Two from Palimpsest Press, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

[NICE LONG ‘A’ SOUNDS BY THE WAY!]

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Frances Boyle’s This White Nest (Quattro Books, 2019)

In 2015 I reviewed Frances Boyle’s 2014 debut Light-Carved Passages. One line stated that “while there are many pieces that stir in Boyle’s book, loosely divided into five somewhat nebulous sections (in terms of clear thematic intent), there are certain marked slips in form, metaphor, diction and the use of abstractions.” In her second release, Boyle has worked harder on form and her ear is often in fine shape, yet there are still issues with abstracting cliches and a sometimes nebulous division of segments. I truly believe that a huge part of the problem with many volumes of poems in this literary climate is that they are too lengthy (my own books included!). The reason is that a standardized format of around 80 pages means that poets have no choice but to submit a manuscript that long or longer if they want it to be considered for publication. O for presses that could put out tiny, perfect-bound volumes featuring one sequence of pieces or much more carefully honed and selected poems. Way too much is padding or strain or the unnecessary. Too much that isn’t about poetry is weakening our poetry in this country.

If Boyle had been able to only pick pieces that truly ring and not stick an out of place sequence like “All the Dorothys” in the middle of more personal and nature poems (or possibly only release THIS sequence as a chapbook instead) then the entire book would have been stronger. Poets often seem to fall into the singular, individual poem kind of poet (like Elizabeth Bishop say) or the tone or mood type of sequential poet ( T.S. Eliot for the most part) and Boyle is one of the latter. Although most of the pieces are separate lyrics, Boyle’s strengths lie in accretion, in building up a landscape of shadowy figures, including parents, a spouse, daughters and her dog, but mainly in the patrician and haunting trees, as well as in the moody omnipresence of clouds, fog, sparrows and other birds, fallen fruit, wet grass. Boyle tends towards old-fashioned (one might say), rather solemn rhythms but I like a lot of them, such as: “this learning/is not rote, but ringed. A year, a sleep,/another year, and my core might ripen,/by slow degrees, in somnolence” (Tutelage) or the richly alliterative “Warmth rises as steam, mingles/with the mist./Morning, not yet cracked, glass/intact, transparent view” (Morning, Unbroken).

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Boyle is most potent as a poet when she simply limns, describes. In the somewhat awkward but still resonant prosy piece “Gleanings,” Boyle turns Annie Dillard with a crisp description of bird feeding as the snow descends, concluding “I’ve been waiting for reflections to flood the pond with green,/watching hollowing happen,” a consonantal singing that elevates the potentially simplistic to the sonorous and even spiritual (though why is the article omitted before so many nouns such as “Squirrel traverses” rather than “a/the squirrel”?) When, conversely, she slips into the tired personification of shrubs with “brave faces” looking at the waves and wind as they “gossip” or worse, trees as once again having “arms” (!?!?), Boyle slips from clear-eyed and eared depiction into maudlin romanticism that does nothing to sharpen either poem or vista. Boyle can use form admirably, from the anaphoric prose poem “Drag a Long Black Trail Across the Light” where the repeated word “drag” imitates its action, to the mesmerizing sonnet “Old Acquaintance” with its concluding couplet: “My ghost sits small beside me, is it right/that what she whispers ricochets through night?” but she chooses more often to write in random stanzas that offer little sense to my sight. The titular poem with its Roethkian energies, drawn from Ashbery’s Some Trees, would have been so much more potent with a solid form or even more carefully structured stanzas. I remember Di Brandt telling me years ago: “When you start your poem you are giving your reader directions about what it’s going to look like structurally.” If the stanzas veer from two to five to three to six lines without a clear conceptualization of why then it’s simply a distraction without adding to the content.

In terms of design, I do appreciate the flourishes of roots in the corners of each page, but think the recurrence of the lady on the cover as a section divider is overdone. Then again, the division into four parts is rather besides the point here. Another little dream of mine: make it all smaller so we have the freedom to truly choose which pieces deserve to be included and not, as the Acknowledgments page acknowledges, feel compelled to turn a “grab bag” into a whole book. We want to find the strong poems. We want to remember them.

