[the young ladies during a recent "sick day," home from school / preschool] Here I go again. And who am I to go against tradition? Well, the good traditions, anyway. Here is 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 eighth annual list [see also: 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 than I may have wished, given I’m home with our two young ladies (Rose turned 5 in November, and Aoife turns 3 this coming April). Two reviews a week is still a pretty hefty goal, and there are multiple books that I haven’t been able to get into (yet, he says, rather optimistically). Although my mounds of not-yet-reviewed are beginning to overwhelm my home office. I’ve books by my desk I haven’t had nearly a chance to get to, including Laurie Fuhr’s Night Flying (Frontenac House Poetry), Gwen Benaway’s Holy Wild (Book*hug), and most likely multiple other titles I just can’t see at the moment. I haven’t even seen a copy yet of Deportment: The Poetry of Alice Burdick, edited by Alessandro Porco (WLU Press), or Flow: Poems Collected and New by Roy Miki, edited by Michael Barnholden, beholden, by Fred Wah and Rita Wong or Treaty 6 Deixis, by Christine Stewart (Talonbooks). Perhaps, given how long this list actually is, you might be okay with the fact that I didn’t get to as much as I might have liked (otherwise you might be here all day). You can’t even imagine how long it takes me to compile and post these things as it is (but there you go).
And, even though they aren’t poetry, there were a couple of non-fiction titles I caught this year that were quite remarkable, including Vancouver poet, editor, critic and troublemaker Stephen Collis’ Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten (Talonbooks) [see my review of such here] and Vancouver writer and editor Chelene Knight’s Dear Current Occupant: A Memoir (Book*hug) [see my review of such here]. Both books are totally wow (that’s my completely accurate and official descriptor, by the by, for those titles [patent pending]).
Either way, what a year. We lost more than a few this year, including David W. McFadden (we miss you, uncle dave) and Priscila Uppal (that one was tough) and David Helwig. And American poet Marthe Reed. And Stan Lee, of course.
But here it is, my list of twenty-four titles worth-repeating:
1. Nikki Sheppy, Fail Safe. This is a 2017 title that I received too late to appear on last year’s list, so I include such here. Calgary poet Nikki Sheppy’s long-awaited first full-length poetry collection is Fail Safe (University of Calgary Press, 2017), a complex and playful examination of the machinery of languages and architecture, what back cover blurber Weyman Chan refers to as a “sensory grenade.” The poems in Fail Safe engage with structures as well as the failures and traps of same, and the recognition that one shouldn’t be distracted away from what is actually going on. Her poems are incredibly muscular, dense and visceral, able to move with the speed of light. There is an element of the catch-all to Sheppy’s collection, deliberately constructing a book in which anything and everything might belong, fitting each piece up against the next both neatly and in a perfect jumble. Fail Safe gives the impression of a book asking how books are built at all, providing both question and answer, exploring the building blocks of how one poem sits up against another to create something beyond the sum of their individual parts. See my full review here.
2. Jack Davis, Faunics. Another title from 2017: occasionally a book of poetry appears, seemingly out of nowhere, that is openly discussed between poets as a ‘must read’ well before any reviews or notices have appeared, as is the case with poet Jack Davis’ remarkable debut, Faunics (St. John’s, NL: Pedlar Press, 2017). Faunics owes a debt to Nelson Ball and Mark Truscott, both of whom are acknowledged, both as notes at the end of the collection as well as individual dedications, for their influences upon his work. Because of this, Davis’ poems aren’t merely short or short-lined, but poems that fully comprehend the lessons of what Ball and Truscott (and others, including jwcurry, Cameron Anstee, Michael e. Casteels) and others have been working on for years (it might be worth pointing out that Anstee, also, has a debut collection set to appear very soon), writing an incredibly precise lyric of sustained attention. Davis engages in what has been referred to as “quietude,” an incredibly detailed attention to smallness, silence and lines as short as a single word. Nearly one hundred and forty pages thick, Davis’ Faunics is smallness multiplied and magnified, composed of short, intricate and dense lyric poems that weave their ways through language, space and multiple species of birds, animals and fauna. He writes of listening, sparrows, asides, winter and counterweights, attending to his most immediate and intimate in ways both startlingly familiar and completely refreshing. As he writes to open the poem “Curtail”: “All beautiful / of pieces // every flesh / desired // found breath / our bodies // the broken-into warmth / of animals [.]” There is such a deep and abiding respect and attentiveness in these pages, in which he attends far more to his Northern Ontario surroundings than to the facts, or even the distractions of, his own presence. As he writes to open the poem “Edible Forests and Potable Waterways of Northern Ontario”: “Music / pushed through / flax & pigment / played into / other woods [.]” See my full review here.
