June 1, 2010
The one problem with having defined tastes and a bookish reputation is that nobody ever gives you books (and when they do, you usually don’t like them). So it was a wonderful surprise to receive Zachariah Wells’ collection Track & Trace as a gift from my mother, since it’s a book I’ve had my eye on for quite awhile. Just to receive such a thing was a kind of gift, but then the book itself was also an incredible package– small and beautiful, its cover embossed with footprints, with the “decorations” by Seth (which are plain and wonderful landscapes, horizons as broad as Wells’ poetry).
Reading this collection was a series of such unpackings. The poems themselves in general are about man’s relationship to the natural environment, the marks he leaves upon it, but each poem is also very distinct in how it relates to these ideas. Within each poem, the words fit together in surprising ways, with subtle rhyme, rhythm and alliteration. Within each word, the syllables, the vowels and consonants on and around my tongue. I read these poems aloud, lying on the carpet while my daughter threw blocks in the mornings, and the poems were a pleasure to put my mouth around, the starts and stops and open spaces.
Of particular interest to me were the poems about fatherhood (read “Going Forward” and “There Is Something Intractable In Me”). “Slugs” is as vulgar and wonderful as slugs themselves. Nature is not idealized here– from “Heron, False Creek”, “Heron, stand there/ in my shadow, stare/ up at the seawall/ skronk, and awkwardly/ flop up into the air”. In “Cormorant”, the bird is shot repeatedly– “It puked mustard stuff, guano/ streamed from its anus. Bile rose/ in my throat, I choked– and I swallowed”. I think my favourite line in the whole book, for its sheer beauty, is “Finicky fuckin thing that old silver Ford…”
The unpacking wasn’t finished with just one read, however. There are layers to these poems, unexpected things beneath the surface. A present I’ll have the pleasure of opening time and time again.
May 19, 2010
It has been an absolutely bumper week for books in the post. Today delivered my copy of White Ink: Poems on Mothers and Motherhood from Demeter Press. I bought this book for selfish reasons, of course, but it didn’t hurt that my purchase will help to keep Demeter Press afloat. And may I please mention other fine Demeter books Mothering and Blogging: The Radical Act of the MommyBlog and Mother Knows Best: Talking Back to the Experts. As well as the gala event this Friday to raise funds for MIRCI and Demeter Press?
I imagine I’ll be dipping in and out of this beautiful book for some time. For Grace Paley, Sonnet L’Abbe, Rosemary Sullivan, Lorna Crozier, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Ray Hsu (with whom I used to work the Saturday midnight shift at the EJ Pratt Library, I’ll have you know), Leon Rooke, Laisha Rosnau, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, as well as many poets I have yet to discover.
There is also a Carol Potter. Do you think she is the Carol Potter,the most famous mother of all??
May 9, 2010
Amazing, I think, that the range of a single volume of poetry by Steven Heighton can put me in mind of a book like The Essential P.K. Page, which encompassed an entire career. Patient Frame is quite different from other poetry collections I’ve been reading lately, lacking an essential narrative. And while I do find narrative-driven collections immensely appealing, the various nature of Heighton’s book is fascinating to consider, a poetic lumber room packed with corners to explore.
It’s a room that’s remarkably well-organized however, complete with a key as an appendix that places these poems within their wider contexts. Placing Officer Hugh Thompson, an American helicopter pilot whose heroic actions ended the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam; Roy Bryant, one of the men convicted for the murder of 14 year-old Emmet Till; Toussaint Laverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution. The poems reference music by Alison Krauss, the Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones, and other figures including poet Richard Outram, and Edith Swan-Neck, mistress of a Saxon king. (This poem is followed by another called “Reading The Saxon Chronicles in a Field Hospital, Kandahar”.)
Some of the poems are personal, addresses to family and friends (most of these contained in the section Elegies & Other Love Songs). “Home Movies, 8mm” finishes with the wonderful line, “If I could start over, I would stare and stare”. Fourteen Approximations comprises Heighton’s translations, including “Fragments of a Voyage”, constructed of pieces from five sea-faring texts. This is a fitting collection by a man whose other works include novels, short stories and other poetry collections. His range seems unlimited– everything he touches turns to story.
Susan Holbrook’s collection Joy is So Exhausting is bursting, exuberant. Holbrook engages with the stuff of the world as Heighton does, but in a way that is more immediate, or perhaps just more akin to his translations. Because her work is very often also translation– her poem “Insert” takes directions for inserting a tampon, playing with the language to make clear the banal ridiculousness of the original source, and also to invest ordinary words with unexpected meaning– “Get into a comfortable Poseidon. Most wimples either sit on the Toyota/ with knick-knacks apart, squat slightly with knitting needles bent, or/ stand with one football on the town clerk seep.”
“Poetsmart” translates a pet training manual: “Using positive reinforcement methods, you’ll learn how to prevent/ unwanted behaviour and establish a bond with your poet.” A poem called “Constance Rooke, Author of The Clear Path: A Guide to Writing Essays, and Home-Inspection Consultant Brad Labute Converse, with Rude Interruptions by Walt Whitman” is exactly what it says on the tin. Holbrook has made sudoko with words. She writes a love letter to chocolate. “Textbook Case: Questions to Consider Regarding Our Last Phone Call” contains the line “11. Do you think that I will ever forgive you? Cite evidence from the conversation to support your answer.”
