Once more, I offer my annual list of the seemingly-arbitrary “worth repeating” (given ‘best’ is such an inconclusive, imprecise designation), constructed from the list of Canadian poetry titles I’ve managed to review throughout the past year. This is my tenth annual list [see also: 2019, 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 prompt that started me off in the first place.
Obviously, this has been a year of upsets, chaos and uncertainty (see also: my pandemic-specific essay-suite, essays in the face of uncertainties), especially given we’ve been on lock-down over here since March 13, and two young ladies learning remotely, with Aoife (currently closing in on five) in junior kindergarden and Rose (who turned seven a few weeks back) in grade two [see my post on such here], which is actually going better than one might have thought. Still, it wears. And after fifteen months of ALS, my widower father simply didn’t wake up on May 1st [see my obituary for him here]. It is hard, a first Christmas post-parent, being away from sister and her family, and being unable to see eldest daughter as well, but we will more than make up for it once everything opens again. I am hoping for summer. As Doctor Who said in 2010: We are half-way out of the dark.
We lost more than a few this year, including Joe Blades [see my obit here] and RM Vaughan [see my obit here]. Those were tough. Other writers this year as well, including Lawrence Upton, Ken Belford [see my obit here], Michael McClure, Barbara Myers, David Donnell [see my obit here], Claude Beausoleil, ruth weiss, Daniel David Moses, Don Domanski, Diane Di Prima, Joanna M. Weston, Lewis Warsh, Joel Yanofsky and Jean Valentine. And my father’s cousin, Florence Eileen McLennan Holloway. And then there was bookseller and artist Otto Graser, who produced a broadside and chapbook of mine back in the 1990s, or artist Chris Wells, known around these parts as the artist for all of those books over the years by William Hawkins. And Marvin Sackner! David Robinson, founder of Talonbooks. And Inanna publisher Luciana Ricciutelli. Honestly, the year has been upturned enough that I started keeping a list: Carl Reiner, Denny O'Neil, Rep. John Lewis, Regis Filbin, Olivia de Havilland, Wilford Brimley, Justin Townes Earle, Chadwick Boseman, Diana Rigg, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, John Turner, Helen Reddy, Sean Connery, Alex Trebek, Chuck Yeager, Marvin Bell, John le Carré. I know, right? “They were this year too?” Exhausting, the whole lot of it.
I’ve reviewed and posted more than one hundred and twenty poetry titles on the blog over the past calendar year (not including chapbooks, non-fiction and fiction titles, literary journals, etcetera) and am well over twelve hundred interviews into the “12 or 20 questions” interviews over the past thirteen years (which is ridiculous, honestly). Naturally, I’m frustrated about all the books I haven’t quite got to yet, including three (yes, three) new poetry titles this season by Dennis Cooley (I’m hoping to get a review figured out soon for periodicities), and other titles by Paul Zits, Noor Naga, Christopher Patton, Kama La Mackerel and most likely a dozen or two others that I would have liked to have managed to get reviewed this past year (some of which I’m still hoping to get to), but there’s only so much a boy can do, especially given all of this work is unpaid (naturally), I actually do my own writing also, and have two small humans underfoot (especially now).
I couldn’t get to everything, but I should also mention some stunning prose from the past year or so, including Driftpile Cree Nation writer Billy-Ray Belcourt’s non-fiction debut, A History of My Brief Body (Columbus OH: Two Dollar Radio, 2020) [see my review of such here], Kingston poet Sadiqa de Meijer’s alfabet/ alphabet: a memoir of a first language (Windsor ON: Palimpsest Press, 2020) [see my review of such here] and British Columbia writer Matt Rader’s Visual Inspection (Nightwood Editions, 2019) [see my review of such here]. And then there was WANTING EVERYTHING: The Collected Works of Gladys Hindmarch, edited by Deanna Fong and Karis Shearer (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2020) [see my review of such here] and Avant Desire: A Nicole Brossard Reader, eds. Sina Queyras, Geneviève Robichaud and Erin Wunker (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2020) [see my review of such here]. I mean, like, wow, right? So many things!
But here it is, my list of “worth repeating”:
1. Teva Harrison, Not One of These Poems Is About You. As Toronto writer and visual artist Teva Harrison (1976-2019) was dealing with metastatic breast cancer, she was composing the poems that would become her posthumous Not One of These Poems Is About You (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 2020), a heart-wrenching collection of straightforward lyric narratives around living, dying, and loving. There really is a radiance and a warmth that exude from these deeply intimate poems, and with an underpinning of optimism, even as she describes exhaustion, grief, and the preparations for when her long-time partner will be without her. Her poems, alongside accompanying small sketches, seem composed as short sketches combined with journal entries, seeking their way to articulate and comprehend her thoughts and feelings around terminal illness, and the beauty she has experienced, and that she would leave behind. This is a collection that works to remember moments, and indeed, a book entirely comprised of moments, and the importance of holding on to as many as one can for as long as might be possible. See my full review here.
2. Moez Surani, Are the Rivers in Your Poems Real. Moez Surani’s fourth full-length poetry title is Are the Rivers in Your Poems Real (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2019), a poetry collection constructed as a suite of lyric meditations and criticisms on a wide range of political, social and cultural moments, movements and collisions. Surani speaks of globalism and its effects, and who we might, and even have, become. Through thirty extended poems that play with a variety of structures and styles, Surani writes on, around and through fading empires, rivers, western art, days he was in love, John and Yoko, multiple geographies, ballads, discoveries, visions, museums and cigarettes, and even a sequence titled “POEMS TO BE PERFORMED BY KEVIN / MCPHERSON ECKHOFF, WITH OR WITHOUT / A GREEN ELFIN MASK.” I like the expansiveness of these poems, each composed, in their individual ways, as poetic lectures, and his poems make me curious to see what Surani might be capable of through pieces that lean even further into lyric prose essays or lectures, as he writes, as part of the opening, title poem: “Then I am the river, and the stones and twists / are those I have loved, decisions I have made. // These categorical things are useless. Nothing is.” Are the Rivers in Your Poems Real is a book of thoughtful, serious play, one that carries a meditative weight but isn’t overwhelmed by it. See my full review here.
3. Sadiqa de Meijer, The Outer Wards. I was pleased to see a second poetry collection by Kingston poet Sadiqa de Meijer, her new The Outer Wards (Montreal QC: Signal Editions/Vehicule Press, 2020), a follow-up to her debut, Leaving Howe Island (Fernie BC: Oolichan Books, 2013). There is a tension in these poems between the sprawling and the precise that I quite like, from shorter poems such as the opening piece, “On Origins,” to larger, more expansive poems, such as “It’s the Inner Harbour neighbourhood / but everyone calls it Skeleton Park,” with the surrounding pieces existing somewhere between, amid and through those stretches of incredibly precise and broadly expansive. Some of those tensions emerge from her movement from Dutch to English, from a first language and culture into a second, allowing the movements between one to the other and back again to be more open, and openly taut. What I find fascinating is in her attention to small detail, writing poems from a foundation of being home with children, allowing her the ability to make words and ideas more “real to herself,” understanding difference and boundaries, and how she is occasionally misunderstood, and how she, too, has misunderstood, articulated into and through the poems. See my full review here.
4. Paul Legault, The Tower. With the publication of Ottawa-born American poet Paul Legault’s latest, The Tower (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2020), I’m realizing how behind I am on his work. On the back cover of The Tower, it references this book as “A queering of Yeats’s classic poetry book,” with Wayne Koestenbaum writing that “The Tower continues his [Legault’s] project of rubbing the old songs to produce blissful new serums.” On his author website, Legault offers his take on reworking other texts: “Paul is interested in translation as a generative practice for creating original works of writing and art.”
Legault’s The Tower plays with the poems and structures of Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ The Tower (1928), “his first major collection as Nobel Laureate after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1923” (Wikipedia), the title poem of which begins: “What shall I do with this absurdity— / O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature, / Decrepit age that has been tied to me / As to a dog’s tail?” There is a sharpness to Legault’s work, one that is subtle and incredibly precise, composing exploratory poems that reach out in multiple directions, simultaneously with caution and abandon. “I went to school so many times / I can’t count,” he writes, to open “Among School Children,” “though I learned how to / while I was there. There, I said it: / I’m tired of learning in the old ways again.” See my full review here.
5. Laiwan, Tender. I’m fascinated by this new book by Vancouver “visual artist, writer, activist, thinker, speaker, and educator” Laiwan, her Tender: Selected Poems (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2020), especially given that this is the first I’ve been aware of her name. The book is structured in dated poem-sections, providing some interesting context for the length and the breadth of her ongoing work: “on heroics” (1997), “notes towards a body I (mozambique)” (1998), “a mythology from the earth” (1986), “untitled I” (2000), “LUNG: towards embodying” (2008), “ode to a ferocious thistle” (2009), “untitled II” (2002), “notes towards a body II” (1999), “to gut and a rise” (2002), “what is a park” (1996), “whale (contrary to shaping a permanence)” (2002), “untitled III (poem for the week after the summer solstice)” (2009), “thieves 1, 2, 3, 4, and tender 5” (2019) and “she who had scanned the flower of the world” (1987). Her poems exist both as short bursts and as small studies, poems and poem-sections that move back and forth through a period of some thirty-plus years of thinking and composition. See my full review here.
