The Infinite Park by Peter Unwin and Who we Thought we Were as we Fell by Michael Lithgow (Cormorant Books, 2021)

Ok here goes the proverbial can of worms: middle aged, white male worms to be precise. If you do a Google search for those beasts these days, a host of article titles pop up, among them – “Should White Men Stop Writing?” “The Case of the Disappearing Poet” and “Goodbye Old White Male Poets.” Now obviously these creatures are still getting published (though getting read is a whole other ball game for us all!) but the question is should they? Maybe they should take a break and give balance, representation and other racial and sexual identities a chance. Would this work? Is our internal bias still prone to giving the dominant voice a continued dominance? Is it possible to be age, gender and colour blind in the assessment of art? So many tough questions. I’m about to review poetry books by two of the above-categorized humans and I just wrote a review of another one prior to this. Is this because this is the poetry I like? Or just the books that are being sent me? Why, if a press has such a limited number of poetry titles they can release each season, would they choose two by white men? Should they have to consider this or is just “what they like” good enough. Or “what they found to be the best in quality.” And if so, is this true or is this bias? It’s very very complicated. I personally would love to float around in a world where we were all invisible and art sprung from our auras in the most pure of ways but that’s obviously fantasy. Is the poem now less of interest than the identity politics or the subject matter? Is this a tragic or a necessary transition? I do so want poems read as craft, singing, form and not just as the human behind them. And no human should be told they can’t create art, ever (though obviously they have, over and over again). But how will there be justice for both art and its creators when we are not transparent, bodiless, history-less beings?

Enough questions for now. Are these collections any good? What does good mean? (you see soon I will have to descend into silence as taking any stance is too improbable when every utterance can be incessantly questioned). Well, white middle aged male subject matter in this day and age could be construed as somewhat dull. There are wives and children and jobs, a smidgen of travel or the noticing of others here and there, the inevitably decaying body, dying parents and an overall tone of perplexed ennui – “I have it all or did or could have,” the poems mumble plaintively, “but what did it or does it mean?” Leaping from this partially serious razz, let’s address the collections at hand, both apparently second ones (though Unwin’s bio disagrees with the back copy, saying he’s really the author of nine books so huh?) from poets in the above category who both transcend and don’t the listed subject matter.

Peter Unwin in The Infinite Parade (fantastic cover by the way with its eroding urban landscape) assumes a variety of personas related to domesticity and aging. Certainly more empathic than those “choleric, Scotch-spotted” skirt chasing “white male British authors from the sixties” as one poem goes, Unwin is able to imagine himself a wife (The Pros & Cons of my Husband), a clicheed kid-killer (The Fatal Skin), the old (The Lost Wallets of the Elderly) and even indiscreet furniture (Consider the Bedside Table.) In between these are musings on fatherhood, crows and the pathetic vulnerabilities inherent in contemporary society whose citizens’ “heads are in the oven along with the frozen lasagna” because “someone mocked [them] on social media.” It’s a desperate, sardonic world where the punchlines never quite climax, many lines are uppercase as if pounding home a vital fact while they wither in their content, the stanzas are both solid and formless, and no one “even had time to get cancer anymore.” Geez, now I’m depressed. All the speaker will receive after these indignities will be to fetch “the Big Guy a glass of wine at one of those book events,” which one can liminally attend perhaps but never be the star of (again? ever?). “Poetry Town” is grim. “The Lesson of the Master” speaks of a “dedication to the intricacies of art” that precludes all real intimacies but hey, it results in weird turtle obsessions and an “aluminum walker” anyway so why bother trying to preserve oneself for delusions of greatness. Boy, now I’m even more sunk 😉 Eeyore verse this is, with a wink of course, but also a secretive shot of mythical absinthe. The best pieces resonate with the dryly humorous narration of a poet like Szymborska or Zagajewski or Larkin, a refusal to take serious what is mortal to the point that “only the dead/have things to worry about” and those anxieties reside in the relentless re-reading they must have to do of those “Blockbuster family saga novels/that people leave behind at the cottage.” I enjoyed Lost (with its Bishop echoes), The Blue Train, The Harbour Woman, The Language of Crows and a range of lyrics that poke mercilessly at poets who are “dead broke and brilliant” and often too busy boinking. As Unwin states in a poem called Get Real, “with everything that’s happening/do you really think it’s the right time/to have a meaningful conversation…?” Nah, I guess not.

