Villa Negativa: A memoir in verse by Sharon McCartney (Biblioasis, 2021)

“But to walk naked is, of course, no guarantee of achievement in the arts….[some poems] are more compulsively concerned with the processes of psychoanalysis than with those of poetry” A. Alvarez on Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in The New Poetry, 1962.

Sharon McCartney’s seventh collection Villa Negativa (of course a play on the notion of the Via Negativa – that one cannot access god via his positive qualities as the state of being human is too flawed – so villa – an inhabiting though with resonances of holiday? temporality? exoticism? Somehow a villa is never where one permanently lives – to my mind at least), probably shouldn’t be subtitled “a memoir in verse.” Such a concept immediately conjures up Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate: a novel in verse, which is wholly in an iambic tetrametre rhyme scheme. Memoirs yes, three of them: one on difficult relationships with still-hard-to-give-up douche bags, one of a sister, horribly crippled both by a neurological disorder and a blandly incommunicado family, and the last of her own torturous childhood anorexia. But in verse? According to the dictionary (to which one must always return when words lose their resonance), verse is “writing arranged with a metrical rhythm, typically having a rhyme.”

McCartney has written exceedingly rhythmical poems (in For and Against, Hard Ass and Under the Abdominal Wall, among others) and this is one of the reasons she holds a place of high esteem in the Canadian poetry scene for me, and there are, without doubt, sounds in these pieces, from the repetitions of “alone, alone, oh to be alone,” in the first sequence “I am who I am”, to the eponymous words “agonal and preterminal,” among other medical jargon in the second section, to anorexia’s staccato ruptures in lines like: “It’s not lust. I do not want them./I want to be them. Flat. Sharp. /Clothes loose on my limbs./ [textual lacuna]/ It is lust” that punctuate the final narration. But verse? That word even has an old fashioned connotation and none of the work in Villa Negativa features old school modes of talking about any of this troubling subject matter in the present day, namely silence or possibly worse, platitudes. Verse sets up other kinds of expectations than this collection delivers. And does genre matter here anyway?

Even though I wouldn’t restrict Villa Negativa to terms like poetry, never mind verse, that doesn’t mean I didn’t find much to ummmm, nourish me in these pieces (minus the first and last toss-away lyrics, which are really just steamrolled sentences). Though there’s little to tap your toes to, there’s a ton to empathize over, rage against, or even pshaw in disdain towards, usually in the face of some sad sack male character. Echoes of Lynn Crosbie’s Lies and more distant ones of Sharon Olds’ general yen to truth-tell ring out in “I am not who I am,” albeit in a more sardonic, less sensual way. Beginning with the undeniable truth, “The urge to text is always there,” this piece follows such an acknowledgment by introducing the reader to the philandering fabricator and later, the sappy luthier and, as more tragic backdrop, the husband she left because she loved him too too much. It’s mostly a hoot to follow all these schmucks around (though I wanted to scream at the Sharon-persona a few times – why are you trying to find the luthier bearable? – yes I became irritated when struck by a former mirror – run, woman, run!) because McCartney provides a plethora of doors through which to enter the accounts: emails, notes on nature, texts, comments from friends, allusions to things read or listened to like Allan Watts or Bach and endless self-questionings. This knowledge of how to texture and pace a narrative is utterly key to the reader’s enjoyment. Crosbie’s account, by contrast, was simply too long, for one, to sustain engagement in the navel-tickling.

“Agonal and Preterminal,” the second piece, perfectly sketches a painful portrait of an era of institutionalization, medicalese and the hush of shame (“No one ever talks about it,/what has happened to our family”) and although the third sequence, “Anorexica,” is sparser (how apropos) and more prone to philosophical statement, it holds its own power, see-sawing between details of calorie-small food (“raw green cabbage…dill pickles”), rich images of her “rococo sundress” or porpoises that “fling themselves,” and admonitions from Sartre on the ineffability of desire.

I liked Villa Negativa‘s Don Coles or Robert Kroetsch style of pointed reportage. Though I was somewhat wary at times of what it wanted to call itself, its slippery positionings. But hey, it’s a villa, visit, don’t believe everything you’re told in the ad, enjoy the stuff that’s there, and go home to Casa Positiva again for awhile 😉

Standard

Keeping Count by M. Travis Lane (Gordon Hill Press, 2020

Before beginning, a wish. That we stop with the back cover blurbs that assess the poet’s work as either “stellar….life-altering…one of the greats…at the top of their game” or else as “underappreciated…she has received less attention than she deserves.” And etc. Neither are accurate as both assessments are time-bound and poetry is far from interested in either accolades or regrets. I personally discovered M. Travis Lane’s poems roaming around the library one rainy Saturday when I was in my late teens (it was Solid Things: Poems New and Selected) and have read her work off and on since. Such mysterious readers, random and faithful, are all we need desire as poets. This singular communication of music that sustains. And why would Lane’s poems: resonant but understated in the manner of Anne Marriot or Ralph Gustafson, PK Page or Margaret Avison, Jaan Kaplinski or Li Po, ever imagine the masses? Let’s allow the poems to breathe on their own, as they are, minus the hoopla, the relentless human urge to bumpf. We all know that laurels are fleeting and oblivion generally guaranteed beyond a generation. Or even a season, these days.

Ok, onwards.

