Two from Brick Books:McCarthy (2017) and Leifso (2019)

When asked to select titles to review from the Brick Books catalogue, I oddly chose a duo of texts that echo each other in several ways: they are rife with nature/seasonal poems, their core sources resonate in the predecessor voices of Zwicky, Domanski, McEwen and other philosophico-spiritualist-earthy type consciousnesses and they represent the quieter camp in Can Po in which the turmoils are mostly quotidian (not to diminish these daily quandaries and domesticated squalls) and the imagistic thread is of the anthropomorphosized world. Reading Donald Hall as I think about these books, I first come across his notion that, when hoping for a suitable reviewer, “someone who hates everything you write is useless to you; so is someone who loves everything you write.” Now it seems to me that the latter is what we have grown used to in reviews. Either the review is merely an overview, ie. “what is in this book,” or it is a blatant gushery designed to curry favour of various sorts or from fear that a critical word will cause the potential success-tide to turn against one, often in academe, which is the birthing-room for most poetry these days.

It is no secret I take issue with such reviews. Or the blurbs that frequent the backs of books announcing the poet in question to be essentially the saviour of the poetic universe, as with the words used on the rear of McCarthy’s volume: “incomparable,” “extraordinary,” “exquisite” or Anne Simpson’s pronouncement on Leifso’s that she writes “fearless poetry.” I live in the first world and am thus not quite sure what “fearless” poetry might be in its truest sense (for instance, will I be sentenced to death for writing this poem?) but I am quite certain that poems about domesticity and the seasons, even when they admit “Oh fuck, not all of this is true” are not really deserving of that epithet. My concern is that we don’t just want the poetry to speak for itself, we don’t trust the reader, we gush because we don’t even feel anything. And poetry demands more from us. Blurbs should tell the potential reader what they are likely to find in the book; reviews need to give us ways to enter the text and tell us where it is lacking or shining and why, and are, in the end, more for the reader to increase their knowledge about the art form and thus be able to cut out more of the dreck themselves, than for the poet who will frequently simply shut their ears and retort: “ah well what does she know, she who has never won a big award anyway?” 😉

And thus, onwards (you see this is what I love about my own review blog versus the book reviews I write for periodicals – I can rant a bit when I feel like it!). Julia McCarthy’s All the Names Between is utterly attendant to the natural world, the shifts between seasons, geology, the stars, birds, plants and so forth, in a very dreamy, almost somnolent at times way that can lull the reader into a near hypnagogic state that can be alternately pleasant and possibly problematic in its abstractions, its intangibles of statement. In one poem, Lumen Naturae, McCarthy writes, “And I’m listening or praying or writing a poem/which are all the same thing.” Which could be the crux of the issue here if one thinks that hearing and speaking to god and composing, with craft, a work of art are the exact same act. They are associated, undoubtedly, but blurring those lines can lead to lax verse, weak form, and there is some of this tendency in evidence here. McCarthy is obviously well-read in both poets such as Rilke and in the sciences (as the End Notes testify with their appealing definitions of biophotons and regolith) but the poems can sink into a surreal anthropomorphic zone that leaves one shaking one’s head in bafflement. I am all for defamiliarizations but they still have to be conceivable in an inconceivable realm (as in Marianne Moore’s imaginary gardens with real toads in them, or reversed) and, to this mind, “crows/flying like knives” that eventually engage in the unlikely task of “sawing all the names in two,” the season thinning “like hair,” the stones standing “open as mouths” (after the ungainly neologism of “Lazarusing” which would lead to the cave open as a mouth, not a stone, no?), the precious image of the “grass changing its brown dress/[while]the tips of trees are opening their eyes/like periscopes” or later, woodpeckers typing “on brown keyboards” and the awkward verb “childrening” rearing up to hurt the ear and linger in a way I’m sure no poet really wants. We have all made these errors of judgment. And what is “blue as poetry”? Too much woo-woo of abstract musing here for me. A little more editorial eye-ing was needed, as is particularly evident in a short poem such as Transmigration where the “like” version of a simile is used five times in six lines (like water/like snow/like paper/like branches/like a stressed syllable). I mean surely not. This strategy is not, could never be the strongest, clearest, most potent approach to this subject matter.


