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.