James Lindsay’s Double Self-Portrait and Lauren Turner’s The Only Card in a Deck of Knives (Buckrider Books, 2020)

“Poetry is a lie/dummies insist is faithful” (Counter-Earth). I am nearly at the end of Lindsay’s second collection when I read the line that seems to sum this book up. Its tone anyway, possibly its underlying motivation. Sardonic, cynical, sly, bereft, gutted of hope. Or is it. Steeped in the abyss of Auden’s famed line: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Ahhhh but read on….”it survives in the valley of its making where executives would never want to tamper….a way of happening, a mouth” (In memory of W.B. Yeats). Essential detachments. Unique modes. Latent potencies. Not the void. Phew.

Lindsay’s assemblage begins with a piece that closes by quoting Donald Britton’s line: “It’s all a terrible lie” and, of course, as befits the Double Self-Portrait concept concludes with the titularly-eponymous poem (possibly the most compellingly “honest” piece in the book) that absorbs the Britton (who also recurs in the central poem, “Repro Ditto”) and spits out the regurgitated last line again: “especially since it’s all a terrible lie.” I get it. I do. But I must say it’s depressing, such bonging insistence on futility. Not in the way speaking of death or grief or even bloody accidents can be, but how listening to shoe gaze music is, or watching endlessly falling leaves that, instead of feeding the soil, instead sink into a bath of acid, or seeing someone staring blankly at a wall and when you ask if they are ok they mumble some incomprehensible response like, “Eating is control in a sport that rewards those who accrue transparency towards/the light source” (Mine Light). Say what? Anyone who knows me understands I’m obsessed with John Ashbery -who is often obscure, weird, opaque. But, somehow, there is always life-juice in his work, a bit of an underlying giggle or swoon, whereas many of Lindsay’s poems have already argued themselves out of traces of longing, echoes of fervency, as if having spiritus is simply gauche, uncool, maybe even irresponsible. Charles Simic once said, poetry is “an exchange of a particular kind of energy” and the transference here is dispirited, “this cold reading” (Survivors), full of drizzle and shadows and fucked-up Freud and shot Lorca and alone bodies. His passion for Jeff Wall’s art is, however, an omnipresent thread, giving this reader a sense of the potential jouissance lying in wait.

After all, I also reviewed Lindsay’s first book, Our Inland Sea (Wolsak & Wynn, 2015) and noted it was “intelligent, ironic, rueful, full of urban ennui.” All still true in Double Self-Portrait. But the jubilant word play has lessened, the lexical energy been a bit flat-lined. It’s still bouncing however in poems like The Revelry of Others (“I will forget to send them a Christmas card/and build a gilded guilt out of it. The worst the introvert heard/was an invite’s bing-binging, the doorbell’s ding donging”), the “ooooos and wooooos grew in intensity….the lake’s glass eczema whispering” (Oooos and Wooos), Travel and Leisure with its crucial lines “There are many poems about bees/failing to be bees in the liberal world/because of new chemicals and sound” or the essential repetitions of Stupid Machine with its sensory recollections of “What you are hearing….what you are smelling.” There are other poems that stir beyond the belly-button level anxiety of the excessively traversed ego and its discombobulated raiment, but I didn’t find enough to feel super yes about this collection. Well written, occasionally subtly funny (“Kiss me,/ I have opinions” Kiss Me, Man-Child), but too deep in the muck of the 21st century’s downer-wagon where the closures often drop you fast and “sarcasm’s shitty shield” (Between Wars) is all too frequently deployed.

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The Only Card in a Deck of Knives, Lauren Taylor’s first, is equally brainy (though in an entirely different way – more to contextualize than quash) with overt admonishments (akin to Lindsay’s) that we readers should not entirely trust the narrator (though this feels more like an acknowledgement of fluidity rather than a doom-warning), as one should not rely on the body (so readily wounded, disabled, violated) as a permanently sustainable vehicle. Though the body is necessarily paramount when one has been rendered ultra-conscious of it due to a disease like LAM, an eventually fatal lung condition that is suffered, according to Google, by a “small percentage of women of childbearing age.” Turner doesn’t have the luxury to only write about the pastoral directnesses of “light, weather and nature” (Stop Bringing me Here) but must daily confront the oblique, insecure, trammelled and still potent bounds of flesh and its complex fucking, flawed love, medical incursions, maybe maternal yearnings and possibly a more imminent mortality than many. As with Julie McIssac’s erudite and erotic collection, We Like Feelings. We Are Serious. (Wolsak & Wynn, 2018), Turner’s book is also unafeared of those feared lexicons of cunt, cum, fuck, and nor does it recoil from such admissions like, “I am terrified I built my poetry on the backs of violent men.”