But McCarthy does have an ear (and as everyone knows who reads my reviews, this ability is what I seek first). The initial poem concludes with the lovely line: “the forest tightens for the night,” a decent example of how a surreal naturalistic approach can work well, the i sounds emphasizing the action and the for lifted from forest also accomplishing a similar aim. Or the start of A Red Singing where “they drift in like snow or so it seems/but I suppose it’s like moisture on windows,” a delicious ringing of o sounds that draw one in (an effect unfortunately marred in this piece by the trees having fingers and the form being so recklessly sprawled about the page). The Fourth Bear’s solid prose-poem structure with the notion of “lairing beneath your words,” Where the Unseen Gathers with its use of words like “equiluminant…subatomic…gravitational,” the movingly taut Soliloquy of a Field Mouse whose opening is resonant of Roethke or Merwin: “What moves the reddened wood/of my blood” and whose imagery of claws of water is strangely unsettling, and the final piece, Afterfeathers, strong in assertions of belief in “chemicals awash in the sea…and especially carbon…patron saint of space….I believe we’re outnumbered” are all reasons to read this book. McCarthy feels on the edge of truly entering the intensity of what stirs in her own night.


Wild Madder, by Brenda Leifso, is much less prone to the surreal twist of image than McCarthy and her poems are thus more tangible, steeped in the quotidian triage zone of motherhood along with their kin preoccupation with the seasons and their seeming disinterest in most anything other than free-verse forms. Two quotes from writers I’m reading may assist here. One from Wallace Stevens is his insight that “the role of the poet is to deepen experience.” Yes, absolutely. And Leifso’s material, while at times feeling humdrum, for instance, kids’ everyday recklessnesses, a dying cat, flowers, snowshoeing and a husband reading The Lord of the Rings to their sons pre-bed, has definitely been entrenched more deeply in our readerly consciousnesses by her focus on detail like the dog who “ticketyticks into the kitchen” (nice i sounds!), the chickadee saying “fuck it….all the world fluting through her feathers” (both from Three O’Clock, October), the mesmerizing lullaby of First July, Then August, with its repeated line: “will you remember” and its sharp depictions of “tiny underwear/with dinosaurs/crisping on the line,” a child’s “complete and bony joy” and the walls alive “with hum,” and the weird epiphany of Argument that envisions trees as bitchy, the alder that “fucking hates crowds” or the “kyphotic lodgepole pine,/who told me every tree on earth would be relieved/when the human race died.” The risks of imagery are fewer so the errors are too, though Leifso also falls into the tired notion of trees having digits (and worse, in Warm December, a tree “chattering with her spindly hands”). However, if you are into verse about being in the world at that particular time of life (if one is fortunate) in which young energies surround one, relationships are shifting in daily ways amid the unreeling of seasons, and mostly only the deaths of pets provide a sense of the tragic, then Leifso captures many of these moments acutely and beautifully. I will leave you with another Hall quote to ponder in relation to all this: “Under the assault of busy fact, poetry may become more of a refuge than a strenuous art.” Hmmmmm. Hall was hardcore indeed.













Three from Buckrider Books/Wolsak & Wynn, 2019: #3 Tim Bowling

The touchstone word or sound or both. How it can propel a whole text, an entire word-verse. I think of finding “trobairitz” and how suddenly I was able to comprehend my metal realm from a female perspective through this medieval concept. For Bowling, it is the term”Tenderman,” a being and echo he first introduced in his 2011 collection and who returns here as the problematized, archaic, always-relevant, resonant archetypal working man of the waterways, a self who straddles the worlds of resource culture and the troubled masculinities and economies of our contemporary society, one that denies where it obtains its materials and meals, and even its contradictions, from. I recall loving the first Tenderman poems and this collection called The Dark Set is also stirring and thought-evoking, though possibly a tad cheekier and more pop reference-droppy.

