Miranda Pearson’s Rail (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019)

The simple place and emotion-based lyric is often dismissed or even disdained in this era when, if your poetry has no overt sexual, racial or other trendy engine behind its impetus, and such content isn’t rendered in complexified form, then it seems antiquated, irrelevant, too obvious for these mangled (and yes also emancipatory) times. A shame, mostly. I qualify this statement because it can appear thus – as if the lyric from a non-politicized perspective (though, of course, one could argue that the angle from which anything is examined is political – as one did in the 70s), is a now-tired tune, a side-stepping ditty of emptiness, a rococo so what. Miranda Pearson’s Rail only occasionally made me fall into that feeling and mainly when an ending trailed off as in “Degas Women,” whose promise felt curtailed or when a metaphor was super same old same old like “Magdalene” with its portrayal of personified trees with “boney fingers” and “wild grey hair.”

More often however, the compressed intensities and essential groundings of the lyric are evident in Pearson’s poems. And since when are depictions of nature, relationship, or aging passe? I certainly don’t want to live in a world, as Bertolt Brecht said,

To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors.”

The first poem, “Camber Sands,” plunges the reader into the collection’s overriding tone: a graceful melancholia, an elegant engagement with time and locale. I hear Patti Smith’s meanderings in M Train at the start of the piece: “the sand drifted on to our shores/and into the corners of the Kit-Kat cafe” and at the end’s return: “the beach grass and long-beaked curlew…the cafe boarded up for winter. /The sand.” Pearson rarely wows with her sounds but she does pursue a consistent and quiet music in words such as chevron, floe, chivalrous, hedgerows – some diction, invariably, “Kentish,” others derived from the Scots, like the strange term “Hentilagets,” meaning clumps of sheep’s wool. Rail is most potent when it offers the tightly honed lyric like the perfect “Fox” (of course reminiscent of but not imitative of Ted Hughes). In three exquisite quatrains it accurately describes the animal while accessing the residue of its mystery too in “Beauty you wish you could/touch but it breaks away,/a sprinter in cinnamon or rust…Over the green/contours of the field, /her supple canter. But silent,/silent. Answering the dark.” Yum!

As a half-Brit, the landscapes that Pearson sketches resonate with me, from Brighton to Whitby, these being her most powerful pieces, along with those that depict her mother’s quirks and eventual unraveling (especially the tender convolutions of what may be a last Scrabble game in “Stroke”) Also, the three part elaboration on a paint box that contains the startling concept of a friendship that is still able to “wick” and the stunning resonance of the final couplet – “Line, line – /I have forgotten how to feel sorrow.” Although I would have axed the sequence Abacus as it seemed clunky, a stumbly departure from the flow of the other poems (and also, I loathe math ;), the remainder of Rail, though not a fashionable railing against per se, is a strong and solid line through land and memory, giving the reader a reliable melody to live within.


The Sweetest Dance on Earth by Di Brandt (Turnstone Press, 2023)

“We can’t cater to the flimsies” – Julia Child

A few years ago, I attempted to piece together my own New and Selected (or Selective as I called it because each initial title only yielded 5-7 poems to keep the total length under control). I wanted to see the collections I’d published over the course of 25 years honoured that way, or resurrected in part. I thought it would be satisfying. But after awhile, I realized it wouldn’t be a good read. The subjects I’ve covered over the years, from Egon Schiele to extinct species, and from Mattie Gunterman to metal music, amid much else, just don’t hang together well in combo form. A reader who relished one text might loathe another. Most of these books were written as visions of that time and need, like a concept album from the 70s, to be appreciated whole or not at all. So I withdrew the idea and let that yearning go. When do New and Selecteds make sense though? I suppose if many of one’s volumes are out of print or hard to find. And, of course, if you have a name, the likelihood of such a compilation selling is much higher. Still. I just finished reading Les Murray’s New and Selected and frankly I thought at least 70% of it was cuttable. One just doesn’t have that many excellent poems (though his gooders are fantab). And reading them outside their original contexts, with too many poems to a page, left me shaking my head at the way so many poets cease to be self-critical once they’ve been lauded/won those gold stars (thankfully not much of a danger for me 😉

So to Di Brandt’s New and Selected Poems, called The Sweetest Dance on Earth. If you are a die-hard Brandt fan presumably you would have all her prior titles, but the new pieces, and in particular the “Winnipeg Winter Sonnets” that riff off Shakespeare (“Let me not to the extreme beauty of Winnipeg/Winters admit the weeniest of arguments!”), “River People” (“There were the years I lived with the asphalt/and cement people, dedicated to glass and/steel and cars and money and speed”), and the loopy imitation of bird calls that is “Bird Song at Riding Mountain” (what a blast this must be to perform!), are worth getting this collection for. If you are only compelled by the early Mennonite-querying-feminist Brandt of Questions I asked my Mother or Agnes in the Sky and not, say, the environmental-articulations of Now you Care, then, well. As Brandt elaborates in her introduction ( I personally would have preferred a critic to say these things of her), she is both (in Northrop Frye’s writerly designation) a Beethoven who makes “imaginative leaps” and a Mozart who remains, stylistically at least “rich, flowery…romantic…fantastical.” These dichotomies are true, but they are qualities undoubtedly made stronger or weaker according to the treatment of certain subject matters.