3. angela rawlings, si tu: I know, but I’ll get to the 2018 books soon. angela rawlings’ si tu (March, 2017), is “a poetic response to Marjana Krajač’s choreography Variations on Sensitive,” produced by Multimedijalni Intitut in Zagreb. For those awaiting a follow-up to her debut, Wide slumber for lepidopterists (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2006), rawlings’ creative output since then has been wide-ranging, multidisciplinary and seemingly-constant—something suggested through her 2016 interview over at Touch the Donkey—and a process not necessarily limited to the published book, but one that moves through performance, dance, visuals and text. rawlings’ si tu is reminiscent, slightly, of Chicago poet Carrie Olivia Adams’ collaborative GRAPPLE (above/ground press, 2016), a work that engaged dance with the lyric, yet rawlings’ respose is one far more attuned to the visual materials of text on a page, and how sound and motion are expressed in the space of two dimensions, coming to her response not through the lyric, but through a far more experimental and multidisciplinary sense of how the building blocks of visual language can be applied.
I’m fascinated by rawlings’ approach in responding to a work I haven’t seen (which can provide its own benefit, not allowing the comparison to her source as distraction), yet able to grasp a sense of Krajač’s choreography as rawlings moves through description, sound and motion, writing fragments and sentences up against space, as words are reworked, transposed and translated, flipped, scattered and structured on a grid. “To put the mouth on. / To put the mouth on it. / To put the mouth on iz. // But as professionals, one / is not always so worried / about the safety of / professionelles.” Really, the performative element of sound and motion in this text is key, one that allows even the most casual reader to be present in this work as performance. See my full review here.
4. Minola Review: A Journal of Women’s Writing, an anthology edited by Robin Richardson. Anthologies count too, right? In the introduction to Minola Review: A Journal of Women’s Writing, a newly-released print anthology compiled as a ‘best-of’ her online journal, editor/publisher Robin Richardson speaks of the need for a separate space in which to work and present work, one that doesn’t come with experiences such as, she recounts, being shamed for dancing at a dance party at thirteen. As she writes: “What if I could create a space where my girlfriends and I could dance however we want? Where we wouldn’t worry about coming across too sexy or too unsexy, too goofy or unhinged. We could have the freedom simply to move.”
I always appreciate being introduced to the work of writers I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read, and I was quite taken with the prose of Kara Vernor and Madeleine Maillet, two further writers I hadn’t yet heard of. Editor/publisher Richardson’s interests clearly lean toward a relatively straightforward lyric narrative, with much of the work collected here existing in that vein, with the occasional prose piece with an added extra music, such as Vernor’s striking “IF YOU’RE WITH A GIRL AND YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE SEX WITH ANOTHER GIRL, BUT YOU’RE ON YOUR PERIOD AND YOU’RE WEARING A TAMPON, CAN YOU STILL? DO PEOPLE EVER DO THAT?,” a piece that really does seem to (apart from being an entertaining piece willing to laugh at itself) roll to an entirely different kind of music. See my full review here.
5. Emma Healey, stereoblind. Toronto poet Emma Healey’s second full-length poetry collection, after Begin with the End in Mind (Arp Books, 2012), is stereoblind (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2018), an accumulation of prose poems “about the differences / between things, how they disappear.” Deftly moving in and out of focus, Healey’s poems are present, mutable and grounded, while still able to simply float off into the ether.
I find the prose of Healey’s lines rather curious, how she manages to write both direct and indirect, dodging the easy path by writing what appear to be rather straight lines, and is reminiscent, somewhat, of recent works by Toronto poet Sennah Yee and New York poet Dorothea Lasky for their similar abilities to write directly askance via the lyric sentence. There is something dreamlike in Healey’s poems, allowing a kind of magical element to her narratives which equally fuels and comforts the narrator’s ongoing anxieties. The poem “N12” exists an extended lyric sequence that sits squarely in the middle of the collection, stitching and securing the entirety of the book together, managing to become the book’s foundation, akin to a title poem with a different title. And when she writes this in the midst of the poem, I believe her: “I want to lay my life out in clean lines, to show you how good I am at leaving nothing undone, touching right wire to right wire, lighting it up. a solved equation with my self erased completely. I want to deliver the answer to me across time and come out lighter. But every time I write, it sounds like wringing apology from my own throat.” See my full review here.