Michael Lithgow (whom I believe I encountered in Vancouver in the 90s?) circles similar content to Unwin (domesticity, fatherhood, the home, the road and mortality) but in a very different fashion; his poems are more sedate, moody, serious, and moving, especially in relation to scenes of Downtown Eastside poverty and his own father’s death. There are nil jabs at poesie here. Variations on doom are few. Nature for one, is usually cruel (red in tooth and claw?). Songbirds have lice (The Difference between Us), ducks are “dark burrs” (Weakening), the loon has a “broken and crude” cry (Artist Statement for Found Sounds at the Lake). There’s no respite in humans either. “Everything has an invoice” and the once-fun of cigarettes has now turned to cancer (You Can’t Take these Summers), the neighbours’ “private agonies and pleasures” seep “through the plaster” amid the “hectoring sound of [his] irrelevance” (Different Sounds. And most poets can, alas, relate) as “little bits of [him] are perishing everywhere” (Mechanics.) Not one bit droll. And yet I relished the sonorities, the tones, and the poised and multitudinous stanzaic structures in these elegies for everything. I did. Lithgow oxymoronically captures the falling in each entity, harnesses the vertiginous qualities of being human in an endlessly shifting universe. “Floating here/is a full-time job” he states in A Falling of Things, a man who is held aloft by history, responsibilities, a knowledge of loss, loneliness. Among the mentioned poems, I also deeply appreciated What Revolutions I have Left to Live, so honest with its commentary on boredom and the hunger he “once had for upheaval…tremors of instability” that even now he senses “augur beauty,” Vancouver, a very familiar land to me, from Pigeon Park to Spanish Banks and the Eliotian Tremors on the Road with its “exhaustion in April.” And he also quotes one of my core poets, Robinson Jeffers, from Continent’s End! Who We Thought We Were As We Fell is by no means a cheerful collection. And should it be? Of course not. Middle aged white male poets suffer too 😉 And I recall a poet once apologizing for the “dark, depressing nature” of the poems she was about to recite and I reminded her, “You don’t have to say sorry. We’re all adults here.”


Paul Pearson’s Lunatic Engine (Turnstone Press, 2020)

This is Paul Pearson’s first book but it reads more like what it is, a compilation of poems that have taken years to assemble, most of them grounded around an obsession with Galileo (1564-1642) a natural philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician who made fundamental contributions to the sciences of motion, astronomy, and to the development of the scientific method. He also made revolutionary telescopic discoveries, including the four largest moons of Jupiter. His advocacy of the Copernican heliocentric system eventually resulted in an Inquisition, troubling his later years. Pearson, however, derives much of his Galilean inspiration from a book published in 1999 by Dava Sobel called Galileo’s Daughter, in which letters from his illegitimate convent-held eldest to him are drawn from as the basis for a narration and conversation regarding the connections between science and life. The chapter headings in Sobel’s book became the titles for the poems in the initial section of Lunatic Engine (love this title!), a tactic that initially seems far from compelling but ends up being incredibly engaging. If you read reviews of Sobel’s book you will see that it appears to either entrance or repel, and Pearson is obviously from the former camp. Over the course of a decade, he states, these poems evolved in response to Sobel’s story, all the pieces in the first part not only taking titular material from her account but also fragments of conversation between father and daughter, inserted into poems at random or pointed moments, thus enlarging the dialogue to include Pearson and his family.

It’s certainly a curious set of texts. The poems are mostly lower case, set in a variety of stanzaic forms, not excessively rhythmic for the most part, though far from lax, and serve as a compelling melding of ancient lines and modern content, from the personal of bathing an infant “clenched up red…in the same tub…the same fist,” to primordial nature, “the coelacanth/the trilobite the primordial/muck” to Star Trek, hysterectomies, Mars, Catholicism, and, of course, Galileo himself. I found that I had to get into the experiment and let myself go in its strangeness to absorb its aims. The main aspect of this was growing accustomed to glancing down to the footnotes on most pages, featuring lines from Galileo’s daughter’s letters that provide meta-texts for the pieces. As in the extended exercise in simile, “How Anxiously I Live, Awaiting Word from You” that states, in part, “I have read the holes you have left behind” with the numbers 21-36 referring the reader to the bottom of the page where the quotation is “this is everything/I need to tell you/for the moment,” which one can ponder in relation to the fact that the poem continues with its accretive lines: “like gravity reads the snowdrifts at my door/like snow reads the drifts of nests in empty trees/like birds read the empty endless dreams of cats” and so forth.

