Time Slip by John Oughton

I’ve been thinking a little about the sentimental lately, what it means, why it’s resisted, and even shunned, by our contemporary literary climate, and at the same time, in re-reading May Sarton’s biography, realizing again that this debate between the emotional core of art and the supposedly detached intelligent froideur that Eliot, among others, advanced has gone on (though the sides have since fiercified) for some time. Sarton, after her second book came out in 1939, was accused of “flagrantly unfashionable lyricism” and of criminally eschewing “smart despair.” Though I adore (and poetry requires) precise, taut language, still, why can’t this essential aspect be combined with feeling? One can become quite wearied by perfectly honed books emerging from creative writing or academic realms that can’t be faulted for their learned craft (which doesn’t necessarily entail a real knowledge of forms say) but that are aloof, distanciated and snobby in tone to the point where you just want to shake them and scream, “O bleed a little outside your line breaks will ya!”šŸ˜‰

John Oughton’s book Time Slip emerged in 2010 and we are currently exchanging reviews of each other’s books (mine, short stories and sliver fictions called The Day of the Dead, was recently published by Caitlin Press). Reviewing one another, as I have ranted on about before, is crucial. If one is able to be honest in a scholarly and felt fashion that is, keeping the poetic art paramount. I must say, off the top, that the design of this Selected material from Oughton’s four books (1973-1997 plus new works) is disappointing. The cover image of an ice-heavy tree by the water is startling but the shiny stock and font makes it all look self-published. One expects more from Guernica. Selecteds are challenging. Which to choose, what to leave behind and what if, like Oughton, one has published both random texts and focused ones, as in his collection on Mata Hari. His introduction to the work thus underscores the often-motley modes of publication we possess in this country, its odd affiliations and liminal excursions into the international.

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There were a few jarring aspects to Oughton’s tendency to space strangely and incorporate disjointed abstract imagery, along with his avoidance of terminal periods, that gave me pause at first, but I got used to his style quite quickly and began to appreciate his moving lyricism. Lines and descriptors stir like “the scar the train/stitches over moving white drifts” (though he could have ended the poem there and really does one stitch a scar or a wound?), “dew jewelled,”the sound in the heart of a large stone,” “she is a flame from which the candle wanes” (a nice reversal!), “rides that horse through shifting shadows/in a forest afternoon forever,” the poignant moment from Xmas Pageant, 1961, in which exist “teen-aged wise men/with boxes of empty promise” or that pang of dead skunk he addresses: “you cling/to me still, like the sweet inside your stink/your midnight dancer’s grace.” Pieces that leapt out for me were Lady’s Fan Poem, Depression (a rare excavation by a male poet), For my Dead Sister, quite a few of his Mata Hari pieces, especially in lines such as, “I’m a figurehead who quit her ship” (though at times it seems a voice interpolates that is less hers than the authors, as in “fuck the family, fuck the past,”) and the above-mentioned titles, in addition to Leaving the Cape and Long Reach: Thanksgiving, 2000.

Oughton can certainly go over the top in absurd images, like the Latin lover with “his ghost’s hand” that is “stuck so deep in your heart/that he flips it away like a pizza.” Hmmm, organ(ic) crust anyone? Ā And he can be quite silly in poems such as the chuckle-poignant “John Gone,” or “I’m in Love with my Hoover,” which attains a Pam Ayres haha.

Yet I find I like this about his work too. Because so few of the newer “breed” of poets risk such humour, unless it’s of the dry, ironic, in-club kind. I suspect his book would seem like a bit of a leaping puppy to them, tongue lolling over the beauty of the world, but I prefer this any day. It’s loyal.