For this reader, some of the early poems haven’t worn particularly well with their lower case narrations but others remain a punch of generational conflict between the speaker and her religious parents, the father with the “sharp etched lines of his God ridden book” and the little girl who once thought “heaven was located/in the hayloft.” Overall, Brandt’s central strength in these books is her rhythmic enjambments that work aurally over even very short lines as in the couplet pieces of mother, not mother: “these knees,/these thighbones /with their deep/memory, this nose” and her weakness is the tendency to rely on cliches or empty imagery like “how many thousand/nights lain awake, breathless,” “weaving a/ chain with their singing, through the maze of time” or “you saw yourself/in the dark pool/of your baby’s eyes/shining,/a goddess, the source.” I want more specificity, uniqueness. But then, with Now You Care, Brandt’s 2003 collection, her voice hones, carves, and the power in her seeing is undeniable. I’ve written quite a bit about this book in a prior review and in an essay on eco-poetics in Brandt and Brand versus Domanski and McKay, so needless to say, I’ve been a devotee of this collection. And re-reading it years later, it still stands as one of the most potent texts I’ve ever encountered on our damaged relationship with the planet, especially her sequence called “Zone: le Detroit” on cancer and chemicals (“so this is where they hang out/all those women’s breasts/cut off to keep our lawns green/and dandelion free” and her anti-electric ghazals called “Dog Days in Maribor” (in fact I think Brandt is a master of the Canadian ghazal) where she lunges between horrors and beauties (“Whose grief is this, wild haired,/singing, in the wind?/Chokecherry blossoms, /canker worms, rustling prairie grass”).

The ghazals carry on in her next collection, Walking to Mojacar, and are still as potent in longer lines that leap from a “Tenacious little ash tree, hugging the bank./Archeology of cars. Biology of art. Theology of scars” to “My hands that used to be heartshaped fluttering leaves/have become thick roots, gnarled in soil.” Also powerful is one of her longest pieces, “The Phoenicians,” which critiques gratitude for an abstract saviour over giving thanks to tangible realities such as “our firewood and food.” The title poem is rupturous and especially the end which laments how, “The tourists/have pissed in the wells,/the olive trees are drying up” and asks “across the implacable/Atlantic” for the “dark doves.” Others of these pieces don’t feel earned however, serving as travel accounts that skim reality’s harsher descriptors and conclude, with Homer, that “death is beautiful,” evoking the no-no’s of Pound’s “dim lands of peace” with lines like “fields ripe with sorrow” and “the shadow of the heart.” In the end, although I’m beginning to think that New and Selected collections, in general, have little to do with readability or even sellability and more about the author’s ego-need to see a certain chunk of a life’s work sealed neatly into a pretty package (such as this book is), Di Brandt’s New and Selected remains a worthy entry into this genre, a place of import poets have to, among so much else, continue to fight for.


Knife on Snow by Alice Major (Turnstone Press, 2023)

First, I must commend the bio 😉 Unlike the vast majority of them these days, it not only notes background, publications and awards but states: “Alice is also known as a community builder.” If only all poets felt that undertaking acts of service for their literary community was an integral part of their writerly role, whether as reading or podcast hosts, presenters of prizes or grants, creators of venues or as book reviewers, then what a flourishing environment we would have in which to pursue our art form. Art does not inhabit vacuums in which individuals merely seek to publish and promote their own work; it only functions fully when it receives a depth of critique and the opportunity to thrive through performative avenues. So thanks, Alice, for your years of care. Most importantly, however, is always the quality of writing behind anything a writer otherwise accomplishes and Major’s poems are consistently strong, unique, well-researched and aurally impeccable.

I’m not a big fan of the cover, and particularly the somewhat chopped-off typography of the title, but it’s what’s inside that really counts, and Major doesn’t disappoint, especially in the book’s opener of a long poem, the nine-part Anglo Saxon-inflected “a fate for fire.” Anglo-Saxon verse represents the oldest prosody, a form from the time of Beowulf, in which one accents four syllables per line and makes heavy use of alliteration. Major is a research-grounded poet and Knife on Snow scores an ear’s scholarship as well as a mind’s absorption in both Norse sagas, and a range of earthly and later, planetary sciences. Sometimes a book is read at an utterly apropos time and I read these pieces not long after I heard I would be going to an artist’s residency in Iceland this Fall, as well as at the beginning of fire season in Alberta. Thus, everything in this initial piece spoke to me, from the evacuations caused by the “Hell-mile, hellscape -/vehicles draining through a downpour of flame” to the landing in Keflavik where “the birds’ road roars with metal,/…And carbon, of course:/jets’ shed guano joining the air.” It’s a real challenge to make the Norse gods fresh and Major accomplishes this feat by weaving them into our own saga of flame and loss and attempts at transcendence, the female speaker feeling “like the fugitive /in the skald’s tale.”