As many of the lines are long, many had to be randomly broken, which, to my mind, mucks with the visual potency of the collection. In this case, the form needed either to be re-configured or the format lengthened. This was the main bugaboo for me (one I am thinking about in relation to my next book Riven: Fraser River poems, which also features long lines – what do we do when the material emerges this way in an organic sense but the standardized text cannot accommodate the work’s vision?)  Despite this slight hurdle, the lyrics in this sequel are continually wrenching, slyly-winking, steeped in homages to both literary predecessors and the trajectories of the submerged working men of the Fraser River. Every piece contains an address to the Tenderman whom Bowling associates himself with, detaches himself from, seeks tremulous and essential connections between. The symbolic and tangible figure is excavated, questioned and adored through the aegis of subject matter from Prince Rupert to his son’s Magic: The Gathering playing card, from Michael Caine to Pliny to The Incredible Hulk to selfies. As a father, Bowling must particularly problematize the typical gaze of the blue-collar worker, especially in a piece like “Interview with a Teenage Daughter” where her “creep-radar” may also be trained on the tenderman who, as an earlier poem notes, would also “steal a bird’s nest.” The book is rife with closures, of systems, constructs, the last cannery in Steveston, a modus of being that was possibly simpler but also not, as it frequently went unquestioned in terms of its racism, sexism and environmental plunderings.

Yet, there is value to working with your hands, in the elements. How to reconcile these opposing tensions? Can we? “Open Mic on the Government Wharf” even features the river itself giving voice to the realities of now, uttering the blunt introduction: “my name’s the Fraser River. I was born in the mountains east/of here. Everyone is killing me.” The titular piece that nearly ends the book is the one now ringing in my blood though. With a tone and cadence reminiscent of Robinson Jeffers, Bowling enacts an elegy to the Tenderman and his era, crooning, “I miss you, and it – /the whole Ferris wheel of blood and brine and light,/the way our sweat dried on our skin as the glossy film dried on the fish/we caught and hucked onto the packer’s deck…Even the river knows we’ve reached the end….Tenderman, cold friend, are you there? Were we ever there?” A fierce and wry interrogation of our origin’s core in all its avoidances, and its aching move towards acceptance.



Three from Buckrider Books/Wolsak & Wynn, 2019: #2 Armand Garnet Ruffo

One of the things I appreciate about being a reviewer is the challenge it poses to the breadths and depths of my ability to think outside my own immediate likes/knowledges. Unlike those who say they won’t review anything they don’t initially enjoy or comprehend (though if I hate it I won’t be fair!) or anything not in the sub-genre they prefer, I will. Because writing reviews is a learning experience for me too. Always.

I say this before I speak of Ruffo’s book because I, as the white, middleish-class, woman of sorts I am, is outside (or am I?) the materials of this text, a narrative of memoried fragments that emerge from the initial layer of a palimpsest of lies: the treaties signed between the First Nation peoples and their colonizers, compacts that were never honest, never adhered to, texts that opened up endless forms of suffering for centuries. Interspersed with the mumbo-jumbo fusion of English/Anishinabemowin interpretations of the treaties, pieces of meaningless and damaging paper signed by the X marks of the illiterate (to this mode of language), Ruffo’s Treaty # relentlessly underscores the horrors that a lax and empty use of verbiage can produce. As with Caple’s book, but more prosaically, Ruffo poses tough acts of inquiry into absence, elision, lacunae, in a racial rather than a gendered sense. Although at times, the poems sound more like story than music and even sink into a few weary cliches (“men the size of ants”/”transfixed like a deer caught blind in headlights”) or outmoded academicisms (“Construct yourself/De/con/struct yourself), the majority move. There are entrances into childhood scenes (“I am ten again…The dust from the road in my hair, clothes, mouth. When we arrive/I jump into a lake, and find I can’t swim), current realities of life where it’s “So cold the Odawa Native Friendship Centre van/scours the streets” and the “ghosts of family” remain, potent investigations of red and white “space” or red as “a poem just out of reach,” along with what constitutes a “real indian,” an anaphoric list of what to remember to teach his son (“teach him there was once a great flood/teach him it is the same flood in every culture”), a description of Pauline E Johnson’s performative dress, homages to the women who raised him, reflections on Ottawa and Sudbury, a re-telling of a traditional Anishinaabe tale, and the powerful incantation of “Terra Nullius Lingus”, a piece that names 52 of the Indigenous languages that have been lost, in a visual grave marker: “Gitksan Carrier Cree/Assiniboine Dakota Ais Alsea”, the shape a dense arrowhead of devastation. So many pictures struck me in this book in all their harsh beauties and yes I am on the edges of this narrative but yes I am also, my ancestors were also, part of this suppression, this eradication and so it is for me and my kind too, these truths. Right now, the poem “Wallace Stevens’s Memory” is sounding in my mind, with its contrast between the deceased poet’s assertion that he “never lived in time when mythology/was possible” and the lost “Mohegan, Mahican, Minisink, Nipmuc,/Pequote, Quiripi, as Stevens’s gold-feathered bird/in the broad-leafed palm at the end of a manicured/lawn sang of a life emptied of life.” Chi-miigwech, if I can say so, Armand.



