Friday, January 01, 2016

A ‘best of’ list of 2015 Canadian poetry books

I’m always amazed at the amount of anything I’ve been able to get done, considering I’m home full-time with toddler, as I feel as though I’m constantly behind. And yet, I’ve discussed an enormous amount of books over the past year, which brings us to another “best of” list on my part (see prior lists here: 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011). As well, some books I reviewed, and others were profiles I wrote on the authors, posted as part of my column at Open Book: Ontario. Otherwise, there were also a number of other writers and their works that I dealt with, not as reviews, but as short critical overviews and/or interviews as part of my spring 2015 series of ‘commentaries’ for Jacket2.

Again, this is more of a “worth repeating” than a specific “best of.” I mean, what is “best,” anyway? It doesn’t even take into account the books I hadn’t a chance to go through yet, including Phyllis Webb’s Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems (Talonbooks) from 2014 that I haven’t had a chance to even open (one of our most important writers), or the new Fred Wah selected from Talonbooks that, at the point of writing, hasn’t yet arrived at my door. Or the mound of books [pictured] by my desk that I have yet to get into. At least with a toddler, there is no question or wonder about why I haven’t had a chance to get to everything. There are also the 2015 books I’m rather fond of that I can’t discuss in such a list, whether the book I helped prompt, including introduction, by Phil Hall, his Guthrie Clothing, A Selected Sequence (WLU Press), or the variety of Chaudiere Books titles I’m co-publisher (and even editor) of, along with Christine McNair: N.W. Lea’s Understander, The Collected Poems of William Hawkins (ed. Cameron Anstee), Andy Weaver’s this, Jennifer Londry’s Tatterdemalion or Chris Turnbull’s continua. Although if this list gets any longer, it moves from “best of” to overview. Really, if you want an ongoing sense of the things I think are worth looking at, it’s probably easiest simply to pay attention to my blog, which I update daily, aiming for one or two reviews a week (again, it would be more, but I’m full-time with a toddler).

And, given the amount of American titles I’ve been reviewing the past few years, I should even start compiling a similar list for the American poetry titles I’ve been going through [one year I compiled a ‘best of’ Canadian poetry chapbooks, also], but who has time to do everything?

In no particular order, I begin (including links to the longer, complete versions of either my reviews of each of these titles, or short profiles on the authors at Open Book: Ontario):

Jake Kennedy, Merz Structure No. 2 Burnt by Children at Play: Kelowna, British Columbia poet and editor Jake Kennedy’s third poetry collection is the absurdist and sincerely earnest Merz Structure No. 2 Burnt by Children at Play (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2015). This new book concerns itself with discovery and being lost, and how one can only truly be achieved through the other, composing a series of striking poems deliberately meant to occasionally unsettle, forcing a deeper attention of his incredibly sharp and precise poems that shift from meditation to improvisation, tight lyric to prose poems, and even include a sequence of poems composed as billboard-style single sentences. Kennedy’s poems delight in the mix of classical reference, meditative lyric and mischievous speech, tossing in the occasional line or phrase of casual diction, or a pop reference that at first might seem entirely out of place. See my full review, here.

Stuart Ross, A Hamburger in a Gallery: A Hamburger in a Gallery , listed as his “ninth [trade] collection of poems” (a full Stuart Ross bibliography would be interesting to see, someday), is a collection of more than one hundred pages of shorter lyrics and lyric sequences, and even include a small handful of his ongoing ‘one-line’ poems (he is also, among other things, editor/publisher of Peter O’Toole, a journal of one-line poems) that explore elements of the mundane, personal and immediate. Ross’ poetics shift from the surreal to the straightforward, from the concrete to the downright meditative and philosophical, as well as through a strange humour, self-aware and even ironic sadness, and sense of deep loss that permeate much of the collection. “I stagger in my living room,” he writes, to open the poem “IN A FOREST OF WHISPERS,” “wedged between the piano keys / You could go cryogenic / outside your own borders [.]” See my full review, here.

