Sunday, January 01, 2017

A ‘best of’ list of 2016 Canadian poetry books

[Lady Aoife and Emperor Rose (in rainbow hat) providing essential grocery-store assistance]

There’s been a storm brewing lately, given that The Globe & Mail didn’t include any poetry titles in their “Notable Books of 2016” list, prompting the snide remark that “no one in the world, according to the Globe, produced a ‘notable book’ throughout 2016.” Given their list is culled from books they’ve reviewed, they responded, what choice did they have? I mean, apart from actually reviewing poetry titles. Obviously.

That being said, my list of “worth repeating” [see last year’s list here] is culled from the same, from a list of poetry titles I’ve actually reviewed throughout the year. Most years I’ve been quite active, but have slowed considerably since the emergence of our two wee girls (Rose turned 3 in November; Aoife was born this past April; I am home with both), meaning the pool from which I draw is smaller than it once was. These days, two reviews a week is a hefty goal. I know there are still a considerable amount of 2016 titles I’ve been unable to properly discuss, including Stephen Brockwell’s All Of Us Reticent, Here, Together (Mansfield Press), Sylvia Legris’ The Hideous Hidden (New Directions) and Danielle Lafrance’s Friendly + Fire (Talonbooks) (among others, certainly), so simply consider them as part of this list as well. Until Aoife, at least, enters preschool, I think this is simply how the world works now.

So here, in no particular order, some of my highlights from 2016:

1. Suzanne Buffam, A Pillow Book: Following her two earlier poetry collections—Past Imperfect (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2005) and The Irrationalist (Anansi, 2010)—both of which were structured more traditionally as collections of shorter lyrics, A Pillow Book (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2016) is striking for its structure as a single, extended series of observations and explorations, most of which exist as titleless and seemingly standalone prose pieces of varying lengths. One section, for example, includes but a single sentence: “Men and women sleep on the same pillow, says a Mongolian proverb, but they have different dreams.” Some elements of her two prior collections hinted at such kinds of longer, extended prose structures, but hadn’t the ambition of A Pillow Book. The collection (and title) plays off and explores Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, an infamous work of prose and poetry fragments (made further known due to Peter Greenaway’s 1996 film) often referred to as the first Japanese novel, composed as a “book of observations and musings recorded by Sei Shōnagon during her time as court lady to Empress Consort Teishi during the 990s and early 1000s in Heian Japan. The book was completed in the year 1002.” (Wikipedia). Buffam’s collection riffs off both content and form of Sei Shōnagon’s work through an accumulation of short sections, most of which exist as prose (or prose poems), some of which are written as short sketches and/or lists. As she writes: “Sei was her father’s name, Shōnagon her father’s rank. For a brief span of time at the turn of the tenth century, we know that she spent her nights behind a thin paper screen, recording her fugitive aperçus by candlelight with an ink stick on rice paper behind the bolted Heian gates. We know that she slept, when she managed to do so, on a small, hollow pillow mad of polished bamboo.” See my full review here.

2. Juliane Okot Bitek, 100 Days: The latest title in the University of Alberta Press’ “Robert Kroetsch Series” is Juliane Okot Bitek’s 100 Days (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2016), a collection of one hundred poems through one hundred days of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, counting down through poems beginning with “Day 100,” living the narrative out in reverse. 100 Days is “a poetic response to the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Inspired by the photographs of Wangechi Mutu, [as] Juliane wrote a poem a day for a hundred days and posted them on this website and on social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.” Bitek’s poems are fierce, directly straightforward and unreleting, composing her poems in an unadorned manner that increase in tension through the accumulation. As she writes in “Day 88”: “someday we will grasp / the emptiness / inside one hundred days [.]” There is a proclaiming element to her lines that give the impression that this is a collection to be heard in performance as much as read on the page, and an honesty and comprehension of her subject matter that allows her to speak, openly and directly. See my full review here.