6. Jami Macarty, The Minuses. The debut full-length poetry title by poet and editor Jami Macarty, who “lives between Tuscon, Arizona and Vancouver, British Columbia,” is The Minuses (Louisville CO: The Center for Literary Publishing, 2020). The poems in The Minuses are composed as accumulations of declarations and description, that concurrently linearly build, and collage as lyric patchworks. Mccarty writes on violence both domestic and ecological; writing the moments between the language and the lines, and out the other end of comprehension. Through The Minuses, she writes out a great deal of violence from a variety of perspectives, from the direct to the slant, even as she writes, to close the poem “Without Is Guide”: “I am repeating how I feel // My skin outward like intercepting leaves // In the throttle climate // The knife and fist climate // After lovemaking everyone is sad [.]” This is, as the back cover attests, a book of distress, of trauma, of witness: of, as she writes to open “Resuscitation,” “Howe we behave in drought and anticipation.” See my full review here.
7. Mercedes Eng, my yt mama. Vancouver poet Mercedes Eng’s third full-length poetry title is my yt mama (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2020), a continuation of “her poetic investigation of racism and colonialism in Canada.” my yt mama exists as a direct continuation of the work of her prior collection, Prison Industrial Complex Explodes (Talonbooks, 2017), a book that explored the Canadian prison system and systematic racism through archival material and her own biography. While that work focused on her father, absent throughout her life due to his incarceration, (thus prompting her book-length exploration of, among other related threads, the Canadian prison system), this collection, in turn, focuses on her mother, writing “when I try to talk to my mom about what it was like / to grow up surrounded by yt people in the prairies / in the 80s though it seemed like the 50s / she tells me in a so-there tone / that Mariah is a mixee and that people love her” (“Mariah according to my yt mama”).
Eng’s exploration of race, colonialism and identity is deeply intimate and deeply personal, as she writes out a layering of trauma for both her and her mother, writing out the disconnect between her and her mother on racial issues, and how trauma is passed and parsed along succeeding generations. Eng’s my yt mama, in many ways, is comparable to Vancouver writer and editor Chelene Knight’s Dear Current Occupant: A Memoir (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2018) for their shared use of poetic memoir to articulate and unpack trauma, including explorations of race and poverty. Through my yt mama, it is as though Eng is attempting to reconcile what it is she inherited so that she might be able to better navigate her own history and trauma, choose what she is able of what she might retain, and reconcile what she has no control over. Eng writes a lyric suite of what become self-protections upon a body and a self that initially had very little control, writing out how such control could slowly be taken, developed and finally, possibly, achieved. As she writes as part of the extended poem “this body,” towards the end of the collection: “this body is taking space / this body is itinerant / could this body be medicine? / this boxy is indexical / this body is ephemeral / this body is star-seeded / this body is transgressive [.]” This is a dark collection, but one that doesn’t shy away from some extremely difficult material. See my full review here.
8. Simina Banu, POP. With two chapbooks under her belt (including one by above/ground press), Montreal Simina Banu’s full-length debut is the poetry title POP (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2020), a collection of first-person lyrics and visual structures that allows for the pallor of sketchbook or work-book. Moving through a variety of poem-structures, including more traditional lyric structures, prose poems, drawings and visual poems, Banu becomes the explorer, fearlessly pushing out into the unknown. As she writes in “SHARKEY’S DAY,” “I turn around, it’s fear! / I turn around again, and it’s love!” She isn’t afraid of exposition or exclamation, and there is the energy throughout as though Banu is feeling out where her poems might be going, and with something very much at risk through the process. She writes on earworms, Ariana Grande, cloudbursts, epics and Pringles, writing on love and food, and the intricacies and interrelations between, offering both popular culture and electrical pulses in poetic form as the two sides of her “pop.” “your standup / knocks me / out doors / windows / of course / there is no real harm / your stand / up knocks me / down uproariously” she writes, in the poem “Special.” There are moments I would have liked Banu to go further in certain of the directions she’s started to move in, but this is but opening salvo; I want to see where else her poems might move. I like where she’s headed. See my full review here.
9. Kyla Jamieson, Body Count. I was eager to see Vancouver poet Kyla Jamieson’s full-length debut, Body Count (Gibson’s Landing BC: Nightwood Editions, 2020), building upon the poems Kind of Animal (Vancouver BC: Rahlia’s Ghost Press, 2019). Jamieson’s poems are constructed upon a powerful first-person narrative of insistence, resistance and discourse, including critiques of literary and other cultural spaces for their treatment of women. “I’m grading papers & trying not to be biased / against students who objectify women.” she writes, in the second half of the short lyric “CANADIAN WOMEN IN LITERATURE,” “Later, I will realize I’ve inflated their grades.” As Rob Taylor notes in his recent interview with Jamieson at Read Local BC, she and Kayla Czaga each include poems to the other in their new collections, providing a curious kind of mirror-effect in the call-and-response between two peers, between two friends. As Jamieson’s poem responds, “Your Dear Kyla poems / make me feel better / about my name, though it / means lovely & I can’t / relate to femininity. Kayla, / I’m at the bus depot / & I’m so cold.” I am quite fond of the rhythms of these poems, from the prose poem to the accumulated and more traditional short lyric burst. There is also something quite compelling in the way she utilizes accumulation, short lines and even exhaustion in certain of her longer poems.
Her short lines and line-breaks seem to propel the poem forward, pushing and collapsing against the slowness of her lyric, and the deliberateness of her language. The second half of the collection centres around her experience recovering from a concussion, sketching shorter lyrics through a fog of exile, even from her own thinking. “Last month I counted / the five hundred extra / hours I’ve spent sleeping / in this new state / where sunlight augurs / pain.” she writes, as part of the poem “IN EXILE I DRAW THE TOWER CARD.” I am enjoying the explorations here, the movements through thinking and frustration, and even the ways in which, via her concussion, she attempts to write and claw her way back into being. “Kayla,” she writes, to open the poem “SIZE MATTERS,” “I’ve decided / I don’t want to be small // anymore, but it’s a habit.” One hopes it is a habit that, through the process of writing, she is continuing to break free of. See my full review here.
10. Meredith Quartermain, Lullabies in the Real World. Vancouver poet, editor and publisher Meredith Quartermain’s latest is the poetry title Lullabies in the Real World (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2020), a collection that “reflects and refracts Canada from diverse angles, and challenges colonizing literatures such as the Odyssey and various canonical British and US voices. As it moves from west to east, the book journeys back in time to interrogate historical events such as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the exclusion of the Acadians. It ends by imagining a time before or outside colonization.” On the surface, that description reads as highly ambitious, working to articulate and interrogate a variety of historical social and political upheavals and connecting those upheavals to the shape of the contemporary landscape. Quartermain is the author of numerous poetry books and chapbooks over the past twenty years, including Spatial Relations (Diaeresis, 2001), A Thousand Mornings (Nomados, 2002), The Eye-Shift of Surface (Greenboathouse Books, 2003), Vancouver Walking (NeWest Press, 2005), Matter (BookThug, 2008), Nightmarker (NeWest Press, 2008) and Recipes from the Red Planet (BookThug, 2010), and a number of threads have emerged from her work, including an engagement with the prose line, a lyric of strolling and observing (akin to Beaudelaire’s flâneur), and an engagement with a broad range of considerations around her “local.” For her Lullabies in the Real World, Quartermain broadens her scope across a great physical and historical distance, writing across the length of west to east—the Siege of Quebec and the Plains of Abraham, Louis Riel, Cabot’s Trail, crossing the Rocky Mountains, the Red River Rebellion, the Group of Seven and multiple other points, references, individuals and moments—as a sequence of jumping off points, writing slant on state violence and racist policies and actions, asking how one could ever expect calm to emerge from such fury, and peace to emerge from punching down. “the weather hazy,” she writes, to end the poem “Captain Montrésor with General Wolfe on the River,” “wind fresh / the weather clear, wind foul, tide-flood making / the weather foggy / the weather clear [.]”
There’s an enormous amount of play in her language, reveling in a collage of sound, meaning and reference, such as the opening poem, “Unreal to real,” that writes: “Buy low. Sky blue. Who’s it? Not you, / lift the latch crosspatch / of Prufrock’s Xanadu / Xanada Canadu. / Wheel your red barrow / in Blake’s cathedral / bpNichol St Rains St Ruggles.” Through poems set in six sections, Quartermain writes to bpNichol, imagines marching up the Saint John River, and writes of Saskatchewan grain elevators. Quartermain writes of an array of diverse voices, activities and actions set aside by the thin lines of acknowledged history that her poems work to claim, re-claim and set back into conversation, collecting them together into a book-length collaged portrait of a landscape both real and imagined, official and unacknowledged. See my full review here.