Holbrook’s poetry is bounding, raucous and fun(ny). Ending on an incredibly touching note with the twelve page poem “Nursery”, which traces a mother’s train of thought as she feeds from side to side. This epic poem is a microcosm (can an epic be a microcosm though? But Holbrook has made me think that anything is possible) of the entire book, bending words and perspectives, irreverent and wonderful.
“Left: Now that you’ve started solids, applesauce in your eyebrows, I’ve become a course. Right: Spider on the plastic space mobile, walking the perimeter of the yellow crescent moon. Left: Dollop. Right: Now it’s on Saturn’s rights; if it fell off, it would drop right into my mouth. Left: I take 2%, you take hindmilk. Right: Fingers shrimp their way through the afghan holes. Left: I have hindmilk.”
It is worth nothing that both these collections’ bottom right-hand corners have been well-chewed. Initially, this annoyed me, but I decided it shows that they’ve been lived in.
May 6, 2010
The river that once slid through this valley
was damned on its course to the sea, swollen
and put to work. Bloated wood– once banged
together to form a house– still floats up;
rusted nails hold nothing down. Trees shift.
shake their roots free, shoot to split the surface.
Imagine a dislodged pine taking the aim
at the underside of sky.
Most things on the ground have long been discovered.
The words pristine and ruin the doubled-sided blade
of a paddle that slices us forward, forward.
Rhetoric is slammed down with pints
in the lodge each night, loggers and biologists
both punch-drunk with it. Under water and in the sky
there are things unanswered– fathoms deep, dark matter.
People are working on it as we speak.
There are those of us who try to go to these places
in our minds. Lousy explorers, we make a mess
of things, strip and exploit, squint blindly at stars,
block what should flow. When feeling lucky or foolish,
we let our guns go off, howl at the echo on the lake,
then fancy our largesse, our heavy grace, and sink
deeper, dream pines loosened, quickly rising.
April 29, 2010
Memory at its finest lacks corroboration
—no photographs, no diaries—
nothing to pin the past on the present with, to make it stick.
Just because you’ve got this idea
of red fields stretching along the tertiary roads
of Saskatchewan, like blazing, contained fires—
just because somewhere in your memory
there’s a rust-coloured pulse
taking its place among canola yellow
and flax fields the huddled blue of morning azures—
just because you want to
doesn’t mean you can
build a home for that old, peculiar ghost.
Someone tells you you’ve imagined it,
that gash across the ripe belly of summer,
and for a year, maybe two, you believe them.
Maybe you did invent it, maybe as you leaned,
to escape the heat, out the Pontiac’s backseat window—
you just remembered it that way
because you preferred the better version.
Someone tells you this.
But what can they know of faith?
To ask you to leave behind this insignificance.
This innocence that can’t be proved: what the child saw
of the fields as she passed by, expecting nothing.
You have to go there while there’s still time.
Back to the red flag of that field, blazing in wind.
While you’re still young enough to remember
a flame planted along a road. While you’re still
seeing more than there is to see.
April 28, 2010
Lisa Martin-DeMoor’s One Crow Sorrow, poetry winner of the 2009 Alberta Literary Awards, is an intensely personal collection. Each piece seems rooted in experience, focused on immediate details rather than zooming out to capture their wider, more universal implications. There is no place carved out for the reader here, in the intimate address between the poet and who she refers to as just “Mom”, and so the reader is interloper, a position by turns privileged and disquieting.
“I am almost never home, now,/ no matter where I am” writes Martin-DeMoor in “One last time, in our old kitchen.” The collection deals with her mother’s illness and death from cancer, also touching upon her father’s early death many years before, and the cycle and rituals of grief. And other stories, family reference points: “Colleen, I can still hear the stranger at the door…” The tales that bind us.
These poems are prime territory for birdwatching– we get magnificent glimpses of magpies, crows, sparrows, herons, “songbirds are secrets/ substantiated at dawn and knowing”. The wide living world turns around this small story of death and dying– gardens tended and untended, boreal forests and prairie fields: “Admitting the season is over is one way/ of facing up to grief.” The natural references stitch the poems to the earth, but with stitches so loose that some words fly like spirit, and the rest is contained in the space in between.
The poems resonated for me in particular on second reading– first was a bit like wandering in a dimly lit room, but then the shapes became familiar and I could make out the details around me enough to know what I was seeing. To find my away through the spaces in between the poems as well, to consider the white space and line breaks and the weight of these things. To consider the quiet. Because these are delicate poems, I think, to be looked at before they touched, and then their solidity becomes unmistakable.