6. Mikko Harvey, Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit. New York City resident and Canadian expat Mikko Harvey’s first poetry collection is Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit (Anansi, 2018), a collection of odd lyrics, narratives and fables. The lyrics in Harvey’s Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit unfold and unfurl to reveal succeeding layers of narrative oddities, such as the poem “THIRD DATE,” that opens: “We watched a yellow butterfly bounce, bounce, / then get annihilated by a truck, which cast a wing-sized shadow / over our trip to the state park. It was there, under the sugar / maple canopy, darling, that I learned of your hypoglycemia.” Where does a poem go from there? There are those say that the best thing a poem can do is to explore the already-familiar in an entirely new way, providing a fresh perspective that allows the reader to experience the world with new eyes, and this appears to be what Mikko Harvey brings to the lyric, offering the surreal through a rather straightforward narrative, one that twists and turns even as it holds entirely still, offering a line solid enough that any bird would trust to land upon it. Through Harvey, there is a comfort to the narrative uncertainty, one that reveals an array of surreal experiences and stories, both light and dark, that become entirely familiar, and work to twist expectation, but never unsettle. See my full review here.
7. George Bowering, Some End / George Stanley, West Broadway. I find this double collection by Vancouver poets George Bowering and George Stanley fascinating, a dos-à -dos flip book made up of Bowering’s “Some End” and Stanley’s “West Broadway”(Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2018). With each section running roughly forty pages in length, both Bowering and Stanely write in and around their Vancouver geographies and concerns, from aging—Stanley’s “Blood is toxic to the retina” from the poem “5,” or Bowering’s “Does it bring any solace or calm to you / to know the sun is mortal, too?” from “Bright”—to the ins and outs of reading, friends and their immediate locales. Around 2005 or so, I heard the two illustrious senior Canadian poets read together at a festival in Vancouver alongside George Elliott Clarke, and the three Georges were fascinating to watch in sequence, given their individual penchants for deep rhythms, and their reading habits of each conducting their readings with one hand.
The two sections do hold to each other in conversation, continuing their individual trajectories from decades of work that also discover the places in which they meet, and overlap, from Stanley’s “Letter to George Bowering” that responds to Bowering’s “Letter to George Stanley,” or Bowering’s “The Country North of Summer,” a poem that plays off a combination of George Stanley’s North of California St. (New Star Books, 2014) and Gentle Northern Summer (New Star, 1995). Curiously, the poem itself doesn’t engage with Stanley directly, but is instead a meditation to and for the late Al Purdy: “The grave wherein my pen pal is laid lies / at the bottom of a country road saying his name. / It’s a dandy place to lean against the stone book / and read a bunch of poems, except in winter.” Bowering, through dozens upon dozens of works of poetry, fiction and criticism, has been a frequent responder to and commentator upon the works of others, from contemporaries to mentors to heroes and anyone else whose work might cross his path and connect, and his section includes numerous threads and structures familiar to anyone who has spent time with any of his prior work. Much can be said also of George Stanley’s “West Broadway,” a section that opens with an extended sequence, “West Broadway,” stretched across a specific thread of Vancouver geography. Some End/West Broadway is an intriguing conversation between these two senior Vancouver poets who have been friends for decades, and poets for far longer, writing towards each other in such a way as to highlight their shared sensibilities, as well as their differences. See my full review here.
8. Cameron Anstee, Book of Annotations. Following years’ worth of chapbooks (through In/Words, above/ground press, Apt. 9 Press, Puddles of Sky Press, Baseline Press, The Emergency Response Unit, etcetera) comes Ottawa poet, editor and small press publisher Cameron Anstee’s long-awaited full-length poetry debut, Book of Annotations (Picton ON: Invisible Publishing, 2018), a collection of what Nelson Ball calls “minimalist gems”: incredibly short and playful poems packed with enormous density. Part of the appeal of such a collection emerges from his engagement with (and obvious love for) similar works by poets working in similar veins, something acknowledged on the back cover: “a dialogue in shorthand with H.D., Nelson Ball, Lorine Niedecker, Aram Saroyan, Phillis Webb, Robert Lax, and others.” Others, I suspect, might include Mark Truscott, jwcurry, Michael e. Casteels, Gary Barwin and bpNichol.
