[myself and Lady Aoife, who is unpromptedly perfecting her 'royal wave'] Here we go again, my list of the seemingly-arbitrary “worth repeating” (given ‘best’ is such an inconclusive designation), constructed from the list of poetry titles I’ve managed to review throughout the past year. And, if you can imagine, this is my seventh annual list [see also: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011] since dusie-maven Susana Gardner originally suggested various dusie-esque poets write up their own versions of same (although I think I’m the only one who actually did).
Most years I’ve been quite active as a reviewer, but I’ve slowed considerably since the emergence of our two wee girls (Rose turned 4 in November; Aoife turned 1 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, which is slightly improved since Aoife began her two mornings a week of preschool and Rose began junior kindergarten. I know there are still a considerable amount of 2017 titles I’ve been unable to properly discuss, including Steve Venright’s The Least You Can Do Is Be Magnificent: Selected & New Writings (Anvil Press) (among others, certainly; you have no idea how large the mounds of not-yet-reviewed currently is, whether sitting upon or beside my home-office desk), and I haven’t even seen Calgary poet Nikki Sheppy’s debut yet, published through University of Calgary Press; nor did I review my dear wife Christine McNair’s stunning Charm (BookThug). Simply consider them, I suppose, as part of this list as well. And yet, I know these lists get longer ever year: how am I supposed to focus on a mere ten? There is so much amazing work being produced right now (and a lot of awful, also, but we aren’t talking about that here, at this moment). So here, in no particular order, some of my highlights from 2017:
1. Certain Details: The Poetry of Nelson Ball, ed. Stuart Ross: It really is wonderful to see the publication of Certain Details: The Poetry of Nelson Ball, selected with an introduction by Stuart Ross (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017), a collection showcasing some fifty years of poetry production by Paris, Ontario poet, editor and bookseller Nelson Ball. Ross certainly has been busy lately, with a selected poems he’s edited by Ottawa poet Michael Dennis out any day now through Anvil Press, and moving his long-running imprint from The Mansfield Press over to Anvil, with the first titles from such appearing over the next year. For those familiar with Ball’s work—produced over the years through numerous small press books, chapbooks, pamphlets and leaflets—his precision and timing is unmistakable, composing sublime poems that are infamous for their capacity to hold both volume and breath in such small spaces. However quiet and unassuming both he and his work might appear (Nelson is notoriously both deeply humble and generous), Ball’s work has gone on to influence multiple generations of Canadian poets, including jwcurry, Gary Barwin and Ross himself as well as Mark Truscott, Kemeny Babineau, Michael e. Casteels and Cameron Anstee, among so many others. One might suggest that such a selected volume is long overdue. See my full review here.
2. Suzannah Showler, Thing Is: The follow-up to Showler’s debut poetry collection, Failure to Thrive (ECW Press, 2014), Thing Is (McClelland & Stewart, 2017) continues Showler’s exploration into the lyric, composing poems of uncertainty that explore the very nature of being and consciousness, while attempting to come to terms with just how it is the world exists, and we, individually, upon it. Showler composes her poems as lyric essays, each poem working towards a single, book-length goal. Despite, or even because of, the author/narrator’s inherent skepticism, the short poems of Thing Is seek answers to impossible questions, as Showler patiently and meticulously disassembles the world through language in an attempt to understand how the mechanism works. To open the poem “Not Not,” she writes: “When it comes to classification, / the thing you aren’t after isn’t // the worst place to start.” The idea of naming is one that comes up a couple of times throughout the collection, such as in the poem “False Negatives,” where she writes: “Naming a substance is an act of feeling / for principles of unity.” To name something is to make it tangible, and this collection is ambitious, seeking out what might be impossible to find, and yet, fascinating to engage. See my full review here.
3. Aisha Sasha John, I have to live.: Toronto poet, choreographer and performer Aisha Sasha John’s third poetry collection is the absolutely thrilling I have to live. (McClelland & Stewart, 2017), a book-length suite of lyric poems running lengthwise across the entire stretch of being, exploring the physical, the sexual and the spiritual. Composed as a poetic diary, I have to live. is an incredibly sensual and deeply personal book, and sketches out across titles such as “Something softens me,” “I sleep in a room.” and “When I leave here I don’t know where I am.” to “What’s the big fucking deal about,” “The landlord said he lost his phone.” and “How much of your body is in your head.” There is something memoir-ish, even “confessional” in her first-person poems, carved as a combination between lyric essay, storytelling and myth. “I am low and found; I am high and found.” she writes at one point. In another part of the collection, she adds: “If I’m wrong / If I’m wrong – who gives a fuck? // I have to live.” See my full review here.
