Waters Remembered (espresso, 2015)

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

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


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

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


Two from Buckrider 2016: Skibsrud and Harrison

First off, gorgeous books, design-wise, with stark-oceanic palettes, elegant fonts, and clever typography (the word “poems” lodged between girders or washing into a wave, the waves motif, in Harrison, echoed upon the textured papers). Such attentiveness to the book as intimate object d’art always increases the likelihood that my mind will yield more readily to its contents. Which was a necessary oomph for me in the case of Johanna Skibsrud whose poetry, initially, I find dry, long-winded, philosophically obese and otherwise lacking in an ear. The Description of the World is a sleeper, however, creeping up on this reader with its questings, and though I would almost have preferred this collection to have been meditative essays, ala Mary Ruefle, instead of a Jan Zwicky/Anne Compton-esque combo infused with extra didactic attar, I was gradually reeled in by the way Skibsrud turns so much scholarship (evidenced, perhaps excessively so, by the copious end notes) into distillations of mood, tones, tracings of ponderings in a de Chirico-sharp landscape.


While allusions to Neruda or Maestro Bartolome serve as direct sources, others, as in the pieces inflected by Lacan or Gorky or Turner, submerge their original inspiration in Skibsrud’s unique ability to draw out core statements, even truths, from these seeds like: “The eye, then, a longing,” or “they will dream that/they are trees, bearing only emptiness between them,” or “one wants to be split by love; made monstrous.” She certainly isn’t afraid of words such as soul, heart, faith, reason, desire. Which I can admire. If these abstractions are conjoined to the concrete (descriptor, emotive force) to compel the senses and gut along with the mind, then they can ring out powerfully as they do in the fish and banana stands, skull and trees of the stirring piece, “They will take my Island” or in “White Water Draw” where the reader is enabled to anchor herself in the particulars of a birthday, a baby, birds, before the poem unfolds, alternately expanding and dwindling, into the pedantic weight of “perhaps life itself occurs in this way…from what is visible and known…to the invisible motives and directions…into a moment of which we can only say afterward that it might never have arrived” etc and so forth. If not, we get tracts like “Hunters in the Snow” or “To be Born is the Supreme Loneliness” which almost reads like a cerebral Hallmark card: “To be born is to long, suddenly, to be born again…to be born is to discover and become one’s own limit.” All right and good but lacking in the viscerality and the rhythmical that poetry needs to become impactful, and singing. The Description of the World rather falls apart as an assemblage of poems to me, but nonetheless opens wide essential vistas in the brain where thought is suffused with both deep attention and tenderness.


“Within sight of the paradise/on the other side of criticism” reads one line in Richard Harrison’s poem, “The Golden Age” and, well, he’s almost going to receive his wish in this review, not because I’m proffering innocent gush here, but because my admiration of this collection stems from a widely-read and thus often demanding or discerning (and even at times cynical) set of personal tastes/predilections. Elegies for a father are not a new approach to poetry (Olds, Hall, Bly come instantly to mind), but Harrison’s book again underscores how it is the treatment of the subject in tone and form and the silences between that matters in vivifying material. Although there are also poems about the Alberta flood, his still-erotically engaged love for his wife and enjoying Slinkies and dinosaurs and Captain America films with his son, Harrison’s father’s illness, dementia, death and poetic afterlife are the waters on which this textual ship sails.

Perhaps the fact that his father loved and recited poetry and so the father/son bond existed on a possibly richer level than many, makes pieces like “This Son of York”, “Greatness”, “With the Dying of the Light,” “Spoken Word,” “Archive,” and the titular poem severely stirring. The warmth between them is tautly palpable as they utter Dylan Thomas together, even though the father’s voice is now the “soft song of sickened lungs.” And Harrison’s metaphors are not only often original but truly grounded in contextual appropriateness, as in the image of his dad’s “hands locked into each other like power shovels/tipped into the posture of the day’s last work” or even when he describes the teensy arms of the Tyrannosaurus Rex as resembling “the penis of a naked man in profile.” Manly vulnerabilities indeed. Three poems in a row actually made me catch my breathing; I felt that Dickinsonian ice and then even teared up, all signs of a rare submersion for me. Moving from “When: A love poem, ” where a middle-aged man finds he has become a flawed and wholly-adored muse who is finally able to give: “the weakness of [his] arms/the fold below [his] chin, the never smooth-again lines” to “Jack Kirby”, a piece that hunkers down inside a child’s connection to art when he was “young [and] nothing had died,” to “Superman”, a startling description of a dementia in which a person never feels full, his midnight father “opening and reopening the Arctic door of his insatiable want” while remaining his grown son’s hero, serves up a trajectory of key feelings embedded within solid lyrics sure of their measured line breaks.