Keeping Count is indeed Lane’s 18th collection, a gorgeously designed piece of Modernist geometry. She remains consistent to her visions: the natural elements (wind, river, birds), loss, the realities of aging, and solitude amid faint traces of earned weariness. The three sections: Inside, Outside and Way Out seem to somewhat overlap in locale and subject matter and the structure of the poems flows from fixed stanzas as in the four triadic lines of “No Dice” that concludes with a consonantal end-rhythmed line (cat/out) to looser ones rambling between randomly-lined revelations. They have a formal feel, some of them, (say “The Comfort that we Knew” with its rhymed couplets of grief/leaf and plain/again) or even an archaic one, diction-wise, as in the Tennysonian-imbued “The Rocking Chair in the Recovery Room” with its solemn quartet of final adjectives: “human, imperfect, injured and unkind,” amid words such as compassion and concepts of God, but none are precisely set forms, and most feature more taut and vivid language. I’ve long been drawn to Lane’s relationship with nature, from her direct familiarity with her cats (“Cat Davy and I were watching TV/hoping they’d show us something else/on Baffin”) to the views outside her window or on walks. Beautiful sounds abound then, as in “the river is clotted with scuttled ice,” the birds who “vanished into their vanishing” (there I hear echoes of Szymborska!), the fox’s return to its “wind-shagged den” and the chipmunks who look upon the speaker in a “conciergerie/who sit on my front doorstep as if I/were less important than a leaf.”

Pieces that feature people as their central subjects are less successful to my ear, though there are at least three stand-outs: “Live in HD” with its sharp descriptors of being in a mall where the “smell of rancid butter…/drenches the crowded atrium” in poignant contrast to the forest beyond and its “candled tufts of withered weeds,” the moving image of the widow in “For Ruth” who lets the “old cat lick [her] thighs” as she recalls her “husband’s weight” while drifting in the passage of time, and the nursing home poem in ragged parts, “Outside for an Hour” that potently and painfully evokes the patience, helplessness and quiet fury of a “geriatrician” whose wheelchair’s “stuck in the molting lawn” until she rings her “help bell.” I think, when I read Lane’s lifetime of poetry, of William Carlos William’s notion that it is difficult (as in not readily available, rather than inaccessible, content-wise) to get the news from poems but that people die miserably every day from having had no access to what poetry can reveal. Lane’s poems teach us to hear and see and to move with our true selves intact towards all of the inevitable ends.

Standard

Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020 by Paul Vermeersch (ECW, 2020)

First, I must express a little wince at being left off the list of poets who have shown “interest in these poems.” I think two reviews and the inclusion of a discussion of Vermeersch’s work in my essay on Elegiac Displacements & the Trans-Elegy in Contemporary Canadian Eco-Poems constitutes interest. But hey, I’m not from Toronto 😉

So, moving on as one must, how does one review not only a new and selected collection but one so determined to side-step, transcend and otherwise pooh-pooh the traditionally chronological approach to the genre? I think I’ll start by pasting in two of my prior elucidations of Vermeersch’s poems here and see if I still agree with them. The initial piece is from the above-mentioned essay:

“An even more powerful attempt at this unification process is Paul Vermeersch’s poem “Ape” from his 2010 book The Reinvention of the Human Hand. In three anaphoric segments, Vermeersch calls forth the ape in all its natural, commodified and brutalized guises, asking it to talk to us, to tell us what it has suffered and also, what it has rejoiced in. While mourning the fact that humans have slaughtered apes in “bushmeat trade & war zone” and tortured them in “research-centre sanctuaries with hoseable linoleum floors” (19-20), the speaker still asserts that these acts, though horrendous, do not have to mark a damning separation as in the one-sided conversation between Merwin and the grey whale from “For a Coming Extinction”. Instead, the poet calls humans and apes “family” and contrasts the “book” whose “black covers” hold, I imagine, all the world’s dark elegies, with the “stories” that can “make things closer,” their tales of balanced narration resorting to neither a “happily ever after” nor “the end is nigh” kinds of closure.”

Yes, “Ape” remains the most powerful poem Vermeersch has likely ever written, a Ginsburgian incantation, rawly emotional, vividly rupturing, a tripartite tragic yawp that remains major (as poems are but poets aren’t in the future’s sour dust).

And here’s another chunk of praiseful critique, this time from my review of Don’t Let it End Like This, Tell Them I Said Something (ECW 2014):

Vermeersch’s chorus of textual eidolons is manifestly inviting.  From the first section of the initial long poem, “Magog,” the voices drag you in exquisitely. With questions, with the delectable contrasts between the flattened demotic of “blankety blank” and the rare slang of “gungy,” with the sonnet structure, with traceries of myth and with the tone of romantic eco-despair in the last four assonantly-singing lines: “We dreamt they loved us; all was clover./But we woke to a cough, and the rude birds,/silky and distant in their aerial world,/were clearing their throats for no one.”  I also loved the shattered glosas in the section, The Toys of the Future Escape Me, the tangibly-garish Bernsteinian “prompts” like “Write the names of endangered species all over your body. Whenever a species goes extinct, surgically remove the corresponding body part,”  and many of the multi-media centos in Rubble, especially #4 and #10 (stronger than many lyrics these days likely because they are composed of what is essentially “best of” lines). And his stunning, self-led elegy in three parts, “I became like a wooden Ark. The lives of animals filled me.”  Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether poems are perceived as “self” or “other” produced. Not when they are as memorable as much of Vermeersch’s output. 

