Monday, January 01, 2024

A ‘best of’ list of 2023 Canadian poetry books

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 thirteenth annual list [see also: 2022, 2021, 2020, 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 her original prompt.

It does feel as though I’ve done far fewer reviews this year than across the prior few, overloaded with a couple of large non-fiction projects and various other book deadlines, etcetera. There were plenty of books I simply didn’t manage to get to yet; or are there simply more books? There is still a handful of titles from this year I have yet to get to, certainly (including the new Judith Copithorne, which looks brilliant), but unless I do a count, I haven’t a clue how many reviews I’ve actually managed. The fact that I’ve “only” thirty-eight on this list (compared to other years) suggests to me that I haven’t reviewed nearly as much this year as I’ve done prior (which I’ve suspected throughout the year, simply busy with other things; and there are certain Canadian publishers that simply haven’t been sending books along, frustratingly), although my count shows I’ve posted some one hundred and forty book reviews across 2023, which is quite a lot. I’m pleased I managed to get a mound of chapbook reviews posted, as well as some journal reviews (something I hadn’t been doing nearly as much across the year or two prior), composing reviews of The Capilano Review : 50th Anniversary Issue(s) : 3:46-3:48 [see my review here], SOME : sixth issue [see my review here], filling Station #81 : Some Kind of Dopamine Hit [see my review here] and SOME: seventh issue [see my review here]. There’s also been a plethora of worthy non-fiction prose reviews I’ve posted, with stellar works including INDIGIQUEERNESS: Joshua Whitehead In Dialogue with Angie Abdou (Athabasca University Press, 2023) [see my review of such here], Gail Scott, Furniture Music: A Northern in Manhattan: Poets/Politics [2008-2012] (Wave Books, 2023) [see my review of such here] and Jim Johnstone, Write Print Fold and Staple: On Poetry and Micropress in Canada (Gaspereau Press, 2023) [see my review of such here].

Barry McKinnon died this past year, so that was a bit of a hit [see my obituary for him here].

I wonder, occasionally, if I should be working similar ‘best of’ lists for chapbooks, or American full-length collections, or fiction, or a geographically-unspecified list of full-length collections, but then I remember that this list takes a full day to compile and post, so there you go. And you know this list always includes a few stragglers from the year prior, yes? I mean, I can only do so much during a calendar year. Beyond that, I always mean for these lists to be shorter, but I couldn’t think of a list without including every book on this list. Is there simply too much exciting work being produced right now?

1. Dale Tracy, Derelict Bicycles: Following several chapbooks and a critical monograph comes the full-length debut from British Columbia-based poet and critic Dale Tracy, her Derelict Bicycles (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2022), published as part of editor Stuart Ross’ series, A Feed Dog Book. Through nearly one hundred pages of short, first-person lyrics, Tracy’s narratives fold in and over themselves, offering a rhythm of furtive quickness, even as she slowly pulls and peels back layers of inquiry. “Breach the fussy haze / and tamp the cloud-winked light.” she writes, as part of the poem “THE ORDER OF MUSTARDS AND ALLIES IS MINE,” “End to end, I’m aging, wrapped in clear / violet film, ushering stunt authority, / the nutshell’s ache.” There’s a kind of carved, honed bounce to her language, rhythm and pacing, a deft way of moving across the line and the page through an array of fables and folk tales, observational sheens and surreal hints. “I ate my own shadow.” she offers, to open the poem “STOMACH END OF THE TONGUE,” “I feel it pulling on the stomach end of my tongue.” See my full review here.

2. Khashayar Mohammadi, WJD/Saeed Tavanaee Marvi, The OceanDweller, trans. from the Farsi by Khashayar Mohammadi: I’m fascinated by the pairing of WJD, Iranian-born and Toronto-based writer and translator Khashayar Mohammadi’s second full-length collection, with The OceanDweller by Mashhad-born poet and translator Saeed Tavanaee Marvi, translated into English from the Farsi by Mohammadi (Gordon Hill Press, 2022). With two separate collections paired in such a way, one immediately wonders: how are these two texts in conversation, if at all? Is this a pairing of logic, or of opportunity? How do the poems of one impact the poems of the other? Or is it akin to bpNichol’s suggestion of the poems (his argument for elements of his multiple-volume epic, The Martyrology) connecting through all being composed by the same hand, both sides seen through the lens of poet and translator Khashayar Mohammadi’s ongoing poetic? Leaning further into the lyric of meditation and song, the poems of WJD are set as a triptych of poem-suites: “The Naïve Sufi,” “Hafez Displeased” and “Ravaan.” Extending the lyric examinations of Me, You, Then Snow, the poems in this new collection seem to attempt a wider perception and deeper clarity, stretching across the landscape while seeking the possibility of deeper spiritual wisdom and security.  “death means / new vision,” Mohammadi offers, as part of the opening section, “word came: / The mystic as child // same city with / newfound eyes / new shades of red [.]” Seeking new ways to see what may already be familiar, Mohammadi offers the lyric as a meditative form, seeking solace and a path through a landscape populated with trauma, personal history, adulthood and the collisions of language and culture, between points of origin and where they currently reside. Offering a trajectory begun in the prior collection, these poems seek to navigate a path forward throug the lyric meditation and conflicts of personal and cultural history, language, culture and experience. How might one easily find clarity through such seeming-complication? Through seeking the correct questions, one might suppose, which this collection certainly manages, despite or even through the struggle. Almost as counterpoint, the seventeen poems that make up Saeed Tavanee Marvi’s OceanDweller offer a particular kind of charming, almost wistful, certainty. “it’s comforting to roam the empty metal / chambers of the OceanCruiser past midnight,” he writes, as part of “Endless Corridors of Memory.” He threads through a fantastical narrative, writing across the “OceanDweller” and “OceanCruiser,” even against harsher threads through a poem such as “Southwest Iran, by the Iraq Border,” that includes: “once upon a time / if memory serves / my life was a celebration / filled with joy and goblets of wine / alas the Bible ran its course / as if salvation had abandoned me / that’s how I buoy atop a sea of poetry [.]” The poems offer commentary on memory and dreams, spiritual truths as well as a backdrop of history, war and mysticism, as well as the possibilities that poetry might allow. “war had dried up all ink on the pages,” he writes, mid-way through the three page poem “The Open Tome,” “every day the scripture grew pale / the man had come to once again / overwrite the chronicles of light / so light can remain / since it was only in light / that humanity was possible [.]” There are moments where one can work through these pieces and see each author, each book, as a different side of the same, or at least a similar, coin, watching how each author responds to the difficulties and complications of history, religion, war and the salve of both spirituality and the immense history of poetry, both of which hold the simultaneous possibilities of salvation and failure. Working through difficult times, the poems in these paired collections reveal much, and it is only through such explorations that wisdom arrives, or provides. See my full review here.

3. Manahil Bandukwala, Monument: There is a curious framing around Manahil Bandukwala’s full-length debut, Monument (Kingston ON: Brick Books, 2022), a title deliberately designed on the cover with crumbling letters “n” and “u,” offering a sly dual title of “Monuments” and “Moments,” an idea reinforced through the book’s opening quote by British Columbia poet Phyllis Webb, from the opening of her poem “MOMENTS ARE MONUMENTS,” a poem first included in the second section of her Even Your Right Eye (1956) that reads: “Moments are monuments / if caught / carved into stone [.]” Of course, Saskatchewan poet John Newlove famously tweaked that particular phrasing nearly a decade later, through his poem “Then, If I Cease Desiring” from Moving in Alone (1965): “You may allow me moments, / not monuments, I being / content. It is little, / but it is little enough.” Through her use of paired titling, Bandukwala writes of and around the life (and the moments) of Mumtaz Mahal (b. c. 1593—d. June 17, 1631, Burhanpur, India), wife of Shah Jahān, Mughal emperor of India (1628–58). It was this historical figure who died but a few years into her husband’s reign, a loss that prompted him to construct the infamous Taj Mahal in her memory, where she is also entombed. “In this moment,” Bandukwala writes, as part of the poem “Ask,” early on in the collection, “I saw his love start // and end with your beauty.” There is little known of Mumtaz Mahal beyond the facts of this particular memorialization, and before this book has even begun, Bandukwala offers not only the tension of the collection, but her goal to explore the human figure out of a fixed point in stone: a moment or two, perhaps, pulled out of the monument. As the back cover of the collection informs, “Manahil Bandukwala’s debut upturns notions of love, monumentalisation, and empire by exploring buried facets of Mughal Empress Mumtaz Mahal’s life, moving her story beyond the Taj Mahal.” See my full review here.