Ben Ladouceur, Otter: In her review of Ben Ladouceur’s first trade collection of poems, Otter (Coach House Books, 2015), online at Plenitude Magazine, Shannon Webb-Campbell writes that “Toronto-based poet Ben Ladouceur embodies queer history with profound poetic intention. Sexy, witty, and sensual, Otter is a richly imagined collection of poetry. Ladoucer writes with grace and precision.” Ladouceur relocated to Toronto from Ottawa three years ago, but there are many who know of his work from the time he was part of Carleton University’s In/Words, during a period he emerged as a poet alongside Cameron Anstee, Jeff Blackman, Rachael Simpson and Justin Million. See my profile on Ben Ladouceur, here.

Oana Avasilichioai, Limbinal: Montreal poet and translator Oana Avasilichioai’s new collection, Limbinal (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2015), is built as a series of lyric explorations of borders and partitions, attempting to articulate the no-man’s land between fixed ideas, solid objects and a variety of poles, from geography to genre, even moving into footnotes and beyond, into the margins themselves. See my full review, here.

Rita Wong, undercurrent: Vancouver poet Rita Wong’s fourth poetry collection, undercurrent (Gibson’s BC: Nightwood Editions, 2015)—following monkeypuzzle (Vancouver BC: Press Gang, 1998), forge (Nightwood Editions, 2007) and sybil unrest (with Larissa Lai; Vancouver BC: Line Books, 2008)—is, as Wang Ping informs on the back cover, a “love song for rivers, land, and sentient beings on earth.” Constructed out of lyric fragments, prose poems, memoir notes and extensive research, undercurrent is an extensive pastiche of the story of numerous bodies of water, and our relationships to them. Writing in, around and through the lyric flow, the poems exist, in part, as an extensive call to action against an increasing level of human carnage inflicted upon the earth and its inhabitants: “midway at midway, sun glares plastic trashed, beached, busted / bottle caps, broken lighters, brittle shreds in feathered corpses // heralded by the hula hoop & the frisbee, this funky plastic age / spins out unplanned aftermath, ongoing agony” (“MONGO MONDO”). See my full review, here.

Pete Smith, Bindings with Discords: Kamloops, British Columbia poet Pete Smith’s poems favour a kind of narrative and tonal discord, pounding sound against meaning and sound in a way reminiscent of some of Ottawa poet Roland Prevost’s recent writing. As Smith writes in the poem “From the Olfactory”: “Swamped by irritants / air-borne and scoped / he defended a weakened immune / system, set about mopping up / incontinent emotions, / secured HQ in the lachrymal ducts.” Interestingly enough, Smith’s writing comments on the visible absence his writing creates, as he publishes quietly, nearly invisibly. In “48 Out-Takes from the Deanna Ferguson Show” he writes: “Let me introduce you to my anthology. Your absence will guarantee you pride of place.” See my full review, here.

Aaron Tucker, Punchlines: Toronto poet Aaron Tucker’s first full collection of poetry, Punchlines (Mansfield Press, 2015), explores “the poetic tensions in the everyday languages of computer-user collaboration.” A selection of the book appeared as the chapbook punchlines 1.0 (2013) through above/ground press, a chapbook Ottawa poet and blogger michael dennis described as containing “short, crisp and highly entertaining poems.” See my profile on Aaron Tucker, here.

Pearl Pirie, The Pet Radish, Shrunken: Ottawa poet, editor and publisher Pearl Pirie’s third trade poetry collection, The Pet Radish, Shrunken (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2015), continues her exploration into and through sound, play and meaning. The author of two previous poetry collections—been shed bore (Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2010) and Thirsts (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2011)—as well as a growing number of poetry chapbooks, what becomes curious about Pirie’s writing is how she appears to utilize poetry as a way to understand how the world works and somehow navigate through the occasional confusion, whether the immediate day-to-day of existing, or something larger and more abstract. As she writes in the poem “how not to have the mouth say”: “you’re uncharacteristically / quiet. I’ll balance us. we’ll // average us out to everyone / okay. what did I do? I decided / to fix a shirt by getting a huge / pot & dying.” See my full review,here.

kevin mcpherson eckhoff, Their Biography: an organism of relationships: For his fourth book, British Columbia poet kevin mcpherson eckhoff’s Their Biography: an organism of relationships (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2015) is less a composition by the author than a selection of invited submissions on and around the author by a multitude of others. Deliberately twisting ideas around “identity or relationships or language,” the collage aspect of the collection writes “about” the author as a collaborative and deliberately contradictory “memoir.” What becomes interesting through the process of going through Their Biography: an organism of relationships is just how much the structure instead opens up a different kind of portrait: one created less out of facts than through, as the title suggests, a series of relationships. Seemy full review, here.

