Sonnet L'Abbé, poet, literary critic, teacher (born at Toronto, Ont, 24 September 1973). Sonnet L'Abbé's poetic themes of ethnicity and environmentalism display the influence of her father, a FRANCO-ONTARIAN potter, and mother, a Guyanese artist. In addition, L'Abbé's travels in South Korea, Uzbekistan, and the Philippines inspired POETRY about the relationship between culture, history, and the natural world. L'Abbé received a BFA in Film (1995) and an MA in English (1998) from the UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH. In 2007 she began work on a PhD in English at the UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA, focusing on American poet Ronald Johnson. She has reviewed literary books for the GLOBE AND MAIL since 2001. L'Abbé is an award-winning lyric poet whose work is characterized by a strong feeling for place, ETHNIC IDENTITY, and nature; a richly sensual and figurative texture; and a linguistically adventurous poetics.
In her first collection, A Strange Relief (2001), Sonnet L'Abbé blends lyric and narrative modes to explore the interdependence of humans and nature. Her poems about creating pottery, "the language of the land," suggest a physical connection with the earth, and the image of the potter's wheel symbolizes a spiritual union with the "centrifugal mind / of the universe" ("A Lesson from Leach"). The environmental theme is also apparent in L'Abbé's description of catastrophic historical events. In poems set in South Korea, a haenyo (female diver) speaks of the devastating effects of the KOREAN WAR on the land and people. And in "Nomads," L'Abbé recounts the ecological disaster and human suffering consequent to the Soviet draining of the Aral Sea for irrigation. In these poems the land is likened to a living being scarred by bombs, graves and environmental degradation, wounds that keep alive the history of a place. L'Abbé also portrays a harmonic relationship between humans and earth. She suggests that positive ecological change must be assisted by evidence in "anecdotes, tales, [and] dreams," and that the story "silence tells / ends much worse" ("Nomads").
In contrast to the elegiac tone prevalent in A Strange Relief, the poems of Killarnoe (2007) are often linguistically playful and ironic. They are characterized by staccato rhythms and syntax, frequent alliteration, refrain-like repetitions, and the use of puns and slang. L'Abbé often highlights the musicality of LANGUAGE, as in "Instrumental," a section whose titles are interjections like "Ungh" and "Shh." She likens her poetry's rhythms to JAZZ, as in her call to "[r]iff on this / lingual fricative lick." In such poems, she emphasizes the materiality of language and its vocal production. In other poems, she addresses the body's physicality and ethnicity: in "Theory, My Natural Brown Ass," she writes of the "insistence of the body" as a "corporeal truth that mental exercise / can't deconstruct."
In Killarnoe, L'Abbé further develops the theme of otherness introduced in A Strange Relief. She offers poems in French and Creole English, and mixes academic and casual expression, challenging the valuation of one discourse or level of diction over another. Having struggled in a culture in which her "dark part / will not yet stand / for our idolized / whole," and in which she "suicidally crash[es] / that blissful Other- / ignorance party," L'Abbé determines to "fly / an alternate plane / into my own madness" ("My Inner City").
Sonnet L'Abbé's awards include The Malahat Review Long Poem Prize (1999) and the RBC BRONWEN WALLACE AWARD FOR EMERGING WRITERS (2001). She was also shortlisted for a CBC Literary Award in Poetry (2010), and her work has been included in several anthologies, including 2005's Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets (eds. Sina QUEYRAS and Molly Peacock). These recognitions assert the importance of L'Abbé's poetry in articulating concerns of environmentalism, ethnicity, and national identity.