Despite the fact that this is my third annual list (see my 2012 list here and the 2011 list here), I’m not usually a fan of such lists that declare themselves as ‘best of’ (although I’ve been intrigued that The Volta has recently been posting such “Best Books of 2013” lists by Noah Eli Gordon, Rae Armantrout, Laynie Browne, Joshua Marie Wilkinson and others). What is this “best” that you speak of, and how does one measure? I’ve always taken such lists (including award shortlists) as not a suggestion of what to read, but a suggestion of what else to read (for an ongoing resource of books I find compelling, check out the reviews on my blog, here).
In no particular order, here is a list of twenty Canadian poetry titles published in 2013 that I think require further attention: Jay MillAr, Timely Irreverence; Gregory Betts, This Is Importance: A Student’s Guide to Literature; David Dowker and Christine Stewart, Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal; Jon Paul Fiorentino, Needs Improvement; Shane Rhodes, X: Poems & Anti-Poems; Margaret Christakos, Multitudes; Sandra Ridley, The Counting House; Sadiqa de Meijer, Leaving Howe Island; Jordan Abel, the place of scraps; Dennis Cooley, the stones; Peter Culley, Parkway; Larissa Lai and Rita Wong, Sybil Unrest; Phil Hall, The Small Nouns Crying Faith; Kim Minkus, Tuft; Paul Zits, Massacre Street; Stephen Collis, To the Barricades; Daphne Marlatt, Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now; Shannon Maguire, fur(l) parachute; Jenna Butler, seldom seen road; and Sylvia Legris, Pneumatic Antiphonal.
Somewhere in the world
there is a book.
It’s a book of poems
by somebody, somewhere.
This book sits on a shelf
filled with other books.
And in this book there is
a poem. I’m sure of it. (“Tasteful Creatures”)
Given the title of his seventh trade poetry collection, Timely Irreverence (Gibsons BC: a blewointment book, Nightwood Editions, 2013), Toronto poet, editor and publisher Jay MillAr, who also sells books under Apollinaire’s Bookshop, “selling the books that no one wants to buy,” suggests that he writes as though no one is listening, and no one is reading. This is irelevence, sure, but only and entirely on his own terms. “It can be difficult to exist as a poet in a culture that generally looks the other way,” MillAr writes at the back of the collection, in his “Notes & Acknowledgments.” In this collection, MillAr writes on the intricate smallness of things, the seemingly-irrelevant things, including poems, poets, amoeba, geometry, patience and television. Throughout the collection, there are trace echoes of the plainspeaking meditative essay-poem of David W. McFadden’s Art of Darkness (McClelland & Stewart, 1984), a cadence and structure that threads through more than a couple of pieces, including “Another Person’s True Essence,” where he writes: “A woman writes / overlooking the sea – it is somewhere in America and / poetry has touched her shoulder gently as she looks out / over the harbor above the city. She is writing. A man / watches.”
There is something of the “irrelevance” that MillAr turns on its head, whether BookThug, the publishing company he runs, recently claiming the mantle long held by McClelland and Stewart as the “Canadian publisher,” or the fact that this book has so many blurbs by other writers that less than half of them could fit on the back cover (the rest are inside). Given his potential audience and list of admirers (mind you, he claims, for a poet), can he continue to claim to be irrelevant? Still, MillAr’s poetry very much revels in the quiet of the everyday, of the domestic, in that William Carlos Williams or Robert Creeley way of the meditatively immediate, composing short breath-lines into short poems less geographically located than personally located. It’s as though MillAr lives in the same way his poems do—quietly, tempered, thoughtful and considered, with one of the finest examples of such being the poem “BEING A REVISION,” that blends all of the above, writing:
BEING A REVISION
Poor Hazel sprained
or broke her foot swimming –
can’t tell yet, so she’s hobbling
around behind their
excited frames, within a
sprained or broken presence –
she’s hobbling around it
swimming in the sprained
or broken frame, excited
and unknowing, at least so far
as she follows them down the hall.
The notes I have gathered include
only information on the information.
I decide quietly grids of technology
are not the wind, nor are they
the water nor the earth. They
are the ideas that hold things still
long enough to consider them.
We would be wise to listen.
This book is a heaped pile of mistakes! A small pyramid of its own, this book of student mistakes is, then, a document attesting to the personal growth of the thousands of students I have had the wonderful opportunity to teach. One thing that Lucretius missed in his theory of the importance of the error, though, despite all of his genius, was the importance of humour in the process. In my classes, I often start by telling the students that they might come to their education with the faith that they are transforming themselves, which requires killing off part of who they were before. Such intimate change is painful, awkward and often clumsy, and I am there to help them discover their new selves with some measure of – if not grace – then support. Of course, all the while they are learning and unlearning themselves, I am learning and unlearning myself alongside them. So, I am also there to help them see the humour in the process. We do laugh a lot in class: sometimes at my mistakes (for, as all opposites attract too many cooks with rough diamonds in the busy, I take too much pleasure in mixing metaphors and twisting aphorisms, and often get carried away), sometimes at their mistakes (though never singled out as such; humiliation is simply not the point of the game). I have come to learn that laughter and a good sense of humour are essential tools in learning. You fall, you laugh it off and you try again. And then when the video appears on Youtube, you laugh at the slapstick spectacle and grow more resolved to get it right. You can’t laugh if you don’t see what you did wrong; and you can’t really see what you did wrong unless you can laugh at the difference.
Collection as a series of mistakes and errors done by his students, St. Catharine’s, Ontario writer, critic and professor Gregory Betts’ newest title is This Is Importance: A Student’s Guide to Literature (Hamilton ON: Poplar Press, 2013). Anyone who has corrected student papers will easily appreciate this book of odd lines, misunderstood queries and just plain wrong-headedness that run through this small book, all lifted from years worth of student papers. I’ve long been a fan of the mistake and the accident, knowing just how important such are for the creation of new work, and the possibility for the shifted perspective. There are destinations that can only be reached by mistake, and Betts seems to understand this, discussing humour, mistakes and their importance in his lengthy introduction. To see something different, one must sometimes put words and concepts side-by-side that have no business being there, and some of these small slips may be hilariously funny and ridiculous, while others have the sheen of accidental near-genius, shifting the way a particular writer or work might be considered (one of my favourite, on Toronto writer George Elliott Clarke, reads: “Clarke is an Afraidian author.”) Others make absolutely no sense at all. Here is a small selection of such:
Krapp’s Last Tape has to go to the bathroom but can’t. The banana is something to hold on to. (“Samuel Beckett”)
When Bonanza closed down, James Joyce left his narrative. (“James Joyce”)
Archibald Lampman fears that the future could happen again. (“Archibald Lampman”)
Cohen sits at a bar, revealing personal things about himself, until the reader comes along to connect to his realness. (“Leonard Cohen”)
Be it his family, his community, or nature itself; they all wore his adornments. His children were trophies. (“Margaret Laurence”)
The alphabet has been a major influence on many poets. (“Profound Forisms I”)
As a reader, one can approach these lines with absolute delight, perhaps the entire opposite effect the same lines would have on a professor of literature discovering the same within a paper by one of their students. The book is broken up into a series of thematic sections: In the Beginning was Myth, Definitions I, European Art and Literature (including William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, The Romantics and others), Profound Forisms I, Canadian Literature (including Susanna Moodie, E. Pauline Johnson, Archibald Lampman and others), Engendered Profoundisms, Modern Canada (including Lucy Maude Montgomery, Robert W. Service, Sinclair Ross and others), Contemporary Canada (including Margaret Atwood, Sheila Watson, The Small Press, bpNichol, Gail Scott and others), American Literature (including Edgar Allan Poe, Ursula K. Le Guin and others), Definitions II, Profound Forisms II, One-Offs, Misspelled Author Names and Definitions III. Betts has been slowly compiling these odd slips for years, and, removed somewhat from their original contexts, many give the impression that they could exist within language and/or lyric poetry. There have been numerous poets who have worked through selections of found and/or lifted materials to create works, whether the flarf poets, or Lisa Robertson, selecting and re-ordering lines from her own notebooks to compose new work. One idea and one phrase bangs up against the other, and somehow creates something new, and entirely beautiful. Has Betts, through compiling lines from the papers of so many former students, somehow constructed his most successful collection of poems?
The Church burning is funny because we all think like that. You have to laugh at your morality. (“Stephen Leacock”)
It is questionable whether the novel has taken place. (“Sheila Watson”)
Some Canadian poets embraced this ideal and Louis Cabri as well. (“The Small Press”)
Joe and Billy like to experience each other’s dialogue. The book, however, refuses to show them talking. (“Michael Turner”)
Helen of Troy used to date free verse poets, but is now physically constrained. Free verse has no chance with meaning. The battle between Greek and the Trojans was basically like the contemporary poets and free verse. Helen, on the other hand, is saved by math. (“Christian Bök”)
Ironically, she was born in the same year that her mother gave birth. She was not an active participant in her birth, that was mostly done by her parents. (“Souvankham Thammavongsa”)
the book of your coterie
I desire the robbery of my invention.
Your porcelain eternity splits the pleasure of my raze
and the golden sides from my propinquity.5
For example, I cannot wed the yellow deficiency in bloom.
For example, I devise the mimic – for fruitless took
my promising boy (oh odious despite gate)
and acceleration – the surface is fleshed out
a ripe detour (west) toward a citizen kiss
blossoms of aluminum
the line – etc., bean dark skull and succor
5 Nips quick – a bug link.
Toronto poet and publisher David Dowker and Edmonton poet and critic Christine Stewart’s collaborative poetry book, Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2013), constructed in three sections and a reading list, is a book of responses that become just as much a three-way conversation. Previous to this, Dowker is the author of the trade collection Machine Language (BookThug, 2010), as well as the editor/publisher of the late great Alterran Poetry Assemblage; Stewart is the author of a number of small chapbooks (through above/ground press, Nomados and others), and has worked on various collaborations, including an early collaboration with Lisa Robertson and Catriona Strang produced as The Barscheit Horse (Hamilton, ON: Berkeley Horse, 1993). In their collaborative blend of ideas and language, the poems in Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal work through the abstract, deliberately ungrounded, embracing sound, and allowing the theories to spark, but the words themselves to propel. “It went out, and like a woman it was happy.” they write, in the second section, “Grid Meridian.” An exploration of melancholia is easy enough to negotiate, but I suspect you might have to have some knowledge of theory to appreciate the full measure, and the back of the collection includes a list of titles under “Some Readings” that include works by Giorgio Agamben, Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Jeremy Bentham, Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Robert Burton, Roberto Calasso, Paul Celan, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan and others. As the back cover writes, “Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal is a poetic investigation of melancholia and the baroque. As a collaborative reading of writers such as Walter Benjamin, Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze, Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, David Dowker and Christine Stewart have created a series of linguistic interjections that run from the allegorical barricades of the baroque to the topological confound of the modern, incorporating (for example) Medusa and the Sphinx, aestivating snails and the alchemy of bees.” Their Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal exists as a conversation and a continuous thread, as the faded phrase within each poem becomes the title of the subsequent piece, extending the poems nearly as a kind of call-and-response that require deep and repeated readings.