Structured in five untitled but numbered sections, this too furthers the minimalism of Anstee’s poems, allowing the reader to see the connections between and amid poems, some of which is obvious, deceptive and quite subtle, in poems built on erasure, repetition, hesitation and the quiet pause. There is such deliberate care to these poems, crafted and sculpted and incredibly small, some as deliberate as a single word. It has been curious to see more than a couple of contemporary poets over the past few years explore just how small a poem can be, some of which were solicited by Stuart Ross for his poetry journal Peter O’Toole: The Journal of One-Line Poems (Proper Tales Press), but Anstee’s is obviously an ongoing interest, as opposed to a series of one-offs quickly composed. See my full review here.
9. Suzanne Zelazo, Lances All Alike. After far too long a wait comes a second trade poetry collection from Toronto poet, editor and critic Suzanne Zelazo—Lances All Alike (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2018)—following her debut, Parlance (Coach House Books, 2003). Not that she has been idle or absent, having held a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at Ryerson University under Irene Gammel, exploring experimental writers and poets including Mina Loy, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Florine Stettheimer, and co-edited, with Gammel, the critically-acclaimed collections Crystal Flowers: Poetry and a Libretto by Florine Stettheimer (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2010) and Body Sweats : The Uncensored Writings of Elsa Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven (The MIT Press, 2011). As Parlance emerged from Zelazo’s readings of and research into Virginia Woolf (specifically, To the Lighthouse), Lances All Alike emerges from her work on Loy and Freytag-Loringhoven.
Zelazo’s collage-poems explore the potential collisions and collusions between two wildly individual contemporaries that, supposedly, and bafflingly, might not have interacted during their lifetimes. In an interview posted at Touch the Donkey in 2015 on the project, then still in-progress, Zelazo explained: “The poems are characteristic of what I’ve been working on for a while now— a modernist conversation between the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven and Mina Loy, and a more general consideration of artistic influence. […] As in my first book, collage is central, but I think the collection explores voice—the simultaneity of voices—very differently.” It’s curious to see Zelazo’s ongoing exploration of female modernist writers, engaging the intersections between Mina Loy and Baroness Elsa, even as her first collection explored (less blended than this current work, but still seeking points of common entry) the work of Virginia Woolf against an elegy for Zelazo’s late mother. She might be engaging in modernist conversation, but through a postmodern lens, reassembling the narrative through fractal, clipped fragment and deliberate obsfucation, thus opening up the possibility of entirely new directions in the narrative; influenced by, as Sina Queyras suggested in a note on Parlance in 2005, collage-and-chance poets such as Jackson Mac Low. See my full review here.
10. Emilia Nielsen, Body Work. I’m impressed by poet Emilia Nielsen’s sophomore collection, Body Work (Signature Editions, 2018), a considerable leap from her Gerald Lampert Award-nominated debut, Surge Narrows (Leaf Press, 2013). Nielsen is a British Columbia poet set to join York University in Toronto this summer as Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Science, in the Health and Society Program, and her Body Works writes the body as both a topic of study and of revision, managing both to articulate and rewrite, re-stitch and map an intricate series of patterns across the skin of each page. There is a meditative quality to Nielsen’s poems, but one akin to the language fractals of poets such as Margaret Christakos, Sylvia Legris or Christine McNair, composing pieces that concurrently seem less constructed than disassembled for the purpose of study and labelling, and precisely jumbled, jagged and staccato.
Nielsen’s lyric sequences exist as explorations, picking and pinpointing of minutae around the body, and are remarkable for their vibrancy and sheer precision. Much as in Legris’ ongoing work, Nielsen’s cavalcade of body-study revels in language and in such exacting precision. As she write in the sequence “Surgical Notes”: “That I function well without an organ / but don’t have the know-how to stitch / a button back in place. Lacking how-to / to do a tidy job.” See my full review here.
11. Annick MacAskill, No Meeting Without Body. Lyric precision and lyric polish aren’t, as I might not really need to explain, the same thing. And while my interest in the lyric doesn’t necessarily gravitate towards the polish of a more straightforward line, there is something about the poems in Halifax poet Annick MacAskill’s debut, No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), that compel my attention. Her poems are narrative, sure, but hardly straightforward, achieving an accumulation of thoughts and movement, as well as the occasional narrative disjunction and disruption, composed as polished poems both precise and slightly jagged, slightly off; punchy and visceral. She knows how to compose poems that suggest one purpose, and provide something slightly different (such as her attempts to twist certain Canadian standards), all while moving through a series of meditative, first-person lyric narratives. The poems in No Meeting Without Body range from good to compelling, and often with such a nebulous difference between that it becomes difficult to articulate. Needless to say, there are a couple of poems here that left me breathless. See my full review here.