3. Nicole Markotić, whelmed: Windsor, Ontario writer, editor and critic Nicole Markotić’s fourth poetry collection, whelmed (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2016), comes fairly quickly after her prior, Bent at the Spine (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2012). Markotić has long explored elements of lyric prose, and for whelmed, she shifts her gaze, slightly, for the sake of the prefix, both as subject and form. As the book opens with the section “a-,” itself composed out of a dozen short poems (such as the one above), subsequent sections in the collection include “ab-,” “ad-” “auto-,” “be-,” “bi-,” “co-,” “com-,” “con-,” “de-” and “dis-,” as well as the section “ins & outs,” a short sequence that appeared last year as a chapbook through above/ground press. If her prior poetry collections, through the prose poem, focused more on the sentence, then the poems in whelmed focus instead on the lyric fragment, whether accumulating together in the prose poem, or utilizing a rhythmic scattering across the length and breadth of the page. There is the most luscious bouncing, nearly sing-song, quality here, one not usually featured so prominently in Markotić’s work. There’s always been an element of influence from the work of Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley, but has Markotić’s recent work editing his critical selected prompted this shift? The poems in whelmed are incredibly playful, gymnastic in their rhythms and meant to be heard, utilizing slang, text and chat acronyms, each composed as lyric accumulations stretched across as a short study on a particular prefix and word combination. See my full review here.

4. Jordan Abel, Injun: The first work I encountered by Vancouver poet Jordan Abel was blind, as part of my time judging the 24th annual Short Grain Competition for Saskatchewan’s Grain magazine in 2012 (he came in second), and the work leapt up at me in a way I’ve rarely experienced. Now some of that same work finally appears in a trade collection, his third—Injun (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2016)—after The Place of Scraps (Talonbooks, 2013) and Un/inhabited (Talonbooks/Project Space Press, 2014). Injun extends Abel’s remarkable series of reclamation projects (or: project) that bring such a freshness, lively energy and engagement to Canadian and North American poetry, engaged with conversations attached to Idle No More and Truth and Reconciliation, and Language/Conceptual Poetries. Anyone suggesting that conceptual writing has no heart, or that contemporary poetry has exhausted itself, really needs to start engaging with Abel’s work. Abel’s book-length projects open a series of conversations on race, colonization and aboriginal depictions, utilizing settler language and blending an exhaustive research with erasure to achieve an incredible series of inquiries and subversions, twisting racist phrases, ideas and words back in on themselves. See my full review here.

5. Susan Holbrook, Throaty Wipes: The author of the poetry collections misled (Calgary AB: Red Deer, 1999) and Joy Is So Exhausting (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2009), as well as the chapbook Good Egg Bad Seed (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2004), Windsor, Ontario poet, editor and critic Susan Holbrook’s latest poetry collection is Throaty Wipes (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2016), composed of (as the press release tells us) “her signature fusion of formal innovation and lyricism […]” The poems in Throaty Wipes are composed as a mix of lyric, prose and visuals, as Holbrook explores movement, language, sound and lyric. Structurally, her poems explore different ways of seeing, shaping and sounding, experimenting wildly between and amid forms to show numerous possibilities between “how poetry works” and “how prose works,” or, more specifically, utilizing language poetry to explore the gradient between the lyric, the fragment, and the sentence (with the occasional visual play utilizing letter size and movement thrown in for good measure). On the surface, Throaty Wipes might appear a gathering of assorted poems linked, if at all, only through a curiosity about and engagement with poetic form (the final poem in the collection, for example, is “WHAT POETRY ISN’T”), and what and how a poem communicates, constructed as a unit as a quilt or collage. While there might be elements of that in Throaty Wipes, any gathering of pieces by the same author over the same stretch of time can’t help but repeat echoes of concerns and considerations. See my full review here.

