Frances Boyle’s This White Nest (Quattro Books, 2019)

In 2015 I reviewed Frances Boyle’s 2014 debut Light-Carved Passages. One line stated that “while there are many pieces that stir in Boyle’s book, loosely divided into five somewhat nebulous sections (in terms of clear thematic intent), there are certain marked slips in form, metaphor, diction and the use of abstractions.” In her second release, Boyle has worked harder on form and her ear is often in fine shape, yet there are still issues with abstracting cliches and a sometimes nebulous division of segments. I truly believe that a huge part of the problem with many volumes of poems in this literary climate is that they are too lengthy (my own books included!). The reason is that a standardized format of around 80 pages means that poets have no choice but to submit a manuscript that long or longer if they want it to be considered for publication. O for presses that could put out tiny, perfect-bound volumes featuring one sequence of pieces or much more carefully honed and selected poems. Way too much is padding or strain or the unnecessary. Too much that isn’t about poetry is weakening our poetry in this country.

If Boyle had been able to only pick pieces that truly ring and not stick an out of place sequence like “All the Dorothys” in the middle of more personal and nature poems (or possibly only release THIS sequence as a chapbook instead) then the entire book would have been stronger. Poets often seem to fall into the singular, individual poem kind of poet (like Elizabeth Bishop say) or the tone or mood type of sequential poet ( T.S. Eliot for the most part) and Boyle is one of the latter. Although most of the pieces are separate lyrics, Boyle’s strengths lie in accretion, in building up a landscape of shadowy figures, including parents, a spouse, daughters and her dog, but mainly in the patrician and haunting trees, as well as in the moody omnipresence of clouds, fog, sparrows and other birds, fallen fruit, wet grass. Boyle tends towards old-fashioned (one might say), rather solemn rhythms but I like a lot of them, such as: “this learning/is not rote, but ringed. A year, a sleep,/another year, and my core might ripen,/by slow degrees, in somnolence” (Tutelage) or the richly alliterative “Warmth rises as steam, mingles/with the mist./Morning, not yet cracked, glass/intact, transparent view” (Morning, Unbroken).

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Boyle is most potent as a poet when she simply limns, describes. In the somewhat awkward but still resonant prosy piece “Gleanings,” Boyle turns Annie Dillard with a crisp description of bird feeding as the snow descends, concluding “I’ve been waiting for reflections to flood the pond with green,/watching hollowing happen,” a consonantal singing that elevates the potentially simplistic to the sonorous and even spiritual (though why is the article omitted before so many nouns such as “Squirrel traverses” rather than “a/the squirrel”?) When, conversely, she slips into the tired personification of shrubs with “brave faces” looking at the waves and wind as they “gossip” or worse, trees as once again having “arms” (!?!?), Boyle slips from clear-eyed and eared depiction into maudlin romanticism that does nothing to sharpen either poem or vista. Boyle can use form admirably, from the anaphoric prose poem “Drag a Long Black Trail Across the Light” where the repeated word “drag” imitates its action, to the mesmerizing sonnet “Old Acquaintance” with its concluding couplet: “My ghost sits small beside me, is it right/that what she whispers ricochets through night?” but she chooses more often to write in random stanzas that offer little sense to my sight. The titular poem with its Roethkian energies, drawn from Ashbery’s Some Trees, would have been so much more potent with a solid form or even more carefully structured stanzas. I remember Di Brandt telling me years ago: “When you start your poem you are giving your reader directions about what it’s going to look like structurally.” If the stanzas veer from two to five to three to six lines without a clear conceptualization of why then it’s simply a distraction without adding to the content.

In terms of design, I do appreciate the flourishes of roots in the corners of each page, but think the recurrence of the lady on the cover as a section divider is overdone. Then again, the division into four parts is rather besides the point here. Another little dream of mine: make it all smaller so we have the freedom to truly choose which pieces deserve to be included and not, as the Acknowledgments page acknowledges, feel compelled to turn a “grab bag” into a whole book. We want to find the strong poems. We want to remember them.