4. Douglas Barbour, Listen. If: I’m thrilled to see a new title by Edmonton poet, editor and critic Douglas Barbour, his Listen. If (University of Alberta Press, 2017), a collection comprised of nine seemingly self-contained sections, four of which had previously appeared as chapbooks, via Greenboathouse Books, Rubicon Press and two from above/ground press (including one available online as a free pdf). While he has been part of two more volumes of an ongoing collaboration with American poet Sheila E. Murphy—Continuations (University of Alberta Press, 2006) and Continuations 2 (University of Alberta Press, 2012)—it really has been more than a decade and a half since the appearance of his previous poetry titles: Fragmenting Body etc. (NeWest Press, 2000) and Breath Takes (Wolsak & Wynn, 2001). Even the aforementioned chapbooks are more than a few years old: a flame on the spanish stairs (greenboathouse books, 2002), It’s over is it over: Love’s Fragmented Narrative (above/ground press, 2005), Wednesdays’ (above/ground press, 2008) and Recording Dates (Rubicon Press, 2012). Not that any of this is a specific complaint, but an observation: I’d been years wondering where and when new work by Barbour might appear, despite the knowledge that his two prior collections also held quite a book-silence before they appeared. Between breaths, one might say, a silence. See my full review here.
5. Stephen Cain, False Friends: After a gap of a dozen years since his previous full-length poetry collection, Toronto poet and critic Stephen Cain’s latest poetry collection is False Friends (BookThug, 2017), following his previous full-length collections dyslexicon (Coach House, 1998), Torontology (ECW, 2001) and American Standard/ Canada Dry (Coach House, 2005). Constructed as a series of seven sections, False Friends follows Cain’s interest in constructing books out of chapbook-length sections, whether single pieces, suites or sequences, that accumulate into full-length works. It’s worth noting that four of the sections included here—“Etc Phrases,” “Zoom,” “Woodwards” and “Stanzas”—appeared previously as chapbooks, via BookThug, above/ground press and NO Press. There is something very compelling about how Cain tweaks and twists language from his various sources, writing out references to and information upon his many interests and concerns, from Theodor Adorno to Canadian Modernist writers to Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde. In False Friends, Cain revels in a play of sound and meaning, bouncing his narrative as a pinball across the field of language. Where is the falseness in False Friends? I wonder if the falseness he suggests is, perhaps, one to do with meaning, whether our adherence to “meaning” in poetry as an absolute, or to meaning, as some of the language poets have suggested, is something that can be completely set aside. It seems precisely this pair of extremes that Cain’s work manages to exist between, and play off of, refusing to remain fixed but instead fluid around narrative, meaning and even the argument of the narrative “I.” As he writes to open the poem “Sportstalk”: “There’s no “I” in L = A = N = G = U = A = G = E Poetry.” See my full review here.
6. Planetary Noise: Selected Poetry of Erín Moure, edited by Shannon Maguire: I’m amazed and thrilled to finally see a copy of Planetary Noise: Selected Poetry of Erín Moure, edited by poet and critic Shannon Maguire (Wesleyan, 2017). Planetary Noise manages the seemingly impossible task of articulating and selecting from Moure’s sixteen trade poetry collections, as well as from a collaborative work and a selection of translations, to create a remarkably coherent whole. Editor Shannon Maguire has done an incredibly thorough job of putting together an impressive volume of Moure’s work, along with an equally impressive critical introduction to the context of Moure and her expansive, playful and voluminous writing/translation practice(s), including an array of details that add enormous amounts of information to Moure’s ongoing work. Moure’s early engagements with the ‘work poets’ of Vancouver—including Tom Wayman, Zoë Landale, Kate Braid, Phil Hall, Calvin Wharton and others—for example, is well known, but did you also know that she was briefly a student of Pat Lowther? Her introduction illuminates, as well as shines. See my full review here.
7. Michael Dennis, Bad Engine: New and Selected Poems: It is good to see the release of Ottawa poet Michael Dennis, Bad Engine: New and Selected Poems, “edited and introduced by Stuart Ross” (Anvil Press, 2017). Given I was the editor of Dennis’ only other volume of selected poems, This Day Full of Promise: Poems Selected and New (Broken Jaw Press/cauldron books, 2003), I’d been intrigued to see what directions Ross might head into for this new volume. Apart from the immediate difference of Ross conducting line edits on the poems (something Dennis hadn’t allowed before), Ross was also given access to a wide variety of unpublished and uncollected work, opening up the possibilities enormously for a volume of work by a poet far more productive than even his multiple book and chapbook titles over the past four decades might suggest. As Ross writes in his introduction to the collection: “And so Bad Engine offers up revised versions of just about all the selected poems, as well as a big complement of recent works. The couple thousand poems I read to concoct this mixture drove home to me that Michael Dennis is the real thing when it comes to poetry without artifice: poetry delivered directly from the various organs of the gut.” Opening with some two dozen pages of new material, Bad Engine provides less of a linear trajectory to Dennis’ forty-plus years of poetry production than an exploration into a short list of concerns that have occupied his writing throughout the years, from more personal poems on and around various members of his family, commentary on his current reading and poems that write out the immediacy of his day-to-day, from doing dishes to sitting in pubs to reading the newspaper. One could say that Michael Dennis is a no-nonsense and straightforward poet of plainspeak and the immediate, and there is something curious about how not a single piece in this collection feels dated. His view may have gained depth, wisdom and widened his scope over the intervening years, but Michael Dennis is a poet who has cared about what is immediately in front of him, right now, for a very long time now. See my full review here.
