For many, year-end means a moment of reflection, and the appearance of lists, lists and more lists. Calling anything a “best of” is an obvious misnomer, but there are still books that are so good that they’re difficult to ignore, and impossible to not recommend. I’ve received and picked up numerous poetry books by Canadians and other, and thought it might be worth compiling a list of the Canadian titles that really stuck out, over the past calendar year.
Here are sixteen poetry books that came out in 2012 by Canadian writers that I would consider worthy of further attention, listed in no particular order:
1. Jenna Butler, Wells: In Edmonton poet, editor and publisher Jenna Butler’s second trade collection, Wells (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2012), she “draws on her own experiences of her grandmother’s disappearance into senile dementia to reassemble a sensual world in longpoem form” (according to the press release). Disappearance narratives in the form of poems rarely work, but the dream-like quality of Butler’s long poem write the straight lines long enough they bleed. Wells reads less an interest in Butler attempting to document every losing detail than explore the haze, the misty places between knowing, doubting and disappearing.
The kitchen smelt often of quince. The hoary fruits inedible unless cooked, whereupon they resolved into a spring-pink jelly.
Inevitably, all other scents would be underwritten by tea. The Darjeeling your mother was so fond of, your father’s chicory coffee, a taste he’d developed during the War. How your mother tried to break him of it, that coffee, its scent bitter and deeply medicinal. He’d tell her, Habits aren’t horseshoes; they can’t be thrown so easily.
He came back from the War overwritten with translucent patches, the scar tissue gleaming as though he’d been drizzled with molten glass. Wherever the mustard gas had touched, it had burned, clear through the wool tunic and out along his limbs like marsh fire. When the sunlight found him now, it did so gingerly, his skin coming alight in silver, the scars blazing. As though, in stripping everything away from him, the gas had somehow given him this armour. He no longer rolled up his sleeves in the garden as he hefted the spade, worried that someone might be moved to pity. Your father came back from the War armoured inside his own skin. Against everything.
Even his own family.
Even you. (“Home”)
As Butler’s previous collection, Aphelion (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2010), explored the structure of the ghazals, Wells (named for the town of Wells-next-the-sea, England) explores the structure of the prose-poem, and the prairie narrative stretched out as long as a line can follow. Arranged in poem-sections, the poem-fragments hold up as a series of family photographs either blurry or apocryphal, and write the prairie sentence/long line with exquisite grace.
You used to be able to talk around the gaps, find words that were right enough, with acrobatic deftness. Now your tongue trips, mind falls flat like marram grass in a sea gale. Your leaps of logic confound even you, leave your listeners coughing into their hands, frantic for distraction.
You loved this beach once. The wind, the way it rips off the sea on a blustery day, what it drives up onto the sand. Whelks, polished stones, gull feathered battered like spindles. Bottle glass, bright colours scarified, filmed over. The same look in your eyes now when you turn to me, unsure, not wanting to ask. (“Wells”)
This volume, also, appears to be one of the first in the “Robert Kroetsch Series,” named for the late Alberta and University of Alberta Press author who died last spring in a tragic automobile accident. I wonder at this, pleased with the acknowledgement, but wonder why it was kept so quiet, and even now, seemingly barely-told or announced, but for a line or two in their catalogue?
2. Barbara Langhorst, restless white fields: Saskatchewan poet Barbara Langhorst’s first trade poetry collection, restless white fields (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2012), as the back cover tells us, responds to a “violent personal tragedy,” made clearer in the couplet “there are no kind words for this / my father put a bullet in her brain and a shotgun to his chest” (“MENSTRUL CUP”). Just as American poet Beth Bachmann wrote through grieving the murder of her sister by their father in her poetry collection, Temper (Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), Langhorst writes out an exploration of the actions and consequences of her own tragic events, and the spaces it leaves. restless white fields is a collection that writes through the dark, constructed to explore conclusions, comprehensions and redemption. The poems in the collection might not all be directly about this, but are coloured by such.
there is such intimacy with the body in pain that one can come to crave
a pot of custard a trivial drop of pursuit a warm dish of tikka masala to ignite
the death projecting incarnation near pique that a lot of fat produces
an encounter with an ontological sensation in the gallbladder not dissimilar
to those who dare to hang themselves know that to increase orgasmic intensity
the irregularity of false love of success determines potency through the liquor
of settled stomach or the heat of bursting screaming breathless belly one comes
to feel the martyrs and their self-flagellation
Closer to home than Bachmann, Langhorst’s book reminds of Lamentations (Trout Lily Press, 1997), a first collection of poems by now-Winnipeg poet Charlene Diehl-Jones. Built out of a sequence of prose-poems, her collection focused on the loss of her first child. Books spawning from awful trauma are extremely difficult to work through in a way that any reader might want to engage (I can think of a few examples—that I won’t name here—of a poet requiring not a publisher but a therapist, resulting in the most awful and self-absorbed of texts), and Langhorst’s poems write through trauma and come through the other side. It is no accident, I would not think, that dedication at the front of the collection is “for love.”
last autumn’s fall expedition to the graveyard our chickadees went wild for my
students the romantics’ dead thoughts chanting confusion all through the lane
of the yellowing elms this year’s fashionistas their connected hundred-dollar
dresses become distraught with the cool west wind but they have dirt
on the mob as we sit beside the monks reading shelley’s
ode to the unified wish for
a cold climactic change of heart (“BELOW THE WIRE ii”)
Langhorst’s restless white fields is a collection of dark undertones, which by itself don’t make it a dark or pessimistic book, although it might possibly be a necessary book. constructed in five sections—no kind words, bellum, the persistence of memory, exiled hearts and blue placenta—Langhorst’s poems are highly aware of the proper use of space on the page, stretching long lines in some pieces, or spaces patterned across the page in others, stretching couples that run the length of margins and prose-poems that wrap up, curl so very nicely. Langhorst’s poems are an enviable expression and exploration of structure and highly mature rhythms, and a book that would be difficult to not see on award shortlists
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER
i slept better before you
learned to kill
anxiety that perfect cure
now i share szumigalski’s
fear of knives i cannot stand to see
popped in cones
heads thwacked off pre-cordon bleu
it takes so much rage
a cupboard moth
immortal birds they fly at us
their suicide my potent fear
in leonard cohen’s hand
i slept better before you learned
3. Lise Downe, This Way: I’ve long been enraptured with the quiet confidence of Toronto poet Lise Downe’s poems, and feel rewarded in my patience through the publication of her long-awaited fourth trade poetry collection, This Way (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2011).
THE INFLUENCE OF COMPLETE DARKNESS
In the dusk of a November evening
somewhere in the mid-seventeenth century
nothing is concealed or conveyed.
There is, simply
a concentration of sunflowers.
As the world turns, they turn
from pathos to persuasion
guided by the radiant light.
Two fresh puddles insert themselves
and are read as a dark eclipse.
Nothing hinders them from soaking through.
Perhaps a fish detects them before disappearing
its far-off murmur a mutter now
sounding something like an inscription
on a Japanese fan by Totki Baigai:
“Outside the city walls there’s an odd fish.