Turner got me from the get-go. The opening poem, Engaging the Core has taut, Latinate-dictioned, six-line stanzas, and lines that fuse emotion with biology: “Hieroglyphics of porous marrow/pocketed with secrets, your ferment indiscretions” and overt orders to the self: “This is your waltz. Sway to it.” With alternating literary traces of Plath, Lisa Robertson, Sexton, Chase Twichell, Karen Solie and Robin Richardson, this startlingly titled book with its primary reds of scratcher-tats cover is an exegesis of everything the flesh codifies or doesn’t in its feminized erosions and triumphs. Between Push and Shove unpacks with an elegant, understated vitriol what a woman “should be” – “A woman should dress like a window to be impressive but not one to look through.” Further, the prosy accounts of Appendix 1 Quit Dying to Die are unyielding in their peelings back of the veneers of bulimia, addiction, mental illness, tumours (“Always there’s this difficulty of occupying a body”). Violence against women rears up in many pieces like Rooted too Long in a Single Spot, a poem that recollects the murder of Kitty Genovese and expresses regret for the misuse of such survivor terms as “brave, or traumatized, or broken,” concluding in the most powerfully ironic line in the book – “I could plead for better, but you know I can’t speak.” Then too, there’s the chunk of textbook scenarios divided by italicized segments on X that comprise A Masculine Division and which provide a stirring critique of a medical system that has long ignored female pain, hystericized it, invisibilized it, drawing on the tragedy of murdered artist Ana Mendieta to exemplify how often we are instructed to step over blood: “No man is permitted to weigh my bodily trauma by his lack of empathy.” TRUE! Heavy stuff, that’s right, and this is perfectly okay, adult readers, as mostly the intuitive tweakings of diction and form keep it all palatable as art first. Tenuous balance that fusion of craft and saying core things and more often than not, Turner manages to turn the body’s burdens into transcendences of sonority that both mean (to argue against Archibald Leich’s proposition in Ars Poetica) AND be.

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Moving to Climate Change Hours by Ross Belot (Wolsak & Wynn/James Street North Books, 2020)

Before I review this worthwhile collection, I must again express my near-revulsion these days with 1. excessive blurbs (to wit, Anne Simpson on the back jacket gushing in clicheed fashion that this is a “remarkable book, revealing a poet at the height of their craft.” First off, how many danged blurbs sound like this and secondly, this is Belot’s second book – if he’s at the height of his craft, the only way to go is down. So. No. Let blurbs be brief overviews of “what you will find inside” and not spewings of empty verbiage) and 2. endless acknowledgments thanking everything including the kitchen sink for their assistance in the book’s publication (was it committee-written?) and notes telling us redundant stuff, say that poems are forms they aren’t really (does a “true” haibun ever end with a tanka instead of a haiku?) or that these pieces were finalists for a boring corporate award. Even if I adore the book, such blah blah blah makes me recoil a little from it. How unfortunate that these types of emptiness are so prevalent and accepted.

That said, now to launch a greyed paean to the book itself, a tangible, genuine ode to the end of oil-based industry (a locus where the author once worked, thereby lending his poems extra gravitas). With a similar impetus as that behind Tom Wayman’s work poems (or, more currently Rob Colman or David Martin), ie. an exposing of the contradictions in traditionally male modes of employment, vilifying them a bit in relation to their combinative damages but also deeming such roles at least the remnants of heroic gender markers, Belot composes direct invectives like First Day, a piece on the Gulf oil refinery (“the skin of one/absorbed acid and it ate his bones….do the right thing, be a good boy/come home safe/ten thousand more times) or the modified pantoum on the Exxon explosion (“shut in the oil/And they could wrap that place in a shroud/Our warming planet would thank us all”). He also writes laments for friends who have committed suicide, and lyrics haunted by the lucid beauties of nature (from my favourite poem in the book – not surprisingly – Cat Catcher – on how felines are essentially “staring unblinking/licking a paw with [a] tiny/pink diamond tongue” to the “sanderling/[that] avoids the clamouring surf” in On a Beach, another interpretive haibun that confronts clichee, the infinite, love and all the hyperconsciousness we writers are supposed to have of the “rules.”) In these pieces, I hear the seeming simplicity of Gary Snyder’s entrees into how the crow, the ocean, the mountains can render us texts, in essence, of both knowing and unknowing.

I very much like how Belot constantly shakes up his lingual structures, sometimes tossing in a mucked-with form, then lineating skinny, stretching his prosy arms, scoring slashes, shaping triplets, slotting in a few dark photos. In this manner, the eye never grows lazy and the mind can stay alert to what Belot is eager to convey: the answer to “Should anyone ask for more?” as his friend Michael emphasizes in “After the Movie,” to which the answer, of course, is: “Yes…/they can and fucking well should.”

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Cephalopography 2.0 by Rasiqra Revulva (Buckrider Books, 2020)

Usually, I find writing reviews about essentially performance-based texts tough as they lose so much of their resonance on the page. Even bill bissett with all his typographical innovations is better heard, and the music and meaning absorbed through that channel rather than sitting quietly down with his books. But Rasiqra Revulva’s work is a feast for so many senses that I felt reading these transcripts in a text was at least one of the necessary ways I could engage her multiple energies. Part of this was her use of the overarching, tentacled symbol-entity of the octopi-squid-ammonite that serves as a weird kind of watery grounding for everything she manifests in this collection; another echo-anchor drawing me in was how she messes with forms (not often the case with spoken word artists) from the ghazal to the villanelle, re-charging them with spurts of Arabic as in Nautilidaeism (“nacreous, chambered isolation/ya mawlana antas-salam/buoyant in bondage,/wa minkas-salam“) with salam serving as the radif/repeating word, or with bursts of scientific diction as in “Free the Niqabi!” whose triplet stanzas circle the misunderstood conditions of religious & gendered garb with the recurring lines: “Derided as weak, compliant, forlorn -” and “Inhaled through my siphon; exhaled transformed” along with words like phragmocone, viridian and spirula. These pieces by Revulva called to mind echoes of Sylvia Legris’s amazing book Nerve Squall along with the erotic slippages of Daphne Marlatt’s Touch to My Tongue. As in Legris’s book, though even more prevalent an integral element, Revulva’s illustrations, formed by recreating poem-fragments as paintings and then glitching their hex code so they become a process of “reverse ekphrasis”, make this publication a constant inhabitation of eye, along with ear and mind. The strongest pieces on the page are Manifest Destiny (“Moist sepia. With prismatic/tissue puckering into coarse, beige papillae, the flamboyant cuttlefish takes her first steps”), Breeding Grounds: Lophelia (“unseen between her legs/glistening against matted peach fibres, lies/a single faceless garnet/that will never blanch in sunlight”) and The Octopus Complex (“love was the knife/how poetry, the floating science”), along with the prior two pieces mentioned.

