Thicket by Melanie Janisse Barlow (Palimpsest Press,2019)

Of course, the painterly eye prevails. That’s a given when a visual artist writes. Melanie Janisse Barlow’s thicket (and what a compelling cover with its scrawled ink black tangle scored with a hole of light for the title) is rife with colourations and chiaroscuros and all the contradictions of an animated still life. The back blurb claims that the book is about “the uncertainties of language” but I think it’s more about “the discombobulations of signifiers.” The author, porkchop-necklaced at times, reappears as Charliegirl (or is this her at all?), a vertiginous, anxious, empathetic but awkward character in a world of uncoordinated fragments, squishy bits, bolded territories and slashed narrations. The last section: “don’t tie the river down: important postscripts” was reminiscent for me of Nicole Brossard’s Museum of Bone and Water in its untitled shards of detail, some a tad “so what,” others quirkily moving: “this is my/loss this is/my theatre” or “an old, knowing/ dog rusts/ a tin ceiling bent/a black sweater with lint/in it some kind of holy order.”

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Yes, there are lots of dogs in this collection (eeeeeep, cat person here!) and especially in the sequence “notes for charliegirl: a long poem” (the subtitle being rather redundant methinks), featuring backslashed chunks of text with a plethora of ampersands (fortunately, I am quite cadentially fond of blackslashes, and a bit jelly she got to keep all those curlicue symbols that my own editors urge me to eradicate for the more banal “and”). This poem deals mainly with the rescuing of a mite-riddled dog called Ketchup: “tonight i put coconut oil on Ketchup’s skin to choke the mites out/LOOSEN YOUR HOLD YOU LITTLE FUCKERS/someone has to live here,” but it’s also about a Windsor neighbourhood and family and loyalty and aging and “how the fuck do you open the heart?/….o jesus the peonies are out.” The “divinations” pieces are spooky surreal spells: “queen of bitches broken arrows cuss me/out right at the corner why don’t you…/hang soft Portuguese bread and deli meats on my doorknob. Crucify/me later” (divination 1); “Windsoria: the thick poems” (all prosy clumps writ bold) are haunting meanders through the everyday, as in the scene in which the speaker keeps tossing snails over the back fence, then notes: “I don’t have children. I do not tell children that I love/ them over & over. Last night I dreamt that flowers were growing out of my head where my neck should be,” a Magritte-and-Carrington-had-a-baby moment inserted into the quotidian made strange or perhaps estranged; and the initial sequence (maybe my fave?) deploys its “conjurings” within the moodiness of a Miss Havisham shuffling about in a Wuthering Heights-styled world, which is also a painter’s studio (& O how grateful I am for Barlow’s Portraits of Canadian Poets series!) where “there are four hundred different shades of green,” a piece that concludes with the bitter hilarity of “I am sorry, but you didn’t win the prize/You won a shell of him that you made a shell. Congrats!” And there’s Joni Mitchell in this book and one of my personal muses, Francesca Woodman, along with Martha Graham, Detroit, and the Seven of Pentacles.

Thicket, simply, lingers.

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Three from Brick Books (2018-2019)

Re-reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as I seem to do every few years since the time I actually WAS a young poet, I was struck again by his firm assertion that “works of art are of an infinite solitude and no means of approach is so useless as criticism.” Quite possibly for the poet this is true, in that often, by the time the book finally emerges, it is years since it was composed and so a critic pointing out that this is a cliche or that is a weak line break is irrelevant to them or they can just shrug it off from inside their carapace against dismantlings (though, likely, they shouldn’t). But I do continue to believe that reviews are necessary for any readers who are interested in a vocabulary, perspective, literary wisdom of sorts on how they might enter a certain book or how it has utterly fallen short of current standards or how they may weigh the merits of one text versus another beyond whether one has been stomped on by a gold star and the other hasn’t (often our shortcut to thought in this culture). At any rate, for whomever needs it (or not), here goes:

Julie Bruck’s How to Avoid Huge Ships is imminently recognizable as a book of Canadian poetry. I say this not disparagingly but just in the recognition of what a vast chunk of poets appear to do best here: solid narrative-based lyrics in shapes rather than forms that deal with subject matter from childhood to dying parents, sprinkled with light cultural allusions (Martha Stewart, Google Earth, Balanchine, Malkovich) and closing with a clink of subtle music. The poems are well thought through for the most part, precisely constructed and, especially when Bruck writes of her parents, stirring. In fact, I wished that all these parental poems would have been together in one section or perhaps even constituted a collection of their own. A piece like “Palliative” that unfolds its Latinate meaning, “to cover,” is particularly moving. The three quartets provide a structural equivalence to the author’s disruptive dream in which her dead mother has been “slip covered” although “Inside, she was unravelling.” And then the resonant sounds in the last two lines where a desire for return leads the speaker to the belief that she has “zipped her up” for “because I miss her so, I hid her.” Many aspects of grief are dealt with in a sensory manner here as in the pieces, “How I left you” or “Size 9. 5 AAAA,” poems that address the “stuff” a deceased person leaves behind: “Your scarves…those primitive skates mounted on a pine board” or her ungainly, over-sized “soft slippers….ox-blood T-straps” that, like her mother herself, matched nothing else “upon the earth.” The tactility of being alive is also recounted sharply in a piece like “Peeling the Wallpaper” with its deliciously repellent descriptors of the glue, “varnishy-yellow/and dried to the consistency of old mustard” or “Two Fish,” a philosophical morality tale in which difficult questions of nature vs nurture are posed, one forgotten fish “distorted as in a fun house mirror” while the other’s “fish lips” keep “foraging with little clicks.” Other potent parent poems include “Fledgling” with its startling line: “What am I waiting for – a parent/ to return and throw up into my open beak?,” “Full-Length” on the loss of control as one ages and “His Certainty” whose long lines contain a compression of deceptions of love and history where “Everyone is supposed to be happy.” At times, as with “After Lorne,” the final recognition doesn’t appear to evolve organically from the rest of the poem. I wished Bruck had kept us inside the hospital pharmacy scenario instead of closing hurriedly with the aside, “Outside, darkness falls on the extravagant city.” And in “Let Evening Come,” the casual use of the word “crackheads” feels disparaging to those struggling with drug addiction. How to Avoid Huge Ships remains most powerful when it lets those large water crafts bump a bit into the uncertain moorings of our minds and hearts.

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Our Latest in Folk Tales, a first book by Matthew Gwathmey (even his name is rhythmic!) contains an eclectic, eccentric, electric mix of pieces on entities from St Ambrose to the Blue Beetle of DC comic renown and the 90s to microwaves. Honestly, I cared very little about most of the “matter” of these poems, ranging from prose blocks to chopped-up lyrics, halved by lacunas, but what matters here is the way Gwathmey is unafear’d to bee-bop it, rock it, rampage in bombastic lingualities across the page. One of my faves – “A Kitchen Argument” – invokes the rhymed triplet form to make epic the baking of a peach grunt in which strange, quotidian disagreements can dominate and the final line, “We seldom spoke about the grade of the eggs” unfolds all kinds of portentous suppressions in my mind. Furthermore, “Turning Thirty” is also a jolly romp; “Love is a Ship of Fools Crashing into Revivalist Shores” can be a very o yes to my ear kind of poem as Gwathney metres and alliterates galore, providing us with a mysterious yet apropos zing of a couplet in: “I can decode any emergency you transmit./And don’t you ever forget, I undressed the salty fish”; and the titular poem bips us with the oddity of archaic cookery imperatives to “frack the chicken, unbrace the/mallard,/unlace the coney” in a delightfully disturbing list. There are too many list-style poems in this book though methinks. We have the “Love is” ones, the Madmen vs the Beetle sequence (alas I was utterly lost here, not being a geek girl, and having only worked in film on Marvel shows), the “what to” this & that pieces and the “On” one thing & another lyrics. Yet that irk didn’t stop me from relishing “What to Listen to” as it tells us to “recant with all those slacker anthems” or nodding to “On Depression” with its sluggish swell of sad sounds. Seeing as how I adore the music of poetry more than the meaning in the end, Gwathmey’s first foray will keep ringing weirdly in my mind, though I still wish I’d tweaked more to many references. I may be getting old 😉

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As for Susan Gillis, her collection Yellow Crane affected me most profoundly of these three offerings, in part due to her fusion of scholarship and the sensory and also because of her evocative long lines that reach their haunting patrician arms across the page in the manner of another memorable, underrated Canadian poet, Anne Compton (no not Simpson). Yes, there is some lax language here and there in these pieces, things just typically “springing” to light, or being “very small,” beauty only “coming” forward, when the verbs might have been torqued to allot for a deeper pool of energy, and certain lines do feel unnecessarily ungainly (“The wind that pushes the clouds that makes the shadows is high”) but, overall, this is a book I will be re-reading and will likely continue to derive a mood from, a sensibility, a vaster connection with the linkages between literature and the “spilled slag…thick with pine trees” world. Inspired (as in breathed into) by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz – invoking a darker, redolent, sojourning European intensity more poets could benefit from persuing – Yellow Crane returns to signature imagery throughout the book: the light on hay, an obelisk and the titular pivoting steel machines (though I could do without the occasionally recurring word, “blue,” a colour that appears to be the core touchstone of so much Canpo by women). The long poem in parts, “Obelisk,” is truly invigorating. It melds nature, poetry, delectably expansive footnotes on texts and films and the landscape and history and politics without ever being dull, pedantic or contrived. There are bears and rusted hulls amid ghostly references to Stevens and overt ones to Du Fu and Cicero, a veritable ecosystem of thought and sensation. Gillis is adept at transfixing the reader within a slow moment of beauty, as in the lyric “Morning Light” where “the buildings opposite turn gold, then back to brick” or there is a “red slash through a black truck on a white sign.” At times, say with “Salamander,” resonance starts sliding into the prosaic but then rights itself fast with auralities like “it gushed rain, then a/bittern flew up from the marsh” or the fusion of the banal word “panel” with the romantic “heart” that soars the maudlin into the rupturing: “how I would like to find that panel in my heart that opens, and open it.” The dying of a father spectres through Yellow Crane, attached to the “blood machine” now, in the past holding her “like a sparrow to his chest,” or possibly appearing symbolically in the angular yellow crane that the speaker observes, cannot truly access, will miss “when the building is finished.” Gillis writes, “I can’t bring myself to do anything” at the close of the stunning piece, “Fieldwork”  but she has indeed done just the right amount of feeling, reading and drawing the aching threads together in this memorable book. Somehow I don’t think she will find this critique useless, Rilke, though I love you regardless.

