rob mclennan's Top Eleven (Canadian) Poetry Books of 2011!
Admittedly, I’m not usually a fan of “top ___ lists,” but, for the sake of argument, I put together a list of some of the poetry books that stood out for me this year, produced by Canadian authors. I’m not even going to pretend it’s exhaustive. Going through some of the books that have appeared throughout the year, it was difficult to pick only ten, so my original list morphs into a “top eleven,” which sounds odd, I know, but what was I to do? And there were a number of titles I didn’t include but could have, by Joe Blades, Shane Rhodes, Matthew Remski, Erin Mouré, Danielle Lafrance, Louis Cabri, Jake Kennedy, Jessica Hiemstra-Van Der Horst and plenty of others. There’s simply too much good work out there to talk about. Honestly, I couldn’t make it any shorter than this.
Phil Hall, Killdeer
Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry this year for his collection of “essay-poems,” Killdeer (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2011), published as part of BookThug’s “Department of Critical Thought,” and we couldn’t be happier. In an essay a few years ago, published in my subverting the lyric: essays (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2008), I talked about the thread of the Killdeer that wanders through some three decades of Hall's poetry, so the fact that Hall would admit the Killdeer as his “token bird” in this collection is an interesting thing, taking the bird from a trace to a focus. One of the features of the Killdeer, a medium-sized Plover, is its deception, distracting predators with a fake “broken wing” away from hidden nests. Hall might not be working deception, but distraction, perhaps, writing poems that require strict and careful attention, so as not to miss an essential point, distracted by an otherwise line of broken wings.
Since moving back full-time into rural Ontario from his Toronto base a couple of years ago, Hall's poetry has evolved to re-embrace the positive about rural spaces, looking positively in both directions, and far less dark than some of his previous references to rural spaces. His rural evolution has come through the books, working from the Griffin-nominated An Oak Hunch (London ON: Brick Books, 2005) through to White Porcupine (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2007) and The Little Seamstress (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2010), with the latter seeming to be his first Perth collection. The shifts in his writing seem even deeper, when one recalls the dark content of childhood abuse in his collection Trouble Sleeping (London ON: Brick Books, 2000), to the opening lines of the first poem of Killdeer, “Adios Polka,” that writes, “Whenever I get lost / Ontario does not wound me.” At the same time, what could be read as distance between two points, could simply be nothing contradictory in the least. It was in fact Ontario itself, which never wounded him.
When Layton says – in the last line of The Bull Calf – I turned away
He is flaunting an emotional – sexual – poetic – & political
He is pointing to his own larger – freer – feeling – the line is
theatre – not truth
We may think we have broken through the sentimental – into a
raw & beautiful truth
The unsayable zinger feels like health – transgression is vitalizing
Startling – quotable – epigraphic – but the truth is always more
Or sight-to-the-blind simple – as in Basho
Plop – or cow plop
“The Small Sacrifice”
Killdeer exists as a collection of sequence-essays, twelve in total, with smaller pieces bookending the pieces, writing on becoming a poet, visiting the writer Margaret Lawrence, on Nicky Drumbolis' infamous Letters Bookshop, Bronwen Wallace (for a conference on her work), Daniel Jones and Libby Scheier, as well as numerous other threads, directives, insights and passages that meander along almost folksy byways. A number of the pieces have appeared previously over the years as, among other places, an essay for AngelHousePress, and chapbooks through above/ground press and BookThug, reappearing here in much altered forms. Much like Prince George, British Columbia poet Barry McKinnon, Hall's response to any request for an essay or other writing is to compose a poem, and both writers have slipped such pieces throughout their poetry collections, so it becomes interesting to see Hall become more overt in his admission of just what these pieces include. It's an idea Hall shares with his friend and contemporary Erin Mouré, that poetry and essays don't need to be separate entities, and can often be their best thinking form.
Many forget that Hall and Mouré started out in Vancouver as “work poets” alongside Tom Wayman and Kate Braid, both now part of a consideration of “work poetry” that might not include the straight narratives of Wayman (I've seen essays by Wayman that rail against “language” poetry, even as he proclaims the worthiness of “work writing”), but include, instead, a healthy blending of both “work” and “language” writing, forms also explored by west coast poets including Jeff Derksen, Stephen Collis, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Peter Culley and Aaron Vidaver.
There is a comfortable ease and delightful curiosity to Hall's writing, generally, moving slowly through a dozen provocative essays in his considerations of how one exists in writing, amid friends, influences and contemporaries, and in the larger world, each circle larger than the previous. In many ways, Phil Hall might be Canada's only worthy “folk poet,” encompassing the best of what folk art is meant to be, self-taught and working-class, as he carves poems from a collage of phrases, lines and stanzas, while still managing to produce a highly-crafted “high” art. More recently, he’s taken to working on a collaboration with Australian poet Andrew Burke, something that has slowly been releasing its way into the world in various forms, including a forthcoming chapbook with above/ground press. How might Hall’s perspective shift through such a mix of voice?