Revulva lost me at the end with her interactive array of word searches and crossword puzzles (my poor lil cortex finds these as complex as physics or algebra and desists, though continues to admire those whose brains are game for such intricate gamings and possibly, as John Ashbery says, with Revulva’s entrees into this genre: “Games were made to seem like that: the raw fruit, bleeding.”) Cephalopography 2.0 is indeed a nautical, ecoesque, diasporic, queered cornucopia of WTF and WOW, full of lingual flotsam, obsession’s residue, chiastic visuals, twisted forms and performative manglings. Those who’ve heard her perform with The Data Bats have been ruptured, and as one audience member told me, “The book should be taken to be organic and loop like waves or currents as during the live performances she distorts her voice to create undersea sensations.” Hey, I love creators who take risks and though I may not be able to enter-entertain all these experiments, kudos to taking metaphor and longing to their limits and to finding a publisher who can inhabit possible transcriptions of these mystical-ink-driven liquidities.

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Orrery by Donna Kane (Harbour Publishing, 2020)

Orrery – the word means a model of the solar system, but the sound conveys even more mysterious potency: gold, pride, exoticism, awkwardness, the unknown. It’s a compelling symbol – the American space probe – Pioneer 10- launched in 1972 and retired in 2003 – for our human fascination with the mechanical, the celestial, and also a testament to our recklessness, our confusions, all the layers of our materiality, our emptiness. Donna Kane writes within the knowledge of how the slightest shifts of wings engage fate, or the stirring of horses alters the lupines (Intrusion), the hovering wasp shudders the parsley (Tasseography). As Simone Weil said (an apropos quotation for Kane who uses the word soul several times in Orrery), “Attention is the soul of prayer”. Beyond the ostensible subject focus of the space probe’s journeys, Kane’s overarching aim is connection, to show how, as is the case with an actual orrery, everything orbits around everything else; we all exist within each other’s tremors.

Kane is a modern metaphysical poet, a fusion of a paganized Donne and a slighter Eiseley, her researched obsession with the space probe serving up unique conceits that attach her even more intimately to earth and its delicate, tenuous, intense processes. Orrery has a bit of a slow, too-thinly-sketched start but by the funny irony of “Depiction of a Man and a Woman on the Pioneer 10 Space Probe Plaque” (a drawing that is featured later on in the book – but why not here?), one is ready to delve into the how the absurdities of space travel can collide with our fear of what vaginal clefts could signify. Kane, though she doesn’t write much in codified forms, has a sharp feel for the line break, the stanza’s sensibilities and the singing hinge of internal rhymes. This piece, with its three nine-line stanzas and final snap of a closing zinger – “It hopes you will understand,” succeeds not only on the basis of its image depiction but also due to its perfectly paced tone and resonance. Listen to these lines: “If a representation of a man with a penis/and a woman without a vagina/is hurtling at twenty clicks a second/away from Earth and makes contact/with an alien who thinks/just as we do,/so admires the woman’s hairdo…” The surreal melds with the strange then collides with the familiar, the do/hairdo echo snapping it all together with crisp diction and conversational gestures. And the reader can’t help but be present.

“Eulogy for Analog” is even more of an aural feast: “Out with the rumble, tortillas of vinyl,/in with the jitter, the flickering screen,/the click click click of a digital riff.” Here Kane demonstrates the tangibilities of sound, how materiality can be conveyed by all of the senses, and how withdrawals of aurality emphasize situations of loss. Other energetic entrees in this first section are “The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You,” “Space Shuttle Columbia,” and “On the Material World” where the orrery twists into the quotidian representation of “an egg, an orange and a flashlight.” Good as these pieces are, I found myself relishing more of the poems in the second and third parts, perhaps because I warm more readily to earthy substance. And Kane is such a meticulous observer of the multiplicitous nature of existence. How we can be so full of conflicts, aware of the “smoke…the guy who threw a wad of green duct tape” on the ground yet still enjoy “happy hour” (Vancouver, August 2018); how one can continue to like and even mourn a person who ditches empties and shoots birds (Magpies); how the eater and the eaten become each other’s inner and outer in the act of being con(Heron and Fish).

I feel especially fond of the delicious blues-smooshiness of “Fungus Love” (“let me be your honey-tuft, your candlesnuff/your pom-pom, tinder, hoof”) that concludes in an essential praise of death as a form of “mycorrhizal” desire, and “Horse Chestnut,” a poem that takes simile into the stratosphere of gobstoppers, Bing Crosby’s sound waves, candied cherry and ends with the innocent-wise order to “Hold the chestnut to your/ cheek – the coolness you feel is your own heat vanishing.” Although a few poems seem unfinished bits towards a thought, wrapped up too pat like “Antlers” which closes with the abrupt histrionics of “re-prong/or I will die,” the honed lyrics in Orrery feel mostly like genuine, real, human movements of awe and listening in the face of space and death and biology and time. And this, as a pursuit, constitutes the necessary core of poetry.