11. Roger Farr, I Am a City Still But Soon I Shan’t Be. I don’t really understand why there isn’t more fanfare around a new book by Vancouver poet Roger Farr. His latest collection is I Am a City Still But Soon I Shan’t Be (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2019), is his fourth full-length title, a collection self-described as a work “in nine Cantos—spheres of hell” that “metabolizes the modernist long poem to provide a new, psychogeographical I-witness account of the post-Real city.”
Farr is the author of three previous full-length poetry titles—Surplus (Vancouver BC: Line Books, 2006), Means (Line Books, 2012) and IKMQ (New Star Books, 2012)—as well as the editor of a trilogy of texts of contemporary avant-garde poetry: Open Text: Canadian Poetry and Poetics in the 21st Century (Vancouver BC: CUE Books: 2008, 2009 and 2013). Farr’s new book-length epic strolls and rolls across both the real and imagined city, writing out of an engagement with language and social politics central to many poets in and around Vancouver and The Kootenay School of Writing. Through nine sections and nearly one hundred stanzas, Farr writes on and around the immediate of his Vancouver, and how his city connects to multiple other cities. He might avoid some of those “worn paths” the back cover refers to, but his epic still acknowledges those paths as part of their essential structure, working a language epic articulating object and idea, social justice and social action, reference points and the debris of democracy, somewhere between a deliberate dismantling, an ongoing erosion and a willingness to rebuild in an entirely new form. See my full review here.
12. Dani Spinosa, OO: Typewriter Poems. I was very pleased to get my hands Toronto poet, editor, critic and publisher Dani Spinosa’s full-length visual poetry debut, OO: Typewriter Poems (Picton ON: Invisible Publishing, 2020). As she suggests in her introduction, concrete and visual poetries have long been male-dominated, and the female practitioners over the past few decades, in Canada, at least, have been far less acknowledged. jwcurry has repeatedly referred to Judith Copithorne, for example, a Vancouver poet who has been producing and publishing visual and concrete works since the late 1950s, as “our first lady of concrete,” but her work is often overlooked (for a variety of reasons, one might argue) for the sake of others of her generation who were more ambitious, prolific and male. This kind of reclamation work is reminiscent of Dean Irvine’s work on the late Canadian poets Dorothy Livesay and Anne Wilkinson through Archive for Our Times: Previously Uncollected and Unpublished Poems of Dorothy Livesay (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1998) and Heresies: The Complete Poems of Anne Wilkinson, 1924–61 (Véhicule Press, 2003), or the more recent volume WANTING EVERYTHING: The Collected Works of Gladys Hindmarch, edited by Deanna Fong and Karis Shearer (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2020). There is so much work that gets overlooked for arbitrary reasons, including gender, and these reclamations become an essential literary service.
As Spinosa writes in her introduction, the visual pieces in this collection are built as part of a conversation with those who have engaged with the form, composing her own visual pieces with titles after other practitioners of the art—Judith Copithorne, Steve McCaffery, Shant Basmajian, Johanna Drucker, John Riddell, derek beaulieu, Bob Cobbing, et al—and utilizing those pieces as small studies around each individual’s work and practices. One could say that this collection is both Spinosa’s personal study in the history of visual and concrete poetry as well as a collection of original works. As she suggests, she brings herself into the conversation. The collection offers fifty named poems set in five sections, with a final section of ten further poems, structuring her sections in thematic gatherings, the titles of which play off bpNichol’s infamous poem carved into the pavement along bpNichol Lane: “A LOOK,” “A LACK,” “A LIGN,” “A LOBE” and “A LONE.” The ten-poem section “A LACK,” for example, focuses on women visual poets, as “A LIGN” collects a series of poems named for poets such as bill bissett, bpNichol, Jiri Maloch, Pierre Garnier and David Aylward, who, incidentally, was the author of the first book produced by Coach House Press back in the early 1960s. There is something quite delightful in seeing Aylward’s name here, and numerous other names that haven’t been on the radar of Canadian writing and publishing for some time. She’s clearly done her research, and if one were even to put together an anthology of or essay on the history of concrete and visual poetries, this would be the list of names included. Or, given Spinosa’s deliberate inclusion of these multiple women practitioners, this is the list of names that should be included; and hopefully, in part through Spinosa’s work, a list of names that will no longe be overlooked.
The shift in visual and concrete poetries in Canada over the past few years has been interesting to see, as Spinosa and Siklosi, both, seemed to emerge simultaneously alongside other poets working to re-shape the art, from Eric Schmaltz in Toronto, Sacha Archer in nearby Burlington, Michael e. Casteels in Kingston and Kyle Flemmer in Calgary, among others. Each of these poets are exploring fascinating directions, opening up the boundaries of visual and concrete works, and Spinosa is now the third poet in this list to achieve a full-length published debut, after Michael e. Casteels’ The Last White House at the End of the Row of White Houses appeared in 2016, and Schmaltz’ SURFACES appeared in 2018, both of which also appeared through Invisible Publishing. As well, there is an enormous amount of play evidenced through Spinosa’s visuals, something that certain strains of visual poetries have managed to forget over the years; the play of the late Toronto poet bpNichol was such an essential part of his work and his life that the lack of it in subsequent works is noticeable. With all of the serious intent and study, where is the play? Dani Spinosa is clearly having a glorious time, and it shows. See my full review here.
13. Canisia Lubrin, The Dyzgraphxst. Toronto poet and editor Canisia Lubrin’s second full-length collection, after Voodoo Hypothesis (2017), is the seven-part epic, The Dyzgraphxst (Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 2020). In a recent CBC article on Lubrin’s new book, it offers: “Pronounced ‘Diss-GRAFF-ist,’ the book is set against the backdrop of contemporary capitalist fascism, nationalism and the climate disaster, where Jejune, the central figure, grapples with understanding their existence and identity.” Structured in seven acts, with prologue and epilogue, The Dyzgraphxst is lyrically dense, ambitious and grand in scale, examining and vocalizing the polyvocal spirit of the diaspora through her narrator, Jejune.
There is such an evocative and insistent music throughout Lubrin’s lyric, one that sparks and swirls and pounces and jangles. Lubrin writes of hope, solidary and erasure in a wildly-expansive, playful and at times joyful evocation against silence, speaking loud and out into an epic on family, community, loss and tragedy. “it is difficult to live in the dark,” she writes, referencing racism and the ugly ends of nationalism, of ongoing wars and atrocities. Further on, her lyric offers: “the word was a moonlit knife // with those arrivants / lifting their hems to dance, toeless / with the footless child they invent [.]” The Dyzgraphxst weaves through disarray, distraction and generations of oppression in an attempt to weave together multiple voices through and against the ongoing storm, continuing to seek out the other side. “What am I to make,” she writes, to open “RETURN #2,” “Of two or three small sons // Of anger with its talent for mixtures [.]” The poems here collect and corral a sequence of acts of defiance, acts of reclamation and response and exhuberant exclamation. Including all of language and history through her diaspora, The Dyzgraphxst is both celebration and dirge, joyful noise and declaration of intent, both dream and return. “so when you call me Jejune,” she offers, “when you call me I / i’ll say Aye! I will answer because to know we are / one in the same, to know this, this much // enough for the nights / in which to sleep well / this year, the next [.]” See my full review here.
14. Michael Dennis, Low Centre of Gravity. Ottawa poet Michael Dennis’ latest is the poetry title Low Centre of Gravity (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2020), a collection of first person lyric narratives following on the heels of his Bad Engine: New & Selected Poems (Anvil Press, 2017), both of which were edited by writer and editor Stuart Ross. There’s something about the way Dennis stretches out the moment in the opening poem, “WINTER STORM,” that is quite intriguing. This is a poem reminiscent of British Columbia poet Susan Musgrave’s “VERN AND JOANNE: DEAD” (a poem that might be my favourite by her), from her tenth poetry collection Cocktails at the Masuoleum (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1985). In these poems, both poets hold to that single experience of the human tragedy of such an accident; both poets work the narrative elegy, presumably writing out the news as they heard it of an accident that killed friends, although one can’t know for certain if either story actually occurred, or fall instead into fiction. Given the interests of both Dennis and Musgrave, one might suspect these poems are reportages of real events and real people, but one should never presume with certainty.
“I only ever climbed one mountain in my life,” he writes, to open the poem “THE BLUE BLUE SKY,” “and I never wanted to do anything like it again [.]” There has always been a journal entry element to Dennis’ poems, whether sketching out poems of his reading, his day, or his marriage, but always seeking out the small moments, whether of wisdom, clarification, beauty or simple surprise, that emerge from his unique combination of experience and attention. And yet, his poems don’t aim for that “aha” moment at the end, but attempt to close in a way that addresses the importance of arriving at the ending; allowing the journey to be more important than any destination. See my full review here.