Gary Barwin and Gregory Betts, The Curious Flap
It seems as though, for years now, poetry collaborations have been a staple of Canadian experimental writing, from bpNichol and Steve McCaffery's In England Now That Spring (1979) and Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland's Double Negative (Charlottetown PEI: Gynergy Books, 1988) and Two Women in a Birth (Toronto ON: Guernica Editions, 1994), to more recent works, including Douglas Barbour and Sheila Murphy's Continuations (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006), Stephen Cain and Jay MillAr's Double Helix (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2006), Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler’s apostrophe (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2006) and update (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2010), Gary Barwin and derek beaulieu's Frogments of the frag pool (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2009) and Oana Avasilichioaei and Erin Mouré's Expedition of a Chimæra (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2010), to name only a few. There are plenty of other examples as well, including a collaboration between Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier, and ongoing collaborations between Kim Maltman and Roo Borson that later added Andy Patton, as well as numerous collaborations engaged by Stuart Ross and jwcurry with various authors. About a decade back, there were even a series of chapbook-length collaborations that Stephen Cain did with individual authors (the idea being, to collect ten collaborations with ten different poets and collect them into a trade collection), including a. rawlings, Christian Bök and Jay MillAr, but I don't know whatever became of the manuscript.
What is it, exactly, about the collaboration that appeals to so many? One argument is simple enough, that a collaborative effort forces all the writers working within the project to step outside of their natural comfort zones, thus broadening the potential scope of their own writing. Its quite an element of faith, and fearlessness, to deliberately step into the unknown for the sake of broadening one's art. For Hamilton writer, teacher and composer Gary Barwin, he has, over the years, worked with a number of collaborators on different projects, so his work with Betts is part of an ongoing line, from a novel with Stuart Ross, and a poetry book-length work with derek beaulieu, as well as a forthcoming title with Hugh Thomas and Craig Conley with Anvil Press, Franzlations: The Imaginary Kafka Parables (2011), suggesting that he, himself, might be entirely fearless. Given that his own individual work appears at regular intervals, as do works by his collaborator, St. Catharines, Ontario poet, editor and critic Gregory Betts, how would either of them find the time to work on anything, let alone a full-length project? The Obvious Flap is a serious work of play, sound and shapes, working repetitions, visual poems, fragments, homolinguistic translation, allusion, illusion, breathing (including some heavy breathing), wild puns and bad jokes and a mishmash of voices. The collection appears in structured sections, some of which are meant to be performed, and many have, according to the acknowledgements, at venues including Ottawa's AB Series, St. Catharines' Transmissions, Banff Centre's In(ter)vensions conference, and at Toronto's Junction Arts Festival. The section “CHORA SEA,” was also included in their post-publication July 2011 performance as part of the final Scream in High Park in Toronto, that begins with:
It seems likely to me that the page and its article followed by the wind and its news then finally pressed against a bus where I'd sing and in my anthropomorphic understanding seems to operate on a cellphone.
on a circle a cycle
sing in the early
to become, hours, selectric
A single roadside shoe lies down in the black feathers, I don't know, I admit that a new bus route on the level of logic and reference functions at various times to implode or explode, that is, through their semantic, material, and economic effect on a guy in an inner tube praying.
only a circus
what i write: thank you for your thank you
I think there's both a thinking component and an almost somatic component to my holiday homewelcome. The maid says everything is ready for you to walk under the pillows as if I were a mountaintop and I too could sing a brick, the obvious flap of my mind as I waited for a thousand forgotten wedding invitations.
the thought of an Ink king
keenly, stepping in. I step in.
In eleven sections, the most obvious element of the collection is play, with language bouncing into each other, with repeated variants on the title throughout, even into the acknowledgements, refusing to keep their own title straight, each reference another homolinguistic translation of same, from “The Oboist's Flat” to “The Abstemious Flak,” “The Oft Bilious Flip” to “The Of Averse Flakes.” By itself, this would be more than a worthy collection, but as a collaboration, more impressive as a cohesive, coherent text belonging to neither and both, and one can only hope the combined effort of these two writers might continue, and develop. I'm interested to see where they might end up.
This work is such a high level of intuitive play, bouncing from line to line between them, it's impossible to track which author might have composed which line, which is, of course, the entire point. One can only hope that if there are further editions of this collection, it might just appear with a dvd, to include those readers who weren't able to catch any of their performances.
Sachiko Murakami's Rebuild
THE LAST WATERFRONT PROPERTY
No scandal on Olympic land. No theft on stolen scandal. Say first we were here then define we. Sift midden. Whose bones, whose refuse and this is what we are refusing: no solutions to stolen scandals. First shoes then feet then all drift is suspect. Say more land on Olympic solutions. Put your foot down. No final scandals. No cost overruns on reclaimed waterfront. No reclaimed waterfront on stolen scandal. Stolen millions set adrift keep saying scandal. Get the storeys up and scaffolded, dig sand out and call it condo. Call castle village, village scandal. Fill village with Olympic dream and call Pacific false, call False Creek real, call your realtor, call me on this. Please. Call me on this.