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Arleen Pare’s Earle Street (Talon Books, 2020)

Another poet and I were chatting recently about the seemingly acceptable preponderance of poetry books out whose poems don’t even attend slightly to sound, their particular lingual occasion, but flatten out on the page like scared mutts, riddled with what he dubbed “slouch words” or tonal flaccidities in the form of “limp language, vapid verbs, nothing nouns.” So when a writer blurbs on the back of a text that I will lose myself in the “sheer pleasure of language” I instantly imagine a true attention will be paid to words and their endless, intricate musics. Arleen Pare’s Earle Street (o the cutest green sketch of a domestic cover!), with its plethora of reiterative found poems (from an email: “what are you doing my neighbour shouted and the guy left/ I phoned the police they came but they didn’t catch them”) and plain-spoken, tell-it-like-it-is lyrics (“Somebody said somebody poisoned somebody’s dog/Thirteen years ago. Maybe more/The dog barked all day./Sometimes at night” or “Just that one rat/Alone. Starved maybe/or struck in the street some hour of night/making for the neighbour’s backyard/Too fast or too slow”) does not appear to have that focal aim. But what is its intent? Well the structure and gist of it fascinate from the first.

Each of the four sections begin with the titular divider: “This street is” followed by the compelling specificities of river, arboretum, window and then the generality of world. I like the hominess of focus, akin to William Stafford’s window poems or even Lisa Robertson’s brilliant The Weather, an un-peeling of the simple complexities of the known/unknowable in the every day quotidian. Pare is engaged by the neighbours, so-called vermin, birds, rain, loss and love but the central motif is the wondrous Katsura tree, addressed (even invoked!) humanly in resonant haibuns. Of these the most potent are Niece I and II for their redolent sensory details, leaves “burnt to caramel corn” and a “pale fringe, jade-coloured” or “bark the colour of a barred owl” and their lingering grief in the culminating haikus where “day ripens/to black” (though I’m not as convinced by the paired haiku where “ice jackknives/ruts winter streets” which sounds like a semi-clumsy attempt to subvert the cliche of ice like knives), and “Everyone Wants to Change the World But How Many Help Their Neighbours,” a piece that jumps adeptly from the beloved tree to helplessness in the face of the homeless, the contrasts between “sweet rounded leaves” and the cement that “hardens with age” followed by the quick flit to the hummingbird haiku with its “speed” and “impermanence.”

Less powerful are the poems on crows, so ubiquitous on the West Coast as to be nigh-impossible to re-charge as a source of poetic energy, a black crow flying as flatlined in the mind now as “my love is like a red red rose.” Not sure whether kudos or groans should be doled out for any poet attempting the crow’s revivification. As Pare notes: “being common does not protect the crow/from being hallmark cliche” though it is actually their commonness that plonks them solidly in the cliche pot from which they will have to thrash wildly to stir from. It’s a shame of course as crows are such a vital part of our psyches, but wow does it take work to break them out of their blahs as images or symbols and “come the crows come the crows come/their song” doesn’t cut it for this reader (and do crows ever, really, sing?)

Pieces that will linger from Earle Street for me, continuing to trail through my mind like the architecture of a flower’s scent, are “Key-Shaped, the Shadow,” which calls to mind PK Page’s poem about the woman on the can of Dutch Cleanser (A Backwards Journey), her picture repeating until it seems this “tiny image/could smash the atom of space and time,” in the way Pare’s Escher-representations of reality unfold: “To build a house, start from the centre of the second-floor bedroom” and “Start from the inside….as though building from inside a seed.” Also memorable, poems whose sounds do coalesce pleasurably as in “The Light in this Diurnal” with its lines “the sill/silted with fine off-white dust….a primary series to foil these unprismatic days” or “In the 4 am,” the most rhythmical poem in Earle Street, with its evocations of achieved or promised outdoor lovemaking in “felled funnels of wet” or on “blankets in sacks for the snow/to press warming dents under boughs.” And although I wouldn’t say Pare’s endings are regularly triumphant, the last poem on leavings is a strong litany of farewells to neighbours and their animals, concluding with the weirdly apt image of her long-dead mother who “sometimes now….un-dyes her hair.”

Earle Street is a lovely read, and vital in its evocations of re-rooting oneself in a place in later life (usually a challenging feat!), though for Pare’s most essential title I would turn to He Leaves His Face in the Funeral Car. In a 2015 interview with Plenitude magazine, Pare comments that she writes, “when ideas come.” Her ideas ARE provoking and necessary, but I’m hoping for her next collection she lets things simmer a little longer, until more music arrives.

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Two from Palimpsest Press, 2020

“Few poets are capable of evolving even a single unprecedented tone: the depressing corollary of this divestment has been a marked atrophy of skills within the reader” [Louise Gluck]. True, but today, I want to expand on the notion of tone beyond poetry itself to the review. It’s as if, yes, we only want the one-note overview of praise and absolutely, the prevalence of such blurbs in our literary culture has led to a marked atrophy of skills, a dearth of terms, vocabulary, and modes of assessment of texts that are vital in the creation of an engaged, awake and passionate readership.

That said, it’s tough critiquing poetry in this climate in which not only is this relentless back-patting the norm (and finger-wagging if you choose to be tougher), but the focus is on “saying things that need to be said” regarding sexuality, race, and other modalities of identity, and this content often appears to silence an assessment of craft. When things are important to state they need to be considered as not just commentary or conversation but as art requiring a thoughtful crafting. These reviews, without ever wanting to shut any writer down or up, in their absolute right and need to be heard, are always first and foremost going to attend to auralities, form, style, tone, diction, technique and other key means through which poetry is created, and the only ways that poetry becomes a true source of emotive and intelligent communication. Thus.