On Not Losing my Father’s Ashes in the Flood, a book where only the political pieces are weaker, lapses arriving mostly when the authorial voice turns a little too self-consciously “poemy”, is a sequence threaded through with revelations like: “I need words close, as though I matter to them,/even though I don’t”, the dead father seen mourning his living son’s loss and the dying father becoming akin to a poem, his final act of grace, through which one can see “love in a new light.” Harrison has certainly delivered true infant gleamings of awe and sorrow in what is undoubtedly among the most searing poetry collections of 2016.


Two from Mansfield (2016): Brockwell & Strimas

Both exotic with research and its eccentric dictions and pedantic with the typicals of existence, from home renos to his mother’s arthritis and from bacon production to yes, death, Stephen Brockwell’s fusion-voice is an unusual one in CanPo, highly intelligent and deprecating of certainties, its tones equal parts professorial and buffoon-esque. Wallace Stevens’ ghost wavers through Brockwell’s eloquently-cerebral surrealisms (a baby fitting like a “chemical bible” on a lap, “a spider diagram of tongues,” “one grain in a haboob” scratching your cornea), commingled with tasty words like zonked, ossicles, contraindications (ok that one’s not so delectable), catadromous, stanchion and ineluctable.


Although they can sag into wordiness, I’m particularly fond of his list-style poems such as “The Location of Culture” which enacts a fabulous litany of arcane and quotidian sites of human creation from “Across Coltrane’s reed” to “Inside shelves installed in his dresser drawers, we found/the alphabetized complete works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey,” or “Wednesday Morning, 3 am”, which repeats the phrase “nothing more silencing” in a variety of innovative ways, Brockwell’s adept syntax pacing the revelations out so the ear rarely grows weary. Even in poems that otherwise slump into “huh?” like “Cable News Briefing,” his list bits are potent, as if repetition were Brockwell’s Virgil.

His “Biography of my my Mother’s Ashes” is a brilliant distanciation from grief through the aegis of the selfie and the recursive motif of leafing through a virtual album full of photos no one would usually take: ” And here is a snapshot of her ashes/in the urn. Morbid? Sure. But I’ve always/wondered what cremated remains look like/before they’re scattered. Similar, I’d say/to weeks of stubbed-out cigarette ashes/from one of her scorched porcelain ashtrays.” The assonance in urn/sure along with scorched/porcelain and the rhyme in say/trays leashes the sound and thus tautens the imagery to a vision both poignant & absurd. Yes there are silly moments in the collection All of us, reticent, here, together that fall flat-footed into the mind like tepid mashed potatoes in an overflowing bowl, but Brockwell persistently creates a poetry that makes one ponder with an inner wink the weird and heartbreaking universe where one can only, at long last, “hope to be mistaken for soil by seedling pines.”


A classic Stuart Ross book (and yes I will miss his imprint, these being his final titles), Yes or Nope by Meaghan Strimas takes on an overall flippant or glib tone in order to access the black humour in everyday acts of parenting, relationships and gender tussles. More often than not, Strimas, like a latter day Pam Ayres or Stevie Smith, diddles our funny bone to remind us all is relatively tragic, if we can read beneath the “Vacay-cay” and “Baby Duck” to the willed blindness of women to ineffectual or even repulsive men, and children enticed to fellatio by the promise of a chocolate bunny “tricked out in cellophane.” Many poems, however, like “He Follows her on his Scooter or Mother of all Devotion” or “It’s Okay/Standards” are much slighter and give me that “so what” shrug, though one can suppose they were included to provide texture so everything doesn’t sink into the humorous doom mire.

