Metaphysics of Existence: Cadsby & Thornton

In 1985, Alice Munro wrote of John Metcalf, apropos his reviewing style that, “Praise from him you feel is real gold…he won’t tell you he likes your writing if he doesn’t…he is one person who can tell where the soft spots are…what’s fake, what’s shoddy…it won’t matter what compliments you’ve been getting from other quarters.” Not that I’m comparing myself to the masterful Metcalf, only that I’m hoping to eventually be so well understood as a reviewer, as someone who is never aiming to do harm, but only to be such an intelligently critical assessor of the art form that what I write is not taken personally, but professionally, in relation to the growth of the poetic genre, not to the diminishment of the poet’s self. At the very least, for readers to trust me to be as honest as possible in my delving into a work.

And so honestly, I didn’t know what, initially, to make of Heather Cadsby’s Standing in the Flock of Connections (Brick Books, 2018), as the poems, mainly lyrics in varying configurations, are disorienting to say the least. As a reader, it feels we don’t get to know, through the poems, any particular individual, nor any substantial scenario, but are dipped into the subtle acid baths of words, in media res, and scarred a bit as we are asked to swim brief, discombobulating laps, then yanked out and thrust in again moments later. This is not because the content of the pieces, per se, is terrifying, but due to the emptiness one senses amid the firing synapses of this smart and chilly poet. Perhaps this line from “Mentionables” comes closest to summing up Cadsby’s modus operandi: “A frozen freedom to be this uninvolved and continually inventing.” Hey, I’m an Ashbery aficionado; I can handle the abstract pronouncement, the shifting through psychic space at vertiginous speed. And Cadsby, in her strongest pieces, draws us into a world where the vague word, “thing,” is sometimes the most accurate approach to the randomized happenings that befall us: “the thing about getting back together/is what was removed and then lost/when the door closed. That time/when singular things happened/and we didn’t know we were waiting.” One could fault such writing for telling rather than showing, but that is possibly the very point, that the earth is apocalypsing into its internal signifieds as the external signifiers dissolve, thinginess is replaced by thing, touch by a touchscreen. And pow, are the linebreaks bang on! “8th Floor Lookout” is an even more powerful evocation of essential isolation, parrying as it does between the fearsomely tangible, “hawk…thrashing squirrel…pecked at its head….some boys played grabnuts,” and the abstract terrors of “compromise…context…parallel observations” with the close pointing at the eternal and Biblically-rooted human activity of “casting first stones.”

Cadsby is a fatalist. She unflinchingly hammers in what we sense about our end times, that, “There’s just this: sleep and hurry,” that one can’t rest anymore with an image of pastoral birds because there’s also “birds hitting windows,” our pursuits are “small and selfish” and our mothers are “dead with their mouths open” (terrific titles for the latter two pieces by the way, namely, “The whole play consists of stage directions” and “At the hospital window I saw a dove. It was a gull.”) However, she can also utter gorgeously apropos dicta such as: “The language of grief is that language of hope” or a compelling statement of poesis like, “Prose poem is a genre worth some failing.” Cadsby’s potencies definitely lie more in the lyric than the prose poem, these personal/ambivalent tweaky tunes that often trail off as if an ending would be a redundant further and final blow. Cadsby herself admits to overtly fighting with the non-lyric, stating in “the cause of my rosacea” that: “There are times when even the thought of a prose poem makes my face/ raging red.” Being the elegy-addict I am “My Michael (1996-2009)” moved me immensely in a way the others mostly didn’t, cracking me out of mind and into tear ducts with the contrast between the “careful boy” and the recklessness of the accident that killed him, leaving “silence as the missing link.” As with almost anything I initially recoil from, not in a somatic fashion, but in an intellectual resistance to the less-emotive, not-especially-luscious, even anti-rococo of it all, I eventually, by steeping myself in the universe of the text, comprehend the latent potency of this particular style. It’s necessary, Cadsby’s dry, weird, de-composing, saying it like it is now.

