scene that requires hundreds of kilometers of travel, and moving house from ocean to ocean, to really get going.

And, as an aside: Since Charlottetown is so close to Gander International Airport, one wonders if there is some transatlantic literary potential for CanLit to outreach to other continents. Canada has more distracting or hectic, less focused and productive, places where a writer could land than on Sharon Berg’s seaside door. Given all of Berg’s experience with CanLit, there should be more interviews about the business, and more critical engagement with her poems, and Oceanside could be such a writing and learning hub. 

I will engage with three of her poems here. Mostly, this is because 6 pages of the chapbook are addressed to Al Purdy directly, and the others could all implicate him in matters that I am not qualified to interpret. Someone else ought to write a more fulsome psychosocial or gender theory analysis of this chapbook, as a whole. It would be an academic enterprise; but it would also grapple with the deepest significance of the poems as autobiography, as empowering, and as a counternarrative to of some of CanLit’s more institutionalized hagiography. After all, there is also a writer’s residency in Canada called the Al Purdy A-Frame, constructed out of love by many of Purdy’s friends. I cannot justly craft a discussion of antithesis or nemesis. Odyssey is a chapbook that can make a more complete, more vivid picture of the tensions in Canadian literature. But for me to attempt that would render it into mere conjecture and gossip.

The Poems: Odyssey

Photo: Terry Trowbridge

“Odyssey: Contemplations the Angels Have Not Left Us” is an eight-part, five-page epic about Canadian civilians working amongst multiple genocides of the 1990s. She begins with Rwanda during the genocide in 1994. “In this family/we ask questions of the one/who has been there” Berg explains, relating verbal conversations, handwritten letters “from Nairobi, in the spring,” and watching on television, “as they collapse from exhaustion/on the lava rock at Goma, where cholera/claims them…” Berg synthesizes Rwandan tragedy through the Canadian multimedia secondhand, “And the truth is horrible/for this is just a paragraph/in the story of a river.”

“Odessey” moves on to Bosnia’s televised ethnic cleansing; glances at Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (that would end with the two-state solution at Camp David); notes the Chinese occupation of Tibet that became a North American cause; the war declared by the Mohawk in Oka, Quebec against the Canadian state, and even others. Berg’s litany of genocides is definitive of the 1990s zeitgeist.

She weaves them into a metaphysics of political philosophy: “River of Life or Stream of Consciousness. It is a strong current…with a destination and no boat.” Berg examines the role of dreaming in the social bonds between people who know each other. But she also points out the physical version of our shared consciousness, “the human body is 70% water./We forget the Great Flood is upon the/Earth as we speak.” For Berg, humans are an aqueous consciousness. That physicality is the practical connection between environmental atrocities and crimes against humanity.

In this poem, Berg sees a potential remedy for the grand atrocities of the 1990s in the realm of the political. She calls for people to recognize they are active, and not passive, participants in history. “The Earth itself is our task…We are one with the host.” Berg references Indigenous ways to ground oneself, while also invoking Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity as a fact of life: that the world is vast and ungrounded even while it's interrelated.

In terms of synchronicity and zeitgeist, Berg might have an aptitude for Gen Zed and the next. The 1990s contexts for her political philosophy is reflected in the cover art of the chapbook: a digitized photograph of a rural dirt road in overcast weather, printed in the resolution of a 1990s computer monitor. The aesthetics and the integration of Indigenous self-care strategy with the anxieties of world travelers is very much a current aesthetic.


The poem “Statues” problematizes the relationship between fatherhood’s masculinity and childhood. Berg reverses the active role of the male gaze’s initiative, instead discussing the child’s gaze as active. She writes in the second person voice, “You by your father’s shoulder/in the workshop…he doesn’t realize you are waiting for something simple.” A child watches their father working his car. The child’s gaze defines their father as the object of study. The child, as a learner, internalizes gender codes and other social scripts, and uses them to build their relationship, “He tells you how wires are coded…Silently, you make that toolbox/your contract of love,/your act of handing him the right wrench/demonstrates your belief in his ability.” 

Photo: Terry Trowbridge

However much Berg can imbue the child with agency, she does not let it extend beyond an intellectual level. She ends with an ambiguous threat, “You learn early, the limit of your ability…in a game of wait/misinterpreted.” Hierarchy reasserts itself. The masculinity of the father in the poem means that he does not respond to the active role of his daughter. In fact, she must dissociate in order to cope with the power that he projects. (Al Purdy is not Sharon Berg’s biological father, though; so, this poem is unlikely to be about him). 


Earlier in the chapbook, “2 Songs” are poems dedicated to Berg’s pregnancy. She imagines what she must give to her child, effectively laying the groundwork for being a mother. They are wonderful, happy, supportive, optimistic, and giving little verses. (One day, maybe they could be reprinted in an anthology of poems for baby showers and late-night nursing).

Photo: Terry Trowbridge

“Trouble” is about a bad day for her child. It is a day of accidents with bumped knees and spilled food. There is a fell mood. Tea leaves change into “dried beetles/mummified spies that tattle-tale.” The kid has a hard time, “the cat/jumps the cradle of her arms/my daughter stumbles/and the lamp is a crashing globe...” On a didactic level, the poem describes a day that every parent can recognize. Kids break things.

In the context of the entire chapbook, “Trouble” is a domestic scene, undone. The promised good intentions of “2 Songs” are immaterial to the clumsiness of kids, the tattling metaphors of beetle-spies, or the unaccountability of a cat. Disorder, for a moment, reigns. It is the opposite of the father in “Statues” with an orderly workshop, who explains how to fix a car, and the use of every tool. Berg, though, is writing in the first person. She takes a kind of personal responsibility. Or, at least, she is personally responding.

In Review

Odyssey and Other Poems is a deeply serious document about psychical endurance. It is a book of optimism about an oppressively dark world. If read alone, “Statues” and “Trouble” might misdirect a reader into believing that Berg is suffering from hopelessness or powerlessness. This would be, perhaps, a valid reading of the poems; and is the danger they pose without the help of dramatic distance. It is the title poem, “Odyssey” that asserts Berg’s philosophy that overcomes her bleakness. The reasons to fear the world are ever-present. So too is our ability to change the current of the Great Flood.

Odyssey and Other Poems is extremely difficult to find online. Websites like Goodreads list some of her other works, but there is no definitive archive of Berg’s poems, nor are there easy ways to obtain them. There are literary reasons, beyond the outlines of Al Purdy’s shadow, for making sure Odyssey is not lost.

The Book:

Berg, Sharon. (2017). Odyssey and Other Poems. Sarnia: Big Pond Rumours.


About the Writer:

Terry Trowbridge is a Canadian living on Lake Ontario, a plum farmer, a sociolegal researcher, a book reviewer, and a Pushcart nominee. His poetry and essays have appeared in something like 100 different journals, zines, and chapbooks. His Erdős number is 5.

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