4. David Dowker, Dissonance Engine: Toronto poet and editor (and publisher of the late great Alterran Poetry Assemblage) David Dowker’s latest title is the poetry collection Dissonance Engine (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2022), following Machine Language (BookThug, 2010), Virtualis: Topologies of the Unreal (with Christine Stewart; Toronto ON: BookThug, 2013) and Mantis (Chax, 2018). Set in four numbered sections—“Time-Sensitive Material,” “Chronotope, or Sorrow’s Echo,” “Glossation” and “Orders of Multitudes”—the collection opens with a section of prose poems; sentences set as bricks that work to layer, stagger into unusual narratives. Moving through poetic form, one that is held firm through the sentence and sentence-fragment—from the prose poem to more traditional line breaks and staggering—Dowker’s is a poetics of abstract specifics, circling around and through a subject via language, offering a layering of fragments that move across, rather than in and out, of narrative thought and focus. “automatic word organism,” the seven page poem “Bit Iteration,” the first poem in the book’s third section, begins. “written continuous as / another channelled pattern / calibrated to cyclic entities / in auroral whorls / of attuned psyche [.]” Dowker circles specifics on language theory and grief and the mechanics of all of the above, even as his layerings combine to move in a straight trajectory. See my full review here.

5. Erin Robinsong, Wet Dream: The follow-up to Montreal poet and interdisciplinary artist Erin Robinsong’s full-length debut, Rag Cosmology (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2017), is Wet Dream (Kingston ON: Brick Books, 2022). The thirty-six lyric theses that together form the poetry volume Wet Dream are composed and stretched across an expansiveness; one that comes through mapping such a delicate array of sentenced parts that pool to form shapes. “Poetry is access to information. Yes.” she writes, as part of the poem “CAN YOU TAKE SOMETHING OUT / OF THIS WORLD, YES OR NO,” “Is a rose an archive, no / A memory, yes / of silky sense, yes / A garment? No / Many garments, yes [.]” Her narratives aren’t easy or straightforward, and the poems collected here simultaneously accumulate and collage; one might even say that Robinsong’s canvas stretches across the entire sky, allowing her poems to exist as the lines drawn between the stars she’s already set. “What if the fragility of the system is actually / the strength of the system?” she asks, to open the poem “TRANSFORMANCE 4,” “In wild carrot / intervals I dreamt exhaustively. Didn’t // want to go in the water so I didn’t.” See my full review here.

6. natalie hanna, lisan al’asfour: After some twenty-plus years of publishing poems in journals and chapbooks, Ottawa poet and lawyer natalie hanna’s long-awaited full-length debut is lisan al’asfour (Winnipeg MB: arp books, 2022), a sensual blend of narrative fragments awash with lush precision. Hers is a narrative infused with a full flow of lyric, composing a flow of phrases and fragments across an array of sentences, from short poems into extended sequences. She writes of love and lawyering, writing the heart across such boundaries and echoes of love, even while responding to a wide range of levels of racism and misogyny, whether personally or through the culture. Her lyric weaves elements of folk tale and song (consider the delicate touch of her title, an Arabic phrase that translates to “bird’s tongue”), offering a poetry that sings a story or document an experience, from family offerings, responses from legal clients and even the 2022 Ottawa convoy occupation, and the inherent responsibilities of the individual to those beyond themselves. “where does your body end / and mine begin?” she asks, as part of her convoy poem, “there are some in every crowd,” writing “how many cycles / inhalation, exhalation // before we have shared all the air / in this atmosphere with each other / with the neighbourhood / across the earth? what is in you / lives in me, as risky as a kiss [.]” See my full review here.

7. Jason Purcell, swollening: From Edmonton poet and bookseller Jason Purcell comes the full-length debut, swollening (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022), a collection that “rests at the intersection of queerness and illness, staking a place for the queer body that has been made sick through living in this world.” swollening is built as three sections of first person lyric narratives, and Purcell composes poems that echo and flow into each other; poems that ripple across surfaces, running deep into each other across the length of the lake of this book. “Even this memory is queer.” he writes, to close the poem “North of Nipissing Beach,” “These are the terms of this space.” And through such, Purcell sets down the terms of his lyric from the offset: composing poems that swirl around a central core of illness, writing a devastating array of dental pain and carnage (I can’t tell if it is irony or purpose that has me posting this review on the morning of my own latest dental appointment), but one that utilizes illness as a way through which to examine what feels the book’s true purpose: to examine and articulate loss, grief and growing pains. Purcell writes the breaks, pains and pauses that come with simply becoming an eventual self-realized adtult (including the threads of growing up and coming out), and allowing grief and trauma its own space to move through, and be moved through in turn. Purcell writes on first loves, masculinity, a father’s response and a mother’s love, and the distance of siblings. “How to retrace / a relationship and then to stay present?” he asks, to close the poem “Kids in the back seat,” “How to repair? I always push away / from the pain, but she reaches through and can see / me, can connect what I can’t by a very long road.” swollening is not simply a book around illness and pain but a collection of poems on attempting to understand the path travelled-to-date, sketched across childhood recollection, burgeoning queerness and heartbreak, composed as much as a way through understanding and a way forward as an articulation of where he currently stands, now. See my full review here.

8. ryan fitzpatrick, Sunny Ways: The latest from Toronto-based and displaced Calgary/Vancouver poet and critic ryan fitzpatrick is Sunny Ways (Toronto ON: Invisible Publishing, 2023), following an array of chapbooks as well as his full-length collections Fake Math (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2007), Fortified Castles (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2014) and Coast Mountain Foot (Talonbooks, 2021). Constructed out of two extended long poems—the thirteen-page “Hibernia Mon Amour” and eighty-page “Field Guide”—the paired duo critique and examine resource extraction, and rightly savage a corporate ethos simultaneously bathed in blood and oil, and buried deep (as one’s head in the sand), where corporations might pretend that no critique might land. Across a continuous stream of language-lyric, fitzpatrick writes of ecological devastation and depictions, planetary destruction, industry-promoted distractions and outright lies. fitzpatrick’s work increasingly embraces an aesthetic core shared with what has long been considered a Kootenay School of Writing standard—a left-leaning worker-centred political and social engagement that begins with the immediate local, articulated through language accumulation, touchstones and disjointedness—comparable to the work of Jeff Derksen, Stephen Collis, Christine Leclerc, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Colin Smith and Rita Wong, among others. Whereas most of those poets I’ve listed (being in or around Vancouver, naturally; with the Winnipeg-centred exception of Colin Smith) centre their poetics on more western-specific examples—the trans-mountain pipeline, say—fitzpatrick responds to the specific concerns of his Alberta origins, emerging from a culture and climate that insists on enrichment through mineral extraction even to the point of potential self-annihilation. See my full review here.

9. Milton Acorn and bill bissett, I Want to Tell You Love, A Critical Edition, eds. Eric Schmaltz and Christopher Doody: Admittedly, I wasn’t sure what to expect upon first hearing of I Want to Tell You Love, A Critical Edition, eds. Eric Schmaltz and Christopher Doody (Calgary AB: University of Calgary Press, 2021), the previously-unpublished early 1960s collaborative work done by two of Canada’s more important poets to emerge out of the social, political and cultural mimeo-propelled burst of 1960s literary production: Milton Acorn (1923-1986) and bill bissett (b. 1939). On the surface, the two writers couldn’t be any more different, whether through their personalities or how their work sits on the page, but both this project and Schmaltz’s incredible introduction provide a wealth of argument for how the two connect, as well as their overt interest in engaging exactly with those differences. Acorn had already produced a book or two by the time the two poets met up in Vancouver, but it is curious to consider, that had this book-length collaboration actually been accepted by the publishers of the day, it would have pre-dated bissett’s two 1966 solo collections. According to Schmaltz, the main argument for the array of rejection this collection managed was exactly the strength of this collaboration, as potential publishers misunderstood that this is not simply a work by two wildly different poets, but a conversation around where their work actually meet, allowing their work (including bissett’s drawings) to connect into and around each other. I Want to Tell You Love, A Critical Edition is a remarkable edition, and in certain ways, for reasons far larger than the presentation of this particular collaboration, offering context on and around a specific and hugely engaged period of Canadian writing, politics and culture. Through his remarkably thorough sixty-page critical introduction, Schmaltz examines the political and social landscape that opened up different ideas of culture that led to this particular moment, from the post-war period and the emergence of hippy culture to the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts, circling in on Canadian literature and into British Columbia politics, all before landing on how these two vastly different poets from Canada’s East Coast ended up in Vancouver, and what they did once they landed. Schmaltz writes of the centres of Canadian literature during that period, and how both poets, however active, still existed well on the fringes (even in the context of perpetual-fringe Vancouver), well before the creation of such an oddball collection, which neither could get anyone interested in (apparently each pulled poems from the work to land in their own future solo collections). With the inclusion, as well, of an afterword by and a contemporary interview with bill bissett, this might just be a must-have edition, not only for the purposes of a broader comprehension of Acorn and bissett’s individual careers, but of the hefty examination of the emergence of a particular period of Canadian writing and culture. See my full review here.