I don’t know its name.”
Downe is a poet of big ideas and phrases, exploring the possibilities that poems allow in such small spaces they become impossibly large. This Way follows her collections, Disturbances of Progress (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2002), The Soft Signature (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1996) and A Velvet Increase of Curiosity (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1992), each carefully and thoughtfully constructed collections of sharp, smart poems. The poems in This Way create not a signpost to a single direction but a series of directions, and possibilities in ways that make Downe seem a meditational language poet, blending considerations that aren’t often intertwined. Structured with three sections and opening poem, “THE INFLUENCE OF COMPLETE DARKNESS,” the second section, “Small Mysteries” writes a sequence that seems to articulate the collection as a whole:
The volatile contents itself
like a sphere with the world inside.
One understands immediately
what the space allows.
There is no other word for it.
This novelty notwithstanding
all the conformity that was needed
to show that it, too, is continuous.
What very much compels about this collection, and Downe’s work, overall, is in how the book is constructed, from the single poem opener, to a sequence of fragments to a section of individual poems, to close with a sequence of haiku-like three-lined koans, resonating like packed bits of wisdom disguised as fragments, disguised as knowledge.
You can’t seriously expect that a story
based on something overheard might serve
as a point of departure. Oh evening, speak.
4. Nelson Ball, In This Thin Rain: In Paris, Ontario poet Nelson Ball’s poems, every word is essential, and, as editor Stuart Ross said at the recent Ottawa launch of Ball’s newest trade poetry collection In This Thin Rain (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2012), even the slightest edit could make enormous changes. As the back cover attests, “compressed meditations” might be the best way to describe Ball’s compact poems on his immediate, composing pieces on birds, trees, death, rain, colour and bookshelves. Ball began publishing in the 1960s, and was editor/publisher of the infamous Weed/Flower, publishing important early works by William Hawkins, George Bowering, Victor Coleman, Anselm Hollo, bpNichol, John Newlove, Carol Bergé, David W. McFadden and a number of others. As a writer, his own works include publications from 1965 to 1971 produced by Weed/Flower, Ganglia Press and Coach House Press before a gap of twenty years, during which he was involved in other activities, predominantly building up his bookselling business.
In the low breeze
two trees squeak
Since he returned to publishing in the early 1990s, he has published a small stack of items through presses small and smaller, from the trade collections With Issa: Poems 1964-1971 (ECW Press, 1991), Bird Tracks on Hard Snow (ECW Press, 1994), The Concrete Air (The Mercury Press, 1996), Almost Spring (The Mercury Press, 1999) and At The Edge Of The Frog Pond (The Mercury Press, 2004), as well as numerous smaller publications through Curvd H&z, MindWare, fingerprinting inkoperated, Letters, Rubblestone Press, above/ground press and Laurel Reed Books. There is a packed simplicity to Ball’s poems, more happening in his sharp densities than anyone could have imagined possible, and his influence has been seen since in a number of poet’s works, including the late Toronto poet bpNichol, Ottawa poet/bookseller jwcurry, Toronto poet/publisher Jay MillAr, Mount Pleasant, Ontario poet/publisher Kemeny Babineau and Toronto poet Mark Truscott, each attempting their own sharp densities from Ball, saying as much as possible with the very least.
at The Ponds
enough to make
For the past decade or so, Ottawa poet Seymour Mayne has been producing a number of what he calls “word sonnets,” attempting a brevity not nearly as clear, dense and elegant as the poems of Nelson Ball, and, much like Montreal poet Leonard Cohen composing eighty verses to boil down to a final four or five, Ball’s compositional process is a lengthy, detailed one of carving, slow and patient and considered.
Part of this book has the added layers of losing both his wife, the artist Barbara Caruso, and his mother during composition, and both women are evident in various shades of the text, such as the small and graceful poem “Colours,” subtitled “thinking of Barbara.” Another part of the collection that intrigues is part of the author’s “Notes and Acknowledgments” at the back, which might shed further light on Ball’s compositional process:
Since writing the poem “Reprieve”, I’ve found “rooves” as an alternative plural of “roof” in two large dictionaries and one shorter one. It appears in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (6th edition, 2007) and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (updated to 2002), and, oddly, in the Gage Canadian Dictionary (1983). “Rooves” doesn’t appear in The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary [microprint] (1971) nor in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd edition, 2004) nor the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th edition, revised, 2006). The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (2nd edition, 2007) by Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine gives “roofs” as the accepted plural. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition, 2007) gives only “roofs”. It’s interesting that concise dictionaries are created by omitting not only main entries, but also variant plurals. My survey was informal and far from complete.
It was interesting, also, that the morning I began to slowly work through Ball’s new collection, an envelope from Quebec poet D.G. Jones arrived in the mail, carrying a few new poems. The comparisons are evident, as both are senior poets known but not as well known as admirers would like, and both poets are revered for their quiet modesty, sharp and sudden line breaks, and the density of their thoughtful, uncomplicated brevity.
I’ve been reading obituaries
5. Erín Moure, The Unmemntioable: Montreal poet and translator Erín Moure’s new poetry collection, The Unmemntioable (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2012) continues a number of threads in her work over the past few years, from translation, border-crossings and her increasingly-constant companion, collaborator, foil and hetronym (in the Pessoa sense) Elisa Sampedrín. In The Unmemntioable, Moure includes a study of Sampedrín alongside her own grief, taking her mother’s ashes to (as the back cover writes) “the village where her maternal family was erased by war and time. There, watching E.M. through the trees in a downpour, an idea came to her: she would use E.M. to research the nature of Experience.” The nature of experience, as the book explores it, is multi-faceted, and somehow complex enough that it actually becomes more readable. How does that happen?
My intention was just to write at the desk in Bucureşti, but this notebook paper turns into a plant again damp with sap and fibre and breaks the nib. Perfumes anarchic tendency and a way with words, fallen down on crested birds.
“The smell of hay at the look of god”
the pen writes.
“We wept our gifts for you, dear mother, our treasures. Waking up in the night and wringing out the shirt. Even then, the tumor was growing in the blood.”
(Tomasz’s shadow bent long from the doorway to the forest, but it’s just the noise of darkness and the gate banging shut in wind)
This notebook is arresting sleep (lying face-down in a pool of snow). When I look up, a siren, and the light of the ambulance flashes off the walls at it streaks down Matei Voievod in the dark…. but who does it carry? And repeatedly? E.M.? Has she eaten a peanut again?
Over the course of Moure’s trilogy of poetry books O Cidadán (Anansi, 2002), O Cadoiro, poems (Anansi, 2007) and O Resplendor (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2010), as well as her Little Theatres (Anansi, 2005), where we first met the writer and translator Sampedrín, Moure has worked increasingly complex book-length collages of essay-poems, lyrics, arguments, questions and prose-lines, all while adding layers and nuance to Elisa Sampedrín. It is as though Moure works hard to diminish or even erase the narrator/author, even while building up the hetronym of Sampedrín. And why is Sampedrín so argumentative in this collection? We’ve seen Sampedrín be argumentative before, certainly, challenging the narrator in all sorts of ways, but this collection almost sees Moure’s hetronym downright hostile in places. Exactly what is happening between the narrator and hetronym, two elements of the author herself? It would seem that, although the questioning is sometimes harsh, the collaborations remain.
