bruce kauffman’s “an evening absence still waiting for moon” [Hidden Brook Press 2019]

The quiet, vatic voice, cognizant of the subtleties of the natural world and the gentle passages of time, ala Merwin  (Kauffman’s totem poet) or Stafford say, is generally not in vogue in our hip, brittle, noisy with allusiveness and overall urbanized literary world of today. Not that Kauffman isn’t city-fied. He is. But his attentiveness is mostly directed to the crows, the dusk, the dirt, his inner meditations, old childhood memories, shadows and light and, essentially, to what Robinson Jeffers would have called the “eternal things.” Kauffman, in the poem “a cafe in time” is overt regarding his literary (really, human) intentions, stating his journey is “to no longer feel the need/to create/but to instead simply/transcribe….[he’ll] leave creation to the well-educated/the clever.” While that’s possibly under-estimating his own capacities, or perhaps seeking to shield himself against criticism, I still admire his straightforward self-knowledge. He comprehends where to position himself and that he doesn’t, currently, fit per se and that it can’t and will never matter.

Bruce is a treasure for the Kingston literary community and other Canadian poets too. I personally have never had a tour stop in that city without not only having a reading set up by him but also by him lending me his couch and feeding me all the coffee & Cheerios my heart desires. This generosity doesn’t mean I won’t be honest about the fact that (as indeed Kauffman himself admits, noting “in the end/I will have been/writing a single poem/for over seventy-five years) these individual lyrics often feel like segments in one lengthy piece of similar motifs, begging the question – should Kauffman attempt this form, or any other form actually than the 60s-70s mode of free verse, the ‘tiny i’ lyric and see what happens? (though there is always something to be said about a consistent and recognizable style). Also, a bit more consideration might be given to the over-adjectivizing in lines like “a white pale emptiness” or such clicheed personifications as the sun “painting the horizon.”

Despite these tendencies, Kauffman is utterly adept at creating a mood, the gently haunted perspective of an “observer/passive….an idea of a fly on a wall” (“what i mostly am”), who senses winter, aging, is steeped in empathy, a real person anchored mostly to temporal yet forever states of being, human shapes unnamed but for the poet-teachers Kauffman holds close and commemorates and who will be, for him, what remains. I love how this stark yet warm book closes on the fierce assertion that when the poet “runs out of paper” he will “sketch poems in the soil,” then in the air, and when he runs “out of air.” And there, “an evening absence still waiting for moon” leaves us, dandled over the precipice of understanding that we do and don’t and won’t ever.





In which I get somewhat irked. But am, also, moved: Three Anvil Press books.

“As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.” Kurt Vonnegut

I do love this quote. And no I’m not about to express rage and loathing for any particular literary work. But I do have a certain feeling of ire rise in me when it’s all so danged OBVIOUS! The patronage linkages, the nepotistic networks, the I’ll caress your back and you’ll stroke mine system. One publisher publishing another publisher’s New and Selected, though why I ask, in general, is this book necessary at all? Are New and Selecteds ever necessary except say, when a poet is HUGE (haha) and their lauded work has all gone out of print and a recuperation of some of its traces seems required by history? I used to want a New and Selected because this, apparently, is what we are supposed to desire after years of publishing. And then I realized it was an absurd urge as not only would selections from my prior books NOT hold together as a satisfying read because each book was its own particular vision but also, who cares? Who wants my old work that badly? And to review poems that appeared twenty years ago is a rather pointless endeavor. OK so I’m not going to review Jay MillAr’s book “I could have pretended to be better than you.” 95% of it is musically-dull, goofball-thinky word-stuffs about what poetry is or isn’t or this and that quotidian thing. Another chapbook might have been made of five or six of its decent pieces but really, I like it when publishers stick to publishing. The other two books out this Anvil Press season are by long-term buddies: Stuart Ross and Mark Laba. Ross is also the editor of the Anvil Press poetry imprint that published Laba’s book: Feed Dog, and so it’s all rather incestuous and suspiciously obvious. But then again, aren’t we all supposed to say, Well duh and Who gives and You should keep your mouth shut or else people won’t like you 🙂

But, well, I will carry on anyway, because poetry, damnit, matters and how Canadian poetry’s presented to the world matters and because who says you shouldn’t sport armor to deal with a sticky, tricky dessert that is always threatening to explode its emptinesses all over you while asking, “Are you full and satisfied yet?” That said, I have nothing per se against Ross or Laba’s surrealist (and at times either archly emotional or very funny) verse, just the towards the overtness of the back-slappery going on in this trio of Anvil books that, unfortunately or not, can get in the way of assessing the texts themselves. I just want us to be, as poets, as publishers, hmmmm, less….small.