The second section, “(Or Move Within It),” takes the footnotes from the first segment and creates two poems, one from the footnotes, re-combined and the other the lines the footnotes refer to. Then it invites the reader to concoct their own experiment, and thereby remain as curious about the universe as was Galileo. I must say I had a dream I was doing so (it somehow involved using the numbers in chronological fashion) but haven’t yet. Regardless, fascinating. The third part, “Baedeker,” I found to be the weakest as it’s very short and its lyrics to Callisto and Europa might have been reconfigured into the first or fourth series of pieces instead. “Bibliography,” however, the final sequence, was potent with quotes from both the Bible and Galileo commencing each piece, allowing for much meditation on spiritual and scientific matters like motion, the comets, sunspots and tides. I heard Christopher Smart in Pearson’s anaphoric resonances: “that which is spiralled and spun into every living cell/that which keeps bodies atop water…that which applies torque/that which measures camber.” Ooooo lovely. It’s not easy to write about such subjects but Pearson has taken that risk and, kin to Galileo, he has, in some small measure, through his fidelity to his muse, expanded our poetic comprehension of being.


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 😉


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.


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!” 🙂


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.


Two from Palimpsest Press, 2020

“Few poets are capable of evolving even a single unprecedented tone: the depressing corollary of this divestment has been a marked atrophy of skills within the reader” [Louise Gluck]. True, but today, I want to expand on the notion of tone beyond poetry itself to the review. It’s as if, yes, we only want the one-note overview of praise and absolutely, the prevalence of such blurbs in our literary culture has led to a marked atrophy of skills, a dearth of terms, vocabulary, and modes of assessment of texts that are vital in the creation of an engaged, awake and passionate readership.

That said, it’s tough critiquing poetry in this climate in which not only is this relentless back-patting the norm (and finger-wagging if you choose to be tougher), but the focus is on “saying things that need to be said” regarding sexuality, race, and other modalities of identity, and this content often appears to silence an assessment of craft. When things are important to state they need to be considered as not just commentary or conversation but as art requiring a thoughtful crafting. These reviews, without ever wanting to shut any writer down or up, in their absolute right and need to be heard, are always first and foremost going to attend to auralities, form, style, tone, diction, technique and other key means through which poetry is created, and the only ways that poetry becomes a true source of emotive and intelligent communication. Thus.


David Ly’s Mythical Man is a first book and feels it. Nothing wrong with this – it’s rare for an initial foray to be close to everything it wants/needs to be – and mostly means that the breadth and depth of options for the poet’s compositions in terms of allusions, language or structure may not have been fully considered. The core content of these poems revolves around the protagonist’s experiences of being gay and Asian in an often callous pick-up culture with its engrained racism, an indifferent family in which he has to remind his grandpa he won’t be getting a girlfriend “Again” (Nod and Be Polite) and the growing but superficially inclusive acceptances of our social media society in which, “Nothing really happens unless there are pics” (Post One).


Mythical Man features recurring titular pieces, the most powerful being II, where the end lines point out the futility of aiming for absorption into another person when these yearnings are just “distractions/from the real magic/that makes us/powerful on our own.” Also, several fascinating poems, divided into three parts each: Snap, Filter and Share, engage with the lies of selfies and the glossy representations of love via the screen, each concluding with a hashtag and the word “like” repeated numerous times to underscore the homogeneity of virtual approvals. Potent too are cutting lyrics that incorporate crude lines from the Grindr app, such as “Force this White Bitch to Serve your Oriental Noodle!!!” aching collisions of the pain of racial cliches and the continued presence of desire, with “Stubble Burn” also slamming that complex theme hard into the reader’s mind. I like the poem “Granville & West Georgia” (being a fellow Vancouverite) too, but I do have to question some of Ly’s descriptive choices here. Do pigeons ever “cluck”? Is the London Drugs there really “dilapidated?” (dirty? stained? litter-strewn maybe but certainly not in ruins!). Birds “hopscotching across/dried speckles of their own shit”? Sure, that’s fanciful poetic licence. The others are settlings-for.