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The Next Wave: An anthology of 21st Century Canadian Poetry. Ed Jim Johnstone (Anstruther Books/Palimpsest Press, 2018)

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not fond of numbers. So I don’t much relish the fact that this poetry anthology is organized, not solely according to the criteria that no one represented here has been published in “book” form prior to 2001, but also in terms of the apparently laudable paucity of their titles (three or fewer), and how this number signifies that they are emerging rather than established when we are all aware that, in this country at least, what truly qualifies you as part of the establishment is not the number of trade books you’ve released (funnily enough, at times it seems the more you publish the more you are relegated to the back burner of indifference, witness say the case of Evelyn Lau) but the number of awards, prizes or other “gold star shortcuts” you rake in. In this literary climate, if you’ve only published one book but it wins the GG or the Griffin you are much more likely to be invited to hold writer in residence positions, for instance, than someone who has released say ten collections of poetry but who, for whatever nebulous and subjective vagaries, hasn’t garnered the big cheeses, even if that poet is a widely experienced creator on multiple fronts. It’s just easier to look at the list of award winners and pick from those to add momentary cachet to your institution than to actually read the writer’s work in question. It’s an odd world where even supposed lovers of literature don’t really like reading.

And no, this isn’t sour grapes if that’s what you’re thinking, as many tend to in Canada when a critic deigns to open their mouths to actually, um, critique anything. My eyes are just gapingly open after over twenty years writing and publishing. And in relation to Jim Johnstone’s poetry anthology, I had nil chance of being included anyway, having released my first book of poems in 1998 and having published well nigh a dozen titles since in three genres. I DO find it somewhat amusing I must say to see a name in this book from my distant past, back in the Burnaby Writers’ Society of the early 90s, still being included in the Emerging category, though we both released chapbooks way back when, and were even then included in a local list of poets “most likely to succeed under 25.” If I was nearly 50 and still in the Emerging category I would personally be wondering what I had been doing with my life all those years. But that’s just me and my non-popular perspective haha. Determining categories of accomplishment is always a dubious quest and possibly entirely besides the point. What I always want to know is – is this poetry truly strong, re-readable, haunting, a singing in the blood? Nothing else matters when one is deciding what poems – not poets – to include in any anthology.

To that end, I find it strange that an editor wouldn’t want to incorporate brief essays prior to each selection, or even a short paragraph, outlining why they think this poet worthy of anthologizing or, better yet, why these poems stand up to the proverbial test of time according to their musicalities, imagery, formal features and other prosodic aspects. I understand from looking at past anthologies that this is not common practice, but perhaps it should be. If you seek to be a taste (or even, gawd forbid, a canon) maker then you need to put your poetic perspectives on the line, not merely preface each selection with a copiously prize-dropping bio (of the 40 poets included, only 5 do not mention their awards), and not even, as with the Best Canadian/American anthology series, even offer author notes on their praxes, or mini-memoirs on origins and sources as does Rhea Tregebov’s Sudden Miracles: 8 Women Poets from 1991. Sure, many of these anthologies include a general preface on modes of selection, motivations for compilation or a castigation of other anthologists’ failed attempts at canonizations, ranging from Susan Musgrave’s quick sketch at the start of Forcefield: 77 Women Poets of BC  to Dennis Lee’s scholarly “schools of poetry” approach commingled with a strained tutelage on how to hear the “literate vernacular in The New Canadian Poets 1970-1985, to Carmine Starnino’s more “cold water” slam of camps in his fiercely erudite introduction to 2005’s The New Canon (weird too is how Suzanne Buffam, also in the 2004 edition of Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets, is said to be “emerging” in both this and Johnstone’s 2018 release. One definitely has more capital in Canada relentlessly emerging than ever supposedly-established). But none of them offer the editor’s particular engagement on each poet’s poems. I for one would like to know what they think and why, not feeling content to just ride on the prize slide into the warm splishy pool of obvious inclusion. How about not only selecting an author but articulating why you’ve done so?

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O yes I loathe numbers (and why do we need to know the year each poet was born as if, again, this number too has essential import for their poems)? But I did have to undertake a bit of curious counting when reading each poet’s bio. Of the 40 (along with only 5 not reeling off their award absolutions), at least 16 teach in an academic institution and/or possess MFAs and 27 live in or are from Ontario and mostly Toronto, though some now work in the US and one in the UK, with 8 represented from BC and only 1 each from AB, QB (Montreal), NB, NS and NL. Of course, we are used to Toronto being the dom of the literary scene, but this selection (especially in how the anthology introduction promises a focus on diversity) still seems (lazily?) unbalanced. Where’s Melanie Siebert, Catherine Greenwood, Sarah de Leeuw, or Aidan Chafe from BC at least? Chris Bailey from PEI, Clea Roberts from the Yukon, Jennifer Still of Winnipeg (and yes Cassidy McFadzean from Regina might have been selected instead of ONE of the ON poets), Gabe Foreman from Montreal, or Claire Kelly or Kelly Shepherd from Edmonton? The majority of names that Johnstone claims he had to omit due to consideration of space were also, not oddly, like Robin Richardson, from the Toronto area.

