[Aoife, as Supergirl] Here I go again. And who am I to go against tradition? Once more, I offer my annual list of the seemingly-arbitrary “worth repeating” (given ‘best’ is such an inconclusive designation), constructed from the list of Canadian poetry titles I’ve managed to review throughout the past year. This is my ninth annual list [see also: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011] since dusie-maven Susana Gardner originally suggested various dusie-esque poets write up their own versions of same, and I thank her both for the ongoing opportunity, and the prompting that started me off in the first place.
I’ve been far less active as a reviewer this past year as I might have wished, given I’m home with our two young ladies (Rose turned 6 in November, and Aoife turns 4 this coming April), and have been assisting with father-care on the homestead given his February diagnosis of ALS, and then Christine’s mini-stroke back in May and September bout of meningitis (I know, right? and she only returns to work starting, very very slowly, the first week of January). But still: given how long this list is, maybe I should just calm the hell down? With a list forty titles long, it does seem ridiculous to suggest that I couldn’t list everyone, but I couldn’t list everyone! And I couldn’t short-change it, either. And, despite realizing I reviewed more than one hundred poetry titles on the blog over the past year (not including chapbooks, non-fiction and fiction titles, literary journals, etcetera), there are just so many good and great books appearing by Canadian poets these days (and I know there are many I wasn’t able to get to, as per usual). So the message is, clearly: stop being amazing, everyone!
We also lost more than a few this year, including Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, Ian McCulloch, Nelson Ball, Lyn Lifshin, Kevin Killian, Kathleen Fraser, Patrick Lane and Emmanuel Hocquard. Most of those were quite important to me. I miss being able to shoot emails to Kevin. And Kathleen. And Nelson. Etc.
But here it is, my list of “worth repeating”:
1. Rita Wong and Fred Wah, beholden: a poem as long as the river. Oh, I know, this came out in 2018, but I hadn’t managed to get to it yet by the time I put last year’s list together. Furthering the idea of the bio-text into, as the back cover suggests, “the biospheric, the biotextual,” is the book version of Vancouver poets Rita Wong and Fred Wah’s collaborative art-text, beholden: a poem as long as the river (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2018). beholden: a poem as long as the river is a project that “arises out of a larger project titled River Relations: A Beholder’s Share of the Columbia River, a collaboration of artists seeking a creative engagement with the Columbia River. […] The poem, represented along a 114-foot banner of the entire Columbia River, has been exhibited as part of a number of gallery presentations displayed in the Pacific Northwest.” As the back cover informs: “We have not lived up to our responsibilities to the river, and we need to do better. The river does not end at its banks, but flows through our sinks and showers, charges our cellphones, and stirs our thoughts about treaties.”
Existing as both poetry title and exhibition catalogue, beholden: a poem as long as the river displays the entirety of the 114-foot banner in book form: two lines of text rolling, looping and crossing a full colour illustration of the Columbia River. Set as twin lyrics in conversation across the bank from the other, in a way that suggests Wah as author of one, and Wong as author of the other (although this remains conjecture): “[…] hello David Thompson now this quiet water maps diesel along the marshes of locomotion crossing North down the map of the River of Heaven Steamboat Mountain are you worried about a future – […]” (pp 5-6). The book also includes a more direct conversation between the two authors on their project, in which they discuss the movement of how their project emerged. See my full review here.
2. Adrienne Gruber, Q& A. Vancouver poet Adrienne Gruber’s third trade poetry title is Q & A (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2019), “a poetic memoir detailing a first pregnancy, birth and early postpartum period.” Following on the heels of This is the Nightmare (Saskatoon SK: Thistledown Books, 2008) and Buoyancy Control (BookThug, 2016), the lyric narratives of Q & A explore territory so often set aside, unwritten and unspoken, on the fear, elation and uncertainty that comes with pregnancy and childbirth. “I writhe on my back with my eyes closed.” she writes, in “GESTATIONAL FALL”: “I see only blood. / Yours and mine.”
Her poems seek agency, citing historic examples of medicine failing women about to give birth, and the loss of her own feeling of control during her own experiences. In her 2016 “12 or 20 questions” interview, Gruber speaks of both the publication of her second collection and the composition of her as-yet-unpublished third, the manuscript that evolved into the published Q & A, writing that “When I began to work on poetry again, it turned out that first year of parenting was a much-needed reprieve and I suddenly had loads to say. I wrote the entire first draft of my third manuscript when my daughter was two-years-old, much of it during her (wonderfully predictable) afternoon naptime. I credit her for forcing me into a new phase of discipline, where I no longer mess around on social media or clean the house when I have an hour of time; I get shit done. My youngest is eleven months and I’m back in that anxious phase of feeling like I have little time and energy to work and it’s driving me a bit mad. I keep reminding myself that this is all par for the course when you have a baby under one.” See my full review here.
3. Souvankham Thammavongsa, Cluster. Through three earlier poetry titles, all of which were produced by Beth Follett’s Pedlar Press—Small Arguments (2003), Found (2007) and Light (2013)—Toronto poet Souvankham Thammavongsa’s work has focused on silence, precision and a reclamation, whether of materials, history or of language itself. Her fourth full-length poetry title, Cluster (Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 2019), furthers these explorations in lyric meaning through a series of stretched-out sequences, many of which are pulled apart and across the page in highly deliberate placements. With lines set seven or eight lines below the line prior, Thammavongsa’s pauses, her silences, are crafted as carefully as the lines themselves.
Her minimalisms, silences and use of the page really are remarkable, and I haven’t seen any other poets combine such equal attentions and concerns; there aren’t that many poems that could create such expansive poems with so few words. Cameron Anstee, Mark Truscott and Nelson Ball, for example, utilize their own minimal, compact poems, but in very small forms. Other poets I could reference, such as Sylvia Legris, utilize a similar and equally-remarkable lyrical density, but Legris’ poems engage with physical space on the page, which feels entirely different from what Thammavongsa utilizes through the physical placement of her lines: a carved silence, as opposed to an engagement with lyric space. In Thammavongsa’s poems, her lines feel composed in a tension against that same silence, one that works in conjunction, as well as in opposition, of the words she places upon the page. See my full review here.
4. Kaie Kellough, Magnetic Equator. From Montreal poet and performer Kaie Kellough comes the powerful collection Magnetic Equator (Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 2019), another title in the quartet of first titles from McClelland and Stewart poetry editor Dionne Brand. Set in ten poem/sections—“kaieteur falls,” “mantra of no return,” “high school fever,” “exploding radio,” “bow,” “zero degrees,” “ghost notes,” “alterity,” “essequibo” and “the unity of worlds”—Magnetic Equator writes out a very personal journey across time, geography and culture. This is a poem, very much a singular, book-length work, that is populated, in a generative sense, by all who had come before; Kellough delves deep into sound and cadence to propel his text through a coherence of location, dislocation, immigration, longing and belonging, from South America shores to his Canadian teenaged prairie. His is a seismic lyric built on sound and memory, song, salvage, seekers of asylum and those dislocations that continue to hold. Through Magnetic Equator, Kaie Kellough lays the foundation for what it means for him to be where and who he is, exactly, now, and it is an incredible sight to behold. See my full review here.
5. Doyali Islam, heft. Toronto poet and Arc Poetry Magazine poetry editor Doyali Islam’s second collection is heft (Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 2019), a collection that feels a considerable leap in craft and nuance from her Yusuf and the Lotus Flower (Ottawa ON: BuschekBooks, 2011). I’m uncertain if there’s a specific term for such (the blurb from Philip Metres on the back cover refers to her poems as “bifurcated”), but Islam’s pieces exist as two side-by-side stanzas, composed as a collection of pairings: poems cut in two, but separate.
The poems in heft carry, and take on, enormous weight, populated by personal and political histories, many of which are intricately connected. And while the heft might be great, she never allows the poems to overwhelm. Curious, meditative and questioning, heft is an impressive collection, and one, eight years after her debut, that has been very much worth the wait (see what I did there?). As the poem “scale,” ends: “if grief can we weighed, my mother has borne / more of it, and what if torn wings tip / the balance, render life unbearable? / my hands are human, mostly unable / to restore anything.” See my full review here.