 

 

 

 

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Yvonne Blomer’s chapbook Ravine, Mouse, a Bird’s Beak: ekphrastic poems inspired by the work of Robert Bateman [Nose in Book Publishing, 2018]

I have always been a fan of the beautifully produced poetry chapbook. In fact, I believe that there should be more appealing storage units for them for the store and home that render them more likely to be purchased and treasured as they often get lost in their spine-free states in regular bookcases. Poetry is best in slenderness and the 48 minimum page count for books often does poetry a disservice, making the poet more likely to pad in order to fill out the required pages. Also, chapbooks are generally easier to slip into one’s pocket or purse and bring along on one’s travels, poetry being meant for the road, the flow, the interstices. So bring them on. More poetry chapbooks please. And especially examples of the form like this one, simply-produced, hand-sewn and with the art on which the poems are based gorgeously reproduced. The cover features one of Bateman’s stark and noble ravens, its crispness drawing the eye and inducing the reader to enter readily. Handy cover flaps also provide the option of book marks but this collection I read through in one sitting (then re-steeped in again), compelled by the lush visuals and the resonant emotion contained in most of the poems.

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When I was a child, I was obsessed by Bateman and recall clearly at around 9 or 10 years of age attending one of his exhibits in Burnaby where I brought my notebook and spent hours detailing each one of his images, one of the first times I remember truly feeling like a writer, like recounting the world was deeply important to me. Blomer brings this intensity of observation back in the challenge of these ekphrastic poems that both describe the images and, more powerfully, connect the art to both environmental and personal content. My favourite pieces feature finely etched forms like the couplets of “Lines of Cold” where Blomer attends to both the image and to her own reality, so that by the end, the two meld and re-translate each other as the dog “vanishes/in trenched lines of snow/deeper than shown,” the long o sounds taking the reader down a passageway of sonorousness and memory. Bateman’s seemingly innocent portraits of wolves and birds now assume a contemporary knowledge of disappearing landscapes and poisoned sources of food. Beauty is topographied with disaster. In “Au Courant”, the wolf appears to watch the “cement river where fish are stained glass shapes” as she must step back in the face of too much humanity, her “shadow whitening.” Or in “Simultaneity” or “Barfly” where plastic and toxins abound like scavenging gulls who hover over a bear as would “the weight of fog on fur” and where the polar bear sniffs motor oil, a “statue/carved from melt and salt…a yellowing ice floe ” (though the final “melt” would have been more potent without the initial one, repetition being a tricky technique in emotively-charged poems. also, why is he a “bloke” in such a British fashion – liking the sounds here but not how the meaning pulled me out of the poem awhile). “Circus Moon, Circus Train” is a fantastic duo of hyphenated-word stanzas featuring the delicious echoes of such vocables as “chuntered” “puce” “ghost” and “feral” (only marred a bit by the cliches of “low moan” and “quick laughter.” ah such a challenge to keep language incessantly fresh!) and the final two pieces, “The Ocean is a Room for the Dying, Tahlequah” and the exquisite unrhymed glosa on Roo Borson’s lines, “Open Field,” are both very moving elegies/eulogies where her “son breaches and surfs” and a dog, blackbirds, the memories of an awkward school dance all entwine in the question “What if this is a story/already played out?” (and here I would just note that sometimes verbs like coming and going could consider punchier variants of motion).

But I can’t stop there. I turn back to the core of this delectable chapbook and re-read “Scarce,” whose pure melodies bring small tears over the rare swans, Blomer’s facility with the unadorned image as memorable as Basho’s: “The curved river, slope of low trees….they fly to fly off – muted song, silvering.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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