12. Robin Richardson, Sit How You Want. There is a sharpness and a confidence to the first person monogues in Toronto writer Robin Richardson’s third full-length poetry collection, Sit How You Want (Vehicule Press, 2018), even as the poems explore trauma, terror and powerlessness, and the ways in which one might finally emerge.
While Sit How You Want isn’t, specifically, a collection of “unsympathetic poems,” the idea is one not unrelated to the poems at hand, in which the narrator/s speak of love and damage, depression and regret, and fearlessness versus fear. As she writes, both in a kind of mocking self-dismissal as well as declaration of being and purpose, in the poem “ABOUT THE SPEAKER”: “I am built of myth and girly bits.” These are poems pushing to break free from abusive relationships, both familial and romantic; poems composed via a narrator (or narrators) that has survived, although not without scars, such as the gloriously-titled “EARTHQUAKES ARE MY FAVOURITE WAY / TO MAKE ISLANDS,” that begins: “We ignored the cries of the carbon monoxide / detector, coitussed in a pose like Pompeii / corpses while the cabbies grew irate outside. / This is the last day of our lives, until tomorrow. / When I say I’m fine I mean the sky has opened / like an old wound under scurvy [.]” See my full review here.
13. Eve Joseph, Quarrels. I’m very taken with Eve Joseph’s third collection, of self-designated “prose poems,” Quarrels (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2018). I find the range of what is described as “prose poems” to be rather curious, running the full gamut from prose to lyric in ways that occasionally make the designation imperfect. Joseph’s poems, for example, exist far closer to what American poet Russell Edson (1935-2014), said to be the father of the American prose poem, composed, a style seemingly akin to the short stories (a form also referred to as “postcard fictions”) of J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand (2005), yet far less poetic than the short stories of Lydia Davis. These are prose poems, therefore, closer to the prose end of the spectrum, far from the more poetic prose poems of poets such as Cole Swensen, Norma Cole and Rosmarie Waldrop. Really, to investigate the designation of the “prose poem” causes the description to lose focus, especially when so many contemporary poets utilize line breaks rather arbitrary, breaking a series of otherwise full sentences down into what gets called poetry. What does it all mean? I suppose, in the end, the designation also exists for the sake of describing against what it is not, and that is a lyric existing with line breaks.
Either way, this is a gorgeous and accomplished book, and Joseph deserves enormous credit and attention for it, composed through an accumulation of sentences that appear straightforward, but toggle the lyric, instead, through that same accumulation of connections and disconnections. Set in three sections, her short, untitled pieces explore movements and moments, disagreements and differences, writing out short scenes, and even, as through the second section, composed from photographs by Diane Arbus. Each piece remains self-contained, yet part of a far larger series of grouped connections, akin to ripples running across and through the book as a whole. See my full review here.
14. Eric Schmaltz, SURFACES. There is a delight to seeing what Toronto poet Eric Schmaltz has accomplished with his first full-length title, SURFACES (Picton ON: Invisible Publishing, 2018), a title rightly listed equally as poetry, graphic arts and typography. My first real interaction with Schmaltz’ work came in the form of a chapbook manuscript, produced through above/ground press as MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems (2014). As he wrote in an email as part of his original submission, the chapbook was “an homage to Paul Dutton’s The Plastic Typewriter.” Toronto poet Dutton’s work, produced by Underwhich Editions in 1993, is described as a “Compilation of concrete or visual poetry that goes beyond the way the typewriter is traditionally used to make impressions on to a piece of paper. Completed in 1977, materials used were a disassembled plastic case typewriter, an intact typewriter, carbon ribbons, carbon paper, metal file and white bond paper.”