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Sharpest Tooth: a chapbook by Aidan Chafe (Anstruther Press, 2016)

Sharpest Tooth is a beautiful little realm of a chapbook whose cover painting of multitudinous birds in flight from a fox’s maw was designed by none other than my close art-friend Jenny Keith! Such a small world. I don’t often review chapbooks (mostly as they are rarely sent to me it seems) but Chafe utilizes this genre (let’s call it one rather than a format) perfectly, the poems appearing both as individuated, stand-alone pieces (for the most part) and as varied fragments that unfold the twists of a sinister fairy tale where humans get shot accidentally in lieu of deer, depression’s suicides tremble on a family’s margins and a wolf prowls internal forests. Chafe tries on a range of forms and modes to inhabit this necessarily claustrophobic subject matter. I can hear Merwin in Allegory’s repetitions: “Too many guns in the city/too many deer getting killed,” Carson or Hughes in Foxhole Diary: “Crimson coat. Autumn thistle. Burrow ghost.” (my favourite poem in the book by the way), and Webb in Traitorspotting: “if/you outrun/the wolf,/but your/heart/overcomes/you.” This is not to say the poems are derivative but that Chafe is at the stage where he is donning and casting off styles, perhaps deliberately in order to more deeply enter his touchstone images/symbols (deer, wolf, light, ghosts, forests, knives). He certainly begins potently with a jarring shift from a news story to a Choose your Own Adventure structure (“to blur the lines, turn to Page 3”), continues engagingly with a dark focus, and, I only wish, concluded with a bit more of a pow. But that just shows you how snagged I was as a reader by the hauntingly rhythmical environment of nightmares Chafe creates.

 

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Ashley-Elizabeth Best’s Slow States of Collapse (ECW 2016)

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First books are challenging to review. They don’t thus far exist in a particular context within an author’s oeuvre and they are often (especially in this era of pump-em-out MFA programs) over-heralded by a strangely sycophantic system that feeds on newness as if each released collection of poems were the next “miraculous” instantiation of an iPhone.

As a reviewer, one wants to be honest and yet, aware that the newly published poet is usually fragile, never cruel, and then too, not patronizingly (and disrespectfully, as far as I’m concerned) saccharine either. I don’t write blurbs; I aim to compose thoughtful critiques grounded in my many decades of reading poetry and in the recognition of both aural pleasures and lax slips into cliche, abstractions, mixed metaphors or issues with line breaks or form.

Slow States of Collapse offers plenty of such poetic boon and bane.

First, the latter, a difficult but essential pointing out of a range of lingual issues that exist in the book, perhaps, one could argue, to underline the author’s frequently dissociative relationship with her physicality or family, or possibly, because too little editorial discernment was applied to cliches like “the braille of her spine” (I know it’s a cliche as I used it in my first book – shame on mešŸ™‚, “shrug each other off” , “spindly trees” or much more prevalent, disjointed metaphors such as a “branch’s embrace,” the “blade of his love snakes”, “tight wounds listening”, “I strum these chunks irregular”, “rubble of his pleasure hardening,” “the sluice of hollow spaces postures me,” “the bright bush jumps,” “tumbled bones snarled,” the “earth clasps the wind,” and “the sky chortles, flings its wrecked hold.” This tactic is so consistent though, I can’t help but feel such jarrings are deliberate, this loosening of sense-making between noun and verb. It certainly serves to convey an alienated state. And yet.

More of an issue, if one accepts this tendency as stylistic or fused to the occasionally harsh subject matter in which abandonment of various sorts predominates, are the abstractions or pathetic fallacies, say “the churches of his tears,” or “the tooth of time.” Such constructions rarely get to the guts of anything. They are, simply put, lazy, short cuts, dead ends.

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Fortunately, although there are few poems unmarred to a certain extent by these tendencies, Best is able to see and hear the world in a unique mode or voicing, and this ability gestures towards her potential as a poet, one who may even come to ring out as mysteriously and compellingly as a Theodore Roethke or Elizabeth Bishop. Delectable diction laces the collection: hunkered, puckered, vector, jargon, rutilant, imperious, adnexal, palatial, sibilant, exculpate (though it’s overdone in this particular line in combination with friable), sententious and gambit. The initial stanza of “Looking out for No one” epitomizes Best’s promising “honeability”:

“The rutilant moon ascends the earth’s/progression of loss. His car drones onto/Wicklow Beach Road, kneels expectant/as I prep a bowl. His foot hammers/the pedal as I hold the pipe to his mouth, put/fire to it. We absent our bodies, shelter into/our hunger, gorge on cookies on the hood/of his car, watch the lake reach/in and pull out.”