10. George Bowering, Good Morning Poems: I’ve been going through Vancouver writer, editor, poet and critic George Bowering’s Good Morning Poems: A start to the day from famous English-language poets (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2023), a short critical anthology of forty-eight poems selected across five hundred years of English-language poetry, each of which include a page-long commentary by Bowering himself. In his short preface to the collection, he offers that he likes to begin each morning reading (or rereading) a poem. “Some people like to go for a walk in the woods or to the coffee shop in the morning. Some peoples have even written poems about morning walks.” he writes. “I’m not that extreme – I’ll settle for a chair at the table, a cup of dark coffee, and a page or two of Denise Levertov. Lots of poets have written to or about the early hours, which suggests that if you are working on the New York Times crossword and thus have a pen in your hand, it might be as pleasant to write a poem as to read one. I’d just as soon read a poem, though, say ‘January Morning’ by William Carlos Williams, any month of the year.” There has always been a liveliness to Bowering’s prose, especially appreciated across his numerous collections of criticism, and this book provides a glimpse into his teaching methods, managing not only to articulate a vibrant commentary upon older poems, providing commentary and context, but to pass along his own obvious enthusiasm and sheer reading pleasure on works that most of us have either ignored or simply not been exposed to. If a book such as this was presented to high school students when attempting to teach poetry, we might all be in a far better situation as far as poetry reading literacy. Bowering’s enthusiasm is infectious, and he manages to pack a great deal of information and nuance, offering not only a context but some of the limitations of both poem and perspective, in his commentaries with incredible, readable ease. See my full review here.

11. Dennis Cooley, body works: Given the ways through which beloved Winnipeg poet, editor, critic, teacher, anthologist, theorist, mentor and publisher Dennis Cooley has worked as a poet over the years, the notion of a trajectory of his writing as seen through a sequence of published book-length poetry collections is less than straightforward; certainly far less straightforward than anyone else I’m aware of. His published work exists as less than a straight line than a complex tapestry, often producing chapbooks and books excised from lengthy manuscripts composed across years (and even decades), offering selected book-sized collections awash with myriad threads, some of which connect to some works over others, all of which spread out endlessly from whatever central point where his work once began. Cooley’s latest collection is body works (Calgary AB: University of Calgary Press, 2023), and the acknowledgments offers that “Earlier versions of some of these poems have appeared in books (sunfall, soul searching, passwords) […].” I’ve written repeatedly over the years on the notion that Cooley works up projects into potentially hundreds of manuscript pages before selecting something that might be more of a publishable shape and size, and honestly, there can’t be that many contemporary poets not only working at his rate of production (I don’t know an exact count, but I’d think he’s published well more than two dozen full-length poetry collections since the late 1970s) that are simultaneously working on poetry manuscripts across such a lengthy scope of time. Or is this simply Cooley returning to earlier ideas, and pulling at older threads for the sake of seeing them further? See my full review here.

12. Jen Currin, Trinity Street: Award-winning New Westminster, British Columbia writer Jen Currin’s fifth full-length poetry title, following The Sleep of Four Cities (Vancouver BC: Anvil, 2005), Hagiography (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2008), The Inquisition Yours (Coach House Books, 2010) and School (Coach House Books, 2014) is Trinity Street (Toronto ON: House of Anansi Press, 2023). The poems in Trinity Street seem composed as a kind of sketchbook across a great expanse; as a singular sequence of lyric reports, documenting Currin’s particular time, space and place. The poems as a whole centre around Currin’s particular geographic, social, political and intimate landscape, even as each lyric section clusters around particular groupings of poems, each of which lean into one particular consideration or another. This collection is all, one might say, around conversation, circling the whole of what it means for Currin to be a citizen, a partner, a friend and simply a human being. “It can be said that spirit found // No distinction could keep us together,” Currin writes, as part of the poem “Poem Beginning and Ending with Lines from Lissa Wolsak,” “To visit her house you must // Four jugs needed to boil water // We were advised to carelessly // In a tiny waterfront shack for twenty minutes // Such perceptions—the snort of a horse [.]” See my full review here.

13. Otoniya J. Okot Bitek, Song & Dread: Referring to it in her acknowledgments as her “littlest-sister title of poems,” Kingston, Ontario-based poet Otoniya J. Okot Bitek’s third full-length poetry title, following 100 Days (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2016) and A Is for Acholi (Hamilton ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2022), is Song & Dread (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2023). I’m fascinated in how Okot Bitek’s book-length structures favour the extended sequence, and the cycle; composing individual poems that come together to form something far larger than the sum of their parts. The poems and poem of Song & Dread loops and swirls through language, song and thread, returning regularly to earlier points, allowing the structure of the extended sequence to propel that much further, forward. It is notable to see, unlike other Covid-era works I’ve seen over the past few months, Song & Dread is infused not simply with a sense of isolation but one of real and substantive loss, as well as an attention to a population far too easily set aside. “for the rich / a dilemma,” the poem “pi day 36” begins, “the headline says / whether to quarantine with staff or do their own chores [.]” Through Okot Bitek, the pandemic doesn’t so much introduce trauma so much as it revealed. One that hears and sees and feels and understands those losses all around her, both immediately and culturally, especially within the realization that so many of those accumulated losses could have easily been prevented. “four new deaths yesterday / new deaths / deaths as a new / as news,” she writes, to open the poem “pi day 27,” “four brand new / as good / four deaths as good news as relief // all sixty-one dresses worn by villanelle / from killing eve [.]” See my full review here.

14. Kate Siklosi, SELVAGE: Toronto poet, editor and publisher Kate Siklosi’s second full-length collection, following the stunning visuals of leavings (Malmö, Sweden: Timglaset Editions, 2021) [see my review of such here], is SELVAGE (Toronto ON: Invisible Publishing, 2023). Set in four sections of stitch and carve, Siklosi writes of new motherhood against intergenerational trauma, leaves and immigration, edges and a blurred centre. Whereas leavings focused on images of physical objects set with text, SELVAGE focuses instead on the text itself, while still offering an extension of the visuals and visual elements presented in that full-length debut. She writes of stitch and vein, a blend of images (including full colour), offering text on seeds and leaves, and weaving in elements of language from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms through examining a family history of devastating losses and their rippling effects. “leafing through the charter,” she writes, as part of the opening sequence-section, “i am a loss. when things shall be deemed it can both protect and threaten at once.” As the press release offers: “Kate Siklosi grew up in a family shrouded in a veil of mystery of how they came to be: the scant facts about her grandparents and how they came to live in Canada after escaping Hungary under the Iron Curtain in 1956; her nagymama (grandmother) dying in childbirth; her nagypapa’s (grandfather’s) grief at finding himself alone without his family in this new country (subsequently taking out his grief by setting fire to the Children’s Aid building and then dying in jail); the mysterious ‘neighbour’ who sexually abused Kate’s brother and cousins.” See my full review here.