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The Next Wave: An anthology of 21st Century Canadian Poetry. Ed Jim Johnstone (Anstruther Books/Palimpsest Press, 2018)

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not fond of numbers. So I don’t much relish the fact that this poetry anthology is organized, not solely according to the criteria that no one represented here has been published in “book” form prior to 2001, but also in terms of the apparently laudable paucity of their titles (three or fewer), and how this number signifies that they are emerging rather than established when we are all aware that, in this country at least, what truly qualifies you as part of the establishment is not the number of trade books you’ve released (funnily enough, at times it seems the more you publish the more you are relegated to the back burner of indifference, witness say the case of Evelyn Lau) but the number of awards, prizes or other “gold star shortcuts” you rake in. In this literary climate, if you’ve only published one book but it wins the GG or the Griffin you are much more likely to be invited to hold writer in residence positions, for instance, than someone who has released say ten collections of poetry but who, for whatever nebulous and subjective vagaries, hasn’t garnered the big cheeses, even if that poet is a widely experienced creator on multiple fronts. It’s just easier to look at the list of award winners and pick from those to add momentary cachet to your institution than to actually read the writer’s work in question. It’s an odd world where even supposed lovers of literature don’t really like reading.

And no, this isn’t sour grapes if that’s what you’re thinking, as many tend to in Canada when a critic deigns to open their mouths to actually, um, critique anything. My eyes are just gapingly open after over twenty years writing and publishing. And in relation to Jim Johnstone’s poetry anthology, I had nil chance of being included anyway, having released my first book of poems in 1998 and having published well nigh a dozen titles since in three genres. I DO find it somewhat amusing I must say to see a name in this book from my distant past, back in the Burnaby Writers’ Society of the early 90s, still being included in the Emerging category, though we both released chapbooks way back when, and were even then included in a local list of poets “most likely to succeed under 25.” If I was nearly 50 and still in the Emerging category I would personally be wondering what I had been doing with my life all those years. But that’s just me and my non-popular perspective haha. Determining categories of accomplishment is always a dubious quest and possibly entirely besides the point. What I always want to know is – is this poetry truly strong, re-readable, haunting, a singing in the blood? Nothing else matters when one is deciding what poems – not poets – to include in any anthology.

To that end, I find it strange that an editor wouldn’t want to incorporate brief essays prior to each selection, or even a short paragraph, outlining why they think this poet worthy of anthologizing or, better yet, why these poems stand up to the proverbial test of time according to their musicalities, imagery, formal features and other prosodic aspects. I understand from looking at past anthologies that this is not common practice, but perhaps it should be. If you seek to be a taste (or even, gawd forbid, a canon) maker then you need to put your poetic perspectives on the line, not merely preface each selection with a copiously prize-dropping bio (of the 40 poets included, only 5 do not mention their awards), and not even, as with the Best Canadian/American anthology series, even offer author notes on their praxes, or mini-memoirs on origins and sources as does Rhea Tregebov’s Sudden Miracles: 8 Women Poets from 1991. Sure, many of these anthologies include a general preface on modes of selection, motivations for compilation or a castigation of other anthologists’ failed attempts at canonizations, ranging from Susan Musgrave’s quick sketch at the start of Forcefield: 77 Women Poets of BC  to Dennis Lee’s scholarly “schools of poetry” approach commingled with a strained tutelage on how to hear the “literate vernacular in The New Canadian Poets 1970-1985, to Carmine Starnino’s more “cold water” slam of camps in his fiercely erudite introduction to 2005’s The New Canon (weird too is how Suzanne Buffam, also in the 2004 edition of Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets, is said to be “emerging” in both this and Johnstone’s 2018 release. One definitely has more capital in Canada relentlessly emerging than ever supposedly-established). But none of them offer the editor’s particular engagement on each poet’s poems. I for one would like to know what they think and why, not feeling content to just ride on the prize slide into the warm splishy pool of obvious inclusion. How about not only selecting an author but articulating why you’ve done so?

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O yes I loathe numbers (and why do we need to know the year each poet was born as if, again, this number too has essential import for their poems)? But I did have to undertake a bit of curious counting when reading each poet’s bio. Of the 40 (along with only 5 not reeling off their award absolutions), at least 16 teach in an academic institution and/or possess MFAs and 27 live in or are from Ontario and mostly Toronto, though some now work in the US and one in the UK, with 8 represented from BC and only 1 each from AB, QB (Montreal), NB, NS and NL. Of course, we are used to Toronto being the dom of the literary scene, but this selection (especially in how the anthology introduction promises a focus on diversity) still seems (lazily?) unbalanced. Where’s Melanie Siebert, Catherine Greenwood, Sarah de Leeuw, or Aidan Chafe from BC at least? Chris Bailey from PEI, Clea Roberts from the Yukon, Jennifer Still of Winnipeg (and yes Cassidy McFadzean from Regina might have been selected instead of ONE of the ON poets), Gabe Foreman from Montreal, or Claire Kelly or Kelly Shepherd from Edmonton? The majority of names that Johnstone claims he had to omit due to consideration of space were also, not oddly, like Robin Richardson, from the Toronto area.