The two other long-ish pieces in the book, the titular poem and “The last Ediacarans” also represent Major at her strongest, that rare ability to fuse ancient knowledge (respectively the soldier-historian Marcellinus and mysterious fossils) with human feeling. In the first, Major’s entree is the literal implement/weapon tossed in her backyard, “the metal wedge/stamped on snow. /My small, staked territory,” while the other is research that leads to such revelations on mortality and endurance like: “From the torrent pouring on without me/something will survive. A world will last./And sometimes, in the stone-slow change to fossil/our soft parts wear away but leave a cast.” Beautifully poised couplets with a pang of end rhyme. And yet another triumph in this collection are the End Times poems that scatter throughout like dark seeds of recognition: of aging’s “plate tectonics” (1), of a dying cat’s “impossible forgiveness” (2), of the death of a season (apart from the cliche of “petals/shedding like confetti”) in the lines “your hands full of days/when the light never stopped,/so complete with scents and bees” (6).

Occasionally, Major gets a bit cutesy-pie, ala Don McKay, when she writes about the planets in the last lengthier sequence, this time of haibuns, as when Venus is getting plastic surgery or the Comet Catalina “cruises past us like a passenger staring out/the window on a coach tour,” or she falls a tad flat at the end of some lyrics, especially “Be at peace,” her recollection of her mother’s admonition that ends the same way it begins with the overly-obvious statement: “Oh, let us be/at peace,” but mostly Major is accessible without dumbing her vision down, and her ear keeps to an organic unfolding that intrigues, satisfies and yet keeps this reader yearning to re-read. I think I’ll take this collection to Iceland with me in October and let its musics meet the land of the Aesirs and see what echoes forth 🙂


Smog Mother by John Wall Barger (Palimpsest Press, 2022)

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
― G.K. Chesterton

Travel poems are often impossible sorts of constructions. They are made of bits of momentary seeings, fleeting, from a train, maybe, or on a brief and guarded stroll, knowing one can go home and leave the suffering or even, the beauty behind one. Travel poems frequently fail, at times shouldn’t even exist as they can add little to the world but admissions of our own ignorance (though acknowledging “wrongness,” as both Rachel Zucker and Christian Wimen are teaching me, has its value too). When one travels more intently however, or even lives in a place for a more complexified period of time, then real poems about otherness can happen. Smog Mother‘s fragments of China, Tibet, Mexico as viewed through a compassionate and curious temporary inhabitant’s eyes hold that necessary value more often than not. How?

Well, on the one hand, via context and positioning. On the other, by attention to the sensory details and the musicalities of language. If one is going to write travel poems, some comprehension of the realities that surround the seeings is essential. Barger’s end Notes make clear his awareness of coups, executions, immolations, poverty and ideology, as do lines in his poems that reference Sutin Tharatin, the Great Proletarian Revolution and perhaps most importantly, his status as western interloper, a fat man insinuating, “It is our business,/look away tourist” in Cryptoscopophilia, or the writer referring to himself as “the big flabby American poet” (Delirious in the Pink House).

The opening titular poem in three parts is quite astonishing, and especially Part II, an Eliotian anaphoric litany of pollution, impoverishments, and the elaboration of a mythical figure (the Smog Mother herself recalling to me again the haunting of Bowling’s Tenderman). A chant is a potent mode through which to enter a book, a door of sound, and Barger then leads his readers into memorable character pieces such as those about the “Bathroom Attendant in Tai Po Mega mall” who, amid toilets “backwashing/like a ferry pulling in” is “wiping piss drops with his right” hand, the personified Samovar that, in a lengthy and impressive piece of the same name, asks, with Barger’s wife’s lips, “How ruiners, did you get/this clean?”, the corpse who is subject to the “Public Cremation, Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu,” a man of “ashes and butterflies” (speaking of which, separating the sections in this book is a startling silhouette of a dog gradually emerging, then vanishing inside a swarm of black & white monarchs), and the bullfighter, a “beardless matador/in his suit of lights” in “Bullfight, Plaza Mexico.”

I must admit that some similes in Smog Mother feel forced or frankly perplexing, especially “Like an autistic child the road collapses” (really?) but also the dog who “Limps among cars/Like an earthquake” (truly?) or the man who shakes his “head like a bride” (say what?). Also, a few endings fall into banality as with the puppies who yip in “The bliss born of agony” (seems unearned) or the child who is summed up as plainly “Ungrateful” (thus undermining the prior descriptive pow). Yet these are quibbles (and still they must be noted if we give a dang about composing more attentive poems) in a collection that takes travel writing to a more necessary level than is frequently imaginable in this quick-fix, -fast-shot, slip-past world. Indeed, after reading Smog Mother, we can now experience “the plenty of it.”


Infinity Network by Jim Johnstone (Signal Editions, 2022)

“A critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others…I may or may not like [it], but it’s essential that I care about it.”