Indeed, re-reading these poems in their new re-formed texts within this collection I continue to feel moved by many, but am still essentially distrustful of the cento form, as compelling an experiment as it is. However, in a sense, this book is a massive cento of all of Vermeersch’s influences, ghosts, memories, planetary spheres, nightmares, and other stinging flotsam & jetsam of a wildly discursive, diverging and deadly mind. I personally didn’t need the word-laden Tysdal essay (or at least it could have been positioned at the end where the reader could have reflected on it in the post-leisure of entering the poems freshly) nor all the heavy blurbs on the back. It’s time to release poems into the world free from these baggages and let them sing in their own selves. If I want to read a poet, I will, gushes be damned. I ached to carve each of these combinative books out and suspend them in their quivering ectoplasmic melodies and visions as if on a mobile, watching how they stir separately and en masse.

That said, the only pieces that didn’t click with me were from Vermeersch’s The Fat Kid (2002), mostly because they are quite prosy and their endings often clunk, but I can see where they fit on the foundation of his work. Given my fascination with ecology and extinct species, for me the collection really started to re-cling to my cortex in the booklet, “Creatures of Another Ark,” featuring pieces from The Re-invention of the Human Hand (2010). “Another Ark,” the kick-off poem, is truly stunning in its quatrains of what is not, featuring delectable diction such as sarcophagi, manticore, constellation, scanning resonantly in its anaphora and Lear-echoed ending: “It is not the ark that will save you and all that you love. /No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. It is another ark.” The titular intro poem in the booklet “Required Modifications for the Transhuman” with its oracular opening line: “The next Earth will require more of us,” its Latinate word, chromatophores, that chimes against the simple Anglo-Saxon of skin, and the startling visual of the speaker being in “salamander” while “you’ll be/in bright cuttlefish,” is also tremulous, as is the stirring I Became like a Wooden Ark The Lives of Animals filled me with its nostalgic pangs of the era, 1973, when “the Age of Wood was in decline.”

The Imaginary World is Now Available in your Choice of Two or Three Dimensions too contains a range of wham-bam poems like the Acorn-response “I Feel Love: HI-NRG” (the collection features many pieces “after” this or that poet or other influence, a wonderful and essential gesture when interspersed with other non-tribute based works). Again, Vermeersch is at his most vital when he draws on the vatic voice, a rarity in Can-Po, utilizing repetition, anaphora, and the potent directive line. “I feel love in the repetition. I feel love in the/repetition of the myth” as he states in the above piece. Three Anthropomorphic Studies with its Ashberyian mojo is truly mind-blowing in its melding of visions. I adore the discombobulating concluding lines of 1. Duck Season: “Flying cars shimmer in the sunrise below us/and the satellites are pulling at the seas;” 2. Call me Coyote’s delectable sounds in “the saguaros are too green/for the angular, never-setting sun” ;and 3. Rabbit Season with its promise to “perform a slow libidinous rumba for your/lonesome aching heart.” The collection concludes with an array of Vermeersch’s light verse of which I am particularly fond of Little Fatso with his Doomsday Machine.

Risky variety is crucial, and if more comminglings like this existed perhaps we could overcome our obsession with the “first book” and how all should both evolve for the writer’s skills as they publish text after text and, at the same time, how so often their literary “reputation” stales after two releases as, well they’ve had their fifteen seconds, and we’re onto the next one, if not even as readers, but as gold star givers. Snooze. The cover of this hardcover (wow, still amazed) is wonderfully bright and goofy with its cyborg/cyclopian bunny and I wish there were a few reproductions of Vermeersch’s fantastical art within, like those found in Gary Barwin’s recent New and Selected. Without doubt, as with with the concocted Paid Advertisements at the back, this collection will indeed gift you with “Fuller, Stronger, Active Cranial Tentacles in Just 5 Minutes!” 🙂

Standard

Gary Barwin’s For it is a PLEASURE and a SURPRISE to Breathe: new & selected POEMS (Buckrider Books, 2019)

Rarely does a New & Selected come along that doesn’t feel like even a slight chore to read – either due to its unnecessary heftiness, or to the inclusion of obvious and banal juvenilia, but Barwin’s mondo tome is a sweet and easeful beast. This doesn’t mean I relished every poem/sound/visual that appears on these sleek pages, only that wow, is it a smooth read for so much divergence and variety, a generous feast of multiplicities rather than a slog.

“What happens when we open the barmy adore of words…?” Barwin asks in a later, uncollected poem, and he answers it in all his discombobulatory collections with a plethora of scales and syllables, lexical arrests, animalifications, slippery signifiers and plosive pronouns – a jazz-brained, tooth-scarred, Dada-O Hara-Cornell-Ashberian ragged escarpment of everything and the kitchen sink (or would that be the skitchen kink) too. The only unwieldy (at times) part of this New and Selected to read is the introduction by editor Alessandro Porco and not because it doesn’t offer most excellent facts, interpretations, and trajectories relating to Barwin’s life & work – mainly because I was chomping at that proverbial bit to read the pieces instead and would have preferred the placement of this essay to serve more the role of an illuminating postscript. Barwin is beyond explanation anyway. His stuff just is and if you need elaboration of the why prior you may not be his reader.