6. Erín Moure, THE ELEM: ENTS (NAM : LOZ). Montreal poet, critic and translator Erín Moure’s latest poetry title is THE ELEM : ENTS (NAM : LOZ) (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2019). Centred around her father, THE ELEM : ENTS is a many-layered book that writes of her father’s passing and the author’s experience with her brothers and their father’s dementia, to their shared history, and multiple threads through their lineage that came well before. As she writes in the poem “Vestimentary”: “Dad / Air Force veteran / gripping the seam of bedsheet, oxygen monitor pacing / his finger red / see-sawing his thin arm through engine failure // holding steady in havoc / through storm cloud [.]” In a book composed for, about, around and to her late father, the poems that make up this collection ripple out from that centre and return, repeatedly, moving through history and language, stretching out from his own Ontario history through his Galician roots across two centuries.
THE ELEM : ENTS is tethered, at the core, to the life and lineages of William Benito Moure, who was born in Ottawa in 1925, and died in Edmonton in 2013. Through explorations on and around her father, Moure also writes of Pascual Moure, a Second Sergeant in the Galician uprising (“One of the ‘Brigands / Led by Monks’ / Decorated Later / For Valour and Zeal / In the Bloody Battles / Against the French / Armies of Napoleon / 1808”); she writes of translation, from poetry to speaking directly to her father during his lapse into dementia, one word tripping into another. She writes multiple threads and elements that made up her father, and allowed for him to be, and become, from the young man in the capital to the eventual father of three. This book both asks and attempts to answer: who was this man, and what made him? Towards the end of the collection, she even includes a poem of hers from Little Theatres (Anansi, 2005), translated into English by her father, with the note: “February 13, 2003 / my dad learning Galician backwards / by translating from Little Theatres / found 2017and copied by EM [.]” The return of her father through a translation of Moure’s own words, in those few lines, is quite powerful. What is memory, and how is a life constructed, recalled or remembered, through the filter of dementia? See my full review here.
7. Karen Solie, The Caiplie Caves. What is immediately fascinating about Toronto poet and editor Karen Solie latest full-length collection, The Caiplie Caves (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2019), is how it is built: more than a collection thematically or structurally shaped, but a singular, book-length work constructed around a core idea. That isn’t to suggest that her prior collections—Short Haul Engine (London ON: Brick Books, 2001), Modern and Normal (Brick Books, 2005), Pigeon (Anansi, 2009) and The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out (Anansi, 2015), as well as The Living Option: Selected Poems (Northumberland UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2013)—aren’t conceived as or don’t hold together as book-units, but the difference remains on The Caiplie Caves’ focus on both a historical figure, the hermit Ethernan, and the remote Caves of Caiplie, where he chose to contemplate, situated north of Edinburgh along the country’s eastern coast. As Solie writes of the historically-evasive Ethernan as part of her preface: “A number suggest he was an Irish missionary to Scotland who withdrew to the Caves in the mid-7th century in order to decide whether to commit to a hermit’s solitude or establish a priory on May Island. This choice, between life as a ‘contemplative’ or as an ‘active,’ was not an unusual one to take up among his cohort.” The poems use the contemplation of that choice, between a contemplative versus an active life, as a way to speak both to what is believed to be Ethernan’s historical context as well as contemporary concerns, asking what, indeed, denotes activity, and examining the unexamined life.:
Solie writes of isolation, the slippery structures of human interactions, violence and tragedy, and what might cause both body and soul to retreat. “Hatred is a plotting emotion,” she writes, in the poem “KENTIGERN AND THE ROBIN”: “and gleefully inclusive.” She writes the landscape and weather as physical characters, sometimes violent and occasionally overpowering, but also capable of great empathy, capable of providing refuge. See my full review here.
8. Nicole Raziya Fong, PEЯFACT. Montreal-based poet Nicole Raziya Fong’s debut full-length poetry title is PEЯFACT (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2019), “a three-part series of poems interrogating the nature of experience, language, trauma, and identity.” Fong writes on being in, of and beyond the body, seeking a centre from which to find ground. “To desire,” she writes, in the title section, “is to sustain a way of living. I desire to sustain a / living whose ends are my own.” The prose poem sequences of the title section, that opens the collection, are composed out of a lyric, rhythmic breath of sentences, one that compels the ear to listen as much as the sound of it soothes. And yet, Fong’s text (throughout the collection, as well as specifically within this poem/section) moves through both the thinking and physical body, between the self and the other, between contemplation and action—occasionally paired, linked, impossibly joined and impossibly separate—writing into the periphery, exploring the between-ness of possibility.
As the first section sets the foundation for her thinking, the second section pulls that apart, and providing both an abstract and something more concrete, until the third section, set not as ending but an expression of conclusion, collusion and collision. See my full review here.
9. Guy Birchard, Only Seemly. Victoria, British Columbia-based poet Guy Birchard’s latest poetry title is Only Seemly (St. John’s NL: Pedlar Press, 2018). A poet who self-describes in his bio as living “below the radar, perfectly disaffiliated,” Birchard’s work emerges from a particular element of lyric collage, both text and visual, and this collection is both a narrative lyric memoir and a combination of both accumulation and collage, as fragments and clipped sentences accumulate and pivot against each other, furthering a line even while breaking that same line as much as might be possible. The book, Only Seemly, also, is made up of a single long-poem, constructed as a sequence of stand-alone prose poems, and yet, underneath the title “hypnogagia,” which makes for an intriguing structure: a book with one title made up of a single poem with another title?
While this might be the first title of Birchard’s I’ve properly explored, his is a name I’ve known for some time (most likely through jwcurry’s ongoing publications), and yet, skirting just under a particular kind of literary radar, despite the length of his publishing history. Every so often a book might appear, but little information otherwise, but for the acknowledgment in his author biography that he exists under the radar, and a different geographic location (an earlier author bio had him living in the prairies, for example). What I am noticing, also, is that many of those that do tend to reference his work are running under the radar themselves (such as this reference to Birchard’s work in this Touch the Donkey interview with Pete Smith, for example). He becomes fascinating, in part, due to the difficulty with which one might locate him. In a review of Baby Grand originally published in The Literary Storefront Newsletter (No. XX), January 1980 (discovered via the Brick Books website), one of the very few mentions I could gather of Birchard online, Colin Browne wrote: “Reading Birchard is like walking into a fence corner of juicy, tantalizing brambles and pushing deeper because you prefer to taste the blood the thorns tap. Birchard collages archaic usage with movie slang in the most amazing ways; his humour is dark and humid, his eye never glazed.” See my full review here.
10. Nikki Reimer, My Heart Is a Rose Manhattan. Calgary poet Nikki Reimer’s third full-length collection is My Heart Is a Rose Manhattan (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2019), following [sic] (Calgary AB: Frontenac House, 2010) and DOWNVERSE (Talonbooks, 2014) and chapbooks fist things first (Windsor ON: Wrinkle Press, 2009) and that stays news (Vancouver BC: Nomados Literary Publishers, 2011). Much in the way of her previous collection, My Heart Is a Rose Manhattan is a book of absurdities and responses, whether to Alberta politics, the ongoing housing crises, capitalism, the patriarchy, poverty and literary politics, or social media, exhaustion, rage, bewilderment and grief. As she writes to open the poem “Dear Craigslist,”: “Knock it the fuck off with your stale tributaries, your overdrawn affluenza [.]”
Grief, in personal and political ways, is the foundation upon which this book sits. Both poems and author openly grieve, and work to explore that grief, and the implications such an ongoing grief will have upon the body, the family and culture: “i might suggest that grief has made my family embarrassing and ridiculous / but we were always already embarrassing and ridiculous / grief has metastasized our individual personality flaws and our family-culture flaws / my family is a cancer cancer is the normcoriest of diseases / because it’s been pinkified and commodified” (“Our sorrow is normative”). In language twists and turns, Reimer’s poems rage and kick, concurrently firing back, standing firm and admitting defeat. Her poems alternate between lyric, collage and pointilism, narrating a series of sweeping attempts to figure out exactly what the hell is going on, and, even, how to stop it. As the poem “Kenya’s greatest elephant” begins: “Dandelions are delicious? / Peter MacKay explains lack of a special guest appearance. // Last photo was a teenager I appreciate our elephants. / You are the platform.” These poems kick the world bloody, and the world more than deserves it. See my full review here.