A.O. Scott Better Living Through Criticism

Recently, I’ve been struggling somewhat to write poetry reviews and, in several cases, I decided not to write them at all. When I was less experienced in the art of the review I would have written them anyway, pointing out tritenesses, flaccid diction, lax form or just how dull I found many of the pieces. The above quotation however finally summed up what is required, of me, to do a book justice – I must care about it – feel its project, intent, vision is worthwhile – not to praise it, per se, but so I have the engaged clarity to assess its aims effectively and fairly. If I feel like tossing the book across the room or falling into a snooze, I’m not going to review it. This book simply isn’t for me. Criticism is designed, at its finest, to deepen understanding, enlarge the vocabulary of perception, widen available sensitivities, not for either outright gush or total condemnation.

That said, Jim Johnstone’s Infinity Network is (phew), reviewable! This collection (the third book in his trilogy of cultural examinations – the prior two being Dog Ear (2014) and The Chemical Life (2017) all of which have exquisite covers, small formats and delightful fonts) is a visual joy to read. First line of fire in not pissing off a reviewer 😉 Johnstone also has an ear, paramount criteria for this critic. Even if the content doesn’t always compel me, an attention to sound can lift any poem into the excitement of its light. As he remarks in a 2015 interview: “Poetry is more akin to song than conversation.” He also notes in this interview how vital it is not to get stuck in one mode of writing either, so that each manuscript, regardless of how well the prior book succeeded, locates its own renewed way of elaborating its subject matters, forms and musics. This is the kind of essential freedom all artists need to embrace in order to continue to grow fully in their craft.

I like triptyches. John Pass and his trio of texts that explore classical and ecological materials or even Cormac McCarthy’s bleak and stirring Border Trilogy come to mind. With this third instantiation of inquiry, Johnstone zags into how identity is compromised, manifested, defeated by our age of surveillance, social media, the selfie and other zones of erosion. The most powerful pieces in this slender collection hold the potency of repetition of phrases and auralities. Trompe L’Oeil repeats, “The problem is,” its jagged lines excavating various contrived subject positions as ordained by virtuality and how to flee that bind with the restitution of, “The problem is/us,/not them,” while The Outrage Industry reiterates the notion of “work around” as an improbable negotiation and Pornography pummels the word “not” into the page until porn, “not the rub, the shame,/the swell” is revealed as “hemorrhage.”

Johnstone’s adeptness with form is highlighted in the three eight-line stanzas of Speaking Distances where Al Purdy’s buff statue is derided as a bird flies “into outlines of larger birds” pasted, again with futility, on windows, a failed mimesis, as well as in the final longer piece The Ouroboros (Reprise) that recollects the breath-lines of Jorie Graham and works most sharply with assonance and consonance (“infusing a wound,” or “the paint,/ the pavement”) and subtle, weird rhymes (“indomethacin…pigeons”) to interrogate the brutality of walls, divisions, constraints. Even in a seemingly simple poem such as Two Sleep Through, alliteration, punchy enjambments and consonantal pairings (“balloons…stills…spill”) texture the energy, recollecting Ted Hughes’ thought fox and exploding into our contemporary malaise of palimpsested detachments.

In the same interview, Johnstone comments that he thinks poetry in its spare, focused attentions is an “empathetic art form.” Infinity Network is a definite yes to empathy, but a necessarily complex one.


Orchid Heart Elegies by Zoe Landale (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022)

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke started writing his Duino Elegies in 1912 after hearing a voice in the wind as he walked on the cliffs, haunted as he was by the First World War and questions of humanity’s place in the universe. His First Elegy begins in despairing fashion: “WHO, if I cried out, might hear me – among the ranked Angels?” Zoe Landale’s beautiful collection of an equivalent number of elegies as Rilke’s, ten, starts her First Elegy with a similar sense of isolation: “Who among the quicksilver dead can reach through to comfort/when you weep?” Then if the reader takes another line from Rilke’s First Elegy: “How strange. . . no longer to live upon Earth!” Landale’s motivation behind her own elegies enlarges; she too echoes, “where do they go,/these ghosts?” The particularity of her loss isn’t initially apparent, the death of her male spouse, and this deepens the power of the poems at first, as the reader has a widened form of entrance, becoming engaged with an overall atmosphere of mourning before she makes the grief more intimate. Although she includes many more specificities of detail than Rilke did, and her imagery has little religious flavour, like him she questions much, exclaims, twists within the terror of it all, and then too, its wonder. There are walks and a dog, flowers, a lake, juncos and herons, rain and the poet aiming to look death in its varied, mysterious faces, each page containing several stanzas of an elegy that runs for three, or five or six pages, easy with breath and rhythm, presented with necessary surrounds of space.

By the fourth elegy, we read about the “gloved doctor” who announces mortality’s timetable: “Six months to a year” and then by the fifth we finally know exactly whom the poet is grieving, in the startling statement, almost seeming like a punch line to a terrible joke: “Your man comes home in an urn” (having experienced this myself, I can agree that it has this full-stop surreal feel to it – is this him? This box of ash? What? How?). There are only a few allusions, to Asgard, the Buddha, Orion’s Belt and one footnote that I wished was at the end of the book, as the inclusion of an explanation of Aristophanes’ “terminal dot” there distracted my eye and mind from the elegy’s moody lyricism; but mostly, the Anglo-Saxon simplicity of language and imagery allows the reader to imagine the loss as their own, honouring the specific death the poet experienced but also drifting about in the textual meadow, recollecting one’s own griefs.