In her second poetry collection, Rebuild (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2011), following The Invisibility Exhibit (Talonbooks, 2008), Vancouver poet (currently living in Toronto) Sachiko Murakami explores the complicated relationship she has with the constantly renovated and rebuilt City of Vancouver, and the social repercussions on a city-space and its populace. Hers is a collection of frustration, anger and loss, from losing aspects of a city and responding to confused constructions to a loss made more concrete through the death of her own father. For some time, Vancouver has been one of the sites of some of Canada's most valuable real estate, much of which exists without any consideration to those who have been displaced for the opportunity, whether low income and the homeless from the Woodwards Squat in 2008, to displacements made for the sake of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. What kind of legacy does such a consideration leave, and how does it impact Vancouver's complicated relationship with home ownership? It's complicated even further, given the incredible costs associated with home and/or condo ownership, and the ongoing legacies of Japanese internment camps (something Murakami's own history is sensitive to) and aboriginal land claims.
If I can't account for the woman missing from this city
(the woman, this city)
Imagine her life and the wholeness
that may or may not have happened
Can I mention the occupants
missing from the tower
Empty suites never inhabited
held safe for future profits
Every surface void of thumbprint
Thrum of refrigerator, lullaby, full belly
How long will they wait for life to be written
in the gleam of stainless steel
Vancouver is not a resource economy.
It is, and always has been, a real estate economy.
If the foundations are speculative
and our present is built on impatience for the future
If I can't get anywhere with Japantown
and it isn't neighbourly to mention it
If we are never living here and there is no time
to sit a minute and think at the centre
(there is no centre) near a monument
near a marker of history (there is no monument)
If we are always looking forward to the future
If my subject is not actually here
Certainly, Vancouver isn't the only city that seems insistent on overwriting its own history and neighbourhoods; Toronto's waterfront comes to mind, written of in Michael Redhill's novel, Consolation (2006), or even Ottawa's enormously frustrating Lebreton Flats project of the 1950s. Vancouver, much like Montreal, also shares a history of the Olympics spreading out over neighbourhoods, “improving” by replacing not only buildings, but in many instances, the people themselves as well. There are other histories too, of total erasure, such as Africville, and similar Black histories erased in Southwestern Ontario, as well as Vancouver's own Hogan's Alley. Without community, without history, sites lose their meaning, and Murakami struggles to explore that lost meaning, and the meaning of those losses, as well, with the final section in the collection, “Returning Home,” more overtly dealing with the themes of the book as a whole alongside the loss of her father. As she writes in the title poem, “Now he becomes a father. Now redress. / Now he's a father, a body. Now ashes. // Now begin. // Now begin again.” In an interview I conducted with her after the publication of The Invisibility Exhibit, “Invisible Participants” (posted February 8, 2009 at Agora), she responds:
Is it surprising that poets feel friction in their environment? I'm not sure that writing preoccupied with place is unique to Vancouver. But it is a compelling environment, at least to me. Maybe it's because Vancouverites in general feel that friction too -- being Canadian without Winter, being in a city dwarfed by Nature... And maybe it's because Vancouver is still quite new, and the building of the city -- and the idea of the city, what Vancouver means -- is still happening all around us. Maybe it's that newness and the feeling that we are all participating in that project, that what Vancouver means/looks like/is isn't yet set in stone (or stucco, or glass, or cedar) is what compels us to write about it. I suppose that's what I'm writing about... that project, that negotiation. Maybe it's less emotional because the subject is a building rather than a person, but I've yet to see a building that wasn't meant for a person to inhabit it. I guess it's still a similar strategy I'm using, though. It started with the question: What can a person's reaction to a Vancouver Special (and Vancouverites have very strong reactions to Vancouver Specials) suggest about the person, and that process of city-building?
Stephanie Bolster, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth
I have to admit, my first thought on Montreal poet Stephanie Bolster's fourth trade poetry collection, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth (London ON: Brick Books, 2011) was disappointment, that she hadn't included a poem I found in issue #109 of The New Quarterly, a poem she said, at the time, she had just removed from the manuscript.
Dogs ravaged the yard where yesterday
rabbits and toads. The dead
fed to the cages and the dark.
The mouth of the mouth.
Plants dangled from pegs
beside padlocks. Reaching,
though they weren’t.
A dark stain on concrete.
A little water.
Let’s go, I said,
Who am I, it is true, to second-guess, but the piece, in my mind, holds up; perhaps it simply didn't fit in the collection? Hard to say. Arguably, that should have nothing to do with her new book at all. Originally from Vancouver but living in Montreal for the past decade or so, Bolster is author of three previous trade poetry collections—the Governor General’s Award-winning White Stone: The Alice Poems (Montreal QC: Signal Editions/Vehicule Press, 1998), Two Bowls of Milk (Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 1999) and Pavilion (Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 2002)—and it was her third where her poems really started to break free, pulling apart the diamond-cut of her previous into a fragmented and a passionate lyric, letting the restraint of what had come before break suddenly through.
After an extended period between her third and fourth collection—which included her time editing a selected poems by the late Ottawa poet Diana Brebner, co-editing an anthology of zoo poems and co-creating two children—Bolster's fourth, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, continues the conversations that began in previous works, from writing about Victorian considerations of zoos and gardens, painters such as Vermeer, and London's Crystal Palace, feature of the 1851 Exhibition. The book begins with a quote from Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project, which, according to Wikipedia, is “an enormous collection of writings on the city life of Paris in the 19th century, especially concerned with the iron-and-glass covered 'arcades.'”