There are still abstract moments like the car that “kneels expectant” but such a false-surreal instance is much more swallowable within the tangibilities of “Wicklow Beach Road” along with the pipe, cookies and lake. Similarly, in most of the five sections of “Algonquin Suite”, Best builds a vulnerable emotional state through tender, natural details, and echoed assonantal sounds such as “in the fold of your cold neck,” “flash dazzle” and “throat opens,” along with the deliciously thick alliteration of “every summer the same/stunted start, the slowing/of steady ritual.”

Taken individually, many of the pieces feel insufficient, but tonally the book grows on you so, by the end, one has entered an original aural and emotive space. Sharpened through a keener attention to metaphor, and its vivifying capacities, in particular, Best’s future poems may rise from their moments of collapse to etch themselves more memorably, in all their necessary fearlessness, in the reader’s psyche.

 

 

 

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Two 2016 Buckrider Titles

I’ve read Stuart Ross for years and been impressed by his vigorously energetic surrealism while at times perplexed by his resistance to closure, in an aural if Ā not content-based sense. But I’ve not truly been moved by his poems in the way a wide range of the pieces in his latest, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent stirred me. Ross is taking emotive risks in a way he hasn’t as readily in the past (age? life experiences?) and the result is much more satisfying poetically than prior. From the very first poem, “Pompano,” Ross fuses a Frank O’Hara-mode of simplicity that unfolds a moment into acts of vision – both quotidian and transcendent – with an almost Elizabeth Bishop-ian metaphysical quality of feeling. His parents are here; a grandfather at a sewing machine; his dead brother; his partner’s cancer; childhood books and his enduring affection for Dave McFadden’s poetry. IMG_20160719_104842_1

But these recollections are rarely sentimental, or else perhaps they glory, unabashedly, in their sentimentality to the point where it is cause for rejoicing rather than cloying. And the collection’s texture is maintained by the flux between lyric poems, prose chunks, pseudo-questionnaires with their strangely poignant disjunctiveness (“Do you feel remorse for the hurt you’ve caused?/My beak is handsome & I remain focused”) and form poems like the exquisitely linked haikus of “A Pretty Good Year” (“Here is the moment/there it goes. Now: another/Your eyes are constant.”) A poem like “Discrete Portions” combines nearly all the ingredients of a potent Ross poem without being (as some occasionally seem) at all programmatic, ala exercise pieces. Surreal and absurd, containing a reference to the poet himself and his moods or behaviors (“Laurie will tell me this is depressing, I/shouldn’t be so hard on myself”), featuring an unpacking rhythm, a consciousness of family and history, and an open-ended closure (“Each flake/had several choices to make”), “Discrete Portions” is like a Joseph Cornell box full of whimsical figures from Marc Chagall, and tinged with the philosophical scope of Wislawa Symborska’s oeuvre. Wondering why there is a chickadee rather than the titular sparrow on the cover is likely pointless. It’s Ross. Let go.

 

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Kilby Smith-McGregor’s first collection, Kids in Triage,Ā begins with a quote from Wallace Stevens, whose sharply somatic obscurities have obviously influenced her style, though a more au courant baroque allusiveness, kin to Lucie Brock-Broido (whose work I mostly adore) also threads through this opaquely engaging volume. These poems are diversely erudite in a way one has become familiar with from the poetry of Anne Carson to Robin Richardson: integrated, ornate, at times a little too “with a nod and a wink” chilly. “Wake up Remembering Oranges” is a powerful villanelle that swims in a mood of displacement and alienation, despite the attempted life rings of lists, as doe a plethora of her poems, desire, attachment, ownership seeming to slip away into a lacuna of referentiality, a scholarship in loneliness.

Smith-McGregor has a saving ear though. “Kneeling in pleated skirts,” “Racist comic; naive rapist; hand-coloured film strip expulsion. Resist.” or the delicious initial part of Matchbook:

“Cry me a little match girl, matchless/ before the boy who crushed through keyholes came confessing….Love, she’d struck, who’d never hoped/to read like that, and be written.”

And then there’s “Morphogenesis” for Alan Turing, a particularly brilliant sestina that uses man, logic, code, god, broken and sequence as its end words and concludes with the imperative phrases, “No snow but sand…dust’s profile in code.” Kids in Triage masterfully detaches to observe minutia while offering an emergency room full of the results of detachment: “the mess of you, exception and rule.”