I’ve decided to take E.M. for my experimental subject. She’s here and she’s a pest; she might as well serve some useful purpose. And she has an inner forum, and recalls an infancy, an infans before speaking.
As for me, I am better off without either.
Where Moure’s previous trilogy focused on “the citizen,” her new collection, The Unmemntioable, turns the same gaze sideways, writing out her mother’s Ukrainian background quite specifically, and exploring how the experience of this particular citizen and her forebears produced the woman that Moure knew as her own mother.
If anything, it’s the fault of reading. When Chus Pato’s poetry appeared on my desk, I decided to give up writing poems. I moved to Bucureşti to see if I could free myself from this crisis of experience, this excision of language. Then I saw Erín Moure in the park at a café table, looking at me. Why did she come here?
What does she know about experience? Her mother tongues resist all attempts at a technical language.
Is it that she has no mother tongue?
Today, I refuse to be pinned down to an identity. Right away, I want to betray it.
Through her mother’s death and the exploration of her and her family’s history, the blend of narrative, fragment, language and translation weave throughout in a remarkably natural and fluid way, all of which could be boiled down to Moure’s interior monologue. Scribbled down in moleskins while travelling, the book concludes with what, on the surface, reads like a prose memoir of travel. These are sketches possibly even composed in that café in Bucureşti, perhaps, writing out and through the geography of her mother’s family that read as deep, meditative and as personal as, say, Brian Fawcett’s Human happiness (2012) or Susan Howe’s That this (2011):
Dear Chus: everything I had dreamed turned out to be made of paper. The skin was an organ that suffered in silence the rays, the scourges, the cuts of trees and medicine. In Hlibovychi in 1922, the war was over but the repressions escalated. Predeceased by her father Oleks, now with more children, my grandmother Anastasia emigrated with Tomasz in 1929, to NW14.72.9.W6. Riding down the south side of the mountain, the side with a road, the smallest daughter, my mother, went to school.
Forderung. “We must press forward to the schools.”
In the innermost core of blinded love, with is and must never be realized, a woman is trying to open her eyes to see.
* * *
Though my mother is gone, her face still claims me. In the morning I write wearing her cancer hat. I wear her Western belt to Whitehorse. In my pocket, she stands at the summit cairn in Wonder Pass with her friends the nurses. They wear anoraks and sunhats. Maybe one day, as she did, I will wear her blue ribbed hat, the knitted one, as hair.
Moure has composed a book that furthers her ongoing explorations in language, translation and identity as well as writing out a tribute to her mother and her mother’s history. “A mother is the unmemntioable boundary / that can never come fully clear.”
6. Natalie Zina Walschots, Doom: Love Poems for Supervillains: For her second trade poetry collection, Calgary-turned-Toronto poet Natalie Zina Walschots give us Doom: Love Poems for Supervillains (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2012), produced with illustrations by the illustrious Evan Munday, wisely published in the midst of a season of Big Summer Blockbusters in American film. It’s been said by actors over the years that it’s far more interesting to play a villain than a good guy (is this why Walschots wrote poems for supervillains as opposed to a collection of poems for superheroes?), and, for comic book fans, we owe quite a debt to John Byrne, who brought depth and dimension to Doctor Victor von Doom during his lengthy run on The Fantastic Four in the 1980s.
with body modification
all flesh become sheath
widen to skeletal gauge
labial tissue stretched
a bat’s veiny wing
you give every metal detector
a fat dermal punch
laced with adamantium
exhale god’s wind
breath a typhoon
taut body torpedo
blood boiling jet fuel
each tip thrums fuse
What is it about supervillains? One could say that a book of poetry on comic book characters, especially by a woman writer, is quite subversive, but perhaps not in the same way it would have been, say, a decade or two ago (I’d say I know as many female as male comic nerds/geeks/enthusiasts these days). Subversive less so as well, given how mainstream the big company comic books have become over the past twenty years, especially in mainstream American film (Paul Davis did a lovely ECW Press title a number of years ago on the 1960s Marvel Universe I’d recommend, if you can find it).
In her poetry collections so far, from Thumbscrews (Montreal Q: Snare Books, 2007) to this current book, Walschots composes from a combination of concept and content, writing poems that explore a particular subject or idea, with this one focusing on an array of past and present supervillains from Marvel Comics and DC Comics. Not that all on her list are even currently considered supervillains (but have all been throughout their histories), which even draw on their complexities, as, for example, Magneto and Toad are now with the X-Men, Deadpool currently works with the X-Men wetworks team, X-Force, and Quicksilver teaches at Avengers Academy. Still, most villains are never straightforward, and the best of them are those who ride nuance, complexity and even contradiction (Magneto being a fantastic example). And Walschots’ subject-work follows in the tradition of a number of recent book-length works of poetry writing from seemingly-unlikely sources, including Alessandro Porco’s porn-poems, The Jill Kelly Poems (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2005), Lisa Robertson’s use of the scientific language of weather in The Weather (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2001), Michael Holmes’ poems on professional wrestling in Parts Unknown (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2004), Rachel Zolf exploring the dehumanizing language of office-speak in Human Resources (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2007) or M. NourbeSe Philip writing out legal language to humanize an inhuman story in Zong! (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2008). And, given what is happening throughout the X-Men/Avengers titles currently, her poem on the late, lamented Dark Phoenix might even be timely:
white dwarf burnt out to a cinder
a chain reaction relit your core
our friend has gone nova
reborn a firebird
red and luminous
a single eyelash
could light this cathedral
wreathed in lava
gold and pearl gone molten
a wretched and crawling heat
a rosary rendered down to ruined stars
your universe is expanding, my friend
neither Kepler nor Brahe
could bring you back to us now
I light these standard candles
mouth your luminous name
Walscots composes poems set as sketches, or quick character studies, writing poems on many names both big and small, including Doctor Doom, the Joker, Lex Luthor, Magneto, Electra, Lady Deathstrike, Ra’s al Ghul, Doctor Octopus, Bullseye, the Green Goblin, Deadpool, Sinestro, General Zod, Clayface, Harley Quinn and Dark Phoenix, as well as sections on various comic book geographies. The book is sectioned into five, from “Rogues Gallery: Domination” (male villains), “Stronghold” (countries and other similar locations), “Rogues Gallery: Girl Fight” (female villains), “Bondage” (prisons and other similar locations) and “Rogues Gallery: Destruction” (darker male villains). Her two poems for Joker play against the two sides of his character, from the predominant view of the character over the decades, to the much darker view presented in the infamous graphic novel, The Killing Joke, and the terrible, terrible things he did to Batgirl/Barbara Gordon that left her confined to a wheelchair.