I first encountered Barwin through his collaboration with Derek Beaulieu, Frogments from the Frag Pond, their transformation of Basho, and it’s still my favourite of his books, emphasizing all the astonishing playfulness of the language-animal in imaginative reversals such as: “the pond leaps, surrounding the frog like a raincoat.” Ludic amusements are available in rampant assemblages throughout this collection, from a reprint of the early “phases of the harpsichord moon,” reproduced in its typewritten glory, to “Martin’s Idea,” prose chunks about a prescient talking dog, to a surreal and strangely emotional tale called “Defrosting Disney” in which Mickey Mouse is given a heart transplant with his maker’s ticker, the teller a “spelunker” of a surgeon, and the more profound absurdity of “Sesame Street’s Count is my Grandfather,” a perfect example of Barwin’s ability to expose Jewish forms of consciousness to those who come from alternate sensibilities, the Count “chanting the numbers….the empty chairs at the Seder” and the speaker reminding this humble puppet that “I see you, Count, a survivor.”

There are beautiful poems here amid lesser sillinessess like “Moon Baboon Canoe” ( I reviewed this book in 2014 and wasn’t a massive fan, but somehow these loopy moments make more essential sense when set amid the overall gist of Barwin’s oeuvre). Lovely pieces that stand out are the visual poems: “how i watched until the moon was caught in a tree,” a simple sequential sketch of letters, words and phrases becoming snagged on a line, as well as the baton-patterns of “Door Sonnet” and the coloured panel “Birch Murmur” where the M and U sounds meld with the dark bark slashes. Also, the six-part poem “Seedpod Microfiche,” a lullaby to minutiae and consciousness (“seedpod is the nape/of springtime on the map of trees”), “Needleminer” with its ghost blackbirds and delectable sentences such as “Like a suitcase marsh wren, adipose bulrush, like an occipital coffee/cup golf cart, a constellation of grackles,” and “Dark Matter Punctuation” that gives those silent marks an “erotic bleat of the saxophone” voicing. Powerful too are Barwin’s pieces for Carmel Purkis with its pitchforks and birds (“civilization”), for Kathryn Mockler where a nipple, twisted, opens up a compartment and “WTF inside me was hope” (“Combination”) and “Invisible Deer,” a melancholic yet funny paean to lost ecologies and aging, the speaker closing by running his “hands through cloud material” so he will know what it is “like to be old.”

Barwin is an irreducible force as a maker: musician, artist, poet, fabulist and all around bon vivant of being fully alive. This New & Selected presents the range of his energies in as zingy and vivid a way as possible upon the limited field of the page.

Standard

Miranda Pearson’s Rail (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019)

The simple place and emotion-based lyric is often dismissed or even disdained in this era when, if your poetry has no overt sexual, racial or other trendy engine behind its impetus, and such content isn’t rendered in complexified form, then it seems antiquated, irrelevant, too obvious for these mangled (and yes also emancipatory) times. A shame, mostly. I qualify this statement because it can appear thus – as if the lyric from a non-politicized perspective (though, of course, one could argue that the angle from which anything is examined is political – as one did in the 70s), is a now-tired tune, a side-stepping ditty of emptiness, a rococo so what. Miranda Pearson’s Rail only occasionally made me fall into that feeling and mainly when an ending trailed off as in “Degas Women,” whose promise felt curtailed or when a metaphor was super same old same old like “Magdalene” with its portrayal of personified trees with “boney fingers” and “wild grey hair.”

More often however, the compressed intensities and essential groundings of the lyric are evident in Pearson’s poems. And since when are depictions of nature, relationship, or aging passe? I certainly don’t want to live in a world, as Bertolt Brecht said,

“…when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors.”

The first poem, “Camber Sands,” plunges the reader into the collection’s overriding tone: a graceful melancholia, an elegant engagement with time and locale. I hear Patti Smith’s meanderings in M Train at the start of the piece: “the sand drifted on to our shores/and into the corners of the Kit-Kat cafe” and at the end’s return: “the beach grass and long-beaked curlew…the cafe boarded up for winter. /The sand.” Pearson rarely wows with her sounds but she does pursue a consistent and quiet music in words such as chevron, floe, chivalrous, hedgerows – some diction, invariably, “Kentish,” others derived from the Scots, like the strange term “Hentilagets,” meaning clumps of sheep’s wool. Rail is most potent when it offers the tightly honed lyric like the perfect “Fox” (of course reminiscent of but not imitative of Ted Hughes). In three exquisite quatrains it accurately describes the animal while accessing the residue of its mystery too in “Beauty you wish you could/touch but it breaks away,/a sprinter in cinnamon or rust…Over the green/contours of the field, /her supple canter. But silent,/silent. Answering the dark.” Yum!

As a half-Brit, the landscapes that Pearson sketches resonate with me, from Brighton to Whitby, these being her most powerful pieces, along with those that depict her mother’s quirks and eventual unraveling (especially the tender convolutions of what may be a last Scrabble game in “Stroke”) Also, the three part elaboration on a paint box that contains the startling concept of a friendship that is still able to “wick” and the stunning resonance of the final couplet – “Line, line – /I have forgotten how to feel sorrow.” Although I would have axed the sequence Abacus as it seemed clunky, a stumbly departure from the flow of the other poems (and also, I loathe math ;), the remainder of Rail, though not a fashionable railing against per se, is a strong and solid line through land and memory, giving the reader a reliable melody to live within.