Unfortunately, such lexical laziness impacts on many of these poems, from the recycled idioms of “resting bitch face” and “silver fox” to tired modes of expression like “plastered to our backs,” a “pulsing” bass, “we go our separate ways,” “kiss the tears,” the “wedding band glimmers” and your “skin starts to crawl,” along with simply vague words such as “reality, construction, equates.” There is so much tenderness and sensuality in these pieces, along with essential ennui, threads of anxiety, and brave unpackings of toxicity that the language, rhythms and forms need to be honed a bit more assiduously to be armed for the vital tasks of truth-speaking within queer sensibility (or not), such as is the case with poets like Ali Blythe, Henri Cole, Marilyn Hacker or D.A. Powell. In subsequent collections, I look forward to Ly taking those lyrical reins in hand and running, with more honed intent (as befits this fearlessness!), “towards the beasts.”


The third release from Robert Colman, Democratically Applied Machine (love the retro-industrial cover design!) shows undeniable evidence of just how much crafting work he’s put in over the last few years, turning these pieces into “aural attention engines” (my term 😉 so that, whether one relates to the subject matter of blue collar labour/a father struggling with dementia, one listens, thrills to sounds, and keeps engaging with the page. You can’t “just say” in poetry. If craft, form and aurality isn’t present, the most vital “message” dwindles into banality, creating a cringe in the experienced reader.

As Philip Larkin notes, “the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.” Colman’s poetic style combines Larkin’s resonant reserve, an occasional regality of tone ala Thomas and the rhythmic sonorousness of Wilbur. Tom Wayman may have cornered the concept of work poetry and Richard Harrison recently wrote a stunning book on his aged/deceased father but these topics are inexhaustible when you attend to form and sound. Part of this promised renewal here is how Colman’s poems on machining shops converse with his time with his father in England, as he himself searches for traces of his past, including the Cornbrook Chemical plant where he worked in the 50s. The traditional inseparability of men from their labour and the impact this work has had on their bodies and psyches is the core of Colman’s focus.

Divided into four parts, two on the manufacturing industry and two on his father’s illness and their sojourns together in landscapes of memory, Democratically Applied Machine explores forms from the sonnet to the sestina and prose poem and, less successfully, the erasure and cento, forms that, frankly, are tricky to make meaning from, though the concluding cento, “Watching,” comes close, particularly in the titular stanza, drawing from Ryan, Lux, Collins and Ashbery: “What a life he would have lived without them/in this democratically applied machine./He hid behind books, and/thunder lay down in the heart.” From the first piece, Colman has the reader’s ear. Whether you know the Gerhard Richter painting or not, you are snatched inside its atmosphere, the final stanza a echoing rush of evocative assonance: “see/glean/clogs/cobbles/vowels/spinning/pitch” along with the consonantal ring of “mule/steel/lathe.” The assembly of manufactured objects is compared to birthing in “Interview with the Machinist,” one of his strongest poems on blue-collar labour, along with “From the Front” in its depiction of a fiber laser as having a “fierce hiss,” “Choosing her Trade” where the “adjuster’s wink” is “crimping the sunk IN tray,” and “After Lowry, After Cornish” which draws work together with art and the homeland in the raw nostalgia of lines like “This shop is no longer akin/to working the coal face” and “dust & lime a tickle of history.”