15. Margaret Christakos, charger. “passing on information // something has to happen // for something to occur in memory // for something to touch my insides,” Toronto poet Margaret Christakos writes to open her self-described “poem cycle” or poem suite, charger (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2020). charger is set in a dozen short sections—“passing on information,” “what you are is fully charged,” “go to binary categories,” “what we had to cover,” “can i cease and desist,” “woke up thinking about laudanum,” “among poplars i am looking,” “if you are about to die,” “beyond the windowed rectangles,” “if it takes alive sperm,” “the thing that slides over” and “it’s like a solar-powered lawnmower”—with a coda, “the blue day is violent.” The lyric cycle charger is built as a cascade, even a pulse, of fragments that ebb and flow across the page to write on connection and disconnect examining virtual means verses prior means of human connection and conversation, privacies during a world lived predominantly through often multiple levels of social media, and personhood via reproductive rights. “you are is fully charged,” she writes, in the second of the book’s cycles.
Throughout charger, hers is a through-line both sustained and constantly interrupted, a staccato of reaching and reaching out, disconnecting even as she attempts to connect. And yet, she makes connections—multiple connections—between herself and the world. “unsplicing the act and // about // as if /// always refilling // bulbous glass aglow // milk or // or // blood [.]” (“if it takes alive sperm”). What has been interesting about the shifts in her lyric, and her narratives, over the past few collections has been the stretching out of her focus, from earlier collections that wrote on the intimacy of mothering and children and the immediacies of those concerns to a wider scope of reaching out, articulating the ways in which we connect or attempt to. The intimacies of her approach continue, but across the spectrum of social media and how that alters the ways in which connections are made, seeking out the point where human considerations might concurrently scatter, fractal and meet. See my full review here.
16. Lauren Turner, The Only Card in a Deck of Knives. Montreal poet (originally from Ottawa) Lauren Turner’s full-length poetry debut, after the publication of her chapbook We’re Not Going To Do Better Next Time (knife|fork|book, 2018), is The Only Card in a Deck of Knives (Hamilton ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 2020). Turner deliberately offers this observation at the onset of her notes at the end of the collection: “A book of poetry isn’t a memoir. This collection is an imperfect gathering of personal thoughts. As Bjōrk said, You shouldn’t let poets lie to you.” The benefit of such a distinction is, in part, suggesting hers is a structure of narrative lyrics in assemblage or collage, as opposed to the usually-more stringent overarching narrative requirements of prose memoir. Reminding her reader frees her from certain biographical considerations, as well as allowing her more freedom of movement through and around the subject matter of illness without having to attempt any overt resolution (it makes me wonder if she’s read American writer Sarah Manguso’s incredible memoir on the subject of living with extended illness). Basically: she is writing poems, and doesn’t have to answer your questions. “My disease is female-gendered. The afflicted cohort calls themselves Lammies,” she writes, as part of the prose sequence/section “A Masculine Division”: “sports pink feather pins and bemoans the babies deflating their lungs. I commit / none of these acts, presuming myself above it all being medically barred / from reproduction. I refuse to join the league of dying women who believe grief / is impolite, somehow unfeminine and should be hidden.”
In finely-carved lyrics, Turner writes of illness, love, literary life and the movement of time, from poem titles such as “Copywriting for Pornstars” and “She Found Me Taking Photos of the Snails / and Wondered Why I Was So Into Being Down” to “Quit Dying to Die” and “I Want to Get Married Before I Start Losing Organs.” There is an urgency to her poems that emerge from the awareness of time passing, and time potentially ending sooner than it should; an urgency that often emerges through as an urgency of the immediate present. She writes of her ongoing illness and her lack of patience with nonsense with an incredible, almost wistful, clarity, as well as an ongoing, layered exhaustion, such as the ending of “Cancer Season (reprise),” that reads: “I’m so violently tired. // Anemic with want, siphoned out, / I wade fading into the indigo // tide of this July. You pass me / a cigarette to satiate a compulsion // I don’t even need filled. Listen to that. / I didn’t need. For once, écoute.” She writes of an exhaustion, and a notion of time that is constant: not enough time, wasting time, bereft of time, I don’t have the time, or simply out of time altogether. This is a solid debut; The Only Card in a Deck of Knives writes with a confidence that refuses to be showy, but finely honed, subtle and fully considered. See my full review here.
17. Ken Hunt, The Manhattan Project. Dedicated “to the victims of nuclear weapons, accidents, and mishaps” is Ken Hunt’s latest poetry title, The Manhattan Project (Calgary AB: University of Calgary Press, 2020), following his previous collections Space Administration (2014), The Lost Cosmonauts (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2018) and The Odyssey (Book*hug, 2019). As with his previous works, this new collection continues his thread of poetry titles constructed as explorations and engagements with archival materials around scientific achievement, and advancements large enough that they became cultural touchstones throughout the second half of the twentieth century: the moon landing, the ‘space race,’ and the development of the nuclear bomb that punctuated the end of the Second World War. The collection is named, in case you weren’t aware, after “The Manhattan Project,” the American-led research and development project that developed the first nuclear weapons, culminating in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. Hunt stares straight into a darkness fueled by science, one with the ability to equally create and destroy, but one remembered predominantly, not for its genius, but for the terrible legacies of the atomic bomb: the wholescale murder and destruction of two cities and their populations. “Scribes struggle to recount the advent / of doomsday.” he writes, to open the poem “SALTED BOMBS”: “Scavengers scrape radium / from watch dials, extract cesium / from stolen lab samples, raid // factories that manufacture smoke detectors / from their americium, and dismantle / glowing rifle sights for thorium.”
Hunt’s The Manhattan Project employs visual poems, the lyric and more conceptual frameworks to explore the development of nuclear weapons, working from origins through to the other end of dire consequences. There is something incredibly bold about looking such darkness straight in the eye, even with the distance of decades, and a darkness that isn’t as far removed from the present as one might imagine. Hall writes of “a new species of light” (“TRINITY”) and “An oxidized kris / fused to its sheath.” (“DULL SWORDS”) in a book-length suite that seeks out the light in the blue sky, understanding how deep the darkness, trauma and devastation within actually goes. For example, the three-page poem “TESTIMONY” begins: “There was a flash, a thermal lance of / magnesium. White clouds spread out from / the glare, a morning glory booming / in the sky. There was a blast // of steam. I felt weightless, as if I were an / astronaut.” See my full review here.
18. Rasiqra Revulva, Cephalopography 2.0. From “queer femme writer, multimedia artist, editor, musician, performer and SciComm advocate: Rasiqra Revulva comes the full-length debut Cephalopography 2.0 (Hamilton ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 2020), an explosive follow-up to her two chapbooks of “glitch-illustrated poetry” Cephalopography (Toronto ON: words(on)pages press, 2016) and If You Forget the Whipped Cream, You’re No Good As A Woman (Toronto ON: Gap Riot Press, 2018). Rife with drawings, computer-generated illustrations and texts, puzzles, prayer, visual poems and a variety of writing forms, the work in Cephalopography 2.0 is energetic and wonderfully playful, vibrant and performative. Revulva is, as the back cover attests, “as much a passionate celebration of cephalopods in all their plurality and finery as it is a collection of poems exploring human identity and experience through the lens of these marine animals. These experiments with traditional poetic forms such as ghazals, tankas and cinquains, as well as more contemporary forms, make poems that are uniquely and beautifully composed.” And a cephalopod, by the way: think of such as a squid, octopus, cuttlefish, or nautilus. As her poem “CEPHALOPOGRAPHY” offers: “A body that aches (of water). A body that moults (of salt). A body that mistakes / (of flesh). A body that revolts (without). A body that splits (of water). A body that / swarms (gestalt). A body that exits (the water). A body that transforms (at fault).” Hers is a joyous performance, a book-length suite of revelations on conditions of living, one clearly shared by humans and cephalopods alike. See my full review here.
19. Louis Cabri, Hungry Sling Shots. Poet and critic Louis Cabri’s latest poetry title is Hungry Sling Shots (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2020). The author of The Mood Embosser (Coach House Books, 2001), Posh Lust (New Star Books, 2014) and Poetryworld (CUE, 2011), Cabri’s poetry has long been propelled by sound and theory, making him one of the few language poets so deeply engaged with how a poem sits and sounds on the page. One might mention other contemporary Canadian poets that work so heavily with texts engaged with and influenced by sound such as bill bissett—who engages with sound, image and chanting, but not necessarily theory—and Adeena Karasick—who does engage with theory, but leaning slightly, in comparison to Cabri, on the side of theory over sound. Consider Hungry Sling Shots’ opening poem, “Video Goes Whip Tom Kelly,” a piece that includes elements comparable to birdsong; the poem opens: “one; two; three; four; six / hip; hip; hip hurrah boys; spring is here / chortle-deeeeee // chew-chew-chew / listen to my evening sing-ing-ing-ing / tic-tic-mcgreer // shook-shook-shook-shook-shook / je-je-je-je-je-je-je / pill-will-willet // ra-vi-o-li / kit / cheer-up; cheer-a-lee; cheer-ee-o // whoo-eek / jeeeeeeee / check [.]” As the press release offers: “For Cabri, more than most poets working today, meaning is all about how it sounds.” The distinction there is interesting, suggesting sound over meaning, where a poet such as Karasick engages with more of a blend, or even with theory over sound (the distinction in her work might easily be negligible; the interplay of back-and-forth might instead be the point). And yet, Cabri appears to utilize sound as a way to approach and engage with theory. The second section, for example, is “The Mommy Collection” (from which the poem, above, emerges), a section with the sub-header “After Roses de Noël (1843-1878) by Théodore de Banville.”