Standard

James Lindsay’s Double Self-Portrait and Lauren Turner’s The Only Card in a Deck of Knives (Buckrider Books, 2020)

“Poetry is a lie/dummies insist is faithful” (Counter-Earth). I am nearly at the end of Lindsay’s second collection when I read the line that seems to sum this book up. Its tone anyway, possibly its underlying motivation. Sardonic, cynical, sly, bereft, gutted of hope. Or is it. Steeped in the abyss of Auden’s famed line: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Ahhhh but read on….”it survives in the valley of its making where executives would never want to tamper….a way of happening, a mouth” (In memory of W.B. Yeats). Essential detachments. Unique modes. Latent potencies. Not the void. Phew.

Lindsay’s assemblage begins with a piece that closes by quoting Donald Britton’s line: “It’s all a terrible lie” and, of course, as befits the Double Self-Portrait concept concludes with the titularly-eponymous poem (possibly the most compellingly “honest” piece in the book) that absorbs the Britton (who also recurs in the central poem, “Repro Ditto”) and spits out the regurgitated last line again: “especially since it’s all a terrible lie.” I get it. I do. But I must say it’s depressing, such bonging insistence on futility. Not in the way speaking of death or grief or even bloody accidents can be, but how listening to shoe gaze music is, or watching endlessly falling leaves that, instead of feeding the soil, instead sink into a bath of acid, or seeing someone staring blankly at a wall and when you ask if they are ok they mumble some incomprehensible response like, “Eating is control in a sport that rewards those who accrue transparency towards/the light source” (Mine Light). Say what? Anyone who knows me understands I’m obsessed with John Ashbery -who is often obscure, weird, opaque. But, somehow, there is always life-juice in his work, a bit of an underlying giggle or swoon, whereas many of Lindsay’s poems have already argued themselves out of traces of longing, echoes of fervency, as if having spiritus is simply gauche, uncool, maybe even irresponsible. Charles Simic once said, poetry is “an exchange of a particular kind of energy” and the transference here is dispirited, “this cold reading” (Survivors), full of drizzle and shadows and fucked-up Freud and shot Lorca and alone bodies. His passion for Jeff Wall’s art is, however, an omnipresent thread, giving this reader a sense of the potential jouissance lying in wait.

After all, I also reviewed Lindsay’s first book, Our Inland Sea (Wolsak & Wynn, 2015) and noted it was “intelligent, ironic, rueful, full of urban ennui.” All still true in Double Self-Portrait. But the jubilant word play has lessened, the lexical energy been a bit flat-lined. It’s still bouncing however in poems like The Revelry of Others (“I will forget to send them a Christmas card/and build a gilded guilt out of it. The worst the introvert heard/was an invite’s bing-binging, the doorbell’s ding donging”), the “ooooos and wooooos grew in intensity….the lake’s glass eczema whispering” (Oooos and Wooos), Travel and Leisure with its crucial lines “There are many poems about bees/failing to be bees in the liberal world/because of new chemicals and sound” or the essential repetitions of Stupid Machine with its sensory recollections of “What you are hearing….what you are smelling.” There are other poems that stir beyond the belly-button level anxiety of the excessively traversed ego and its discombobulated raiment, but I didn’t find enough to feel super yes about this collection. Well written, occasionally subtly funny (“Kiss me,/ I have opinions” Kiss Me, Man-Child), but too deep in the muck of the 21st century’s downer-wagon where the closures often drop you fast and “sarcasm’s shitty shield” (Between Wars) is all too frequently deployed.

*

The Only Card in a Deck of Knives, Lauren Taylor’s first, is equally brainy (though in an entirely different way – more to contextualize than quash) with overt admonishments (akin to Lindsay’s) that we readers should not entirely trust the narrator (though this feels more like an acknowledgement of fluidity rather than a doom-warning), as one should not rely on the body (so readily wounded, disabled, violated) as a permanently sustainable vehicle. Though the body is necessarily paramount when one has been rendered ultra-conscious of it due to a disease like LAM, an eventually fatal lung condition that is suffered, according to Google, by a “small percentage of women of childbearing age.” Turner doesn’t have the luxury to only write about the pastoral directnesses of “light, weather and nature” (Stop Bringing me Here) but must daily confront the oblique, insecure, trammelled and still potent bounds of flesh and its complex fucking, flawed love, medical incursions, maybe maternal yearnings and possibly a more imminent mortality than many. As with Julie McIssac’s erudite and erotic collection, We Like Feelings. We Are Serious. (Wolsak & Wynn, 2018), Turner’s book is also unafeared of those feared lexicons of cunt, cum, fuck, and nor does it recoil from such admissions like, “I am terrified I built my poetry on the backs of violent men.”