8. Erin Robinsong, Rag Cosmology: Poet and interdisciplinary artist Erin Robinsong’s first poetry collection is Rag Cosmology (BookThug, 2017), a poetry collection constructed as a “pulsating meditation” that blends fragments, visual poems, performance and the lyric essay on ecology and the personal, and how they can’t help but interact. In the poem “PLACES TO INTERVENE IN A SYSTEM,” she writes: “we delivered a formal apology to the salmon / did a controversial pregnant photoshoot / in front of a nuclear reactor, all those nice curves / we made page 15 of the New York Times, ok / and delighted in the letters to the editor that said / I was ‘going to give my baby cancer’ well exactly / then got scared and moved but it was everywhere / we went like my unstable worth rolling / oblongly on pink shadows of information / glamping among facts. Friends came / and were astronomies.” There is something of the collection that exists between the book-length unit of composition and a collaged kind of catch-all, as well as elements of the text that read as though the script of a performance, set aside the more traditional poems. In many ways, the structural variety throughout the book is the glue that bonds the collection together, allowing the different elements of her explorations through poetry to interact. One might even say: the performance aspect is key. See my full review here.
9. Emily Izsak, Whistle Stops: A Locomotive Serial Poem: For some time now I’d been looking forward to Toronto poet Emily Izsak’s first trade poetry collection, Whistle Stops: A Locomotive Serial Poem (Signature Editions, 2017). Whistle Stops is constructed out of an extended sequence, with a shorter sequence included as a kind of coda. The poems in the title section run from the end of August to the middle of April, utilizing notation-as-title, specifying destination and time of each trip, alternating “London” and Toronto’s “Union Station.” The specificity of her titles are reminiscent, slightly, of the day book poems of Gil McElroy’s ongoing “Julian Days,” as he too titles his poems with a precise date (via the Julian Day calendar; given so few are aware of the workings of the calendar, the specifics might be there, but the effect is obviously and deliberately softened) and composing a poem using details in such a way as to work against precise description and narrative, instead focusing on sound, shape and language. As she writes to open the poem “MAR 1ST 74 TO UNION STATION 07:35”: “Distance seeks luxury / among the cedars / offstage decoys // guide our larvae / to a pagan grasp / of self portraiture [.]” Most of the poems in the first section have the effect of short, sketched meditations, but also allow for the possibility of other formal and informal intention and invention, and even allowing for the possibility of poems constructed out of anything and everything, while still connecting to the other pieces via the open-ended structure. Each poem might exist on its own (presumably composed during the train jaunt referenced in each poem’s title), but each live in conjunction with every other poem in the collection. There have been numerous books composed on trains (I’ve even done my own, more than once), and the extended travel of trains somehow lends itself well to the composition of longer works, whether long poems, sequences or suites. In so many ways, the hours of rattle and rail can’t help it. Curiously, the effect of such poems-in-transit suggest that each piece is composed in the same “place,” writing out both the samenessess and differences of a new day along the same track (much like Auggie’s photographs in the 1995 movie Smoke, or Frank O’Hara’s infamous 1964 collection, Lunch Poems). The samenessess allow for structure, but the differences, however slight, contain multitudes. See my full review here.
10. Space Between Her Lips: The Poetry of Margaret Christakos, selected with an introduction by Gregory Betts: The latest in the “Laurier Poetry Series” is Space Between Her Lips: The Poetry of Margaret Christakos, selected with an introduction by Gregory Betts (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017). I’ve long considered that there hasn’t been nearly enough attention paid to Christakos’ ongoing work, so am thrilled to see both this collection, and Betts’ lengthy and informative introduction, in which editor Betts lists a series of threads that have existed throughout Christakos’ published body of work, writing that while her first collection “explores the intersection of prose and poetry, and the movement of a body in a landscape, her works since then have increasingly included puns, anagrams, reversals, permutations, neologisms, found texts, digital meditations, and other fragmenting methods that depict the swift movement of language in the world and on her page.” Perhaps it is worth noting that Christakos has, through her seemingly uninterrupted writing and publishing activity since the 1980s, been a rare Toronto linkage between experimental Canadian writing in the 1970s and 1980s and the more recent explosion of experimental writing over the past two decades. Through Christakos, one can see echoes of the play (joyously so) and syntax of bpNichol, who one of her early writing teachers and mentors, as well as echoes of the writing on politics and the body of Nicole Brossard (the list goes on), all of which Betts explores and discusses at length. Christakos’ work has always managed a joyousness to it, even through a deeply critical gaze; playing and pausing and pushing, always, the possibility of what writing should be about, and how writing should even be approached, from the large canvases upon which she works, and the precision upon which she holds and places each individual word. See my full review here.