I must admit that I wanted more pieces like these and fewer like “Part” or “Brittle that seemed too slight, cursory, cut off. Then again, who can truly enter the machine? The detached tone is perhaps part of the intent here. Alzheimers also creates an ineffable state, a violent or aloof removal from the present, the once-familiar. Added to this harshness is the sense running through many poems of a general silence, the depressed inability to fully express the self, question marks, lacunas and partial knowledge in which happiness “includes books you read me/and the rest we both groped for blindly” (Son to Father). The most unforgettable section in the book is the last one, Hold, in which psychological abstractions melt into tangible specificities as father and son perambulate from pub to field to teahouse in the north of England and facts become a “ricochet” (The Painting) in his father’s brain, while his son asks himself “is knowing more precious when tenuous?” (Old Friends). The composed sketches of “Slipping Time” are brilliant, and throughout, pieces such as “Walking Longshaw,” “Fickle Gods” and “Market Day” feature language rippling and flexing at its most buff and lovely. “Sepia teen soldiers,” “fresco secco vines,” “the allure of air baffles you out to the garden wall,” and O, the wicked trochaic metrons and assonantally-rhythmic sashays of “Saturday is adult nursery, bric-a-brac, yesterday’s/tack – Victorian smut, Bakelite dud lamps, train/ sets and epaulets.” And yes to “fuck this loss” (Protest). Call loud, I say, preserve preserve.


Chris Hutchinson’s In the Vicinity of Riches (icehouse poetry, 2020)

K. C. Cole writes, in a study of everyday physics, that “Abstractions seem magical because they can exist independent of matter”; in this sense the forbidden (according to Pound) phrase “dim lands of peace” may sport a resonance beyond the explication of the essential tangible and emotive, lingering in its own hyper-spaciness, its purgatory of un-pin-downable consciousness. I felt this magic frequently in Hutchinson’s subtle, allusive, marvelously outre poems, that no matter the evidence of the is [an opium case, the White Tank mountains, Sheriff Joe – just to cite one piece, “Surprise, Arizona (2008)”], it remains what lies outside of the mutable, some vast mind-time, that we can reside within most hauntingly and accurately.

Hutchinson’s brain is a repository for weird bits of history [“The Day an Elephant Walked across the River Thames (1814)”], literature from AA Milne to Auden and Nietzsche to Dante, detrital news reports from wars and other erosions of Americana, typified images in Canadian poesie [“The Birth (and Death) of Prairie Poetry: A Fiction (1956)” is one of them – whose intent, to mock or pay homage, remains nebulous], art as an elaboration of politics, and the acknowledgement of techno-transformations of reception and praxis [“we must livestream or die”]. In short, a plush and gnarly storehouse, a bulging of texts cortex, an (at times) overwhelming repast of grey matter, a la Brodsky’s feasts say (but do you keep returning? why yes.)


Above all, I’m a reader who seeks first the ear and Hutchinson has that too, occasionally tipping into the “run/sun” kind of rhymes that oversimplify his sophisticate portents but mostly showing off a more slanted approach to mellifluousness, “cloud/ground” as end resonances or the internal one-two of the most stirring piece in the collection on Ophelia, in which the word “hair” sets off a dash, the utterance “that sound” and two lines later revisits the title with the drifting punctum of the prepositional phrase “into the air.”

In “The Half-Lives of Painters and Poets,” the speaker appears to yearn for words to be “things” though the subsequent lines elaborate the contrary potency in the inevitable abstraction as it extracts from and transmutes the thinginess of the world: “syllable, sense, sensorium, the fossilized flames/we call signs, limned in gold and pale cerulean.” He revels in the possible-illusions of that maybe-eternal sorcery, even gushing in “North American Figures of the Capitalocene,” – “grant me riches, beauty, fame!/ I’ll toss away this body like a coin.” But he also accepts the quandaries at the core of trying to say at all, noting, “this insatiable need to write/is really a desire sparked from the flint/of writing’s intrinsic and hopeless contradictions,” continuing on in slippery bewilderment, “I mean extrinsic and hopeful” with all the elusiveness of Ashbery. Nothing is stable. That’s ok.

The bees even go “is is?” their actual buzz transferred to questioned concept. You can’t go to sleep on anything in Hutchinson’s poetic-thought condo. The bed, more likely than not, is just a statement of “radical inwardness” and you will remain in the stunning vortex of what what what.