Turner got me from the get-go. The opening poem, Engaging the Core has taut, Latinate-dictioned, six-line stanzas, and lines that fuse emotion with biology: “Hieroglyphics of porous marrow/pocketed with secrets, your ferment indiscretions” and overt orders to the self: “This is your waltz. Sway to it.” With alternating literary traces of Plath, Lisa Robertson, Sexton, Chase Twichell, Karen Solie and Robin Richardson, this startlingly titled book with its primary reds of scratcher-tats cover is an exegesis of everything the flesh codifies or doesn’t in its feminized erosions and triumphs. Between Push and Shove unpacks with an elegant, understated vitriol what a woman “should be” – “A woman should dress like a window to be impressive but not one to look through.” Further, the prosy accounts of Appendix 1 Quit Dying to Die are unyielding in their peelings back of the veneers of bulimia, addiction, mental illness, tumours (“Always there’s this difficulty of occupying a body”). Violence against women rears up in many pieces like Rooted too Long in a Single Spot, a poem that recollects the murder of Kitty Genovese and expresses regret for the misuse of such survivor terms as “brave, or traumatized, or broken,” concluding in the most powerfully ironic line in the book – “I could plead for better, but you know I can’t speak.” Then too, there’s the chunk of textbook scenarios divided by italicized segments on X that comprise A Masculine Division and which provide a stirring critique of a medical system that has long ignored female pain, hystericized it, invisibilized it, drawing on the tragedy of murdered artist Ana Mendieta to exemplify how often we are instructed to step over blood: “No man is permitted to weigh my bodily trauma by his lack of empathy.” TRUE! Heavy stuff, that’s right, and this is perfectly okay, adult readers, as mostly the intuitive tweakings of diction and form keep it all palatable as art first. Tenuous balance that fusion of craft and saying core things and more often than not, Turner manages to turn the body’s burdens into transcendences of sonority that both mean (to argue against Archibald Leich’s proposition in Ars Poetica) AND be.

Standard

Moving to Climate Change Hours by Ross Belot (Wolsak & Wynn/James Street North Books, 2020)

Before I review this worthwhile collection, I must again express my near-revulsion these days with 1. excessive blurbs (to wit, Anne Simpson on the back jacket gushing in clicheed fashion that this is a “remarkable book, revealing a poet at the height of their craft.” First off, how many danged blurbs sound like this and secondly, this is Belot’s second book – if he’s at the height of his craft, the only way to go is down. So. No. Let blurbs be brief overviews of “what you will find inside” and not spewings of empty verbiage) and 2. endless acknowledgments thanking everything including the kitchen sink for their assistance in the book’s publication (was it committee-written?) and notes telling us redundant stuff, say that poems are forms they aren’t really (does a “true” haibun ever end with a tanka instead of a haiku?) or that these pieces were finalists for a boring corporate award. Even if I adore the book, such blah blah blah makes me recoil a little from it. How unfortunate that these types of emptiness are so prevalent and accepted.

That said, now to launch a greyed paean to the book itself, a tangible, genuine ode to the end of oil-based industry (a locus where the author once worked, thereby lending his poems extra gravitas). With a similar impetus as that behind Tom Wayman’s work poems (or, more currently Rob Colman or David Martin), ie. an exposing of the contradictions in traditionally male modes of employment, vilifying them a bit in relation to their combinative damages but also deeming such roles at least the remnants of heroic gender markers, Belot composes direct invectives like First Day, a piece on the Gulf oil refinery (“the skin of one/absorbed acid and it ate his bones….do the right thing, be a good boy/come home safe/ten thousand more times) or the modified pantoum on the Exxon explosion (“shut in the oil/And they could wrap that place in a shroud/Our warming planet would thank us all”). He also writes laments for friends who have committed suicide, and lyrics haunted by the lucid beauties of nature (from my favourite poem in the book – not surprisingly – Cat Catcher – on how felines are essentially “staring unblinking/licking a paw with [a] tiny/pink diamond tongue” to the “sanderling/[that] avoids the clamouring surf” in On a Beach, another interpretive haibun that confronts clichee, the infinite, love and all the hyperconsciousness we writers are supposed to have of the “rules.”) In these pieces, I hear the seeming simplicity of Gary Snyder’s entrees into how the crow, the ocean, the mountains can render us texts, in essence, of both knowing and unknowing.

I very much like how Belot constantly shakes up his lingual structures, sometimes tossing in a mucked-with form, then lineating skinny, stretching his prosy arms, scoring slashes, shaping triplets, slotting in a few dark photos. In this manner, the eye never grows lazy and the mind can stay alert to what Belot is eager to convey: the answer to “Should anyone ask for more?” as his friend Michael emphasizes in “After the Movie,” to which the answer, of course, is: “Yes…/they can and fucking well should.”

Standard

Cephalopography 2.0 by Rasiqra Revulva (Buckrider Books, 2020)