Mark Laba is the opposite of Stuart Ross in one key respect: Ross publishes copiously and Laba scarcely at all, this book, The Inflatable Life, being only his second volume in seventeen years. Unlike many poets such as Robyn Sarah, I don’t believe that quantity has anything really to do with quality, in and of itself. Some write little; some write a lot. Some of the little is crap; some of the lot is crap. Some write much and publish little. Or write little and…yeah, you get it. Just because you publish a book every ten years versus two doesn’t mean the former book will be better than the latter one. It doesn’t mean one poet spent all those years honing their masterpieces while the other simply shit them out lackadaisically. Maybe the former poet was just teaching a lot. Look at the poems. That is all. I haven’t read Laba before so I can’t say if this book is more this or that than the other, but I can say that Laba is much more, to my sensibilities, a surrealist for its own sake. In “Skeet Shooting,” Laba writes, “Because after all, this isn’t poetry,/it’s a shooting gallery” and there could be some truth to that, imagery literally popping and banging about all over the place in a crashing mash, a paean in part to Wallace Stevens whose poetic world elaborated in marked contrast to his daily life, a vaudeville of the brain, essentially. I really liked the silly drawings in “Tolstoy’s Leech Farm” and relished at least four poems: “Phil’s Wall Unit Emporium,” (the earth is just a big wall unit,/an entertainment hub of love and horror), “The Bruised Sunset” (one of the few that seems to stem from some personally engaging memory and includes the stinging truth of the fact that he -we – are “always willing to sacrifice someone else/so I can continue to enjoy the rustling leaves,/the purity of poetry”), “Moonlit Lung Serenade” (a piece that joyously butchers Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl and includes BOTH Mr Peanut and Odysseus) and “Season of the Corn Dog” which begins “Trotsky was shtupping,” incorporates the lines “History is written/by those with pincers” and concludes with the sharp realization that “Losing is for the young,/but broken compasses and bloodied lobster bibs/are for the brave.” I wonder, if Laba wrote as much as Ross, if he would be able to trust the poem to take him other places than the cut-up can. I don’t know. Maybe, for him, this is enough.


So, Stuart Ross’s work has indubitably deepened over the years. The humour is still there in Motel of the Opposable Thumbs but one can be moved too, especially by pieces about his now-deceased dog, Lily, as in a simple sketch like “Three Times” in which peeing, walking and feeling breaths ride “up and down” become a holy trinity of care and attention for another living being (many of the poems for Lily are delightful actually and I love how Ross includes her in his poetics when he states in another piece, “Lily and I decide/whether we like a poem just by its tone/and the words it uses, the images/the juxtapositions; we don’t really/care what the poem “means”.” HUZZAH!) Or by the poem “You three, with stones upon your heads” (soon to appear in the memoir anthology Locations of Grief: An Emotional Geography from Wolsak & Wynn, 2020 [- unfortunately, due to his inability to consider editorial alternatives without insult, the essay is no longer appearing in this anthology]. There you go, an overt plug for a book I edited, on MY OWN BLOG!! Shameless!), in which Ross addresses his dead mother, father and brother and admits, “I/ can’t go on writing poems about you./I’ve discovered they don’t bring/you back…..They don’t/even win me prizes.” Ahhhhh the honesty in admitting the presence of both the occult and the ego that combine in the creation of art.

Ross has the uncanny ability to write a piece that seems easy, like little is going on but the listing of random prosy details: “I have never had a root canal, but/my friend Mary just had one” but that incorporates some line, sometimes at the end, that provides a moment of weird insight, a zing of seeing the world differently, as in the close of this piece where he states as if it is obvious: “The best way/to avoid a root canal is to replace/your head with a sparrow” (Important Information for your Dental Health). I like his Conniption Sauce (after John Ashbery, who may have schooled me in how to read Stuart Ross!) but feel there are too many “after” this or that writer poems, or centos, or even dedications “for” other writers in this book. It starts to feel like the poet is running out of essential steam and grabbing wildly for inspiration straws at some points. The poems about the mini Phil Halls though is a blast, as is Forty-Nine Cents, and the Motel Poem (though it goes on a tad too long), but I most adored his New Year’s pieces, “Alterations” and “Various Records” as well as “Poem beginning with a line by Dean Young,” (or ditto but with Sarah Manguso), “Motel of the Opposable Thumbs,” and the final poem, “Subtitles” because they all feature interpenetrations of memory, grief, loss and the re-finding that can happen in poems as when the father, in one line, is “long dead” and in the very next one, “He sits on the edge of his twin bed,” or the parents, now just a gleam in his eye, are mirrored in the “tiny light” he turns on above the sewing machine to do alterations to reality and feeling. Surrealism without emotion, for me, just doesn’t cut it (why I’m a fan of Jason Heroux who often hits the odd imageries of feeling perfectly!) and Ross is there now, in that place where all the strangeness, in the service of commemoration, makes the most essential kind of sense.







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

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

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

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


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


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













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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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











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

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

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

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