20181008_133229I’ve been reading and admiring Russell Thornton’s work for ages now, since we were both briefly workshoppers in the same odd band of poets in the mid 90s, a collocation including Tim Bowling and my ex-husband Chad Norman, this quick collision of minds intent on at least aspiring towards a poetry of intensity, meaning, feeling, in which moving your audience to emotion wasn’t considered a crime, an imbecility, an offence against academic fashion. Before I address myself to the mostly reverent, gentle, feral poems in this tight collection, I have to note the absence of a vital nod to Robinson Jeffers in The Broken Face (Harbour Publishing, 2018), both in the title’s echo but more explicitly in the titular piece where Thornton paraphrases Jeffers’ 1924 poem, “Roan Stallion,” without giving credit. Jeffers’ lines: “Tragedy that breaks man’s face and a white fire flies out of it.” Thornton’s: “There are blows that break a man’s face, and a white fire flames out.” Now I’ve written poems, songs and a Masters’ thesis based on Jeffers’ work, and so I don’t want to see this liminal master neglected further than he has been already in the past few decades. An oversight? There are, after all, MANY other poets mentioned as influences in the Notes section. I’m hoping that’s all it was but, to my mind, the omission is a significant and lamentable one.

Ok, we know what we’re going to get with Thornton and that’s not a bad thing. He stands for classicism, sonority, homage and language singing its most transparent, fierce desires for connection. His poetry tells stories but the emphasis is on the image (the “surprise of snow,” “the basket of the stars,” the “cold iron rain”), simile/metaphor (blackberries like “prayers that grow in empty spaces” or shoppers at a checkout as “wedding guests awaiting a bride”), the description of small but key moments in his relationship with his children, as when they dance at the mall or wake in the night with bad dreams, and repetition, which lends many of these poems an aural, even spiritual, resonance, a hieratic energy, a sense that, like Jeffers, Thornton wishes to speak of the eternal things only, not those that are temporal, context-bound, that pass away. The pieces that rang out most in my heart were, in fact, those that uttered pedantic words like “Open” or the stunning chant of “When the Rain Comes” with its recurring refrain of “I will tell it, and tell it, and tell it, and tell it.” Like Patrick Lane in certain respects, Thornton is engaged, in part, with how the patriarchy has damaged men, as boys, and as fathers, though, for Thornton’s part, he seems much more intent than Lane was on rectifying errors with his own children by spending time with them and paying his usual close poetic attention to their worlds. Although he sometimes strains too painfully to effect a parallel as in “Tiny Crabs” when his urge to connect a beach scene with the wordy notion that: “It was as when someone dies and you/spend your life pretending to be him/or a person you have imagined” trails off into a sensation of “say what??” mostly Thornton is incredibly adept at writing poems that appear essential and stirring as the “creek gliding clear green and rippling white against rocks.”


These are the Words: Clarke & Lee (Hidden Brook Press, 2018)

You won’t like this review, authors. Proviso. But I always write what I think based on my decades of reading and contemplating the art I love the most. To do otherwise is to fail myself, and poetry, as it demands honesty, for me, like nothing else in life.

Ok, so my little silent “prayer” after finally crawling out on the other side of this binaristic approchement between the “humble nostalgist” pose of John B Lee’s lyrics and the composty glut of smutty Biblical raconteur George Eliot Clarke was, “Please don’t ever let me become this self absorbed!” These two poets, snarled in their fleeting cultural laudings, have lost a kind of sight and now seem heavyweights from another era shaking paws in an unlikely ring that is too shiny, too long, too glommed with footnotes, diddled by either glossolalia or mushiness, and finished off by excessively lengthy bios that tout a lot of rot. And I am sorry to say this as I admired Lee when I first read him over 20 years ago, and even once saw Clarke as a kind of early mentor of language in its most fully alive manifestations, but this disparate duet is largely ill-advised. Why, at this point in their vocations, would they agree to such a mish-mash of two utterly contrasting voices (the only benefit I could mark was the emphasis on all Canadian poets NOT sounding similar!), between the covers of a cheesy, cheaply-produced text, garish and over-fonted, typo’d even, when surely releasing these sequences as well-crafted chapbooks would have been immeasurably preferable. Yes, I recoiled at this endeavor, that’s evident.