Kat Cameron’s Ghosts Still Linger (U of A Press) and Kim Goldberg’s Devolution (Caitlin Press)

I just have to say (unpopular opinion?) I’m not a fan of the French sleeve (actually I just found out that officially, they are called “flaps.” Alas, I don’t even like that word!). Great for a bookmark sure, but I don’t like the feel of them when I’m reading – too sprung, too cumbersome. That admitted, Cameron’s slim assemblage of mostly lyrics on the land, history, women of the west and eco-sorrows, is a compellingly designed collection featuring Annie Oakley a-cocking her rifle on the cover. Within, the book is divided into three sections, of which the first two, “Ghosts are Ordinary” and “Alberta Advantage” are more powerful than the third “Lightning over Wyoming,” mainly because the material in the initial two are more deeply lived, while the last segment is about historical figures who fail to be fully entered (apart from the startlingly detailed “Soiled Doves” on the “red-light ladies” of the Old West, their existences reduced to “hair dye, perfume, and laudanum…a hat, a doll’s head, a bone fan,” selves “pared down, exchanged/for a tin circle” – I just sensed the rest needed more percolations of time beyond visits to museums and the reading of texts to transcend the way they merely list rather than imaginatively leap beyond). The poem to most thoroughly embed itself in my blood in this book is the masterful “Haunted,” from the book’s first part, a traditional ghazal sequence with the repeating end word and, in the last section, the author’s name rounding out the stanzas. I’ll quote the first one in its entirety to show the subtle shifts that assemble the energy:


After all this time, I am a ghost to you./You’re on an island, writing poems.

You wanted to be free of memory,/the sooty slash of absence in your poems.


Old loves fall away like rotting trees/or drift like flotsam in the ocean’s foam.

After all this time, I am a ghost to you./You are an island, writing poems.

Apart from the final piece in this segment which pokes at Pepys in the manner of a cheeky English prof, its quatrains elaborating (how apropos at present!), his reactions to the Plague amid his selfish joys, the second section of Ghosts Still Linger is the most engaging, as Cameron draws on the lyric, the found poem, the spectral pantoum, and the erasure form to elucidate aspects of living in Alberta: the boom-bust madnesses, the burns and floods, the Timmy Ho rednecks, the city scavengers and the sweet cricket fields. Here her talents are most grounded and genuine as she veers between the historical comparisons of infernos in Big Burn, the simple and poignant sketches of the fouled rural (“mosquitoes/and one crumpled Budweiser can/silver and red/in a ditch filled with cattails/and stagnant water”), and the sly humour of parodies like Old North Trail that riffs off Yeats with its lines, “I will drive now to Innisfail/and stay at the Super 8 motel” or pastiche pieces such as Poetic Licence that compiles Alberta bumper stickers from the enlightened “Caribou not coal mines” to the imbecilic “Fuck off we’re full.” Cameron’s poems simmer with a quiet ire amid their gentle songs.


In Pound’s Pavannes and Divisions from 1918 he writes how the first myths arose when “man walked sheer into “nonsense”….[and] he told someone else who called him a liar. Thereupon, after bitter experience, perceiving that no one could understand what he meant when he said that he “turned into a tree” he made a myth.” Kim Goldberg’s collection Devolution is subtitled “poems and fables” not myths, but all these pieces work to transcend our collective inability to imagine others, the not-human, the unseen, by an immense engagement of the imagination and the intelligence. The cover, which features a striking image of a woman becoming a fish on the edge of the sea, is our entree into a punchy unrelenting elaboration of apocalyptic sensibilities. Atlantis sweeps us inside with the statement: “Wait. There, behind the goat-shaped cloud -/I think I see another god” and we are led into chambers of discombobulations where salmon catch humans, bears walk out of beards, birds are surveillance devices, idioms are ruptured (“caught between the devil and your deep blue/seedpod….you were/ eating like a bird in a handkerchief…They said you were under the weatherman”), the ocean breaks, and people are tossed about in sudden spaceships. Goldberg ranges through forms from the fabulist prose poem (veering from the stunning Loves and Fishes to the head-shaking Armadillo) to the moving sonnet, and from the scientific brilliance of cultural genomes as car names in Codex to the overly simplistic clunk of the archaic-eared Deluge. She risks it all. Is what I like. Even the pieces I didn’t. Still. A risk to toss in such an array of modes and vocabularies. Though the poems that shine the most such as the incredibly aural Spawn:

“We watched the shooting stars cascade into/a diesel-flowered meadow binding all our heads, beating/while it burned until the stench and smoky spew/was traded for the flickerflash of atomic churn. And the sea was gone/under the bluest sky of the year, as we stood at the edge of our world”

are potent because they depict reality at its most vital and disruptive, drawing on the dictions of particular knowledge and the sounds that rupture us at the core.