is something of Cabri’s work generally that does tend to get overlooked, in
part, possibly, due to a readership that doesn’t quite know how to approach his
work, and his work offers no clues but for the work itself (which one argues
should always be more than enough): approach on the basis of sound, and see
where that might take you. Given the amount of quality work he’s produced over
the years, he’s certainly due for some deeper attention. See my full review
Dowling’s Entering Sappho fragments into sections and subsections—“Possession Sound” that includes “Clip,” “Entering Sappho” that includes “Oral History” and “Soft Memory,” “Neoclassical Place Names of North America” that includes “This Word: I Want” and “US,” and “Leucadian Leap,” that includes “Ornament,” “These Things Now For My Companion / I Shall Sing Beautifully”—as well as a prose afterward or coda of sorts, “White Columns.” The shapes of Dowling’s lyrics shift and shimmy, denoting a particular precision of the line and line-break, attempting a large canvas in portions, from archival materials, oral histories and blended mythologies. “You may forget that one day with my little red / girl in my pretty red boots when they came // by mail from Tacoma. I had been cruising out / of my claim. I had been promised roses of Lesbos,” she writes, as part of the poem “US,” “I had turned a pallid pink.” Dowling explores our past and potential future relationships to colonialism and local acknowledgment, even as she writes out Sappho, Washington in all its former glory, ghost-town appeal and queer associations. See my full review here.
21. Ken Babstock, Swivelmount. In Swivelmount (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2020), Toronto poet and editor Ken Babstock’s latest, his poems don’t as much describe as disassemble, pull apart piece by piece so as to set aside and open the lengthy process of meditative study. Babstock’s poems are restless, moving through elements of history, biology, geology, sports and art, wandering along the Scarborough Bluffs or Leslie Street Spit, musings on a hockey game, or an unexpected comparison between punk and classical music. In his particular blend of intellectual inquiry and study against hard truths or brutal consequences, Babstock explores the elements upon which we may have, or even decide we have, little or no control. “Buffalo south over the marbling lake seen / pitching an errant new mall.” he writes, to open the poem “Milk and Hair,” “Clear mornings // I’m meant to be comfortable with the American / vernacular, it was meant to happen between channels. // Stop pretending you can just up and start thinking— / it’s mostly snooker, sardines over ham, the sense / of having pointed to Door Number 3 / at the business end of some steamy // ruminations.” Babstock writes on the human capacity for beauty and violence, two sides that don’t reconcile easily. “Consider / the atom;” he writes, to end the poem “Edge,” “if there’s a way / of breaking down / a thing we’ll find / a way to break it.”
His language is incredibly dense, but there’s a curious meander that Babstock has in his diction, that somehow exactly gets to the point, such as in the poem “Dream of the Cerne Abbas Giant,” as the narrator writes on his reluctant son: “He // wanted, he said, to not be the age that he / in fact was, wanted / to no longer be // even the he that he was and couldn’t not be, / inexplicably snagged in the cross- / currents of now and here.” His language is precise, but capable of a lightness, of a dexterity, that refuses to be weighed down. There is a particular kind of precision that Babstock does brilliantly, managing the complexity of straightforward possibilities.
I remember attending a reading Babstock did at Concordia in November 2001, and being quite taken with how quietly and deeply articulate he was, answering questions posed to him by students and faculty alike. Whereas a part of me might wish Babstock wrote critical prose—a sequence of essays, for example, on writing and thinking (comparable, I would suspect, to essays by Don McKay or Robert Bringhurst)—one could argue that everything he might have included in such a volume is already there in his poems. See my full review here.
22. Phil Hall, NIAGARA & GOVERNMENT. The latest from Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall is the volume NIAGARA & GOVERNMENT (St. John’s, Newfoundland: Pedlar Press, 2020), a suite of meditations carved from lyric fragments (alternately: lyric fragments carved from a suite of meditations). Notwithstanding his Governor General’s Award win and Griffin Poetry Prize nomination, I always think there should be larger attentions provided Hall whenever a new volume of his poetry emerges, given how solid his centre remains, how collected his lyric collages, and how pervasive his wisdoms that tun through these myriad threads of reference, articulations, pauses and speculations. Phil Hall weighs, considers and stitches together a myriad of disconnects, excising the white noise from a potential overload of information into something uniquely coherent. The poems concurrently shudder, and remain sleek.
Through more than a dozen trade poetry collections, Hall has mined further and deeper into the complexities of language, his histories of abuse, addiction and recovery, and his attentiveness to mentors, contemporaries, tokens and folk art. As he writes in the sequence “Stan Dragland’s Wall”: “So folk art & fine art are one // folk in its shed materials / fine in its poetics of amodal disrepair // as with the first papier collés by Braque 1912 / we must bring to this wall a multiple perspective [.]” He stitches together a whole cloth out of scraps, and something valuable out of what others might easily discard, or overlook, allowing for a perspective more humble, and more democratic in scope. He writes Roy Kiyooka, Dolly Parton, Stan Dragland, Nudie Cohn, Lorine Niedecker, Emily Dickinson, Robert Duncan and Eugene Mcnamara. He writes of “the legendary Joe Junkin,” “the goalie for the Bobcaygeon Ti-Cats [.]” He writes of rude songs, typos and the bottom of the seemingly bottomless bottom.
Increasingly, Hall writes an unbroken, elegiac line composed of lyric fragments, cadence and the pregnant pause, moving further along a path he constructs as he walks, following bpNichol’s “poem as long as a life.” In NIAGARA & GOVERNMENT, more than he has done with his other recent works—including Conjugation (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2016) and My Banjo & Tiny Drawings (Toronto ON: Flat Singles Press, 2015)—he writes as though his life depends upon it; how recovery is a process not a goal-post. He writes with the perspective that the true way, or at least his way, through and potentially past the far end of trauma is through language: “without a mask I am no past / without a past I am an amalgam devoid of loyalty // except to the presenting moment / its deep accordion sigh // the next word has / my true ancestors within it [.]” (“Bottom”). See my full review here.
23. Taryn Hubbard, Desire Path. Chilliwack, British Columbia poet Taryn Hubbard’s full-length debut is Desire Path (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2020). Desire Path articulates the physical and liminal spaces of Canadian suburbs, writing her specific Vancouver-adjacent designations in both generally familiar and specifically western ways, from their distant, dead-end locales and links to larger, urban centres, to the ways in which the safety of the suburbs holds. “I’m sorry about the mess.” she writes, as part of “V3T,” “Pressure wash / the streets. They come back dirty.” There is a sense of isolation that works its way through these poems, something that does shift, slightly, through the pregnancy sequence “ATTEMPTS.” The isolations linger, even become pervastive throughout the collection, writing short bursts of the narrator both an integral part of and distinctly apart from the experiences described within. She writes as witness, almost as foreigner dropped into a locale for the sake of attempting to understand the nuts and bolts of how such a distinct community, away from the centre, operates. “Action on this TV is big enough to see from the street.” she writes, to open the poem “WATCH,” “My neighbours / watch TV because shows on streaming services are very good right now. Most / people who drive this street can tell this is just a shack with a huge TV / and a naked single-pane window.” Hubbard writes of the moon, liquor stores, unnamed neighbours, condos, strip malls and teenagers, and one can see traces of, say, Sachiko Murakami and Elizabeth Bachinsky here, two poets that have also written of Vancouveresque urban and suburban sprawls. Hubbard’s poems are sharp, and combine description, commentary and imagistic bursts, combining the notion of home with return, arrival and the possible need for eventual escape. See my full review here.
24. Sachiko Murakami, Render. Poet and editor Sachiko Murakami’s fourth full-length poetry collection is Render (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020), a lyric of nerve and raw emotion, writing out “a searing exploration of addiction, recovery, and trauma.” Her title suggests the paired ideas of depicting and tearing apart, which this book very much is, a depiction of something immediately after being torn to shreds, and the slow process of picking up and thoughts of reassembly. The rawness here propels much of the collection, one that jokes and shrugs and rails while radiating trauma and anxiety. “Death can’t find her in the back of the closet.” she writes, as part of the sequence, “THANATOPHOBIA 1,” a title that translates to a “fear of death.” “Just kidding! Death can find her / anywhere.” This book flails and disseminates, moving through an articulation of rawness through lyric as a way to, perhaps, slog and slough through to the other side of recovery. “I loved him more than I loved poetry.” she writes, to open “TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE.” “I loved cocaine more than I loved poetry. / When I told him I loved him, I meant I love you more than cocaine.” Through Murakami, the question is posed: by depicting and articulating trauma, can this exist as worthwhile art? Can this exist as a way through which to process trauma into recovery and whatever lies beyond?
