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 🙂









George Moore: Two Titles

One of the distinct pleasures of touring a book is reading with those poets you may have never even heard of before. Prior to consuming mussels together in Lunenberg I only knew of George Moore as the poet Tammy Armstrong’s husband, a former American professor. But by the end of the Lexicon Books event, I had been made aware that not only had he chummed around with Ashbery and reads Jeffers but that he writes some most excellent poetry himself on subjects as diverse as motorcycles, Greece and saints (or are these all one and the same? ;), each densely textured lyric delivered with a charmingly gruff demeanour, one eyebrow cocked and Cohen (or was it Eastwood?) a veritable echo in his aura.

He proffered me his two most recent books, Children’s Drawings of the Universe (Salmon Poetry, 2015) and Saint Agnes Ouside the Walls (FutureCycle Press, 2016) and I proceeded to sink into their sweet mires (mines?) almost instantly, reveling in their sonorous parameters, their well-traveled and indubitably scholarly contents and their allusive bemusements. As there is truly a plethora of poetic riches in these texts, I’m just going to pick a poem from each one to say some of my somethings about, either because they stood out in form and music or….well that’s pretty much it as the subject alone does little in a poem for me.


Three six-line stanzas. The first has angels in it, the second, insects, the third, humans. A stranger Great Chain of Being. The initial line is the only end-stopped, non-enjambed one and, as such, it contains the statement, the utter (ing) grief of the piece. The ear is sharply tuned to allieration in: “fill a small vial,” “twist the lid,” “storehouse for the self,” and “recusant youth.” It bongs with the difficult knowing Lawrence obtained with his snake, that stupid human urge to tamper with the natural order, dominate. As does the assonance of “ants/match/glass,” the rhyme then ringing the reality of “youth/truth” as the speaker is determined to “become the night” once more in his mind.


Ahhh, the correct resonances of iambic pentameter! The first line sings in its waves of stress/unstress (though one could argue that “bring down” is a spondee), beckoning the reader to follow the scientific triad of five stanzas that fuse geology with the lyrical so carbons/calcium/emissions/chemicals/sulphide/geothermal dance with rains/rock/sea/air/sun/life/palm, melding Latinate with Anglo-Saxon. The line lengths elaborate on the crash, the carrying, the clearing and the breaking up, the surging enhanced by the fact that this piece is only two sentences long, nearly breathy with commas. As the poem proceeds it enacts the circling it mentions of ecological purification, closing with amplified chime in the words, “light/life,” then the near-rhyme of “mistakes/wastes,” so that the poem itself becomes that “simple island” it projects, of resolution and beauty.

Thanks George for your insatiable curiosities and impeccable ear.

For poetry must remain long in the realms of awe and its musics.







M. Travis Lane’s Ash Steps & a little rant about Canpo ;)

“The lyric is a method of searching for something that cannot be found” Fanny Howe


Solid Things: New & Selected Poems, M. Travis Lane’s collection from 1989, was the first time I was compelled by her work, encountering the volume in the Burnaby Public Library when I was just beginning and bent on reading literally EVERYTHING, and eventually buying a copy myself so the visitations to her lyricism could be more regular. When, in 2002, she wrote a review of my book, The Wrecks of Eden for The Fiddlehead, I couldn’t have been more honoured. Reviews being one key currency of respect, both for the individual artist and for the art itself. In this country, it seems, we have issues in how we deal with the life-trajectory of our writers. Generally, they are allowed two instances of recognition (if they are this fortunate). One, at the start, especially if they emerge from academe. And the other, near the close of their lives (or just post their deaths if they die prematurely, as was the case with Gwendolyn MacEwen or Pat Lowther). The system says that the writer’s first book shall be lauded (often with the gushiest epithets such as stating the collection is “life altering,” presents us with “never before witnessed brilliance” or “offers up an already established voice”) as publication is so very often bound up with MFA programs, making the initial foray into publishing the sign of the system’s “success” and possibly the reason why someone would select one university over another. And then, after that, you’re mostly on your own, baby.


A couple win awards, obtain writer in residences, bask a bit. The remainder may feel as if they are puking poems into a dark bucket in a lonely corner. For years. Or the writer can cease. Focus on RRSP’s instead. No one (or few) will notice. Not that “fame” is good for poetry however. Obscurity with only slight glimmers of “yes” from time to time is likely best for keeping the muse going. So, Lane. She’s carried on all these years and only now (at 83) is truly receiving more recognition, increased acknowledgement. As Shane Nielsen (who has been her recent editor and promoter) calls her on the Palimpsest Press website, she’s the “best Canadian poet you’ve never heard of.” But do the poems care? Probably not. Lane has continued to compose with quietly fierce persistence all this time. As with Ash Steps from 2012 (Cormorant Books), both tonalities and preoccupations echoing poets like P.K. Page, Wislawa Szymborska, William Stafford. A powerful book. Simple but never simplistic, no fireworks per se, but subtle slivers such as: “The horse’s penis scares me, with its star/on a mushroom cloud,” a plethora of Atlantic Canadian landscapes, quivering yearnings, unafeard attention to loss, even in weather: “The snow becomes more definite:/ white, black, and white.”