15. Gary Barwin and Lillian Nećakov, DUCK EATS YEAST, QUACKS, EXPLODES; MAN LOSES EYE: A Poem: Gary Barwin and Lillian Nećakov’s collaborative DUCK EATS YEAST, QUACKS, EXPLODES; MAN LOSES EYE: A Poem (Toronto ON: Guernica Editions, 2023), is a project that takes its prompt from a story that ran through American newspapers across January, 1910, about Des Moines, Iowa’s Silas Perkins, who was said to have lost the sight in one eye after his prize-winning duck, Rhadamanthus (named for the wise demigod king of Crete from Greek mythology), ate a plate of yeast and exploded (a check on Snopes suggests that this story might be apocryphal). Through one hundred and forty-four sequentially-numbered poem-sections, Hamilton writer, poet and composer Barwin and Toronto poet and editor Nećakov, friends who first began to interact through a small group of self-declared surrealist poets in Toronto during the 1980s, playfully pull and extend their narrative thread from that singular headline. They compose a collaborative riff of quick movement and verbal gymnastics, akin to a variation on Fred Wah’s suggestion of “drunken tai chi,” allowing their individual writing skills to articulate what is so clearly a gleefully-extended wordplay through and against dark humour, narrative expectation and strains of surrealism. This poem is very much a playful exploration via a kind of ongoingness, working to see where the poem might go next and how far, seemingly less concerned with where it might end up. “something happened in Des Moines involving a duck,” part 11 writes, “some yeast, a man / his eye // it’s still happening [.]” The poem exists in the present, allowing the story of a century past remain as a kind of fixed point. See my full review here.

16. Camille Martin, R: The latest from Toronto poet and collagist Camille Martin is the poetry title, R (Toronto ON: Rogue Embroyo Press, 2023), following a list of books and chapbooks. It is interesting that, after a period of relative silence, she has quietly reemerged through self-publication, offering a first (Blueshift Road) and now this second full-length collection (R), since the onset of Covid-19 lockdowns. Still, with pieces that originally appeared in a handful of journals and anthologies, as well as in the chapbooks Magnus Loop and Sugar Beach, it suggests that this particular manuscript has been gestating for some time. The one hundred and fifty pages of this collection are predominantly articulated as a sequence of short, untitled, haiku-like bursts, each carved into the centre of the page. It is almost as though these meditative bursts are attempts to achive and articulate balance, seeking a grounding effect through this sequence of carved sketchworks. Each poem is thoughtful, observational; settling into short-form thought and speech via playful scraps. “plastic raspberries linked with safety pins,” she writes, mid-way through the collection, “dull flavour of stewed rubies // stoplight blinking in a junkyard [.]” Each poem offers sketch and pause through an effect of collage, suggesting a construction similar to the images presented on the front and back cover: a suggestion of simultaneous image and idea, carved, clipped, collected and formed into poem-shapes that retain their collage-simultaneity through each tightly-packed singular effect. See my full review here.

17. Matthew Hollett, Optic Nerve: poems: A follow-up to the creative non-fiction and poetry title Album Rock (Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s NL: Boulder Books, 2018) is St. John’s, Newfoundland poet Matthew Hollett’s full-length poetry debut, Optic Nerve: poems (Kingston ON: Brick Books, 2023). Through an assortment of first-person poems set in a lyric simultaneously narrative and cinematic, Hollett offers a descriptively-thick and finely-honed intimate portrait of east coast space. “It took two of us to haul the river out of its box / and wrangle its segments together like vertebrae / or slabs of sidewalk. As rivers go,” he writes, to open the poem “Waters Above and Waters Below,” “this one had been / stepped in more than twice, its leisurely ripples and eddies / scuffed with footprints from small armies / of schoolkids.” Hollett works his lyric as a way of examining small moments of time. Weighed down through the dark, there is significant and even pragmatic light in these lines. “If you find yourself lost,” the poem “Coriolis Borealis” begins, “try not to walk in circles. A forest / is an aura of revolving doors, every spruce or fir is / a celestial body that wants you in its orbit. For the first / twenty-four hours, you’d be wise to stay put.” Across his densely-packed Optic Nerve, Hollett writes short moments and scenes, fully aware of the differences in seeing and perception, writing narratives many of which are centred in and around Halifax. “In Halifax it greets me like a gauntlet of bear traps.” he writes, to open the poem “Shipshape.” “Sidestepping swollen potholes on Quinpool, I pass a traffic island / with its mascara of snow, a bicycle wheel crushed into a taco, / a bird’s next asquint with icicles.” See my full review here.

18. Laila Malik, archipelago: Comparable to Ottawa poet and lawyer natalie hanna’s recent full-length debut lisan al’asfour (Winnipeg MB: ARP Books, 2022) for its diasporic exploration through a lush lyric is Laila Malik’s archipelago (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2023), a seeming-debut that traces diasporic lineages across the layerings of multiple cultural and geographic landscapes, as well as the traumas of what was lost, destroyed and otherwise left behind. As the back cover offers: “Malik’s lyrical poems intertwine histories of exile and ecological devastation. Beginning with a coming of age in the 80s and 90s between Canada, the Arabian Gulf, East Africa, and Kashmir, they subvert conventions of lineage, instead drawing on the truths of inter-ethnic histories amidst sparse landscapes of deserts, oceans, and mountains. They question why the only certainties of ‘home’ are urgency and impossibility.” Very much structured as an expansive, book-length lyric, Malik’s archipelago traces a finger-line across an ongoing, fragmented, staggered and staccato line, one that seems to run the length and breadth of the collection. Hers is lyric of long lines and disruptive sweeps, difficult histories and an array of geographies that are home no longer, as the same poem opens: “we are not the first girls to walk the desert alone but we don’t know this yet.” Composed via four sections and an epilogue, she writes of war and erasure, of exile and endurance, of the oil wars and ecological destruction, and of the accumulative losses both human and cultural, as well as of the imagination. One might call this a book of uprootedness, seemingly held above ground while still tethered, somehow, to a crumbling of broken soil. As the final poem in the collection offers, just near the end: “forever incanting /// i can’t be a landthief if i live in the air // can i [.]” See my full review here.

19. Emily Osborne, Safety Razor: I’m intrigued by the lyric density of the narratives in Bowen Island, British Columbia-based poet Emily Osborne’s full-length debut, Safety Razor (Guelph ON: Gordon Hill Press, 2023). “Thunder strums through my earliest memory / of family dinner.” she writes, to open the opening poem, “Infant amnesia,” “Summer in Ontario, // lightning pulses on the table. In the post- / voltaic hush, Dad tunes the radio to sirens, // tornado. We rush to the basement but / I’m leashed to my highchair so Dad hauls // the hybrid downstairs, my bib scattering / remnants in the dim.” She offers stories, memories and short scenes that unfold and unfurl with such careful precision, physicality and rootedness, composed within a present that includes moments across time and space to meet corresponding moments of flesh and bone. As she writes as part of the poem “Diacritics”: “You said my consonants split and replicate / like cells in tumours.” Writing on scrimshaws, dinosaur bones, runes, DNA, relativity, pollution, weather, ballads and folk tales, Osborne’s poems are centred on her narrative self, but also populated with different eras and perspectives, and the collection includes a selection of poems that fold in a handful of her translations of Old Norse-Icelandic skaldic verse from the tenth to the twelfth centuries. I’m curious about her engagement with such particular histories and old forms, and her author biography offers that she “completed an MPhil and PhD at the University of Cambridge, in Old English and Old Norse Literature.” This is a collection that is fully aware of roots that span distances vast and intimate, moving in a myriad of directions, and even further, as the collection closes with a small cluster of poems on new parenting. “Oh my son,” she writes, as part of “Labour, Eastertime 2019,” “from where did you come? / It’s true I didn’t see you until the curtain / lifted. But other hands are always first // to catch, pull, hold you. Alone / I feed you, while the postnatal / room’s analog snips through sleep.” See my full review here.