Orchid Heart Elegies is thus a very generous gesture, the ache for elegy transcending the personal (or drawing from it as a leaping off place) and letting in everyone who needs to grieve. There are stronger and weaker elegies overall, but each contains powerful lines and scenes that will continue to resonate in this reader and that require multiple re-visitings. “Grief is a season we can’t avoid,” Landale writes at the start of her final or tenth elegy, and she composes her querying losses with such dignity and grace that one doesn’t want to avoid this experience of mourning but celebrate the way that, through the pain, we persist, more fully alive.


Cyclettes by Tree Abraham (BookThug Press, 2022)

As my readers know, I very rarely review a so-called prose text in Marrow (though I currently do for BC Review of Books), but am always open to exceptions. The first time I slipped into addressing a narrative was with Heather Haley’s The Town Slut’s Daughter as it was written by a poet and leant itself to a lyrical response. This time, well, initially I thought Cyclettes was a book of poems. Then, when I received it I realized that while it’s deemed, genre-wise, a memoir of cycling and travel, it’s not only exceedingly lyrical, but it’s structured according to numbered paragraphs or parts that resemble stanzas (and recall texts from Anne Carson to Diane Schoemperlen to Maggie Nelson) and is about many other things than bikes and going places. Of course, the bicycle provides the structure and direction for the entire book (which, by the way, is gorgeously designed with one of the most exquisite covers I’ve ever seen, featuring a coppery nautilus serving as the front wheel of a pewter bike.)

The assemblage of chronological reminiscences from the time Tree Abraham was two and received her first trike, to the trials and joys of learning to ride, exploring greenways, riding while traveling in Vietnam or Italy, cycling with friends and loves, re-locating to different places like New York, obtaining a string of uniquely-embodied bicycles, and biking through mental health challenges and the pandemic, is channeled through a variety of stunning visuals. From old photographs and maps, to archival footage, line drawings, signs, photocopies and diagrams, Abraham collages a one of a kind tale of “a symbol of freedom” that represents more truly and deeply the reality of incessant yearning.

With allusions that range from Susan B Anthony and Noam Chomsky to Family Feud, and Gothic Revival to Jung, the Mindy Project and Pablo Neruda, the widely-traveled Abraham not only displays her knowledge of the bicycle, as history, mechanics, feminism, and a vector of intensity and questing, but unfolds an erudite approach that I like to call “emotional scholarship” or a drawing on literary, philosophical and other kinds of texts to spelunk in the caves of feelings. Favourite segments include: the memoirs of her parents’ divorce (where she hoped the news would be “sweetened by a bike”) and her early jobs from which she biked home, in the air “that smelled like fresh-cut grass and felt like chilled glass,” her descriptions of bikes in India in 2010 where “streets were thick with commerce and commute,” tales of bike purchases, including one in Chicoutimi, QB, the Dream Bike Questionnaire, her international photographs of secretive cycles, the natural history of hermit crabs and ammonites, the dating profiles that mention cycling, and her lists of things that aren’t dealt with in the book relating to bicycles as well as the things that are not and are “just like” riding a bike. The narration flows smoothly until nearly the end, when one gets slightly bogged down in a tad too many quotes (say in segment 183 where Saunders responds to Rushdie, dense nuggets that needed further unpacking to resonate fully) but this entanglement in the spokes of the “what’s next” is likely due to how close to the now this part is. It simply hasn’t had time to fully settle and find the breeze to soar it down the smooth prose hill.

Yet, even if you don’t cycle at all, you will likely be enchanted by Tree Abraham’s Cyclettes. Although I had bikes as a kid, the last time I got on a bicycle was in the Czech Republic in 2007 when I took a cycling tour of the countryside with an environmental group. It’s just not my thing, and especially in an urban environment. My friend, Karen, however is an avid, rabid, cyclist (she even weaves through the mad traffic where she now lives in Mexico City!) and I thought to myself, when I finish this review I’ll gift my copy to her. Turned out, I couldn’t. I ordered a copy for her instead as I knew Cyclettes deserves a re-read and to be slotted into my bookcase as an endlessly-compelling celebration of two-wheeled dreams.


A is for Acholi by Otoniya J. Okot Bitek (Buckrider Books, 2022)

Before I begin this review of the intense chant that is A is for Acholi, I want to note that, having been confronted with another recent book sent to me for review that, in contrast, bored me utterly, I don’t review collections that I feel are undeserving of attention and consideration. Truly poorly-written books are actually (and fortunately) few and far between, but much more common are these types of texts, riddled with toss-away pieces that feel incomplete, the language lax (or super prosy and lacking in musicality) and the premise riding on nothing much of import. They don’t seem to take a stance with diction or material or form. If I can’t mark more than a handful of poems worthy of being published in a text (too many shrugs) I won’t review it. When I was younger (less-experienced?) I reviewed books I disliked and said as much, but now I can only expend my energy on those authors who have expended energy on their own work (enemies for sufficient reasons are fine but wasting time isn’t). Enough said. Onwards to a book that takes aural and visual and historical risks!