While beginnings (including her quirky titles) are regularly loaded with goofy aural spunk such as, “Dog! Here he be, the escapee/who’s leaking pee as he tears up/the green,” endings often kaplunk into banal utterance, as in “Inside these fences,/there’s freedom to be found,” as if a zippy engine were revved up promisingly and then after a bit of a wonky scoot, sputtered out. Again, this mode could be read as a kind of balance, but for my ear, such endings were more of a let-down. Yet a poem like “Butterfly Unit Two: Goodbye” shows just how poignant Strimas can be when she drops the bozo-pose a little and composes a suitably long skinny piece about laying out deceased butterflies: “one by one/beneath/the base/of the oldest/tree, where/from a distance/they looked/like fallen leaves.” Not a mind-blowing image but still a tremendously moving one. With traces, at its best, of Frank O’Hara or Elizabeth Bachinsky, Yes or Nope presents a poetic world in which pain has been assimilated into the ludicrous and daily, the “ham & cheese pinwheels with the pimento spread” laid upon a tablecloth made of “brown trousers stiff/with food and piss.” Yummy or Icky 🙂




Time Slip by John Oughton

I’ve been thinking a little about the sentimental lately, what it means, why it’s resisted, and even shunned, by our contemporary literary climate, and at the same time, in re-reading May Sarton’s biography, realizing again that this debate between the emotional core of art and the supposedly detached intelligent froideur that Eliot, among others, advanced has gone on (though the sides have since fiercified) for some time. Sarton, after her second book came out in 1939, was accused of “flagrantly unfashionable lyricism” and of criminally eschewing “smart despair.” Though I adore (and poetry requires) precise, taut language, still, why can’t this essential aspect be combined with feeling? One can become quite wearied by perfectly honed books emerging from creative writing or academic realms that can’t be faulted for their learned craft (which doesn’t necessarily entail a real knowledge of forms say) but that are aloof, distanciated and snobby in tone to the point where you just want to shake them and scream, “O bleed a little outside your line breaks will ya!” 😉

John Oughton’s book Time Slip emerged in 2010 and we are currently exchanging reviews of each other’s books (mine, short stories and sliver fictions called The Day of the Dead, was recently published by Caitlin Press). Reviewing one another, as I have ranted on about before, is crucial. If one is able to be honest in a scholarly and felt fashion that is, keeping the poetic art paramount. I must say, off the top, that the design of this Selected material from Oughton’s four books (1973-1997 plus new works) is disappointing. The cover image of an ice-heavy tree by the water is startling but the shiny stock and font makes it all look self-published. One expects more from Guernica. Selecteds are challenging. Which to choose, what to leave behind and what if, like Oughton, one has published both random texts and focused ones, as in his collection on Mata Hari. His introduction to the work thus underscores the often-motley modes of publication we possess in this country, its odd affiliations and liminal excursions into the international.


There were a few jarring aspects to Oughton’s tendency to space strangely and incorporate disjointed abstract imagery, along with his avoidance of terminal periods, that gave me pause at first, but I got used to his style quite quickly and began to appreciate his moving lyricism. Lines and descriptors stir like “the scar the train/stitches over moving white drifts” (though he could have ended the poem there and really does one stitch a scar or a wound?), “dew jewelled,”the sound in the heart of a large stone,” “she is a flame from which the candle wanes” (a nice reversal!), “rides that horse through shifting shadows/in a forest afternoon forever,” the poignant moment from Xmas Pageant, 1961, in which exist “teen-aged wise men/with boxes of empty promise” or that pang of dead skunk he addresses: “you cling/to me still, like the sweet inside your stink/your midnight dancer’s grace.” Pieces that leapt out for me were Lady’s Fan Poem, Depression (a rare excavation by a male poet), For my Dead Sister, quite a few of his Mata Hari pieces, especially in lines such as, “I’m a figurehead who quit her ship” (though at times it seems a voice interpolates that is less hers than the authors, as in “fuck the family, fuck the past,”) and the above-mentioned titles, in addition to Leaving the Cape and Long Reach: Thanksgiving, 2000.

Oughton can certainly go over the top in absurd images, like the Latin lover with “his ghost’s hand” that is “stuck so deep in your heart/that he flips it away like a pizza.” Hmmm, organ(ic) crust anyone?  And he can be quite silly in poems such as the chuckle-poignant “John Gone,” or “I’m in Love with my Hoover,” which attains a Pam Ayres haha.

Yet I find I like this about his work too. Because so few of the newer “breed” of poets risk such humour, unless it’s of the dry, ironic, in-club kind. I suspect his book would seem like a bit of a leaping puppy to them, tongue lolling over the beauty of the world, but I prefer this any day. It’s loyal.