11. Armand Garnet Ruffo, Treaty #. I was quite taken with a reading Armand Garnet Ruffo did in Ottawa recently, as part of the VERSeFest launch of Rob Taylor’s What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2018). Ruffo read a few poems from his brand-new full-length collection, Treaty # (Hamilton ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 2019), a book in which “Ruffo documents his observations on life – and in the process, his own life – as he sets out to restructure relationships and address obligations nation to nation, human to human, human to nature. In these poems Ruffo has built powerful connections to his predecessors, and discovered new ways to bear witness and build a place for them, and for all of us.”
Through Ruffo’s work, it would be hard to dismiss Indigenous experience and perspectives as being both historic and contemporary, existing here far longer than the rest of us have been in North America. Literature by Indigeous writers has evolved enormously across North America over the past twenty years, and, through numerous books as both writer and editor over that time (including his seminal Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney, which was subsequently adapted into a feature film), Ruffo has emerged to become one of the most established Indigenous poets in the country (some others on that list that have been around for a while might include Marilyn Dumont, David Groulx and Annharte, among others). The poems in Treaty # write out personal histories and travel, travelogues and traplines, treaties, Pauline Johnson and missing women, to stories from his youth and his own relationships to other writers and their work. “Everything changes except my love,” he writes, to open the poem “At Père-Lachaise,” “writes Apollinaire.” There is an intimacy Ruffo engages, whatever his subject, writing out narratives that explore the world from his own experiences, knowledge and perspectives. See my full review here.
12. Jason Christie, Cursed Objects. Ottawa poet Jason Christie’s latest poetry title is Cursed Objects (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2019), “an engine / guttering low, slowing / into a cycle of haunt / and reclaim, [...].” Individually composed through both accumulation and a collage, the poems in Cursed Objects are propelled via juxtaposition, interruption and collision, eschewing lyric for a deliberate patchwork of sound, meaning and purpose, each of which are also disassembled and rearranged as needed for alternate effect. For Christie, the instability created is the engine that propels, and the folly, as he terms it, that is worth both critiquing and dismantling. Cursed Objects is built in three sections—“lèse-majesté,” “The Charm” and “a litany for [cursed object]s”— with poems concurrently constructing and dismantling throughout, writing on technology, friends and family, and buildings that might not have ever existed.
If modernism wrote the world separate from ourselves, and postmodern wrote ourselves as an inseparable part of that same world, Christie’s Cursed Objects writes the self against a world that might no longer require us, exploring technologies and other man-made creations that have developed their own trajectories, and the issues that arise with that discovery. How is it we interact with the world, with our creations, and even each other? What might remain of a world in which our creations surpass us, even turning back to their creators, shifting our own trajectories as well? As he writes to close the poem “FILE MANAGEMENT”: “skip ahead ten seconds / that is exactly it there / the moment when / we fell in love with / our capacity to store [.]” See my full review here.
13. Ben Ladouceur, Mad Long Emotion. Ottawa poet Ben Ladouceur’s second full-length poetry title is Mad Long Emotion (Toronto ON Coach House Books, 2019), a book that follows his award-nominated Otter (Coach House Books, 2015). In contrast to what his title suggests, Ladouceur’s is a poetry of emotional exactness, composed via a meditative grace of humour, odd turns and observation. His lines can be meaty, thick with sound and created with a lightness that allows for a gymnastic ability to bounce, such as the ending of “ASSINOBOINE PARK ZOO,” where he writes: “All monsters on earth were once like me, / adept at love, composed // of meat, silent with ongoingness, hydraulics well-greased / with blood that stays blue, so long as you / don’t let it out.”
As American poet CAConrad suggests, as part of the back cover blurb, Ladouceur’s work includes descriptors such as “precarious,” but his poems are also incredibly quick and smart, even clever, deftly making a series of playfully quick turns and re-turns, such as the opening of “THE GREEN CARNATION,” that writes: “Fashion is currently pineapples / and sending people // home with home- / made party favours. Fashion fades, // but also, fades are in. / My barber’s students want // to give each man on earth a killer / fade, to sort the men, to make men sort // of fade away.” Really, what I appreciate in Ladouceur’s poems, especially in poems longer than half a page or so, is the pacing; how he is able to pause and stretch out before moving forward. See my full review here.
14. Matthew Gwathmey, Our Latest in Folktales. Jonathan Ball’s blurb on the back cover of Matthew Gwathmey’s full-length poetry debut, Our Latest in Folktales (London ON: Brick Books, 2019), might describe such as a “mishmash,” but it seems obvious from the first poem onward that this book, consistently throughout, is occupied with time. The impression from the first half-dozen or so of these formal, first-person narratives, “Franklin the Icebreaker,” “At Arcadia Dump, Later On,” “Turning Thirty,” “Turning Thirty-Three” and “Sister Album,” suggest a gaze that is impossibly fixed on time as a multiple, gazing forward or backward, but never exclusively on the matter-at-hand. Once one makes it through further of the book, it becomes obvious that, as a unit, Gwathmey’s poems explore a progression of time—the coupling of poems such as “Turning Thirty” and “Turning Thirty-Three” to “Second Anniversary and Ninth Anniversary”—but individually seem to explore time as something that exists separately and concurrently. His sense of past, present and future exists as both weight and lightness, tether and foundation, existing in ways that are impossible to extricate from, nor would he ever wish to, if he is to remain whole. Moving from short lyrics to prose poems to slightly longer stretches of lyric sequences, Gwathmey revels in revealing that he (his narrator, etcetera) is in possession of knowledge greater than what is being presented, but also that such knowledge is woefully incomplete, writing poems that both tease and strive, revealing and furthering an impossible reach. What is it he’s reaching for?
For Gwathmey, his consideration of time includes the Acadians, psych wards, fishing, video chat, ageing and the Franklin Expedition, elements and stories and tales passed through generations that exist throughout time, moving backward and forward, at times reconsidered and rewritten, whether the opening poem “Franklin the Icebreaker” writing of “Only pummellings / of gossip roam free, / wafting through stalled boats /waiting for the icebreaker.” or to the closing poem, “Les Mimes de Paris,” that offers a reconsideration of history from a small group of (presumed) youths in the Metro, writing: “In steel-toed boots, laces untied, / they depart at Invalides / to question Napoelon’s tomb / about his contribution / to the war effort.” His are poems that wish to not only pass along those stories, but add some of his own, for posterity’s sake. See my full review here.
15. Domenica Martinello, All Day I Dream About Sirens. Montreal poet Domenica Martinello’s full-length poetry debut is All Day I Dream About Sirens (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2019), a collection of finely-crafted lyrics centred around the idea of the mythical sirens, known as seducer/destroyer and male fantasy, and female desire and the male gaze. “All hail the man-made beach,” she writes, in the sarcastically short and sweet “SINGSONG,” a poem that ends: “so plastic and toxically cheap.” Martinello critiques and dismantles male expectation and how women are repeatedly used, utilizing tales from Greek myth to the Filles du Roi, the approximately eight hundred young women who emigrated from France to New France between 1663 and 1673 for the sake of marrying the multitude of single men, to help populate their colony. The poems in All Day I Dream About Sirens push to provide so-called sirens with their own agency, as a response to repeated male expectation and attempts to dominate, crashing ships that might deserve to be run aground. “If you are the siren,” she writes, to close out the poem “ADIDAS,” that sits near the opening of her collection, “over the last forty years we’ve made some changes to that identity. We sell entry to a community of like-minded people, cattle them in, strike at the pulsepoint of the sun. If you are the siren, you will do the rest.” Composing lines and lyrics that are incredibly sharp, Martinello moves through geography and time, through history and myth, from pop culture to the classics, tales of family and poverty, returning regularly to the water, returning to the implication of male stories that are “genetically / identical // a common / man’s odyssey / in a seed’s blow // where ode / becomes episode” (“TARAXACUM”). See my full review here.
16. Aaron Vidaver, Counter-Interpellation: Volume One. I’m fascinated by Vancouver poet, critic, editor and publisher Aaron Vidaver’s Counter-Interpellation: Volume One (North Vancouver BC: CUE Books, 2019). I’ve seen literary works constructed out of the archive numerous times—poems and works of prose that directly utilize and incorporate archival materials—but Vidaver’s latest is made up entirely of archival documents, without editorializing or context, one that provides a fascinating portrait of how one imagines self from the outside. The bulk of Counter-Interpellation: Volume One focuses on Vidaver’s birth, his relinquishing and subsequent adoption, providing multiple and layered view into how an archive, especially one as thoroughly researched as this one, creates a portrait of an individual through what might otherwise be seen as cold and disconnected letters, forms and files.