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Omnibus Marrow Review on Four Stuart Ross Book releases

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The Stuart Ross imprint at Mansfield Press encompasses its own kooky poetic world, as any strong branding should, so that whether one admires his particular tastes or not, they are so potently and consistently represented that they constitute an undeniable universe. His latest quartet of picks are like four wacky planets rotating Ross’s quirky sun, each title uniquely distinguishable yet all marked with a “this is definitely not recognizably Can Lit canon poetry” stamp. Which means that the reader may want to approach these texts with differing (but not diminished) expectations – less yearning for closure say, or direct pathways to sense or traditional forms. And definitely don’t get caught up in questing for the “great individual poem” in these collections. There are good stand-alone poems for sure but mostly each of these books is its own voiced atmosphere the reader must learn to breathe within or perish, pointlessly asking, “Why?”

So here’s my take on the latest by Nelson Ball, Alice Burdick, Jason Heroux and Sarah Burgoyne’s debut collection. Chewing Water by Ball (another classic Canadian older male poet that Ross champions along with the more “award-winning” David McFadden), delivers the most overtly content-based poems of these four with his minimalistic pieces (some explicated, rather wordily, at the book’s end) on ducks, cows, frogs, the meaning of words, and the key people in his existence, and especially Barbara Caruso, his deceased wife. Her vital presence is commemorated in poems on her final illness and in elegies on life following loss after such a long marriage and artistic bond. Ball can be so exquisitely pithy as in the teensy piece The Meaning of Death (“It’s/the/end/of/morning/coffee”) but also ridiculously touching in his tender detailing of moments as when Barbara would “snuggle her nose/into [his] shirt pocket.” A man who composes grief poems is undertaking an invaluable role and for this act, in particular, Chewing Water is a memorable collection by our most Creeley-esque poet.

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Conversely, I have often found Alice Burdick’s poems elusive though, of course, my very reticence compels me to seek alternate doors through which to enter her work on its own terms. Her A Book of Short SentencesĀ (but why does the back jacket blurb call it “groundbreaking”? what exactly does that mean? such distracting hyperbole rarely serves the poet or reader. how about “significant” and then say in what way? ok rant overšŸ˜‰ deploys a detached set of voicings – WCW’s brainpan dipped in Blaser-jizz – whose aim, perhaps ironically, is to be deeply engaged, with the land, family, and even with our disjointed information feeds and discombobulations of virtual speak, exploring the fissures between the fact that “we are stuck with our old brains” (Entropy) and yet “waves never stop” (Rain Days), and especially the glut of such nonsensicalities as “all maplestory secrets revealed!!! Including exploits” (Pleasant Knowledge (a choral work). Burdick is definitely pushing herself, in this fourth collection, to directly address the bits and bytes of wired society while continuing to swim in the surreal and ground in the tangible. A vein of numb abstraction pervades the clunk of phrases at times in which embodied subjects seem to be buried: “plastic hard hats. the whole world/is a cheap toy…bubble forms talk out of the side of their mouths. Faces, attached to screens” (Flight details). Poems as symptoms? Certainly no poems as “simple” cures here in a “monotony of colour, asses and sound” (What happened in the call centre?). And speaking of sound, there are some yummy ones as in “fleet grass/grows in a floss of halos” (the strings of spring) and from the astounding initial opus, “All the voices do it,” the deliciously rupturing lines: “you are so wet in the basic/matrix. We are the mud sounds, the salt left on skin after/the crawl onto the lush and fragrant lawn.” Though I certainly don’t need poems about tea, apparently “that thing/that ladies should write about/to seem accessible” (Enter the building), I did appreciate Burdick’s truly tangible honesty in “The Record’s Hold (Part One)” about a tumultuous female childhood, the sexed recklessness of “Don’t Forget” and the startling stir of her prose poem of unassuageable pain, “The route through mistaken gods.”