Sharpest Tooth: a chapbook by Aidan Chafe (Anstruther Press, 2016)

Sharpest Tooth is a beautiful little realm of a chapbook whose cover painting of multitudinous birds in flight from a fox’s maw was designed by none other than my close art-friend Jenny Keith! Such a small world. I don’t often review chapbooks (mostly as they are rarely sent to me it seems) but Chafe utilizes this genre (let’s call it one rather than a format) perfectly, the poems appearing both as individuated, stand-alone pieces (for the most part) and as varied fragments that unfold the twists of a sinister fairy tale where humans get shot accidentally in lieu of deer, depression’s suicides tremble on a family’s margins and a wolf prowls internal forests. Chafe tries on a range of forms and modes to inhabit this necessarily claustrophobic subject matter. I can hear Merwin in Allegory’s repetitions: “Too many guns in the city/too many deer getting killed,” Carson or Hughes in Foxhole Diary: “Crimson coat. Autumn thistle. Burrow ghost.” (my favourite poem in the book by the way), and Webb in Traitorspotting: “if/you outrun/the wolf,/but your/heart/overcomes/you.” This is not to say the poems are derivative but that Chafe is at the stage where he is donning and casting off styles, perhaps deliberately in order to more deeply enter his touchstone images/symbols (deer, wolf, light, ghosts, forests, knives). He certainly begins potently with a jarring shift from a news story to a Choose your Own Adventure structure (“to blur the lines, turn to Page 3”), continues engagingly with a dark focus, and, I only wish, concluded with a bit more of a pow. But that just shows you how snagged I was as a reader by the hauntingly rhythmical environment of nightmares Chafe creates.


20160731-IMG_0980 Canvas 26x10.jpg




Ashley-Elizabeth Best’s Slow States of Collapse (ECW 2016)


First books are challenging to review. They don’t thus far exist in a particular context within an author’s oeuvre and they are often (especially in this era of pump-em-out MFA programs) over-heralded by a strangely sycophantic system that feeds on newness as if each released collection of poems were the next “miraculous” instantiation of an iPhone.

As a reviewer, one wants to be honest and yet, aware that the newly published poet is usually fragile, never cruel, and then too, not patronizingly (and disrespectfully, as far as I’m concerned) saccharine either. I don’t write blurbs; I aim to compose thoughtful critiques grounded in my many decades of reading poetry and in the recognition of both aural pleasures and lax slips into cliche, abstractions, mixed metaphors or issues with line breaks or form.

Slow States of Collapse offers plenty of such poetic boon and bane.

First, the latter, a difficult but essential pointing out of a range of lingual issues that exist in the book, perhaps, one could argue, to underline the author’s frequently dissociative relationship with her physicality or family, or possibly, because too little editorial discernment was applied to cliches like “the braille of her spine” (I know it’s a cliche as I used it in my first book – shame on me :), “shrug each other off” , “spindly trees” or much more prevalent, disjointed metaphors such as a “branch’s embrace,” the “blade of his love snakes”, “tight wounds listening”, “I strum these chunks irregular”, “rubble of his pleasure hardening,” “the sluice of hollow spaces postures me,” “the bright bush jumps,” “tumbled bones snarled,” the “earth clasps the wind,” and “the sky chortles, flings its wrecked hold.” This tactic is so consistent though, I can’t help but feel such jarrings are deliberate, this loosening of sense-making between noun and verb. It certainly serves to convey an alienated state. And yet.

More of an issue, if one accepts this tendency as stylistic or fused to the occasionally harsh subject matter in which abandonment of various sorts predominates, are the abstractions or pathetic fallacies, say “the churches of his tears,” or “the tooth of time.” Such constructions rarely get to the guts of anything. They are, simply put, lazy, short cuts, dead ends.


Fortunately, although there are few poems unmarred to a certain extent by these tendencies, Best is able to see and hear the world in a unique mode or voicing, and this ability gestures towards her potential as a poet, one who may even come to ring out as mysteriously and compellingly as a Theodore Roethke or Elizabeth Bishop. Delectable diction laces the collection: hunkered, puckered, vector, jargon, rutilant, imperious, adnexal, palatial, sibilant, exculpate (though it’s overdone in this particular line in combination with friable), sententious and gambit. The initial stanza of “Looking out for No one” epitomizes Best’s promising “honeability”:

“The rutilant moon ascends the earth’s/progression of loss. His car drones onto/Wicklow Beach Road, kneels expectant/as I prep a bowl. His foot hammers/the pedal as I hold the pipe to his mouth, put/fire to it. We absent our bodies, shelter into/our hunger, gorge on cookies on the hood/of his car, watch the lake reach/in and pull out.”