This is the city that says you are never
good enough and we call the City of Love.
Millefeuilles flank boulevards of windows and down
in the Seine parks float, held by concrete.
When egrets combed these marshes,
Louvre came from louve, for female wolf,
whose nightly howls erected a fortress on a high
surveying point. First thing on the other bank, an outpost,
a tower, named for louver, blockhouse. A place
of incarceration. Foundations still rest. 1202.
Named Lupara. 1190? Named for l'ouevre:
the work: What it was it would hold.
In a collection as much pause as parse, the open-fragment of the previous collection has evolved into a quiet contemplation, questioning much of the subject matter that had been previously worked in earlier collections. Bolster's gaze has deepened over the years, and the poems even begin to question their own authority and motives, discovering new facets of, among other things, her Victorian subject matter. The poems in A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth have deepened to the point of small essays on various subjects, rendering some of her previous pieces mere description in comparison. The poems read like small essays, and the finest end so wonderfully, just before they end, leaving so much more said by remaining unsaid.
Could an attack smash – no,
make of it the liquid
that it always was?
The pool imagined to be sticky, plant-lodged
as a frozen pond.
Heated, glass would not revert to sand.
It makes a distance.
The bee bumps against.
So many Victorian “wonders” were not what they seemed, or even properly understood, opening up the world to so much more, even while retreating the British culture into a strict, and repressive morality. Can even the witness change what is being seen, over time?
Sandra Ridley, Post-Apothecary
Post-Apothecary (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2011), Ottawa poet Sandra Ridley's second trade poetry collection, begins with a single-poem “Prologue,” “Pulse”:
She is right handed, left. Retain the language nor the visual side.
She is hungry. She is nil-by-mouth.
She is a note hung over a bed, a metal trolley & swinging doors.
She is semi-prone & steadied & there are nights.
An onslaught of nights. On, off, oxygen ventilation. Reeled.
Rocked. A wet tangle of hair. Her hand swept over a bright eye.
She is making it all up.
Can't possibly see through a retinal slit, out the dilated corner of.
I've written before of her long prairie lines, of her horizon-lines stretching out into forever, such as the post I wrote after her reading with Christine McNair at Ottawa's first annual VERSEfest poetry festival in March 2011. Originally from Saskatchewan, Sandra Ridley is the author of the trade collection Fallout (Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2009), which won a Saskatchewan Book Award for Publishing, and the chapbooks Rest Cure (Ottawa ON: Apt. 9 Press, 2010) (which is included in the current volume) and Lift: Ghazals for C. (Saskatoon SK: JackPine, 2008), which co-won the 2009 bpNichol Chapbook Award. Awarded the Alfred G. Bailey Prize for the manuscript “Downwinders,” another manuscript of Ridley's, a collaboration with Ottawa poet Amanda Earl, recently shortlisted for Snare Books' Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry.
Phial of Morphine
He seems nice. No. Not nice. Kind. No. Not kind. Humble. No. Not humble. Meek. No. Not meek. Quiet. No. Not quiet. Reserved. No. Not reserved. Taken aback. No. Not taken aback. Angry.
He seems angry.
He prefers a short skirt against bare leg, a rabbit in her lap,
a tattoo above her right knee.
Faith in morphine, not god. A long list of lovers, delirious injections,
a sequence of broken glass, car crashes. The air in her room, stale smoke.
It was such a nice day – she was right to be wary. (“APOTHECARY”)
With “Prologue,” four sections, “Epilogue” and final “Clinical Note” to her Post-Apothecary, the construction around a single theme in fragmented poems that fractal reminds loosely of how American poet Cole Swensen constructs her own poetry collections. Both writers work to create longer sequences of loose narratives, writing threads of concept, and, as the back cover blurb to Ridley's collection by poet Elizabeth Philips attests, “Sandra Ridley's long poetic sequences document the isolating effects of institutional incarceration with an unflinching vocabulary of treatment and 'cure.'”
Nettle whipped to a muscle twitch & a kick : or her jaw clenched in trismus to a salt-lick blue : until a catatonic hum & a switch clicks & reflects her cornea lacking.
Flit of lid : I lash : I stroke : wet oubliette hole filling in : catacombed where she half-slept : unwatched & bleach-drunk : she : I clasp an ivy strand of hair : a penny from the wall.
Twined : trussed : dialated : light-blinded by the lift of a keyless latch : floor-pressed & false-succour numbed : an incubus susurrates with a red apple & an open palm : she unswallows him.