This is not a séance.14 Escape is not an object.
The habit of synaptics matters yet still one fumes and stares
and wonders just what kind of trees are these.
We are gathering interior circumference.
Flecked bits, motes lit (dendritic).
Their truth is folded into bitter distance.
They face that solemn green arousal with oblique strategies15
of psychic detachment.
14 “This is a science.”
15 For example: “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” Brian Eno and Peter
Schmidt, Oblique Strategies
Because poetry is very, very far from –
and those who therefore thrive insist it remain so
And also contemplative drones drone
inside cabailist cocooneries
Not to mention domain names reserved for only the most
wicked eloquent –
Plus flaccid fraternities with their
heightened-flaccidity-as-aesthetic-mandate flail, swing
Most meritorious solder wand weld torch trophy crooners
croon the comments, the walls, avoid the wells
And wasn’t this ambition supposed to be in the writing, not in the
product? In tenor and vehicle and not in laurel and mantle?
Fuck me. I’m as flail as anyone
Montreal writer and Winnipeg ex-pat Jon Paul Fiorentino continues his persona of the ‘beta male’ (although far softer here than in previous works) through his sixth trade poetry collection, Needs Improvement (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2013), from the cover image of a mediocre report card (including subjects “trope,” “imagery” and “self-regulation”) to the subtle thread that stitches his lyrics and post-lyrics together into an extremely tight and taut collection. Fiorentino’s poetry is thick with references to misspent youth, the City of Winnipeg, recreational pharmaceuticals, clinical depression, Montreal and juvenile humour, and his poetry has evolved over the years into an impressive staggered and studied post-language lyric. Over the stretch of more than half a dozen trade titles – including two works of fiction, and previous poetry collections Indexical Elegies (Coach House Books, 2010), The Theory of the Loser Class (Coach House Books, 2006), Hello Serotonin (Coach House Books, 2004), resume drowning (Fredericton NB: Broken Jaw Press, 2002) and transcona fragments (Winnipeg MB: Cyclops Press, 2002), as well as the chapbook hover (Winnipeg MB: Staccato chapbooks, 2000) – Fiorentino has learned to play his combination of dark and flippant tone as less of an overpowering force than a simple and subtle distraction that actually masks his movement into entirely different subject matter. I find it interesting that Fiorentino’s poetry has evolved into more conceptual veins, including the “pedagogical interventions” in the title section; utilizing manual illustration, satire, appropriation and manipulation, Fiorentino has widely expanded his ouvre far beyond the once-core of his work in the prairie long poem, and managed to craft questions far more important than the answers.
The visual poems he includes are reminiscent slightly of those by former Vancouver poet Jason Le Heup a decade or so back, as well as other works through and around the Toronto Research Group (bpNichol and Steve McCaffery), and blend perfectly with the rest of the collection. Composing poems both lyric and visual, the poems in Needs Improvement attempt to explore, explain and even obscure theory, and even opens with a quote by Judith Butler: “Neither the Austinian promise nor the Althusserian prayer require a pre-existing mental state to ‘perform’ in the way that they do.”
MINIMAL PAIR: SIMPLETONS
When I said we made a minimal pair
I was deep in linguistic conceit
It had nothing to do with your character
it was strictly labio-dental
Some of the poems in this collection previously appeared as the chapbook The Winnipeg Cold Storage Company (Calgary AB: NO Press, August 2012), including works that focused on mythmaking and geography, working over, across and through his hometown of Winnipeg, as he does more specifically in the title poem to the chapbook, included here as well:
The title of “Winnipeg Cold Storage Company” poses the question of collective memory and what it means to say that ‘things might be done with storage’? The problem of collective memory is thus immediately bound up with a question of performance. What does it mean for storage not only to store, but also in some sense to perform and, in particular, to perform what it stores?
In the colophon of the chapbook, he wrote that “The text from ‘Winnipeg Cold Storage Company’ is appropriated and manipulated with the most love from Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performance by Judith Butler.” Composing poems as lyric-fragments of losing, loss and disappearance, as well as a section of report cards exploring bullying through satire, Fiorentino manages to turn information against itself, even to the point of working to say nothing at all.
Down to my last
Do you know the word pilling?
It’s a piling on of fabrications
You wear it well or
Free-range derangement commences
as denizens make strange with tenses and moods
I saw an old cancerous friend here
who said, ‘I remember when I used to be creative –
They cut it out of me
Now, the lies and years are
I will miss you when you shun me. I write these
things for nothing
the best nothing I know
as may have been grunted
As aforesaid within, hereunto the hereinafter, thereupon and hereby thereof. That is to say, within the aforesaid that whatsoever thereto, that is, there whereas within, thereon. Therein, however, that whereas, hereinafter elsewhere, thereto unless therefor. That within the that that is that, what soever, forever within the hereby, that thereupon, there is to heretofore that within. Whereas, that is to say, inasmuch hereby in that, therefor hereinafter within this. Within therein that is. Within, that is, thereabout unless thereof—hereafter throughout. And, as aforesaid, any part thereof otherwise elsewhere or hereinbefore hereby—thereto, as aforesaid, hereof within whenever. Thereon thereof whatsoever wherever forever. That is to say, however, therein thereout, therefore within. Whereas thereof, hereby within. Within the aforesaid, therefor within the hereainafter.
In his fifth trade poetry collection, X: Poems & Anti-Poems (Nightwood Editions, 2013), Ottawa poet Shane Rhodes works to reconcile the clash of histories and cultures, composing poems from various subjects and issues surrounding Canada’s First Nations peoples, including conflicts, treaties and appropriations such as the conflict at Oka and the Indian Act as well as Idle No More and its various public responses. Given the work achieved through the rise of Idle No More, it would seem Rhodes was slightly ahead of the curve, attempting to explore and question some of the structures inherent between two sides in such deep conflict, given that their language markers and concepts are so vastly different. As he writes in the poem “sôniyâwahkêsîs,” part of the larger “Preoccupied Space,” a poem that quite literally has a river of words running through it:
listen to them pounding their nations down
into this dream land
church spires schools land registries
Some might recall that, a couple of years back, Rhodes made waves by donating the prize-money he won for his Lampman-Scott Award (the merging of the Archibald Lampman Award and the Duncan Campbell Scott Award) for the sake of Duncan Campbell Scott’s tainted history as the Minister of Indian Affairs, thereby forcing the annual Ottawa poetry book prize back to its roots as the Archibald Lampman Award. Some might argue a complication due his use of voice, a thread that came up slightly through his previous collection, Err (Nightwood Editions, 2011), when he utilized the voices of AIDS patients, deliberately blurring the lines between engagement and discomfort.
The book is built up of two sections: “Poems,” which is constructed out of four sections and a “Notes and Acknowledgements,” and continues from the other side of the book with “Anti-Poems,” a section made up of the poem “White Noise.” As Rhodes writes at the end of the second half of the book (which is, technically, somewhere in the middle):
White Noise is composed of material harvested from 15, 283 public comments posted in response to fifty-five online news articles from the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Sun News, the Ottawa Citizen, the Province, and the Calgary Herald over a forty day period between December 20, 2012 and January 28, 2013. All news articles were in relation to the Idle No More protest movement and the beginning and end of the hunger strike of Theresa Spence, Chief of the Attawapiskat First Nations reserve. Idle No More started in Saskatchewan in November 2012 as a grassroots movement led by First Nations to protest recent attacks on Indigenous sovereignty, treaty rights, human rights and environmental protections by the Government of Canada. Adding to this protest, Chief Theresa Spence began her hunger strike—subsisting on a liquid diet of medicinal teas and fish broth—on December 11, 2012 demanding, among other things, a meeting between Canada’s First Nations leadership, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the Governor General of Canada to discuss Canada’s treaty relationship with First Nations. Her hunger strike ended on January 24, 2013.
There is something about the book itself that presents a conformity of shape, while the poems physically cohere to an entirely different set of considerations. The poems feel uncomfortable within the shape of the book, something that might be entirely deliberate, forcing the language of one structure into an arbitrary other. Throughout the collection, Rhodes utilizes a variety of fonts, sizes and line directions to compose a series of polyvocal poems – visual poems, prose poems, lists, long poems, etcetera – to articulate, track and explore an ongoing conflict of generations, filled with Empire, deliberate misunderstandings and outright racist strategies by the Federal Government (including by Duncan Campbell Scott himself). How do two sides coincide when they approach land and space so very differently? As he writes further on in the poem “sôniyâwahkêsîs”: “you are history I think / but not the one I was taught [.]”
Peigan, Sarcee, Stony
and perhaps Native American
be inhabitedwithpower to distrat
most sofullIcan’teatmore beadworkdesign
do overhere!buyoncredit seed,
high person in government of CanOpener
the Medicinal herbs Magpie Queen
and herbdrink inrapidsuccession pasteverything,
all there! honest, badname,
to land inurved
smallgointhewater to follow limp,
I’m intrigued at Rhodes’ use of the phrase “anti-poems,” and might question what he thinks the phrase means, siding one against another, “poems” against its mirror. Which side is “poem,” and which becomes that which is against? Rhodes’ poems have long held an experimental bent against more formal strategies, but in this collection, he allows the more experimental side to really flourish, pushing up against all sides of the printed page. This is a complicated and deliberately troubled and troubling book, one that hopefully further opens a conversation that has been so very long in coming.