The Killing Joke
cleverness a cleaver
slit tine grin
in the serrated rape
trap teeth squeak maestro
voice box a soup can
sinew strung rung
to rung with vertebrae
crackling in the gruesome
smile navel to nose
uncoils fat lips
this body made mouth
Throughout the collection, Walschots leaves me with a number of questions. Is the Atlantis the DC or Marvel version, and why is the “General Zod” seemingly for the version portrayed in Superman 2 as opposed to the comics (unlike the version from Smallville, which seemed reduced than previous incarnations). These poems really do feel like sketches, as she writes in the last part of the poem “Deadpool”:
deep within the viscera
you laugh to scratch
your mirth is subcision
bloody and precise
Sharp as hell, but her Deadpool poem (ignore the version from the X-Men Origins: Wolverine film) somehow doesn’t capture the characters precise and outlandish madness. And I wonder, with two poems for Mastermind and but one for Mr. Sinister, is she giving the former too much credit, and the latter, not enough? Still, this is a fun and precise exploration of characters through poems, and a worthy collection. The only disappointment is knowing that there are so many more illustrations Munday did for the collection than appear in the final book. Whatever became of them?
7. Marcus McCann, The Hard Return: Over the months since his first trade collection, Soft Where (Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2009), former Ottawa poet Marcus McCann’s gymnastic poems have become nearly bulletproof, composing lines one can bounce both quarter or a round off. His second collection, The Hard Return (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2012), one of the final season of Paul Vermeersch’s tenure as poetry editor (before heading off to Wolsak & Wynn) writes of dislocation and location, writing the tension between a series of opposite positions. The density of McCann’s lines are incredibly packed, and move at lightspeed, nearly light-headedly so.
To be read aloud in unison
Non-proprietary methods of composition:
collaboration, enmeshment, mutually assured
instruction, Hail Mary, heightened sense of self.
Shoulder to shoulder, odd phalanx of bowled-over
lover-friends-lovers. Cosmic spirals of communication,
retuning, junk talk, yammer, here is a voice
and we are using it.
Here is a voice and we are using it.
Loose, jangly, not-quite-unison,
Discording. Us in a nighttime parking lot,
song-spilled, gin-singed, stab-slatted, yonder-longing
sketching on the side of a convenience store
that we are rattled. We use our hands sparingly.
Rickety wicker of our common selves.
Brittle, inhibited, possessive, jealousy ours,
especially. Us or a common alternative supplied.
Our shares in publicly traded company
indeterminate and valuable. Pleasingly left
guessing in the futures market.
In The Hard Return, McCann writes poems that pilfer and magpie from just about everything that surrounds, reshaping them into his own fantastic entities, and include commentary and critique on human interactions as well as the failure and confusion of those interactions. His poems are nearly those of Montreal poet Jon Paul Fiorentino’s, but with a denser line and far less pessimism. This is no Alpha or Beta Male but an eye that rakes and rages, processes swirling with comprehension. One of the threads through the collection is the critique somehow in the titles alone, a series of poems that lift lines from other sources, his “Twenty-Two Toronto Poets Wake up on the / Bathroom Floor and Discuss Their Hangover,” “Twenty-Two BC Poets Use Orgasm As a / Metaphor for Belonging,” and “Twenty-Two Ottawa Poets Fail to Agree about / the Morning” (all of which list in the colophon the poems and poets borrowed from for each piece, in order of appearance). The Toronto poem begins:
It is spring over the porcelain bowl
and needs total silence. It carries you
hacking the day into shape on the phone, there is still no
water and erotics
to show I was prepared to die. Here, orange
stares at the grief-plunge.
I call myself every bad word I know.
How does he manage to boil so much down into such small spaces? He even includes a poem for leaving Ottawa for Toronto, “Town in a Long Day of Leaving,” the title poem to a small chapbook originally self-produced in a give-away run around the time he left. A great believer in the power of chapbooks, a number of these poems appeared previously in various chapbooks, including the works Heteroskeptical (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2007), Town in a Long Day of Leaving (Ottawa ON: The Onion Union, 2009; above/ground press, 2009) and The Glass Jaw (The Onion Union, 2010), but a handful of the chapbooks he’s produced over the years. You know there’ll be more.
Poem for a Precious Chapbook
If spine is sheep, a fold
is a fold.
If spine is a wallet, fold
is a billfold
If spine is gimme one good reason, fold
If spine is a puzzle, fold
If spine is smothering grandma with a pillow, fold
is her, muffled.
If spine is a whip and harness, fold
is a blindfold.
8. Nicole Markotić, Bent at the Spine: It has been a while since a poetry collection by writer, editor and critic Nicole Markotić, and the publication of Bent at the Spine (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2012) furthers an investigation into the sentence that began in her two previous poetry collections – Connect the Dots (Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 1994) and Minotaurs & Other Alphabets (Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 1998) – as well as through two novels – Yellow Pages: a catalogue of intentions (1995) and Scrapbook of My Years as a Zealot (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008). Her prose is fantastic, and Yellow Pages, a novel about silence, is one of my favourite. Much of her work as a poet focuses on the prose poem, and she is one of the few Canadian writers exploring the form, a variant on what some others such as Jonathan Ball and Jason Christie have been more recently exploring.
“No such thing as a prose poem”
mumbled the Cyclops. shining her black leather eye patch. hard plastic mimics cement. trial children leap the ladder. rig construction tumbles into the valley of faraway. yearly postcards line the ceiling. goes to show how many pairs of boots fit into one box. x-rated continues his morning breakfast to read that crocodiles have no tongue. except when he looks inside one there brags the rogue organ. not tied or mangled just limp and jaded and only slightly extinct
the font fades and 14 pages blew out the side window. well isn’t that the way we harbour plot-line? each glottal stop opens the throat. treat me to a new typeface or send metre back to the morgue. each flyleaf remembers its copyright. true. each stammer confesses to grammar health
heroin could contradict this story or you could pretend these words belong to the same sentence twice. every time you save your breath, Hypothetical Barbara takes a bath
In her essay, “New Narrative and the Prose Poem,” she writes: “My interest in this form begins at the level of the sentence.” It reminds of a fragment of an interview with Lisa Roberson I keep quoting (by Kai Fierle-Hedrick in The Chicago Review 51:4/52:1, spring 2006): “I’m really a gentleman collector of sentences. I display them in cabinets.” In the same essay, Markotić writes:
I am interested in a dialogue about “new” narrative, which is perhaps not so much new, as newly theorized. Many prose writers do not consider themselves fiction writers, yet at the same time are not really part of on-going poetics discussions which, for the most part, do not focus on narrative. Although I also write prose fiction, I consider my prose poetry and other alternative, interdisciplinary, and innovative sentences to be a neoteric prose that both challenges and expands language boundaries.
For me, the prose poem is a poetic strategy embedded within the structure of narrative, and a feminist response to patriarchal language and forms. By embracing both prose syntax and poetic disruptions, the prose poem defies conventional linear grammar and refuses to satisfy my desires for either poetry or story. My desire is for so much more than causal, linear, rational and persuasive normative sentences. In my novel and in my poetry, I try to live between the prose of narrative and the fulfillment of the habit of fiction.