I in relation to : I in a different way : I in whole or in part : my sugar cube in her mouth keeps his taste away. (“PHANTASMAGORIA”)
Ridley's Post-Apothecary writes around trauma and possible treatments, around myriad physical, psychological and emotional injury and how they often get treated, not necessarily for the sake of improvement, but for the sake of dismissal, hiding the illness and therefore the ill, away. At the same time, Ridley's Post-Apothecary writes out the emotional refuse of living, and the difficulties that often come simply from existing, working through days and relationships and nights to find out just what is possible, and if happiness throughout the detritus of living is attainable. Ridley's Post-Apothecary is a complex and complicated book, deceptively small and gracefully beautiful, impossible to properly describe, and even more difficult to put down. The collection writes trauma and sorrow, writing out trauma, yet a slight lift at the end, in her epilogue, ending with:
When she did start talking, she said: Get a hold of yourself Ridley. You have got to get a hold of yourself. When asked what is wrong, the patient stated she is happy.
I am happy.
Gil McElroy, Ordinary Time
the beginning, my
front legs so much
The points became
rifles, such a posture
that was tactical – nothing walled-
in by destiny – that
the network of remembering became
a thing in the veins.
& so here
we are, practicing
The fourth title in Colbourne, Ontario poet, writer and curator Gil McElroy's ongoing poetic project is Ordinary Time (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2011), following up his previous trade poetry collections with the same publisher—Last Scattering Surfaces (2007), NonZero Definitions (2004) and Dream Pool Essays (2001). McElroy's publishing history is a bit deceptive, given that his work appeared throughout journals, anthologies and chapbook presses for some three decades before Karl Siegler at Talonbooks took a look at his work and became the first trade publisher to actually commit to publishing McElroy's writing. Still, anyone with any passing knowledge of McElroy's previous work might start noticing a series of patterns emerging, from the extended sequences, the abstract punctuations of time and geography, to poems on comets, constellations and other cosmic bodies. Also, there's the sequence that has run through all of his trade collections so far, “Some Julian Days,” an ongoing series of poems in a “day book” style titled using the days of the Julian Calendar, such as the poem “2448263.” It would seem as though, for McElroy, the concept of the “day book” is firmly placed within the abstract, holding in all moments concurrently. Time itself is the only constant here.
odd mist up here. Or
I could simply be
out of landscape.
in the bright space behind
happens, my shoes proof
Constructed in four sections, Ordinary Time is made up of the sequence “Chain Home,” “Some Julian Days,” the sequence “Ordinary Time (9 Propers)” and a final section of shorter poems, “Imaginary Time.” The first section, “Chain Home,” references the Cold War “DEW (Distant Early Warning) line” that ran across northern parts of Canada, a radar tracking system designed to detect potential Soviet invaders. Writing around and through some of the military's rarer code words, “Chain Home” references both the World War Two chain of early warning radar stations, but on McElroy's upbringing as an army brat, linking connection to connection back to a place he might have considered, if only briefly, home. In ten sketches, each including footnote, McElroy writes out critical portraits of a technology born of fear and misused nationalisms, and maintained by duty. McElroy's poetry is rife with detail, physical attention and a complex sense of time and space, holding concepts so large that they can only be contained in such small spaces, halting phrases and broken turns.
was scattered. It
was scattered to standards
was connected – in some cases
for example, was
leased, was de-
were used. (It
was possible.) Each one
was remote. Some
were far. Some
were required. Some
were sometimes connected,
Emily Carr, 13 ways of happily
the young housewife forging myth in the kitchen—like all
the old hopes, the beginning can only be called by what it is not (“draft 1, eye, white & spring.)
Chosen by Cole Swensen as winner of the New Measure Poetry Prize comes former Calgary poet Emily Carr's second trade collection, 13 ways of happily (Anderson SC: Parlor Press, 2011). This is a follow-up to Directions for Flying, 36 fits: a young wife’s almanac (Baltimore MD: Furniture Press, 2010), which itself was winner of the first annual Furniture Press Poetry Prize, and various chapbooks published through Toadlily Press and above/ground. Subtitled “books 1 & 2,” 13 ways of happily extends a thread from her previous trade collection of domestic dissatisfactions, references to sparrows, and such long threaded ideas and phrases carved and re-stitched in the most unusual ways, less a quilt than a rag-doll, stronger than the sum of its individual parts. So often new writing replicates what came before, but Carr is one of the few who actually makes the language sing and spread like new, twisting new light out of the endless dark. She teases us with the tagline, but will there actually be further books to her 13 ways of happily? Are these but the first two of eleven still to come?
you see how
easy it is...
& up, this
ness— (“draft 5, half a wishbone expressing / with broken breast the truth.”)
These stunning, articulate fragments of Carr's poems etch their odd way into a narrative of sorts that almost work on the microscopic level, like thousands of tiny pinpricks that accumulate into something larger, something unbelievably grand. When she writes, “aimless wasteful & drunk the sun is lunatic logic but lovely yes like / lemonjuice” something happens, something that can't entirely, immediately, be understood. The flurry of her language is, as the back cover attests, a “profound stillness,” one that reworks and reinvents into a broader, larger canvas, managing to somehow morph out into the entirety of her work, as each new publication potentially another fragment of something larger than itself. There is something of the late Alberta poet Robert Kroetsch's Completed Field Notes or the late Toronto poet bpNichol's The Martyrology—the poem as long as a life—to Carr's poetry, composing self-contained works that broaden all that came before.
(you do not
know which to prefer: the shadows of
lifesized figerglass cows or the child with a
plush octopus, barking (“draft 2, & you know this / is your fate to waver.”)