Taking a peek at the bios for the 1985 Lee anthology, the ways in which the literary landscape has shifted becomes immediately (and a little shockingly) apparent. 32 of the 44 selected authors were not university/college educators (most listing jobs from fruit pickers to cab drivers to periodical editors), and not ONE mentions a prize even when they had certain accolades to gush about. A revealing contrast of priorities. Ok, to Johnstone’s preface. A few irks. First of all, describing prior poetry anthologies as taking “the country’s poetry to commercial heights” is more than a bit absurd, given how all presses are supported by government grants, not a plethora (alas) of monied readers. Also, noting that “as of 2016, a greater number of poetry books are being published on a yearly basis” than at any other time without directly tying this proliferation to an excess of MFA programs and the mode in which they function according to “first book frenzy” is irresponsible. Once more, the number means little, if not nil, in relation to a real readership. If every poet this country produces bought even one book a year, we poets might even make a tiny living off just publishing our works, but sadly that is not the case. Additionally, dubbing these poets members of the “selfie generation” is both insulting to my ear and misleading, given that a proportion represented here were born in the 60s or 70s and weren’t raised in that era. Last I heard, the selfie generation represents those who seek to “receive validation from others, and to be seen in a superficial sense,” (Chicago Tribune, May 22, 2018), those both narcissistic and generally lacking in self-esteem, and certainly not those are are “self-possessed and self-styled” as Johnstone states. Given such nasty implications, selfie isn’t a neologism I would toss around lightly.

I DO appreciate Johnstone’s emphasis on fluidities and multiplicities of form, voicings, and other approaches to the disorienting, ecstatic realms that Canadian poetry can inhabit. However, whether these poets, by supposedly detaching themselves from any particular adherence to place (and is this wise in our ecologically damaged times?) now travel “on [their] own terms” is debatable. Being anchored to social media modalities is likely even more constricting than remaining in the confines of a small town in the end. And the image of a “dance floor” full of a “flood of poets” determined to usher in a “new poetic consciousness” is nothing short of terrifying.

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But now to the poems (which presumably is why one would want to read a poetry anthology in the first place). Johnstone asserts that in the three years he spent compiling these poems that his selection altered frequently and that, eventually, only “half of [his] initial picks remained.”  I believe this attests to the speedy discarding we undertake in this literary culture, one that isn’t predicated on much lasting as legacy, and that poets craft their work less and less to be re-readable years on. So I’ll mention some poems I especially enjoyed and will almost certainly re-enter for a variety of reasons: Linda Besner’s Mornings with the Ove Glove for its irreverent, cheeky word play, Dani Couture’s Contact just for that initial wow line: “cloud cover like a badly made bed, ruched in sections, rushed,” followed by its staccato assertions of loneliness, Joe Denham’s luminously lucid Windstorm excerpts, The Goodnight Skirt by Raoul Fernandes, a gorgeous riposte poem between two poets for the dubious rights to inspirations from snowballs to love birds, Liz Howard’s masterfully solid stanzas in Euro – Anishinaabekwe – Noli Turbare that twist between history, science and emotion (“office plants all broad-leafed repositories for cognition’s patent heart. I’ve gone and been abominable”), pretty much all the Anne Wilkinson/Louise Bogan-esque lyrics Amanda Jernigan writes for their cadential tendernesses, Canisia Lubrin’s mysterious monologue Keepers of Paradise with its sublime last line: “Her ghostly algorithms translate these nights to bloom,” I Declared my Ethnicity by Nyla Matuk, a brilliant piece on identity, context and the sonorities of “in the dry-down…what a beautiful falsetto,” Sonya Peerbaye’s fantastic nightmares of the gorge/la gorge in Gorge Waterway in which court testimonies and sensual horrors mix with the variant lingual interpretations of one key word, James Pollocks’ deceptively simple Conditional, as resonant with memorable rhythms as Tennyson, and the superbly internally rhymed pseudo-reviews that constitute Catriona Wright’s hilarious Yelp Help. Eleven plus poems that stunned me in a range of ways. That I will undoubtedly return to. Others also of course. There are no utter duds in this anthology though definitely a few snoozers. But these pieces alone are worth the purchase price of The Next Wave. And it gave me a wish list for future poetry anthologies. In sum: a deeper justification for selection than mostly numbers and dates; a wider geographical net; briefer, less puffed-up bios; and please, please, little introductory essays that say something about why the editor believes these poems matter, not just for the seasonal now of the release, but onwards, into our lyrical future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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