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Poetry Canadian

The Commons

by (author) Stephen Collis

Initial publish date
May 2016
Canadian, Nature, NON-CLASSIFIABLE
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    May 2016
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jul 2014
    List Price

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Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, most of the English common lands were enclosed—taken, by force, out of the hands of local collective use and privatized. The resistance to capitalism’s “primitive accumulation,” registered in recurring peasant revolts, failed to stem this tide of what we now call “privatization”—but it spilt over into Romanticism’s own advocacy of a kind of literary commons. Underground in “the literary” since the nineteenth century, the fight against enclosure resurfaces today amidst continuing capitalist accumulations and a renascent sense of the commons under globalization.

In The Commons we wander the English countryside with the so-called mad peasant poet John Clare, just escaped from an Essex asylum and walking the more than eighty miles to his home in Helpston; we pick wild fruit with anarchist Henry David Thoreau, also newly escaped from jail (for not paying his poll tax); and we comb the English Lake District, undermining William Wordsworth’s proprietary claim upon it, with a host of authors of Romantic Guides and Tours.

Resisting enclosure with each word, tearing down (intellectual) property’s fencing, wandering in search of new commons, new spaces outside property’s exclusive and excluding domain—The Commons veers in and out of history to find spaces of linguistic hope. What we have named, in less inspired moments, “allusion,” “borrowing,” or even (pretentiously) “intertextuality” is just this fact that poetry proves again and again: our languages are common. Shared. Un-enclosable.

The Commons is another installment of what Collis has called (half in jest) “The Barricades Project”—a broadly based, historically ranging test of the old adage that “poetry is the revolutionary act par excellence.” It includes Anarchive (2005) and will eventually continue in The Red Album. The Commons includes an introduction to “The Barricades Project,” written by Collis’ collaborators Alfred Noyes and Ramon Fernandez.

About the author

Stephen Collis is the author of seven books of poetry, including the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize–winning On the Material (Talonbooks, 2010). Other titles include Anarchive (New Star, 2005, also nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), The Commons (Talonbooks, 2008, 2014), To the Barricades (Talonbooks, 2013), Decomp (co-authored with Jordan Scott, Coach House, 2013), Once in Blockadia (Talonbooks, 2016), and A History of the Theories of Rain (Talonbooks, 2021), nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. An activist and social critic, his writing on the Occupy movement is collected in Dispatches from the Occupation (Talonbooks, 2012).Collis is also the author of two book-length studies, Phyllis Webb and the Common Good (Talonbooks, 2007) and Through Words of Others: Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholasticism (ELS Editions, 2006), as well as the editor, with Graham Lyons, of Reading Duncan Reading: Robert Duncan and the Poetics of Derivation (Iowa University Press, 2012). His memoir, Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten, was published by Talonbooks in 2018. He teaches contemporary poetry and poetics at Simon Fraser University.Collis was the 2019 recipient of the Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize, which is given to a mid-career poet in recognition of a remarkable body of work, and in anticipation of future contributions to Canadian poetry.

Stephen Collis' profile page

Editorial Reviews

"In Vancouver recently I had the chance to meet poet and professor Steve Collis, author of a book of poetry I quite liked years back, ANARCHIVE, and now here comes its sequel, THE COMMONS--really more of a semi-sequel, even that dreaded word "prequel" since it takes place centuries before the Spanish Civil War setting of the earlier volume.

But neither book is bound by history in any but the most ad hoc and helpful ways. Here we encounter the British poet John Clare as he struggles to maintain his sanity in a time of increased privatization and its concomitant loss of freedom. Clare was mad, we take it, for good reason, with a Laingian sense of the real. As the public sphere shrinks, like shadows approached by the prick of noon, Clare's mental state correspondingly waxes and wanes. Around him predators assume strange shapes--geese, hatches, foundries. For Collis, the world of poetry is a place in which "the commons," a free place of exchange and mutual association, still maintains a parlous grip on imagination. I always like it when people use the expression "free reign" where we used to say, "free rein," perhaps because the age of riding horses has passed us by, while on the other hand more despots reign over us than ever, so we're familiar with the reign--"thievery governments" as Collis says in a poem later in the book. In any case he expands from Clare into a larger world of Romantic poets moving hither and yon in a tragic search for self expression in a world of centralized capital clotting together like cream in the sun.

With the English and Spanish milieux of his last two books, Stephen Collis is like Woody Allen laying down his favorite scenarios in European outfits. And maybe THE COMMONS isn't quite a gripping or involving as ANARCHIVE, but the pastoral always has a free and easy charm about it that some mistake for laissez-faire. Not so Steve Collis, who makes us hungry for more in this saga." — Kevin Killian from

The Commons is Stephen Collis’s second instalment in what he has called “The Barricades Project,” and his third book of poetry. “The Barricades Project” can be described as the literary equivalent of amassing street detritus to obstruct the usual flow of capitalistic traffic, or from another perspective, hauling down the fences put into place by the language of economics – specifically capital. In either case we are dealing with revolution—necessary powerful actions and ideas in a time when the ascendancy of economic parlance has eclipsed basic human interaction. In other words, greed and money permeate our thoughts and language. We speak of economic depressions as if they are controllable; we converse as if cancer is a war to wage against and is winnable. Collis says, “Let’s remove capital from our language and see what happens.” He means to do something about this, and he sounds and smells like spring. He forces us to look at language, not tabulate with it, or pragmatically push forth our “like-a” “kinda” “oh yeah” rushed sensibilities. Collis knows that language should be expansive, without boundaries, tricky, and curiously listenable. “sky storms surface”—three nouns, two nouns and a verb, or a noun and two verbs? Collis works the language and walks us through a landscape unlimited in a temporal sense. We walk with him and the English pastoral poet John Clare, and the Americans Henry Thoreau and Robert Frost, but we hardly recognize their foreignness to our times. Collis takes us out of modernity per se. He possesses such a round ear to words and sounds: “built subtle shack on common / turned back clock solitary nary / chipmunk dug borrowed mowed berried” (73). His words suggest other words which slow down the processing of his words. On common/ uncommon, borrowed/ burrowed, berried/ buried—yet wherever I travel with these tangents they always serve to amplify and expand the poetry. Like the best poetry, this poetry keeps calling the reader back to her own life. The Commons is a wild (as in wilderness) walk through a jumble of words and scramble of phrases with no punctuation, and signposts, if they appear, point madly in all directions. Ultimately Collis charges the reader with the responsibility of being creator.
everything miracle spore sated geometry found equinox thrusting words having no connection into all parts of every sentence boot jack for instance taking liberty nothing
this many hands picking sense to gather scrutiny shared provenance (63) Words like beauty, pleasure, and liberty do not sound hackneyed. Instead, their writing sounds synonymous with persistence. Collis is slightly off-step/beat, just out of range of any comfortable assumption, and a good shuffle away from clear understanding. This is not poetry that leads, but includes. It is a welcome philosophical divergence in popular culture.

“Words like beauty, pleasure, and liberty do not sound hackneyed. Instead, their writing sounds synonymous with persistence. Collis is slightly off-step/beat, just out of range of any comfortable assumption, and a good shuffle away from clear understanding. This is not poetry that leads, but includes. It is a welcome philosophical divergence in popular culture.”
Prairie Fire Review of Books