Pearl Pirie, Thirsts
INTERNAL INQUIRIES WILL YIELD NAUGHT
it’s a hooted drib
from toil to toile
o big god, wait
for it: the hic
of an obit while
a tory fiddles
to detain moss.
a tank of h spilled.
the country is a slat
of gargled quag
of ads, to mire. a night
a mare, a mari
usque ad mare
go coax a whew-verb
from the ave
& ave-not zees.
It seems Ottawa poet Pearl Pirie has been on a roll over the past couple of years, starting with her first trade book, been shed bore (Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2010), moving from project to project with incredible speed and an enviable adaptability. This past March, her poetry manuscript “Thirsts” won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, and was published this past fall as Thirsts (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2011). Around the same time, her chapbook Mammals of Hoarfrost (France: Corrupt Press, 2011) appeared, which she and her husband Brian flew to Paris, France to launch. Pirie has also recently branched out into publishing, editing and producing the limited-edition chapbook anthology, In Air/Air Out: 21 Poets for the Guatemala Stove Project just in time for the autumn 2011 edition of the ottawa small press book fair, and the small anthology is already out of its original print run (currently working on a second), even before the launches scheduled for just in the new year. She was also the first in a series of the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa’s “Call and Response” series, pairing a poet up with one of the school’s shows, pairing Pirie up with Leslie Hossack’s photography series “Cities of Stone, People of Dust,” which opened at the beginning of August, 2011. Available in its entirety in the gallery space, a selection of Pirie’s contribution/response, with an introduction by the author, is available on the school’s website, with other poetic responses posted or forthcoming by Amanda Earl, Monty Reid, Sandra Ridley and Christine McNair.
Part of what makes Pirie’s writing so compelling is her adherence to sound, and one that doesn’t go over meaning but tears through and twists, moving through verbal puns and a concordance of word-jumble. How does she pack so much into such a small space?
A RED-FLECKED UNDERSIDE TWIPPERS PAST
my bones won’t rotate on an axis of wind.
holding its own hands, squirrel against gravity.
a sun-beaten shweppes tin, plugged with silt.
brackish is habitat, opportunist slug.
flown from its stake, a tattered ribbon.
its niche, purpose, is where it is.
is it a rabbit? mother asked.
there, the delicacy of white-tailed tracks.
decades elsewhere don’t help here.
a slog it would be, interjecting flattery like botox.
a dry tongue rasps air. pods open.
4-point stars, 5’ evening primrose.
cedar fingers around stems of moss.
turtle shells disrupted from sand.
culprits, unplanned happens.
follow the chicken-walking breeze.
Meredith Quartermain, Recipes from the Red Planet
She said and he thought and he did and she thought and he said and she did and they thought and I went and they said and you heard and we saw and they wanted and she didn't think and you didn't see and I felt and he liked and we said we couldn't tell. Said Mr. Narrator to Mrs. Narrator. Said trialogue. And Mrs. Narrator thought Mr. Narrator thought Lady Agonist thought Mr. Narrator. Said Lord Agonist to the psychiatrist thought Mr. Narrator. Lacked character said Lady Agonist said Mrs. Narrator thought Lord Agonist. Are you for or against Agonist said Mrs. Narrator to the dog thought Mr. Narrator against Lady Agonist's thigh. I wanted Mr. Narrator to think Lady Agonist felt Mrs. Narrator had Mr. Narrator by the. Her Ladyship felt Lord Agonist didn't. Behind the ears then under a nipple inserted in her pocket. Thought Mrs. Narrator. Would your Lordship care for some. Bushes near a lake, mound at a mineshaft, peak with an outing. Bottoms up her Ladyship's butter, we said. And breadfruit. Is your Lordship out. They think he's in. Mr. Narrator. Thought I. Said Mrs. Narrator. His Lordship's out of pocket. Her Ladyship's innuendo. He's out to lunch. She's ins and outs. He's in futuro incognito. Out of debt. Incomplete. Mrs. Narrator dreamt her Ladyship's buttons wanted setting forth to switchboard for room service his Lordship. Keeps falling asleep. Said Mr. Narrator. Thought Mrs. Narrator. Don't tell me I'm fresh towel check-out his Lordship. Said her Ladyship's buttony TV. Thought. Mrs. Narrator. You're going to soap the doorman I wanted to this morning. Do you have a reservation we could telephone. Mr. Narrator's bellhop. Not that that would. The black that that she mailed that you said we'd already said. Said Mrs. Narrator thought his Lordship. Not that. The other that that I said Lady Agonist said she'd like to have felt. Not that.