The bulk of the book explores the details of his origins and subsequent adoption, and finally move into his twenties, examining records around his depression and subsequent hospitalization, which shifts the attention away from immediate origins in a curious way (and suggest the book is a collection of all of his official records, which simply happen to be from these two poles of life experience—origins and adult depression). As someone who is also adopted, as well as an author who has been sending boxes upon boxes of literary papers into an archive at the University of Calgary, I have long been curious about the kinds of portraits various archives and archive material might present of ourselves, which in itself causes one to distrust the archive as any kind of complete overview of anyone, instead providing exactly that: a portrait, one that exists from a particular time and place, and one that might even have been curated (or “edited”). What does the archive allow, and what does it leave out? What might the archive, through no fault of its own, overlook, and how might that affect the resulting portrait? The difference between a life lived, I might wonder, and a photograph taken of you with your parents in church clothes. At the end of the collection, in his “Note,” he writes that “Additional notes on the work appear in the final volume of Counter-Interpellation, with a glossary and list of abbreviations, a lexicon, a bibliography and acknowledgments.” Given this is “Volume One,” I can’t presume how many more volumes exist, beyond the singular (although a quick search discovers Daniel LaFrance’s review via The Capilano Review, that suggest three volumes to come), but I am curious to go through this work and realize the purity of the archive being presented, without a single word or phrase of editorial commentary by the author/archivist. While I might be curious to know something from the author itself, I admire the purity being presented here. It might be all the information I need. See my full review here.
17. Social Poesis: The Poetry of Rachel Zolf, selected with an introduction by Heather Milne. The past few days I’ve been going through Social Poesis: The Poetry of Rachel Zolf, selected with an introduction by Heather Milne (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2019), the latest title in the expansive Laurier Poetry Series of critical selecteds. Editor Heather Milne assembled the collection Social Poesis by selecting from Canadian expat poet Rachel Zolf’s five trade poetry collections, as well as from her online digital poetic project The Tolerance Project (http://thetoleranceproject.blogspot.com). I’ve long been fascinated by Zolf’s project-based work, something that has become more overt as she continues to publish, utilized to examine human interaction, and a variety of social and cultural histories. Zolf might utilize external means to produce work, but her concerns are deeply human, from the intimate to the professional to the historical, and the dark elements that so often are deliberately set aside.
What is helpful in this collection is the sequence of notes presented at the opening of sections that provide some context to the book/project being excerpted, such as the note on Masque that informs that “Zolf has compared this book to a play in which multiple characters are trying to talk at the same time, creating a polyphonic series of poems.” to the note on Janey’s Arcadia, that opens with: “Zolf makes use of optical character recognition software (OCR) that scans PDFs of archival texts into Word documents. OCR often misreads words and inserts strange symbols and characters into the text. Rather than correct these errors, Zolf embraces them as part of her compositional strategy. The glitches disrupt the poems that make them difficult to read, but they also become a site where meaning is generated.” This book exists as both an impressive overview of Zolf’s ongoing work, and a wonderful introduction to what she’s accomplished so far, much of which, I would argue, hasn’t received the attention it so clearly deserves. See my full review here.
18. Hugh Thomas, MAZE. Montreal poet and mathematician Hugh Thomas has been publishing long enough that one might be forgiven for not realizing that the newly-published MAZE (Picton ON: Invisible Publishing, 2019), a collection of “Intentional mistranslations that meander through the maze of language,” is actually his first full-length trade poetry title.
Thomas’ poems, many of which are short, and quite condensed, employ strains of surrealism and humour akin to the works of poets such as Stuart Ross, Alice Burdick and Gary Barwin, but with a more overt collision of elaborate and absurd improvisation, one that closes in on both language poetry and the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear. “Enough time sent me knights on horseback with chocolate-covered strawberries,” he writes, in the poem “Unsigned City,” a mistranslation of a fragment of Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili: “and I was overwhelmed by a fear of intimacy. In this city you must wash your hands before eating, persuaded by the bells from the mountains, selling a new day and its fruits. A strange rover knows many fine things and follows his premonitions to the most capricious sales.” While Thomas certainly isn’t the first poet to work with mistranslation-as-translation—poets over the years have included bpNichol, Ross, jwcurry, Barwin and multiple others—his work is striking in part due to how much of his output is based upon this deliberate sequence of misreadings and misunderstandings. See my full review here.
19. Mark Laba, The Inflatable Life. Vancouver poet Mark Laba’s second full-length poetry title is The Inflatable Life (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press/A Feed Dog Book, 2019), following his long out-of-print full-length debut, Dummy Spit (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2002). Long ago a part of a cavalcade of small press enthusiasts that emerged in and around Toronto during the “small press scene” of the 1980s, Laba’s poetry chapbook debut, Movies in the Insect Temple, appeared through Stuart Ross’ Proper Tales Press in 1981. That first chapbook led to multiple, albiet occasional, appearances of his work over the years, from intermittent chapbooks to journal publications, inclusion in the anthology Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian poets under the influence (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2007) and a first trade collection. As the press release for the new book offers: “Some may call these surreal poems literary atrocities while others hail them as lyricism for an impossible century. Thing is, if Mark Laba didn’t write these poems, no one else would.”
Laba’s poems are constructed almost as absurd and/or surrealist collage, leaping from point to narrative point, and allowing the accumulation to build up and around an assembled meaning or sequence of meanings. The humour emerges from the shifts, and the shifts emerge from the assemblage, turning back in and around odd bits of observation, unexpected turns and outrageous connections. Given his long history with Stuart Ross, the parallels between their poems are rampant, and the cross-influence over the years is most likely rather obvious, especially with titles such as “The Wallace Stevens Hit Parade,” a sequence of poems that includes “Four Ways of Looking at an Alligator,” the first of which reads: “A man, a woman, and an alligator / wear sagging pantaloons / and smell of summer fields, skeletons and meat gravy, / their shadows traced by blotchy blackbirds with grim hallucinations.” If Ross is the outlandish observer through absurd-coloured-glasses, Laba might just be the realist (and possibly even the optimist) of the two, observing the absurdities of the world as well, but seeing what might change with a twist. See my full review here.
20. Stuart Ross, Motel of the Opposable Thumbs. The author of dozens of chapbooks of poetry and fiction, and nearly twenty full-length books of fiction, poetry and essays, Cobourg, Ontario writer, editor, publisher and blogger Stuart Ross’ eleventh full-length title is the poetry collection Motel of the Opposable Thumbs (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2019. Motel of the Opposable Thumbs includes a number of elements those familiar with Ross’ work will find familiar, including threads of surreal and absurd humour, and poems for or around those important to him, from friends to literary influences (many of whom included in this collection are both), as well as the seamless and surreal transitions from the ridiculous to the sublime, from the throwaway gag to the deeply earnest.
While Ross’ work has always included self-depreciating element and a strange humour, there is a darkness that emerges from the lyrics of Motel of the Opposable Thumbs that hasn’t felt so prevalent before. Given the current political and social climate, much of which Ross absorbs and responds to, even if in the most allusive and elusive ways, I almost wonder if the world has simply caught up to a darkness that has always been present in Ross’ work. Perhaps he might be one of the few contemporary poets articulate and aware enough to be able to speak to and around a larger, twisted and ongoing agitation, one that can’t even properly be described, but instead, deeply felt.
Really, his adherence to what might be seen as name-dropping is anything but that. These names are important for how he approaches and even values writing: not as commodity but as a part of a much wider and far-reaching community of writers across Canada and beyond. For readers outside Canada, for example, not yet aware of Ross’ work or his community of peers there is quite an opportunity: to begin to read the poetry of Stuart Ross is to become aware, also, of the work of Nelson Ball, of Alice Burdick, of Gary Barwin and Mark Laba, and of so many others that have lent their attention, their work and their energies to sustaining and being sustained by a wide array of writers and work. And Stuart Ross, as well. See my full review here.