20. Meghan Kemp-Gee, The Animal in the Room: There are some interesting formal shifts in poet Meghan Kemp-Gee’s full-length poetry debut, The Animal in the Room (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2023). There is something in the way she works her lyric narratives from line-breaks to prose poems, attempting to feel out her own sense of formal opportunity, syntax and shape. “Through her syntax and diction,” she writes, to open the prose poem “THE THESIS SENTENCE,” “the author explores her main theme in a clear and effective way. Through the use of rhetorical devices including metaphor and repetition, the writer emphasizes her argument. Throughout this poem, the meaning is reflected by the form in several ways. In this text, the author has some questions and she asks them using various rhetorical techniques and narrative strategies.” Throughout The Animal in the Room, there are poems that sparkle with inventiveness and wit, as she composes a bestiary of sentences and syntax. Each of her animals, as well as her sentences, retain their wildnesses, even while set up against a particular element of constraint or restraint. Kemp-Gee’s structures do seem exploratory, as she attends and examines her lyric with a careful deliberateness, one that can’t easily be situated. Holding a back cover quote by poet Sue Sinclair suggests a particular lyric formality that Kemp-Gee’s poems might include as a strain, but her overall experimentations eventually contradict, as the pieces here are more interested in structural differences and staggerings of syntax than any specific adherence to narrative form. This is very much a book of structures, of sentences; writing of animals and dreams, and the dreams of animals: the brontosaurus, the giant pacific octopus, the Vancouver Island marmoset and the Greenland shark, among others. “I have a question / for the ticks who dream / about being wolves. / My question concerns / orchids and the end / of the world,” she writes, to open the poem “THE BLOODSUCKER,” “concerns / the colour blue and /rare diseases.” This book suggests some remarkable things are still to come from Meghan Kemp-Gee; I, for one, am very much looking forward to seeing what she does next. See my full review here.

21. Weyman Chan, Witness Back at Me: Composed as a collage-elegy is Calgary poet Weyman Chan’s sixth full-length collection, Witness Back at Me (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2023). Subtitled “mis-mothering & transmigration,” Witness Back at Me is a book-length elegy of witness composed through a lyric of stunning complexity around language, loss, grief and connection. As the back cover offers: “Suffused with a collage-like immersion of stream-of-conscious voices, Witness Back at Me parallels Chan’s childhood loss of his mother to breast cancer with the loss of his Two-Spirit Métis friend and mentor, writer Sharron Proulx-Turner.” The book is structured in five parts—“Did Nietzsche Have a Navel,” “My Surname Is Dust,” “The Hole to Heaven You Dug,” “That Old Vast Emptiness” and “Inscrutably Mis-Mothered”—and the collection is a wealth of sound, jumble and narrative layering, weaving in and through lines on and by Proulx-Turner, offering a through-line of the heart. The poems examine her work and his relationship to her, and to her work, providing an image of his mentor and her work that looks back at him, as well. “I too / am split from monster.” he writes, as part of the poem “DEFUNDING MY FEELY MAP.” The poem writes, further along: “if sorrow is / a stomach in a pond / or a clavicle neither beside nor / behind, if sorrow is / an op-ed that helped me not die // will you witness back at me? / that crow-wing blanket that helped you fly / above your own terror // Sharron, if I get lost // if parchment was ever innocent of its writ / to not have at least five tricks played on you [.]” The poems are masterful, richly evocative with a density of syntax, texture and sound. “how do I witness / when I am the land that I forget?” he writes, to close the opening sequence, “SITTING WITH SHARRON,” “I did not / plan                 to live outside the dead // or just by thinking this / haven’t I already changed the outcome [.]” See my full review here.

22. Alycia Pirmohamed, Another Way to Split Water: I’m both struck and charmed by the slow progressions of lyric observation and philosophical inquiry throughout “Canadian-born poet based in Scotland” Alycia Pirmohamed’s full-length poetry debut, Another Way to Split Water (Portland OR: YesYes Books/Edinburgh: Polygon Books, 2022). “I see the wind pull down the tautness / of trees and the swans at the lagoon part / through the wreckage.” she writes, as part of the poem “MEDITATION WHILE PLAITING MY HAIR,” “Each one is another translation for love / if love was more vessel than loose thread.” There is such a tone and tenor to each word; her craft is obvious, but managed in a way that simultaneously suggest an ease, even as the poems themselves are constantly seeking answers, seeking ground, across great distances of uncertainty and difficulty. “Yes, I desire knowledge,” she writes, as part of “AFTER THE HOUSE OF WISDOM,” “whether physical or moral or spiritual. / This kind of longing is a pattern embossed / on my skin.” It is these same patterns, perhaps, that stretch out across the page into her lyric, attempting to articulate what is otherwise unspoken. There is such a strange and haunting beauty to her descriptions, whether through how she describes “each stammer of lightning” as part of the poem “NIGHTS / FLATLINE,” or, as part of the poem “I WANT THE KIND OF PERMANENCE IN / A BIRDWATCHER’S CATALOGUE,” as she offers: “Any birdwatcher will tell you / that winged boats // do not howl through their sharp, pyramid beaks. // That sound clicking through / waterlogged bodies // must be the prosody of my own desires.” The language of the poems across Another Way to Split Water delight in sparks and electrical patterns, providing far more lines and phrases that leap out than one can keep track of, beyond simply wishing to reproduce the book entirely. “Origins are also small memories,” she writes, as part of the poem “AFTER THE HOUSE OF WISDOM,” “and there is an ethics to remembering— / I hear lilting from below the evening green / that houses our episodic ghosts.” Two pages further, the poem “NERIUM OLEANDER” offers: “How much of her skin / is a body of water? // Nerium / because she is a flood // of rain as it falls / into a river, // because she sprouts / in rich alluvials.” See my full review here.

23. Amy Ching-Yan Lam, Baby Book: The latest from Tkaronto/Toronto-based artist and writer Amy Ching-Yan Lam, author of the speculative fiction Looty Goes to Heaven (Birmingham UK: Eastside Projects, 2022) is the full-length poetry debut Baby Book (Kingston ON: Brick Books, 2023). Ching-Yan Lam utilizes a compelling meditative structure to her stretched out narratives, where the point of each poem is suggested to be in one direction, if any, instead sneaking up from another. Offering poems that open large questions around story and storytelling, she speaks of stories told, poured and passed down in their tellings and retellings. Is a story retold and remade a matter of regeneration or one of loss? She writes of family, including elements of continuity, displacement and origins, and how language can be mangled, misunderstood and manipulated. Her stories appear to meander, until one realizes that every step, every sentence and phrase, was highly deliberate, and provided the only logical journey towards a remarkably clear, precise and complex portrait. “In the beginning, the ground was the milk of beans,” she writes, to open the poem “LAND MADE OF FOOD,” “until it was boiled and squeezed into tofu. // Then hot sauce shot up from below and filled up the seas. // Rocks appeared—peanuts. // Then trees / with leaves and roasted nori / and trucks of nougat. // When it rains, it rains perogies.” See my full review here.

24. Kate Cayley, Lent: Toronto-based poet and fiction writer Kate Cayley’s third full-length poetry title, following When This World Comes to an End (London ON: Brick Books, 2013) and Other Houses (Brick Books, 2017), is Lent (Book*hug, 2023), a collection constructed as a quartet of suite-sections, furthering her ongoing exploration of slow, unfolding lyric attentions. Cayley’s poems are almost structured as acts of unwrapping, or as working a particular kind of puzzle, each line inching closer towards a particular solution, discovery or revelation. “And if repetition could itself be / a form of attention,” she writes, as part of the opening poem, “Attention,” “folding along the crease / until the crease finds itself / hollowing out the groove, as in marriage, / studying the same face, the same / permeable body […].” As overused as the descriptor “unfurls” is for discussing poems, this single-sentence lyric poem does exactly that, moving resolutely across the page and through myriad line-breaks to question, open and reveal. It is curious that Cayley mentions repetition without specifically utilizing repetition through the collection, instead allowing each poem an echo of tone, rhythm and, yes, attention, as a way of garnering alternate perspectives. “I sit from time to time in empty churches,” she writes, to close the fourth and final poem in the short sequence-cluster “Dutch Masters,” titled “Gerrit Adriaenszoon Berckheyde, Church of Saint Cecilia, Cologne, / about 1670,” “not knowing how to pray. Hoping for belief / the way a tree might for the axe: show me / the pith of my own heart.” See my full review here.