The cover of Bitek’s book is a gorgeous painting of a red and darker-wash woman’s face, the image reproduced within, twice, in B & W. And the paper is delectable (why I argued, in vain, to have a tangible copy of the poetry book I reviewed for nada for Shrapnel – the book is a whole, beautiful entity and I’m not just reviewing electronic words on a screen! Also, that’s usually my only form of pay – a copy). O and if you don’t know what or who Acholi is or are? You look it up! (shocking I know but seriously, I’ve been told so many times to not use words in poems or reviews that readers “may not know.” Has no one heard of educating oneself and growing one’s vocabulary and knowledge as a result? Ooooo I’m edgy today 😉 So yes, the Acholi are: a nomadic pastoral people of northern Uganda: a member of such people: a Nilotic language of the Acholi people. One of the most exciting things I find about poetry is learning new words, as I currently am in Sylvia Legris’s superb Garden Physic too. Sometimes I look them up and other times? I just relish the sounds and textures. New diction; renewed lexicons. Yes! Poetry isn’t just content. Ever.

Apart from Acholi though, Bitek’s collection contains mostly recognizable words and concepts from colonization to diaspora to memory to honouring, many nouns and verbs repeated in their echoes and phrases to allow the sense and the witnessing to seep in. It seems simple to do, to repeat a phrase such as “sing me a song/sing me a song about your sister/sing me a song about your sister who won’t speak now but dances” (…Today) but it only works when one taps into the magic of orality in one’s blood and history. The power of the haunted language is undeniable then. A is for Acholi begins with an alphabet poem in which every single letter of the English alphabet references Bitek’s homeland and its linguistic and cultural layers, the footnote to Acholi in each one noting words like Heresy, Nonsense and Zeal to enlarge upon the triadic definitions above, such as “U is for Acholi/U is for cartography of stories/U is for the relationship between an apple & sin & a curse” with the footnote reading “Understatement./To be invisible & hypervisible in this big black & Black body”). Then “A dictionary for un/settling” trembles with essential repetitions of “reckless” and “terrified” before taking deep and scholarly solace within black and female texts as core as those from Dionne Brand, Claudia Rankine and Toni Morrison, referencing them in footnotes and reverberations, all laced through with the tracks of colonial trains in Kenya to traces of pain in the Sea to Sky highway in Vancouver (“This is the road that men built/…This is the umbilical cord between city and town…/This is the road that men built died on and were buried in.”)

The centre of the book is a range of excavations of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and particularly the scene where the “apparition” of the black woman exists, the one who seems to symbolize all the fear and allurement of the jungle in the novel. Bitek performs a series of operations on this text, turning it to fragments, punctuation, routing out the “ands,” extending the silences, blotting out all with splotches of ink but the title: “Dark human shapes could be made out in the distance,/flitting indistinctly” and two partial sentences, “an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose” and “I don’t understand…” slotted in the middle and at the bottom of these four smudged finger prints. Whether all of these experiments work for the reader individually, collectively they are tremendously potent. Subsequent pieces address the notion of resettlement (“hold them up to your fate/hold them up to your face/hold them up to the sky”), racism in Vancouver, a punch in the face poem about the stark contrast between ideals and realities, and a sequence of “Lock” poems that expose the many ways women and those who are suppressed fall under the sway of further oppressions, as in “Lock 7” where women starve themselves until they look like they are living “after war” as “they were told/that there was no magic in the flesh of their self.”

Only rarely does Bitek fall into a repetition that has lessened energy as in the piece “…Thick Sludge” where she echoes “play” in ways that seemed too simplistic to this reader: “play play play tennis play/games play/nice play,” though showing the possible idiocy of such games may also have been the point. At any rate, A is for Acholi gives readers what they need to hope for more in books of poetry: a new experience, a range of different ways of utilizing languages, an entrance into another series of worlds. As Bitek intones in the last poem whose footnotes repeat the sentence: “the only books that remain are those in our tongue,” “our tongues will carry the rhythms of how we came through.”


Dale Tracy’s Derelict Bicycles (Anvil Press, 2022)

First a note to the reader: This review was commissioned by Shrapnel magazine a few months ago. Over the course of this time, the reviews editor asked me to make multiple changes to my piece in order to shift the “tone to one less elevated,” and render “the language not so academic,” and to essentially transform the review into little more than a “chat over coffee.” Now, when I review a book of poems I like to make the review style “fit” the style of the book and Dale Tracy’s Derelict Bicycles is most definitely a densely erudite collection in terms of its diction and allusions. However, even my concessions weren’t sufficient to please the editor and she ended up rejecting the review. In all my years of writing reviews, I’ve never had one rejected. I don’t know whether to be disturbed or amused. Too much dumbing down these days indeed! At any rate, this is my review site and I’ll do as I damn well please to give poetry the respect it deserves with balanced reviews that treat the audience – and the writer of the book – as adults 😉 Here we go.