6. Dennis Cooley, departures: With his latest collection of poetry, departures (Winnipeg MN: Turnstone Press, 2016), Winnipeg poet, editor and critic Dennis Cooley explores “his own mortality” following a health crisis. As the online catalogue copy for the book reads: “Recovering in hospital after a burst appendix, plagued by hallucinations and poisonous mistrust, Dennis Cooley retreats to memories of ancestors and of his rural Saskatchewan roots, in departures, his 20th book of poetry.” As the collection opens: “then, Winnipeg, hospital, / the Victoria, jumbled, / didn’t know / where or when [.]” Regular readers of Cooley’s work have long been aware of his expansive book-length projects, each constructed around a set of specific ideas, themes or subjects, composed as collaged-manuscripts that stitch and weave their punning and playful ways, whether writing on the foundations of civilization against his prairie in the stones (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 2013), his late mother in Irene (Turnstone Press, 2000), vampire lore, literature and legend in Seeing Red (Turnstone Press, 2003), the alphabet-play of abecedarium (University of Alberta Press, 2014) or the histories and legends of Manitoba outlaw John Krafchenko in Bloody Jack (Turnstone Press, 1984; Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2002). What becomes curious, the further Cooley releases poetry collections, is the subtle evolution of his book constructions, as each collection of poems is held together through structure, theme and ideas, some of which are quite clear, and others, far more subtle. While earlier collections might have functioned more as collaged or quilted sequences, departures manages to exist as, deliberately, a more fragmented (and even, seemingly random) suite of predominantly-untitled poems, sketches and reports, as well as being held very close together through his ongoing meditations and inquiries, medical reports and retellings, and tweaks and quirks of language only Cooley could construct. departures is a collection of, as the copy says, “hallucinations and poisonous mistrust,” but also a meditative exploration of big ideas attached to a health crisis, setting his thematic boundaries and then routinely crossing them, writing his health and his history, and multiple points both aside and between. “It is not fibrous,” he writes, “there are no veins or threads. It is smooth but it is not shiny or slick. It glows it seems with its own light, light green to yellow, shape of a rootless molar. A gumdrop.” See my full review here.

7. Helen Hajnoczky, Magyarázni: As the press release for Helen Hajnoczky’s second trade poetry collection, Magyarázni (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2016) informs: “The word ‘magyarázni’ (pronounced MAUDE-yar-az-knee) means ‘to explain’ in Hungarian, but translates literally as ‘make it Hungarian.’ This faux-Hungarian language primer, written in direct address, invites readers to experience what it’s like to be ‘made Hungarian’ by growing up with a parent who immigrated to North America as a refugee.” Bookended by the poems “Pronounciation Guide” and the prose poem “Learning Activities,” Magyarázni is composed as a stunning, lush and lively abecedarian, and each poem appears with a corresponding visual poem in resounding red and black. There is an element of “coming-of-age” to this collection, as the author/narrator works to reconcile the past with the present (and future), from a childhood built by Hungarian language and culture (from her parents’ own stories to her own engagements with cultural heritage), and how such foundations now require translation and explanation, even as she attempts to reclaim those same histories. Magyarázni writes her childhood home, her parent’s homeland and her time spent in Montreal (as in the poem “Zibbad,” as she writes: “You’ve been here longer now / than you were ever there and then some.”), writing embroidery, linen, memory and grief. See my full review here.