Usually, I find writing reviews about essentially performance-based texts tough as they lose so much of their resonance on the page. Even bill bissett with all his typographical innovations is better heard, and the music and meaning absorbed through that channel rather than sitting quietly down with his books. But Rasiqra Revulva’s work is a feast for so many senses that I felt reading these transcripts in a text was at least one of the necessary ways I could engage her multiple energies. Part of this was her use of the overarching, tentacled symbol-entity of the octopi-squid-ammonite that serves as a weird kind of watery grounding for everything she manifests in this collection; another echo-anchor drawing me in was how she messes with forms (not often the case with spoken word artists) from the ghazal to the villanelle, re-charging them with spurts of Arabic as in Nautilidaeism (“nacreous, chambered isolation/ya mawlana antas-salam/buoyant in bondage,/wa minkas-salam“) with salam serving as the radif/repeating word, or with bursts of scientific diction as in “Free the Niqabi!” whose triplet stanzas circle the misunderstood conditions of religious & gendered garb with the recurring lines: “Derided as weak, compliant, forlorn -” and “Inhaled through my siphon; exhaled transformed” along with words like phragmocone, viridian and spirula. These pieces by Revulva called to mind echoes of Sylvia Legris’s amazing book Nerve Squall along with the erotic slippages of Daphne Marlatt’s Touch to My Tongue. As in Legris’s book, though even more prevalent an integral element, Revulva’s illustrations, formed by recreating poem-fragments as paintings and then glitching their hex code so they become a process of “reverse ekphrasis”, make this publication a constant inhabitation of eye, along with ear and mind. The strongest pieces on the page are Manifest Destiny (“Moist sepia. With prismatic/tissue puckering into coarse, beige papillae, the flamboyant cuttlefish takes her first steps”), Breeding Grounds: Lophelia (“unseen between her legs/glistening against matted peach fibres, lies/a single faceless garnet/that will never blanch in sunlight”) and The Octopus Complex (“love was the knife/how poetry, the floating science”), along with the prior two pieces mentioned.

Revulva lost me at the end with her interactive array of word searches and crossword puzzles (my poor lil cortex finds these as complex as physics or algebra and desists, though continues to admire those whose brains are game for such intricate gamings and possibly, as John Ashbery says, with Revulva’s entrees into this genre: “Games were made to seem like that: the raw fruit, bleeding.”) Cephalopography 2.0 is indeed a nautical, ecoesque, diasporic, queered cornucopia of WTF and WOW, full of lingual flotsam, obsession’s residue, chiastic visuals, twisted forms and performative manglings. Those who’ve heard her perform with The Data Bats have been ruptured, and as one audience member told me, “The book should be taken to be organic and loop like waves or currents as during the live performances she distorts her voice to create undersea sensations.” Hey, I love creators who take risks and though I may not be able to enter-entertain all these experiments, kudos to taking metaphor and longing to their limits and to finding a publisher who can inhabit possible transcriptions of these mystical-ink-driven liquidities.

Standard

Orrery by Donna Kane (Harbour Publishing, 2020)

Orrery – the word means a model of the solar system, but the sound conveys even more mysterious potency: gold, pride, exoticism, awkwardness, the unknown. It’s a compelling symbol – the American space probe – Pioneer 10- launched in 1972 and retired in 2003 – for our human fascination with the mechanical, the celestial, and also a testament to our recklessness, our confusions, all the layers of our materiality, our emptiness. Donna Kane writes within the knowledge of how the slightest shifts of wings engage fate, or the stirring of horses alters the lupines (Intrusion), the hovering wasp shudders the parsley (Tasseography). As Simone Weil said (an apropos quotation for Kane who uses the word soul several times in Orrery), “Attention is the soul of prayer”. Beyond the ostensible subject focus of the space probe’s journeys, Kane’s overarching aim is connection, to show how, as is the case with an actual orrery, everything orbits around everything else; we all exist within each other’s tremors.

Kane is a modern metaphysical poet, a fusion of a paganized Donne and a slighter Eiseley, her researched obsession with the space probe serving up unique conceits that attach her even more intimately to earth and its delicate, tenuous, intense processes. Orrery has a bit of a slow, too-thinly-sketched start but by the funny irony of “Depiction of a Man and a Woman on the Pioneer 10 Space Probe Plaque” (a drawing that is featured later on in the book – but why not here?), one is ready to delve into the how the absurdities of space travel can collide with our fear of what vaginal clefts could signify. Kane, though she doesn’t write much in codified forms, has a sharp feel for the line break, the stanza’s sensibilities and the singing hinge of internal rhymes. This piece, with its three nine-line stanzas and final snap of a closing zinger – “It hopes you will understand,” succeeds not only on the basis of its image depiction but also due to its perfectly paced tone and resonance. Listen to these lines: “If a representation of a man with a penis/and a woman without a vagina/is hurtling at twenty clicks a second/away from Earth and makes contact/with an alien who thinks/just as we do,/so admires the woman’s hairdo…” The surreal melds with the strange then collides with the familiar, the do/hairdo echo snapping it all together with crisp diction and conversational gestures. And the reader can’t help but be present.

“Eulogy for Analog” is even more of an aural feast: “Out with the rumble, tortillas of vinyl,/in with the jitter, the flickering screen,/the click click click of a digital riff.” Here Kane demonstrates the tangibilities of sound, how materiality can be conveyed by all of the senses, and how withdrawals of aurality emphasize situations of loss. Other energetic entrees in this first section are “The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You,” “Space Shuttle Columbia,” and “On the Material World” where the orrery twists into the quotidian representation of “an egg, an orange and a flashlight.” Good as these pieces are, I found myself relishing more of the poems in the second and third parts, perhaps because I warm more readily to earthy substance. And Kane is such a meticulous observer of the multiplicitous nature of existence. How we can be so full of conflicts, aware of the “smoke…the guy who threw a wad of green duct tape” on the ground yet still enjoy “happy hour” (Vancouver, August 2018); how one can continue to like and even mourn a person who ditches empties and shoots birds (Magpies); how the eater and the eaten become each other’s inner and outer in the act of being con(Heron and Fish).

