Onjana Yawnghwe’s Fragments, Desire

Reviews have been rare lately. I simply won’t review books I don’t think worth reviewing. Doesn’t mean I have to gush over them but if I can’t find much to rave about amid the critique then I won’t bother. Not enough time to expend. With all the focus on those who have MFAs and those who have won awards, more than enough good poets get missed. The unassuming and brilliant Yawnghwe is likely one, indifferent to self-promotion and working in the liminal field of nursing, not teaching in the university where one’s peers often provide the required bumphing. Regardless, as I have repeated many a time, art doesn’t care. And these love poems, steeped in the deep work of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, transcend any clique, addressing themselves only to the necessity of expressing a difficult desire.

All worthwhile poets are vast readers. And poetry that emerges from a plunging into a text over time can be a phenomenal dual excursion into both illuminating the initial book’s matter and in transforming it through the channels of one’s personal symbologies and rhythms. As the author states in her Notes, twelve years after she was first struck by Barthes, she began this homage to Barthes’ deliciously and tortuously entangled forays into the complexities of often unrequited adoration, fusing his categories and style with her own “subjective experiences and affective vocabulary.” I did wonder why most of his translations of words are used as titles (15. Coeur/Heart) while others aren’t (2. Absence), though deduced this is likely because the French word is equivalent, but this slip in pattern didn’t interrupt this reader’s appreciation for a woman’s re-interpretation of Barthes’ lexicon of love. Yawnghwe chooses not to use the italicized markers of interpolation that Barthes’ does, thus making his intertextuality overt, but instead attends more to boiling the ache down into a lyric, a gist, an essential nub of longing, echoing Barthes, she says, as Barthes reverberated Goethe.

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The sequence needs to be entered from start to finish to fully appreciate the song of impossible and yet achieved passion, the poems set against the author’s brother’s random watercolours of mysterious faces and objects behind a cover haunting with Odilon Redon’s singular red boat painting. Kudos to Oolichan Books for keeping the design a simple one. It seems these days that we must be brave to express what is viewed as sentimentality, those feelings of overpowering joy and torment that, from lesser pens is ghastly dreck, but from a craft such as this, the same words shine and sing.

18.

Comprendre/Understand

I reach out for your form in the night.

In dreams I catch brief glimpses of you,

like the sudden brightening of sky.

I don’t know which

room you are in.

Being so close to you dazzles.

The darkest place is the one that is least hidden.

Words: the problem of love.

Love: a problem of language.

Everyone knows that.

 

 

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Mini-Marrow on Lisa Richter

Closer to Where We Began (Tightrope Books, 2017)

Blurb: Richter’s first book traces an intimate diaspora, melding her Jewish heritage from Montreal to Tel Aviv, with her Western stint existing amid “mountains, reflected in puddles” and her current life in Toronto, one threaded through with subtle gestures of love as a couple examines viscera in a gallery, as they cross symbolic suspension bridges and she feels the flower and flame of his hand on her back. Memorial poems abound – for George Harrison, Nathan, Maurice Sendak, Vancouver. Remembering almost has a scent: lush, acrid, irretrievable. These are pieces of young mid-life when possibly a deeper consciousness of death and history twins with continued and reconfigured desires. Inscription, Long Exposure, With your Permission, To my New Grey Hairs and What the Night Brings into Morning are some of my particular favorites in this gently fierce and consistent collection.

Crits: At times, Richter’s language could use greater precision in its descriptors – why isn’t skin once “stretched hospital corner-taut” not “mitred” skin, for instance. Endings can occasionally fall into flat didacticism too as in Blind Date which concludes limply (perhaps apropos to the occasion but I still feel memorable diction and rhythm can be utilized to depict a forgettable event) with, “everyone’s getting sick these days, even in the middle of July.” And (to get snippy haha) I didn’t note an acknowledgment that “She Comes out of Church” was composed during my Other 23 and a Half workshop in TO, 2015. And is, in fact, about one of my childhood memories ­čśë

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Exemplary Piece:

Khamsin

Nothing in my blue-and-white/flagged past prepared me for the choke/of stories carried on gusts of gritty/ wind. During the khamsin

handfuls of dust adrift/from the Sinai desert rise in red/storms. We inhale distant dunes/that pass through the checkpoints/

of mucus membranes, each granule/a syllable in the name of a village/scrubbed off a map, the earth’s/flesh rubbed raw, weeping salt from/

the cracks, wounds branded into/memory. At dusk, date palms droop/in dark silhouettes beneath the holy/sky’s tourniquet. We breathe in the silt/the land can’t abide to keep still.

[lovely yummy alliterations here!]