Three from Buckrider Books/Wolsak & Wynn, 2019: #1 Natalee Caple

“The feminist movement as at present instituted is Inadequate. Women if you want to realize yourselves—you are on the eve of a devastating psychological upheaval—all your pet illusions must be unmasked—the lies of centuries have got to go—are you prepared for the Wrench—? There is no half-measure—NO scratching on the surface of the rubbish heap of tradition, will bring about Reform, the only method is Absolute Demolition. Cease to place your confidence in economic legislation, vice-crusades & uniform education—you are glossing over Reality. Professional & commercial careers are opening up for you—Is that all you want?” [Mina Loy, 1914]

Reading Natalee Caple’s Love in the Chthulucene (Cthulhucene) I was reminded of this fierce bequest/rallying cry of female Modernist writers like Loy and Djuna Barnes to dismantle, to demolish and yet not without the cosseting of community, a mostly-female environs of compatriots who nourish one amid the ruins. I won’t pretend to “understand” many of these texts, most of which are composed for specific individuals and which can thus sometimes seem self/other referential, inside whispers of personal allusiveness, but I think I was able to access the motivation for this mode of composition at least. Writers make worlds. These worlds aren’t always easy nor should they be, but at their best, their rhythms, imagery, and uniquely instinctive perspectives offer the reader another way, not necessarily “in” but just to “be” around and through. Caple begins with an address “I say, hey you, Mind-haver!” and proceeds to elaborate a collection that pastiches/collages lyrics, idioms, vocalizations, repetitions, strange archaisms and an array of drawings of various individuals, from the deceased writer Priscilla Uppal to the contemporary creator Lillian Allan. There is no means by which I can sum up this book nor do I want to. You may find everything in here from the awkwardly poignant and sentimental (“You lick the back of my knees/I touch your fingers….I will write you a slim letter/someday”) to a glossalalic haibun reminiscent of Lisa Robertson (“Defamedish! I spent years in/unscissored saturniid protozoal meadows disparaging the institution/of erectory) to instructions (“for forgetting:/Write everything down on water), to lists as in the piece “44 things to throw away and instantly improve your life” to pieces with performance notes (“ask the audience to scream or cry. Pretend to hear nothing”). There are overt/undercurrent statements of politics, memory, desire, motherhood (including illustrations by her daughter and one of my faves, an “Accidental Poem by Casey” – her son – which features a “city behind your ear), and a visual essay of sorts that opens itself to recombinations amid powerful lines like “make life sounds/until no child burns.”  I may be saying too much without saying much of anything here. Caple’s book is an experience, what Sina Queyras refers to as a “poetics of inquiry” and Caple is what Annie Finch might proudly call a “post modern poetess,” a writer concerned deeply with the gaps between pre-fab language and the random lavishness of the lived moments in a woman’s marked body.











Magnetic North by Jenna Butler (The University of Alberta Press, 2018)

Poets, if they are worth anything, have honed their ability to see, hear, feel and otherwise intensely enter the experiential at a deeper level than most non-poets (well, most non-artists really). Jenna Butler was only sailing on the Norwegian ship Antigua through the endangered Svalbard archipelago for two weeks, yet she eventually emerged with an entire book of linked prose poems that could easily suggest she spent years in this locus, so detailed are the descriptions, so tangible the sense of losses. In June of 2014, Butler was part of a team of 30 artists, scientists and other professionals who set sail for a fortnight of constant daylight to explore the tenuous coastline, villages, whaling stations and ghost towns of this region where the impact of global warming on glaciers and the economy is brutally undeniable.