In the “forewarning” to his “translation” of The Book Of Tobit, Clarke asks the reader to “beg [his] indulgence,” a stance in which ANY opposition to this material will be couched in the light of suspected prudery, a Christian shock over Clarke’s melding of idioms, dialects, languages, discourse communities and over-eager bursts of pseudo-erotic descriptors. Yet as a pagan, raised by Catholics, who relishes the sexual text, this won’t serve to constitute MY resistance. No, the indulgences this reader doesn’t per se forgive constitute Clarke’s forgetfulness towards the reader themselves. From the dates (in Roman numerals?!) and places of when/where each fragment was written (who cares, I shrug) to the melange of oft-irrelevant languages (why Finnish say?), the rampant rampaging of parentheses, dashes, italics and other cluttered markers (o why so much textus interruptus??) to the frankly yuck, worse than 50 Shades of Grey sketches of cartoon-like fucking (“plunger in her”/”her taut cunt stretched tight to his eel”/the newlyweds entwined blissfully….(like tender spaghetti)” GADS!!), the Book of Tobit exists mostly in its own poofed-up, onanaistic, self-referential world, leaving this reader on the verge of oft-upchucking. Of course, there is Clarke’s jubilate of wordy collusions to pleasure the cortexical realms still, his crashing together of Hooters and shlepped, hematite and Jerusalem, but the yippee-yee-haws of this characteristic play get far too often dragged down into the mire of why why why?


In sharp stylistic contrast, Lee is defined much less by lingual play and more by the line break in his page-plowed fields of simple (couched in often old fashioned if not archaic diction) and plain stories of dogs, his wife and son, birds, the seasons and so forth (though not much more forth). These poets appear to be “buddies” based mostly on being in the silly position (once or now) of Poet Laureate, a role almost guaranteed to turn the versifier in question into a pompous, over-public, prattler. Clarke’s sequence, as it claims a narrative trajectory, at least holds an arc, while Lee’s lyrics, some potent in and of themselves (I particularly enjoyed The Black Hand Speaks – “his face fanged and sharp like the fractured snarl/of a northern pike” – the “moody rumour” of Nothing But Light and Last Evening with its “sweeps of wet web”) and despite their Hittite inspiration (“the themes of bread, water, love figure”. Ok but bread and water as “themes”?), feel like they could have been cut down, pared to a shorter, more resonant selection and certainly sliced free of such cliches as “blue rivers of desire,'” “stays the course,” “keen eye fixed” and so on. O and cherishing “the charm of the virgin”? Ugh. But when one begins his bio by stating that he is a “revered poet,” and the other offers up the fact at the close of his that he was called “the greatest living poet in English” by now-deceased minor poet George Whipple, well, you know these versifiers have descended too far into their own exegeses and are mostly now translating versions of themselves, to themselves.










No Punches Pulled: Iskov & Van Loon

As I was preparing to write this review, I received the latest issue of ARC in the mail with an article by Chris Levenson called “Poetry and Criticism: a symbiotic relationship.” In it he overviews his own editorial labours, concluding accurately that, “Canadian poetry is in danger of slipping back into self-congratulatory chumminess. Those poets who think they are well off without honest, well-substantiated and yes, often unfavorable reviews, should think again.” I read this after hearing from a poet that only “positive” reviews are acceptable to her and that the fact that poems appear in publications or have received awards prior is apparently sufficient to render them immune from all critique. How can this be? I don’t understand why poets don’t consider it an honour to be read by minds that are capable of an intelligent assessment of their work based on long years of reading and thinking about the art form. All art forms that have any value in our society present their practitioners with rigorous standards, classical music say, and refuse to accept hacks or lazy creators. Why can’t we encourage these standards for poetry instead of worrying about who we are offending constantly, or who won’t give us an award or tenure or yet another back pat as a result? Poetry deserves more than either silence or the regular pseudo-blurbing that often passes as reviews. So, even though I know there will be dissenters, and those who will take my considered reactions as some kind of personal attack, I can’t be anything other than honest with the art I respect more than much in life. Possibly poetry matters more than people to me. If I’m to be brutally truthful with myself.