There are still abstract moments like the car that “kneels expectant” but such a false-surreal instance is much more swallowable within the tangibilities of “Wicklow Beach Road” along with the pipe, cookies and lake. Similarly, in most of the five sections of “Algonquin Suite”, Best builds a vulnerable emotional state through tender, natural details, and echoed assonantal sounds such as “in the fold of your cold neck,” “flash dazzle” and “throat opens,” along with the deliciously thick alliteration of “every summer the same/stunted start, the slowing/of steady ritual.”

Taken individually, many of the pieces feel insufficient, but tonally the book grows on you so, by the end, one has entered an original aural and emotive space. Sharpened through a keener attention to metaphor, and its vivifying capacities, in particular, Best’s future poems may rise from their moments of collapse to etch themselves more memorably, in all their necessary fearlessness, in the reader’s psyche.





Two 2016 Buckrider Titles

I’ve read Stuart Ross for years and been impressed by his vigorously energetic surrealism while at times perplexed by his resistance to closure, in an aural if  not content-based sense. But I’ve not truly been moved by his poems in the way a wide range of the pieces in his latest, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent stirred me. Ross is taking emotive risks in a way he hasn’t as readily in the past (age? life experiences?) and the result is much more satisfying poetically than prior. From the very first poem, “Pompano,” Ross fuses a Frank O’Hara-mode of simplicity that unfolds a moment into acts of vision – both quotidian and transcendent – with an almost Elizabeth Bishop-ian metaphysical quality of feeling. His parents are here; a grandfather at a sewing machine; his dead brother; his partner’s cancer; childhood books and his enduring affection for Dave McFadden’s poetry. IMG_20160719_104842_1

But these recollections are rarely sentimental, or else perhaps they glory, unabashedly, in their sentimentality to the point where it is cause for rejoicing rather than cloying. And the collection’s texture is maintained by the flux between lyric poems, prose chunks, pseudo-questionnaires with their strangely poignant disjunctiveness (“Do you feel remorse for the hurt you’ve caused?/My beak is handsome & I remain focused”) and form poems like the exquisitely linked haikus of “A Pretty Good Year” (“Here is the moment/there it goes. Now: another/Your eyes are constant.”) A poem like “Discrete Portions” combines nearly all the ingredients of a potent Ross poem without being (as some occasionally seem) at all programmatic, ala exercise pieces. Surreal and absurd, containing a reference to the poet himself and his moods or behaviors (“Laurie will tell me this is depressing, I/shouldn’t be so hard on myself”), featuring an unpacking rhythm, a consciousness of family and history, and an open-ended closure (“Each flake/had several choices to make”), “Discrete Portions” is like a Joseph Cornell box full of whimsical figures from Marc Chagall, and tinged with the philosophical scope of Wislawa Symborska’s oeuvre. Wondering why there is a chickadee rather than the titular sparrow on the cover is likely pointless. It’s Ross. Let go.



Kilby Smith-McGregor’s first collection, Kids in Triage, begins with a quote from Wallace Stevens, whose sharply somatic obscurities have obviously influenced her style, though a more au courant baroque allusiveness, kin to Lucie Brock-Broido (whose work I mostly adore) also threads through this opaquely engaging volume. These poems are diversely erudite in a way one has become familiar with from the poetry of Anne Carson to Robin Richardson: integrated, ornate, at times a little too “with a nod and a wink” chilly. “Wake up Remembering Oranges” is a powerful villanelle that swims in a mood of displacement and alienation, despite the attempted life rings of lists, as doe a plethora of her poems, desire, attachment, ownership seeming to slip away into a lacuna of referentiality, a scholarship in loneliness.

Smith-McGregor has a saving ear though. “Kneeling in pleated skirts,” “Racist comic; naive rapist; hand-coloured film strip expulsion. Resist.” or the delicious initial part of Matchbook:

“Cry me a little match girl, matchless/ before the boy who crushed through keyholes came confessing….Love, she’d struck, who’d never hoped/to read like that, and be written.”

And then there’s “Morphogenesis” for Alan Turing, a particularly brilliant sestina that uses man, logic, code, god, broken and sequence as its end words and concludes with the imperative phrases, “No snow but sand…dust’s profile in code.” Kids in Triage masterfully detaches to observe minutia while offering an emergency room full of the results of detachment: “the mess of you, exception and rule.”