Carved into a series of structurally-themed sections, the first sequence/section, “Big Vocabularies,” jangles and sparks with a crackle and pop, as the opening of the four-poem piece begins:
Indoor windows peek over haze, throw the role of doorway
into fixed jeopardy, burst the remedial bubble. Shaganappi
doesn’t fizzle; Shaganappi doesn’t
Link the vast grammar quirk
West of the coulees, the river jogs, the hoodoos idle, the
Highways curve into psychoanalysis, heal the road, heed
shoulders, divorce wild game, plant citizens
If, in deo, a cheese-grater replaces the blender, do you waffle
the deco art?
Some of the most striking pieces in the collection exist in the section “Widows and Orphans,” which also appeared as a chapbook with Vancouver publisher Nomados in 2004, a collection (if recollection serves) of poems that bounced off titles taken from overheard conversation (such as the piece above, “No such thing as a prose poem,” where you can easily hear the jagged bounce of Paul Celan influence). Riffing off found lines in a blur between poem and story, the pieces as much respond to the title/line as bounce clear of the line, going far further afield. Throughout the collection, her cadence and lines shift, altering punctuation and breath-lines, holding only to the consistency and purposes of each section, and each poem, itself. The section “guests” plays with the structures and content of various poet friends and/or mentors, writing a variant on George Bowering’s Curious (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1973), as well as a number of recent threads through his poetry since. Some of her subjects include Bowering himself, as well as Robert Kroetsch, Margaret Christakos, Dennis Cooley, Fred Wah, Susan Holbrook, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouré and Phyllis Webb, among others. Circling the referential, the best of these poems work deeper into a reaction and response to the writers and their works.
Webb Ghastlies and Anti-Ghastlies
Dear Phylly: What follows is a sort of rant, a champagne-laden, bowl-shaped, opal and naked harangue. Alongside you, not hurtling. They say you are solely a woman, and that you write poetry that doesn’t mess up the universe. They’re wrong: Pauline still reads the books you haven’t yet written. She’s plotting to reinvent herself as D-eye-anna with an “I” and to change the course of Canadian coffin texts. You refuse to publish because you refuse to write. So they say. How am I to respond? What imitation? What emulation? You write of the “Baby Ex Machina” as if we recognize that baby, as if the Machina is never In. someday, your autobiography will explode and I shall become ugly. If lucky. You once said an animal cannot forever on them on them on them? Will I? Pumping blood, your Venus fly-trap undercover spider opens a ventricle. A spy spied. By whom? you may ask. By the useful. By the dozen. By the sliver of the zinc-plated satellite. Sometimes I hear you writing in between the inbetweens. Because after condemned flames, what? Charlatans, rogues, the usual muse stand-ins. I won’t listen, but Pauline keeps reading with my fingertips.
9. Mark Goldstein, Form of Forms: I’m intrigued by what Toronto writer and designer Mark Goldstein says he learned by Vancouver writer Betsy Warland in the acknowledgements of his third trade poetry collection, Form of Forms (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2012): “who taught me how to breathe the line.”
I began this book in the fall of 2002. Initially, it was entitled From Shore to Shore. And it was so named when I traveled to Sage Hill in the summer of 2005 to work on the manuscript with Nicole Brossard, who gave me the courage to continue writing it. Winter of 2006, I workshopped the text in Toronto with Betsy Warland who taught me how to breathe the line. From 2009 until pre-publication in 2012, I shared it with my generous and supportive editors, Phil Hall, Jaclyn Piudik and Nick Drumbolis. And so this book became Form of Forms. (“Acknowledgements”)
The long poem/book Form of Forms has a generous amount of breath-space, something that few Canadian poets really understand how to use properly, but for notable exceptions such as Warland, Sylvia Legris and the late bpNichol. Such an amount of space to breathe in a poem is a rare quantity, and Goldstein’s poem understands not only breath, but the space required to hold and release that same breath.
for that which is
Stretching out into poem-sections—“Creation,” “Preservation,” “Destruction” and “Quiescence”—Goldstein’s Form of Forms is highly charged, and the poem composes its own breakdown before attempting to re-assemble, through both form and content. Mark Goldstein, we learn, is adopted, and attempting to reconcile exactly what that might mean for who he is, who he was, and possibly, who he might have been. There are directions pointed to of attempts to learn, many of which are thwarted through various agencies, or provide simply not enough information, or the answers he may have been seeking. Dislocation: the entire collection/poem is built upon it. The topic of adoption, being the child of adoption and seeking out that empty space is certainly an emotionally-loaded one, but the work itself is understated, responding and recording, even sketching out a kind of calm.
start with a lie
(it goes without
a sequence of telling
may believe everyone
This is Goldstein’s third trade poetry collection, after the volume After Rilke (BookThug, 2008) and Tracelanguage: A Shared Breath (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2010), and Form of Forms merely reconfirms Goldstein as a poet of book-length projects. Composing his first trade collection through the lens of Jack Spicer and Rilke, and his second through the lens of Paul Celan’s Atemwende, both collections are thematically built, and move through the work of other poets, both removing the author, and centring the author through a particular kind of camouflage. In Form of Forms, Goldstein has composed a poem through the lens of his own doubling, writing against that as-yet-undiscovered part of himself, making it difficult to hide, but easy enough to distract, or even self-create. There’s a passage by Jeanette Winterson I seem to be quoting endlessly lately that seems to apply here as well:
Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb.
It’s almost as though he has been moving further towards a comfort with a particular kind of grounding through being groundless. As Goldstein wrote in the acknowledgments of Tracelanguage: A Shared Breath: “One would like to feign accuracy where there is none […]. In exhausting this hope, we need no longer circle the poem seeking rest having accepted its groundlessness.” Form of Forms struggles with the narrator’s sense of self (can we presume the narrator and the author share word for word all?) but ends up creating that self through the process. This is Goldstein not only composing his Form of Forms but as a reformation, after too many questions have not yet been answered. In the end, for both poem and the sense of the narrator’s self, structure must come from within, the most heartbreaking and uplifting conclusion Mark Goldstein’s Form of Form knows only too well.
10. Glen Downie, Left for Right: I’m intrigued by the new poetry collection by Toronto poet Glen Downie, his Left for Right (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2012), a collection of prose poems blended in with the very short (or, “postcard”) story. It was wise to include the poem “Seasons” on the back cover, as it is one of the sharpest in this collection of short pieces, but for so many other poems, the sharpness isn’t quite there, in lines that require further tightness. Perhaps it’s a matter of style, and my own insistence in wanting most of these poems carved in half so the fingers might cut, on lines so tight you could bounce a quarter off. I wish for the difference between a good prose poem/short story and a prose that cuts down to the bone. Does all writing require blood?
Among powers and principles, we are less than Luxembourg or Lichtenstein. Our privy council meets in the privy; our cabinet in a cabinet. And she is the infant monarch of this, the smallest country in the world. She rules with the tiniest iron fist; her every utterance, a royal decree.