11. Shane Rhodes, Dead White Men: Some of Ottawa poet Shane Rhodes’ most compelling work, and much of his focus over the past few years, has been in utilizing the words of others—rearranging and shifting context—and he continues that exploration through Dead White Men (Coach House Books, 2017), a book that delves into “exploration and scientific texts from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries – texts wrapped up in the history and ongoing present of colonization [.]” There is something fascinating about how Rhodes and Nisga’a writer Jordan Abel are, from their separate vantage points and backgrounds, both exploring and reworking texts of the colonizer, engaged in the acknowledgment and exploration of erased and overwritten Aboriginal histories and presences in Canada through European exploration and settlement. Dead White Men also furthers the archival work he began through his previous collection, X (Nightwood Editions, 2013), a collection that reworked and responded to “each of the eleven numbered treaties (the Post Confederation Treaties between many of Canada’s First Nations and the Queen of England).” The poems that make up Dead White Men sample, shift and/or excerpt journals and texts, for example, from explorers, writers and historians such as John Franklin, Abacuk Pricket, Alexander MacKenzie, George Best, Edward Dodding, Alberto Cantino, Pietro Pasqualigo, Thomas James, John Davis, Jacques Cartier, James Cook, Luigi Galvani, William Gilbert, Robert Boyle and Galileo Galilei, among others. There is something interesting, as well, in the fact of a writer of European descent openly exploring and critiquing settler texts, and through such, the foundational myths and self-justifications that made European settlement possible. By shifting and repurposing the context of some of these archival materials, Rhodes deliberately highlights elements that might have otherwise been overlooked, and his explorations throughout the collection move from the lyric to the fragment to entire prose sections, in turns tweaked and selected and reproduced whole. Moving away from the purposes of the original, he crafts a series, even a collage, of highly critical lyric essays. See my full review here.
12. Kate Cayley, Other Houses: I am intrigued by the narrative precision of Kate Cayley’s lyrics in her second collection, Other Houses (Brick Books, 2017). I was initially struck by a series of poems that thread through, each titled “A Partial List of People Who Have Claimed to be Christ.” Four poems in all, each poem writes a kind of case history on different historical figure who claimed, in their own way, some version of the divine: Ann Lee (1736-1784), Arnold Potter (1804-1872), William W. Davies (1833-1906) and Laszlo Toth (1938-2012). There is something quite sympathetic in her sketches-as-case-histories, blending elements of irrationality with their own relationships and awareness of the divine, as she writes in the William W. Davies piece, “Everything comes // again, and what is, was.” Cayley’s lines are incredibly precise, pointed and sharp, carving metaphysical queries into character studies, and short sketches that encapsulate the entirety of human history. Utilizing historical research and figures, Cayley’s short narratives write out an exploration of fissures, breaks and even collisions between mythologies and reality, searching throughout the past few centuries for examples of those who broke through to the other side, or were broken in their attempts, and even, occasionally, both. As she writes in the poem “Hans Christian Anderson Becomes Acquainted with / His Shadow”: “There must be a light / somewhere.” See my full review here.
13. Gary Barwin, No TV for woodpeckers: Hamilton writer, composer and editor Gary Barwin has been on quite a roll lately, receiving a grand amount of attention and accolade for his latest novel, Yiddish for Pirates (Penguin, 2016). The latest in his long line of poetry titles is No TV for woodpeckers (Wolsak & Wynn, 2017), produced as part of editor Paul Vermeersch’s Buckrider Books imprint. Opening with a sonnet on blackbirds (one that, possibly, suggests an extra way of looking at a blackbird, beyond Wallace Stevens’ classic and endlessly-reworked “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”), No TV for woodpeckers quickly establishes itself as a collection of poems thick with detail, distraction and play, constructed, if not to unsettle, but to keep the reader slightly off-balance, albeit through rhythm, chants and repetitions. This book requires attention, one that requires the reader to dig deep into the quick repetitions, the variations on sound and play, and thrums and twists of both language and meaning. Barwin’s work has long been associated with that of Stuart Ross, along with a whole slew of “Canadian surrealists,” and much of Barwin’s ongoing work circles around the surreal, bad jokes, quirks and twists, as well as the physical and emotional landscape of his hometown and domestic of Hamilton, Ontario, where he and his family have lived for years. The surreal, one might argue, is as much an element of what he does in his writing as means for his writing to actually be surreptitiously doing something entirely different. Any conversation on his writing should include surrealism, but shouldn’t end with such. See my full review here.
14. Marcus McCann, Shut Up Slow Down Let Go Breathe: Toronto poet Marcus McCann’s third trade poetry collection, Shut Up Slow Down Let Go Breathe (Invisible Publishing, 2017), continues his trajectory of composing an incredibly dense and gymnastic lyric, one that is remarkably linear and precise, even in its use of language as seeming-collage. The poems that make up Shut Up Slow Down Let Go Breathe are, one might say, an incredible mouthful: smart and sassy, thoughtful and wise, thick with swagger, impulse and a great deal more experience than his prior two collections. There are also a number of intriguing call-backs in this collection, from his “Sex at Thirty-One,” a selection of “chubby sonnets” composed in homage to Montreal poet David McGimpsey (“Labradoodle: An Essay on David McGimpsey,” which appeared previously as a chapbook through above/ground press), and three poems—“Never Straighten Is My Advice,” “In All Your Days May Three Days Be Your Works,” and “There Are No Tense Problems at the Great Imaginary”—that he calls “psycho-projective New Year’s letters,” writing in the notes at the end of the collection that he utilized a similar form in his first collection: “The game is to imagine what friends might be doing on New Year’s Eve. These three ‘letters’ were written for K. Louise Vincent, Steven Ruszkzycky, and Brandon Perlberg, respectively.” The extension of the epistolary form is curious, and the first of these poems, subtitled “Psychoprojective New Year’s Letter to Galiano Island,” includes: “Ideally your feet aren’t anvils / but updraft, your brain and heart aren’t storms / but transformer and transformer joined by sizzling / wire. Shift work, bawdy work, a firework / is emotional labour. Exegesis.” See my full review here.