21. I Could Have Pretended To Be Better Than You: New & Selected Poems by Jay MillAr. It is a strange thing to see poets of my generation (especially those slightly younger than I) begin to release volumes of selected poems, and the latest I’ve seen is I Could Have Pretended To Be Better Than You: New & Selected Poems by Jay MillAr, edited and with an afterword by Tim Conley (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2019). I was curious to see editor Tim Conley’s selections, as well as his framing for Jay’s work as a whole. It is fascinating to see the wealth of early material collected here, as Conley himself suggests that the book isn’t meant to be built as a “greatest hits,” but “as a cross-section of an oeuvre still growing.”
While Conley might suggest that all of MillAr’s work is engaged with time, the immediacy of his explorations in form suggest he is also, concurrently, a writer very much engaged in the moment he is currently in, over, say, a writer of books, seeking to look too far ahead; MillAr, through this selection, is shown as a composer of individual poems and sequences over that of a poet such as Stephen Cain or George Bowering, for example, utilizing the poem as a means in which to compose book-length projects. What becomes interesting through the process of this collection is in seeing a poet who not only refuses to be a fixed point—as soon as an image of what kind of poet Jay MillAr is begins to take shape, it immediately shifts—but his seeming complete lack of interest in such an approach. His is a poetics that is constantly moving, shifting and taking in new information, influences and approaches. One could even say this approach is also what fuels his publishing, refusing the fixed, unchanging point, one that aims for exploration as well as excellence, and one that is constantly reaching towards the immediate moment, before turning towards whatever comes next. See my full review here.
22. Chris Banks, Midlife Action Figure. I’m fascinated by the poems in Waterloo, Ontario poet Chris Banks’ fourth full-length poetry collection, Midlife Action Figure (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2019), a book that follows his Bonfires (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions/Junction Books, 2003), Winter Cranes (ECW Press, 2011) and The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (ECW Press, 2017). The poems are densely thick and incredibly rich, akin, somewhat, to a lyric molasses in which a reader is caught up in an unexpected lyric flow. Perhaps molasses isn’t the right word, but the comparison suggests a thickness, and a poetry in which one can’t easily pull away from. Set in three numbered sections, his poems are big poems (although each averaging a page in length) wrestling with big ideas and big questions, including, as he writes in “Big Questions”: “Twenty years on, why keep / making art?”
As the title suggests, the collection explores that nebulous idea of “midlife,” although one that isn’t necessarily one fraught with anxiety or even resignation, but more as a curiosity around and exploration of mortality. Banks offers his thoughts and observations from the intimate to the spiritual to the quietly mundane, all of which wraps itself around the question of survival, and how we might navigate and exist in the world as responsible and healthy humans. How did we get here, and where are we going? How is it even possible to exist during these times? His poems offer an optimism, but one that has been battered around for some time, and one that begins to question itself. “Beauty rewrites its own code.” he writes, to open the poem “Simulation”: “The authentic / is another souvenir most people throw away.” See my full review here.
23. Jonathan Ball, The National Gallery. Winnipeg writer, filmmaker and critic Jonathan Ball’s fourth poetry collection is The National Gallery (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2019), following Ex Machina (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2009), Clockfire (Coach House Books, 2006) and The Politics of Knives (Coach House Books, 2012).
Set in nine sections of short poems, the narratives of Ball’s pieces don’t twist expectation as much as they sidestep, composing poems that exist in counterpoint or opposition to what he has deliberately set up. The first section, “Group of Seven,” for example, is a section of twelve short poems, each titled with the name of one of the infamous “Group of Seven” painters, as well as a few of their contemporaries, such as Emily Carr (I’m admittedly disappointed that my personal favourite Canadian painter from that period, David Milne, hasn’t his own poem). Each of the dozen poems exist with their ‘namesake’ as red herring, smokescreen and sheen, suggesting an impossible kind of colouring to each of his carved lyrics. One presumes that the “Lawren S. Harris” poem—that opens: “I took my poems to the rain barrel / Where I drowned them one by one”—would shift had it a different title, say, “”Franklin Carmichael” or “Tom Thomson,” and yet, it might not matter in the slightest. The difference could be of perception, of how we see, and even expect to see, things. An incredibly coherent suite of poems, they challenge the notion of art from art, or art at all: what is the ekphrastic when the connections aren’t obvious? The Group of Seven painters are such classic “Canadiana” that much of the awareness of them and their work has been rendered iconic and stereotypical, even mute. What do we know of Lawren S. Harris? What knowledge of him and his work might we bring to this poem?
What is interesting, also, is his description of how the book came together, through the opening section: “Although many of these poems were written earlier, over the course of twenty years, this manuscript began to solidify when I started to write the poems in ‘Group of Seven,’ poems that take poetry itself, and how I relate to my poetry, and how the wider world relates to art, as their subject. These poems question the traditional purposes of poetry and address the various failures of art-making as a whole.” The foundation of the first section holds the manuscript together, certainly, opening up for a variety of ekphractic explorations around art, film and poetry, pop culture and Canadiana, and one’s place in the world of writing, all running along the thread of that central question:
Ball is a poet that revels in odd humour and odd juxtapositions, striking out in unusual directions that keep going, further than you might have imagined. There are elements of Ball’s poems reminiscent of the work of Canadian poet Stuart Ross, but Ball’s lyrics, in comparison, are more restrained, less outlandish; focusing instead on a wry, observational humour than a sparkling pessimism. While the collection might not aim to specifically answer the question of why one makes art (my own preference leans towards those projects that work to ask questions over the presumption of actually having all or any of the answers), the fact of the finished and published book certainly answers, at least for now, that Ball himself can see a value in the production of art. His answer, despite claiming to not actually have one, is the fact of and the poems within The National Gallery. As well, given his work through short narrative forms, I am curious to see his debut collection of “stranger fiction” out next fall, The Lightning of Possible Storms (2020). I suspect it will be well worth the wait. See my full review here.
24. Jacqueline Turner, Flourish. Flourish (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2019) is Vancouver poet Jacqueline Turner’s fifth poetry collection, after Into the Fold (2000), Careful (2003), Seven Into Even (2006) and The Ends of the Earth (2013), all of which have been published by ECW Press through editor Michael Holmes. Some of the poems in Flourish are reminiscent of certain works by Margaret Christakos, Rachel Zucker or Anne Carson for their own lyric explorations, composing poems as small studies, and allowing different levels of the personal and interpersonal into the body of their poems. The poems of Turner’s Flourish, predominantly a book of prose poems, utilize an exploration of language as its base, and the materials of her life as the means through which she makes those explorations. We might even compare the idea to similar structures of language exploration Vancouver writer George Bowering utilized in his Autobiology (Vancouver BC: Georgia Straight Writing Supplement, 1972), but Turner’s, while writing out a number of remembrance single-stanza prose poems, is more conscious of reading and writing, source materials and the composition of the poem-essay. Turner writes out memories around her children and of them growing into adulthood, memories of her own childhood and siblings, and the low expectations put upon her (as a girl growing up in the 1980s, and into the 1990s), and of her experiences moving into and through emerging author, of “a desire constructed for me by books and also television.” (“New York Intellectuals”).
Flourish is a collection that works to take stock, looking forward, back and at the present moment, attempting a sense of placement, of movement, striking out with every source of information she can muster, from the source materials of her own memories to that of her own reading. Flourish is a celebration of the present, even as she works to take it apart, so that she might better understand it. “The parts of a whole are indicated in partial modes of remembrances.” she writes, to open the poem “Putting the World in a Box”: “Loss is a continual gesture of nostalgia.” See my full review here.
25. K.B. Thors, Vulgar Mechanics. I am very taken with the powerful debut by poet, translator and educator K.B. Thors, her Vulgar Mechanics (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2019), an assemblage of tight, fearless lyrics composed of a rigorously and lively gymnastic language. Thors’ poems are physical and unflinching; a sequence of full-bodied lyrics, constantly pushing and punching, articulating a clear-eyed view of the dark spaces of urban coming-of-age, of toxic masculinity and anger, and of just what the body and spirit can endure. “The body suffers no false progress.” she writes, in the poem “SOFT PALATE.”
Her poems are confident and capable, and have some of the most striking opening lines I’ve read in a long time. Thor immediately grabs your attention, and holds it, with openings such as “The only record of that burlesque was the sonnet / we found on the floor, a trampled sheet we tried to preserve / in simple syrup and steel-toed boots.” from “DUNK TANK,” to “I left my nipple clamps at the Chrysler factory / in Windsor.” from “ON THE PLANET OF ALL TIME: TECUMSEH,” and “I can’t promise not to laugh but yes, sir, / I’ll jump your gun.” from “REVERSE COWGIRL.” See my full review here.