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David Ly’s Mythical Man is a first book and feels it. Nothing wrong with this – it’s rare for an initial foray to be close to everything it wants/needs to be – and mostly means that the breadth and depth of options for the poet’s compositions in terms of allusions, language or structure may not have been fully considered. The core content of these poems revolves around the protagonist’s experiences of being gay and Asian in an often callous pick-up culture with its engrained racism, an indifferent family in which he has to remind his grandpa he won’t be getting a girlfriend “Again” (Nod and Be Polite) and the growing but superficially inclusive acceptances of our social media society in which, “Nothing really happens unless there are pics” (Post One).

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Mythical Man features recurring titular pieces, the most powerful being II, where the end lines point out the futility of aiming for absorption into another person when these yearnings are just “distractions/from the real magic/that makes us/powerful on our own.” Also, several fascinating poems, divided into three parts each: Snap, Filter and Share, engage with the lies of selfies and the glossy representations of love via the screen, each concluding with a hashtag and the word “like” repeated numerous times to underscore the homogeneity of virtual approvals. Potent too are cutting lyrics that incorporate crude lines from the Grindr app, such as “Force this White Bitch to Serve your Oriental Noodle!!!” aching collisions of the pain of racial cliches and the continued presence of desire, with “Stubble Burn” also slamming that complex theme hard into the reader’s mind. I like the poem “Granville & West Georgia” (being a fellow Vancouverite) too, but I do have to question some of Ly’s descriptive choices here. Do pigeons ever “cluck”? Is the London Drugs there really “dilapidated?” (dirty? stained? litter-strewn maybe but certainly not in ruins!). Birds “hopscotching across/dried speckles of their own shit”? Sure, that’s fanciful poetic licence. The others are settlings-for.

Unfortunately, such lexical laziness impacts on many of these poems, from the recycled idioms of “resting bitch face” and “silver fox” to tired modes of expression like “plastered to our backs,” a “pulsing” bass, “we go our separate ways,” “kiss the tears,” the “wedding band glimmers” and your “skin starts to crawl,” along with simply vague words such as “reality, construction, equates.” There is so much tenderness and sensuality in these pieces, along with essential ennui, threads of anxiety, and brave unpackings of toxicity that the language, rhythms and forms need to be honed a bit more assiduously to be armed for the vital tasks of truth-speaking within queer sensibility (or not), such as is the case with poets like Ali Blythe, Henri Cole, Marilyn Hacker or D.A. Powell. In subsequent collections, I look forward to Ly taking those lyrical reins in hand and running, with more honed intent (as befits this fearlessness!), “towards the beasts.”

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The third release from Robert Colman, Democratically Applied Machine (love the retro-industrial cover design!) shows undeniable evidence of just how much crafting work he’s put in over the last few years, turning these pieces into “aural attention engines” (my term 😉 so that, whether one relates to the subject matter of blue collar labour/a father struggling with dementia, one listens, thrills to sounds, and keeps engaging with the page. You can’t “just say” in poetry. If craft, form and aurality isn’t present, the most vital “message” dwindles into banality, creating a cringe in the experienced reader.

As Philip Larkin notes, “the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.” Colman’s poetic style combines Larkin’s resonant reserve, an occasional regality of tone ala Thomas and the rhythmic sonorousness of Wilbur. Tom Wayman may have cornered the concept of work poetry and Richard Harrison recently wrote a stunning book on his aged/deceased father but these topics are inexhaustible when you attend to form and sound. Part of this promised renewal here is how Colman’s poems on machining shops converse with his time with his father in England, as he himself searches for traces of his past, including the Cornbrook Chemical plant where he worked in the 50s. The traditional inseparability of men from their labour and the impact this work has had on their bodies and psyches is the core of Colman’s focus.

Divided into four parts, two on the manufacturing industry and two on his father’s illness and their sojourns together in landscapes of memory, Democratically Applied Machine explores forms from the sonnet to the sestina and prose poem and, less successfully, the erasure and cento, forms that, frankly, are tricky to make meaning from, though the concluding cento, “Watching,” comes close, particularly in the titular stanza, drawing from Ryan, Lux, Collins and Ashbery: “What a life he would have lived without them/in this democratically applied machine./He hid behind books, and/thunder lay down in the heart.” From the first piece, Colman has the reader’s ear. Whether you know the Gerhard Richter painting or not, you are snatched inside its atmosphere, the final stanza a echoing rush of evocative assonance: “see/glean/clogs/cobbles/vowels/spinning/pitch” along with the consonantal ring of “mule/steel/lathe.” The assembly of manufactured objects is compared to birthing in “Interview with the Machinist,” one of his strongest poems on blue-collar labour, along with “From the Front” in its depiction of a fiber laser as having a “fierce hiss,” “Choosing her Trade” where the “adjuster’s wink” is “crimping the sunk IN tray,” and “After Lowry, After Cornish” which draws work together with art and the homeland in the raw nostalgia of lines like “This shop is no longer akin/to working the coal face” and “dust & lime a tickle of history.”

I must admit that I wanted more pieces like these and fewer like “Part” or “Brittle that seemed too slight, cursory, cut off. Then again, who can truly enter the machine? The detached tone is perhaps part of the intent here. Alzheimers also creates an ineffable state, a violent or aloof removal from the present, the once-familiar. Added to this harshness is the sense running through many poems of a general silence, the depressed inability to fully express the self, question marks, lacunas and partial knowledge in which happiness “includes books you read me/and the rest we both groped for blindly” (Son to Father). The most unforgettable section in the book is the last one, Hold, in which psychological abstractions melt into tangible specificities as father and son perambulate from pub to field to teahouse in the north of England and facts become a “ricochet” (The Painting) in his father’s brain, while his son asks himself “is knowing more precious when tenuous?” (Old Friends). The composed sketches of “Slipping Time” are brilliant, and throughout, pieces such as “Walking Longshaw,” “Fickle Gods” and “Market Day” feature language rippling and flexing at its most buff and lovely. “Sepia teen soldiers,” “fresco secco vines,” “the allure of air baffles you out to the garden wall,” and O, the wicked trochaic metrons and assonantally-rhythmic sashays of “Saturday is adult nursery, bric-a-brac, yesterday’s/tack – Victorian smut, Bakelite dud lamps, train/ sets and epaulets.” And yes to “fuck this loss” (Protest). Call loud, I say, preserve preserve.