The past twenty-odd years of Canadian writing has been wonderfully rich in the production of visual and concrete works, an explosion of publishing, producing and curiosity that seemed to come out of nowhere, with dozens of writers and artists now composing and producing, from the older writers who have been working away for decades—jwcurry, bill bissett and Judith Copithorne, for example—to the mid-career practitioners—derek beaulieu, Gary Barwin, W. Mark Sutherland, Sharon Harris, Billy Mavreas, Christian Bök and Helen Hajnoczky—to the array of emerging writer quietly moving their own ways through multiple threads of history to begin producing their own works—Sacha Archer, Kate Siklosi, Kyle Flemmer, Ken Hunt and Dani Spinosa (these lists aren’t meant to be exhaustive, but simply to give a quick sense of some gatherings of activity). All of this activity is impressive, and the benefits of a growing community of practitioners in the digital age have allowed the work being produced to be more thoughtful, and often presented in deep conversation with other works already produced (Spinosa, for example, has been working on some very interesting homage pieces over the past few years). All of this to say that, while Schmaltz’ work is part of something larger and grander, it has also become one of its ongoing highlights, something SURFACES can’t help but broadcast. See my full review here.
15. Caroline Szpak, Slinky Naïve. Toronto writer Caroline Szpak’s first trade poetry title, following a small handful of poetry chapbooks, is Slinky Naïve (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2018), a collection of poems constructed as narrative accumulations and odd turns. Szpak’s poems give the appearance of randomness, with line upon accumulated line until the narrative threads click, and finally reveal themselves. There is a looseness here that is quite appealing, and a series of threads that could never be anticipated, coming together brilliantly to form a collection of intriguing and even unusual poems. As she writes in the poem “BLACK MADONNA”: “a crawl in residents / that feel the water / tastes sweet may be / part pigment / edible cosmetics a loss / of emphasis fine tuning / sweat must have eyelids / like a husband a school / group sells shoddy / in that mud state .]” See my full review here.
16. Paul Vermeersch, Self Defence for the Brave and Happy. Toronto poet and editor Paul Vermeersch’s sixth trade poetry collection is Self Defence for the Brave and Happy (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2018), a playful sequence of narratives blending classic imagery of spacemen, rockets and missiles with an updated fear of the impending apocalypse, and what just might come next.
While the collection might begin in some rather dark places, Vermeersch’s use of humour, pop culture, surrealism and collage work to disarm the increasing anxieties surrounding the darkest possibilities of humanity’s demise. The poems that make up Self Defence for the Brave and Happy respond to climate change to the failures of science, wholescale self-destruction and an array of violence. Poems such as “DON’T WAIT FOR THE WOODSMAN,” “ON BEING WRONG” and “THE FAILURE OF THE HUMAN BODY AS AN ART FORM” even work as short poem-shaped essays – a fascinating counterpoint to the visual poems contained within – composed on the failures of expectation, writing on stories, existence and decision-making, adding to a collection as a whole that engages in twisting and shifting expectation and perspective. Between the lyric narratives, essay-poems and visual pieces, I’m intrigued by the broadening of Vermeersch’s structural scope, and how everything contained fits so nicely together. See my full review here.
17. Julie Bruck, How to Avoid Huge Ships. There is something incredibly compelling about Canadian expat Julie Bruck’s new poetry collection, How to Avoid Huge Ships (London ON: Brick Books, 2018), something that keeps drawing me in and holding my attention. While I’m not normally attracted to this particular strain of narrative lyric, her lines are magnetic. Her poems evoke and evade, deceptively set as small stories or small scenes, but weaving in observation, surprise and deep meditation. Her poems have both an ease and a density, and a physicality to them, as she writes to open the poem “THE COLD”: “Despite seven—no, eight—months / of steroid sprays, antibiotics, antibacterials, / and whatever else modern medicine has / flung at it, the cold that finally killed my father / lives on in me.”
These are poems that evoke both loss and grief while allowing for a kind of zen appreciation of her subjects, writing out grief even as her narrator(s) learn to allow that same grief to pass through the body. Moments, as John Newlove wrote, not monuments. See my full review here.
18. IF wants to be the same as IS: Essential Poems of David Bromige, eds. Jack Krick, Bob Perelman and Ron Silliman. There isn’t any way to overstate the importance of the publication of IF wants to be the same as IS: Essential Poems of David Bromige, eds. Jack Krick, Bob Perelman and Ron Silliman, with an introduction by George Bowering (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2018), a six hundred page volume of collected works by the late David Bromige (October 22, 1933 – June 3, 2009). Bromige is a poet both seen to exist in Canadian and American poetries, and yet each side of the border had their own individual, and even incomplete, portrait of him and his work, comparable to considerations of poet George Stanley [see my review of Stanley’s 2014 title, North of California St., here], a poet who, himself, emerged in California before moving north to Vancouver.