8. Monty Reid, Meditatio Placentae: In his latest poetry title, Meditatio Placentae (London ON: Brick Books, 2016), Ottawa poet Monty Reid is once again engaging in the book-length meditation. Readers familiar with his work – which now lists more than a dozen full-length trade poetry collection, as well as numerous chapbooks – might be aware that over the past number of years his meditations have increasingly become book-length, moving from the collections of dense, stand-alone lyrics of These Lawns (Red Deer College Press, 1990) or Flat Side (Red Deer, 1998) to book-length projects, including Disappointment Island (Chaudiere Books, 2006), The Luskville Reductions (Brick Books, 2008) and Garden (Chaudiere Books, 2014). Whereas The Luskville Reductions is a collection structured as a single, extended poem (as is, seemingly, his current work-in-progress, “Intelligence”), Meditatio Placentae is constructed similarly to Disappointment Island or Garden, in that the book is set as a sequence of (stand-alone, yes) poem sequences that link together to form a larger, coherent whole. The book is built out of nine poem-sections, some of which have also appeared as chapbooks: “Household Gods,” “Frances Disassembles the Pop-up Book,” “Site Conditions,” “Lost in the Owl Woods,” “Meditatio Placentae,” “So Is the Madness of Humans,” “A Poem That Ends with Murder,” “Moan Coach” and “Contributors’ Notes.” See my full review here.

9. Phil Hall, Conjugation: Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall’s latest collection is Conjugation (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2016), a complex, engaged and expansive collection that continue his meditative explorations into the lyric fragment, collage, poetics and the deep self. “Conjugation,” according to one online source, is “the modification of a verb from its basic form,” and Hall’s poetry manages a deep and serious play in the way words are constructed, pulling apart the mechanics of language and how it interacts with ideas (a play that has, it would appear, deeply influenced the work of Ottawa poet Pearl Pirie). As he writes: “but there’s a fee / a fee that sees    & hears wonky // fe-ces   we’re were   subtler/fugues   etc [.]” Similar to Dennis Cooley, Hall engages the mis-heard word, the mis-step, and runs with it, managing to make connections where there otherwise might not have been. Hall has become known for his shuffling, reworking and reprising his work, giving the sense that his poems might be less “finished” than simply set in a particular way for a particular temporal, whether temporary or permanent, reason, including poems shuffled and re-set for the sake of a chapbook, a public performance or a trade collection. Cobbled and stitched together from a variety of threads, found and salvaged lines and objects, his “Essay on Legend” begins with an anecdote about a dog, utilizing such as a starting-point for a sequence of observations on poetry, anecdote and violence, each circling around the very idea of “legend.” The chapbook version was produced in an edition of 52 copies “in commemoration of the second annual Purdy Picnic at the A-frame, Roblin Lake, Ameliasburgh, July 26, 2014,” acknowledging the late poet Al Purdy as one of Phil Hall’s long-standing touchstones. At the Ottawa launch of the chapbook in 2014, Hall spoke of starting out as a good Ontario “son of Al Purdy” poet that slowly began shifting towards Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers (1978); from stories and the anecdote to “that purse sound of the vowel.” See my full review here.

10. Sarah Burgoyne, Saint Twin: The author of chapbooks through Proper Tales Press, Baseline Press and above/ground press, Montreal writer and editor Sarah Burgoyne’s first trade collection is Saint Twin (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2016), a collection of, as the back cover informs, “story poems, short lyrics, long walks, tiny chapters, and fake psalms.” A hefty poetry collection at nearly one hundred and seventy pages, Saint Twin is a curious mix of straighter lyric, prose poem and short fiction, blended together to create something far more capable than the simple sum of its parts. Part of the unexpected quality of Burgoyne’s surreal lyrics comes from the structures of her pieces, slipping prose beside more traditional line breaks beside dialogue/script. Whereas most poetry collections hold together through their structural connections (some of which are the result of editors and/or copy-editors), Saint Twin remains deliberately scattered, almost collaged, maintaining a strength far more evocative than whether the collection of poems maintain consistent capitalizations or punctuations, all of which speak to Burgoyne’s incredible capacity for putting a book together. Furthermore, while the book might be structured into eight sections, one has to seek out the connections through other means; poems from the second section, “Psalms,” for example, according to the contents page, exist on pages “10, 13, 18, 23, 27, 30, 36, 42, 48, 51, 57, 61, 63, 67, 72, 81, 99, 113, 116, 119, 124, 132, 137, 139, 142, 144, 147, 152 [.]” See my full review here.