It’s her father’s role to carry her throughout the realm to receive the adoration of her subjects, and indeed, she is revered wherever she goes, especially for her courage during the recent hostilities. Our constitution is still unwritten, and it’s not clear what it may mean to the State when her aging porter can no longer carry her. We have never had a queen before, and will never have another – so belovéd is she, we cannot conceive of succession.
Some of these, such as “Seasons” are alone worth having gone through the entire collection, but so many others are good, and only that. Am I simply demanding something out of these pieces other than what he is offering? The best of these are quite spectacular, yet others fall half-flat. And yet, this book just wouldn't let me go. Still, it would seem as though Downie is capable of great things, and there are pieces in this collection that would make you believe it. You just have to find them.
Certainly there are more than four. Breton says fifteen or so. Arp says it’s winter every Monday. The Inuit say there are six, including those that contain the small material for winter and for spring. When you look at me as you do now, that is a season. That look contains the small material for joy, another season that comes and goes unpredictably throughout the year. I hope when I die it will be in a season of joy and that you will circle the date on a calendar as having been the longest day.
11. Gerry Gilbert, COUNTERFIET PENNIES: There most likely aren’t too many titles by the late Vancouver poet and publisher Gerry Gilbert (April 7, 1936 – June 19, 2009) in print anymore, with the exception possibly of the chapbook PERHAPS (Toronto ON: BookThug, 1999) and the reissued Moby Jane (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2004), but the enthusiasm for his work appears to have steadily increased over the past few years. Since Gilbert died, a tribute blog appeared, with regular updates, and there are more references to him online that one might think, for an author who barely published through trade form over his last two decades. Now, thanks to Vancouver poets Lary Bremner (publisher of Obvious Epiphanies Press), Carol and Jamie Reid, who went through Gilbert’s archive, we now have access to his COUNTERFIET PENNIES (North Vancouver BC: obvious epiphanies press, 2012) as a free pdf download.
During the early 60’s in Vancouver, Gerry Gilbert was part of an informal grouping of “downtown Vancouver poets” with John Newlove, Judith Copithorne, Maxine Gadd and Roy Kiyooka, less a group than a ying to the yang of TISH. With a healthy distrust of editors and (seemingly) publisher, Gilbert’s expansive ouvre appeared in trade form with great effort, as he infamously refused to have his work edited. He even turned down the opportunity to be in a series of selected poems that Talonbooks produced around 1980 (others in the series included bpNichol, Daphne Marlatt, George Bowering and Fred Wah). As Frank Davey wrote about Gilbert in From There to Here (Erin ON: Press Porcepic, 1974):
Gilbert’s experimental world is that of most men alive in these decades, mundane, trivial, thoroughly non-spectacular – enriched only by the easily missed miracles of animals, plants, the weather, or intimate human gesture. He presents this world in the way in which it impinges on him: a puzzingly discontinuous flow of broken images. “AND”, the title of one of his books, is the usual Gilbert conjunction, since it implies no logical structure or relationship. To Gilbert, experience is endless non sequitur.
As Davey suggests, Gilbert’s writing was an endless, singular line of ephemera, miracles and “intimate human gesture,” documenting the entirety of what he saw, felt and did, taking the Frank O’Hara “I did this, I did that” poem to its extreme. Dated 1996 to 1997, Gilbert’s COUNTERFIET PENNIES is wonderfully reproduced exactly the way the author intended, scanning directly from the mass of binders that filled his small apartment. There is the strangest kind of detail in Gilbert’s work, knowing that his work was composed of a single, straight, life-long line, one that readers only saw in the comparatively briefest parcels.
The way he said it to me, that I didn’t remember but we’d met years ago, put me on the defensive right away, smelling trouble. He got my number alright. I’m so beat I can barely play along enough to read the paper; or want what I really want; or really want what I want. As my voice gets fainter, I pile on the wisdom; bore ; ing. If you know what this means, you must have read it already.
There aren’t many copies of Gerry Gilbert works available out in the world anymore, but I’m sure if you want to read further of his works, I’d recommend jwcurry’s Room 302 Books in Ottawa as the best place to begin.
12. Sarah Pinder, Cutting Room: After years of self-published chapbooks, predominantly through her own bits of string press, comes Toronto writer Sarah Pinder’s first trade poetry collection, Cutting Room (Coach House Books, 2012).
Praising and Disparaging the Functunal
This is how a string of ghosts appears in your inbox,
and this is how you answer each of them,
always, little sails.
I’ve long been a fan of the cool clarity of her lines of poetry and prose, and the graceful chapbook publications she started producing in Montreal, and now from her base in Toronto, including thanksgiving (2006), Garden, Gardener: poems by Sarah Pinder (2008), Do You Like What You See? (2009), The Beautiful Province (2009), ‘My things, my grand-mother’s things’ (2009), Pearls Before Swine Flu / This Is Plague City (with Dave Proctor, 2009), THE RYE HOUSE, a suite (2010), COLLAPSE (2011) and Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination (2011). There are plenty of others, I’m sure. Given that a number of these small publications also included selections of short fiction, might there also be a collection of short stories in the works as well? In Cutting Room, it appears as though Pinder has hammered a selection of her previous work into a larger structure, and the shift is compelling, shaping the collection into a sequence of sections, some of which themselves exist as small sequences. In the first poem-section, “Fuel,” she writes:
in a red state, spell out the lesson here, map out the power
and water, or the rising lawn to disappear in
some fresh atlas, the new record.
practice wearing details yourself,
ghosted, twinned to a lighthouse.
movement in the dark requires geometry or optimism, a hand
along plaster, counting pockmarks.
In their previous form, published as small chapbooks, Pinder’s poems existed in self-contained units, and the larger portrait of her writing opens the possibilities considerably. Her poems are sharp, lovely shapes that require deep attention, writing the detritus of the small and even dark moments of family and the domestic, living and existing in the spaces between scenes. Pinder is also one of the few I’ve seen who really comprehends what is possible with the short poem, removing sentiment and even action, shaving down to the bare bone. Her poems are odd, quirky, and utterly charming, and include shades of Richard Brautigan surrealism, Nelson Ball’s brevity and Stuart Ross’ absurdity, albeit with her unapologetic eye. Compared often to small films, her poems exist on the knife-edge between being bulletproof and shattering entirely, presenting a kind of vulnerability that gains strength through the telling. Later on in the collection, the section “Rye House” exists as a collage of short, sharp pieces that accumulate themselves into the shape of, if not a narrative, a portrait of a particular family.
Son-in-Law Tony at Home, Sept 1973
Before he embarrasses himself
with the axe.
After spending years watching her work through the structure of the short chapbook, I’m intrigued to see how she continues through the space of the full-length work. Still, Pinder’s strengths come through in her smallness, boiling down lines to fit the magnificent “Two suites after Frances Bacon,” or the sharp scenes she manages to create from a mere handful of lines, each one striking as hard as the previous.
The End Times
The photocopier is a good place to think
about avoiding the doctor.