The narratives that make up Vancouver writer Meredith Quartermain's Recipes from the Red Planet (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2010), exist as electric and eccentric prose-poems, pushing deeper against the blur between forms than much of the more poem-specific works of her previous trade collections. The pieces in Recipes from the Red Planet seem to exist as a sequence of striking, nimble texts, employing shifts amid the blur between poems and short stories in lovely, errant prose. Her prose-poems begin from a foundation of uncertainty and the possibility of all things, exploring their ways further out. These are poems that know far more than you do, and manage the strangest and most logical connections through their magnificent range. After watching Quartermain map out her archives of language through books such as Matter (BookThug, 2008), The Eye-Shift of Surface (Greenboathouse Books, 2003) and Spatial Relations (Diaeresis, 2001) to mapping the archives of her geography, strolling her immediate up and down west coast of Nightmarker (NeWest Press, 2008) and Vancouver Walking (NeWest Press, 2005), Recipes from the Red Planet reads as a more fluid continuation of A Thousand Mornings (Nomados, 2002), broadening her scope entirely. Produced as BookThug's "Department of Narrative Studies No. 4," accompanied by a striking series of graphics by New York City artist Susan Bee, this new work maps out an archive of something far deeper and abstract than Quartermain's previous writing, and something far more difficult to name. Even her geographies shift, as in the piece "Dear Post-Land," possibly referring her Ontario origins behind her current Vancouver locale, starting:
I'm from Ontario but where am I addressed to? and where's Ontario from? Can it return there with address unknown? If Ontario goes back where it came from, where will I be? Can I still write to you from there?
Stan Rogal, Dance, Monsters! Fifty Selected Poems
For several decades now, Rogal has been writing poetry that has quietly become one of
the most entertaining and engaging bodies of work in recent Canadian letters while at the same
time developing a reputation, rightly or wrongly (I strongly suspect wrongly), for being what one
waggish reviewer called "an intellectual redneck." I believe this outsider status has contributed to a
remarkable poet being largely (but not entirely) overlooked by the Canadian poetry establishment.
He began publishing at a time when the dominant fashion of Canadian poetry was far more fusty and austere than it is today. Perhaps Canadians just weren't ready for Rogal's boisterous good nature, idiosyncratic style and quick humour that ranges widely from wry to screwball. I have no doubt that if Rogal had been publishing in the United States all this time, he would most certainly be compared, favourably and often, to trailblazers such as Frank O'Hara and Jack Spicer as well as contemporary favourites such as Dean Young and Tony Hoagland.
Paul Vermeersch, "Foreword"
I'm pretty sure I don't agree with that unknown reviewer's assessment of Rogal as "an intellectual redneck," but sure do appreciate Insomniac Press poetry editor Paul Vermeersch's work in putting together Toronto writer Stan Rogal's Dance, Monster! Fifty Selected Poems (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2011). Certainly, Rogal's poetry can't easily be compartmentalized, and he is one of a series of Canadian poets completely unattached to any stylistic grouping, including Anne Carson, Leonard Cohen, Erin Moure, Lisa Robertson, Sylvia Legris, nathalie stephens, Judith Fitzgerald, Gil McElroy and even, to some degree, Phil Hall. Where do we put such a writer who uses language so freely, sharply and with such deliberate and errant play, and why does such originality manage to fall completely under the radar? It is as though we require a new name under which to place him.
The idea, as well, that if Rogal were publishing in the United States, he would have received far more attention is something I’ve repeatedly heard, and even said, both about Rogal, and the work of Cobourg, Ontario writer Stuart Ross. What is it about the Canadian psyche that holds certain writers away from larger popular and even critical attention? I’ve heard this said for years, but have seen very little in the way of anyone working on an explanation of what exactly causes Canadian literature to ignore these writers that we think deserve more attention here, especially if we think they would receive it, had they lived, or even published, south of the border. Over eight trade collections, the collected wit and breath of Rogal's poetry explores the stock images and myths of North American culture, from folk songs and the open road to Marilyn Monroe, The Wizard of Oz and Jack Kerouac, visual art, Jack Spicer, philosophy, linguistics and other oddball moments of intellectual debris, bound up together in a collage-type of leaps across a series of book length canvases.
For this, Rogal’s first volume of selected poems, (uncredited) editor Vermeersch has stayed away from any larger structural or thematic unit to cohere the collection, instead picking fifty of Rogal’s poems from eight of his individual poetry collections (from all but his first, self-published Penumbras, published in 1980). The collection Dance, Monster! Fifty Selected Poems appears to be constructed as a sampler as opposed to a particular “best of,” showcasing a range across the stylistic and thematic spectrum of Rogal’s published poetry, seemingly selecting almost equally from each of his eight trade collections. The specific number of fifty pieces also suggest that their format is borrowed from recent series produced by The Porcupine's Quill, Inc. and Wilfred Laurier University Press, both of which also collect the same "essential fifty poems," but with far meatier introductions, something I would argue Rogal's work more than deserves. Why do so many selected poems now appear without introductions, to give a sense of context?
To remind you not to think of X.
Fails. Without its bones
.....dragged rattling from the closet.
The mere skin enuf to strike a match.
Blazing at the window.
Great Catherine, for instance.
Strapped to the belly of a stallion
.....commands some deathless weight
......... no am't of museums can hope to exhume.
Or Turing, early praised for dealing death to enigma
...suffers the charge of two assholes
.....& a scrotum full of poisoned apple.
Or Betsy, propelled by a clown hoof
.....crosses the Fraser with a vengeance
....... birthing a multitude of fish floating
Belly-up in her wake.
........Increasingly strange. Humanity's
............sport with self-extinction. A thot
................no dinosaur could muster in 140 million years.