11. Barking & Biting: The Poetry of Sina Queyras, selected with an introduction by ErinWunker: The poems that make up Barking & Biting: The Poetry of Sina Queyras show outspoken Montreal-based poet and critic Queyras—author, as well, of a collection of critical prose, Unleashed (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2010) and the novel Autobiography of Childhood (Coach House, 2011)—to be deeply engaged with a poetics in constant flux, and one that works to engage with identity politics, as well as the divide (both real and imaginary) that exists between lyric and conceptual writing. Her writing has long been known for both a pervasive restlessness and an engaged ferocity, and one that has little patience for half-measures. Queyras engages Sappho, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein in the same breath as she might also speak of Mary Oliver, Lisa Robertson and Vanessa Place, and the breadth of her view somehow manages only to focus her attention. As critic and editor Wunker writes in her introduction: “Queyras’s poetics pay dogged attention to questions of both representation and genre. In each of the collections of poetry she inhabits tenets of the traditional lyric, while also leveraging the genre open and letting conceptual in.” See my full review here.

12. Nelson Ball, Chewing Water: Paris, Ontario poet and bookseller Nelson Ball’s latest poetry collection is Chewing Water (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2016), adding to the growing collection of books he’s produced over the two decades-plus since ending his extended silence (prior to that, he’d a flurry of 1960s and 70s publications), including With Issa: Poems 1964-1971 (ECW Press, 1991), Bird Tracks on Hard Snow (ECW Press, 1994), The Concrete Air (The Mercury Press, 1996), Almost Spring (The Mercury Press, 1999), At The Edge Of The Frog Pond (The Mercury Press, 2004) and In This Thin Rain (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2012), as well as numerous smaller publications through Apt. 9 Press, BookThug, Curvd H&z, MindWare, fingerprinting inkoperated, Letters, Rubblestone Press, above/ground press, Laurel Reed Books and others. Ottawa poet, publisher and critic Cameron Anstee has referred to Ball as “Canada’s greatest practicing minimalist poet,” and Chewing Water continues Ball’s incredibly-packed poems on nature, close friends, reading and other intimate spaces, including his ongoing conversations with his late wife, the artist Barbara Caruso (1937-2009). Ball produces incredibly dense poems that one must briefly inhabit, requiring a close attention for even the smallest movements. Poems such as “The Dead” and “Ducks” showcase a minimalism that moves so easily, quickly and slow that it becomes difficult to breathe, lest the poem simply float apart. In his notes that end the collection, Ball adds: “My writing helps me cope with my loss. I still consult Barbara, aloud and frequently. She tells me to do things I know I should do but have been avoiding. She remains a vivid and wonderful presence inside my head, an addition to the legacy of her artworks and writings.” See my full review here.

13. Stuart Ross, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent: Prolific Cobourg, Ontario poet, fiction writer, editor and publisher Stuart Ross has been referring to his latest poetry collection, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Hamilton ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2016), as his attempt at a more “mainstream” publication, composing the poems in A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent as a counter-point to his previous poetry title, A Hamburger in a Gallery (Montreal QC: DC Books, 2015). I’m curious about the idea that Ross considers the poems in this collection more “accessible” than works in any of his last few books. The poems in this collection engage a particular flavor of lyric narrative, but are often anything but straightforward, engaging in surreal narratives and the occasionally odd poem or passage, such as the opening of “Research,” that reads: “This poem required no research. / When facts were called for, I invented them. / When was the dog painting made? / It was made in 1932. Who / made it? It was made by a monk / named Brother Owenjay.” As well, readers familiar with Ross’ work will recognize elements that have appeared in numerous of his works, whether his late parents and brother (such as the in-joke from “Research,” slipping his brother Owen into the poem as “Brother Owenjay”), Cy Twombly, David W. McFadden or Nelson Ball. The suggestion of attempting a more “mainstream” poetry title infers a couple of different things, from the simple writing experiment to an attempt at a potentially wider audience, one which might be intrigued enough by the work to perhaps move into other of his expansive list of poetry, fiction and non-fiction titles. Given Ross’ suggestion, I would answer two-fold: is this a mainstream poetry book (if there even is such a beast)? No. Well, not really. Is this a poetry collection more mainstream than most of his other works? Maybe. Possibly. I don’t really know. Does it matter? See my full review here.