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Chris Hutchinson’s In the Vicinity of Riches (icehouse poetry, 2020)

K. C. Cole writes, in a study of everyday physics, that “Abstractions seem magical because they can exist independent of matter”; in this sense the forbidden (according to Pound) phrase “dim lands of peace” may sport a resonance beyond the explication of the essential tangible and emotive, lingering in its own hyper-spaciness, its purgatory of un-pin-downable consciousness. I felt this magic frequently in Hutchinson’s subtle, allusive, marvelously outre poems, that no matter the evidence of the is [an opium case, the White Tank mountains, Sheriff Joe – just to cite one piece, “Surprise, Arizona (2008)”], it remains what lies outside of the mutable, some vast mind-time, that we can reside within most hauntingly and accurately.

Hutchinson’s brain is a repository for weird bits of history [“The Day an Elephant Walked across the River Thames (1814)”], literature from AA Milne to Auden and Nietzsche to Dante, detrital news reports from wars and other erosions of Americana, typified images in Canadian poesie [“The Birth (and Death) of Prairie Poetry: A Fiction (1956)” is one of them – whose intent, to mock or pay homage, remains nebulous], art as an elaboration of politics, and the acknowledgement of techno-transformations of reception and praxis [“we must livestream or die”]. In short, a plush and gnarly storehouse, a bulging of texts cortex, an (at times) overwhelming repast of grey matter, a la Brodsky’s feasts say (but do you keep returning? why yes.)

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Above all, I’m a reader who seeks first the ear and Hutchinson has that too, occasionally tipping into the “run/sun” kind of rhymes that oversimplify his sophisticate portents but mostly showing off a more slanted approach to mellifluousness, “cloud/ground” as end resonances or the internal one-two of the most stirring piece in the collection on Ophelia, in which the word “hair” sets off a dash, the utterance “that sound” and two lines later revisits the title with the drifting punctum of the prepositional phrase “into the air.”

In “The Half-Lives of Painters and Poets,” the speaker appears to yearn for words to be “things” though the subsequent lines elaborate the contrary potency in the inevitable abstraction as it extracts from and transmutes the thinginess of the world: “syllable, sense, sensorium, the fossilized flames/we call signs, limned in gold and pale cerulean.” He revels in the possible-illusions of that maybe-eternal sorcery, even gushing in “North American Figures of the Capitalocene,” – “grant me riches, beauty, fame!/ I’ll toss away this body like a coin.” But he also accepts the quandaries at the core of trying to say at all, noting, “this insatiable need to write/is really a desire sparked from the flint/of writing’s intrinsic and hopeless contradictions,” continuing on in slippery bewilderment, “I mean extrinsic and hopeful” with all the elusiveness of Ashbery. Nothing is stable. That’s ok.

The bees even go “is is?” their actual buzz transferred to questioned concept. You can’t go to sleep on anything in Hutchinson’s poetic-thought condo. The bed, more likely than not, is just a statement of “radical inwardness” and you will remain in the stunning vortex of what what what.

 

 

 

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Kat Cameron’s Ghosts Still Linger (U of A Press) and Kim Goldberg’s Devolution (Caitlin Press)

I just have to say (unpopular opinion?) I’m not a fan of the French sleeve (actually I just found out that officially, they are called “flaps.” Alas, I don’t even like that word!). Great for a bookmark sure, but I don’t like the feel of them when I’m reading – too sprung, too cumbersome. That admitted, Cameron’s slim assemblage of mostly lyrics on the land, history, women of the west and eco-sorrows, is a compellingly designed collection featuring Annie Oakley a-cocking her rifle on the cover. Within, the book is divided into three sections, of which the first two, “Ghosts are Ordinary” and “Alberta Advantage” are more powerful than the third “Lightning over Wyoming,” mainly because the material in the initial two are more deeply lived, while the last segment is about historical figures who fail to be fully entered (apart from the startlingly detailed “Soiled Doves” on the “red-light ladies” of the Old West, their existences reduced to “hair dye, perfume, and laudanum…a hat, a doll’s head, a bone fan,” selves “pared down, exchanged/for a tin circle” – I just sensed the rest needed more percolations of time beyond visits to museums and the reading of texts to transcend the way they merely list rather than imaginatively leap beyond). The poem to most thoroughly embed itself in my blood in this book is the masterful “Haunted,” from the book’s first part, a traditional ghazal sequence with the repeating end word and, in the last section, the author’s name rounding out the stanzas. I’ll quote the first one in its entirety to show the subtle shifts that assemble the energy:

1.

After all this time, I am a ghost to you./You’re on an island, writing poems.

You wanted to be free of memory,/the sooty slash of absence in your poems.

[NICE LONG ‘A’ SOUNDS BY THE WAY!]

Old loves fall away like rotting trees/or drift like flotsam in the ocean’s foam.

After all this time, I am a ghost to you./You are an island, writing poems.