I.B. (or as she is better known, Bunny) Iskov’s slim collection, My Coming of Age (HMS Press, 2018) features pieces that have been published in other small press compilations and/or have been acknowledged by regional awards. The reader knows this because each piece concludes with its kudos, usually an unadvisable approach, distracting one from the poem itself. Sources, notes and other extraneous materials are better set at the end of a book where they prove additional, not core, aspects of the work. Iskov’s assemblage is a truly mixed concoction of the promising and the unappealing. Some poets seem to forget how to write poems of music, freshness and integrity at times, and then later suffer a kind of amnesia that enables them to meld originality with dreck in one short volume. First, the workable. There are pieces here that present variety, form, tautness of diction and often, anaphora. Iskov definitely has an ear/eye for structure and repetition. “Before the Flood” resonates with the recurrence of the word “once,” and “My Coming of Age” presents two tight stanzas on the importance of the Beatles to the young speaker, countering their freedoms with the echoed realities of “even though.” The sonnet, “Ode to my Computer,”  is a perfect example of versified wit, the rhymes precise and the twist at the end, “I have reason to compare thee to a rose” an apropos a-ha moment. Also, Iskov’s paean to three deceased friends in “Making Mac and Cheese” is essentially tangible: “water blossomed/into tiny bubbles” and “the evening turned to wine/within me,” an attention to descriptive detail often missing from other poems whose tone veers into the telling, the didactic. I won’t list these pieces but just note that an avoidance of the pathetic fallacy – “trees paint their gowns yellow”  – and cliches like eyes that “sparkle” and “wide cherubic” smiles – is recommended. Poets need to remake the language, not regurgitate the tired old. Also, being specific is key. Not “another offensive event” (“What is a Jew?”) but the actual event in all its sensory truths, however difficult. And the image of squirrels that “scamper loose/and blow across the fence”? Well, this reader can’t see that at all, not even in a satisfyingly surreal fashion. Iskov is the founder of the Ontario Poetry Society, an organization that publishes the Verse Afire compilations of poems and reviews. Thanks for your work for the poetry community, Bunny!


Building on River (Cormorant Books, 2018), Ottawa poet Jean Van Loon’s first collection, takes as its subject matter and overarching narrative the life of John Rudolphus Booth, 19th century empire sawmill builder at Chaudiere Falls. Having written a full-length book myself on another kind of pioneer, photographer Mattie Gunterman (Seeing Lessons, Wolsak & Wynn, 2010), I am fully aware of the obsessiveness research can bring and thus, at times, the challenges to both the writer aiming to do justice to their muse and the reader desiring to enter this foreign world. The book is divided into six sections, providing a rough chronology of Booth’s long, compelling, tragic and triumphant life. At first I doubted I would be engaged by this gentle tycoon but Van Loon’s musical ear drew me into the narrative fast, crucial for poetry where the story is even of tertiary significance to cadence and form. You can basically write about nearly anything and reel in a reader if you are resonant. Apart from this talent, Van Loon also has a basic facility with voice, potent in the pieces spoken in J.R.’s and Rosalind, his wife’s syntax, featuring the simple rhythms of the day to day, including the loss of several children. And she knows to keep the collection, for the most part, varied between vocalizations, longer and shorter lyrics, forms like the villanelle, a sequence that snapshots J.R at 40, 50, 96, and work grounded in research, steeped in both internal rhymes and prosiness, intent on an inclusive portrait of the businessman, the father, the empath in the face of his workers’ suffering. At times, the book feels like it might have been stronger with four sections instead of six and Van Loon certainly doesn’t always rout out cliche (“numb fingers stiff with cold,” “shrug off coat,” “skies a shroud”) but there is more to lure here than to repel.

Listen to: “will run it/when it’s built. And well”

“For wages/which I save”

“made lath from scrap”

“a prime white pine”

“I rein in the rented dray”

“bunting all a-flutter”

Building on River doesn’t only inform through musicality, it moves, and especially in the pieces about Rosalinda’s death, her “hands lye-cracked, eyes wood-smoked,” along with “Rainy August,” a poem that perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of communicating grief. More Canadian history needs to be re-imagined in poetry, at least of the kind Van Loon can write.