14. Jordan Scott, Night & Ox: After the poetry collections silt (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2005) and blert (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2008), as well as the collaborative Decomp (with Stephen Collis; Coach House Books, 2013), comes Vancouver poet Jordan Scott’s Night & Ox (Coach House Books, 2016), a book composed as a lengthy, single, extended poem. For some, the shift to new-fatherhood (and new-parenthood, generally) is impossible to not write about [see my own four-part essay on fatherhood here], from the distractions and attentions to the expanded and connecting perspectives upon family, mortality and being (“entrail’s equinox / purring kid sounds / translunar and / clay parsec”), and simply wondering how the whole thing can hold itself together without collapsing. From a poet highly aware of breath and stammer, Scott’s short, predominantly single-word lines highlight a movement of, as he says, “a shallow and hurried breathing […],” and even include the occasional created compound word, a la Paul Celan, pushing to increase his precision with words that hadn’t yet been built. As he writes: “stutterkiss / in / blithe / scorpion / some / endless / typhoon / spill / I / here / endless / obedience / forms / sight / wounding / longer / I / wait / for / little / things / to / cross / a / threshold […].” See my full review here.

15. Hoa Nguyen, Violet Energy Ingots: New from Toronto poet, editor and teacher Hoa Nguyen is the poetry collection Violet Energy Ingots (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2016), her first full-length collection since her selected/collected poems, Red Juice: Poems 1998 – 2008 (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2014). For those keeping score, it’s been four years since the appearance of a new full-length collection of poems by Nguyen—the poems from her chapbook TELLS OF THE CRACKING (Brooklyn NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015) are included here—back to her As Long As Trees Last (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2012), and Violet Energy Ingots continues her work in the small, personal moment, presenting a series of narratives stitched together in coherent lyric collages of halting breaths, pauses and precise descriptions. As she writes in the poem “Torn”: “To be original is to arise / from a novel origin?” See my full review here.

16. Sandra Ridley, Silvija: Ottawa poet (by way of Saskatchewan) Sandra Ridley’s fourth trade poetry title is Silvija (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2016). Following her collections Fallout (Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2009), Post-Apothecary (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2011) and The Counting House (BookThug, 2013), Silvija is a book-length suite broken into “five feverish elegies,” composed as a “linguistic embodiment of the traumas of psychological suffering, physical abuse, and terminal illness.” Ridley’s poetry has long managed to be remarkably precise in detail while concurrently evasive, and yet, the poems that make up Silvija can be seen as incredibly revealing. The poems in Silvija still manage to maintain her particular flavour of evasiveness. Ridley’s Silvija takes its title from the name of her dedicatee, a “Silvija Barons,” coupled with dictionary definitions of “Silva” and “Silvan, Silvana, Silvanæ” that open the collection, suggesting a compounded definition involving a wooded area, a creature from a wooded area and the writing produced about a wooded area. Still, Silvija includes elements that are possibly more revealing than her previous collections, exploring and attempting meaning out of a poetry of violence, trauma and healing, and furthering her capacity for the book-length exploration. And, as much as her elegies hold together as a single, extended unit, two sections were actually composed as part of other projects, such as the section “CLASP,” composed as a response to Gatineau artist Michèle Provost’s multiform art installation, “Playlist,” or an early version of “VIGIL / VESTIGE” commissioned as “an emgagement with Petro Isztin’s photo installation, ‘Study of Structure and Form.’” See my full review here.