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Having loved Jason Heroux’s Emergency HallelujahĀ I was looking forward to diving into what I knew would be the gently surreal realms of Hard Work Cheering up Sad MachinesĀ whose cover design (my fave of these 4 titles) shows an opened skull, diagrammed with letters pointing to parts against a rose-pink background. Heroux’s poems are Cornell boxes, Magritte miniatures, clips from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Surrealism can be a chilly thing, a pursuit to dissect Lautreamont umbrellas, but Heroux’s little forays into the “what if” often leave me with strange tears in my eyes (why am I weeping over abandoned loaves of stale bread or pockets trying to warm themselves in other pockets?) or else whimsical grins at life’s small absurdities and regrets (wishing one had indeed taken the “bus full of blossoms on the way to the trees” instead). Sometimes though the project feels a tad too Shel Silverstein with its unpackings of imagery like relentless Matrushka dolls – “I bought another/dollar for a dollar so my dollar/would have a dollar to play with/on my dollar’s birthday” (Dollar Store Sonnet) and the last long piece, “Black Trampoline”, in its unpeelings of the essence of having a language, would fit more essentially perhaps into an anthology of Dennis Lee-style kid’s verse. The risk with any particularized voicing (yes I verb-ize this notion as “voice” is too statically noun-ed) is that one can become trapped in it after awhile, leading even one’s wildest twists & turns to seem stiff & stock. Mostly though, much continues to delight in Heroux’s adorably permeable (and subtly critical) renditions of society in which we know the names of TV sets and coffee brands but not birds and where pet cobwebs need to be tended, garbage bags forage and (in the most striking sequence) empty parking lots are a form of poetics because “like poetry,” they make “nothingness feel at home in the world.”

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Lastly and most wackily, Saint Twin by Sarah Burgoyne, a melange of loopy “genres” (as listed in the Contents section by page number) like “raisin cakes” and “Happy dog, Sad dog,” along with more obvious yet still head-shaking generic divisions such as “Story poems” versus “Fiction stories.” Super mish-mashy stuff. I knew it was going to be a goof-ola ride in a Duchampian sky urinal. And in this case the back cover blurb was pretty bang-on: “There has never been a Canadian poetry book quite like Saint Twin.” Not to say this is always an awesome thing! But seriously, there are so many kinds of poems here you would be truly hard-pressed not to find some style that tweaks your interest. For this reader it was the philosophically Franglais “essays” of “Happy dog, Sad dog” in which twins stroll Montreal streets while contemplating life’s animal woundings, several of the story poems like “Boppity” or “Nobody Coming” (“Life can be a doily in your grandmother’s home, if you let it be”) and particularly the “Story of a Leaf” sequence, which appears intermittently in chapter clumps, detailing in Brossardian or Robertsonian sentence-lists, the leaf’s abstracted descent: “I have come to my end. I have dressed in superb costumes…I have roosted among talons. I have appeared/suddenly lost” (Chapter 5). Yes, this text needed excess but it’s nonetheless too long. 166 pages for a first book! Or any book of non-Collected poems! Whoa. One must admire (and recoil from) the audacity of both poet and editor here. Undoubtedly, this melange of cacophonic entries is certainly daring and hey what has one got to lose in the Can Lit puddle anyway? (to Mark McCawley a bit for a minute:) Let it all hang out, in a crafted sense, and see what happens! Burgoyne’s “love is as many as the hairs on my head” and Ross’s iconoclastic vision for a different assemblage of poetic phenomenons can only serve our still too overly conservative country of words well.

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Shiner by Eva H.D. [Mansfield Press, 2016]

Due to a much more severely constrained schedule for the imminent future, I will be writing Marrow Reviews as “blurbs & irks” rather than, as I would prefer, lengthier, more complexly argued essay-style pieces. But on the premise that some intelligent reaction to Canadian poetry books is better than none, here goes.

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[bit of a gushy blurb] One is first struck by her unique name, then by these poems, that full-force their way into the reader’s mind with lyrical lengths that rarely sacrifice rhythm for narrative and where a sense of place is never hokey but rather grounded in culturally adept perspectives. But what really strikes is the risk. And it’s less content I consider when aching for leaps off poetic precipices and more sound collisions (“chloro-full pulse riling to the thunk/of truant basketballs”), teeterings on the line between necessary awkward and inessential incorrect (“as if panhandling for extinct species/would ever buy us enough/more time”) and lungings into abject insult (“eat a bag of dick fricaseee”) And titles, from the award-winning, “38 Michigans” to “Liar, Apricot, Partly, Apricot” that tweak the possible in terms of both grammar and imagery.