Apart from the final piece in this segment which pokes at Pepys in the manner of a cheeky English prof, its quatrains elaborating (how apropos at present!), his reactions to the Plague amid his selfish joys, the second section of Ghosts Still Linger is the most engaging, as Cameron draws on the lyric, the found poem, the spectral pantoum, and the erasure form to elucidate aspects of living in Alberta: the boom-bust madnesses, the burns and floods, the Timmy Ho rednecks, the city scavengers and the sweet cricket fields. Here her talents are most grounded and genuine as she veers between the historical comparisons of infernos in Big Burn, the simple and poignant sketches of the fouled rural (“mosquitoes/and one crumpled Budweiser can/silver and red/in a ditch filled with cattails/and stagnant water”), and the sly humour of parodies like Old North Trail that riffs off Yeats with its lines, “I will drive now to Innisfail/and stay at the Super 8 motel” or pastiche pieces such as Poetic Licence that compiles Alberta bumper stickers from the enlightened “Caribou not coal mines” to the imbecilic “Fuck off we’re full.” Cameron’s poems simmer with a quiet ire amid their gentle songs.

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In Pound’s Pavannes and Divisions from 1918 he writes how the first myths arose when “man walked sheer into “nonsense”….[and] he told someone else who called him a liar. Thereupon, after bitter experience, perceiving that no one could understand what he meant when he said that he “turned into a tree” he made a myth.” Kim Goldberg’s collection Devolution is subtitled “poems and fables” not myths, but all these pieces work to transcend our collective inability to imagine others, the not-human, the unseen, by an immense engagement of the imagination and the intelligence. The cover, which features a striking image of a woman becoming a fish on the edge of the sea, is our entree into a punchy unrelenting elaboration of apocalyptic sensibilities. Atlantis sweeps us inside with the statement: “Wait. There, behind the goat-shaped cloud -/I think I see another god” and we are led into chambers of discombobulations where salmon catch humans, bears walk out of beards, birds are surveillance devices, idioms are ruptured (“caught between the devil and your deep blue/seedpod….you were/ eating like a bird in a handkerchief…They said you were under the weatherman”), the ocean breaks, and people are tossed about in sudden spaceships. Goldberg ranges through forms from the fabulist prose poem (veering from the stunning Loves and Fishes to the head-shaking Armadillo) to the moving sonnet, and from the scientific brilliance of cultural genomes as car names in Codex to the overly simplistic clunk of the archaic-eared Deluge. She risks it all. Is what I like. Even the pieces I didn’t. Still. A risk to toss in such an array of modes and vocabularies. Though the poems that shine the most such as the incredibly aural Spawn:

“We watched the shooting stars cascade into/a diesel-flowered meadow binding all our heads, beating/while it burned until the stench and smoky spew/was traded for the flickerflash of atomic churn. And the sea was gone/under the bluest sky of the year, as we stood at the edge of our world”

are potent because they depict reality at its most vital and disruptive, drawing on the dictions of particular knowledge and the sounds that rupture us at the core.

 

 

 

 

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Lullabies in the Real World & The Response of Weeds (NeWest Press, 2020)

Poetry is so thoroughly about negotiation. With the land, with the past, with identity, with other poets. Then, at a more micro level, with the line, the word.

Meredith Quartermain’s latest, Lullabies in the Real World, (from important new-ish imprint Crow Said) commingles the tangible and abstract in segments of a train journey from the West to the East Coast of Canada as “train letters cross word country” and the question lingers “where are you going” (Letter to Self), the where bearing so many palimpsested identities, names, scars. Rife with historical allusions and geographical realities, these track-bound poems seek to list, as an act of memory, and also the honouring of incantation, the poet’s aim to “unmap unseers/rub out their erasures” (Leaving Montreal). Although I hoped the skinny, often lower-cased form would shift at times, loosen, it can’t, if being accurate to the primary eras it addresses and the modus of its poetic muses (bp, Blaser), as well as to the rigidity of rails. The most potent parts are those which acknowledge such limitations and framings. From the poem, Styx: “poem mutters/wheels and wains…never outtalking vagabond river.” Or her quotes from Colin Smith on poetry mixed with VIA Rail’s Francophone insertions and such internalizing lines as “train of thought departs/seedy light on station pillar” (Half Way). Although echoes of bp can become a tad overdone, the poem “Letter to bp in Hornpayne” remains moving, more aural than many pieces in this sequence with its reverberations of sounds in “you too stood in Hornpayne at dusk,/the travel-weary train/stopped in a dusty truck lot,” and the darkly beautiful admission that “The name of death, you found,/was NOTHING.” The anaphoric weather reports of “Captain Montresor with General Wolfe on the River” and the powerful final piece, “Standing on Cabot’s Trail” (“I wish I’d come here before….I wish this poem could gather every forgotten forsaken being/and return them to where they are loved”) are particularly memorable “stations” on this intense journey. “Free the World Picture, Poet” Quartermain directs in these non-lulling lullabies. And she does.