15. Emily Ursuliak,Throwing the Diamond Hitch: Calgary poet Emily Ursuliak’s first trade poetry collection is Throwing the Diamond Hitch (University of Calgary Press, 2017), one of the first two titles in a new poetry imprint produced by University of Calgary Press. In Throwing the Diamond Hitch, Ursuliak writes the 1951 road trip adventures of Phyllis and Anne. Shifting between prose and lyric, diary entry and poem-sketch, Ursuliak combines fact and occasional fiction alongside archival photos, postcards, artifacts and direct quotations from her grandmother’s travel diary for an exploration of friendship and western adventure. Ursuliak writes her collection as a collage of individual moments and experiences along Phyllis and Anne’s journey, writing out less a linear narrative than a sequence of events, akin to a photo album of short sketches. As well, there is something curious to the construction of her collection through poetry, as opposed to made into a novel, non-fiction title or play, yet including elements of fiction and theatrical performance that reads as a narrative, and could easily be adapted, say, into a staged production. This structure is reminiscent of those early works by Vancouver poet Michael Turner—Company Town (Arsenal Pulp, 1991), Hard Core Logo (Arsenal Pulp, 1993) and Kingsway (Arsenal Pulp, 1995)—all of which were originally produced as poetry titles, with the second of these, obviously, later adapted into a feature film (and subsequently a graphic novel). In an interview posted at Touch the Donkey, Ursuliak discussed the structure of the collection, writing: “I’m relentlessly attracted to the idea of narrative and it’s interesting for me to explore how I might tell a story through poetry as opposed to fiction.” In the end, the book exists as an intriguing portrait of these two fiercely independent women on an unlikely and unusual journey, portrayed through monologues and character sketches. Part of what fascinates through this collection is the multiple structures the book holds, suggesting a myriad of directions Ursuliak’s work could move in, subsequent to this. Could she write a play, a novel, a collection of lyric poems? Where might she go next? See my full review here.
16. Jay Ritchie, Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie: Montreal writer Jay Ritchie’s first full-length poetry title is Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie (Coach House Books, 2017), an immediate and self-aware collection of first-person lyrics. The author of the poetry chapbook How to Appear Perfectly Indifferent While Crying on the Inside (Metatron, 2014) and the short story collection Something You Were, Might Have Been, or Have Come to Represent (Insomniac, 2014), the poems in his Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie shift and shimmy from straightforward to dreamy to surreal. His poems are an intriguing blend of description and abstract, moving easily between thought and activity, simultaneously a part of the world and a witness, as the poem “AUGUST SLOUGH” opens: “I did not go with the rest of the class / to see the meteor shower. // It happened anyway.” There is both disillusionment and epiphany throughout Ritchie’s poems, one that comes from, as the back cover suggests, an “alternating sense of wonder and detachment,” and one that shifts and evolves throughout the collection. The title shows the author/narrator’s uncertainty, and the poems explore both an engagement and distrust with the outside world, articulating an inner life of great complexity, concern and angst. One of the finest poems of the collection has to be “DUMB BODY,” writing a fine line across multiple actions, a through-line against the collage, both moored and unmoored to the real world. See my full review here.
17. Trish Salah, Lyric Sexology Vol. 1: I’ve long been curious about the work of Kingston poet, fiction writer and critic Trish Salah, a name I first heard during those early 1990s Montreal days of Corey Frost and Colin Christie’s ga press. Salah’s latest release is Lyric Sexology Vol. 1 (Metonymy Press, 2017), the first Canadian edition of a title originally published in 2014 by New York publisher Roof Books. The author of a previous title – Wanting in Arabic (TSAR, 2002; 2013) – Salah’s Lyric Sexology Vol. 1 suggests the opening salvo of what will continue, at least to a second volume, if not further. There are elements here that read as memoir, something she plays with as she writes through the legendary Greek character Tiresias, and one can make a rather obvious comparison to Anne Carson writing the Ancient Greek figure Griffin in her Autobiography of Red (Knopf, 1998). In Lyric Sexology Vol. 1, Salah composes her own blend of book-length lyric essay and long poem on metamorphosis, gender and expectation, and one that includes references to Ovid, Glee, Ed Wood, Atlantis, high heels, mythologies, National Geographic, Gail Scott’s Heroine and the October Crisis.