Bolt by Hilary Peach (Anvil Press, 2018)

Poets perform from printed materials so why shouldn’t performance artists have published books, given the fact that publication remains one of the primary indicators of value and seriousness in the literary world, despite how few of us apparently read, versus say watching spoken word presentations on YouTube. Hilary Peach has been a name in this community since the 90s and Anvil Press has now seen fit to honour her unique longevity with a beautifully printed book, the cover the close globe of a horse’s eye, with the title in bold red against matte stock. Simplicity, repetition, accessibility and sonority are some of the hallmarks of spoken word and Peach has been honing these touchstones of the craft for decades. Often these characteristics translate well to text on the page and others….who really wants to read the same phrase like “I would always be wrong,” or a word such as “sometimes” over and over without variation? In the context of the performative space, the repetitions can work to build gravitas, suspense, energy, but on the page, without the performer’s interventions, the phrases or words can begin to feel like a pointless hammer to the skull.

Regardless, in reviewing anything, one attempts to describe it within its own merits in relation to the success of what its creator strove for so, knowing that these pieces are mostly skeletal transcripts best served by being fleshed out beyond the page, we can begin an assessment of sorts. The strongest section for this critic is Rhapsody of Scars, pieces that surround the tough yet compelling life of a Boilermaker welder, working shutdowns, living in sketchy accommodations and, as a woman in the industry, dealing with gendered incursions of subtle or overt sexism, as underlined with terse humour in “Judy, I remembered” and “The Mouse.” Having lived with a boilermaker partner, I can attest to the brute veracity of images such as: “For a month I worked night shift/welding tubes….he had a gold front tooth/and made scorpions out of mechanics wire” (Montana) or “the women who do it/must be making/some sort of special statement/to spend their days/face down in the mud-drum/their nights in that shabby room” (The Great Cathedral).

76 or 77

The other sections contain balladic lyrics that remind one of the conventions of cowboy poetry, minus the rhymy-chiminess. Snakes are main players, along with black horses and birds, apocalyptic smoke, small towns in Rosebud County and women called Loretta. “Outlaw Girls,” the final narrative ballad whose generic precursors include The Cremation of Sam McGee and the gruff utterings of Tom Waits, sings solidly as it tumbleweeds out a tale of Honey and her dangerous love, Billy who “still hung in her/ eyes like a star.” Academia, which continues to create the dominant canon, has often denied us the cadences and fragrance of such essential entrees into the human heart because it can’t parse, deconstruct or otherwise parry them into argumentative papers. Too bad. They are missing out on some wild sorrows.

And so, the last lines of “Cowboy Dreams” can perhaps serve as a summation of Peach’s performative aims all these years: “don’t let them slip that smooth new rope/around your tangled mane.”











Listen Before Transmit by Dani Couture

I was planning to include this collection (Buckrider Books, 2018) in the omnibus reviews I’ve been doing lately but I have been savoring its slippagy patisseries of sound, its taut realistically-underpinned emotional palette and its metaphysical embroideries much longer than I’d anticipated. Not that I wasn’t a Couture reader prior, but this book soared me beyond her other publications, possibly because I’ve read a lot of Ashbery since and so was more able to roll with and even revel in her image (if not especially tonal) shifts and allusiveness.

Reading M Travis Lane’s dated but still relevant critique of Robin Skelton this morning from 1976, I came across this valid statement: “Poets today veer between two failings: the trivial and the maudlin.” And yes, because of the fear of the sentimental, the emotive, more poets now (and I would say this is EVEN more the case in 2018) turn to tossed off sketches of not-so-very-much, a bit of this and then the other, here we go round the mulberry-esque bush and what’s that, a spaceship made out of sponge cake and an astronaut tootling on a post-structural flute? The trivial is safe. And it can be very well-crafted with a full stamp of approval on it from the necessary departments. So, darned hard to critique even as you’re tipping it in the bin. But that is not what is going on in Couture’s poems. They, in fact, avoid the trivial and skirt the maudlin while still holding place for the Model T and CCTV at the same time.