I feel especially fond of the delicious blues-smooshiness of “Fungus Love” (“let me be your honey-tuft, your candlesnuff/your pom-pom, tinder, hoof”) that concludes in an essential praise of death as a form of “mycorrhizal” desire, and “Horse Chestnut,” a poem that takes simile into the stratosphere of gobstoppers, Bing Crosby’s sound waves, candied cherry and ends with the innocent-wise order to “Hold the chestnut to your/ cheek – the coolness you feel is your own heat vanishing.” Although a few poems seem unfinished bits towards a thought, wrapped up too pat like “Antlers” which closes with the abrupt histrionics of “re-prong/or I will die,” the honed lyrics in Orrery feel mostly like genuine, real, human movements of awe and listening in the face of space and death and biology and time. And this, as a pursuit, constitutes the necessary core of poetry.

Standard

Arleen Pare’s Earle Street (Talon Books, 2020)

Another poet and I were chatting recently about the seemingly acceptable preponderance of poetry books out whose poems don’t even attend slightly to sound, their particular lingual occasion, but flatten out on the page like scared mutts, riddled with what he dubbed “slouch words” or tonal flaccidities in the form of “limp language, vapid verbs, nothing nouns.” So when a writer blurbs on the back of a text that I will lose myself in the “sheer pleasure of language” I instantly imagine a true attention will be paid to words and their endless, intricate musics. Arleen Pare’s Earle Street (o the cutest green sketch of a domestic cover!), with its plethora of reiterative found poems (from an email: “what are you doing my neighbour shouted and the guy left/ I phoned the police they came but they didn’t catch them”) and plain-spoken, tell-it-like-it-is lyrics (“Somebody said somebody poisoned somebody’s dog/Thirteen years ago. Maybe more/The dog barked all day./Sometimes at night” or “Just that one rat/Alone. Starved maybe/or struck in the street some hour of night/making for the neighbour’s backyard/Too fast or too slow”) does not appear to have that focal aim. But what is its intent? Well the structure and gist of it fascinate from the first.

Each of the four sections begin with the titular divider: “This street is” followed by the compelling specificities of river, arboretum, window and then the generality of world. I like the hominess of focus, akin to William Stafford’s window poems or even Lisa Robertson’s brilliant The Weather, an un-peeling of the simple complexities of the known/unknowable in the every day quotidian. Pare is engaged by the neighbours, so-called vermin, birds, rain, loss and love but the central motif is the wondrous Katsura tree, addressed (even invoked!) humanly in resonant haibuns. Of these the most potent are Niece I and II for their redolent sensory details, leaves “burnt to caramel corn” and a “pale fringe, jade-coloured” or “bark the colour of a barred owl” and their lingering grief in the culminating haikus where “day ripens/to black” (though I’m not as convinced by the paired haiku where “ice jackknives/ruts winter streets” which sounds like a semi-clumsy attempt to subvert the cliche of ice like knives), and “Everyone Wants to Change the World But How Many Help Their Neighbours,” a piece that jumps adeptly from the beloved tree to helplessness in the face of the homeless, the contrasts between “sweet rounded leaves” and the cement that “hardens with age” followed by the quick flit to the hummingbird haiku with its “speed” and “impermanence.”

Less powerful are the poems on crows, so ubiquitous on the West Coast as to be nigh-impossible to re-charge as a source of poetic energy, a black crow flying as flatlined in the mind now as “my love is like a red red rose.” Not sure whether kudos or groans should be doled out for any poet attempting the crow’s revivification. As Pare notes: “being common does not protect the crow/from being hallmark cliche” though it is actually their commonness that plonks them solidly in the cliche pot from which they will have to thrash wildly to stir from. It’s a shame of course as crows are such a vital part of our psyches, but wow does it take work to break them out of their blahs as images or symbols and “come the crows come the crows come/their song” doesn’t cut it for this reader (and do crows ever, really, sing?)

Pieces that will linger from Earle Street for me, continuing to trail through my mind like the architecture of a flower’s scent, are “Key-Shaped, the Shadow,” which calls to mind PK Page’s poem about the woman on the can of Dutch Cleanser (A Backwards Journey), her picture repeating until it seems this “tiny image/could smash the atom of space and time,” in the way Pare’s Escher-representations of reality unfold: “To build a house, start from the centre of the second-floor bedroom” and “Start from the inside….as though building from inside a seed.” Also memorable, poems whose sounds do coalesce pleasurably as in “The Light in this Diurnal” with its lines “the sill/silted with fine off-white dust….a primary series to foil these unprismatic days” or “In the 4 am,” the most rhythmical poem in Earle Street, with its evocations of achieved or promised outdoor lovemaking in “felled funnels of wet” or on “blankets in sacks for the snow/to press warming dents under boughs.” And although I wouldn’t say Pare’s endings are regularly triumphant, the last poem on leavings is a strong litany of farewells to neighbours and their animals, concluding with the weirdly apt image of her long-dead mother who “sometimes now….un-dyes her hair.”

Earle Street is a lovely read, and vital in its evocations of re-rooting oneself in a place in later life (usually a challenging feat!), though for Pare’s most essential title I would turn to He Leaves His Face in the Funeral Car. In a 2015 interview with Plenitude magazine, Pare comments that she writes, “when ideas come.” Her ideas ARE provoking and necessary, but I’m hoping for her next collection she lets things simmer a little longer, until more music arrives.

Standard