Salah’s essay-poem Lyric Sexology Vol. 1 is an ambitious work that combines the lyric with the narrative, writing out poems that wind their individual ways around and through each other; writing out, even beyond gender, the potential elusiveness of identity itself. Through the voice and character of Tiresias, “a blind prophet of Apollo in Thebes, famous for clairvoyance and for being transformed into a woman for seven years.” (Wikipedia), a character mentioned in numerous works by Sophocles, Euripides, Pindar, and Ovid, Salah is able to explore and articulate an identity that was never fixed, but one that evolved as Tiresias did, and as his/her own situations required. As Salah writes in the poem “Godtears”: “Her break with form was primarily intelligible as wanting the impropriety of your hand / in me, sous la table, the exquisite corpse giving way to hewn simply exercises / (spoonerisms) in French or Greek.” Through writing a whole volume through and around Tiresias, Salah is able to write out beyond the purely physical, and beyond the initial, and somewhat expected, poems that Tuck suggests have already been composed; by composing nearly two hundred pages of this first volume of Lyric Sexology, Salah manages to write through Tiresias, as well as utilize the legendary Greek figure, as a way to explore the very nature of fluidity, concerning gender, sexuality and the core root of self, bringing in all the cultural expectation, uncertainty and complications that come along with such shifting. See my full review here.
18. Sennah Yee, How DoI Look?: Following the release of two poetry chapbooks through American chapbook publisher Dancing Girl Press – THE AQUARIUM (2014) and THE GL.A.DE (2017) – Toronto poet Sennah Yee’s first full-length collection is How Do I Look? (Metatron Press, 2017). How Do I Look? is a collection of short, self-contained, observational prose-poems, a number of which reference a variety of degrees of sexual and racial violence, from microagressions and offhanded comments to far, far worse, and the ways in which women are required to constantly be on guard. Utilizing a series of pop culture references, including an array of film titles as poem titles, the poems in Yee’s How Do I Look? are smart, wonderfully playful, precise and straightforward, all the while shining a spotlight on some rather dark corners of how people insist on treating each other. “I want to cry when locals ask me where I’m from,” she writes, in the poem “SIEM REAP,” composing out a short tourist scene from Angkor Wat, “because I know they are trying to bring me closer, not push me away.” See my full review here.
19. Cecily Nicholson, Wayside Sang: Vancouver poet Cecily Nicholson’s third collection with Talonbooks – after Triage (2011) and From the Poplars (2014) – is Wayside Sang (Talonbooks, 2017), a collection of six extended lyric sequences/suites with an accompanying “Afterword.” Nicholson’s work has long been engaged in the book length poem/suite, but there is something about this new collection that holds itself together as a complex breath, constructed as a single, ongoing line. As she suggests in her “Afterword,” Wayside Sang is an exploration through geographic, historical and cultural space, attempting to discern something of her birth father, something the book’s press release reaffirms: “This is a poetic account of economy travel on North American roadways, across the Peace and Ambassador bridges and through the Fleetway tunnel, above and beneath rivers, between nation states. Nicholson reimagines the trajectories of her birth father and his labour as it criss-crossed these borders, in a study that engages the automobile object, its industry, roadways and hospitality, through and beyond the Great Lakes region.” Hers is both a real and imagined space of a lost parent, moving between the archive and the spaces he occupied, writing out automobile production, border crossings and the fossil fuel industry, writing: “low crude prices continue to take their toll / and we continue to live […]” (“Fossil Fuel Psyche”). As much as anything, Wayside Sang is a book of origins, as Nicholson attempts to hear those songs from the side of the road, exploring and critiquing the multiple facets of that space from which she emerged. See my full review here.
20. Nancy Shaw, The Gorge: Selected Writing, ed. Catriona Strang: As her friend, editor and frequent collaborator Catriona Strang writes in her incredible introduction to Nancy Shaw’s posthumous collection The Gorge: Selected Writing of Nancy Shaw (Talonbooks, 2017), Vancouver poet, scholar, curator and art critic Nancy Shaw (1962-2007) was an important part of the informal group of poets around The Kootenay School of Writing for a number of years, and collaborated with a wide group of writers, artists and curators over the length of her creative life, including, as Strang writes: “[Stan] Denniston, but also Gerald Creede, Jeff Derksen, Eponymous Productions and Management, Monika Kin Gagnon, François Houle, Jacqueline Leggatt, Eric Metcalfe, Lisa Robertson, me, and Mina Totino (the results of several of these collaborations are included in this collection).” This current collection selects from a range of Shaw’s published works, including Affordable Tedium (Tsunami Editions, 1987), Busted (with Catriona Strang) (Coach House Books, 2001), Light Sweet Crude (with Catriona Strang) (= Line Boks, 2007) and Scoptocatic (ECW Press, 1992), as well as a variety of pieces pulled from catalogues, journals and anthologies, and even an array of previously unpublished works, including “ARCADES LETTER” (below). Part of what becomes immediately clear about going through the work in this volume is how fresh the pieces remain, presenting both a critical eye and a lively sense of language, meaning and sound, still able to remind one just what might be possible in writing. Even for those of us who might already have copies of all her trade collections, such a selected, especially with previously unpublished and uncollected works included, allows for such a wonderful opportunity to revisit the work of an author one might not have looked through in some time; and, too, to mourn such a significant loss. See my full review here.