I like what Mary Dalton says in her back jacket blurb (and I rarely pay much attention to such pufferies): “A deft collage of syntactical fragments….uncertainty, estrangement and disconnection…but there is also a countermusic…” And although Dalton goes on to note that the counter music is designed for connection and coherence in the subject matter, for this reader, the music was more a way of writing true feeling notes on the scale amid the intellectual, apocalyptic, urban-ennui ones. The blocky poem Prototype: “Whenever a shadow crawls past, we look/up….Here on Earth everything stands/for one thing, or what it used to be. Atomic/placeholders. When someone dies, we can/say they were reorganized…Tell me, how did/you keep splitting only to become one thing?” (& a perfection of line-breaks too!) The heart-rucked lyric Mother, Order Octopoda: “Once in a recovery room, I reached to touch/your damp crown, counted what remained: three/ hearts, one hooked beak, the steep slope of empty/ space beneath tidal sheets.” Or the extended couplets of Sympathetic Strings: “…fish strung like bunting…Jumping a ditch /and clearing a small, undiscovered sun…And yet, these bodies resonate….Here, as we wait, listen: the wind threaded/through another winter’s wrecked shack.” I hear driftings of Anne Compton and Karen Solie, but with more quirks of scholarship and less dry arms-lengthness. I also loved Red Eye, Minus Time, Forecast and imagine other pieces will creep into my poetry-avid braincells and veincells and heartcells on my next read. I would have ended on Last Days or Contact rather than the less memorably blammo Transit of Mercury, but that’s about all I have to resist in this real listening before transmitting black box of what is and is and is.




4 Women with New Books of Poems!

When you read a lot of poetry, much of it begins to fall into categories in your mind and as you read you mutter to yourself, o this is from the detached camp of versifying or, that one is steeped in the personal experience impetus. Sometimes the very richness of sound in the poems springboards you away from assigning content-based demarcators, as happened to me recently with the utterly-unheralded (as far as I’m aware) collection Cries from the Ark [Brick Books, 2017] by Dan MacIssac, a book I bought at the Galiano Island bookstore that blew my gadonkle, at least for its entire initial segment on extinctions, and most especially for its delicious aural richness of even abject matter: “Under an iron flail of flies,/it contorts and writhes/sweating out ticks/from its soiled hide/into the suety ooze” [Bison, Wallowing]. Why o why are such books ignored? ( o wait, is he a white, middle-aged, male professional? I see).

Linda Frank’s collection Divided (Wolsak & Wynn, 2018) is also about critters galore, some threatened, most at least ignored or dismissed by our rush-about world. This is a vital text as there is not a single piece in here that doesn’t consider other life forms than the human or, in a key section titled, “So Full of Ghosts,” pay long overdue attention to the discoverers of fossils, butterflies and other delicate essential elements of a full existence on this fragile planet. Many of these explorers and preservers of the natural realm have been women whose research was co-opted by male colleagues, as in the piece, “They Never Asked Any Questions,” spoken in the voice of the paleontologist, Annie Montague Alexander, who sits in the dust “marking and wrapping bones” by day but by night must still stir the “corn, rice, beans and soup” for the male members of the crew. Wonderful pieces include: Orb Weaver (which draws its rhythms and diction from Whitman), The Plume Trade, Half Mile Down, and Morning Glory. At times the tone becomes too pedantic and the music hushed, especially in the oft-muted endings, but regardless, these pieces are more than worth an embedding in your empathetic core.