Lullabies in the Real World & The Response of Weeds (NeWest Press, 2020)

Poetry is so thoroughly about negotiation. With the land, with the past, with identity, with other poets. Then, at a more micro level, with the line, the word.

Meredith Quartermain’s latest, Lullabies in the Real World, (from important new-ish imprint Crow Said) commingles the tangible and abstract in segments of a train journey from the West to the East Coast of Canada as “train letters cross word country” and the question lingers “where are you going” (Letter to Self), the where bearing so many palimpsested identities, names, scars. Rife with historical allusions and geographical realities, these track-bound poems seek to list, as an act of memory, and also the honouring of incantation, the poet’s aim to “unmap unseers/rub out their erasures” (Leaving Montreal). Although I hoped the skinny, often lower-cased form would shift at times, loosen, it can’t, if being accurate to the primary eras it addresses and the modus of its poetic muses (bp, Blaser), as well as to the rigidity of rails. The most potent parts are those which acknowledge such limitations and framings. From the poem, Styx: “poem mutters/wheels and wains…never outtalking vagabond river.” Or her quotes from Colin Smith on poetry mixed with VIA Rail’s Francophone insertions and such internalizing lines as “train of thought departs/seedy light on station pillar” (Half Way). Although echoes of bp can become a tad overdone, the poem “Letter to bp in Hornpayne” remains moving, more aural than many pieces in this sequence with its reverberations of sounds in “you too stood in Hornpayne at dusk,/the travel-weary train/stopped in a dusty truck lot,” and the darkly beautiful admission that “The name of death, you found,/was NOTHING.” The anaphoric weather reports of “Captain Montresor with General Wolfe on the River” and the powerful final piece, “Standing on Cabot’s Trail” (“I wish I’d come here before….I wish this poem could gather every forgotten forsaken being/and return them to where they are loved”) are particularly memorable “stations” on this intense journey. “Free the World Picture, Poet” Quartermain directs in these non-lulling lullabies. And she does.


While Quartermain has published quite a wealth of texts, The Response of Weeds by Bertrand Bickersteth is his first, a mid-life release that suggests a density of time spent absorbing and yes, negotiating with the issues and allusions he references, from racial to geographic identities and all their intersections. I’m not clear why Black poetry on the prairies is, as the subtitle claims, a “misplacement.” Surely if it exists here, in the communities that re-located to the flatlands, then how is it particularly “mis” placed. Maybe “alternately,” “additionally” or “re” placed? I love the structural framing of a Dramatis Personae of “Negro” historical characters that recurs throughout the book and most engagingly in this initial section, Rivers (featuring multiple “actors” from Kathleen Battle to Paul Robeson) as well as the focus on only 19th century writer-abolitionist Henry Bibb in the Now I’m the Only One that’s Looking section.  Bickersteth is truly rupturing when he evokes the Blues in refrains like the one in the opening poem, “The Negro Speaks of Alberta” : “I know these rivers that flow through me/I’ve peered into their hearts and still you do not see me,” when he ranges his essential rages across the page in ragged lines that energize the loss of nomenclatures, of anchor (as in “What we used to Call it”), and in each piece that begins with the line: “Now I’m looking,” a grounding of displacement in positionality like in These Empty Flatlands where “There is a scarecrow looking/back at me…Two straw men/marking out the edges of these empty flatlands/stuffed with their essence,” a kind of Eliot’s Hollow Men reconfigured in the prairie vastness. It’s when Bickersteth becomes too polemical in tone, abstracted, that one detaches as a reader, aching for the sensory again, the somatic. Give me “the fields outside of Olds/on the 2A somewhere/after Didsbury or before Carstairs” (The Wrongness of a Word) or “Honey, today I came/out of darkness/with black ahead/black behind” (Out of Darkness) any day over “For here and here are occurrences/of egregious failings/and despite our systems,/our democratic aspirations…” (The Magpie’s Place). Snooze. Poetry can never just mean. If it doesn’t rouse the senses, stir the muses, evoke recollection and utter music, all the saying in the world, however crucial, doesn’t matter. Bickersteth’s faith in his particular rhythms will only grow, one hopes, and make his next set of rooted melodies worth yearning for.