It is curious that one could say that much of Murakami’s work could be considered in the realm of “response,” something, arguably, all writing is, I suppose. Her debut collection, The Invisibility Exhibit (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2008), explored Vancouver’s murdered and missing women, issues of gendered and racial violence and cultural indifference; Rebuild (Talonbooks, 2011), explored the “Vancouver Special” and issues of housing, poverty, sameness and erasure; Get Me Out Of Here (Talonbooks, 2015) worked through the idea of arrival and departure, and whether the between-state is even anything at all. As she described Get Me Out Of Here as part of a 2015 interview I did with her for Jacket2: “It’s a book about wanting to leave, really: the self, the present, the here-and-now. How does that manifest? Through self-harm, through disassociation, through love, through poetry. Airports provide a useful setting for thinking through this.” Murakami does pull apart the elements of her life and experience associated with trauma, with loss; from her addiction to familial loss, composing poems as a series of individual studies, attempting, perhaps, to put them on paper so as to better comprehend, and thus, reduce their destructive power.
In the end, Murakami writes of a spirit and a temperament that, despite whatever she may have endured and how close she has come, refuses to give up, or give in. She moves forward, almost despite herself, into that fearful future, one that still holds a trauma that has yet to relinquish its grip. The fifth and final section, “STILL HERE,” includes the sequence “STILL, HERE,” a poem that writes of pregnancy, and new directions. “Just when you think / the days are the days / and you are fully in them // this / thick film of then // settles now / as it always did [.]” Perhaps trauma never entirely leaves, but needs to be simultaneously processed and endured; perhaps the full journey has yet to be travelled, but here her narrator is, writing it out, inch by lyric inch. The poem ends: “breathe through it // just like you did before [.]” See my full review here.
25. Ian Williams, Word Problems. In Vancouver poet and fiction writer (and multiple award-winner) Ian Williams’ fifth trade book and third poetry title—after You Know Who You Are (Hamilton ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 2010) and Personals (Calgary AB: Freehand Books, 2012)—is Word Problems (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2020), he manages to explore a series of impossible and ineffable questions through the context of the grade school “word problem” with incredible tension, compassion and intelligence. There’s an enormous amount of play going on in these poems, the kind of “serious play” that the late Toronto poet bpNichol also strived for, allowing language and word-play combined with potentially weighty subject matter. Williams’ play includes swirling visuals and a twist on the classic grade-school “word problems,” including a back-cover “Answer Key,” that begins: “Capitalize Black. Please correct your pronunciation. / Don’t nobody love you, playa. / The world is not a schoolbook math problem. Solve for y. / Keep your hands off people.”
Williams sets his attentions on the limitations of language even as he manages to expand their possibilities, writing out the ways in which language and people often take time to catch up to new ideas, and how difficult some of those navigations can be. Too often, progress is hindered by outdated considerations that dig in their heels, and through Word Problems, Williams approaches complicated and uncomfortable issues of language, race, inequity, poverty and class issues via word games, reveling in wordplay and visual flourish to articulate serious questions. “You believe bicycles / will save mankind.” he writes, in “ICEBERG,” “You’d find a more gender-sensitive / word for mankind. You are kind. Not one of a – one of a / genus maybe but not – kind. I know three evenings / of you. Everything else I had to make up in the night / so they wouldn’t steal your body. For instance / or is it for example your parents rolled you from / their flippers then when you hatched your father spit / milk you’re your tiny beak.” Utilizing crossword puzzles and theory, visual poems and blind spots and microaggressions, he wants you to pay attention better than you have been. He wants you to do something with that attention. Are you? See my full review here.
26. Cicely Belle Blain, Burning Sugar. West coast poet and activist Cicely Belle Blain’s full-length poetry debut, published as part of Vivek Shraya’s VS. BOOKS imprint, is Burning Sugar (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020). Burning Sugar opens with a suite of poems composed around familiar geographies, written from a perspective far too often overlooked, ignored or overwritten. “Black bodies against snow,” they write, to open the poem “MINNESOTA,” “radiating / kente cloth wears thin over broken bones / snow, sun, dancing / vibrant diaspora calls me home / Africa lives between the snowflakes / icicles drip in tongues [.]” Blain articulates a sequence of experiences around history, Blackness, racism and what lingers, silently, in those spaces, often a history that can’t be washed away, and a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. They write of silences, and the ongoing impact of those silences. As Blain writes as part of the sequence “LONDON,” specifically referencing the British-borne slave trade: “I imagine hard lines when I think of you / the beginnings of destruction / worlds upended to bring you gold // you are the birthplace of endings [.]”
The book moves through three sections of short lyrics—“PLACE,” “ART” and “CHILD”—exploring subjects of landscape, geography, history, colonialism and systematic violence. “the hardest part about colonization: / even the air we breathe has been colonized,” they write, to end the poem “ALEXANDRA BRIDGE.” The pieces in Burning Sugar are fascinating in the ways in which they approach subject through the lyric, composing a book-length poem through a blend of essay and memoir on geography, history and Blackness through research and Blain’s own experiences. Structurally, there are comparable elements of Blain’s poems to the essay-poems of Phil Hall and Erín Moure, or even Vancouver writer and editor Chelene Knight’s Dear Current Occupant (Book*hug, 2018), for how the lyric is propelled as much by language as by exploration of and through some weighty subject matter. Blain’s poems are thoughtful and passionate, seeking to acknowledge and document, and working to seek out. Still, Burning Sugar is a book not weighed down by loss and pain, but one that articulates a belonging, one that is pieced together through patience and will, through research and seeking out. Blain’s poems explore the lost threads and dark elements that can still be woven together into something grand, and hopeful, working through what could have been into what still might be possible. See my full review here.
27. Junie Désil, eat salt | gaze at the ocean. In Vancouver poet Junie Désil’s full-length poetry debut, eat salt | gaze at the ocean (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2020), she writes in fractals, fragments; composing three sections of poem sequences stitched together with phrases, research, lyric fragments, memoir and first-person accounts. Her poems stagger, pause, call out and reach for impossible distances. “i start with origins / i was not here i am not there,” she writes, as part of the opening sequence, “ rather // the line from here today tethers collective trauma umbilical / centuries old // those bones a bridge over oceans / triangulated passages [.]”
Of Haitian ancestry, Désil is “Born of immigrant parents on the Traditional Territories of the Kanien’kehá꞉ka on the island known as Tiohtià꞉ke (Montréal), raised in Treaty 1 Territory (Winnipeg).” “faces blue-glowed / unwavering our pursuit toward more numbness / feel but not too much / don’t look up / wear human-cancelling headphones resolutely / earplugged / hearts too,” she writes, as part of the sequencec “zom-bie | / ‘zambi /.” Utilizing depictions of the zombie, an image centred in Haitian culture but referencing a variety of western adaptations as well, she works to write her way into, or back into, being and belonging; discovering the roots of her displacement and placing them. As she writes: “colonial words crowd your mouth / still your tongue / and / sever the connections / between land language self [.]”
There is such incredible pacing through this collection, composing a deeply personal and ambitous book-length poem of great longing, hurt, heart, patience and precision. “this poem you are reading took me three years to write.” she offers, close to the end of the collection. “if we’re counting / and being accurate, it took me over twenty years to write. i took a snapshot / of 2016. i counted over two hundred deaths in one year. if we’re being / comprehensive, this right here does not include the dead from the / transatlantic slave voyage, those who leapt to their deaths, who died / beneath the cargo hold, once stolen from their ancestral lands, those who / died in violent capitalist servitude, who died in violent encounters with / white holders of enslaved Black people, this list does not include those / who died scattered about the various colonialist projects and expansions / on stolen lands.” See my full review here.
28. Colin Browne, Here. Vancouver poet, critic and visual artist Colin Browne’s latest poetry title is the book-length serial poem Here (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2020), a stunning and serious collection that, according to the cover copy, “addresses the narratives of history, memory, and place as sites of occupation, Here.” Browne writes out colonization and his place within that, his family’s place within that, writing out a here that is open and urgent, immediate and constantly in search of a new slate of questions on our colonial past, so as to better approach the present. “what wisdom is that which / devises as an acct of human charity / the infliction of scarcity?” he writes, as part of “The Azure Notebook,” “next time / i’ll take the elevator to plankton [.]” For some time now, Browne has been composing an interconnected sequence of book-length serial poems on history and geography, setting a groundwork of personal history in the context of colonialism, all of which have appeared with Talonbooks: Ground Water (2002), The Shovel (2007), The Properties (2012) and The Hatch: poems and conversations (2015). There is almost a single through-line between these collections, each book building upon his prior, existing as a quartet-length serieal poem, the continuations of which we have yet to see. His debut collection, the book-length poem Abraham (London ON: Brick Books, 1987), might have opened up some of the threads of what he later expanded upon, but almost as a prequel to the current quartet. Think of Robert Kroetsch’s The Stone Hammer Poems (1975), for example, as a kind of prequel to Completed Field Notes (2000).