Another recent collection that is highly focused on a particular subject matter, in this case, the dilemmas and eloquences of stardom, whether in music, acting, painting or media, is Brenda Sciberras’s Starland (Turnstone Press, 2018). The first poem that snagged my ear and fiddled with my heartstrings was Lonesome, a villanelle drawing on a line in a tune by Hank Williams and using it to elaborate on the particular aloneness that the internet seems to foment: “Yes, we’re Facebook friends, by & by/You know it’s all the rage; writing on one’s wall/I’m so lonesome I could cry.”  A poem like Serious Moonlight pays simple homage to Bowie, while Starlet unfolds Monroe’s complex reality. The concept of stars is dealt with in variety of ways, as in the prose piece After Leonard Cohen’s “How to Speak Poetry” where “if a cricket /can sing about stars I can write a poem about them” to my favorite poem in this book, Starland, a farewell set of stanzas to movie houses of yore where “we mortals go/to sit upon old velvet seats crusted/with cum, eat bags of rancid popcorn” and compound words like “buriedalive” and “nothingisasitseems” add to the nostalgically melancholic ee cummings feel. This is definitely populist verse, however you want to take that epithet, and edited masterfully by Kimmy Beach, another of our fine star-struck Canadian poets!


Ok, two recent 2018 Anvil Press titles that fall into the more fairytale surreal or, as I have come to call it, “detrital” (where poems tend towards a listing or cataloguing style that scrapes around the edges of our societal wastelands). Jaime Forsythe’s I Heard Something seems to echo in the latter category where the only thing binding the poems together is indeed, “something.” The tone is frequently a kind of detached reportage from an apocalyptic zone, ala Karen Solie meets Stuart Ross. Well-written, with definite attention to the stanza, these poems nonetheless often left me chilly. I like to care. And often I didn’t for the “wooly mammoths/ chewing” or “the china cow who spits cream” amid “a plum sinking in shochu” with “black toilet bowls,” “a facecloth in a bucket of bleach” or an “electric blue wig.” It’s very hard to define why the shrug in my mind begins sometimes so I’ll just say I wasn’t convinced. Entirely. (nor am I by John Ashbery’s last poems and he’s my poetry “god.”) There are poems here that feel more anchored in an actual address to something beyond the void as in This Isn’t Me where the speaker concludes with: “Sorry to bring you here….Please lend me a sensation to pack/ for the coming voyage” (why isn’t the line broken after pack though I wonder?) or Late Admission which starts: “I did not transpose my grief/into those falling clumps of snow.” Autobiography II is also stunning with tangible details that really feel like they count. The “star anise, hands trading liquids/and papaya;” a turtle surging “into a holy pool, wobbling across/a planetary body.” Yes, that moves me.


By the way, Forsythe’s and the final book under consideration today, Eve Joseph’s Quarrels, are gorgeously designed, smaller than your typical poetry book (a move I greatly applaud – hey make them even smaller – more people would read poetry if you could fit it in your pocket and it cost 10 bucks! and forget Black Moss’s 10 buck series – they print on demand so no one can find them anywhere!), and featuring striking creatures on their covers. I loved Joseph’s The Startled Heart over a decade ago, and just finished her emotional memoir of dyings, In the Slender Margin so perhaps I was hoping to be stirred at a deeper level by this text. However, that’s mostly not what’s going on here in this set of prose sequences, the first one reminiscent of Joseph Cornell boxes in which Italo Calvino meets Marc Chagall, the second featuring descriptors of Arbus’s photographs (many of these images feeling quite old fedora by this point alas), and the third, returning to more well-plumbed and vital terrain, a series of prose poems on her father’s death. In the inital section, I especially enjoyed the piece on Miss Gladstone who taught children how to be like trees: “…we breathed out what the world breathed in. We didn’t know this was praise…Press down, the late poet said.” In the second, on Jack Dracula at a bar, the lines: “It was not enough to be in the world…What others saw as freakish, you saw as text” are poignant reminders to any poet of their fate. And, well, the third part is worth the whole rest of the book, for me. Of course I have a bias for grief work. I’ve done and read so much of it. And truly, I think it’s very important as a literary and personal pursuit. Joseph’s intimate and difficult knowing is so available here. In the lines: “People took turns, thinking they were comforting you when/really it was the other way around”; then in the line: “In bed, the fledgling opens his mouth for one more bite of/lemony cake”; and in the near-final lines: “I was not allowed to wash or dress your corpse. Nor light a candle in the dark house. There was no raft pushed out to sea and nothing set on fire” the cadences are exquisite as they emphasize the loneliness, need, the utter bereftness of the end. This, my poetry compadres, is a most necessary quest for your craft.


