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Poetry Places

Tar Swan

by (author) David Martin

NeWest Press
Initial publish date
Apr 2018
Places, Nature, Canadian
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2018
    List Price

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Shortlisted for the 2019 Raymond Souster Award!
Finalist for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize!
Tar Swan is a multi-voiced reckoning that surveys the mythos of the Alberta oil sands with an approach that is both lyrical and experimental. The poems feature four voices: an oil sands developer, his plant mechanic, an archaeologist excavating the remains of the operation in the present day, and a mythical swan. David Martin's debut collection is comprised of expansive and richly written poems, built on a lore-laden language, which explore the human and environmental cost of drawing too much from the land. As the three humans come into contact with the otherworldly swan, the voices bubble and churn together, and what is distilled is a psychological breakdown paralleling the toll taken on the earth.

About the author

David Martin was born and raised in Calgary, where he lives with his wife and children. His poetry has been awarded the CBC Poetry Prize, shortlisted for the Vallum Award for Poetry and PRISM international's poetry contest, and published in many journals and magazines across Canada. He is an instructor at The Reading Foundation, one of the organizers for Calgary's Single Onion poetry reading series, and the frontman for an indie-pop group, The Fragments. His debut book, Tar Swan, is a part of the Crow Said Poetry series.

David Martin's profile page


  • Short-listed, Raymond Souster Award
  • Nominated, Best Book Design at the Alberta Book Publishing Awards
  • Nominated, City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize

Excerpt: Tar Swan (by (author) David Martin)

First man to unveil a commercial oil sands
separation plant. He poses, hands clasped,
on a boulder by the Athabaska river.

Plant mechanic
accused by Fitzsimmons
of sabotage --
he kneels by the boiler.

Archaeologist excavating prehistoric stone remains
and the Fitzsimmons camp. He peeks from a pit.

Ignored by the others,
wading ashore.

I was born a single cygnet, ditched
by Cob and Pen, left fending
in quickening lichen like mud-coaxed
bastard oxen, as shredded elephants
choired from their soup. Do not blotch
brittle leaves with tears, for my sobs,
skip-dripping from sockets, slithered
thence to the ground and pooled deep
pockets of felicity. Doodle-buggers
and orange-worms mine a blistered delight.
My feathers and feces drive your cars:
inquire of coke-drowned patch clowns
who pray for forgiveness, quitting town.

Edmonton's money is a locked fist, Manning's door knows the heat of my breath, and his secretary is a smiling hell dog. Each morning I challenge him, and Frank nods that, yes, the men are sole-held, that this gaggle of meat cannot assume a single thought. But how long can I swear by him -- I don't need to name skull diggers again. How long can this live, without a cusp of tomorrow's sunlight? I have collected your telegrams, but you know as well as I this is no loam for a woman. The boreal's a brute, not a carpet to set your baby toe upon, Wilhelmina. -- RCF

I start'd a scow mule

forty long to McMurray
for which? whiskey pant

guy-line-notched shoulders

squeezed his spiel
and swelled
to blot my name

for Fitz says he'll pay on the reg'lar
fine line by me

Gentlemen, how many Snakes did you cook today? How much Caragana stubbles your hair? How weary of sky's Dominion? How many Cotter Bolts swindle your shoes? How many birch leaves Coil at your neck? How can you let this sharpen? Witness, Robert C. Fitzsimmons, alone, steering you today. I offer an opportunity to Tickle, with your own eyes, the Tail of Charybdis. I offer the Belly beneath Bitumount's bloody baby toe. I give you (between us, men) three angels: a senator, a nameless investor, and a Karl Clark, all failing to out-swim my sequinned Undertow.

last spring
in his tar pool --
sugar-shack man

I swear to Judas
ducks were haw-hawing us
from their frittering perch

spent three days paring planks
for Fitz's boiler

beets drum the plates
and bleed into meats

Editorial Reviews

"In Tar Swan, David Martin has composed a quartet of exuberant and unpredictable voices on an urgent contemporary theme for the age of climate change. The eponymous swan is a 'single cygnet' who sings and leaves traces that now 'drive your cars' as well as the myths that make the Alberta Tar Sands possible. Martin explores those myths in gritty, sensual, and historically vivid language. This ambitious debut immerses us in the tar of archaeology and the bite of our own environmental dilemma, all with 'a master's sprezzatura form.'"
~ Jurors of the 2019 Raymond Souster Award
"Martin's complex collection criticizes the hubristic development of the tar sands and unearths fixed forms to reckon with environmental change."
~ Kait Pinder, Canadian Literature"Martin's troubling of the history of the tar sands in this impressive first poetry collection invites more historical and creative work in this vein."
~ Melanie Dennis Unrau, The Goose
"This is a remarkable collection..."
~ Anne Burke, The Prairie Journal

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