His is an eye that works through the geography as a place of origins and colonizers, of original occupants and personal history, and a slew of depictions, events and trauma that run up and down the coastline, from his own family stories of mothers and grandfathers, to mining, archival documents, the removal of totem poles from British Columbia, Emily Carr and Malcolm Lowry on the coast and Gwendolyn MacEwen in Ottawa and the story of Orpheus (Orpheus comes through multiple times, which is interesting), to his translations of early twentieth century poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars and Marcel Thirty that make reference to Vancouver, much of it composed without ever having visited. “At the century’s end,” he writes, in the penultimate prose poem of his “Improvisations 1-12” sequence, “Chief Johnny Muldoe found thirty-five stone clubs at the bottom of a post hole he was digging at Hagwilget Canyon in the ancient salmon village of Tse-Kya. In those days, Queen Vic ruled rock forms on the White Lake Road. In 1938, at summer’s end, in Hagwilget, Kurt Seligmann paid one hundred dollars for a pole from Tse-Kya and shipped it to Paris in two pieces.” And as Apollinaire, through Browne, writes: “There’s a poem to be written about the bird with only one wing / We’ll send it off by telephone / The trauma of it / It makes me weep a little [.]” See my full review here.
29. Pearl Pirie, footlights. Composed from the wilds of her rural Quebec home, poet, editor and publisher Pearl Pirie’s fourth full-length poetry title is footlights (Regina SK: Radiant Press, 2020), following on the heels of been shed bore (Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2010), Thirsts (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2011), which won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, and the pet radish, shrunken (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2015), which won the Archibald Lampman Award (Radiant Press is the publishing house formerly known as Hagios Press, in case you were unaware). There is something I’ve only been realizing recently, with the publication of Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall’s latest poetry title, NIAGARA & GOVERNMENT (St. John’s, Newfoundland: Pedlar Press, 2020): the extent to which Pirie’s writing has been influenced by Hall’s rhythms, cadences and lyrical impulses. Knowing full well that Hall came first, I could hear numerous examples of overlap when reading Hall’s latest, an idea that is simply reinforced through my reading of Pirie’s footlights. “no cattle were harmed / in the making of these statements.” she writes, to close out the poem “what used to work with me,” a notion and notation that could easily have emerged from one of Hall’s own poems. Not that there’s anything wrong with influence, whether through Hall or anyone else, and Hall’s attentions to and pauses around the small, even within such large, complex and often emotionally difficult realms, is worthy of larger and repeated influence [full disclosure: I worked my own Hall variations for a few years, circa 2004-7, around the time I was deeply immersed in his writing for the first time].
Her poems seek and search, and work to gather and absorb as much as possible. “what if the universe isn’t moral?” she asks, to open “homogenized script,” “what if most people are not, in fact, lost?” We three might all have emerged from different corners of rural Ontario, but there is an articulation, a hint, of violence that exist within the work of both Hall and Pirie; external forces beyond their control that they have endured, attempting since to process, and potentially move beyond. There is something just under the surface of these poems that she both teases and tears at, working to move through and move past, as though her poems have finally become mature enough to allow her to wrestle with it in a slightly more overt form. And yet, at the same time, one could argue that Hall’s entire work-to-date is made up of a single, life-long poem if you set his books end-to-end; Pirie’s might be as well, although with less linear a trajectory between concurrely-produced projects, books and poems, composed more as an assemblage of fractals from the central point of Pirie herself, writing within the hub of a lyric trajectory of exhuberant chaos and carefully composed poem-thoughts. See my full review here.
30. Angela Carr, Without Ceremony. Poet and translator Angela Carr, a Canadian expat currently living in New York City, has just released Without Ceremony (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2020), a fourth full-length title after her poetry collections Here in There (BookThug, 2014), The Rose Concordance (BookThug, 2009) and Ropewalk (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2006). Carr’s poems in this new collection have such a sense of being composed across great distances, written across large canvases and stretched out as far as possible. They might hold to small moments and points, but are, one might say, bigger on the inside. Her poems, from point to point, are able to cover vast and incredible distances. As the duelling couplets of the first section of the opening poem, “Direction of Fight,” begin: “At the fish market in Union Square we choose flounder filleted / and decline the oyster. // From an elderly farmer who looks like your grandfather, / we buy six narcissi: his only product. // They’re a pale buttery yellow, flecked with old-fashioned Monarch orange, / a colour scheme from your grandmother’s breakfast nook, a scene that vanished in the twentieth // century, as quickly as this perfume is subtle, yet the aroma does not know how to fill the subway car.” As part of an interview posted at Toronto Quarterly on June 23, 2014, she responds that what is next for her includes, quite simply, “Longer sentences.” and this collection might just be the result of that deceptively-simple answer. Her sentences don’t merely extend as far as length, but in breadth, running a line through and beyond her couplets, sentences and poems to connect, one to the other. “A metal-framed mirror and a human figurine,” she writes, to close the poem “Quiver,” “a wooden horse with broken legs, hard words and / weathered words, warm and worn, the future tense and its finely detailed designs we pull over / ourselves at night for comfort.” See my full review here.
31. Lise Downe, Propositions & Prayers. Toronto poet, visual artist and jewellery-maker Lise Downe’s latest is Propositions & Prayers (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2020), a collection built in two sections: the poem suite “Propositions” (an earlier version of which appeared as an above/ground press chapbook) and “Prayers,” an assemblage of short lyrics. As I’ve said prior, Downe is a poet of big ideas and phrases, exploring the possibilities that poems allow in such small spaces they become impossibly large. The author of the prior poetry collections This Way (Book*hug, 2011), Disturbances of Progress (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2002), The Soft Signature (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1996) and A Velvet Increase of Curiosity (ECW Press, 1992), Downe is attuned to the small moment and the compact space—akin to poets such as Mark Truscott and Cameron Anstee—but works to stretch those same moments. Through her poems, it is possible to simultaneously experience the smallest particle alongside the bigger picture. As in the example of the first section, those compacted moments build upon each other, from one dense lyric to the next: “for once a missing element and his right arm / overcast skies, foreboding also a language / you knew, the horizon between longing curved / a few rushes smitten but paler / one could have rowed, vanished in an instant [.]” Her ongoing work exists within that curious space amid the language/experimental poets (think of the specifically-abstract language of Steve Venright or Christopher Dewdney, against the more grounded language-lyrics of Margaret Christakos or Stephen Cain) while simultaneously employing a compact minimalism against an overarching expansiveness. Her poems unfurl, slowly and carefully, and in even the most abstract directions her language might take, it is a head and a heart that are very much in control, directing her language into further possibilities. Hers, in the finest sense, is a trusted, intuitive craft. See my full review here.
32. Fred Wah, Music at the Heart of Thinking. Having appeared as a thread through his work, including through multiple full-length poetry titles, is Vancouver poet Fred Wah’s Music at the Heart of Thinking (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2020), a new volume collecting the one hundred and seventy numbered poems in this sequence-to-date for the first time. The first ten poems in the sequence, as Wah’s notes acknowledge, were “written for and published in an issue of Open Letter (5.7 [Spring 1984]) on notation,” a project originally prompted by bpNichol and Frank Davey (there are at least three Open Letter issues “on notation”). The original handful of poems might have been prompted by an idea on notation, but the poems quickly evolved into a sequence of responses, whether composed as individual pieces or short groupings of pieces, to music, visual art, theory and poetry. The first sixty-nine pieces later appeared as Music at the Heart of Thinking (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1987), with a subsequent thirty-five appearing as part of Alley Alley Home Free (Red Deer College Press, 1987). Subsequent pieces collected in the volume originally emerged through numerous literary journals, festschrifts, anthologies and further of his trade titles, existing as a thread across the length and breadth of his work since, encompassing nearly forty years of composition. There is something fascinating about a poetry title composed across four decades, especially one that emerges out of a particular thread excised from the rest of his work. How does this one thread exist in relation to other pieces he’s worked on, across that same period? Perhaps at some point down the road, a similar volume might compile Gil McElroy’s ongoing “Julian Days,” another sequence of poems focusing equally on “response” as well as an attention to form, language and breath. To pull out and compile a single thread, what is the portrait that might emerge?
The “Music at the Heart of Thinking” poems, a project that emerged out of Wah’s attention to improvisation and response, appears to be the thread of his work where he more overtly explores the possibilities of improvisation alongside ekphrastic movement, allowing the poems a looseness, and trusting them to land as they should. Set together for the first time, the ebb and flow of the series is interesting, as the poems expand and contract, reach out and retreat; from compact prose poems to sentence-stanzas, exploring both the breath-line and the poetic sentence. “The plateau of the poem,” he writes, to open “127,” “pulling a story from a fire / smouldering under foot / on a periphery of words / as things while sentenced [.]” The series also evolves from more general explorations to specific responses, whether to specific people, artworks or thinking, such as “Music at the Heart of Thinking Eighty-Something,” after Christine Stewart, that includes: “Where to go to get the word rubble now or as you say fair / producing sky weather may eventually.” Wah’s has always been a poetic simultaneously engaged with breath and quick thought, language and deep meditation on being, identity and theory, and Music at the Heart of Thinking provides an ongoing example of just how powerful a master can be, even as he allows himself the quick line, the quick sketch; allowing himself to relax, and let go. See my full review here.