3 short reviews: Mac, Hansen, Brock

Reading a book of essays and reviews by Mary Dalton recently, I came across this paragraph: “A healthy literary culture is inhabited by reviewers who are greedy for poetry.” Yes indeed. Though at times I feel I’ve been too greedy in requesting books for review and get a tad overwhelmed amid all else, especially when I don’t truly think I am the “right reader” for the title under question and yet, I promised to review it, and I am mostly loyal to such duties, so I must.


With that proviso, I currently have 8 titles I am reading and aiming to review pre summer as that’s when I take a social media break! So, these reviews will invariably be shorter than usual. And especially for these 3 because, like I admitted above, I don’t think I can do them total justice, not because they are lacking per se but because the subject matter of each: child soldiers, trickster soldiers, and alien soldiers (of sorts) is not really my thing. Keep that in mind. It may be yours. I hope it is! (years ago I found I couldn’t review a text by Natalie Zina Walschots as it was about video games or something. and I let myself down with this total resistance. so I’m resisting my resistence today! and of course, the more I write about the books, the more my mind opens).

Kathy Mac: Human Misunderstanding (Roseway Publishing, 2017). This text is a politically crucial experiment in engaging in the act of compare/contrast through which one can more readily feel empathy for the victimized. In three long prose-inflected poems, Mac explores the juxtapositions between Harry Potter and Omar Khadr, 18th c Hume illuminations of the mis-apprehensions between one person and another (my favourite sequence as it’s the most tangible and sensory (“This is one consistently observable effect I have had on you: you sleep well beside me. (But. In your experience, my type hurts [and hurts and hurts]),” and 12th c comments on two cases of torture and deportation in Canadian courts, a piece that attains an Alice In Wonderland-style tone as it seeks to discombobulate predictable response. Go to this book if you seek to think more deeply about the relationships between self and other in our world, a realm in which the complex metaphor one can weave between eras, histories, literatures and politics is nearly slack. Mac is a rare Canadian poet who is unabashed at bringing the depth of her morally probing and well-researched stances to her art.

A Tincture of Sunlight by Vivian Hansen (Frontenac House Poetry, 2017) thoroughly explores the persona of the Old Man, a being who appears, hauntingly, in pretty much every piece, whether narrative or lyric, toying with shifting line breaks, or being elaborated in solid chunks of prose as letters or historical excerpts. The relentless repetition of Old Man makes it a challenge at times not to be lulled beyond an attention to the important matter of the tale this trickster/ soldier/ biologist lives, one narrated by Lover, who textually caresses all key details. A fascinating journey of words and temporalities here, though I still preferred the tinier poems in which the focus is taut and moving as in Sequence: “Soughing,/the first snowflakes/whispering the plot to each other: this is how you reach the ground./Cover me, I’m going down./The crystallized torque,/spinning flakes,/snow, resting./Showing themselves approved/ to black winter air, prepared/for the white anxiety/of ice.” O yes the music in that last image!

David James Brock is definitely a strange one (which I’m cool with ;). His Ten Headed Alien (Buckrider Books, 2017) proved to be an acid extravaganza from a boy’s jizz of a Bradberian daydream where monsters are women with heads of fish, or flatbeds of pigs, or little punks or The Super Duper. Lines are tentacled and cut with robotic voices, repetitions, glossalia. Brock, being a musician, is stupendous with stanzas and breath and twisting melodic echoes between “enzyme” and “scream” and “puce” and “ecru.” Taut and punchy with near nil emotion as befits a tract about the end of humanity by a man in an Oryx and Crake-style spacesuit, his pew-pew forms serve to wham bam the reader in the ears even if their minds don’t fully “get it.” My faves are: “Woman with the Head of a Fish in Parkdale,” “I Only Eat What I Kill: Volume 2,” “Please help I’m at the edge of the world this morning,” “Newfoundland II,” and the whole sequence in which detritus is recorded for emptiness’s posterity, called “The Ruins.” Definitely not a common perambulation through the apocalpyse.

Ok, I ended up getting into these books more than planned. Good. Because me learning is the most selfish motivation I have for composing these reviews 🙂