21. Mercedes Eng, Prison Industrial Complex Explodes: Vancouver poet Mercedes Eng’s second collection is Prison Industrial Complex Explodes (Talonbooks, 2017), an incredibly powerful and intimate exploration of the Canadian prison system and systematic racism through archival material and her own biography, specifically that of an absent and imprisoned father. There is something akin to George Bowering’s George, Vancouver (Weed/Flower Press, 1970) to the way Eng goes back and forth between the personal and the archive, and a line between the two that often ceases to exist, working through a portrait of her father, his incarceration, and the effects it couldn’t help but have upon her childhood. This is a difficult and complex work, one that exists as much as a non-fiction critique on the inherent racism throughout the prison system as it does an intimate long poem utilizing her father’s words against, one might say, the words of the state. Given how deeply Eng composes her long poem as critical essay, it does feel very much that she has opened the boundaries of what had been done previously with a form that Dorothy Livesay termed the “documentary poem”; Eng isn’t simply reshaping the archive into the space of her poem, but discovering, instead, a space where the form of the long poem and the critical essay, in part through her use of found and archived materials, meet. Furthering the work of what has come before her, this is the long poem realized in an entirely new way, all while articulating some very difficult terrain. And the question becomes: now that we’ve Mercedes Eng’s Prison Industrial Complex Explodes, how are we to respond? Where do we go from here? After the emergence of such a poetry of witness, might it perhaps spark an action? See my full review here.
22. Shannon Bramer, precious energy: Toronto poet Shannon Bramer’s latest trade poetry collection is precious energy (BookThug, 2017), and is her fourth collection overall, as well as her first in over a decade. Through her assemblage of short lyric narratives, it is lovely to be reminded of what first struck me about her poems in the first place—back to the poems in her first collection, suitcases and other poems (Exile Editions, 1999)—the ways in which she writes with such intimacy, and deliberate smallness, in a collection that includes breastfeeding, weddings, birds, collaboration, children, mothers, dreams and cancer. There has always been an unusual quality to Bramer’s poems, one that isn’t easy to describe, whether part dream, part fairy-tale or simply the haze of parental exhaustion. Perhaps the closest answer is, in fact, all of the above, articulating the sharp clarity of a dream that begins to fade as soon as it gains its focus. Who else could write a triptych of poems on towels? As her poem “Precious Energy: A Triptych” includes: “My towels, on the other hand, look like the towels / of someone who has given up. […] I’d rather buy some expensive wine / and drink that and forget about whatever it is I think / I might want.” Her poems are elusive, yet grounded, achieving a kind of magical state that exists between the familiar elements of the domestic blended with the dreamy electricity and dark spaces of fairytales. As she writes in the poem “The Land of Thieves”: “Children steal the bodies / of their mothers; marriages steal doors and closets. A new love / will steal from an old one, the way a cat eats birds, without remorse / or self-consciousness. The story steals the poem.” See my full review here.
23. Fenn Stewart, Better Nature: After publishing a small handful of chapbooks (including one from above/ground press), Vancouver poet Fenn Stewart’s first trade poetry collection is Better Nature (BookThug, 2017), a wonderfully playful and urgent collection adapted from one of American poet Walt Whitman’s diaries, composed while he was travelling through Canada: Whitman’s Diary in Canada, ed. William Sloane Kennedy (Small, Maynard and Co., 1904). Set against Whitman’s Victorian-era diary of the Canadian wilderness, Fenn counterpoints with, as the press release informs, “found materials including early settler archives, news stories, email spam, fundraising for environmental NGOs, and more to present a unique view of Canada’s ‘pioneering’ attitude towards ‘wilderness’—one that considers deeper issues of the settler appropriation of Indigenous lands, the notion of terra nullius, and the strategies and techniques used to produce a ‘better nature’—that is, one that better serves the nation.” Her titles (listed in the table of contents as “List of Whitmans”) include such whimsical, and lengthy, titles such as (I mention two here only, for the sake of length) “if Walt Whitman were a youngish woman walking to work along Northwest Maine Drive in the Endowment Lands, just west of Vancouver, BC: if to her north were a series of mountains, on the other side of Burrard Inlet; if to her south were mansions, mansions, mansions up the hill; if she had a first trimester miscarriage, and then another one.” and “if Walt Whitman were a wealthy Vancouver resident bobbing about in a life raft in the suddenly much deeper Burrard Inlet; & if the occasion of this bobbing led to reminiscences about the creation of the city, via Major Matthews’ Early Vancouver archives (re: the ‘purchasing’ of land in the late 19th century) & Jean Barman’s historical research (on the destruction of the Kitsilano Reserve in the earth 20th).” The blend is compelling, mixing Whitman’s Victorian-era gaze of the Canadian “wilderness” against her own hometown of Vancouver, as well as a lengthy list of both “Major Debts/Reading List” and “Sources,” from William Shakespeare to Liz Howard to Chelsea Vowel to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. From the opening line to the final yawp on its last page, Better Nature is a rich and provocative exploration and critique of colonized space, composed in such evocative collisions of language, sound and meaning, and allowing the collisions to bring out new ways of seeing what had been there all along. See my full review here.