When you’re sick with fear you’re never sick with, or,
You’re sick with fear you’re never sick, or,
Sick with fear you’re never, or,
With fear you’re, or,
Fear is my motherfuckin best ‘friend,’ jks
Toronto writer Margaret Christakos is easily one of our most daring, consistently inventive and deeply engaged contemporary Canadian poets, and has been for years, bafflingly overlooked for major awards for any of her poetry collections, eight of which have appeared in print over the past twenty-five years. Obviously, awards or lack-thereof have nothing to do with quality, but with her ninth trade poetry collection, Multitudes (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2013), one hopes that her work can start receiving the recognition it so badly deserves. Christakos’ Multitudes revels in polyvocal syntactic play, utilizing repetition, reorder and the abbreviated language of twitter to engage a poetry of social spaces, ranging from responses to Jack Layton and Lena Dunham to an engagement with the social and linguistic disconnect of social media itself. Christakos’ poetry has long explored fractures and connections, exploring the depths and multiplicities of disconnect, and Multitudes expands on her previous collections, striking a deep, dark chord at the very heart of how humans interact, and, at the same time, manage to keep as far apart from each other as possible. As she writes in the poem “FOUR YEARS IS IT”:
in the morning It is practically the last consumption of
each day It behaves like a social life but gradually
erases a social life as
much as it creates on
‘I’ in your third person
feels you are speaking to a
‘them’ but day by day some of us become more
untranslatable about picking up the phone as if the mirror-glass
Christakos has played at reworking the language of her own poems within sections in previous works, pilfering and reordering pieces to twist in and turn around on each other, and Multitudes appears to take the structure in a slightly different direction, even as the subtitle(s) to the collection twists the title itself:
Constructed in nine sections, the first section, the poem “Threshold,” presents her opening salvo, giving a taste of what’s to come. As the poem opens:
push words into body.
do those words form a column or spiral?
do those words coalesce as body
into the body they conjure?
push words into mouth.
do those words form a tongue or jetty?
is a probe formed that touches
the tongue it entangles?
push words onto mound of nipple,
onto mounded nipple jewels.
do words circulate as honey, as
tentacles that leaven and stiffen?
There is an immediacy and an urgency to the entire collection, boiling occasionally from a frustration that turns to anger, as she writes: “I realized then I was writing an Atwood poem from 1978. Nobody says how brilliant and mean she was, how shitkicking. She’d have known what to say, exactly what to do with that arm.” (“DIRGE URGE”).
Wavering on a stoop. The day doesn’t start yet. Days on end come to a stop. The water is all in the lake. Level rises, falls, but the lake is itself. Everything alive in the lake belongs. Anything incompatible immediately ceases to breathe. There’s a limit.
You don’t necessarily do what is strategic when moths fly into your lips. What if the mouth had been ajar. What if I’d swallowed that fly. Perhaps I’ll dive under the surface.
I was an old lady in the first dream. Then I woke to a hotel room with tartar sauce on my little finger. We’d had supper and fucked. I didn’t feel so old then.
Kids are obsessed with opening and shutting any door they find, rushing their shoulders through every portal. What happens that it locks? How will I escape? They spend a decade deciding which was to run then the walls close in. they’re smart. Days don’t end when they sleep.
Lake streams around the rockpoint the way you penetrated me in gladness. Crappy bedspread didn’t matter. We weren’t looking at the patterns. Wind reverses direction and heads out to the hillside way over there, by the hospital. That place is full of windows stuck shut. Bad air. You think twice about going in there for the X-ray. Maybe you’ll never come out.
The final section of the collection, “Play,” is “composed in real time” of status updates posted to Facebook, written quick in short bursts, and accumulate into an extended poem of twists and quirks akin to the short stories posted on Twitter by Arjun Basu or Adam Thomlison. One might presume that her chapbook that appeared last year, from Tumultétudes: The Chips & Ties Study (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2012), a selection from “Tumultétudes,” a longer work-in-progress, might be an extension of the new collection, composing a multitudinous study of the tumult and complexity of home, family and family health issues, with the musicality and compositional brevity and difficulty of the French étude. When one begins to work within a multitude, one can encompass everything and all, and the polyvocality of this new work extends out in all directions, held together as tight and taut as any highwire. Christakos’ work might be seen by some to be difficult, or about difficulty, but with such playful ease that it becomes impossible to not be swept up in her glorious music.
According to and fittingly – a break
and our pockets fill with flowers to conceal the smell of dying.
Thus concludes the final succumbing to bloody pomander and posy.
The only authentic reference being a ring – a ring of roses
moreover and other than this
We would have – O, we would have. (“A General Tale”)
Over the course of three trade poetry collections, Ottawa poet (formerly of Saskatchewan) Sandra Ridley has evolved her poems to encompass a particularly wide canvas. In her third collection, The Counting House (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2013), following her previous two – Fallout (Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2009) [see my review of such here] and Post-Apothecary (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2011) [see my review of such here] – Ridley manages pinpoint minutae of a complex thought, extended and stretched apart to reveal and revel in an incredibly dense gymnastic language on par with contemporary Canadian poets Margaret Christakos, Sylvia Legris and Christine McNair. Through this new collection, Sandra Ridley composes silence, a considered hush, and a tension so taut that it hums.
Falling – not always a dropping to the ground
as rhyme not death
not a literal fall or heartbreak
any other form of respective bending. (“A General Tale”)
Structured in four poem-sections – “A General Tale,” “Lax Tabulation,” “Testamonium” and “Luxuria” – the second section “was written as an ekphrastic response to michèle provost’s art installation, ABSTrACTS / RéSuMÉS: An Exercise in Poetry, at the Ottawa Art Gallery. Others who responded to her work were jwcurry, John Lavery, Pearl Pirie, Carmel Purkis, and Grant Wilkins. Our material was presented at Ottawa’s artist-run-centre, Saw Gallery, in early 2010, in cooperation with the AB Series.” The poems in this collection explore physical space, constraint, and the space of trauma, nimbly composed within a coiled and considered breath. Ridley is very much a poet working in longer forms, with the book as her unit of composition, and in an interview I recently conducted with her (forthcoming in filling Station magazine), she described some of the book’s construction:
There isn’t much of a landscape in The Counting House and not a strict narrative either. The four serial poems are centred on the lack of information about courtly affection gone awry and about the tallying of the gaps that kind of absence makes. The first section was catalyzed by my reading of interpretations of traditional English rhymes, as found in the Roud Folk Song Index—petty epics of kings, queens and maidens, and the pageantry and pedantry of their unnoble state of affairs.
The remaining three sections are connected in tone. One was written via ekphrasis, with me looking through a bifocal lens of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. The second section is a long poem composed in response to michèle provost’s art installation, ABSTrACTS/RéSuMÉS: An Exercise in Poetry, with that lens in front of me.
If there is any thematic continuity following from my first two books, it would come from my obsession with harm—as manifest through seclusion and (re)assertion.
There’s a substantial amount of accusation and denial in the house’s tallying, and as the text moves through time, the tabulation takes different forms. The non-story becomes clearer and more like a reckoning. I was curious about what an accountant’s notebook might look like in poetic form.
Composing and colluding the gradients of pleasure and pain wrapped up in harm, Ridley explores courtly love: “The art of rectifying. Without interruption by the slightest punishment. Or a whole sequence. / Coercions. Verdicts. Confusions.” (“Testamonium”). Exploring facts, exclusions, silences and expectations, the book asks, what does your love do to you, what does it make you become?
When your darling considers it. It she was concerned with it then. Aware of the sundries. Details. Despair become a whole history.
She had a lack of willingness. Insufferable. Her crudest form.
With the same persistence. She cedes to tendency. Falls with a rigorous ferocity.
Bitten lip. (“Testamonium”)
The Counting House also has one of the finest covers I’ve seen on a poetry book in some time, replicating artwork by Gatineau artist michèle provost. Stitched into three dimensions, provost’s artwork provide a fantastic physicality to the metaphoric house, so deftly constructed through the scope of the poems.
Don’t be scared. Every airplane is a suspension
of disbelief, a merger of physics and faith.
Every airplane guides its housefly tongue
along a curving, snagless line. Its corridor of earth
is lined with lights. So don’t be scared:
let that crescendo of the engines be your trust
that nothing levitates on algebra alone. Subdue
the sputter of doubt. The bags are checked,
the brown men shackled to the ground; their secrets,
pulled like rotten teeth, are yours.
As is the sky, swept clean by searchlights, emptied
even of the moon, the stars.
From Kingston, Ontario poet Sadiqa de Meijer comes the poetry collection, Leaving Howe Island (Fernie BC: Oolichan Books, 2013). This first trade collection includes her 2012 CBC Canada Writes Poetry Prize award-winning sequence, “Great Aunt Unmarried.” I must admit, it has been so long since I’ve seen anything from Oolichan Books (they produced an impressive Robert Kroetsch title circa 1980, but I can’t recall much else they’ve published) that I’d forgotten they even existed. What have they been up to, I wonder? Constructed out of two sections – the poem/suite “Great Aunt Unmarried” and “There, There,” a longer section of individual poems – Leaving Howe Island is a rich, deep first collection, one that manages to hold together through the deft hand of craft, and her attention to the smallest details. There are far too many similarly ambitious and dense works that fully collapse beneath their own weight, but de Meijer manages to balance this out through a considerable lightness. Sometimes she even distracts us with the pure simplicity of her lines, as she opens the poem “Saint John,” “You say to the ocean, we’re here.”
You say to the ocean, we’re here.
Windshield frames the subdued sloshing
of the harbour. Chain link, guardhouse,
a cruise ship whiter than seagulls.
Salt and molluscs in our noses. Hours
down asphalt flanked with moose-fence,
thin coffee from lukewarm machines, for this
gray comforter, this wordless report
of mackerel and lantern fish,
remote, familiar strands. A man
in a windbreaker leans in your window
to ask, where in Ontario? He came here
to retire. Says Sure was a good move.
Scarborough’s too full of – squints at me, sucks
down the words – Your neighbours
look out for you here. He nods his cap,
limps smaller in the sideview mirror.
The engine ticks. Your grin
is sore. I’m invulnerable, because
my hand is on my belly. Five months.
Kicking a jig, elated, without theory.