Having heard Butler read on a number of occasions, I can’t help but hear her mellifluous, gently rolling cadences when I read her poems in my head. Her dense descriptors are so rich, even at times tipping over the line into a thick yet vague rococo (“lilt of honey on my tongue a kind of grounding” or “the taste of salt a kind of forgetting”) that the prose poem serves them exceedingly well. As lyrics they might cross into excess sugariness on occasion but with the longer lines, the preponderance of listings (“Tundra chickweed. Arctic mouse-ear. Polar campion” and “I pluck chickweed, lamb’s quarters, dandelion greens”) along with the wonderful textures of unfamiliar words “gantry….bistre…haptic….cassis” or place names “Fanshawe…Zijpendaal….Ny-Alesund,” Butler is consistently able to create taut, scholarly, experiential, sensorial and gorgeously moving mini-chapters of entrance.20180804_204355

Every section is between 3 and 5 parts, each part mostly a few short paragraphs of varying length, and dealing with subjects from the feelings of strained strangeness provoked by the incessant light and the lack of privacy, to the threatened economy, the paucity of women in this cold world, the history of exploration, the depleting environment and, at the end, the contrast between landscapes once Butler finally arrives home to her boreal farm. Not only is this “Sea Voyage to Svalbard,” as recounted in deliciously witnessing language, an example of how one might obtain knowledge, information, a different instantiation of history and culture from poetry, but its musical lushness lingers until you feel transported, utterly, into your own difficult songs of ice.


Kelly & Martin: Two Unique Musics

I recently heard Claire Kelly and David Martin read at Edmonton’s Olive Series and what struck me, beyond the oft bewilderingly screwy content (& such leaps I mostly relish!) was their emphasis on the textured, rich and entangled sounds of language. Some day perhaps I won’t have to mention this tendency in a poetry book review because all poets will understand that honing their ear is key to their chosen art form. (I can dream).

Claire Kelly’s second collection One Thing – Then Another (ECW 2019) follows her book on walking, enlarging the motions of her body by taking it from New Brunswick to Alberta in the quest for school and work. Canada has become a seriously itinerant society, with many moving for employment or living in one place and labouring in another, but, as Kelly herself noted at the reading, “we don’t deal very well with this reality.” We act as if each person will remain in a self-enclosed landscape and fixed identity without considering that an economic fluidity in this large country has become the new “normal.” In a tone reminiscent of Solie’s snappy urban allusiveness, Kelly sends us from the poverties of one province, through a U-hauled ice storm and into the supposed riches of another, despite the inevitable droughts. I started to sink into the mood by Summer Solstice Blues, which contains the oddities of eagles typing text messages, a librarian whose “eyebrows/tilt like art-deco awnings” and the winter inability to send “bunny-ear air quotes” without freezing one’s fingers off. Kelly has a knack for carving the breath between lines and jabbing jiving rhythms at the reader. Out (r) age sashays between long and short enjambments, ending with the disconcerting domesticities of “penne and spaghettini rattle, like finks,/in high-placed canisters,/magnets threaten to dislodge themselves, to spill all/their secrets onto vinyl tiles.” One of the cleverest pieces in the book is A Millennial’s Poem where Kelly creates a portrait of a generation through reference to multiple brand names like Easy-Bake and Fruit by the Foot, reminding us that kids now know more corporate monikers than species of flowers or animals. Although I would beg the dubbing of the middle piece as a “long poem” when it isn’t even two pages, Westward U-Haul Gothic zips its anaphoric energies through both Wuthering Heights and a range of provinces, each line beginning with the shorthand (for a long trip) “b/c” as in “b/c all day the crows have a hard time of it/b/c a boat unzips a river and I don’t know which river it is”. I wanted more! The prosy film series left me a bit chilly though such experiments are often fun, (for writer if not reader), but Avoiding East-Coast Nostalgia Out West brings us back to the sensorial realities of the prairies, the “hot pot offal of oil patch worker” and “Wheat-farmer sirloin in semi-demi glace.” Her Pillow Smells of the Special contains stanzas that showcase Kelly’s ability to twist melodies, as in the portrait of the waitress who “carries away/Friday night detritus, citrus slices/pierced by straw pikes, puddling ice,/napkins warped by clutch,” her reveries the tawdry repetitions of “rows of taps.” An aura of discombobulation, meandering, elaborating from what seems to be “accessible” descriptors but actually reveal themselves as not quite the comprehensible world you anticipated. Apropos for a  book on dislocation in an era gone surreal with WTFs.