25. Jake Byrne, Celebrate Pride with Lockheed Martin: It’s rare that a contemporary poet announces two poetry titles simultaneously (Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley is the only recent example that comes to mind, when he had three books with two publishers appear in a single publishing season), even more rare if are paired as debuts, such as the case with Toronto poet and editor Jake Byrne’s eagerly-awaited collections Celebrate Pride with Lockheed Martin (Hamilton ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2023) and The Tide (Kingston ON: Brick Books, 2024). It would be curious to see how these books exist in tandem, but for now, we’ve Celebrate Pride with Lockheed Martin, published as part of editor Paul Vermeersch’s “A Buckrider Book” imprint. “See I never needed // The actual bomb // The bomb was an idea // We deserved what was coming // And because the idea // Prefigured the bomb // The idea of the bomb and the work of the bomb are one.” Byrne writes, as part of the extended opening poem, “A BOUQUET OF KETCHUP-FLAVOURED ROSES.” “I want spring // To bust open on my like a fistful of girls // In yellow dresses // Girls // Drooling hot blood // From full lips [.]” Celebrate Pride with Lockheed Martin is an ambitious collection with a wide scope, examining “the complexities of modern queer life” as well as savage indictments of “capitalism and war, and the co-opting of queer culture by them both.” This is a book of sex and swagger, big targets and large ambition, and Byrne declares their intent from the get-go. There is such a clear-headed fearlessness to these lyrics, one that is self-aware and savage, offering layers of first-person observation, reportage, document and critique. Byrne writes of theatre, geography, atrocity and queerness in a layering of sections within sections, each of which feel composed from within very particular cultural and personal moments. “I just did monogamy / At the sex party,” the poem “THE SUN HAS NEVER LOOKED SO LARGE” begins, “I only had sex with two people in four hours / The sun on the train blinded me / I looked right at it / There was a crescent within its light / Now I see nothing [.]” See my full review here.

26. Natalie Rice, Scorch: I’m very pleased to engage with the carved hush of Kelowna, British Columbia poet Natalie Rice’s full-length debut, Scorch (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2023), a book I’d been looking forward to for some time. She had a chapbook with Gaspereau in 2020 [see my review of such here] and I was immediately struck by the clarity of her lyrics, offering a sequence of sketches that are simultaneously easygoing and lyrically taut. “[…] everything is the shape / of what you love.” she writes, to close the poem “APPLES.” Across an assemblage of honed lyrics, Rice offers a way of seeing between and among the trees, able to articulate ecological space and time and our place within and surrounding it, articulating just how intimately connected and interconnected we truly are. As the sequence “LOST LAKE” begins: “A jagged breath. Sometimes stars / peel off the pond.” See my full review here.

27. Tom Cull, Kill Your Starlings: The second full-length collection from London, Ontario poet (and, from 2016-2018, that city’s poet laureate) Tom Cull, following Bad Animals (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2018), is Kill Your Starlings (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2023), a collection of poems that appear, carefully and delicately, as though carved out of stone or ice. Across this book-length suite on family and place, Cull offers an assemblage of descriptive, first-person lyrics, setting blocks down as if to build, writing on cars, family, Ikea, masculinity, toxicity and landscape. Listen to how he describes heading west by train out of Ottawa (specifically, Fallowfield Station): “Outside, land is drawn and quartered. / Wild turkeys step through / split-rail fences; a lone coyote pauses / in a pasture, head thrown / back across its body watching us pass.” Cull’s wisdom, as well as his humour, emerges quietly, to rest amid rumination, offering one step and then another, further, considered step: not one word or line out of place. As the back cover offers, this is a book about family and place, although there is a way he writes about masculinity is worth mentioning: his articulations are different, although equally powerful, than, say, Dale Smith’s Flying Red Horse (Talonbooks, 2021), offering a sequence of poems, for example, on the male gestures offered through car commercials. “Set it free.” he writes, in the poem “Subaru Wilderness,” the fourth and final poem in the sequence “AUTO EROTICA,” “See the Subaru in its natural habitat; / a hundred thousand mutations, / bionic selection stalking slag ridges— // terrarium interiors—synthetic protein / seats, hot mist, pitcher plants, / neon salamander toes suction cupped / to the windows.” Cull’s threads are subtle, offering a book heartfelt and deep, writing of a father he learned from by example, benefitting from the man’s quiet dignity. “Years after my dad died,” he writes, as part of the wonderfully graceful “AUTOPSY REPORT,” “I moved home temporarily to help get the farm ready for sale. I hired plumbers, roofers, contractors to do the work. Over the course of that year, I met several men, who’d had my dad as their teacher. They all praised his patience, his care, and his demand for discipline and hard work.” See my full review here.

28. David Martin, Kink Bands: Following his book length debut, Tar Swan (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2018), comes Calgary poet David Martin’s second collection, Kink Bands (NeWest Press, 2023), a collection slyly and semi-deceptively titled for a geological term. As the back cover offers, Kink Bands is composed via “lyrically experimental poems expanding and retracting,” in a collection that “finds sonic and conceptual energy from the perspective of deep time and the geological forces that have shaped and continue to shape the Earth.” The notion of “deep time” is one that contemporary poets seem to only occasionally wrestle with (not nearly enough, one might think), focusing instead on more immediate moments and concerns, but for the length and breadth of what might be seen as Don McKay’s second lyric act (with Long Sault more of an opening salvo than an extended act), following a career of multiple poetry titles focusing on birds and birding into multiple book-length lyric meditations on geological and ecological time (the 2021 title Lurch might be McKay emerging out the other end of this into a larger, blended consideration, but that’s a conversation for another time). For Martin, the notion of the “kink band” examines both a layering and an extended thread, approaching his blending of geological research and the narrative lyric akin to extended study. Martin’s poems are hewn, carved and crafted, comparable to if one could simultaneously carve and reconceptualize stone. Simply to read the notes set at the end of the collection makes for interesting reading, seeing how he approaches the composition of poems and the application of ongoing study. Martin moves from bedrock to striation, legends of the creation and use of stone tools to the myth of Philoctetes, and even to Martin’s own adaptation of Earle Birney’s infamous poem “David,” from David and other Poems (Ryerson Press, 1942), a poem he translates “into the restricted language of Basic English. the poem mimics the crystalline structure of foliated metaporic rocks that have been subjected to extreme pressure and heat at tectonic zones of subduction.” See my full review here.

29. Erín Moure, Theophylline: an a-poretic migration via the modernisms of Rukeyser, Bishop, Grimké (de Castro, Vallejo) : The latest from Montreal-based translator, poet and critic Erín Moure is the expansive Theophylline: an a-poretic migration via the modernisms of Rukeyser, Bishop, Grimké (de Castro, Vallejo) (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2023), a collection that achieves a remarkable balance of referential complexity and linear clarity, writing on and through the threads of three other poets. Moure focuses on, around and through the interconnected writing and lives of modernist poets Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) and Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958), as much to speak of them as on the act of translation, a notion of fluidity that emerges from that single and mutable point of perspective, offering the distances of certain offerings that are wildly outdated, and others clearly offered years before such might be possible. “Even though a woman, a lover of women, a Jew, a single mother are conditions encumbered by prejudice and misogyny in America,” Moure writes, “Rukeyser can assume the rostrum. Wind in her hair. She steps off the plane in Barcelona, in Hanoi. She clears her throat and looks outward.” Moure’s migration begins with an opening of grief, a distance from her own writing and a deep dive into the archive; it begins with a cough, and a wheeze, as she worked through the Woodberry Poetry Room, her opening notes dated April 17, 2017. There is an echo of American poet Susan Howe’s prose through Moure’s explorations, exploring the archive and seeking narrative threads on literary construction and creation, comparable as well to those essay-poems of such as Barry McKinnon and Phil Hall, but with a far more expansive canvas and deeper complexity. Moure threads the lyric through narratives of these poets, their approaches and decisions, and how they lived their lives and their work. This is a book simultaneously on the act of translation, the works of these three modernists and of asthma, writing of queer bodies and breath, sexism, racism and female histories, all the shared and discrete threads of otherness that permeates both her own perspectives and the perspectives and responses of the three poets she focuses on.

I’m fascinated by how Moure works to articulate the act of translation, as she describes it as something that exists in motion, as opposed to a fixed point: a living, breathing entity that exists within its own time and space. And she, as translator, operating at the compositional consideration of attempting a single moment from a particular perspective at a particular time. Even for the same translator to attempt to translate a single work a year earlier or a year later might result in a variation. As she offers as part of her section around, on and through the work and life of Elizabeth Bishop: “The desire that utterances exist in a language other than that in which they are created: translation. In the body, an awareness of where in the mouth a particular language is spoken. Between languages, form is not still.” See my full review here.