Forgetting what goes around comes around
Makes poetry a sugar tit
Without recognizing this wood is all middles
No one never ever getting no nearer than this
No one never ever getting no further than this
There is something about Rogal's poetry, much like the poetry of John Newlove, that emerged almost fully-formed in his first trade collection, Sweet Betsy from Pike (Wolsak & Wynn, 1992), with the structures and themes of his later work already there, simply waiting to be honed, furthered and expanded. Since then, his trade poetry collections have included The Imaginary Museum (ECW Press, 1993), Personations (Exile Editions, 1997), Lines of Embarkation (Coach House Books, 1999), (sub rosa) (Wolsak & Wynn, 2003), In Search of the Emerald City (Seraphim, 2004) and Fabulous Freaks (Wolsak & Wynn, 2005). A poet of sharp thought and halting line breaks, each of Rogal’s individual poetry collections is shaped around as much theme and subject as structure, making the coherence of individual books not the easiest to necessarily select from, but the small volume manages to keep to the expansive flavours of what makes a Stan Rogal poem work. Hopefully this collection will increase attention to his writing, counteracting the strange critical silence, and attracting not only new readers to his poetry, but reminding occasional readers just what he has been doing for years.
Michael Blouin, Wore Down Trust
I can't walk past a church if there's music playing. I remember one particularly hard morning in Memphis and a sky full of teeth bearing down on me. It was cold like only a March morning can be cold and if it hadn't been for the First Baptist Church and the choir bleeding out into the street and the girl taking the lead and her voice sounding like there was a light coming out of it... and there was. If it hadn't been for that and so many other things now that I see were pointing me along the way. I've always felt most comfortable around people who know where they're going. Where they're bound. I've felt privileged to be around them and for a time to call myself one.
Writing through a fictional version of himself-as-author, the late east coast poet Alden Nowlan, and the late American myth, Johnny Cash, in his third trade book and second poetry collection, is Ottawa-area writer Michael Blouin's Wore Down Trust (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2011), subtitled “a blues in three lives,” is a book about and built around voice. How could it not be? We listen to all three of the book's characters talk, external and internal voices weaving through the possibilities of their stories, threading fact with fiction, and the possibilities of where these stories meet, or may have. Wore Down Trust blends biographical fact with other facts not exactly facts, but, as the author writes, no less true.
ON THE POEMS AND PLAYERS
Except where obvious or as indicated as excerpts
of personal letters, songs or poems, the voices here are imagined.
But hopefully none the less real for that.
Most things border the truth.
The book as a whole works up to one central fact, that Cash and Nowlan met “in Fredericton in May of 1975.” What does this even mean, this tenuous connection, and one that the book even admits, contains no recorded information, no recorded conversation? In Wore Down Trust, Blouin has chosen two nearly-mythological artists known for their bodies of work, their excesses, their dark, popular, working-class country blues-not-blues, and the women that saved them from self-destruction. For both, he writes: “He died sooner than many would have preferred, leaving behind a rich body of work.” Structured in two sections – “Johnny” and “Alden” – the fragments of poetry and prose collect themselves, accumulating into a kind of documentary on the personal and more interior lives of the two men, collecting a kind of story that couldn't be told any other way. This is a book you can dip into at any point, any page, to read, and suddenly be in the middle of an already-existing story, even if you were to start at the beginning.
When you're almost killed a number of times it lends a certain perspective. When it happens eight times, well, it lends a sense of peace. And urgency too. I drove out this evening to the NAPA store and bought a new shift knob for the Jeep. It's an eight ball. If I some day have a son I'll pass it on to him. And I'd tell him why. It would be important for him to know why.
He could keep the eight ball. Put it away in a box in a closet. Someday put it in a car of his own. I don't have much of value to pass on. There's an old Rolex that doesn't work anymore. There's the Jeep, I own that outright now. There are these stories of mine. There's the eight ball, shining and black. What a thing to give.
I'm intrigued by Michael Blouin's use of voice in this collection, something done more overtly here than, say, his first poetry collection, I'm not going to lie to you (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2007), or his award-winning novel Chase & Haven (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2008). In Wore Down Trust, Blouin constructs the voices of Johnny Cash and Alden Nowlan with the author blended, nearly slipped in, deliberately obscured, hidden amid these two men in black. It's tempting to focus on Blouin's fictionalized version of himself, wondering if this is, in fact, simply three facets of his imagined or fantasized fictional self. Are Cash and Nowlan simply smokescreen for something more personal, more complex? The “author,” Blouin writes: “The author was born. Most things end in darkness. Not everything. Not everything dies.”¨
Late into the afternoon and more drunk than you have a right to be for the time of day and wondering now how you'll possibly survive the night at this rate. And then you stop worrying and let the swirl of discussion take you again. The storm clattering at the window.
And later – her question about love:
what are you doing?
whatever you'll let me
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, thusly making him the only Canadian resident (but not only Canadian) to participate in the Dusie Kollektiv 5. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011), kate street (Moira, 2011) and 52 flowers (or, a perth edge) (Obvious Epiphanies, 2010), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottwater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com