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:

1.

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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