30. Adam Beardsworth, No Place Like: I was fortunate to hear Corner Brook, Newfoundland poet Adam Beardsworth read from his full-length poetry debut, No Place Like (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2023), as part of the Horseshoe Literary Festival. Set in three sections of first-person lyrics—“Home,” “Earth” and Sky”—No Place Like offer a meditative series of descriptive landscapes, populated by such as Robinson Jeffers, border towns, sanctuaries, how to survive a bear attack, youthful folly and suburban sprawl. “Traffic flows downstream,” he writes, as part of “Biography of a Morning,” “past salmon // fighting the current, past anglers lashing the rip / with flies, jonesing for the hit that assures // man’s dominion over things.” There is a storytelling shade to his poems, one that is deeply intimate, focusing a foundation of ecopoetic around memory, moments and domestic matters. Beardsworth composes poems in a combination of short phrases and long, languid sentences that lope across line breaks, stanzas and a deep earnestness, one that provides a comforting voice, even across multiple threads of elegy, and poems acknowledging a multitude of losses, from the personal to the ecological. “Beheaded, birds / flew from my neck,” he writes, to open the poem “Elegy,” “warblers, thrushes, hosts of / sparrows, startlings murmured // the shape of an empty heart.” He writes of fathers and sons, and of a beer at the pub, offering fresh meaning and insight across familiar realms. One of the highlights to the collection is the elegy “Buttercups,” that ends: “a reminder / of the day our lives diverged as you walked into the family / life that fitted like a knitted sweater, as if to say you still // remembered life before that day, carefree and careless, / but what mattered came after, and as this dawns I feel / your hand on my shoulder, pulling me out of the dark // one last time, pointing me towards my son still sitting / in the sandbox, holding a fresh-picked buttercup to my / bearded chin and smiling, wondering where I have been.” See my full review here.

31. Jim Johnstone, The King of Terrors: I’m slowly working my way through Toronto poet Jim Johnstone’s seventh full-length poetry title, The King of Terrors (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2023), following Infinity Network (Signal Editions/Vehicule Press, 2022), and this new collection is composed “after a brain tumour diagnosis,” as the back cover informs, as “a treatise on living with illness and the way that language, relationships, and our immersion in the natural world can free us from the spectre of impending collapse.” Despite the unexpected and sudden diagnosis, the poems themselves continue a trajectory of approach from his prior collection, offering a wistful and examining commentary on the violence that exists just below the surface of the skin, whether through larger culture, or quite literally. He writes of impending collapse, even as he writes from the perspective of someone deeply grateful, even surprised, to still be here, and his poems offer both a perspective on the immediate moment and the possibility, and the dread, of that further horizon. “I’m not scared. I’ve heard / talk of my condition before – / the times my father would say / it’s not brain surgery, son, / meaning this isn’t life or death / and you have heard before / you’ll count backwards / from thirty,” he writes, to open the fifth poem in the eight-poem sequence “THERE IS NOTHING MORE INVASIVE THAN SNOW,” “fight but fall under / the spell [headache] of sleep, / snow’s all-encompassing / grip.” See my full review here.

32. Amanda Earl, Beast Body Epic: One of the frustrations of no longer running a trade literary press is that we would have easily produced one or two further titles by Ottawa poet Amanda Earl beyond her full-length debut, Kiki (Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2014), so it was a delight to see her self-produce her latest, the book-length Beast Body Epic (Ottawa ON: AngelHousePress, 2023). Beast Body Epic directly responds to the author’s health crisis from a few years back, and the ongoingness of Earl’s expansive lyric and visual structure echoes, slightly, of how Dennis Cooley responded to a burst appendix, through his departures (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 2016). As Vancouver poet and editor Elee Kraljii Gardiner writes as part of her introduction to Beast Body Epic: “She leans into visual poetry, the epic, allusion, disassociation, memoir, verse, prose, fable, allegory, and other modes in order to tell a complex story in a surprisingly succinct work. The variation is not only necessarily, it’s seamless, and Amanda’s text flows with the protagonist through crisis into stasis and onward.” Throughout her book-length epic, Earl offers a dense language of sound and play, traversing visual, prose, lyric experimentation and flourish, occasionally sketching a kind of narrative point-form. “Death spent years as the taker.” she writes, early on in the collection, “Loaded art into their conversation. / The Rot was too drunk and needy, couldn’t breathe. / She nightmare herself to sleep. / The sun ceased. // The fluttering started and didn’t stop. / First the pigeons, then the crows. / Black wing over black wing. / There’s a wolf in the labyrinth, / the Rot’s husband told her.” Earl’s lyrics and visuals are wildly performative, capable of incredible grace, flourish, anguish and precision, as required. “A nurse gives me Tylenol 3,” she writes, mid-way through the collection, “a gown / and long white compression socks. / I feel like Anne of Green Gables or / maybe Raggedy Anne, my body / stuffed full of rags, my clothes too / big for me, a little orphan girl without / parents or anyone to save her.” This is a collection that somehow manages to fly in multiple, even contradictory structural directions simultaneously, while holding together as a clear book-length work with a narrative through-line. If you haven’t been paying attention to the ongoing work of Amanda Earl, you clearly need to begin. See my full review here.

33. Shane Book, All Black Everything: The latest from poet Shane Book is All Black Everything (Iowa City IA: University of Iowa Press, 2023), a follow-up to his Congotronic (University of Iowa Press, 2014), and a collection that Montreal poet Kaie Kellough describes on the back cover as a book that “[…] proposes an expansive, global poetics, which is equally a poetics of Black diasporan fluency. All Black’s poems ride the crosscurrents of history and popular culture through African America, the Caribbean, West Africa, the United Kingdom, and Canada. As references whirl and constellate, All Black’s language grows dense and intricate.” Through sharp, short lyrics, Book offers a narrative display of wild collage that provides a clear through-line, writing a mix of culture, shape, reference, sound and geographies. His poems are rife with humour, swagger and declaration, even turning his fierce and steady magpie gaze upon himself: “You try living in a pigeon pen above a / series of car repair shops / and love motels for a while—,” he writes, to open the poem “I Know I’ve Reached Peak Shane,” “then come talk to me.” Book’s lyrics showcase a different kind of magpie poetics than, say, Perth, Ontario Phil Hall: whereas one might say Hall’s lyrics carry a weight and assemble a sequence of light and shining objects, Book’s poems collect a myriad of moments of weight through his travels, but one approached with a counterbalance of lightness in the line, such as across the play of poems including “The Best Pozole in Santa Cruz,” “The Nervous Hunger of an Ox” or “Mexico City Stole My Wife,” a poem that begins: “Lingonberries the last diet hope, // she-blogger knitting together // a freedom, marauded through // by the state farmers and the  blue // cornet l’amour. Turns out // fingers up to the Beyoncé birthers.” There is such a joyous bounce and bop to his lyrics, one that dances across the line to further line through a sound and syntax that refuses, much like the author, to remain still or static. To travel, as one knows, is to better understand not only home, but what we carry from those places we are from, and Book knows full well, exploring and examining threads of diasporic conversation and communities against a counterpoint of globalization and global politics. It is the combination of all of the above that provide a through-line to his own foundations, even as he offers the poem “Dad Bod,” that begins: “I want to be happy // fuck you. Low rider magazine // easy-load for the AK // in a Black Liberation // Army birthday // type o’ way. First thing // Imma do is grow // my movement beard, // feel some type o’ way. // But you must live // in the Midwest, // be so inside // these landscaped // breather // like a new gold scarf // underwater.” See my full review here.

34. Sandra Ridley, Vixen: For her fifth full-length poetry title, Vixen (Toronto ON: Book*Hug Press, 2023), Ottawa poet and editor Sandra Ridley blends medieval language around women, foxes and the fox hunt alongside ecological collapse, intimate partner violence and stalking into a book-length lyric that swirls around and across first-person fable, chance encounter and an ever-present brutality. Following her collections Fallout (Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2009), Post-Apothecary (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2011), The Counting House (BookThug, 2013) and the Griffin Prize-shortlisted Silvija (BookThug, 2016), the language of Vixen is visceral, lyric and loaded with compassion and violence, offering both a languid beauty and an underlying urgency. “If he has a love for such,” she writes, as part of the second poem-section, “or if loathing did not prevent him. // A curse shall be in his mouth as sweet as honey as it was in our mouths, our mouths as / sweet as honey. Revulsive as a flux of foxbane, as offal—and he will seem a lostling. // He came for blood and it will cover him.” Set in six extended poem-sections—“THICKET,” “TWITCHCRAFT,” “THE SEASON OF THE HAUNT,” “THE BEASTS OF SIMPLE CHACE,” “TORCHLIGHT” and “STRICKEN”—Ridley’s poems are comparable to some of the work of Philadelphia poet Pattie McCarthy for their shared use of medieval language, weaving vintage language and consideration across book-length structures into a way through to speak to something highly contemporary. As such, Vixen’s acknowledgments offer a wealth of medieval sources on hunting, and language on and around foxes and against women, much of which blends the two. A line she incorporates from Robert Burton (1621), for example: “She is a foole, a nasty queane, a slut, a fixin, a scolde [.]” From Francis Quarles (1644), she borrows: “She’s a pestilent vixen when she’s angry, and as proud as Lucifer [.]” See my full review here.