 

 

 

 

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Mini-Marrow on Aislinn Hunter

Linger, Still (Gaspereau Press, 2017)

Blurb: A textured brick-red cover stock and an embossed fox certainly encourage the reader to linger, sensuously, over the pages of this latest book of poems by Hunter as do, in particular, the lyrical sequence, OH, HEART and the individual lyrics in I Came to See the Beautiful Things. Hunter is an unabashed Romantic, the poems sprinkled with the awe-struck gasps of OOOOOs, though there’s little simple about her adorations, complexified as they are by the knowledge of mortality, extinction, ruin, loss and other inescapable, but graciously attended to, darknesses. Always poised and precise in her forms, even when her voice is steeped in grief, Hunter is unafraid of turning nouns into verbs or using unusual vocables to enable the reader to inhabit a variant reality that is also very much ours: “Oh age-spotted Earth, do not spite us, unmotor us back to the Greeks/we are already medievaling ourselves/sing a litany of rations, oracles of incalescence…” Recalling the fusion of mourning and rejoicing found in collections like Di Brandt’s Now You Care, Hunter’s Linger, Still, at its most singing, reveals a truly human pulse within the flower’s calyx.

Crits: At times, I found the voice too prosaic (a facility with phrasing that relentlessly soars in her novel The World Before Us) and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the necessity of the Anna K in Newfoundland section nor of the Heideggerian contextualizing of Esk (a writer’s retreat in Scotland), both seeming somwhat slight contrivances in terms of transference and occasion. Or perhaps I’ve just read too many amateurish poems that tread similar ground less effectively for my ears to fully open.

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Exemplary Piece: 

Bumblebees, Pinned

There will be a soon we cannot imagine/and words sought for that new colour –

songs that slip out of our heads,/plants we nurture that do not flower.

The sky will turn out its pockets like a street thug,/display its empty hands.

We will walk more miles than we thought possible/to kiss a lip of water.

The news will come in swarms/the broadcasters grown tired.

We will stand in gutted fields stung by/the unholy quiet,

stop speaking of golden things:/sunshine, loosestrife, rows of wheat, corn.

Words become locked boxes we push/ under our beds, store in gun cabinets.

Our laughter as canned as the reruns/pirated through satellite stations.

How easily we were once amused!/Duck Dynasty, 19 Kids and Counting –

the nature show where a man sticks his hand /down the throat of a crocodile and pulls out a radio.

The bees will have seen it coming,/our own fading signal – the distant

and zigzagging static/of our extinction –

now in front of us,/now behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Siren by Kateri Lanthier (Signal Editions, 2017)

Blurb:

Like a juicy baroque rendition of a Mother Goose/Brothers Grimm world where twisted fairytale proportions jive with the melancholic foliage of a Roethkian sensibility, Siren is a dark romantic ditty to the body’s nursery. Told in both densely-laden ghazals, quirkily ironized haikus and triplet and other lyrical modes, this collection satisfies the lucubrious tongue, the allusive mind and the rococo realms of the heart.

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Crits: Siren doesn’t really leap out with any prominent lack in terms of its own aims but I do get irked by presses that can’t seem to figure out ways to lay out form so they are faithful. Ok, occasionally, fine, but when one is focusing on the ghazal say, the majority of pieces shouldn’t be enjambed inappropriately in order to fit the page. Figure out a new font/type size or mode of presentation for gawdsakes! (and yes WordPress is one of those sites that also makes poetic posting awkward so forgive me)

Excerpt:

Chrysoprase 

With you, the dawning awareness at dusk/of chalcedony, chrysoprase,/

in the pendant your cheekbone brushed aside/as you kissed down to my left breast’s swerve./

The opalescent film on the window:/adularescence by day —yearn from blue to grey./

Our everywhere room: hotel in Singapore, house in Thunder Bay,/boathouse on the moon. A taste to disambiguate,/

that saltwater pearl under my tongue./ Pink and blue eyeshadow sky

led to chatoyancy by night: /the black cat’s eye, blackout flashlight.

p.s. [O the interconnective mysteries and delicious diction!]

 

 

 

 

 

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Barbaric Cultural Practices by Penn Kemp (Quattro Books, 2016)

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Blurb: Penn Kemp, long listened to for her particular affinity with sounds (I for one will never forget hearing her years ago declaiming a poem that mimicked a stopping heart), focuses more fully on social and environmental contexts/content in Barbaric Cultural Practices as embedded within┬áthe deep perspectives of the thoroughly in-tuned, collective-minded individual. From aural pieces like “Night Orchestra” to poems about the bond between poetry and the world such as “Lunar Perplex,” to silly Canadian paeans as in the ditty, “Ode to Tim Two Bitswhopper” and serious calls to action for the earth like “Yes in our Yard”, Kemp’s core is linguistic play in the service of both singing and saying.

Crits: 1/Kemp knows her form, as is evident in many pieces such as “Living Alongside” but with others, her stanzas vary wildly from two to four and back to one line. Greater potency would be achieved with more visual consistency in these cases. Though in others, such as “Drive’s Destination” she could shake it looser and follow her verbs like “flit” and “whirl” more faithfully to lend the poem extra oomph.