Poetry collections published by the Feed Dog imprint of Anvil Press often share specific stylistic features: they are slippingly surreal, quirkily abstract, edgily academic or curtly street-wise. Dale Tracy’s debut collection Derelict Bicycles is no exception to this proclivity. A reader may need to warm up to the poetic style until their mind can dig beneath a surface resistance to the current of crafted feeling in this collection.

Derelict Bicycles is a real mish-mash of scripts, with many texts filtered through textual or oratorical compositors. The most unique piece, as it’s a collaboration with Tracy’s 94-year-old grandmother’s words during the pandemic, is “A Weird Part of Whatever,” where what might have been defined as nonsense suddenly manifests with utter clarity: “A curtain has been pulled, / but I can’t see the curtain.”

At first, the collection’s tone may seem monotonous, but there are plenty of shifts into interrogation (“How much heat flows into a poem in luck?” from the poem, “Interest Meets Experience”) and exclamations (“You buff sleeve! You single banister!…Come in, you cold handle!” from “A Millimetric Welcome.”) There’s also plenty of delicious diction, some of it neologistic, like “glimmbrill” or “This is the new curtilage, the body’s private yard of second skin…obedient plant, military orchid, the parkly pleasance and sweet/ maudlin, the nonesuch of the olitory” from “Transposable.”

The most kapow pieces are Tracy’s assemblages of ars poetica, along with her forays into eco-utterance or statements about humanity’s place within the “natural world.” In pointed lines that gesture to relentlessly evolving poetic methods she states such bon mots of the poet as: “I’m camp on the inside, the theatrical private…I’m ontological ars poetica in here./I’m all style where no one sees./Poem for demarcation’s sake, with a key” (from “Camp On The Inside”) and “If people were poems I’d be a detective./If I were a courier I’d be a poet. It’s perplexing/because I am a poet but don’t have your parcel, /or anything else you asked for” (“It’s Raining, Me Too.”) With these lyrics, she foregrounds the secrecy and mystery behind the composition of poems and their often-underground reception in the world.

The poems that delve into the threatened landscapes of bees and trees are the most moving and essential pieces. Post-structuralist poets like Lyn Hejinian or Rae Armantrout can often elaborate on nature’s diversity more devastatingly than straightforward narrative poets, as poststructuralists wrangle with the stamps of humanized linguistic superiorities. Through this awareness they can create deep paeans to the beyond-person realm. Tracy’s poems similarly sketch a sharp inhuman lucidity in stanzas like: “Nothing contagions/like corrections: dandelions burn yellow/and bees carry their flames to make honey/to smoke hives out and careful shaking/disappears in a swarm that takes up the air./The air is gone wrong, and then it’s gone” in “Careful Is a Fire That Tends Itself” or in “Unfortunately We Aren’t Trees” where the trees must wear armor and are full of heavy metals introduced by industry.

Although Tracy can slide at times into banality in shrug-statements such as “Even/ the historic is time passing” (from “Organizational Strategies”) or “Now I am the sun” in “Turn” or utilize rare or made-up words so frequently that a reader can’t always tell what might be a typo (is “henging”? is “intos”? is “dreichly” in that grammatical form?), she is consistently faithful to her excavatory modus. As she poignantly claims in “See Inside, See it All”: “I drop pieces with no home./ From the centre that remains, I remove all the wedges.”


swollening by Jason Purcell (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022)

“Trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.” Dr Gabor Mate.

Mostly I write reviews at my desk, sometimes around a fire pit. But this one I’m composing in the bath, a locus that seems highly apropos for this searing abjection of a debut. When I first heard the title, I cringed because I loathed the word “swollening” so much, the way some shrink at the word, “moist,” and I couldn’t imagine why one would name a book after this infected neologism (which also hints at more pleasurable turgidity of course). Then I read the book. And it utterly made sense as an accurate titling of the startling abjections that ensue within its pages as a queer and threatened body processes somatic erosion, tooth rot, denied desires, tumescent aches and other rupturous pustulent/spermy turmoils.

Reminiscent of parts of A.R. Ammons’ long poem Garbage, some of Sharon Olds’ more forthrightly physical lyrics and Sylvia Legris’ Nerve Squall, on the excruciating and spell binding cycles of migraines, but even more explicit at times, in the vein of Burroughs or Bukowski, Jason Purcell’s Swollening contains a hard to swallow but necessary to digest beauty. Of course (as I soak in my salts, notebook folded aloft), the first piece I marked as stirring was “Bathing,” in the initial of three sections. The poem encapsulates the germ (truly) of why these poems needed to be written: “For years/I could not say the word I – could not/admit to being in a body.” This sentiment then persists in further pieces like “Earring” (I’m scared of being a fag) where an emendation is made in the emotional acknowledgment that : “A good father says, “You are my son” and reaches across/to touch the burning wound.” And this wound manifests not only heat, but rust, blood, semen, saliva, agony.