Liz Howard, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent: Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent is a collection of powerful and deeply personal lyrics composed out of a richly textured language, one that revels in sound and collision, comparable to the work of her mentor, Toronto poet Margaret Christakos. Pulsing and gymnastic, her poems work to examine and articulate a variety of cultural collisions—including gender, aboriginal culture and environmental concerns—much of which is set in and centred around her home country of Northern Ontario: “Spent shale, thigh haptic fisher, roe, river / delta of sleep-induced peptides abet our tent / in a deep time course, in Venus retrograde // we coalesced into the Cartesian floral pattern / of heritage where I hunt along a creek as / you pack bits of bone away within a system” (“Terra Nova, Terraformed”). The poems hum and thrum and sing, resonating against a backdrop of refusal, decay, stone and totems, Canadian Shield, thieves and “a system of rivers.” See my full review, here.

Eva H.D., Rotten Perfect Mouth: There is something quite remarkable in the poetry of Toronto poet Eva Haralambidis-Doherty, otherwise known as Eva H.D., through her first poetry collection Rotten Perfect Mouth (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2015). Her powerful and playful poems exist as a series of lyric narratives constructed out of personal observations, writing out stories of meteors and lies, various locations in and beyond Toronto, oceans, daydreams and conflicts, among other subjects both abstract and immediately concrete. During her recent reading as part of the Ottawa Mansfield Press launch I could hear elements of the late American writer Richard Brautigan’s poetry, and his ability to blend opposing thoughts into unexpected images. See my full review, here.

Damian Rogers, Dear Leader: The long-awaited second poetry collection by Toronto poet and editor Damian Rogers is Dear Leader (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2015), a collection of poems rife with energy and beauty, observation and tension, writing as deeply contemporary as might be possible in poetry. Dear Leader is an exploration of hope, rage, memory, loss and salvage struggling through a series of optimisms, in poems that attempt to capture the minutae of everyday living, whether writing on and around explaining ecology to a toddler, classic albums, villanelles and Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright, or notes sketching out a series of thoughts and ideas both casual and deep. See my full review, here.

Dina Del Bucchia and Daniel Zomparelli, Rom Com: From Vancouver poets and pop culture aficionados Dina Del Bucchia and Daniel Zomparelli come the wonderfully playful and dark poetry collaboration Rom Com (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2015). Composed as a book “that both celebrates and capsizes the romantic comedy,” the poems in Rom Com are darkly comic, responding to a series of pop culture idioms, porn parodies, pop quizzes, actors and romantic comidies themselves (with repeated references to weddings, dicks and sex scenes), including poems titled “She’s All That,” “In a Movie about Weddings / No One Wants to Attend,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Because You Watched 27 Dresses,” “Overboard” and “He Grasps at Emotion, or The Proposal.” See my full review, here.

Shannon Maguire, Myrmurs: An Exploded Sestina: As the press release informs, the second volume in Shannon Maguire’s projected medievalist trilogy “is an innovative variant of the sestina form (a medieval mechanism of desire that spirals around six end words).” While the book might, at first, appear to be structured as a tapestry as opposed to any linear expression of narrative, each section opens, spreads apart and each progress toward an accumulation that leads to, if not a conclusion, but a logical place at which to close. There is something lovely about the way her poems is scattered with writing on ants that end up taking over her entire narrative. In Myrmurs, Maguire’s is a language poetry composed with a lyric lilt and tone, one constructed with precise measure and a musical ear. See my full review, here.