The work that won the CBC Canada Writes Poetry Prize, “Great Aunt Unmarried,” is a sequence of poems that write using and utilizing a story as opposed to directly retelling, managing to use the story itself to do something further with the writing. The story exists as fodder, sometimes backbone, and other times, completely incidental to the mortar of an impressive sequence thick with suggestion, inference and history, a deeply tangible imagery and a weighty language, writing: “Seconds when she flickers / in the lantern of a stranger— / coarse eyebrows, slow douse / of a grin. I’m a kinder then.” Another part of the same suite of poems reads:
We went for a drive in nature. Two of them tied ivory
kerchiefs around their home permanents while the third
muttered a curse on vanity, and we folded into a sedan,
automatic for the rheumatisms. At the speed of a procession,
to the dissolution of chalk peppermints. Here, the middle sister
nodded to the shoulder. Lawn chairs emerged. From the ditch,
the road was hearsay. Buttercups towered over a far spire.
The three in bifocals, their hands on the slacks
trembled like the grass. To the south, the air force was practicing.
Whether that haunted or comforted them, I couldn’t tell.
On the drive to the house, the silence had a grander shape,
like a bell that fits over fields and villages, and schoolhouses
and sugar beets and people. (“Friesland”)
Deeply personal, writing on family and domestic matters, the connections and dislocations of home and away, de Meijer’s poems are playful, serious and considered, contemplative and high speed, moving quickly and for a long time, linger. I’m impressed by these poems, and just how quietly mature the collection stands. How does she manage such tightrope lines?
to the swarm of abundance. The world
by now a high plateau over the varied
woodlanders, the men of the sea.
First Nations writer Jordan Abel’s first trade collection, the place of scraps (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2013) is a stunning reclamation project. At nearly three hundred pages, Abel’s collection of fragments, erasures, scraps, texts, visuals and concrete poems, as the press release tells us, manages to:
[…] re-articulate the voice of Marius Barbeau, an early-twentieth-century ethnographer who studied First Nations cultures in the Pacific Northwest, including Abel’s ancestral Nisga’a Nation. But through acquiring indigenous goods to sell to Canadian museums, Barbeau ended up playing an active role in displacing the very cultures he strove to protect.
Rather than condemn Barbeau’s actions and the unfortunate history he created, Abel examines how history itself comes to be written. Just as Barbeau once sawed through a huge Nisga’a totem pole to ship by train to Ontario, Abel makes precise incisions in Barbeau’s canonical text, Totem Poles, allowing the “scraps” to disperse into multiple, graphic re-presentations of indigenous ethnography.
Abel’s erasure picks apart a history of dismantling and a dismantling of history itself, turning Barbeau’s work, if not specifically against him, back around, against the damage his dismantling did and his own presumptions. Canadian ethnographer and folklorist Marius Barbeau (1883-1969) is considered “a father of Canadian anthropology,” and catalogued a number of cultures within Canada, from various aboriginal cultures to Quebec’s Francophone cultures, misunderstanding that practices of removing artifacts and other items from its native culture was in fact helping to erase the very histories he attempted to preserve.
The work in the place of scraps feels less a re-articulation of Barbeau’s voice than Abel using the building blocks of Barbeau’s voice and texts that articulate his outright theft of indigenous goods to articulate those deeply-felt losses, and work toward rebuilding a text of what had been stolen, including Abel’s relationship to the Nisga’a Nation, as well as attempting to piece together scraps of his own personal history. Deeply personal and highly charged, this is Abel, quite literally, reassembling history through an archaeology of stolen pieces, as well as through Barbeau’s words and discoveries. Some sections of the collection are constructed from a paragraph of Barbeau’s text before Abel proceeds to tear it apart, composing a widely expressive concrete/visual text of artifacts and scraps brought back to life. “In summary // his,” Abel writes, early on in the collection, or “field / process wherein / language readjusts to /// casualty //// a description of.” Later on, Abel’s explorations run deeper into the personal, using Barbeau’s texts as a jumping-off point into more intimate territories:
The poet returns to Vancouver, his birth city, after a twenty-one year absence. The poet investigates the last known locations of his father; the poet internalizes the procedures of the city; the poet exchanges premeditated extrapolations for physical grandiosity. The city indulges the poet’s weakness for vegetation and water-adjacent sand; the city believes in the authenticity of beauty and strategically located totem poles. The poet arranges a meeting with the former friends of his parents who attempt to explain the truth behind the theatricality of his infancy. The former friends of his parents give the poet a wooden spoon that his absent father carved. The poet initiates the suitable gestures for thankfulness and rotates the spoon over and over in his palms.
Abel’s the place of scraps is a collection composed in and through the margins of various histories, forefronting a series of reclaimed gestures; a book about shared losses, important gestures and acknowledgment, and rebuilding not only a series of personal and cultural histories, but personal and cultural memories. The result is incredible.
Of his own volition, the poet returns to Toronto, confident that he will be reunited with the totem pole removed from the Nass River valley by Marius Barbeau. The poet confronts the admissions staff member at the ROM, explains that he refuses to pay to see a totem pole that was taken from his ancestral village. The staff member initiates a lethargic request to allow admission under special circumstances but is unable to contact any of his superiors. The staff member shrugs, verbalizes his apathy, and allows the poet into the museum. The pole towers through the staircase; the poet circles up to the top. The pole is here; the poet is here.
Scotland is they say
\\a hard place
where sounds store in stones
and stories score on rock
a cryptic story
the dead slammed
open & shut
abandoned quarries the graveyards
littered with stone
jammed with bones
their own quarrels with the neighbours
In the stones (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 2013), Winnipeg poet, editor and critic Dennis Cooley’s fifteenth book of poems, Cooley appears to have composed an extension of the structures and themes of his previous poetry collection, correction line (Saskatoon SK: Thistledown, 2008): a series of lyric fragments that write out geographic tracings, highlighting hearth and home. Throughout his published work, Cooley has work through prairie histories, prairie geographies and family, all the way back to his first collection, Leaving (Turnstone Press, 1980), and expanding to his many other collections: Bloody Jack (Turnstone Press, 1984; Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2002), Soul Searching (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1987), Dedications (Saskatoon SK: Thistledown Press, 1988), This Only Home (Turnstone, 1992), Irene (Turnstone Press, 2000) and the recent critical selected, By Word of Mouth: The Poetry of Dennis Cooley (ed. Nicole Markotić; Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007). The poems in the stones begin in Scotland, and open up through a play on the word, the image and the idea of the stone, writing “the rocks scraped by wind and snow / and by later arrivals / rivals for space,” composing a space entirely constructed out of the semi-permanence of stone. Through referencing the late prairie poet Robert Kroetsch in one of the four epigraphs that open the collection, seemingly lifted from one of Cooley’s own journal entries, Cooley links the stones to Kroetsch’s own stone hammer from The Stone Hammer Poems (Nanaimo BC: Oolichan Books, 1975), composing the tool of the stone as a central point, as well as a building block of civilization itself.
through Saarland my
grandmother’s family home
dyed in the wool
they were dyed in the wool
catholics possibly & they died
in the woods
Bill Wood, likely
as his word
did it for his pals
& they died
& some were damned
& all of them drowned
where the South Saskatchewan Regiment waded ashore
wadded with mud & blood
Throughout the collection, Cooley connects numerous geographies through stone, from “the leavings / traces of paint shadow lines / left by the Stone Sioux / called Assiniboine” to some of the history of his hometown of Estevan, Saskatchewan, writing “on the other stones we read: MURDERED / BY THE RCMP chiselled & removed & / later on a yellow once again on the grave / stone Beinfait cemetery & went on” to other stone, writing “centuries later / Napoleon’s armies hauled it up / up it rose from the ruins of Rosetta / rock out of a frost boil you might think / or petrified gland [.]” Through Cooley, stone becomes a central image of language, translation and memory, all composed as a series of extended permanences. Cooley wanders world histories, pre-history and prairie histories, collaging short lyric sections composed in a variety of styles that manage to hold together through the assortment, much in the way he did in his infamous early work, Bloody Jack. In another section of the stones, he writes: “Europe is a series of rockpiles / people live inside. Cave people / then, cave people still.”
They were here too, the people who set them, the stones, rose up in their magic of flesh. Were they shocked that they could move and talk, touch other flesh, feel panic flash and go out? Must have wanted to swim in it, enmeshed, speckle the dark waters. Knew what it was to be, quick, and chancing. And afraid.
Must have sensed bodies are flasks you drink from. That skin stretches over earth, a tattoo of stone, people’s movings, to and fro. Over the face of the earth. Time closes.
Stones, they must have thought, someone must have, are the earth’s bones, sloughed. What flesh was set on, tied to, pegged upon, hung from.
Minerals were earth’s veins—what against the body’s resistance, they wrote. The earth was one big body, it huffed and ambled, shuffled and bled. It belched and rolled, breached and heaved. In its wind was breathing and in rain something else. Small insects eating their way through the earth, scratching the skin, burrowing into mines. And they fell into the mind’s depletion, chewed te veins out of the dark and the cold and when sun struck straightened.
Billions of explosions prowled in storms no one could see coming and went off bewilderingly inside. Told them stories of how the world moved in dark and disarray.
Cooley has long favoured explorations of prairie language and the jagged, staggered line as well as the large poetic project, including the multiple publications that fall into his ongoing “Love in a Dry Land” project, such as poems published in Sunfall: new and selected poems (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 1996), to the “Dennis Cooley issue” of Prairie Fire (1998) and the trade volumes Country Music: New Poems (Vernon BC: Kalamalka Press, 2004) and The Bentleys (University of Alberta Press, 2006). This new work, the stones, write out what he has referred to before as his “vernacular prairie.” To consider the poetry of Dennis Cooley is, among other things, to reconsider space, as well as the vernacular voice, and twisting of the language through bad jokes and puns, taking each further than any other poet would. For Cooley, one of his essential movements is through the line, correct or otherwise, given best voice through his magnificent essay on line breaks in his collection of essays, The Vernacular Muse (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1987). In correction line, he composed the line as one to be reworked and corrected, as well as referencing the actual lines of correction that stretch across the prairies. In the title poem to correction line he wrote: “it was at the correction line / they made their mistake / big mistake you might say,” continuing a narrative of geographic surveys in poetic form, Cooley writing the same terrain, fielding out his lines from all points in, out and between his Estevan and Winnipeg. Or, in another piece, referencing both geographic lines and the poetic line of American poet Charles Olson, suggesting what would come next, to peer at what lay beyond the surface:
an O pening
of the field
I abandon my self
to a blushing
of precise boundaries,
like where a squirrel would
step up to snap the branch
back fast enough
to ride the torque all the way back,
a walnut under each arm –
getaway with intent to spring
rather than English leave.