24. Sharon Thesen, The Receiver: B.C. poet and editor Sharon Thesen’s latest poetry title The Receiver (New Star Books, 2017), a collection of lyrics and prose-poems, some of which focus on family and memory, reminiscent, slightly, of George Bowering’s Autobiology (Georgia Straight Writing Supplement, Vancouver Series #7, 1972), working through how stories are told and retold, and shift in both telling and memory, sometimes deliberately, and often harden into those variations, some of which are very far from the facts. Set in five sections – “The Receiver,” “My Education as a Poet,” “Around then,” “Charles, Frances, Ralph, and Me” and “Book of Motz” – the first three sections evolve from a lyric exploration of family histories to more literary matters, akin to the essay-poems of, say, C.D. Wright (a quote by Wright is one of two that opens the collection) or Anne Carson. Thesen visits and revisits, reexamining her own memories and influences, from family to writers, in poems that write of visiting her mother, recollections of her youth, or the poets Shelley and Anna Akhmatova. Not that any of this is a new thread in Thesen’s work; one might even suggest that these are the foundations upon which Thesen’s work exists, but there is something about her view, perhaps, that is bringing new elements to light here. Particularly curious is the inclusion of the poem “The Pangs of Sunday,” a piece that shares a title with her first volume of selected poems, published in 1990 by McClelland and Stewart (a title that is otherwise unseen throughout the selected). Did it take this long for Thesen to complete the poem? Although this isn’t the most interesting in the collection (my preference remains with the longer prose poems over the shorter lyrics), but it furthers the throwback element that Thesen presents in the book as a whole. Really, Thesen’s The Receiver is an intriguing blend of the past and the present, composing poems that work to revisit and reconsider her history, memory and influences, as opposed to simply repeat or re-hash, as she manages perhaps her strongest collection in quite some time, going back to News and Smoke: Selected Poems (Talonbooks, 1999), A pair of scissors (Anansi, 2000), or even my personal favourite, the intimate smallness of Aurora (Talonbooks, 1995). See my full review here.
25. Catriona Strang, Reveries of a solitary biker: I’m intrigued at how Vancouver poet and editor Catriona Strang’s latest, Reveries of a solitary biker (Talonbooks, 2017), could be seen as connecting to Meredith Quartermain’s collection Vancouver Walking (NeWest Press, 2005), George Stanley’s BC Transit-influenced Vancouver: A Poem (New Star, 2008) or even Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (Clear Cut Press, 2004; Coach House Books, 2006; 2011), each meditating through their individual Vancouver terrains in different, non-car ways, something that one could say Vancouver poets have been doing regularly for decades (there are plenty more examples, but you get the point). Strang’s Reveries of a solitary biker is composed as a quartet of lyric suites, composing each section for the suits in a deck of playing cards, and an epilogue, “On Not Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” as a short suite of six poems.
The poems in Strang’s Reveries move through meditation, and the sections appear to be structured as much around rhythm as content, holding a suite of, for example, mishaps, discord and destruction in her “Diamonds” section, perhaps utilizing the section-titles to suggest, or even trigger, into a particular series of directions. Part of what appeals about her structure is in understanding, even from her perspective, how seemingly arbitrary the order of the poems actually is, opening up to the possibility of performing or reading in an entirely different sequence; the downside to the printed book is that it holds the sequence in a single order, what in the 1960s or 70s, possibly, via Coach House, might have actually been produced as a deck of playing cards, thus opening up the possibility of multiple orders, readings and understandings. See my full review here.
26. Joshua Whitehead, Full-Metal Indigiqueer: Calgary-based storyteller and academic Joshua Whitehead’s first trade collection of poems is Full-Metal Indigiqueer (Talonbooks, 2017), a spirited collection of text that “focuses on a hybridized Indigiqueer Trickster character named Zoa who brings together the organic (the protozoan) and the technologic (the binary) in order to re-beautify and re-member queer Indigeneity.” Exploring Indigenous representations and mis-representations through blending pop culture references up against those images, Whitehead’s Full-Metal Indigiqueer shifts and spins, smashing preconceptions from within and without his immediate vicinity. Fiercely intelligent, the poems in this collection move at a pretty high speed, playing with narrative, visual and concrete poetry structures and image, and includes a list of sources at the end some three pages long, from Seinfeld reruns to The Faerie Queene and A Christmas Carol, King Lear, Mean Girls, Richard Van Camp, Zora Neale Hurston, Leanne Simpson, Annie Proulx, Larissa Lai and Harry Potter. Even with all of the research and reference, there is a heavy performance and narrative aspect throughout, akin to the stripped-down narrative of Michael Turner’s original Hard Core Logo (a title originally produced as a poetry title, since republished as a novel), which makes one wonder if an adaptation for this work might also be possible? See my full review here.