26. Vincent Pagé, This Is the Emergency Present. After two very interesting chapbook releases—
Veinte (Montreal QC: Vallum
Chapbook Series, 2016) and IN A BURNING
BUILDING THE AIR INSIDE IS HEATED BY FIRE AND SO BECOMES LIGHTER (Toronto ON:
Desert Pets Press, 2016)—I’d been looking forward to seeing Toronto poet
Vincent Pagé’s full-length poetry debut, This
Is the Emergency Present (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2019). Built from,
and even out of, those earlier releases, This
Is the Emergency Present is an incredibly coherent assemblage, constructed
in three sections: the erasure “ Veinte,” the assemblage of shorter
lyrics, “In a Burning Building the Air Inside is Heated By Fire and So Becomes
Lighter,” and the extended sequence “Armistice.”
Vincent Pagé’s poems display a halting and exacting precision of rough edges, slants and slow accumulation, each of which build around elements of meditative anxiety, some of which seeks out solutions and answers, and some of which acknowledges that such solutions are impossible. “I’m trying everything I can,” he writes, to open the poem “WATER IS FOUND AS ICE,” “to stop giving off heat [.]” Later on, in the poem “DAISY BUCHANAN,” he seems to continue the thought, writing: “The heat tries / to get in / bed naked / reading pirated PDFS / about how life’s existence / can be explained / by thermodynamics / and equations that appear / written in sand / It all seems to be about / energy and communication – / even snowflakes can be / understood to be living [.]” See my full review here.
27. Marita Dachsel, There Are Not Enough Sad Songs. I was curious to explore the lyric monologues of Victoria, British Columbia-based poet and playwright Marita Dachsel’s third full-length poetry collection, There Are Not Enough Sad Songs (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2019). Dachsel is the author of two prior full-length collections—All Things Said & Done (Caitlin Press, 2007) and Glossolalia (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2013)—as well as a small handful of chapbooks (including one of the earliest above/ground press titles). Dachsel’s is a lyric that narrates with a similar lean towards precision, but more interested in examining the emotional and spiritual messes and complications and impossibilities that come with growing up and of youth, that come with being female, and that come with experiences beyond one’s control. Her poems are less studies on or around subjects than acknowledgements of events that might not otherwise be discussed. “Loss is becoming commonplace,” she writes, in the opening poem, “after the funeral,” “but this one, / this particular death, rattles.”
Her poems do feel like monologues, one that could be performed on stage as easily as they could be read on a page, or at a podium or microphone, and Dachsel’s poems also offer a kind of spiritual clarity, navigating a sequence of uncertainties with a careful confidence, considered step and hard-won experience. “When we were pregnant,” she writes, to open the poem “grown up,” “we thought we were finally / adults. Such babies, / making babies. We glowed / with hope, stupidity. / As if life was that easy.” Just as the poems of her prior collection, Glossolalia, wrote of the thirty-four polygamous wives of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some of the poems in acknowledge women otherwise forgotten to history, such as Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753 – December 5, 1784), a former slave who became known as “the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry.” See my full review here.
28. Billy-Ray Belcourt, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field. On the heels of his Griffin Poetry Prize-winning debut, This Wound is a World (Calgary AB: Frontenac House, 2017), Driftpile Cree Nation poet Billy-Ray Belcourt’s latest is NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2019), a collection of uncompromising poems, erasures, photographs and prose poems that blend camp, theory and lyric to examine unexamined, and some extremely difficult, histories, and those histories not discussed enough through mainstream media. “I wrote a poem to resemble a forest floor teeming with decaying vegetation.” he writes, to open “ARS POETICA,” “A struggling thing isn’t a struggling thing / if everything else is in a state of rot.”
What is fascinating is in how Belcourt utilizes poetry (over, say, critical theory, creative non-fiction or fiction) as the form with which to engage his field of study. In an interview conducted by Sanchari Sur earlier this year for the Invisible Publishing blog, he responds: “The first reason I came to poetry, I think, was because I was frustrated with the limits of conventional academic writing. As an undergraduate student, I was going through this process of politicization that I think a lot of students of colour go through… [it] brings about a kind of fury [laughs], and pain and sadness that many of us want to put to use. And poetry was where I did that because it allowed me to write and to theorize from experience.” See my full review here.
29. A CEMETERY FOR HOLES, poems by Tom Prime and Gary Barwin. I’m always fascinated by literary works that exist in conversation and/or collaboration, from the straight collaboration, to poems that exist, whether combined or as separate projects, in conversation. One of the first titles through Gordon Hill Press is A CEMETERY FOR HOLES, poems by Tom Prime and Gary Barwin (Gordon Hill Press, 2019). What becomes interesting is seeing how the poems evolve throughout the collection. The poems begin as individual pieces that respond to each other, from Prime to Barwin (with author credits existing in the table of contents), but slowly turn into each other, becoming more difficult to distinguish (despite those credits), until the final few pieces are composed by both writers. On the surface, one might suggest that Prime leans into surreal imagery and Barwin leans into trauma, but the results are more complex than that. There is an intimate sense of dark and light that run throughout, from a dark humour to surreal twists. Throughout the collection, the poems begin to change physically as the two writers intertwine, poems that begin to pull apart physically, stretched across the canvas of the page. Given this is Prime’s first full-length publication (apparently the two met during Barwin’s tenure as writer-in-residence at Western, where Prime was, and still is, a student), I would be interested to see where Prime’s work continues, beyond A CEMETERY FOR HOLES, and how his experience collaborating on this collection might influence his further work. See my full review here.
30. Sonnet L’Abbé, Sonnet’s Shakespeare. In the works for some time has been Vancouver poet, editor and critic Sonnet L’Abbé third full-length poetry title, Sonnet’s Shakespeare (Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 2019). Given the comparatively more traditional lyrics of her first two collections—A Strange Relief (McClelland and Stewart, 2001) and Killarnoe (McClelland and Stewart, 2007)—the conceptual framework of Sonnet’s Shakespeare is quite a shift in approach, even in just the fact of her lyric not as an end, but as a means to open up an entire range of possibilities and considerations. The poems of Sonnet’s Shakespeare deliberately work to expose the limitations of the canon of English Literature (specifically one that doesn’t evolve), and the liabilities of leaning too heavily on such a single element. Expanding, overwriting and writing between and around Shakespeare’s lines (literally subverting Shakespeare’s intents and purposes), L’Abbé turns each of the immortal bard’s one hundred and fifty-four sonnets into something far more culturally relevant, subversive and explosive.
Sonnet’s Shakespeare is expansive, playful and wonderfully vibrant, wholly ambitious and incredibly precise. Through writing out a process of expansion, L’Abbé subvert the erasure form (itself a process of subversion), working in the exact opposite direction, managing to breathe new life into a form that has seen many examples over the years, but few real advances or surprises. Works by M. NourbeSe Philip, Shane Rhodes and Jordan Abel, as she mentions, are obvious exceptions, and of course, American poet Caroline Knox did do a “reverse erasure” in her 2008 Wave Books title Quaker Guns, composing the poem “Source Text,” as though it the “source” from which E.E. Cummings might had built his poems “SONG VI” and “SONG VII.” (one could also speak of Gregory Betts, who developed term “plunder verse,” which is an erasure variant under a different name). L’Abbé, for her part, uses the expansive, “reverse erasure” form to explore matters of the canon, race, identity and colonialism (which Shakespeare’s work, taught throughout the world while ignoring home-grown literatures, has become impossibly intertwined). See my full review here.
31. Sean Braune, Dendrite Balconies. Toronto writer and filmmaker Sean Braune describes his full-length debut, Dendrite Balconies (Calgary AB: University of Calgary Press, 2019) as an exercise in working through, as he writes in his afterword, “on how a writer might interact with the overwhelming amount of text in the world.” I’m fascinated by his description of writing as “tracing a path,” and his description suggests his poems as a mode of exploration and thinking, akin to works by Anne Carson, Phil Hall or Dionne Brand, but through a gaze that includes an exploration of language, setting his work closer to that of works by Erín Moure or Christopher Dewdney (who provided a blurb for the back cover). “words feel, / words meander, / words glacial know words / in word dilation,” he writes, in the fifth section of the section/sequence “Water Dreams.” Braune’s Dendrite Balconies explores how writing reacts to writing, how language relates to being, how thinking shapes perception, and how perception shapes how one relates to and exists in the world.