It’s why I wear my
& my jacket is the color
of the sky.
I’d abandon everything
for a plush spring
with a fat calendar,
every day ringing a bell
every day floating
in a penumbra of sound
echolocalic lenses unfurling
coiled batwings flap
as I velociraptor
among rainy streets & thread
on a knotted length of fishing line
pinpricks of orange brick
mixed with holiday sweat.
You abandon yourself
to the runnels & channels
of a new boundary,
thick transparency mirroring
even when disrupted
the thick marine light
located by inference
the waggle of a last leaf &
two minutes of leaping edit
is a spray of divided attention,
your lupine shoulder dropping
hot science on cold water. (“A Letter to Hammertown”)
The concluding volume in Nanaimo, British Columbia poet Peter Culley’s “Hammertown” trilogy is Parkway (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2013), following the volumes Hammertown (New Star Books, 2003) and The Age of Briggs and Stratton (New Star Books, 2008). As the back cover of Parkway tells us, “‘Hammertown’ is French Oulipo writer George Perec’s invention, an imaginary finishing port on Vancouver Island that Peter Culley recognized as his own home town of Nanaimo.” In this alone, it would seem as though Culley’s “Hammertown” works to be a blending of what he might know of Nanaimo (where the author has lived for most of his life), and what he recognizes in Perec’s articulation of the fictional fishing port. In his review of the original Hammertown in Canadian Literature (#184; spring 2005), critic Ian Rae writes:
This industry is responsible for the “pulpy sulphur rain” falling on the hometown of Nanaimo poet and art critic Peter Culley. Inspired by a reference to a village on Vancouver Island in George Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, Culley imagines in Hammertown how Nanaimo might have appeared to the Oulipo poet. Culley does not paint a realist portrait, but rather seeks to capture “the syntax of place” as Perec might have perceived it. I doubt that the syntax of either Paris or Hammertown compels a farmer to remark that “cattle from untasted fields do / bitterly return,” but overall the collection provides some interesting interpretative challenges. Given the Perec epigram, one hunts for acrostic-telestics, hidden algorithms, omitted letters of the alphabet, or some guiding principle for the shifting subject matter. For example, a third of the collection consists of sequences of seven-line stanzas, each containing roughly seven beats per line. This form conveys a sense of rhythm and looks very nice on the page, but in what else the poems cohere I have no idea. Culley, like Laba, hopes that the tactility of words and the delirious struggle of the mind to cope with incessant change are pleasure enough. One may wish to worship with Culley on the “prayer-rug of faded beach,” but he no sooner introduces this rug than he pulls it out from under the reader. Dizzy and confused, the reader lands in a world where “speech or its opposite / flutters the blinds / at the moment of sleep.” In short bursts this dizziness is quiet pleasing, but longer episodes induce sleep after all.
Parkway contains a curious range of poetic responses, including poems after Wallace Stevens (“Cruel Summer”), for Kevin Davies (“Pause Button”), for Bernadette Mayer (“November Day”), for Bernd Heinrich (“North by Northwest”), for Theo Parrish (“Ugly Edit”), for Lary Bremner (“Five North Vancouver Trees”), for Maxine Gadd (“MAX POWER for Maxine Gadd”), for George Stanley (“Inland Empire”), and in memoriam Jonathan Williams and Gerry Gilbert (“Sampler”), all of which play off phrases, lines, titles or structures of those he has dedicated the individual poems to. Throughout the collection, Culley acknowledges industry, personal history, social commentary and the eco-poetic, as he opens the poem “Sampler” with a mention of “The Rural Parkway – Wooded / is characterized as / the ‘cut through the forest’ / quality created by / the regularity of the forest edge / and by the relative closeness / of the forest to the roadway.” The third of the eleven-section poem reads:
A newly formatted
pops digitally out & in
of trombone beak
Texas jug band style
but overhead no newscrawl
no basslines from inland terraces
or hoots from hominid heights,
offroad daytrippers drop
off arbutus cloudtops
badger into a crevasse
midwestern cushion full stop tree
bent under a towhee
the tread of a groundwater smeller
rumbles through the cellar.
Nearly in point-form, Culley articulates his hybrid, “Hammertown,” writing out a space created fiction, imagination, history and memory, and one that incorporates numerous threads and articulations from other writing. The book includes a cover photo by the author, the piece “Angelus Novus (for EF),” of what appears to be fragments of discarded/found materials. In Parkway, Culley blends and weaves his poems from similar materials, and manages to create something part memoir, part city-biography and part myth. Whether taken as a single work, or trilogy as a whole, the project is fascinating, and the work shimmers in and out of focus like a shifting photograph. Peter Culley has long held an intriguing position in Canadian writing, and the press release describes him as a “Kootenay School of Writing hang-around in the 1980s,” allowing him a lengthy period of being known for his obscurity, and possibly better known by name than his actual writing. For example: I’ve known of his name for years, but haven’t a clue what kind of work he doing before this particular trilogy, and can only hope that the publication of the third book in his “Hammertown” allows his work to gain a wider audience. I’m curious to see where his writing will go next.
burning as though
accusation is evidence
innocent until proven filthy
by supremacy’s medieval darkening
cruise sadistic missiles
in airspace internationalized
on prime time tv
set clocks to progress
as capital backpeddles
low dose over the counter
intelligence on high alert
reason sold as empty addiction
to barren media
barrelling dollars per
down the barrel of a pun
Akin to the ongoing email call-and-response collaborations of Douglas Barbour and Sheila M. Murphy – produced so far as Continuations (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006) and Continuations 2 (University of Alberta Press, 2012) – is the new Sybil Unrest (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2013) by Vancouver writers Larissa Lai and Rita Wong. As the back cover suggests, the collection was “Inspired by renga and composed via an email conversation,” and explores “fresh connections between feminism, environmentalism, and personal-political responsibility […].”Moving through western Canada and contemporary culture, the poem writes on social upheavals, the nature of the citizen, violence and the dangers of capitalism. Utilizing play and pun, politics and social awareness, the poem-fragments display a rushing, accumulated urgency that demands the performance, riffing off contemporary pop and other references like a jazz lingo:
hack hawk haul ass
the posture of packing
shuffled deck dick duck
yes duck the shit
and no i’m not
happy to see you
when my civic dissonance
The book is broken up into three suites of short fragments, nearly operatic in scale, the poems are an intriguing blend of the individual works by the two authors. Larissa Lai, known predominantly as a novelist, authored the poetry collection Automaton Biographies (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009), and Rita Wong is the author of the poetry collections monkeypuzzle (Press Gang, 1998) and forage (Nightwood Editions, 2007), each of which utilize variations on what they collaborate on for their Sybil Unrest—short lyric fragments, social awareness and a cadence that twists and turns and pops. In the acknowledgements, they write a short piece on the origins of the book (I would recommend highly going through their write-up in its entirety, but will only reproduce a section of such, here), that begins:
This poem began in a renga spirit during the 2003 Hong Kong International Literary Festival. It was a fraught moment – the beginning of the SARS crisis in Hong Kong and the American invasion of Iraq which we witnessed through the highly interested sources of CNN and BBC in our hotel room TV. Attending David Fujino and Aaron Vidavers playful “july 23/03” at the Kootenay School of Writing later that year was the catalytic inspiration that actually got this poem off the ground. sybil unrest is a back and forth conversation conducted by email over the course of several months.
At our first public reading of the poem at the Kootenay School of Writing, on December 13, 2003, Fred Wah asked “Where did the ‘I’ go?” “We” gesture towards how the personal sparks this dialogue. “Ours” is not so much an individualized “I”, but rather a range of “i”s emerging and fading back as instances that unsettle the (capitalist) time and space we occupy. As such, the “i”s are not reliable but trace movement through the long now and constitute evidence of some hopeful reaching towards friendly coexistence of multiple tactics/perspectives.
I’ve always been curious about the sheer amount of western Canadian poets who can manage a language poetry with a social edge (Stephen Collis, Jeff Derksen, nikki reimer, Maxine Gadd, Louis Cabri, et al), and there is an incredible crackle and pop lyric to the language here, a musicality that sings and rides and riffs, rushing along like an onslaught of water. The poem urges, demands and even calls for action, but provides few answers, perhaps where no easy answers could exist.
beast within is best
in enemy arms
or canary’s coal mine
tarred and feathered
by the same boss
girl our goodness
while ewes bleat refusal
we jack the cracker
fm radios the past
post-punked in new romantic
bombs our harlequin fingers nimble threads
camels eye the needle
as we eye heaven
on the other side of complicity
capital beckons sweet
as freedom in a tight skirt
violence loves desire
as meat loves leer
mammon’s mama-san moves mountains
holy shock thin veil
agape quells what wells
cri de cur of nervous organism
hankering after rich man’s bone
Through nearly a dozen trade poetry collections, Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall’s poems have the durability and devastation of koans, and the envy of poets who encounter them. Much like the books that preceded it, his eleventh trade poetry collection, The Small Nouns Crying Faith (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2013), is deeply immersed in the world and history, yet contained by neither. The Small Nouns Crying Faith borrows its title from the poem “Psalm” by George Oppen, himself known as a “poet of attentiveness,” a quality easily attributed to the more than three decades of Hall’s work. Oppen’s small poem, originally published as part of the collection This in Which (1965), opens with “In the small beauty of the forest / The wild deer bedding down— / That they are there!” with the fifth and final stanza, that reads: “The small nouns / Crying faith / In this in which the wild deer / Startle, and stare out.” Reading Oppen and Hall side by side, the comparisons run deep—Hall composes poems from his Ontario landscape, shades of his darker past, notes on his literary forebears (whom he refers to as his “heroes”), numerous artifacts, and could just as easily reference, at any point, the importance of pausing to listen for deer.