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While Quartermain has published quite a wealth of texts, The Response of Weeds by Bertrand Bickersteth is his first, a mid-life release that suggests a density of time spent absorbing and yes, negotiating with the issues and allusions he references, from racial to geographic identities and all their intersections. I’m not clear why Black poetry on the prairies is, as the subtitle claims, a “misplacement.” Surely if it exists here, in the communities that re-located to the flatlands, then how is it particularly “mis” placed. Maybe “alternately,” “additionally” or “re” placed? I love the structural framing of a Dramatis Personae of “Negro” historical characters that recurs throughout the book and most engagingly in this initial section, Rivers (featuring multiple “actors” from Kathleen Battle to Paul Robeson) as well as the focus on only 19th century writer-abolitionist Henry Bibb in the Now I’m the Only One that’s Looking section.  Bickersteth is truly rupturing when he evokes the Blues in refrains like the one in the opening poem, “The Negro Speaks of Alberta” : “I know these rivers that flow through me/I’ve peered into their hearts and still you do not see me,” when he ranges his essential rages across the page in ragged lines that energize the loss of nomenclatures, of anchor (as in “What we used to Call it”), and in each piece that begins with the line: “Now I’m looking,” a grounding of displacement in positionality like in These Empty Flatlands where “There is a scarecrow looking/back at me…Two straw men/marking out the edges of these empty flatlands/stuffed with their essence,” a kind of Eliot’s Hollow Men reconfigured in the prairie vastness. It’s when Bickersteth becomes too polemical in tone, abstracted, that one detaches as a reader, aching for the sensory again, the somatic. Give me “the fields outside of Olds/on the 2A somewhere/after Didsbury or before Carstairs” (The Wrongness of a Word) or “Honey, today I came/out of darkness/with black ahead/black behind” (Out of Darkness) any day over “For here and here are occurrences/of egregious failings/and despite our systems,/our democratic aspirations…” (The Magpie’s Place). Snooze. Poetry can never just mean. If it doesn’t rouse the senses, stir the muses, evoke recollection and utter music, all the saying in the world, however crucial, doesn’t matter. Bickersteth’s faith in his particular rhythms will only grow, one hopes, and make his next set of rooted melodies worth yearning for.

 

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Against Death: 35 essays on living. Edited by Elee Kraljii Gardiner (Anvil Press 2019)

This starkly designed and possibly too-hefty tome of personal memoirs is yet another essential addition to literature on illness, accident, suffering, death, grief, mourning and survival. When I first heard of the call for this anthology I interpreted it as asking for writing on near-death experiences only and so was a bit surprised on reading the book to discover there were also pieces on the death or near-death of those close to the writer, a decision (was it?) that perhaps over-extended the focus of the collection in the aim of making it a certain length, or maybe the thematic direction merely became more expansive as Gardiner assembled the anthology. Although I don’t usually review prose, I make an exception for primarily poets who write a novel (say Heather Haley) or poets who compose essays like Gardiner herself (as often the prose that is written or even selected in this fashion verges on the poetic.) Thus, many of these essays are composed almost as a series of prose poems, from Adrian M Zytkoskee’s gorgeously detailed and anaphoric “The Things she left Behind” with its repeated refrain, “she left behind…” to Rachel Rose’s paean to her drowned childhood friend that contrasts the blunt statement of “When she came back he was dead” with the exquisite lyricism of “The lilies were tall and white and left traces of burnt orange pollen on my hands.” Pieces like Jane Mellor’s and Nikki Reimer’s push even further into the territory of song, staccato-ing their lineation, stuttering out melodies of loss: “There is no right time./To die. To call. To tell”; “I made him up. He is dead. He was never real. He is dead.” Amanda Earl’s memoir “After Survival” even brilliantly melds excerpts of her poetry: “limbs needled and pinned until numb quasimodoed/cactus-hived skin itch” with matter of fact depictions of her almost-death from a terrible virus – “I had full body sepsis and a toxic megacolon that had to be removed.”

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I wonder how the poetic intensity of so many of these essays will affect the intended demographic of readers, the projected audience for this work? Gardiner also includes memoirs from several of the writers and activists she has encountered in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, such as John Mikhail Ashfour and Jennie Chantal Duguay, their perspectives offering an alternate approach to the more typical picks of anthology compilers. How an editor selects and organizes their vision in any compilation is endlessly intriguing. And, for the most part, Gardiner succeeds in creating a textured, and moving, voicing of this vital material, though some pieces, like Keira Miller’s “An Introduction” feels vague and unfinished, and others such as Bruce Meyer’s overly busy recollection, “Sweet River of Red,” is marred by distracting typos. I found too that I yearned for section markers that collected these texts into the vastly differing experiences, to my mind, of actually surviving a near-death terror and of enduring the death or the fresh knowledge of mortality delivered harshly to you by the accident or illness of a loved one. The internal organizations of the essays are quite effective though, both in variety and in the incorporation of the visual. Lisa Neighbour uses excerpts from philosophers and pictures of her “final quote” knives to separate temporalities; a. rawlings includes photographs of boats and icebergs that signify the development and exhibition of an artistic project on cancer; C.M Faulkner marks the division of segments with Latinate numerals and dates in the manner of case files.

The latter two memoirs were indeed several of my favourites in this diverse collection, as was the beautifully composed “Full Belly, Empty Sky: Death and Parenthood” by Ben Gallagher, an enactment of what I call true “emotional scholarship,” evoking theories from Zazie Smith to Stuart Hall to explore how “Death is [a] letting go of the many futures you believed in.” Other strong essays are Jessica Michakofsky’s painfully tangible (but slightly out of place in this anthology) “Goodnight Stars, Goodnight Air” about her son’s descent into addiction and Tanis McDonald’s movements between her mother’s death and the AIDS crisis. And the plangently fierce preface by Gardiner herself, from whom I longed for an entire piece in deeper detail on her experience with an almost deadly blood clot in her brain. Against Death is first and foremost about living on, about those who continue to exist to honour those who’ve passed beyond these sensory realms. I’m thrilled that we are continuing to elaborate our own Canadian oeuvre on this impossible-to-deny topic, this subject we must face gracefully, courageously, ragingly, with all the power of our art and lives.

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