Writing out his book-length sequence of sequences, each extended poem in Dendrite Balconies exists as both lyric accumulation and linear thread. As Braune responded as part of a 2017 interview at Touch the Donkey, he wrote that the current collection, then still a work-in-progress, “is a collection that explores the frenzy of contemporary reading practices (as discussed earlier), as well as the inevitability of death alongside the ways that language can be understood as an infection.” He also spoke of actively resisting composing “a poetry that fully embraces meaning.” He continues: “I think that poetry should always push against the meaningful structures of language in order to add some ‘disquiet’ or ‘disorientation’ to traditional practices of writing and reading. For me, poetry is an activity that is produced by reading.” For Braune, his balconies sit as an extension of another’s building, deliberately seeking to further what had come before, seeking to absorb as much as possible and push at the limits of language and meaning, yet in a way that still actively explores those same meanings. See my full review here.
32. Gary Barwin, For It Is a PLEASURE and a SURPRISE to Breathe: new & selected POEMS, edited with an Introduction by Alessandro Porco. One of the benefits of an increased mainstream attention for Hamilton writer, publisher and composer Gary Barwin’s work, sparked by the publication of the novel Yiddish for Pirates (2016), is seeing the attention spread out to other elements of his incredibly-expansive range of creative works—fiction, poetry, musical composition and performance, visual poetry and collaboration. His latest collection, For It Is a PLEASURE and a SURPRISE to Breathe: new & selected POEMS, edited with an Introduction by Alessandro Porco (Hamilton ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 2019), is a hefty volume nearly two hundred and fifty pages large exploring thirty-five years of Barwin’s publishing, and a volume that can’t help but provide a spotlight on Barwin’s playful, serious writing. The selection bookends with a replication of his first self-published chapbook, produced for a class at York University in 1985, to some twenty-five pages of new and uncollected work, and run through visual works (including a section in full colour), prose poems, longer sequences, short bursts and surreal twists, and more traditional lyric poems. Before we even get to the poems, the volume begins with a forty page introduction by editor Porco that, towards the end, writes:
Alessandro Porco provides the sort of thorough introduction that many authors could only dream of, extending his own foray into critical exploration and literary archaeologies (he is also responsible, as editor and critic, for Jerrold Levy and Richard Negro’s Poems by Gerard Legro, Steve Venright’s The Least You Can Do Is Be Magnificent: Selected & New Writings, and Deportment: The Poetry of Alice Burdick), writing of Barwin’s engagement with the fabulous, surreal, magical lyric and lyric narrative. Porco also gives the impression that this collection is less an assemblage of Gary Barwin’s “greatest hits” than a volume that explores the movement and expanse of Barwin’s poetry, including some corners of his work that might have been overlooked the first or even second time, providing a portrait of that the author himself might not have been able to shape. Part of what I really do appreciate about this volume is the acknowledgment of the range of Barwin’s interest and attention, which is incredibly broad, even when you consider that the range of his creative interests and engagements exist far beyond the scope of even this incredibly generous volume (novels and short stories, musical composition and performance, and collaborative works). See my full review here.
33. Resisting Canada: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Nyla Matuk. I was curious to see this new anthology edited by Montreal poet Nyla Matuk, Resisting Canada: An Anthology of Poetry (Montreal QC: Signal Editions/Vehicule Press, 2019), a volume of work including contributions by Jordan Abel, Marie Annharte Baker, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Beth Cuthand, Rosanna Deerchild, Marilyn Dumont, Marvin Frances, Louise Bernice Halfe-Sky Dancer, Lee Maracle, Janet Rogers, Armand Garnet Ruffo, Gregory A. Scofield, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, James Arthur, Wayde Compton, Jim Johnstone, El Jones, Christine Leclerc, Canisia Lubrin, Sachiko Murakami, Arleen Paré, Michael Prior, Shane Rhodes, Ingrid Ruthig, Karen Solie, Moez Surani, Derek Webster and Rita Wong. For the purposes of this book, “resistance” seems concurrently an overly general and remarkably precise descriptor, one that acknowledges a building cultural shift over the past decade or so, and the responses to those shifts, as well as to some of those authors who have been already been doing this kind of work for some time. There has been a growing frustration around cultural issues, with subjects such as Idle No More and #MeToo cohering into flourishing movements, something that has been increasingly reflected in Canadian writing and publishing. Young writers such as Billy-Ray Belcourt and Jordan Abel might only have emerged over the past decade or so, but poets such as Armand Garnet Ruffo, Rita Wong and Marie Annharte Baker have been at the forefront of this kind of work for a very long time, so while some of the larger attentions to such issues and ideas might be more recent, the responses to such have existed for decades.
As Matuk writes as part of her introduction: “The poems in this book question the triumphalist, nation-building narratives typical of Canada’s historiography. As a settler-colony, Canada will only find the road to moral ground once it attempts to understand how and why it sits atop land, cultures, significant landmarks, and memories that do not belong to it, and faces its history of irreversible damage to First Nations Peoples, including its genocidal intent; once the state stops taking for granted that its self-declared presence permits access to unceded lands or entitles it to ignore or transgress the territorial or jurisdictional sovereignty of First Nations.” Writing as a response to politics, I would argue, is a thoroughly postmodern idea: writing that exists as part of the world (and a response to that world) as opposed to the modernist suggestion that writing exists separate from the world. We exist in tandem, and one can’t exist without affecting the other. Why should writing be any different? And some of the strongest writing I’ve seen over the past decade or more has been work that exists within the world, from the geopolitical to the social to the flourishing of eco-poetry. See my full review here.
34. Alex Leslie, Vancouver for Beginners. Having seen some examples of her prose poems in various places over the past couple of years, I was curious to see Vancouver writer Alex Leslie’s full-length poetry title, Vancouver for Beginners (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2019), following on the heels of two short story collections, as well as her full-length prose poetry debut, The things I heard about you (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2014). I’ve written on such more than a couple of times and places (including here), but I’ve long been fascinated at just how often Vancouver is depicted in full-length poetry titles, perhaps more often than any other Canadian geography (which is, by itself, saying quite a lot). What is it about Vancouver that prompts so many poets to respond? A far more complex question, I’m sure, than I have the tools to unpack.
Vancouver exists as backdrop, but one that is explored, described and critiqued in great detail, including multiple development decisions to build, tear-down or rebuild, from the response to the Great Fire of 1886, surveyor’s maps and the infamous Woodward’s squat. As she writes to open the poem “BARTER”: “In the news today: Vancouver is tearing down the art gallery that / used to be the land registry. The barge that unloads the hybrid / cars leaves full of cedar, fat roots like fingers in the oil slick due / north. The trawler’s hold unloads flash-frozen salmon, departs / full of clouds and tickets.” The questions of Leslie’s Vancouver for Beginners seem very much to explore how a resident of Vancouver might retain their humanity in the face of so much trauma and inhumanity, from the many development decisions that seem to be actively crushing communities and individuals of that same humanity, to writing around Robert Picton, seasonal affective disorder and the list of murdered and missing women and girls. See my full review here.
35. Ken Hunt, The Odyssey. The third in a trilogy (or perhaps ongoing exploration) of works that explore space travel via language poetry, is London, Ontario poet, editor and publisher Ken Hunt’s erasure project The Odyssey (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2019), following on the heels of Space Administration (2014) and The Lost Cosmonauts (Book*hug, 2018). Given his next title (announced some time ago) is The Manhattan Project (Calgary AB: University of Calgary Press, 2020), I am curious to see how that project connects to this current work; potentially through the composition of works that each explore and engage archival materials around scientific projects and advancements large enough that they became cultural touchstones: the moon landing, the ‘space race,’ and the development of the nuclear bomb that punctuated the end of the Second World War. As Hunt suggested as part of his 2018 interview at Touch the Donkey, he has been composing poems that connect to “my continuing interest in writing poetry that responds to the sciences. I suppose the poems (or rather Project Blue Book as a whole) are similar to my forthcoming manuscripts (The Lost Cosmonauts, The Odyssey, and The Manhattan Project), in that each book represents a link in a kind of chain of texts that I’m in the process of producing. In addition to pursuing a PhD thesis that investigates examples of related works of poetry from the latter half of the 20th century to the present, I find myself compelled to add my own works to the canon as well, in order to address subjects that haven’t yet received the level of poetic attention that I think their continuing sociocultural impact warrants.” See my full review here.