Our expedition followed her cold-tea stare
to chunks of boiled turnip wrapped in waxed paper in a lunch pail
near camp that first night the shortest verse in the Bible
was recorded as her only expletive
Hectares from where her breast had proffered the warmest bottle
was found a cigarette rolling-machine wrapped in a clown costume
On our last out-bound day we came upon Royal Family clippings
attached to corn-stalks by bobby-pins all these items (photos/articles)
we harvested & catalogued except the pins (rusted/discarded) note
little brown saw-marks in the corners of the stiff ceremonies
to Skugog Island an au pair …
Phil Hall has long been a poet of deep attention, compiling and collecting into an accumulation of poems that speak of artifacts and smallness, and a humanity rarely lived and articulated so well in Canadian poetry. This is his first trade collection since he won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the Trillium Award, as well as being shortlisted for the Griffin Prize, for Kildeer (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2011), a collection of self-described “essay-poems,” published as part of BookThug’s “Department of Critical Thought.” Hall’s latest collection of what have evolved into “essay-poems” continue to practice a folk-local, examining the small, local and deeply specific, composing striking lines and phrases that accumulate into individual pieces, as well as sections of a far-broader canvas. Somehow, his lines manage to self-contain in such a way that even a shift in the order might still make the entire collection no less capable, breathtaking and wise. As he writes in the poem “Plum Hollow”: “The failure of order is the work / disorder is not the work.” The collection also includes a small pamphlet-as-insert, “Faith,” a poem-sequence composed up of words and phrases plucked from the book as a whole, selected and rearranged to reveal both something new, and something about the entire project.
I would celebrate every detail
now I have changed my thinking on that
no such thing as not being at sea
the alphabet does not end or begin
wild yet this inextricable quickening
Hall’s isn’t a poetry carved into perfect diamond form, but a poetry whittled from scores of found material to be arranged, pulled apart and rearranged. The poems are important for what they know, what they ask and reveal, and they might tell you, if you know to listen.
14. Kim Minkus, Tuft
I have visions.
I see colours as birds go.
my sparrow gaze lifts me up.
I look. out.
I don’t need much space, but I want it.
stop the keypads.
I am interested in the labour of listening.
becoming is my extravagance.
It’s interesting to see Tuft (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2013), Vancouver poet Kim Minkus’ own love song to her city, existing almost as a counterpoint to the lyric of Daphne Marlatt’s Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2013). It’s also worth noting the Paul Celan influence throughout, including the Celan quote that opens the collection, “here come the colours,” and the way the shapes and sounds of Minkus’ words twist and turn, “he pecks at words / and sneaks loamy garden terms into his breath” (“Bird”), an influence that has worked its way through a number of Canadian poets, notably the work of Mark Goldstein, another BookThug author.
The animals leave the shores of the river. lope down curbs. peer into gardens. their teeth gnash and sparkle in the reflecting pools of fluorescence. the creatures that live in their fur and between their toes tangle in the alleys. the city and the animals flourish – together. coyotes, skunks, raccoons – nightraiders lull the streets luminescence. when you see the animals you forget. the city translates.
A former Ottawa resident, Minkus is also the author of two previous poetry collections 9 Freight (Vancouver BC: LINEbooks, 2008) and thresh (Montreal QC: Snare books, 2009). Her Tuft is built out of an untitled opening sequence, and seven sections, each of which exist as a single poem-sequence: “Bird,” “TUFT,” “Laneway,” “Machine,” “24 Nonets Written After Reading Edward Byrne’s Sonnets: Louise Labé,” “Industry” and “Philomena.” Each section of the collection appears to focus on a different aspect of Vancouver, writing individual points on the Vancouver grid in an exploration of language and space. As she writes in the poem/section, “Machine,” “Take a ride through the machine of my city // each tower machine // waits for its moment,” later writing in the “Industry,” “random middles live in our cities // between difficult and capital // over that system as a whole // the best middles revert to agriculture[.]” Very much a poet aware of and responding to contemporary social justice, Minkus’ poems in Tuft explore the boundaries between written language and physical space, and personal versus consumer space, such as the clutter, debris and billboards of “Laneway,” or a literary Vancouver represented by Edward Byrne, and his Sonnets: Louise Labé (Nomados) [see my review of such here]. The twelfth of these “nonets” reads:
Irreproachable those phrases in the margins
enforcing something delicious
a sweet note or sound
from my lips to your mouth
a sad ending or song
give me something whole
instead of grief an exit
silence – ecstasy
Hers might be a love song, but one that doesn’t shy away from the occasional critique, writing her way across the margins, whether the billboards of “Laneway,” or in “Industry,” where she writes “honest desire strains our escalated privileges[.]”
the form of the fact
production, distribution, repair
auction houses, tamed vapor, burnt orange taxis
fixed high speed agriculture
instead of one warehouse artist
our gardeners are gods of war
The rebellion is now a thing
of the past, it is now a page
When a few generations shall come and
go our sad story of the Frog Lake
Massacre may be totally forgotten and
the actors therein consigned to
oblivion, but, these few papers, should
they by any chance survive the hand of
time will tell to the children of the
future Canada what those of your day
experienced and suffered and when
those who are yet to be learn the extent
of the troubles undergone and the
sacrifices made by those of the present
to set them examples worthy of
imitation and models fit for their
practice to build up for them a great
and solid nation they may perhaps
reflect with pride upon the history of
their country its struggles dangers
tempests and calms in those days I
trust and pray that Canada may be the
realization of that glowing picture of a
grand nation drawn by a Canadian poet
Towards the end of Calgary poet and small press publisher Paul Zits’ first trade poetry collection, Massacre Street (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2013), he includes the poem “The rebellion is now a thing / of the past, it is now a page,” centring the collection precisely there, at the beginning. Zits composes his Massacre Street to recreate “a poetic view of the Frog Lake Massacre of April 2, 1885,” structured from the influence of various perspectives on the Canadian historical prairie poem. Zits is working very clearly in a tradition that includes work by Robert Kroetsch, Monty Reid, Aritha Van Herk, Jon Paul Fiorentino and Dennis Cooley, each of whom managed to reenergize both history and the form of “documentary poetics.” An unfortunate result of “documentary poetics,” in Canadian writing at least, is that too many poets have composed poetry collections that merely replicate information on historical and/or literary figures and/or events without adding much of anything, whether to the documentary information or poetic structure. I won’t mention names or titles, but the offenders are many. Zits, on the other hand, seemingly takes as his models the poetics of both Kroetsch and Cooley, falling somewhere between the lyric questioning, tall tales and the perpetual return to the beginning of Robert Kroetsch, and the collage-quilt of storytelling of Dennis Cooley, most notably in his own historical prairie poem, Bloody Jack (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1984). The book is constantly moving, searching, interrupting and questioning everything that is being presented, resulting in an unsettled book on an unfinished question, and one that attempts not to assign blame, but attempt to discover the correct questions.
without giving expression to sentiments of sorrow
I will strive to push on
to the end of my undertaking
without tiring my readers
with vain expressions
It was in a circle
and a space in the centre being kept for dancing
and the rabbit in the pot boiling, it was all there, head, eyes, feet
and everything together
and Little Poplar was arrayed in some of Miss McLean’s ribbons, ties
and another with my hat tumbling over the bank
and another with Mrs.. Delaney’s
and the squaws with our dresses
and before the sun went down they wrapped blankets around her
as if, coming down, she would eat the whole camp up
a sea of green interspersed with beautiful flowers and plants
as in the echo after every bomb, charm lying in its wake
it glided along the large rivers and lakes and desired rest
carrying white flags, fishing and waving white flags
or perhaps the pages of a blood and thunder novel
I breathed in the echo of every bomb, a prairie charm delusion
except perhaps when viewed from the deck of a steamer
Massacre Street is a large, complex and critical document on a messy and complicated period of Canadian history, a history that, in many ways, Canada is still working to comprehend, and come to terms with. The poems, too, are attempting to find out what happened. Through the poems of Massacre Street, Zits adds a polyphonic and critical gaze, refusing a single point of view but exploring many, and can be read as a poetic sibling to Myrna Kostash’s Frog Lake Reader (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2009), or cousin to Margaret Sweatman’s novel, When Alice Lay Down with Peter (Knopf, 2002). Through exhaustive research and a large curiosity, Zits manages to bring the material a new kind of life. Had only history been written so well before.
I fear I should have lost my small army in this
very big Country
The most applauded warrior wore
a policeman’s old tunic
on the back of which was chalked
a representation of himself
firing into a teepee of sleeping enemies
The horses also were depicted
in convenient proximity
for removal after this
glorious feat of arms
The first principle of The Barricades Project, to which To the Barricades belongs, is taken from Robert Duncan: “We begin to see that the intention of the boundless is manifest in the agony and restoration of pages or boundaries or walls” (“The Delirium of Meaning”).
A second principle can be found in Walter Benjamin: “This work has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks. Its theory is intimately related to that of montage” (The Arcades Project).
If there is a third principle, it may be contained in the following passage from Rancière:
Suitable political art would ensure, at one and the same time, the production of a double effect: the readability of a political signification and a sensible or perceptual shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification between opposites, between the readability of the message that threatens to destroy the sensible form of art and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political meaning.
(The Politics of Aesthetics)
To push through boundaries towards the boundless (which is tangled there) – to mix appropriation of found material with lyric expression to the point that the one becomes indistinguishable from the other – to practice a dialectic of “readable” political signification and uncanny shock – these are the pathways of this poetry. A lyric voice takes up procedures and citations because they are the world in which it finds itself embodied, a co-embodiment of the address “Dear Common” that someone calls out to anyone else there. “Lyric,” writes Thom Donovan, “relates the body of the poet to a poetics of collective affects” (“Lyric’s Potential,” Jacket2). So we try here, in a lyric space in which we must continue building resistance.
This volume is part of an ongoing long poem project that always seeks “plausible deniability” that it is in fact a long poem project. Everything I write is thus part of some inaccessible and inconceivable totality outside the work itself. Part of its fight is thus with itself, and with “culture” as such. The barricade made of language is both boundary and call for “beyondery” – an outside still to be practiced. But there’s that other boundary looming everywhere here too: how and when do we cross over from word to world, from text to action? Does the poem barricade us from a world of “doing things,” postponing action? Does it wall us up in the “merely cultural”? These poems, increasingly, have been written between actions in the streets. They hover there – a boundless boundary around the bound. The gaps and spaces between poems and pages and books are inhabited by “activism,” by a body amongst bodies in streets. Dear Common. Let’s speak our way into action, into each other’s arms, into new shared futures, into new speeches at new barricades thrown.