In the middle section, “Sickness is not a metaphor,” the mouth explodes with decay in the most uniquely repellent sequence of poems I’ve likely ever absorbed (definitely a compliment). These are pieces about teeth, pieces of teeth, our worst nightmares of molars tearing out of spongy gums, “getting fucked/by pain” (Grinding), the acid’s feast, the “quivering stomach” (Men in the Gut), “the vomit drip” (Rive Poem), bacteria multiplying, terror of flesh and redneck hordes in Oilers caps, sourness as lust and horror move in “fist to elbow, wear [him].” All this poignant disgust is memorialized in the realization that he “let [himself] rot, rather than nurture [his] aliveness.” It just doesn’t get more pungently honest than this.

The final section tones down some of the abjection, partly a relief but also a shift to poems that are less delectably gut-twisting, like the lyrics to his friend, Emily, on making ceramics and sourdough. The majority of these pieces still retain a deep pow though, such as “On Acicular Ice” (I love that word but I wish he had ended the piece with the lines: You’ve done this to yourself but of course/no, you haven’t), “Zellers” (its red sticky linoleum line, the buzz of the high/yellow lights), the dystopian realities of “Not in your lifetime” (the local is a myth. We/live in a corporation) and “Long Shadows” (Seeing as these are end times, it would be best if we all agreed to stop/pretending) and “danse macabre” where the “sick disabled” sashay is finito, the “old song is over.” There are indubitably no easy consolations in Swollening. You have to endure the hell to emerge, changed but real, grounded now, better able to order oneself to: “Stop the unnecessary work…let our bodies heal, feel joy.”

O, now my bath water’s cold but boy am I glad that (after Jason forgot to send me a review copy) I found this text in my book box and opted to review it anyway. A brave and inextricable beginning. Glug, glug, glug.


A Grief Cave: Thirty Poems and an Essay by Ben Gallagher (Frontenac House Poetry, 2022)

Elegies are challenging to review, and can feel almost impossible at times if the critic enters the work from a too-personal angle (and how can one avoid this?). When it comes to grieving, any expression, however rough, awkward or shapeless, is still an essential and correct-in-itself form of witness. Recently, I wanted to review Susan Musgrave’s Exculpatory Lilies (and yes I bought a copy so was under nil obligation) and then chose not to as, for the most part, the elegies were gorgeously disruptive, and those few that weren’t were simple to slip past. Also, as my partner, like her daughter, died of a drug addiction, I found I was more deeply enmeshed in the implications than perhaps a critic should be. Elegies are the most necessary type of poetry but, in at least two senses, they are always a failure; if over personalized, they don’t communicate effectively to others, and if slickly crafted it seems as if the poet is cold, too readily able to utilize their mourning to make art. You can’t “win.” An endless conundrum.

Having published Ben Gallagher’s essay on the hit-and-run loss of his spouse, Zoe, in my 2020 anthology Locations of Grief, I knew he could write powerful prose already, so I was interested to read this slim collection, containing as it does another shorter memoir, along with thirty lyrics in four sections. I’ll start with the concluding essay, a unique foray into a man’s perspective on his partner’s home birth of their daughter. Beautiful descriptors of the uterine water as smelling like “a mountain stream,” and of Brinleigh labouring within the breaths a “weightlifter takes,” are laced with his memories of his deceased spouse who, in death, smelled “metallic, unrecognizable” (I only question the “purple-blue, like a bruise” as too typified a simile). It’s a moving piece I only wished had been longer!

The lyrics that precede it range from deeply stirring to feeling a bit incomplete, sketches towards a translation. In the first section, No One Knows Alone, most of the poems are not only about Zoe’s loss, but feature her name. Unlike, say, the repetitions of “Tenderman” in two of Tim Bowling’s collections, her recurring moniker gave me the sensation that I was eavesdropping on a midnight conversation with the invisible. Are these pieces for any other reader than her ghost? Many of the lyrics were rupturous, of course: “My Persephone” (whose last lines, “A single hair/years later in a box of clothing” instantly recalls Jack Gilbert’s pieces on his wife Michiko’s death and the long black hair he found ages after in the avocado plant), “Form of Losing”(body a river/every solid seeming body/boundless, riven), the longer piece – though each segment remains skinny, syntactically darting – called “Halcyon Days,” and the last line of “Negative Spring Poem” (the dew is also the blow). Wow!

Then new love enters, and a baby, Runa, in the subsequent sections, both realities colliding with environmental consciousness: “What kind of man/brings life into this” (Wished on a Satellite by Accident) and persistent, accepted long term grieving: “How to save a ghost?/There is no saving/no ghost” (Locking my Baby in a Poem) or “I wish you’d haunt me” (At the Water). As Gallagher states in the piece, Time says Otherwise: “this quest I thought I was on/turns out it’s a cycle.” Absolutely. New partners, starting a family, no matter how much we find rejuvenation in them, the loss of a loved one lingers, and must. Life isn’t a trajectory of clean slates; it’s an entangled path of memories. Ben Gallagher in A Grief Cave offers mourners the knowledge that, from the poem Involuntarily (Wildly Constant): “you do not have to let go/despite evidence suggesting otherwise/Always you can stay.”