Hunched here, crushing the spines of paperbacks
while thinly heaving, I don’t want anyone
listening between my shirt and lungs,
except for maybe you.
13. Camille Martin, Looms: In her fourth trade collection, Looms (2012), Toronto poet Camille Martin continues her book-length accumulation of poems-as-collage, twisting and turning seemingly unconnected ideas into a single, coherent thread. These are poems of exploration, not always conscious or concerned about where they might end, allowing for a fearlessness that permeates the entire work.
Right now is what dwindling feels like, despite
the mulberry outside my window steadfastly
anchoring its taproot. The new century counts planets
that might support rooted beings and ravenous predators.
But stardust piles up on lines connecting dots
in constellations, blurring them into nebulae. Shapeless
experience waffles between concrete and abstract, accounting
for the popularity of horoscopes, especially when Jupiter enters
Aries and we vacillate, like volcanoes heaving ash
before the pyroclastic flow, collapsing before tsunami, dwindling
until the next cycle. I abstractly shake dew from ripe mulberries.
Or I lie down, gazing at shivering green tracery non-existent
a couple of months ago and just as soon to vanish.
A more or less concrete cup of coffee balances on my belly,
wobbling to the diastolic and systolic rhythms of my heart.
In an interview posted November 17, 2011 on Open Book: Toronto, she talked about her then-forthcoming Looms as a collection structurally built as an extension of her previous, Sonnets (Shearsman Books, 2010):
It’s interesting that book projects can seem to take on a life of their own and evolve into what they “want” to be despite original intentions. Before I started the poems in Looms, I had just published 100 sonnets exploring various approaches to the ancient tradition of the 14-line meditations – in the case of Sonnets, meditations on the nature of self, memory and cognition.
Wanting to write longer poems but still under the spell of that book, I started writing double sonnets. But the poems soon broke out of that too-restrictive mould and began telling strange stories that are often dream-like in the sense of being multi-layered and making unexpected shifts. They are still concerned with questions about self and other and about the nature of human thought. However, in Looms I began delving into narrative in relation to the formation of identity from many different and constantly shifting stories.
The image of a loom represents, to my mind, the idea of the complex, interwoven narratives that form the evanescent fabrics of perception and memory.
Martin composes “loom” as a weaving, suggesting the motion of looping and swirling a myriad of threads that wrap through and into each other, and her poems do exactly that, written as a series of dream-like movements that continue to riff until each poem concludes. In sixty-two poems, she references windows, nursery rhymes, coffee, dreams, bird migratory patterns and mockingbirds, but the poems are less about the specifics than the movements themselves and the lyric accumulations. She writes of “the tempering passion of mercury,” about how “a tiny pronoun gestates under a full moon,” and of “ukulele seas where mist coalesces.” There is such an expansiveness to Martin’s Looms. The poems exist in that magical place where words, images and ideas collide, creating connections that previously had never been.
Gliding through arteries you arrive naked
and vulnerable at the brink of a cliff. An oracle
dares you to roam faraway lands to learn
whether ballooning junk status can foster social
cohesion or whether Oedipus really needed
to know. Indifference is a country where trees dream
of primitive cells parading to the common ancestor
from which flora that would later look good
on someone’s mantle branched off. Here, a twitch
is a cup waiting to spill. If your evolution begins
at the finish line (which it won’t,
but that’s not the point), jump from the cliff
down a hole to the other side of the earth
and start over again naked and vulnerable
at the brink of a cliff.
14. Elizabeth Bachinsky, I Don’t Feel So Good: On the back cover of Vancouver poet Elizabeth Bachinsky’s new poetry collection, I Don’t Feel So Good (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2012), it says:
I Don’t Feel So Good is comprised of material selected from the handwritten journals and notes of Elizabeth Bachinsky (1986-2012). Lines and passages were selected by the roll of a die and appear in the order the die saw fit. In blending confessional and procedural techniques with disjunctive chronology and random chance, this book explores and exacerbates possibilities of the narrative mode both within the text and for the reader. Not so much “written” as “received.”
I admit to cringing a bit at the catalogue copy, pulling away from the seeming-preciousness of such a self-conscious construction. Just how aware is the reader meant to be of this construction while pouring through the book, the fourth trade title so far by Bachinsky (the back cover also notes a fifth, The Hottest Summer in Recorded History, due out in 2013)? Still, I like the visceral confessional fragments of the book, built as a single, extended poem out of these breaks, pauses and sentences. There is something about the connect and/or disconnect between the fragments and the construction that shifts the perception of the work. Are we meant to read the connections as arbitrary and random, or the entire collection as a broad canvas, representing the depth and breadth of six years of the author’s life? There is such an anxiety to the poems, the journal-fragments that make up I Don’t Feel So Good. What exactly is this long series of fragments seeking to map?
The other day when I said “I didn’t do anything” I didn’t really mean it that way. I really wasn’t feeling very well. In fact, I haven’t been feeling very well at all lately!
On the day in question, it was my intention to wake up early and clean the house. I had also wanted to do some writing. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get up. I mean I really couldn’t. Instead I walked around in a kind of daze. I tried very hard to get out of this state, but it didn’t happen. I knew things needed to get done. I got so overwhelmed by everything: bills, appointments, deadlines, my loan, the bathroom, laundry, kitchen, the cat, dinner, reading homework, the dread of Starbucks. So instead I stayed in bed and watched TV. I just couldn’t do it. I wrote a poem.
There is such an anxiety, and one of the most common words in the collection is “don’t,” echoing a pessimism as an undercurrent, however temporary it might be, from “I really don’t want to hear about peoples’ days.” (p 10) to “Don’t make me have to show my body.” (p 11) to “I don’t like anybody more than anybody; I just like some people / more than others.” (p 31). Towards the end of the collection, the slight uplift of a passage that includes: “The ending was killer. So sad! // But also very happy. // A happy sad ending!”
One could argue, of the procedural, if two words or lines are side by side, does it matter how they got there? Just how important is the awareness of her structure for the process of reading this work? If I Don’t Feel So Good is salvaged from journal entries, it joins an interesting list of other recent Canadian poets who have produced similar kinds of works, including Lisa Robertson’s Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2009) and George Bowering’s His Life (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2000). On the other hand, in her confessional, Bachinsky’s work in this collection is more akin to, say, New York poet Rachel Zucker, or Toronto poet Lynn Crosbie, delving into and exploring a particular brutal honesty and openness, unafraid of whatever dark places might be revealed. In many ways, I Don’t Feel So Good is Bachinsky’s way of reconciling two previously distinct and separate threads of her published work, from the confessional aspects of her
Home of Sudden Service (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2006) and god of missed connections (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2009) with the procedural of Curio: grotesquest & satires from the electronic age (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2005; second edition, 2009).
Once while sitting on a bus I thought, this is one of many moments. When I get off this bus, I will step into another life. Narrative, fiction, helps us make sense of our lives. Born, lived, died.
In that order, we are travelling across the Burrard Street Bridge
On the bus, A little boy sings happy birthday with his father into an iPhone. The iPhone gets it. Then it’s gone.