If this is “documentary poetry” – and it is certainly as much researched as it is lived – it is a documentary of social affects, past and present, of collective expressions of desire, of hope, of outrage, of solidarity, of defiance, of the endless call from the commons for “liberty or death.” It is a documentary of the spirit of resistance and revolution. The address of the insurgent impulse, to all potential insurgents, to all tomorrow’s insurgent parties. (Stephen Collis, “Notes and Acknowledgements”)
It’s difficult to begin to discuss Vancouver poet and critic Stephen Collis’ poetry collection To the Barricades (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2013) without first quoting at length from his “Notes and Acknowledgements,” placing this collection in a context larger than itself. Collis is the author of a number of books, including two previous poetry collections which form the first two sections to his ongoing “Barricades Project” – Anarchive (Talonbooks, 2005) and The Commons (Talonbooks, 2008). Over the space of five trade poetry collections, Collis’ work explores a series of short-phrased stretches of sentence-stanzas in an ongoing project writing Vancouver specifically, Canada generally and social issues throughout. In his “12 or 20 questions” interview (posted September 7, 2007), he talked about his work-in-progresss, “The Barricades Project,” and the subsequent volume of such, to be titled “The Red Album,” which appears to have since shifted into fiction, given that The Red Album is the title of his forthcoming novel with BookThug. As he writes in the interview:
I always work on books or series of books. The book is the main unit I think in terms of—my unit of composition. At the same time I do write short, occasional lyrics, and I publish a few of these in journals, but whenever I’ve tried to group them as a possible book it’s been entirely unsatisfactory. I just don’t work that way. I have to have the concept for the book to work towards, to think through. Writing in general usually begins with the making of collages—word assemblages that come out of the research I’m doing for the book in question. These often don’t make it into the book, but at some point the playing around with my research stops, and something else takes over, as I find my way into the language I want to use—or be used by.
There has long been a history of politically-engaged poetry out of Vancouver, something that, in comparison, seems lacking in much of the rest of the country, and something that has been given far less critical attention than it deserves. What is it about Vancouver that makes so many of their writers, especially language writers surrounding the past couple of decades of the Kootenay School of Writing, so engaged? One can point to such socially and politically-engaged poets such as Aaron Vidaver, Roger Farr, Maxine Gadd, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Jeff Derksen, Marie Annharte Baker, Reg Johanson, Peter Culley, Nancy Shaw and nikki reimer, among others. To the Barricades is a book that works to document protest and other civil action, including the “Paris Commune” or “Fourth French Revolution,” a working class revolution that ran from March to May, 1871. The collection contains critical poems of self-protection, poems working to protect human interest and interaction, constructed out of ready-made material, quotes that speak of action, such as the Fredric Jameson quote that opens the poem “RELUMINATIONS 1”: “Barricades involve a kind of bricolage, a provisional cobbling together of whatever bits and pieces come usefully to hand … this may also serve as a perceptive account of the poetic techniques of a Rimbaud, indeed of the revolutionary avant-garde in general.” In the second part of the poem “La Commune ,” he writes:
is the search for happiness
we know history
to all the dead anarchists!
I make you a chain of flowers
a grave of roses
now let’s not lack audacity
in dealing with the banks
even in a democracy
we aren’t free to demonstrate freely
things kept germinating
long after the event
it’s time we stop being
represented and start being
the commune echoes
we’re still at the same point
how time exposures expose the times
wind come up in fall’s green foil to Save-On Meats
opaque an hour ago lit now by sun rustle shadows one
leaf ripped off blows across bus-lit Arbutus floats by
three windows per day … under Second
Narrows Bridge (slack water) can move 25 to 30
tankers per month
Palace Hotel’s lost light a strand of starling shadows
pawn shop Honest Joe’s grey face gone flat pigeon
shit stains Cosmopolitan Inn’s smart pseudonym glow
red daily weekly monthly beyond white walk man’s
building bigger cruise ships bigger and
biggest too tall to go under the Lions Gate Bridge
dark deepens Save-On pig’s high-flying smile and cash
bag meats grow synthetic in their silver trays plucked backs
legs / 98 / 99 cent links pale under fluorescent innards paling
There aren’t that many writers who rework poems after they’ve been published in a book, let alone revisit an entire poetry collection some four decades later, as Vancouver writer Daphne Marlatt has in her Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2013). Liquidities revisits her poetry collection Vancouver Poems (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1972), rewriting a number of the poems in the original collection, as well as adding a healthy amount of new pieces. Although it isn’t unheard of for a writer to revisit certain poems while putting together a selected, I honestly can’t think of another example of an entire collection being updated and/or rewritten. Reissues have happened, certainly, from Gerry Gilbert’s Moby Jane to Peter Van Toorn’s Mountain Tea, but those were rarities in themselves, without a single word altered. Does the poem require an update, in keeping with the city’s evolution? Does inflation impact upon writing? As Marlatt writes in her introduction to the collection, “Then and Now”:
Vancouver Poems was a young woman’s take on a young city as it surfaced to her gaze. Under this new title, Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now, the poems remain verbal snapshots, running associations that sound locales and their passers-through within a shifting context of remembered history, terrain, and sensory experience. Rereading the early poems with a current ear and eye of course led me to re-vision them, in some cases substantially so, in others less so. Picking up a pencil to alter some early orthographic habits like “&” and “thru” let to line lengthening, which sometimes affected their visual and verbal rhythm. Rereading the poems in 2012, I see I had already learned something back then from West Coast aboriginal art—the way forms emerge out of and appear within other forms. The syntax of these poems similarly forms and transforms, merging images in an ongoing flow. This rereading also led to a few changes in diction and, in some of those early poems, lengthier additions or deletions. Not all of the poems from the original edition are included here, only those I felt still had something to say about the city as it was when the 1960s were becoming those heady days of the 1970s.
As it was then: a town outgrowing its wooden houses, Edwardian temple banks and fog, a muggy harbor of shipping, a young city penetrated by water and beginning to register its multiracial, multicultural roots and branches, yet oblivious to First Nations presence both before its own beginning and still active within its boundaries. What might be the shape of such a city’s shite or inhabiting presence, its ghostly energy for self-transformation? In the original Vancouver Poems, I had deleted the Japanese noh theatre word shite (or sh’te, closer to how it’s sounded) from the opening poem, but here the word is restored to its active place. This is the underground import (in both senses), the unconscious question that drives the whole series of poems, then and now.
Vancouver’s incessant deconstruction and reconstruction, its quick transformations both in (re)structured ground and in urban imagining, come further into play in the new series of poems, Liquidities (from liquid assets, cash, and increasingly from the incessant rain of global warming). The slower, more introspective rhythms of the city poems some forty years ago speed up as wordplay, faster image traffic, quicker jumps through milieux and temporal strata that intensify to verbal collisions in the new poems. Forest terrain faintly recalled in high-rise architecture. Wave trains of thought that oscillate between naming and transition. On edge, littoral, surfacing through the litter it leaves, the city’s genius loci wavers in and out of focus through its tidal marks of corporate progress and enduring poverty. Through refacing and defacing. Through the changing faces of a metropolis driven by big name corporate backing, citizens shortchanged in the private rush to make profit at the expense of a faceless public. Yet these poems hear the quiet generosity of trees, the swirl of riptide rush, under all the changing ings and isms, some generative force like that which runs through words to make connection continue.
For a city constantly rebuilding, as Marlatt suggests, to revisit her original work made the only sense. When Marlatt was composing the original incarnation of this collection, it was not only part of a wave of small press in Canada, but a wave of exploration of Vancouver through poetry, including Maxine Gadd’s late 1960s “The Hippies of Kitsilano” section of her 1977 selected poems, Lost Language (edited by Marlatt for Coach House Press), and George Bowering’s George, Vancouver (Kitchener ON: Weed/Flower Press, 1970) and later Kerrisdale Elegies (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1986; Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2008). Before and since, Vancouver has been explored through poetry by dozens of writers [see the piece I wrote on some of it here], including Meredith Quartermain, Stephen Collis, George Stanley, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Michael Turner, Sharon Thesen, Fred Wah, Sachiko Murakami, Oana Avasilichioaei, Roy Kiyooka, Earle Birney, Gerry Gilbert, John Newlove, nikki reimer and Shannon Stewart. What is it about the city that inspires? And yet, Marlatt’s Vancouver Poems was one of the first poetry collections to write so openly, lovingly, critically and unapologetically lyrical about the city, and I would suspect very much influenced a great number of poets in the years that followed, suddenly given permission to write about Vancouver.
mackerel sea-sky (eyes down). Limed
public library steps, the gulls. Mean what they
cry. Time, time. How many stoop to a dead fish?
How would you like a tail in the eye, scales, a
little bit rheumy but other/wise … Off the point
they go fishing. Under latches of the bridge,
rusty, rattling their rods. Tide. Swirls down
deep there. Noon reigns in the street, a White Lunch.
Blue hubbard figures hump, endless round. The Cup’s
too big to geet into. Would it hold anything but rain?
Steams on a hot day, the park lunches.
Hold my hand in this cracked vinyl booth where
bread wilts. I love you but don’t, fling your rain-
coat over my head. It smells, wet. Hair hangs into
my cup. Love rains. You will go far somewhere.
Where? matter inserts relation.
Peels, heels, float like hulls of hands under the
wharf. Rats dockside. Carrying orchards up, and the
port, and the starred-on-board lights.
Milk run Amalia ends up on library steps, a cigarette,
some soup. A wet day steams up the insides of
their eyes. I want to know how gulls keep flying.
If Barry McKinnon’s poems are described as a single sentence-thought that each rise to an apex and fall away, Marlatt’s poems can be described as single self-contained sentence-breaths that connect perfectly to any of her poems placed before or after; the pattern the reader sees from such comes in part from how the pieces are arranged. There is a restless quality to the poems here, one that make her study of Vancouver not tied to a single temporal point, but a book that stretches across decades. Certainly, Liquidities feels less a straight update of an older work than an extension of the original project, and the lines that open one of the early poems, “Lagoon,” could have been written in either era, and anywhere in between: “down a cut on the city side, apartments / stacked uphill, through shadow and hulls and ribs we walk. / You’ve come home.” For a poet who has always explored the lyric heart, Liquidities reads as a writer’s ongoing relationship to her city, composed as a critical love letter home.
the fur parachute
these angles not drawn by da Vinci
closer to May Wests than Ariel’s wispy forms
always this craving for earth 1100 jumps deep
always this war, tilting
anguish laid flat against another edge
a simple bone-bridge
a wolf dreams of prickly wild wings
a wing might be a tongue
is an earth breached, planted moon
swimming outdoors of language
the knot has slipped
plastic is the very idea of its infinite dip
(“Canto Ex Silentio”)
Guelph, Ontario poet Shannon Maguire’s first trade poetry collection, fur(l) parachute (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2013), expands out from the Old English poem “Wulf and Eadwacer,” as she writes at the back of the collection:
Wulf and Eadwacer: The Old English poem Wulf and Eadwacer which appears in the 10th century Exeter MS between the elegies and the riddles. There is no consensus as to its meaning, origin, or even to genre. Some see it as a riddle, others as an example of woman’s lament, and yet others in the broader tradition of the elegy. It is a formal oddity, being one of only two extant Anglo Saxon poems having a refrain (the other poem is Deor), and being one of the few extant Anglo Saxon poems to be written from the point of view of a woman.