[a few wee irks] At times the poems grow so casually reportage-mode they lose their aural tension. Say in the poem, “17” which ends, “we swayed awhile and ran away. It was difficult not/to laugh. We felt the earth as it slipped away beneath us.” And a piece such as “Grace Street Jesus lost his arm again” deserves more absurdist un-reelings than its somewhat redundant 5 lines. H.D. is most potent when she lets things sprawl out in eloquent metaphor for a time.

[back to gushy blurb] With the intelligent spunk of a Karen Solie (yet more deeply-dunked with feeling) fused with Steve Noyes-style lingual dexterities, H.D. writes about the sharp borders of love, endless road trips, skewy histories. And amid the more ragged pieces, she tosses in quirky sonnets like “Flat on its Back and Copper” and the sestina “Hoax.” Peaches, Toronto, snow, glowings, death and Greece lace this loop-de-loop collection of a verse world unique to this truly new set of Can lit voicings. (& omigod, these lines: “Dead people are so set in their ways…They just lie there, like fucking off is an Olympic sport.”) Yar!!!

 

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Joe Rosenblatt’s The Bird in the Stillness (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2016)

In the months prior to his most untimely death, Canadian poet, small press/mashup manifestor and supporter of transgressive literature, Mark McCawley (1964-2016) was heard questioning why we don’t very often read, publish, or otherwise deeply laud our senior writers. Sure, there are exceptions. But sadly fewer and fewer as we raise those “first bookers” often just out of their BFA/MFA on high and dismiss those who have been composing intently for decades as “has beens,” jaded with their visions and productions.

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Joe Rosenblatt has been a quirky and vital part of Canadian literature and art for over 50 years and his latest collection attests to how his abilities have continued to burgeon, while his unusually ectoplasmic and metamorphic phantasmagorias of rhythm and image remain powerfully consistent. The most potent part of this book, The Bird in the Stillness:Forest Devotionals (elegantly emblazoned with one of Rosenblatt’s bird paintings, while the textured interior pages spackle with the flit and gnarl of his pen & ink sketches), are indeed his sonnets in homage to the Green Man and his eternal and fragile woods. Rosenblatt, as attested by many collections including Brides of the Stream, The Sleeping Lady and DOG (co-composed with myself), is the supreme squire of the sonnet form, and this sequence is no exception, with the sonnets that don’t commence with a rhyming triplet being the strongest formally-speaking. Capable of containing a wide range of emotion, these paeans to aging, trees, contemplation, loss, copulation and divinity ring with fear, sorrow, trepidation, melancholia and yes, sexy little spurts of titillating humour. Sonnets such as “A Naked Waving Hand” and “My Face” truly enter the realm of Poe-tinged horror where “sunlight had seeped away as though absorbed into a blotter” and “We each had donned a death mask, yet we were still alive.” The Green Man is his faithful Virgil, a mocking presence, a reminder of mortality, an echo of the erotic. “Gilding the Sadness,” “Greener” and “Obesity of Gloom” are some of the most moving pieces on depression and transformation I’ve ever read while “Camouflage,” “The Rapture” and “Photosynthesis Motel” are both tender and silly tributes to uncommon desire. I hear Dickinson, George Herbert, and even Shakespeare in lines like “I’m in camouflage my dear, search beneath my skin for me,” evoking Sonnet 73’s bare withered boughs, and an old man still questing for love in his life’s now-winter.

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As much as I enjoyed later pieces in this book like the numbered repartee of “A Conversation between a Mountain and a Lake” and “Their Masterpieces” where a voice in the poet’s head cries hauntingly, “Your warranty on breathing is nearly up,” I still wished the collection had solely been composed of the Green Man sonnets as the whole creates a reverberatory intensity, allowing the reader to enlarge their imaginative empathy for the wild, which is all around us, and to further develop a comprehension of the state of embodied aging and consciously-imminent mortality. In Godard’s film “Pierrot le Fou” from 1965, a girl asks a man, “Is poetry an embellishment of life or is it instructive?” and he responds, “everything that embellishes life is instructive.” Rosenblatt’s poems are fiercely and determinedly this, embellished to the hilt, unabashedly, and in their willingness to let the inhuman world in and have it speak to the human in shameless anthropomorphism, they are indeed, at their absurd and wise core, utterly instructive. Let us honour how he continues, in all his exquisite multiplicitousness, to create.

 

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