2/At times, for my taste, Kemp gets too didactic/new-agey soap boxy and then even the sound sinks into sing-songy or static, say in a line like, “Reclaim the light. Proclaim the Oracle. Declaim the Sight.”

3/The cover image, a painting from one of Kemp’s visionary dreams, has potential but would be so much more powerful if in matte and un-framed by such a modern font. Much attention is being paid to book design again these days and I think it’s crucial to draw readers in as we are exceedingly aesthetically-motivated people.

Excerpt:

I dog-eared many memorable pages in this book but a couplet poem like “Solstice” rings especially resonantly, both visually and in Kemp’s crucial aural sense, underlined by her heteronymic double entendres and subtle rhymes:

“Insects shrill. A thrum as of clacking bones./Today tallies a long count of creation cycles.”

On this winter solstice we climb our Sacred/Tree to enter wide zones of silence through

the doorway of darkness, our canoe riding/white rivers of night. The elliptic crosses

Milky Way precisely now, when elements/merge in a dark rift of source and return.

Cacti and palm leaves rustle dry in the ruins./Terror cracks the heart open. Rivulets run

a scarlet sap to appease unknown gods be-/yond us. Blooming and blessing, this wound

wound tight round knots of surmise reveals so/little before our offering is received in sunrise.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Portraits of Canadian Writers by Bruce Meyer (Porcupine’s Quill, 2016)

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Blurb: Portraits of Canadian Writers by eminent auteur and educator, Bruce Meyer, is an idiosyncratic, intimate array of encounters with a range of well, along with lesser known Canadian writers, over the past thirty or so years. Canada, it seems, is still learning to value its artists and this anthology of stirring photos and rich reminiscences goes a long way towards reminding us that our writers matter and, beyond this, that remembering what intelligent people say and how they respond to the world is a vital praxis. Truly attentive and respectful engagers like Meyer are rare.

Crits: 1/I wanted more consistent dating of when these encounters occured as some have context and others don’t.

2/At times the personal slant or perspective intrudes a bit too overtly, as in the PK Page interview where Page’s reticence turns into an act of authorial insult, ie. “She was not forthcoming with stories…the interview did not go well…I had gone all that way for nothing.”

3/There were a few typos in the book that might have been easily rectified with a little more attention. For instance, the title of my collection of interviews is called The First 23 when its actual title is “The Other 23 and a Half Hours or Everything You Wanted to Know that your MFA didn’t Teach You.”

Excerpt: Ahhh, the beauty does reside in the details. Take this snippet from Meyer’s recollection of hanging out with poet Richard Harrison:

“The four of us were playing pool in a redneck bar (decorated with wasps’ nests) outside of Saratoga Springs, and were getting taken by the locals on what was clearly a crooked pool table. Everything fell silent when a gang of bikers walked in. The bikers had been there before and trashed the place because the locals were outnumbered. The locals lined up with four Canadian poets, and we stared down the bikers, who beat a quick retreat. We didn’t have to buy beer for the remainder of our weeklong stay at the Bruchacs.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Waters Remembered (espresso, 2015)

The textured, elegant design of the chapbooks produced by espresso is delectable. One wants to keep caressing them, though their French sleeves can make this embrace somewhat arduous ­čśë Waters Remembered by Maureen Scott Harris (according to her bio a poet practicing the poetic restraint admired in Canada, or at least by Robyn Sarah, of only publishing a book every decade), is a slim, olive assemblage of thirteen poems about, as Harris writes in the Notes section, “particular places in the city (of Toronto)…beyond, under, around the crowds and noise and concrete.” As an entree into the anti-pastoral, or perhaps the ache-for-pastoral genre, and akin to all contemporary eco-composers, Harris is utterly aware that the divisions between urban and rural sites are permeable, tenuous.

The Don River, for instance, delivers both “new grass” and “garbage…over and over again/garbage.” Thus, an ominous nostalgia colours the tone, a fraught yearning for the “buried watercourses,” the “birds of Taddle Creek”, and the “pastoral almost and innocent” realms of Joe Fafard’s reminiscent scenes that Harris is conscious are lost, or damaged, or threatened. The strongest pieces anchor their anxiety in form, whether it’s a classical Japanese one such as “Shoring: a Haibun,” or merely in solid stanza divisions confident of their placement on the page, even as their perceptions can tremble with concern and helplessness.

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Clichees (yep you knew I would point those out) like “sagging houses,” “lightning flares,” “light falls,” and “bruised sky” can diminish the potential energy of the pieces, most fortunately then lifted into difference by taut, aurally charged lines such as “I could follow it, let it dilute/my mood…let/my eye skip/over the abyss of buildings.”

Reading espresso’s slender collections, exquisitely pondered over in terms of both appearance and content makes me wish that more publishing houses could produce texts, and especially poetic ones, as such equivalently thin rivers of delicious words.

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