Born in England, Bromige schooled in Vancouver, where he began to engage with a number of emerging Canadian writers, notably the TISH poets and other downtown Vancouver poets, before moving to California in 1962. His move south didn’t end his Canadian engagements, despite moving quickly to engage a variety of American poets and poetries, to the point that he published books on both sides of the border throughout his writing career. The multiple perspectives on Bromige’s work is acknowledged, and made clear, through the construction of the collection itself, with introductions/afterword by editors Perelman, Krick and Silliman, as well as an introduction by Bromige’s friend and contemporary, George Bowering.
This is an important book, one a long time coming. Given some of the attention provided to other poets across North America, might someone even be willing to organize a conference on Bromige’s work, now that such a book as this is finally available? See my full review here.
19. Mark Truscott, Branches. Toronto poet Mark Truscott’s third full-length title, Branches (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2018)—following Said Like Reeds or Things (2004) and Nature (2010)—manages a quality of density that feels different than the poems in his first two collections. The poems in Branches further his seemingly-ongoing explorations into brevity, meditation, compactness and the single, extended moment, but there is something else as well, with poems that, while losing none of their brevity or density, are longer, and more expansive. His poems rely on a deep and slow kind of attention, as well as allowing space for the perpetual surprise. There is something very quiet, and perpetually understated, about Truscott’s work, unlike the more immediate, even electric, elements of the short poems in Cameron Anstee’s recent debut of very short shorts [see my review of such here]. In extremely compelling ways, both poets do write out their silences, managing to outline near-infinite lines around just how much unspoken their poems contain, but Truscott’s do in the same way that bare tree branches (to continue his own metaphor) outline the sky: we know there’s so much more to the silence than this. We can see it. See my full review here.
20. Michael Turner, 9x11. The latest from Vancouver writer Michael Turner is 9x11 (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2018), subtitled “and other poems like Bird, Nine, x and Eleven.” A follow-up, one might suspect, to his previous poetry title, 8x10 (New Star, 2009), both for the minimalist form displayed throughout, as well as the obvious linkages between titles, but a collection that also plays very much off the ripples and consequences surrounding September 11, 2001. Composed as short, lyric vignettes, 9x11 is a book of distances and collisions, of ground-level street life, including coffeeshops, corner groceries and contemporary housing anxieties. Turner writes of a constant, and underlying potential for violence and repeated near misses, referencing a series of tensions, and acts of terror both contemporary and historically, such as the poem “Synesthesia,” that includes: “not the opposite of bombs dropped / concurrently on Hanoi, Nam Dinh and Viet Tri / but the appearance of an opposite / because what was sent to the moon / and what fell on North Vietnam / was the coffee mom bought at the supermarket [.]”
In short, sharp lyric turns, Turner blends the daily mundane with the horrific, articulating how easily such terror becomes muted, presented and eventually dismissed, writing out wars in other places, and left far behind, yet with a violence that often perseveres; carries through, is carried, and continued. As the press release informs: “How you view 21st century life depends largely on the view from your place, which depends on where you can afford to live. In this suite of texts and poems written over twenty years that span the infamous towers, Michael Turner drops in to see what condition he’s in, a subject whipped into insistence by the rhythms that shape his city, his neighbourhood, his universe.” See my full review here.
21. Shazia Hafiz Ramji, port of being. Vancouver poet and editor Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s debut full-length collection, winner of the 2017 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, is port of being (Picton ON: Invisible Publishing, 2018). Hers is a collection composed as a book of dislocations, implications and accumulations via short lyrics that explore borders, violence and human connection. The poems in port of being are deliberately constructed to keep the reader off-balance, employing sequences of fragments that layer upon layer into something unsettling, writing on violence, distant wars, social media, internet cables, death, borders and the horror at an increasing disregard of facts. port of being writes from the slippages of what was once actual or presumed solid ground, writing from a series of negative and positive shifts, from what hadn’t been acknowledged before, to what never should have occurred. As she writes to open the poem “Heat”: “Birth from our own skin // Concerns over devaluation // Body that hangs and holds [.]” Ramji writes from a dangerous place, one that comes from knowledge and acknowledgment, attempting to articulate how one might navigate in such a landscape.
Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s poems, while betraying the occasional exhaustion, exasperation and frustration, don’t fall entirely into hopelessness, providing a glimmer of something beyond mere survival. “In the morning we consider ghosts.” she writes, to end the poem “Nearness”: “I feel the sun settle on my ear.” See my full review here.