The second collection produced by BookThug (alongside Christine McNair’s spring 2012 collection Conflict) originally on the shortlist of the 2011 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Writing, Maguire’s fur(l) parachute is structured as a single work composed in six sections, some of which fragment into subsections, even as the poems themselves fractal, breaking down pieces into phrases, words and singular letters. With words and lines crossed out, individual letters floating across an open space of the watery white page, or reduced to the syntax of a howl, her collection begins from the kernel of the original Old English poem, while using the thousand year old piece as a bouncing-off point, unafraid to explore and expand sound and stretched meaning, inference and the shape of the page. The collection opens with a reworked version of the original poem, “a transformation from Old English,” before the poem extends, and continues into sections for each of the characters. Fascinated with origin, the collection opens with what Erin Mouré called (for her own Sheep’s Vigil) a transelation, reworking her own version of “wulf & eadwacer” into something far greater.
To my people (s)he is a sacrificial gift
They wish to serve h(er) as food to their god
if (s)he comes in a host
To lead my poor wrenched cub to the tree, my people desire
Love is different with us!
Do you hear us in our song, watchman?
We two that never united
That my people easily tear apart
We are different!
Wulf, my Wulf!
Your expectations make me sick
Your expectations make me sick
Your infrequent visits tell me that you mourn my heart
not at all
Wulf, you are my far-wandering hopes!
Now Wulf is on one island and I on another.
Secure, enclosed, firm, fast fixed is that island.
I am a fen surrounded by a slaughter-cruel
troupe that wishes
to serve h(er) up if (s)he comes.
(“wulf & eadwacer”)
Writing references that include “a wetlands Ophelia,” Shakespeare’s Ariel and Mae West, Maguire’s fur(l) parachute is rife with stories and myths, weaving in threads from other tales. Through these references, she hammers the point of speaking, giving voice to those too often muffled, or altogether voiceless. In fur(l) parachute, Maguire transelates Old English and Middle English into language poetry, composing a new kind of becoming and emerging from the dark, deep woods. This is a book worth listening to; a book with just as much bite as bark.
so small so smooth her three sides were
so round I judged her her gems gay eyes
alas! I lessened her left her everywhere
so round I judged, so small, so smooth
alas! I lost her there
progressed to the ground away from me she got
all of her blood there sprang in space a sprite in
the ground a bloodied place
the soil my body an in-sewn berth
all hollers and echoes and echoes and chokes
dubbed wren she wrest, progressed to the ground
away from me she got her blood their sprig
so small so smooth so round
saskatchewan in autumn
war & harvest
fields given over to
times like these
where you come from less important than
how strong your shoulders
& how willing
& your name
falling unnoticed in
the wake of the threshing crew
in the hands
scythe in churchyard grass the arc
of axe & mattock
this land’s bones
too stubborn for words
Edmonton poet Jenna Butler’s third trade poetry collection seldom seen road (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2013) is a book of disappearance, as she composes poems on ghost towns, forgotten figures and those who have been otherwise lost. The author of Aphelion (NeWest Press, 2010) and Wells (University of Alberta Press, 2012) as well as nearly a dozen shorter collections [including one with above/ground press, posted online as a free pdf], Butler’s short poems read like pencil sketches, deceptively quick but skillfully formed poems that present the essentials of what each poem requires. Her lines are quick, and require space to stretch out, and know exactly how to make the best of subtle motion. As Andy Weaver once paraphrased Eliot, these are poems that make nothing happen.
Constructed in three sections – “Inbound,” “Lepidopterists” and “The Home Place” – Butler explores less a sense of geography but a sense of grounding against the feeling of being unmoored, tracking and tracing lines that have long faded and been forgotten. It’s as though she grounds herself specifically through these lost and fading touchstones, returning to each of them a strength and purpose simply for reaching out to them.
because marriage is less
about rings than
spirals the fretworked granary floor
when the cats have been in
moonhued garden snails
plucked & dropped into
saltwater dim reprimand of
shells against the bucket’s tin
you take home with you
when you go (“Seven Ways of Leaving”)
In the second section, “Lepidopterists,” Butler composes a poem or two each for various historical figures that have slipped just outside of view, including Seamuel Hearne’s wife who starved to death, Mary Norton (1708-1728), one of the “Famous Five,” Nellie McClung (1873-1951), Margaret Fleming (1901-1999), Dr. Elizabeth Beckett Matheson (1866-1958) and “The Wives of Crowfoot” (1830-1890), a group of “up to ten wives” of Crowfoot, many of whom have been long forgotten. The poem “Arrowhead Blue” is for “Manitupotis’ Women,” (1873), as Butler writes, “Cypress Hills / Southern Alberta floundering under the whiskey trade / Several members of the band led by Manitupotis / (Little Soldier) and his band massacred by American wolfers [.]”
the lupines’ bloom
stills at dusk
all day they have thrust
the hills’ spine
tearing the air like clamour
angling her wings
she dips amongst
patina the depth
of a new bruise
a perennial ache
The poems in this collection can be described as both meticulously carved and quickly sketched, and the best pieces are the ones that remain shorter, boiled down to their essence, from pieces such as “Inbound” to the sequence “Seven Ways of Leaving.” As the press release tells us, this is “a collection of sharply observed and understated poems about the land and its people,” writing the landscape from not only the ground up but from the perspective of those who have helped in the long-thankless task of building up from what was once nothing. The poem “Alchemist” is written with the sub-title “Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, 1999,” a site long explored by poets, including Andrew Suknaski and Monty Reid. The piece holds up well against the comparison, and holds within it the entire scope of the collection, writing out loss, absence and discovery. The single-page poem opens with:
the irony is
I come into being when called
bucking like Sisyphus this
the wind polytonal over
one stone or another
This spring, New York publisher New Directions has announced the return of a “reincarnated version of the ‘Poet of the Month’ and ‘Poets of the Year’ series James Laughlin published in the 1940s” through the return of a reincarnated version of their “Poetry Pamphlets” series. The first four to appear are Susan Howe, Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, Lydia Davis / Eliot Weinberger, Two American Scenes, Bernadette Mayer, The Helens of Troy, NY, and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan poet Sylvia Legris’ Pneumatic Antiphonal (New York NY: New Directions, 2013). Constructed as an accumulation of shorter pieces, Pneumatic Antiphonal is a poem that opens and builds, containing multitudes. There is a language in Legris’ work rarely seen in Canadian contemporary poetry. With the glut of poems referencing birds, Legris seems to be the only poet who includes such a rich and detailed language of birdsong. The first poem in the collection reads:
Lore: 1 (premise)
The theory of corpuscular flight is the cardinal premise of red birds carrying song-particles carrying oxygen. Erythrocytic. Sticky. Five quarts of migration.
Through her three previous trade collections of poetry—circuitry of veins (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1996), iridium seeds (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1998) and the Griffin Prize-winning Nerve Squall (Coach House Books, 2005)—Legris’ writing has long explored a detail of space and sound, and in this new collection, the two are incredibly densely packed. Throughout the course of her writing to date, Legris has moved from death, cancer and bulimia to birdsounds and Latin. Writing of Sylvia Legris work in Open Letter (Eleventh Series, Number 7, Spring 2003), Steven Ross Smith provides a lengthy (uncited) quote from Legris:
Of her book-length work, Sylvia Legris has written: [My] “poetry has gone through several shifts: from expressing, in circuitry of veins, profound disquiet in relation to disease and imminent death to, in iridium seeds, articulating, by increments, those places of relative quiet lodged within the language and experience of grief. In contrast to circuitry of veins in which there is a rather conspicuous tangibility of flesh and in which death has an immediate, unquestionably harsh presence (corpse and all), the poetry of iridium seeds radiates from a deeper place, of body, mind, and imagination; death here inhabits more ghostly territory – glimpses of insight hovering on the periphery or poems that are now more obviously meditative and musical in tone and pace. The poetry of “leaf margin” [unpublished, but which led to dysrhythmic sky], further removed as it is from the actual experience of death, from the materiality of body, has as its starting point a place that is relatively contemplative. The movement of this work is deliberate, fugue-like in its considered repetition…” This is an accurate description, primarily from the perspective of content -- although formal considerations are implied. It is in the formal and material mode that Legris stands on new poetic ground.
According to Wikipedia, “pneumatic” refers to “the study and application of pressurized gas to produce mechanical motion,” and “antiphonal” refers to “any piece of music performed by two semi-independent choirs in interaction, often singing alternate musical phrases,” suggesting that her title refers to a sequence of propelled binaries. In Pneumatic Antiphonal, she composes a series of odes that bounce between flight and injury, and between heady song and the collapsed, failed or depleted lung, from “Flight Song of the Old World…” (p 16) to “Almost Migration” (p 21). With each poem comes another opportunity for air, and the lack of it. One of Canada’s most underrated and possibly underappreciated poets, Legris writes the complex simplicity of birds, through individual poems between a sequence of lores that run through the collection like a thread, or tether, from the opening poem in the collection to the closing:
Lore: 14 (mirror call)
Quick-striking bittern with a bill like a clapper. Head-bobbing
rhythm-keeping Rock Dove. Rapid-tapping sapsucker, red-
naped, nasal. Birds hitting below the belfry and lungs
are two-octave carillons. Fan-arteried. Campanulate. The left
pulmonary veins carry a 25-bronchi clarion from the left lung
back to the heart. Ventricles in a mirror dance of call and call
and call and call…