33. jaye simpson, it was never going to be okay. Vancouver poet jaye simpson’s book-length poetry debut is it was never going to be okay (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2020), a collection of first-person lyric performance and prose poems on trauma, queer and Indigenous identity, love and sex, family, belonging and being. These poems are emotionally raw, unflinching, revealing and erotic, working up to an appreciation of the queer and Indigenous body and self, even as simpson’s narrator works through the trauma of foster care and intergenerational trauma. “i have swallowed / wildfire flame,” they write, as part of “her. (ii.),” “arnica cardifolia, / pleaded for her to leave these hollowing bones— / bit off more than i could chew [.]” Through their poems, simpson does far more than attempt to write themselves into being: to attempt to write themselves through and beyond the worst elements of trauma and into acknowledgment, as they write in “haunting (a poem in six parts”: “i was taught by wooden spoon / that children were seen & not heard / my pale flesh must’ve been reminder / that i was burden & beast / all in one.” This book works through some difficult material, clawing its way into being. “his sweat is / pabst blue wribbon / & dispensary dust,” they write, in “r e d,” “i feel the ridged scar on his right clavicle / trace the tattoo on the lower abdomen of this narrow-hipped boy / this closeness is as near / to being wanted / as i know [.]” See my full review here.
34. Paul Vermeersch, Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020. I’ve been curious to see Toronto poet and editor Paul Vermeersch’s long-awaited Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020 (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2020), in part due to my ongoing fascination with selecteds, as well as my interest in seeing the overall framing of the work-to-date of a poet I’ve been following since before the publication of his first full-length poetry collection, Burn (ECW Press, 2000). I suppose one could say I saw a teaser for this new selected when I reviewed his self-published chapbook Further Communiqués from the Imaginary World (A Saint Bigfoot Book, 2019) not that long ago.
It is interesting to see how insistent Daniel Scott Tysdal is in his introduction that this book was selected, ie: rewritten and reconceptualized, by the author. It is reminiscent of another Canadian poet who insisted they rework their own selected poems, as Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall reworked threads and selections from the length and breadth of his own published work as well, to assemble, not a selected poems, but “a selected poem,” the collection Guthrie Clothing: The Poetry of Phil Hall, a Selected Collage (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015). Otherwise, it would seem any author would be too close to their own material to be trusted to assemble such a collection. Instead, Vermeersch has reframed and restructured his published work-to-date, both highlighting his more recent directions as well as repurposing earlier considerations, perhaps expanding upon what had always been quietly there. What is lost, as Tysdal asks? A progression, I suppose, although I would suspect that copies of all of his previous trade collections are still in print, so the opportunities for seeking out Vermeersch’s progress is easily enough done. What is, instead, gained? Perhaps a way for each individual poem to live outside it’s original book-length context, and, therefore, more on its own merit, as well as part of this broader context of his current, more expanded, thinking. Vermeersch’s poems are aware of something else, something darker, more macabre. Incorporating nostalgic space imagery and ideas of the future from decades past against an encroaching dystopia, Vermeersch’s first-person narratives write from a semi-optimistic pessimism, a joyful darkness; the future is here, and it is not what we had been hoping for. Nostalgia is, as they say, not what it used to be. See my full review here.
35. Julie Joosten, Nought. The follow-up to Toronto poet and editor Julie Joosten’s Governor-General’s Award-nominated debut, Light Light (BookThug, 2013) is Nought (Book*hug, 2020), a lyric suite of fourteen sections—“Nest,” “Necklace,” “Swoon Revolt,” “On Nothing,” “For Nor,” “Love Poem,” “’Of Ground, or Air, or Ought,’” “Dear Friend,” “Second-Hand,” “, touch,” “Silence, an Index,” “[whose hair is yellower than torchlight],” “On Anemones” and “This, Seeded in a Glance”— that write on being, belonging and perception. “Quiet narrows the mind’s / circumference.” she writes, as part of the third suite-section. “I’m looking for a form.” she writes, at a different point in the same piece. She also includes a prose afterward, “An Opening,” that offers what led up and into this current work, including her engagement with the work of (as well as working directly with) Toronto poet M. NourbeSe Philip, the effects of her two traumatic brain injuries, and the persistence of thinking on style and perception.
The poems that make up Nought are crafted into a single, delicate lyric thread; a suite of suites, held together as a long poem on physicality, connection and attachment. “I’m trying to write to you of an arrival,” she writes, as part of the “This, Seeded in a Glance” section, “whose form / is departure (I can almost bear it now, [.]” Nought is a poem of hesitation, pause and pulse, of patterns, fragments and disconnects, set in a sequence of small studies on how the heart and body connect beyond itself, and to another. This is, in essence, a love poem. “What is a fact: unsettled feeling / disperses listening through my heart,” she writes, as part of “’Of Ground, or Air, or Ought,’” “This is an epithalamium for yous [.]” There is a darkness that permeates this work, but one that emerges into and through the lens of a loving optimism, even as her optimism is occasionally desperately-held. See my full review here.
36. Michael Dennis and Stuart Ross, 70 Kippers: The Dagmar Poems. The latest from Ottawa poet Michael Dennis and Cobourg, Ontario poet, editor, publisher, writer and bon vivant Stuart Ross is the full-length collaboration 70 Kippers: The Dagmar Poems (Cobourg ON: Proper Tales Press, 2020). The back cover offers: “Two pals. / Two very different poets. / One kitchen table. / Several bottles of wine. / 6 writing marathons over 3 years. / 122 collaborative poems. / 70 kippers. / A book of poetry. / An act of love.” Both Dennis and Ross have been writing and publishing since the late 1970s—only a few years longer than they’ve known each other—as two poets existing entirely outside of the academic system, quietly going about their work, from their respective corners of Ontario. Throughout seventy numbered poems that make up 70 Kippers: The Dagmar Poems, their shared explorations of narrative overlap and blend, and one can see elements of Dennis’ darker working-class mixed with Ross’ surrealism. For anyone aware of their individual works, it is a curious mixture, such as in the thirty-eighth poem, that reads: “In another country no one would complain / about the conditions under which dogs / dreamed like cats, saved like squirrels, / barked like llamas, under the billowing / animal cracker cloud sky. / Things couldn’t be better / or worse, he complained.” What is immediately clear is how this project is very much a conversation between friends, and the pull and push between their aesthetics, composed as a snapshot of what has been an ongoing conversation going back years.
Ross wrote as part of the introduction to In Our Days in Vaudeville: “One
evening in the mid-2000s, I sat down in the Ottawa kitchen of my long-time
friend, the very prolific poet Michael Dennis—who had never written a surreal
phrase in his life—and we cracked open a bottle of wine. I suggested we write a
collaborative poem, one word at a time, passing the sheet of paper back and
forth. Then we did another poem, two words at a time, then three, then four. I
think we got to about seven words at a time before we called it quits for the
night. Again, I found myself involved in poems that contained words and phrases
and lines that would never appear in my solo work. I loved the hybrid that we
created. It deepened our understanding of each other’s work, and it deepened
our friendship.” The progression over that decade, the more they worked together
so directly, is interesting, and adds layers of possibility to each of their
work. I’m always curious to try to understand how collaboration might broaden
the scope of any individual author’s solo work, although perhaps this is
something that might not always be possible to understand consciously, or
possibly articulate. See my full review here.
37. Kate Sutherland, The Bones Are There. Toronto writer and lawyer Kate Sutherland’s latest book is The Bones Are There (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2020), a continuation of some of the work of her debut poetry collection, How to Draw a Rhinoceros (Book*hug, 2016), writing out an exploration of lost species utilizing an array of archival material. “We cannot now hope to procure a living solitaire,” she writes, as part of the second section, “though every part / of the skeleton could doubtless be found in the caverns of Rodrigues [.]” As the back cover of The Bones Are There attests: “Zigzagging across the globe, Kate Sutherland’s fourth book is poetry by the way of collage: pieced-together excerpts from travellers’ journals, ships’ logs, textbooks and manuals, individual testimony, and fairy and folk tales that tell stories of the extinction of various species, and of the evolution of human understanding of—and culpability for—the phenomenon.” The Bones Are There is, as one might expect, a book of acknowledgments, archaeological searches and of writing out the bones of the lost, and the dead.
in three sections—“Beasts of the Sea,” “The Bones Are There” and “Familiar”—the
first of which appeared as a chapbook through knife│fork│books in 2018, I find it curious her use of puntuation, such as in the short
lyric poems in the firsr section (an example being “The Map,” above). Whereas
the periods within the lines speak to a structure of sentences, as do her use
of capitals, she doesn’t include a period at the end, suggesting the rhythmic
and line-break might be enough to suggest the end of one line or phrase before
the beginning of another. The effect is curious, and quite sublte, such as in the
opening of “Blue Foxes,” another poem from the opening section, that
reads: “We were far too busy klling blue foxes / knocking them down with the
axe, stabling them / The more of them we killed, the more / malevolent and
audacious became the others [.]” See my full review here.
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