Never sentimental or only fleetingly so, in the contrast between moving lines like “Old age is one long funeral” and the more tangibly brutal realities of “And stuff/Just lots of stuff.” Cats ghost through. The sea. “Fog silts the river.” Or, curiously, “late street lamps/with their fragrance of moth-wing and cigarettes.” The mood conveys the subject matter more than actual, direct detail, but a poem such as “I have forgotten your name” sketches out a palliative care scene with unrelenting honesty: “our husbands were dying together/and our tired nurse was too harsh.” Then, on attending to another patient’s plight: “Did anyone ever visit him?/That pallid turkey sandwich, that/square milk – ” (o the perfectly cadenced line breaks and the resonant flatness of assonance!). And, in the end, the awful, necessary revelation: “The tears will come,/and they will be no good to her,/Or to anyone.” But reading this poetry is, somehow, because it refuses easy solace while still steeping the reader in the beautiful. And Lane persists in releasing more essential collections from where she is in the now.

So let us then acknowledge as many of the nows we can in what a poet sends out into the world, regardless of age, race, background. Only the poems, after all, really matter.







Two longer chapbooks: Robinson & Armstrong

On my recent Atlantic Canada tour for “Dear Ghost,” (Wolsak & Wynn/Buckrider, 2017) I enjoyed the distinct pleasure of reading with two Nova Scotian poets, Matt Robinson at a little icecream & java shop in Halifax and Tammy Armstrong at Alice Burdick’s fantabulous bookstore in Lunenberg. Matt’s work, dryly witty, a Phillip Larkinesque room textured with Marianne Moore’s auditory and paratactic wallpaper; Tammy’s poems, lyrically patrician, a woven tapestry of the fragile animal kingdom and vast grasps of land. Both collections are perfect-bound chapbooks, each weighing in at around 40 pages, visually designed for the consummate “book-stroker,” and offering proportioned arrays of aurally ineluctable pieces.

Robinson is described as a “poet of the domestic” on the back of Some nights it’s entertainment; some other nights just work (Gaspereau Press, 2016), a still-rare kind of distinction for a male writer, yet it isn’t the content of the poems that so much sets him apart (hockey, weather, marriage, dogs) but his unyielding ear. Too often reviews don’t speak of poems AS POEMS when this is what matters (in fact, most don’t, which is like writing a restaurant review that speaks of where the food came from and how it looks on the plate but not what flavours it nor how it truly tastes!) Robinson’s sonnet, “Sunrise with Sea Monsters” for instance, offers not only a rendition of the classic form but also an avid ability with the line break and the dash’s wild energy, the defamiliarized descriptor (an “aperture’s squint-slurred re-framing”) and an ear quirked to sonority at every turn through alliteration (“making of meaning”) or that coupled with assonance (“limning of what it is we’ve been living”). Most poems fit on one page but are so tightly knitted they feel longer. Mainly, in the best sense. Like a rouillade composed of a range of tasty layers. Savour, savour.


Armstrong’s The Varying Hare (#5 in Frog Hollow Press’s NB Chapbook series, 2018) is more like a strong cheese, melted down delicately (sorry, it must be dinnertime!). The poems are reminiscent somehow of P.K. Page’s in their eloquent elegance but are more exquisitely enmeshed in the inhuman world. Pieces have a resolute solitude about them, a fierce quiet that resides in strange and lovely descriptions, say of a hare in a Turner painting that slips from its hareness “like a thready coat…something fated under these swimmy skies/of paste pearl and soft cider.” A painterly eye indeed, evidenced time and again in uncanny colourizations, the horizon’s “slippery pearl glow” or (in my favorite poem here, “Of Blood and Wine, Blue Came Late”), the “candles burned to mazarine, then mulberry, then bridgewater.” Form yaws everywhere, “alll picktarnie, tarrock” but sound’s “mizzle” is resilient. Both these books, lengthy as Canadian poetry texts should ever be (please publishers, release MORE chapbooks, MORE pocket-size books!), will be returned to for their visceral delectabilities, their slow unfoldings.