National Animal

National Animal

A review of National Animal by Derek Webster

Published on July 4, 2024

The national animal is a shapeshifter and a trickster. It is omnipresent and often abandons us to violent history. More than anything, it defies simple description. Derek Webster’s second collection contains a panoramic meditation on the spell of nationhood and its grip on our lives. Throughout National Animal, we come to understand not only how this erratic creature defines our narratives, but also how inventive language allows us to move beyond the constraints of its dangerous territory.

National Animal
Derek Webster

Véhicule Press

In Webster’s poetic imagination, the national animal is often, though not always, Canada. Most explicitly, the eleven-piece suite “Dominion” explores how Canada holds in tension the troubled histories of various Indigenous and settler communities across a vast expanse of “Northern fields.” Poignantly, the sequence closes with the impassioned call: “Dominion help us / love you / for new reasons.” Concluding this survey of the fragmentary whole that forms “Miss Canada,” this desire appears both timely and timeless.

Although the book rarely loses sight entirely of the titular animal, national belonging is not its singular concern. National Animal intersects biography with questions of place, time, personal memory, art, and history. For instance, the reader is taken through suburban Oakville, finds nature mediated through YouTube, confronts hurtful pasts of war and slavery, and much more.

Nearing the collection’s end, the long poem “The Thinker” pulls together the myriad of thematic strands that permeate National Animal. The ten-section piece attempts nothing less than to describe the universe’s totality through the profoundly human tool of imaginative language. As “the universe equilibrates” long after our sun has darkened, Webster’s vision finally reveals that the national animal is only one of the many ever-moving forces that give meaning and context to our lives.mRb

Martin Breul is a Montreal writer and caffeine-addict, currently pursuing a doctorate in Canadian literature at McGill. He writes poetry, flash fiction, reviews, and more. In 2023, Cactus Press published Martin’s debut chapbook love poems suck. Twitter/X: @BreulMartin



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