Taking a peek at the bios for the 1985 Lee anthology, the ways in which the literary landscape has shifted becomes immediately (and a little shockingly) apparent. 32 of the 44 selected authors were not university/college educators (most listing jobs from fruit pickers to cab drivers to periodical editors), and not ONE mentions a prize even when they had certain accolades to gush about. A revealing contrast of priorities. Ok, to Johnstone’s preface. A few irks. First of all, describing prior poetry anthologies as taking “the country’s poetry to commercial heights” is more than a bit absurd, given how all presses are supported by government grants, not a plethora (alas) of monied readers. Also, noting that “as of 2016, a greater number of poetry books are being published on a yearly basis” than at any other time without directly tying this proliferation to an excess of MFA programs and the mode in which they function according to “first book frenzy” is irresponsible. Once more, the number means little, if not nil, in relation to a real readership. If every poet this country produces bought even one book a year, we poets might even make a tiny living off just publishing our works, but sadly that is not the case. Additionally, dubbing these poets members of the “selfie generation” is both insulting to my ear and misleading, given that a proportion represented here were born in the 60s or 70s and weren’t raised in that era. Last I heard, the selfie generation represents those who seek to “receive validation from others, and to be seen in a superficial sense,” (Chicago Tribune, May 22, 2018), those both narcissistic and generally lacking in self-esteem, and certainly not those are are “self-possessed and self-styled” as Johnstone states. Given such nasty implications, selfie isn’t a neologism I would toss around lightly.

I DO appreciate Johnstone’s emphasis on fluidities and multiplicities of form, voicings, and other approaches to the disorienting, ecstatic realms that Canadian poetry can inhabit. However, whether these poets, by supposedly detaching themselves from any particular adherence to place (and is this wise in our ecologically damaged times?) now travel “on [their] own terms” is debatable. Being anchored to social media modalities is likely even more constricting than remaining in the confines of a small town in the end. And the image of a “dance floor” full of a “flood of poets” determined to usher in a “new poetic consciousness” is nothing short of terrifying.

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But now to the poems (which presumably is why one would want to read a poetry anthology in the first place). Johnstone asserts that in the three years he spent compiling these poems that his selection altered frequently and that, eventually, only “half of [his] initial picks remained.”  I believe this attests to the speedy discarding we undertake in this literary culture, one that isn’t predicated on much lasting as legacy, and that poets craft their work less and less to be re-readable years on. So I’ll mention some poems I especially enjoyed and will almost certainly re-enter for a variety of reasons: Linda Besner’s Mornings with the Ove Glove for its irreverent, cheeky word play, Dani Couture’s Contact just for that initial wow line: “cloud cover like a badly made bed, ruched in sections, rushed,” followed by its staccato assertions of loneliness, Joe Denham’s luminously lucid Windstorm excerpts, The Goodnight Skirt by Raoul Fernandes, a gorgeous riposte poem between two poets for the dubious rights to inspirations from snowballs to love birds, Liz Howard’s masterfully solid stanzas in Euro – Anishinaabekwe – Noli Turbare that twist between history, science and emotion (“office plants all broad-leafed repositories for cognition’s patent heart. I’ve gone and been abominable”), pretty much all the Anne Wilkinson/Louise Bogan-esque lyrics Amanda Jernigan writes for their cadential tendernesses, Canisia Lubrin’s mysterious monologue Keepers of Paradise with its sublime last line: “Her ghostly algorithms translate these nights to bloom,” I Declared my Ethnicity by Nyla Matuk, a brilliant piece on identity, context and the sonorities of “in the dry-down…what a beautiful falsetto,” Sonya Peerbaye’s fantastic nightmares of the gorge/la gorge in Gorge Waterway in which court testimonies and sensual horrors mix with the variant lingual interpretations of one key word, James Pollocks’ deceptively simple Conditional, as resonant with memorable rhythms as Tennyson, and the superbly internally rhymed pseudo-reviews that constitute Catriona Wright’s hilarious Yelp Help. Eleven plus poems that stunned me in a range of ways. That I will undoubtedly return to. Others also of course. There are no utter duds in this anthology though definitely a few snoozers. But these pieces alone are worth the purchase price of The Next Wave. And it gave me a wish list for future poetry anthologies. In sum: a deeper justification for selection than mostly numbers and dates; a wider geographical net; briefer, less puffed-up bios; and please, please, little introductory essays that say something about why the editor believes these poems matter, not just for the seasonal now of the release, but onwards, into our lyrical future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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