danny and biff's dayDavid Martin’s first book, Tar Swan (NeWest Press 2018) is a daring, baffling, Shakespearean-inflected romp through the history of oil sands development in Alberta, jolting through different dictions and tonalities as expressed (rather perfectly I thought, versus say the more eye-troubling way Bringhurst’s polyvocalities are presented in multiple textual colours) in the varying segments of the page they take up: top, bottom, in couplet or epistle chunk, starting with a measurement “45-30 cm, below/lithic core” as with the archeologist’s speeches or in the plumb centre of the page with the curious character of the swan. Each figure is introduced in their typified posture. Robert C Fitzsimmons, the core player in this book and the first man to unveil a “commercial oil sands separation plant” is said to be posing, “hands clasped, on a boulder by the Athabaska River.” As the long poem unwinds, Fitzsimmons, his thoughts often couched in truncated letters to his wife, Wilhelmina: “Children with trowels/excavate my flesh….I give back the oil wrapped in/ moss….my only Wilhelmina,” eventually goes mad, tormented by the apparent sabotage of Frank, the plant mechanic, and his own knowledge of land desecrations, his insanity conveyed by the interruptive random capitalized vowels and consonants that appear in his rants: ” When I /find This vermin, I will squeeze Out the sum It’s stolen/ from me and watch It dangle-drOwn in the court Of cUrrents.” This passionate bond of rational damage is balanced by the current day archeologist, Wolsky, whose detached eye measures the ruptures as he works to “syphon from sour soil/a bifurcated chunk of high-art….hew a blade/from its cradle, then scrape fat/off a mottled moon-skin.” And bobbing or bopping, the natural yet artistically-shaped witness to these male plunderings is the swan, a “single cygnet” who grew up amid “quickening lichen” and “coke-drowned patch clowns” and who concludingly warbles “but I know skin and bones are far/from their mad embrace without my tar.” Part Blake, part Eiseley with a dash of Ginsbergian deliriums (or none of this. and more), Martin, a trained musician, takes a buried narration and turns it towards the light of polyphony, and its imaginations, where so many transformations live.


Insomnia Bird by Kelly Shepherd (Thistledown Press, 2018)

under the bridge

Kelly Shepherd’s Insomnia Bird (subtitled, perhaps unnecessarily, “Edmonton poems”) is a city in a book, rich with polyphony, cacophony, intersecting texts, facts, quotes, a bric-a-brac of exhaust and feathers. Full of Marianne Moore-style leapings (if not soundings) in which the information, the research is foregrounded, lying on the surface, detrital, truthful, redolent, Shepherd’s collection of collage poems mashes together the quotidian and demotic with the intellectual and the poetic in a feat the mind squirms essentially to take in. I was drawn into the book most deeply from the anaphoric poem Purple City: AfterImages onwards (“You are regret….and graffiti showing a bird with one word – “Listen” – and/ the sweat of the labourers who build the long ritual River/ Valley Stairs, and the funicular, and the sweat of the believers/ who run them…”) Some of the prior pieces fall into a few distracting cliches such as the “heart of the city” or “thunder of hooves,” trees with fingers and the like but also, I think it took a few poems for my mind to click into the particular cadences of the text, which never rest in the pure lyric or a po-mo disjointedness but aim to blur the boundaries between such generic modes. The descriptor-based poems like Edmonton! Deadmonton! Edmonchuck! Redmonton! (“your mountain ash trees full of red berries/and the watery music of waxwings…Your drifting snow and your Office Tower Tales…and the Wee Book Inn and the Sugarbowl”), Don’t Let MacDonald’s into Heritage Days (“I walked home blinking blood…poplar and chokecherry now meringued with frost”) and the ones about magpies and coyotes in which such insights inhere as “Resentful of our own receding hairlines,/we clearcut the hills,” are the most potent pieces for this reader. But the rest have their place in the symphony of things. Indeed, I want to hear this book performed in all its loco layers, ala Robert Bringhurst or the Four Horsemen. It might be, at times, too much textuality for the eye to want take in (especially in combination with all the end notes and epigraphs and blurbs – though I DID appreciate how many women eco-poets are quoted!) but the ear aches to hear the blatting crash of bird and truck, of hammer and train, the poetry cracking through the surfaces more clearly in this fashion, like a yapping dandelion through scrawled-all-over cement. A transplanted BC-er to L’Edmonton myself, I thoroughly relished this raucous homage/lament to a city buzzy with contradictions and yet still humming with beauty.