36. Oana Avasilichioaei, Eight Track. Montreal poet and translator Oana Avasilichioaei’s sixth full-length collection, Eight Track (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2019), writes on the overlap of two competing directions: the layering of audio tracks, and the increasing surveillance of both governments and corporations of our actions, movements and interactions. The book is constructed out of a series of sections, from radio scripts to a sequence of fragments to lyric theses to a series of counter-surveillance photos (photos of surveillance cameras around Montreal): “Voices (remix),” “Q & A,” “A Study in Portraiture,” “Trackers,” “If,” “On Origins (a radio drama with interference),” “Trackscapes” and “Tracking Animal (a survival + tracker’s marginalia),” as well as a “Bonus Track,” “Eight over Two (a soundtrack).” Given her performance explorations with recorded and looped sound, I am fascinated with how she turns some of those explorations back around into the text on the page, although nothing that breaks away into looped or overlapping text, a line of concrete and visual that she works up to, but never actually crosses. Avasilichioaei writes her poems, and even her photo-sequences, as poem-essays, writing through meaning, narrative and distance, targeting a sequence of ideas though both language and image. Her poems map out a range of occurrence, offering not answers per se, but making one aware of possibilities that might not have connected, or been previously known. See my full review here.
37. Danielle LaFrance, JUST LIKE I LIKE IT. Vancouver writer Danielle LaFrance’s latest, JUST LIKE I LIKE IT (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2019), is a book that revels in failure, whether around writing, power or ambition, and exploring ideas of obsession, anxiety and resignation even against a foundation of a fiery ‘kicking against the pricks.’ As the poem “VII” from the opening section “IT MAKES ME ILIAD” (a poem-section that reworks the ancient text), “JUST LIKE I LIKE WHEN BOTH / SIDES AGREE,” writes: “Depression is the natural state in times like these. & the / fault, of course, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” JUST LIKE I LIKE IT is LaFrance’s third trade poetry title, after Friendly + Fire (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2016) [see my review of such here] and Species Branding (Vancouver BC: CUE, 2010), and there is an emotional rawness and vulnerability reminiscent of another recent Talonbooks title, Calgary poet Nikki Reimer’s My Heart Is a Rose Manhattan (Talonbooks, 2019), but one that also revels in guttural sound and image, and a swagger that refuses to slow or tone down even when off-balance. Her book’s title seems to offer itself both as a challenge and admission, set in all caps. Is this shouting, or simply holding firm? Perhaps both; perhaps tired of being asked or corrected, repeatedly. What appeals here is in the rawness of the material, and the ways in which LaFrance opens up the possibilities of what poetry can or should be doing, and could become, such as this section of the poem-section “IT SOUNDS LIKE A SMALL SCUM.” See my full review here.
38. Taking Measures: Selected Serial Poems, George Bowering, edited by Stephen Collis. As part of the series of large selected/collected poem volumes that Talonbooks has been working on over the past couple of years comes Taking Measures: Selected Serial Poems by George Bowering, edited by Stephen Collis (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2019). As editor Collis points out in his introduction, Vancouver writer George Bowering has had numerous selected poems over the years, none of which really focused on what Bowering has been long known for: what Jack Spicer tokened the “serial poem.” There are a couple of things worth noting about this, including the fact that George Bowering might easily have the most volumes of selected poems of any Canadian writer, living or dead (save for the late Toronto poet Raymond Souster, who was afforded a many and multiple volume “complete poems” series of books through Oberon Press), and that each of Bowering’s selecteds were assembled by a different editor each time, supposedly all without the author’s input or influence, allowing for a variety of different perspectives to highlight alternate aspects of Bowering’s high volume of output. For this particular volume, it is poet and critic Stephen Collis who has assembled a collection around for what Bowering has been most known for, providing full texts of poems, and occasionally books, including Baseball: A Poem in the Magic Number 9 (1967), Genève (1971), Autobiology (1972), At War with the U.S. (1974), Allophanes (1976), Smoking Mirror (1982), Kerrisdale Elegies (1984), Irritable Reaching (1986), Delayed Mercy (1987), Do Sink (1992), Blonds on Bikes (1997), His Life (2000) and Los Pájaros de Tenacitita (2013).
While I know that Kerrisdale Elegies is known as Bowering’s ‘best’ work, the book that I have spent twenty-plus years returning to is Delayed Mercy, a collection that moves in slow, sharp turns; reminiscent, as hindsight would allow, of what Fred Wah discussed of the ‘drunken tai chi’ of his own ongoing “Music at the Heart of Thinking.” If, as Collis offers, the poems from that collection were deliberately composed “at two in morning, ‘when my poor brain would be at its most vulnerable’,” these become his own offering of seeing what is possible when he is compromised, and allowing the poems to reveal themselves, and his own subconscious. It is a collection, in my mind, woefully underappreciated, in part, perhaps, due to the long shadow of Kerrisale Elegies, published three years prior. The attentions and cadences of the poems are very familiar, and return numerous times throughout Bowering’s work, from Do Sink to My Life and beyond, with the now familiar “fr” appearing before each dedication, managing both “for” and “from” his intended target. See my full review here.
39. nathan dueck, A Very Special Episode. Cranbrook, British Columbia poet nathan dueck’s third full-length poetry collection, after the collections king's(mère) (Turnstone Press, 2004) and he’ll (Pedlar Press, 2014), is the wonderfully playful A Very Special Episode (Hamilton ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 2019), furthering a shift in content that has been developing for some time into nostalgia and popular culture (see also: his 2013 chapbook @BillMurrayinPurgatorio from above/ground press). As part of his 2014 Touch the Donkey interview, he spoke of the project, then still a work-in-progress with a very different title:
There is something quite refreshing in how this work joyfully acknowledges how deeply immersed in television and pop culture some of us are and have been, a tension I’ve also been aware of over the years as a literary writer (my own immersion in comic book culture is some 10,000 titles deep); as though somehow those of us who are literary aren’t allowed to be engaged in what is so often deemed “low culture” (pop culture, comic books, wrestling, etcetera). The collection is both confusing and wonderfully produced, designed to mimic the classic TV Guide, and dueck engages with numerous, familiar tropes, from the title itself to references that might not be so obvious, unless you are of a certain age, such as the poem “HEARING THE WEEKLY SECRET LETS ME SCREAM,” for example, that refers to a regular feature of the Saturday morning show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986-1991). The blend of pop culture and tight lyrics composed in formal structures are reminiscent of the sonnets of Montreal poet David McGimpsey, but there is something far more absurd in what dueck is doing, allowing, in a certain way, for the ridiculousness of composing poems on the sitcom Golden Girls, or Knight Rider, You Can’t Do That on Television and Droids. This book refuses to take itself too seriously, yet manage lines so taut and vibrant one could bounce a quarter off of any of them. See my full review here.
40. Nora Collen Fulton, Presence Detection System. From Nora Collen Fulton comes the collection Presence Detection System (Hiding Press, 2019), a book-length poetic study constructed via a collage of critical writing, language poetry, headlines, rushed prose, photographs, erasures and charts.
The author of the poetry debut Life Experience Coolant (BookThug, 2013) and forthcoming Thee Display (produced as part of the Documents Series, Center for Expanded Poetics/Anteism Books, 2020), Montreal-based Fulton “currently occupies herself with doctoral studies; her research attempts to apply debates in philosophy regarding the relationship between ontology and mathematics to the ontological stakes of trans studies.” Composed as much via accumulation as collage, Fulton writes on shifts and visibility, androgyny, expectation and hiding in plain sight. As she writes as part of the prose-essay “Big Stimmung”: “What is it like to be here, to be present, to really dwell, to be thankful for the now, to embrace the now, to accept the embrace, to open the heart, to open the shutters, to open the blank, to surrender as a kind of giving?” This is a complex, expansive, and at times, overwhelming, collection, one that demands a great deal of attention, but an attention that will certainly be rewarded. See my full review here.