17. Laura Broadbent, In on the Great Joke: Montreal poet Laura Broadbent’s second trade poetry collection, In on the Great Joke (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2016), is an exploration of film structure and voice, theory and narrative. There is something reminiscent in In on the Great Joke of the work of Anne Carson, as Broadbent utilizes the frame of poetry to write her way around and through theory, prose-blocks and conceptual bursts, as well as through offering introductions to both sections – “Wei Wu Wei / Do Not Do / Tao Not Tao,” a series of poems that include responding to short films, and “Interviews,” a series of poems around voice – as well as a final prose-piece to close the collection, “*Postscriptum: A Note on the Short Films Compromising Positions Featured Throughout this Text.” And yet, the explanation is an element of the text, articulating layers of framing throughout, which themselves lead to a series of further openings. In the introduction to the second section, “Interviews,” “What a Relief not to Meet you in Person: an Homage to the Alchemy of Reading,” she writes that “The following interviews are an homage to the alchemy of reading.” See my full review here.

18. Lisa Robertson, 3 Summers: As the press release for Canadian poet Lisa Robertson’s 3 Summers (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2016) informs: “What began as a conceptual project for Robertson – working from and through Lucretius’s De Rerum Natur – evolved into this series of reports on the state of the poet’s living body and its thoughts, told from the heart of three summers spent in rural France.” See my full review here.

19. Michael e.Casteels, The Last White House at the End of the Row of White Houses: It is lovely to see Kingston poet and publisher Michael e. Casteels’s first full-length collection see print, his The Last White House at the End of the Row of White Houses (Halifax NS/Picton ON: Invisible Publishing, 2016). The author of over a dozen chapbooks, including full moon loon call (Puddles of Sky Press, 2013), The Robot Dreams (Puddles of Sky Press, 2013), heck engine. rhinoceros. tungsten. (Puddles of Sky Press, 2015) and solar-powered light bulb and the lake’s achy tooth (Apt 9, 2015), Casteels’ The Last White House at the End of the Row of White Houses is a collection of his more narrative work (some of which has appeared in chapbook form), focusing predominantly on his prose poems. there is a surreal strangeness to the narratives of Casteels’ prose poems, one that works to keep the reader slightly off-kilter, forcing a deeper attention to the ebbs and the flows of his sentences. “The primates spot-checked their harpsichords, spoon-fed the plesiosaur, and garrisoned the tax collectors.” he writes, to open the poem “A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ICE AGE.” There is something wonderfully charming about these poems, in which Casteels presents something quite familiar, but slightly askew, turning expectation inside out, whether writing about turnips “grown in the / fine pastures of Heaven and harvested by divine angels / of light,” or of oracles, hermit crabs and turkeys. There is very much a thread of the metaphysical that runs through these poems, one that seeks a comprehension deeper than what can be seen on the surface, and one that remains elusive, nearly ghost-like, composed as a perfect blend between the tangible and the intangible. These are beautiful, strange and uplifting poems, set on the border between what is known, and what might be impossible. See my full review here.

20. Anahita Jamali Rad, For Love And Autonomy: In a lyric of sentences, For Love And Autonomy is thick with theory, writing on love and the body, industrialization and capital, linking her to a series of Pacific poets writing in similar veins, from Kaia Sand to Cecily Nicholson to Stephen Collis to Jeff Derksen. Part of what impresses about this collection is the way in which it writes so deeply around and through the complexities of its subject, utilizing prose, short lined lyrics and fragments to write out such a multi-faceted book-length poem on the combined physical, social and political acts of simply “being.” There is such a deep engagement in these poems, as well as real questions about the autonomous body, social responsibilities and potential actions, and whether or not freedom and/or free will is even possible within the framework of civil society. As she writes in the poem “marx, himself, is a machine fragment”: “This process of reification is / unbearable [.]” See my full review here.

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