35. andrea bennett, the berry takes the shape of the bloom: The latest from British Columbia poet, writer and editor andrea bennett is the poetry title the berry takes the shape of the bloom (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2023), a book-length lyric suite comprised of untitled, accumulated fragments that cohere into a loose kind of narrative arc. Following bennett’s full-length debut Canoodlers (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2014) [see my review of such here] and more recent essay collection, Like a Boy but Not a Boy (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020), there is something about bennett’s lyric, bennett’s line, that refuses to remain static. “I had a temper so hot it could fry an egg.” they write, early on in the collection. “Like a / key breaking off inside a rusted U-lock. Like an / unanchored bookshelf in an earthquake. Like a / crow picking a fight with an eagle.” Offering a blend of lyric bend and first-person memoir, these poems rush and run electric across a collection that originated, as the back cover offers, “as a gesture towards optimism after loss, pain, difficulty, and fear. It began as a linear narrative, offering a window into one trans person’s life after they felt contented and secure. “I forget what poetics are.” bennett writes, towards the end of the collection. “I forget the word for / the study of knowledge. I need a phrase when / the word is a thing unto itself, a special ornate / thing in itself. I work in the kitchen, where I / make the food.” Deeply personal and exploratory, bennett composes a book-length meditative thread that examines a variety of shifts of being from within, writing partners and ex-partners, pregnancy and mothering, all of which are enormous enough shifts on their own, but all through the lens of becoming the person they were meant to become: opening up as transgender, and the shift, as Mercedes Eng writes on one of the blurbs on the back cover, “from daughter to not-daughter,” and the difficulties of the author’s mother, a character unwilling to adapt, and perhaps, frustratingly, best left behind. There’s a lot going on within the bounds of this book-length poem, writing anger and acceptance, witness and loss, running the gamut from wild uncertainty and rage to acceptance and clear confidence. See my full review here.

36. Nikki Reimer, No Town Called We: The latest from Calgary poet and editor Nikki Reimer—following the trade collections [sic] (Calgary AB: Frontenac House, 2010), DOWNVERSE (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2014) and My Heart Is a Rose Manhattan (Talonbooks, 2019), and chapbooks fist things first (Windsor ON: Wrinkle Press, 2009), that stays news (Vancouver BC: Nomados Literary Publishers, 2011) and BEHIND THE DRYWALL (Gytha Press, 2021)—is No Town Called We (Talonbooks, 2023), published alongside the companion above/ground press visual chapbook, Dinosaurs of Glory (2023). Composed across a quartet of lyric clusters—“No Town Called Poetry,” “The Daily We,” “One Poet Always Lies” and “The iLL Symbolic”—No Town Called We is a suite of lyric experimentation and cultural discourse, working to orient and even articulate oneself amid a field that pushes an insistence to keep moving, move forward and do not question. “consciously enter the state of we,” the poem “Keep on Truck” ends, “via this inherited truck / in the land of trucks and honey / to keep moving: / just keep moving [.]” Reimer examines the effects of those very extractions upon the land, the landscape, the people and multiple cultures above ground. Reimer’s is a lyric that has been increasingly open and engaged on deeply personal matters of grief, fear, loss and anxiety, examining death, climate crisis and capitalism generally, and Alberta’s oil production and ensuing climate devastations and overt cultural loss through the capitalist engine more specifically, as well as her ongoing grief following the sudden and unexpected loss of her brother. In No Town Called We, she speaks of direct human consequence upon the land and landscape, the responsibilities and failures of humans generally, and even poets, specifically, offering the poem “But the Moon” as a kind of complaint on distraction, focused on what is happening in the sky instead of here on the ground. “What exactly did you think the moon was going to do for you, poet?” she writes. “Why are you writing these words, line by line by line?” As Reimer writes to open the poem “Plants We Have Killed”: “what duty of care do we owe each other? // when embodiment stands in / for direct action?” See my full review here.

37. Ben Meyerson, Seguiriyas: I’m intrigued by this full-length debut by poet Ben Meyerson, a poet who currently splits his time between Canada and Spain, the collection Seguiriyas (Boston MA/Chicago IL: Black Ocean, 2023). Following on the heels of four poetry chapbooks—In a Past Life (The Alfred Gustav Press, 2016), Holcocene (Kelsay Books, 2019), An Ecology of the Void (above/ground press, 2019) and Near Enough (Seven Kitchens Press, 2023)—Seguiriyas is expansive and ambitious: composed around a particular musical structure, one with deep cultural ties to the Gitanos (the Romani population) of Andalusia. To close the three-page “Al Cante,” he writes: “To live is to be buoyed / without knowledge of the buoyancy: // a cry that gives and refuses to give. // A cry that accompanies the cry.” As his “Author’s Note” offers, the “Seguiriyas” of his title “is derived from the flamenco palo (or ‘song form’) of the same name.” Structured with opening poem “Close” and closing poem “Open,” with four numbered sections of poems in between, Meyerson composes an assemblage of poems that fit together as thoughtfully as individual puzzle pieces, or possibly a quilt, all assembled through and around the larger musical structure of the song form. “Take dawn and make it a hinge,” he writes, to open the poem “Daybreak Translation,” “as if night is a shutter to be tugged / up or down / in the talons of a rock dove, pulled / from above, where the pulsation of wingtips / warps air into pillars banished sharp / against the empyrean cliff, whose summit / is a vertex in the fold / of a face averting.” The poems write elements around and through the large subject of placement, displament and history—a perspective from and a tether between his Toronto upbringing to larger conversations around diaspora—and how cultural memory is held, passed on and preserved. See my full review here.

38. Matthew Gwathmey, Tumbling for Amateurs: The second full-length collection by Fredericton, New Brunswick poet Matthew Gwathmey, following the full-length debut, Our Latest in Folktales (London ON: Brick Books, 2019) and the chapbook looping climate (above/ground press, 2022), is Tumbling for Amateurs (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2023). “We have no other way to touch each other.” he writes, to open the poem “NO OTHER WAY.” “Really no other way to touch each other. / We seek this particular exercise because / we have no other way to touch each other.” Compiled as a collection of collaged and reassembled text and image, Tumbling for Amateurs is a book of lyric translation, response, poetic structure, play and verve, riffing off an athletic manual of the same name, described on this collection’s back cover as “a 1910 manual from the Spalding Athletic Company.” There’s a twirling and tumbling to his lines, many of which might need to be heard or spoken to be properly appreciated. “All in a queue & start & start & we start & we / start & we crotch front & we straddle over & / we crotch back & we straddle under & we / crotch front,” the poem “CROTCH & STRADDLE” begins. Sharp and studied, the poems that accumulate, and even collage, into this book-length collection display a myriad of forms, offering overt play and visual displays of language, sound and, dare I say it, gymnastic fervor. “Reclining at meat,” the poem “THE JOUSTING TOURNAMENT” begins, “three guys clench each other’s hopes / and roll into chivalrous accolades. / To aid and succour at the sound of a bugle or herald’s cry – / Arthur squats, / Bennie planting charity / on Arthur’s strength.” The images included by Gwathmey, acrobatically collaged from the source volume, illustrate the poems, but just as much interact, and even counterpoint, allowing a visual thread that intermingles with the poems in its own simultaneous direction through the collection. Leaning into male movement, attention and desire, the poems open from the perspective of a subject matter that, at least from the source material, both suggests and deflects, all of which is on full display in Matthew Gwathmey’s playful blend of translation and reimagining. See my full review here.

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