22. Allison Chisholm, On the Count of None. From Kingston poet and musician Allison Chisholm comes the debut full-length On the Count of None (Anvil Press, 2018), published as the third title in Stuart Ross’ “A Feed Dog Book” imprint (an extension of his former imprint over at Mansfield Press). Following her chapbooks through Puddles of Sky Press and Proper Tales Press (The Dollhouse and On the Count of One, respectively), the poems in On the Count of None display a curiosity, odd humour and a slant perspective, occasionally providing a glimpse of something else, something far darker. As she writes in the poem “The Dollhouse” (the first of a trio of poems with this title, spread out across the collection): “The approved remedy for loneliness is / a stiffening expression, a bedfast songbird. / Somewhat by surprise, a lark, toneless as a tarantella, / enters the dollhouse in Act II / to grasp the hairpin, unsettle the cigar box.”
Composed by an incredibly deft hand, Chisholm’s poems exude a meditative calm with the occasional dark undertone, presenting descriptive offerings of various scenes, as well as a variety of horoscopes, reinforcing the possibility that her poems only wish to offer assistance; offering suggestions, but often as a distraction, as she presents you with a something entirely different. See my full review here.
23. Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Trauma Head. Vancouver writer Elee Kraljii Gardiner’s second full-length poetry title is Trauma Head (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2018), furthering the work she gathered last year in a self-published chapbook with the same name. As the back cover to the new collection reads: “In 2012, poet Elee Kraljii Gardiner precipitously lost feeling in, and use of, her left side. The mini-stroke passed quickly but was symptomatic of something larger: a tear in the lining of an artery that opened an examination of mortality and crisis. This long-poem memoir tracks the author’s experiences with un/wellness and un/re-familiarity with herself.” The earlier version, the chapbook-sized TRAUMA HEAD (Otter Press, 2017; second printing, 2018) was a publication set in a file-folder of collaged text and images around and through brain scans, injury, trauma and healing; there was something of the project, even then, that felt unfinished, as though it were part of some as-yet-unrealized larger project.
Trauma Head is a collection of fragments, files, bursts and medical records composed as a sequence of dislocations attempting to ground and connect themselves, seeking out the shards and scattered threads into something that might cohere into a form enough to continue breathing. There is such a remarkable and gymnastic display of sound and fracture, collision and stutter throughout her text, a meditative scatter of synapses attempting to move at high speed (even to the point of overlapping, becoming muddied), threading around and across a trauma, and towards comprehension, and eventual recovery. She writes of fear, and possibility; she writes of a struggle to survive, and even speak, pushing through her recovery, both to achieve it and to understand it, and to communicate the new shape of her gestures. “[P]ain wears me,” she writes, further into the collection, continuing: “is the tide / chewing cliff face / pain wears me // this injury tumbles me in the chop / is the tide // chewing cliff face / any hiatus pain wears me // in the repetition of panic / this injury tumbles me in the chop / is the tide [.]” See my full review here.
24. Julie McIsaac, We Like Feelings. We Are Serious. From Hamilton, Ontario writer Julie McIsaac comes the expansive and powerful We Like Feelings. We Are Serious. (Hamilton ON: Buckrider Books/Wolsak & Wynn, 2018), a poetry title that follows on the heels of her debut short story collection, Entry Level (London ON: Insomniac Press, 2012). McIsaac’s debut collection of poems rages against numerous oppressive systems while highlighting the often-unspoken traumas of female experience, composing poems as journal entries, adn questioning her own behaviour as much as she shines a spotlight on the behaviour of others. Through nine poem-sections—“Statement of Poetics,” “Young Love in the Post-Activism Era,” “Young Feminists in the Archive Era,” “Emotion of Hope,” “The Orange Toxic Event,” “The Suicidal Revolutionaries, Or God Bless Kathy Acker” “Haibun Dribs and Drabs / Scars and Scabs,” “Fire Poems I” and “Fire Poems II”—McIsaac composes a series and sequence of prose poems that accumulate to form short essays on experience, trauma, dismissal, resistance and methods of survival.
Hers is a poetry that focuses her attention on forms of power that work to reduce or dismiss the contributions of women, from theory to patriarchy to literary writing to cultural influences to more intimate interactions. For all the rage that rages throughout, there is an enormous amount of play going on in the writing itself, exploring structures of the lyric sentence, prose poems and the haibun, allowing repetition and rhythm and the effects of sound to showcase her enviable ability to strike and parry, twist and sing at even the highest volume. She writes: “Is this the end of irony? / The moment that I have been waiting for?” See my full review here.
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