The Stuart Ross imprint at Mansfield Press encompasses its own kooky poetic world, as any strong branding should, so that whether one admires his particular tastes or not, they are so potently and consistently represented that they constitute an undeniable universe. His latest quartet of picks are like four wacky planets rotating Ross’s quirky sun, each title uniquely distinguishable yet all marked with a “this is definitely not recognizably Can Lit canon poetry” stamp. Which means that the reader may want to approach these texts with differing (but not diminished) expectations – less yearning for closure say, or direct pathways to sense or traditional forms. And definitely don’t get caught up in questing for the “great individual poem” in these collections. There are good stand-alone poems for sure but mostly each of these books is its own voiced atmosphere the reader must learn to breathe within or perish, pointlessly asking, “Why?”
So here’s my take on the latest by Nelson Ball, Alice Burdick, Jason Heroux and Sarah Burgoyne’s debut collection. Chewing Water by Ball (another classic Canadian older male poet that Ross champions along with the more “award-winning” David McFadden), delivers the most overtly content-based poems of these four with his minimalistic pieces (some explicated, rather wordily, at the book’s end) on ducks, cows, frogs, the meaning of words, and the key people in his existence, and especially Barbara Caruso, his deceased wife. Her vital presence is commemorated in poems on her final illness and in elegies on life following loss after such a long marriage and artistic bond. Ball can be so exquisitely pithy as in the teensy piece The Meaning of Death (“It’s/the/end/of/morning/coffee”) but also ridiculously touching in his tender detailing of moments as when Barbara would “snuggle her nose/into [his] shirt pocket.” A man who composes grief poems is undertaking an invaluable role and for this act, in particular, Chewing Water is a memorable collection by our most Creeley-esque poet.
Conversely, I have often found Alice Burdick’s poems elusive though, of course, my very reticence compels me to seek alternate doors through which to enter her work on its own terms. Her A Book of Short Sentences (but why does the back jacket blurb call it “groundbreaking”? what exactly does that mean? such distracting hyperbole rarely serves the poet or reader. how about “significant” and then say in what way? ok rant over 😉 deploys a detached set of voicings – WCW’s brainpan dipped in Blaser-jizz – whose aim, perhaps ironically, is to be deeply engaged, with the land, family, and even with our disjointed information feeds and discombobulations of virtual speak, exploring the fissures between the fact that “we are stuck with our old brains” (Entropy) and yet “waves never stop” (Rain Days), and especially the glut of such nonsensicalities as “all maplestory secrets revealed!!! Including exploits” (Pleasant Knowledge (a choral work). Burdick is definitely pushing herself, in this fourth collection, to directly address the bits and bytes of wired society while continuing to swim in the surreal and ground in the tangible. A vein of numb abstraction pervades the clunk of phrases at times in which embodied subjects seem to be buried: “plastic hard hats. the whole world/is a cheap toy…bubble forms talk out of the side of their mouths. Faces, attached to screens” (Flight details). Poems as symptoms? Certainly no poems as “simple” cures here in a “monotony of colour, asses and sound” (What happened in the call centre?). And speaking of sound, there are some yummy ones as in “fleet grass/grows in a floss of halos” (the strings of spring) and from the astounding initial opus, “All the voices do it,” the deliciously rupturing lines: “you are so wet in the basic/matrix. We are the mud sounds, the salt left on skin after/the crawl onto the lush and fragrant lawn.” Though I certainly don’t need poems about tea, apparently “that thing/that ladies should write about/to seem accessible” (Enter the building), I did appreciate Burdick’s truly tangible honesty in “The Record’s Hold (Part One)” about a tumultuous female childhood, the sexed recklessness of “Don’t Forget” and the startling stir of her prose poem of unassuageable pain, “The route through mistaken gods.”
Having loved Jason Heroux’s Emergency Hallelujah I was looking forward to diving into what I knew would be the gently surreal realms of Hard Work Cheering up Sad Machines whose cover design (my fave of these 4 titles) shows an opened skull, diagrammed with letters pointing to parts against a rose-pink background. Heroux’s poems are Cornell boxes, Magritte miniatures, clips from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Surrealism can be a chilly thing, a pursuit to dissect Lautreamont umbrellas, but Heroux’s little forays into the “what if” often leave me with strange tears in my eyes (why am I weeping over abandoned loaves of stale bread or pockets trying to warm themselves in other pockets?) or else whimsical grins at life’s small absurdities and regrets (wishing one had indeed taken the “bus full of blossoms on the way to the trees” instead). Sometimes though the project feels a tad too Shel Silverstein with its unpackings of imagery like relentless Matrushka dolls – “I bought another/dollar for a dollar so my dollar/would have a dollar to play with/on my dollar’s birthday” (Dollar Store Sonnet) and the last long piece, “Black Trampoline”, in its unpeelings of the essence of having a language, would fit more essentially perhaps into an anthology of Dennis Lee-style kid’s verse. The risk with any particularized voicing (yes I verb-ize this notion as “voice” is too statically noun-ed) is that one can become trapped in it after awhile, leading even one’s wildest twists & turns to seem stiff & stock. Mostly though, much continues to delight in Heroux’s adorably permeable (and subtly critical) renditions of society in which we know the names of TV sets and coffee brands but not birds and where pet cobwebs need to be tended, garbage bags forage and (in the most striking sequence) empty parking lots are a form of poetics because “like poetry,” they make “nothingness feel at home in the world.”
Lastly and most wackily, Saint Twin by Sarah Burgoyne, a melange of loopy “genres” (as listed in the Contents section by page number) like “raisin cakes” and “Happy dog, Sad dog,” along with more obvious yet still head-shaking generic divisions such as “Story poems” versus “Fiction stories.” Super mish-mashy stuff. I knew it was going to be a goof-ola ride in a Duchampian sky urinal. And in this case the back cover blurb was pretty bang-on: “There has never been a Canadian poetry book quite like Saint Twin.” Not to say this is always an awesome thing! But seriously, there are so many kinds of poems here you would be truly hard-pressed not to find some style that tweaks your interest. For this reader it was the philosophically Franglais “essays” of “Happy dog, Sad dog” in which twins stroll Montreal streets while contemplating life’s animal woundings, several of the story poems like “Boppity” or “Nobody Coming” (“Life can be a doily in your grandmother’s home, if you let it be”) and particularly the “Story of a Leaf” sequence, which appears intermittently in chapter clumps, detailing in Brossardian or Robertsonian sentence-lists, the leaf’s abstracted descent: “I have come to my end. I have dressed in superb costumes…I have roosted among talons. I have appeared/suddenly lost” (Chapter 5). Yes, this text needed excess but it’s nonetheless too long. 166 pages for a first book! Or any book of non-Collected poems! Whoa. One must admire (and recoil from) the audacity of both poet and editor here. Undoubtedly, this melange of cacophonic entries is certainly daring and hey what has one got to lose in the Can Lit puddle anyway? (to Mark McCawley a bit for a minute:) Let it all hang out, in a crafted sense, and see what happens! Burgoyne’s “love is as many as the hairs on my head” and Ross’s iconoclastic vision for a different assemblage of poetic phenomenons can only serve our still too overly conservative country of words well.