Judith Fitzgerald, Impeccable Regrets: Canadian poet and critic Judith Fitzgerald’s latest poetry title [see my obit for Fitzgerald here] is Impeccable Regret (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2015). Impeccable Regret is a book of passionate grief, exploring loss at its most heartfelt through a series of short lyric riffs, many of which are composed for friends and loved ones, too many of whom have passed. As the back cover tells us: “In the words of Arthur Miller, ‘All one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.’” Her strength comes from the gymnastic twist, and anything less doesn’t retain the same kind of passion or sharpness. Listen as she opens the poem “REVELATORY IRRUPTIONS / DANS L’ESPIRIT DU TERRORISME”: “Peeling veil, mask, persona, personalization, personification, / dazzling brightness, and necrotic abyss; sky rolled up, a scroll / drawn back, a curtain; there’s a joke, clown, whited polyandrium, / dollop of quicksilver, scudded rubescent and violet clouds falling / from hysterical sky [.]” See my full review, here.

Phil Hall, My Banjo & Tiny Drawings: The poems collected within further Hall’s exploration of language, sound and meaning, as he picks at the minutae, working to see where the logic of such small explorations might lead. The idea of the quickly-rendered sketch is an intriguing one, set up, one could presume, as another one of Hall’s killdeer-esque distractions; it suggests a compositional process that is far different than Hall’s patiently and delicately carved fragments, each carved and carefully set to accumulate into something far broader in scope. See my full review, here.

Christian Bök, The Xenotext Book 1: Calgary poet and critic Christian Bök’s third poetry title—after Crystallograpy (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1994) and the Griffin Poetry Prize-winning Eunoia (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2001)—is The Xenotext Book 1 (Coach House Books, 2015), the first volume of his long-awaited work of ‘living poetry.’ It becomes fascinating how Bök has managed to construct poetry, let alone a multiple-volume project, around such an experiment, extending, exploring and capturing the connections between science and poetry dozens of times beyond what anyone has achieved up to this point, proving yet again just how far ahead he is of his peers. There is something quite compelling in the way that Bök manages to compose his works with such attention to detail that the conceptual framework becomes simply an element of the appreciation of the finished piece. One doesn’t simply marvel at the conceptual frame; one doesn’t simply admire the work for work’s sake. And yet, the piece created utilizing such an intricate and detailed structure, especially when one begins to understand how detailed and precise his knowledge of scientific detail has been researched and questioned (there is nothing worse than a poem utilizing science when, as some have pointed out, the science behind the poem is actually incorrect). See my full review, here.

Daniel Scott Tysdal, Fauxccasional Poems: It would be easy to feel overwhelmed by the expansive montage that makes up Toronto poet and critic Daniel Scott Tysdal’s third poetry collection, Fauxccasional Poems (Fredericton NB: Goose Lane Editions / icehouse poetry, 2015). Tysdal’s poems in Fauxccasional Poems are a wonderfully playful mix of pop culture, philosophy, historical detail, classical forms and tabloid parlance, much of which exist as framing for a series of lyric narratives that twist, cajole and even contain the occasional surreal shift. Tysdal composes sonnets, pantoums and other structured forms on subjects as diverse as the Taliban, Kermit the Frog, Buddy Holly, Nicholas Cage and T.S. Eliot. However playful and even outrageous at times his subject matter and framings might be, the poems themselves are classically formed, managing an intriguing blend of formal experimentation within highly conservative structures. Through his experimentation, Tysdal shows himself to be very much an admirer of the very forms he twists and collides, allowing new life and breath into structures that so rarely allow for the possibility of real experimentation. See my full review, here.

Colin Browne, The Hatch: poems and conversations: For his newest collection, The Hatch: poems and conversations (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2015), Vancouver poet and filmmaker Colin Browne continues his incredibly-dense exploration into the serial/book-length poem, composing a collection that, as the book jacket informs, “discovers its true nature as collage.” It is as though Browne doesn’t approach his poetry collections as straightforward serial poems or collections, but structuring a singular work of poetry from the perspective of a documentary filmmaker (entirely different than the “documentary poem” named and championed by Dorothy Livesay), allowing a different kind of narrative flow to emerge, and refreshing a book-length form that desperately requires a new way of seeing. The Hatch builds upon and furthers the work of his three prior collections, all of which appeared through Talonbooks—Ground Water (2002), The Shovel (2007) and The Properties (2012)—in their exploration of expansive and densely-packed collage-works that stride across a wide canvas, from lyric narrative to meditative fragment to impassioned argument to conversational script, exploring the philosophies of origins across politics, geographic space and an array of traditions. See my full review, here.

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