I Don’t Feel So Good is a risky work, a kind of highwire act between seemingly opposing strains. An interesting and compelling book, there remains something about the collection that feels unfinished, somehow, as though the fragments remain, for the most part, fragments, unable to entirely cohere into a singular unit. Despite that, I’m fascinated by the direction Bachinsky’s writing appears to be going, blending the procedural with confessional strains. One could easily say that everything she has produced so far has led up to this, and the evolution of her writing is one that is worth following closely.
15. Laura Broadbent, Oh There You Are I Can’t See You Is It Raining?: Now that Montreal publisher Snare Books has become an imprint of Invisible Publishing, it puts a different spin on Montreal writer Laura Broadbent’s first poetry title, Oh There You Are I Can’t See You Is It Raining? (2012).
Your task is to smell the morning and there’s nothing wrong with what you’re wearing and your hair’s just fine so notice the wild staccato and sinew of sound from the loud to minute brush of dry grass there is no violence or distraction let’s say it’s lightly snowing and every snowflake has the power of an extraterrestrial crystal palace of monumental healing and light so who cares if your decisions have been correct. No you, no you, no you.
Selected by Toronto poet Sachiko Murakami as winner of the sixth annual Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, Broadbent’s Oh There You Are I Can’t See You Is It Raining? unfortunately holds the position of being the last independent title by Snare Books. At least under Invisible, at least, the press will still exist, albeit in a different form, which is certainly preferable to the press disappearing entirely. Does anyone recall such Canadian presses as Ragweed Press, Gutter Press or Red Deer College Press (who produced the magnificent “writing west” series)? All gone, for many different reasons, well before their time.
She looked over to me looking at her and said I need a fire ceremony to burn all my old love letters. I told her that could be arranged. I told her I’ve burnt all the love letters I’ve ever received. Except for hers. Which will probably get burned one day too, she says. I told her, probably, but so will my corpse. She laughed without smiling. (“Men In Various States”)
Broadbent’s collection is constructed out of a series of section-suites, each stretched out across a series of single canvases that stitch together into a tight collection of lyric fragments. Composed in section-suites, the book includes “Between A and B” and “Culled,” the second of which appears to include the remainder of the collection, four smaller section-suites: “Suite 1,” “Suite 2,” “Suite 3” and “Men In Various States.” There is something about the sharpness of Broadbent’s lines that really appeal, and the range of styles that move throughout the collection, showing a larger, longer comprehension of the line, the sentence and the entire book, very much a single unit constructed out of pieces. Her work has a questioning certainty to it, one that asks as much as it gives. The last three sections of “Suite 3” read:
Art school students’ projects are parties.
Be on guard for the projects of art students.
Men like when my whole body
is an invitation to drowning.
16. Sandy Pool, Undark: From Calgary writer Sandy Pool comes her second poetry collection, Undark (a blewointment book / Nightwood Editions, 2012), a follow-up to Exploding into Night (Guernica Editions, 2009), which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. The eighth title in Nightwood’s blewointment book series, she includes this brief note at the opening:
In the early 1900s, thousands of women between the ages of eleven and forty-five were employed painting glow-in-the-dark watch dials for soldiers and civilians in both Canada and the United States. Under the guidance of the paint’s innovator, Sabin Von Sochocky, they kept their brush points sharp by “pointing” the tips of the brushes with their lips.
Several years after leaving the plant, these women developed a variety of mysterious medical conditions, including completely necrosis of the jaw, severe anemia, intense arthritic-like pains, and spontaneous bone fractures in the arms and legs. A few of the former workers became lame when their legs began to shorten. When the women visited doctors, some were told it was syphilis that was causing their symptoms. Sabin Von Shockocky was forced to remove his own thumb due to necrosis, and eventually died of radiation-induced anemia.
Though many women tried to sue the company, the lawsuits were largely unsuccessful. Many of the women died before receiving compensation. The final demise of the US radium dial-painting industry did not come until Canadian production was halted in 1954, and the extraction plants in Belgium shut down in 1960.
There aren’t that many poetry books that can claim a glow-in-the-dark cover, and one can only presume (and hope) that neither process nor result are the kind of toxicity depicted inside. Pool subtitles her work “An Oratorio,” suggesting the collection is operatic in scope.
Next time you fumble for a switch, bark
your shins on furniture, wonder vainly what time it is
because of the dark—remember Undark.
Today, thanks to constant laboratory work
everyone can benefit from this
most unusual element. Twenty-three
years ago, radium was unknown. Today,
it serves you safely and surely. You must
ask yourself this: what would you like
to see in the dark? Fishing lures? Clocks?
Buckles on bedroom slippers?! Most assuredly you do.
Undark takes care of the dark, so you don’t have to.
You may ask plainly: does Undark contain real radium?
Of course it does.
Pool’s Undark exists with a cast of characters, “Dramatis Personae,” including Sappho, “Radium Women,” “Chorus,” and the scientist Sabin, writing out very much a score of operatic proportions. “Undark” also appears as a character, reciting and repeating lines from propaganda, as does the character “Hatsepsut: (1508-1458 B.C.) foremost of noble ladies, fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Ancient Egypt.” Undark unfolds and stretches out through a sequence of alternating voices and styles, composing a lyric narrative of fragments, each of which further an accumulation of story. Throughout the collection, the years (which make up either part or all of poem titles) progress as a series of strands from 1905, 1910, 1919, 1916, 1912, 1458 B.C., 1921, 1917, 1458 B.C. and so on, with each page including, instead of page numbers, a countdown of days, hours and minutes to a final demise.
Nox, New Jersey: 1998
Beyond the range of the human ear
the cemetery clicks into being.
The earth groans. Each one to herself.
Silence. Rather, they whisper.
Skeletal lace, the larynx.
Worms undoubtedly disturbed
by the echolocation. Women
are speaking. To have lived
is not enough. They have to
reverberate like elbows
poking through undergrowth.
The rate of pulses rising
to terminal buzz. Women
like whale music, singing
under the newly mowed lawn:
lick tick lick tick lick tick.
To be dead is not enough.
The Doppler shift of history
buries them deeper. Geiger
counter clicks into being.
What Pool composes characters, a chorus and lyric asides that merge into an entire performance, providing voice for those who have previously been voiceless. As she writes in her “Notes and Acknowledgments” at the back of the collection, she includes “found text” from Anne Carson’s Fragments of Sappho (2008). Given that one of the characters in the collection is called “Nox”(“a striking dark-featured woman in her late sixties, reminiscent of Marie Curie”), one can’t help but conflate the character slightly with Carson’s subsequent on grief and her brother’s death, Nox (2010), especially given the poems underneath the character’s name, such as “Nox, Lucerne: 1905” or “Nox, Newark: 1919.” This work is a striking performance of grief and compassion, sung as an acknowledgment of those who suffered at the hands of progress. As “Nox” says in the two-line final poem:
Since then, I’ve hated
the dark. I never turn off the lights.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (www.ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (www.ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (www.ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at www.robmclennan.blogspot.com