April 26, 2010
Because we live in a wonderful city, the highlight of this afternoon was visiting the poetry vending machine at This Ain’t the Rosedale Public Library, as installed by the Toronto Poetry Vendors. Like all the best vending machines, this one jammed a little bit once I’d put in my twoonie and turned the crank, so I had to stick my hand up the chute to get my poem out, and (imagine if I’d gotten stuck? And they’d had to call the fire department? Because I’d gotten my hand stuck in a poetry vending machine? Now, there‘s a story, if only it weren’t fiction, because) my purchase slipped out easily. My luck of the draw was a poem called “Rhyme Scheme (for Condo Country)” by Jacob McArthur Mooney, and now it’s hanging on my fridge.
And, because I was in a bookstore, I picked up Joy Is So Exhausting by Susan Holbrook, as pitched by Julie Wilson today for Keeping Toronto Reading. (Hear Susan read her collection at Seen Reading; I recommend the poem “Nursery” [second from the end] in particular, mainly because the world needs more breastfeeding lit. and the poem is joyous).
April 22, 2010
Jennica Harper’s books are What It Feels Like For A Girl and The Octopus and Other Poems. She works as a screenwriter and story editor in the Canadian film industry, and is also an occasional stand-up comic. Jennica holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and a BA in English from the University of Toronto. She lives in Vancouver and she’s my all-time favourite poet.
When you asked me to contribute to your Poetry Month celebrations by writing a poetry primer – defined however I liked – I thought, no problem. But here I am. The month ticks away. And all I can think of is Robin Williams tearing those graph-covered pages out of a textbook to prove that you don’t Analyze poetry, you Feel it. And yet, I don’t quite believe that, either. Sometimes Analyzing is exactly the path to Feeling a poem more deeply.
I’ve come to realize that, at this moment in time, I have no idea how to prime anyone on either the reading or the writing of poetry. Instead, I’d like to humbly offer you some thoughts on what I love about the form.
How I Think About Poetry, A Top Ten
1. Poetry is stand-up comedy. When comedy really works, and you laugh, and you’re elated, it’s because the comic has said something undeniably true, impossibly familiar –plus nailed the timing of the silences, and used the exact right words, in the exact right order.
2. Poetry is jamming in a garage. Also known as riffing, noodling, and disappointing one’s parents.
3. Poetry is revisionist history. It hypothesizes, it offends. It sets the records straight.
4. Poetry is clown school. It’s learning to take chances, to pratfall, to make it look effortless. Sometimes it’s putting on a false face so you can see others clearly.
5. Poetry is pioneering.* It’s a fear of the unknown and a determination – a need – to push forward anyway. Because who knows what’s over the next hill? Maybe land you can put a stake in. *Dowdy styles no longer a requirement in poetry.
6. Poetry is Helen Keller saying “water”.
7. Poetry is hot yoga. It’s meditative, it flexes and relaxes your mind, it keeps your midi-chlorians flowing.
8. Poetry is a surprise party. When I read something I connect with, I can’t help feeling “Wow! You all came here for me?”
9. Poetry is dinner at the Magic Castle. Not sure I can make the metaphor work, I just really want to go to the Magic Castle! Have you heard about this place?
I would love to hear your Top Ten, or the Top Tens of others in the comments below… together we might be able to assemble the least useful (but most fun) poetry primer ever.
Yours in faithful silliness,
April 21, 2010
I’ve been reading such beautifully-made books this last while, The Essential P.K. Page among them. The poems have been selected from the span of Page’s career and are here placed in alphabetical order, for (as the editors remark) “There is not a ‘young’ voice and a ‘mature’ voice. For [Page], time is not linear and she places little value on such distinctions”. The effect of this is fascinating, something like a catalogue, something vaguely like taxonomy. The structure of this collection and Page’s work itself called to mind what poet Michael Lista referred to as poetry that is “set within the strict—and ancient— clockwork of the world”.
In fact, Lista’s approach seems less original (or less unoriginal?) when viewed in light of Page’s oeuvre. In her work, she engages with works of art (unsurprising, as she was a painter), other works of literature– with her glosa poems in particular. She plays with language (and not only English) for the sake of itself. Some of the poems are challenging, because they refer to ideas outside my familiar realm (what is an arras?) but that is my problem, and not the poems’. Page’s approach seems to be to take the concrete stuff of the universe, and spin it into something golden. The breadth of her vision is truly amazing.
Read the incredible “soft travellers” here. “that there is worth/ in orthography and there is worth/ in geography as well — for words, that is/ words correctly spelled have, in truth, /destinations…”
The very stars are justified.
I have proofread
the beautiful script.
There are no
April 19, 2010
My friend, the writer Rebecca Rosenblum, once wrote a poem just to see what would happen. When I read it first, I didn’t know her so well, and was sure it was based on true experience. “Imaginations run rampant,/ the romance of tragic”– I was afraid to become her friend because she was so wounded. I admired her bravery, her stoicism, and (as always) her way with character and story. When we were better friends, she told me she’d made the whole thing up. Apparently, it’s called fiction, and Rebecca is very, very good at it. This poem was previously published in echolocation and I appreciate her giving me permission to post it here.
Dead Boyfriend Disco
There are things that the dead don’t do—
desire, demand or debate—
but they dance if they feel it and
if you want you can watch,
if vicarious seems like your thing.
In teakettle steam and exhaust from the dryer and
fog on the windows they dance.
All these visuals that just barely are
bring the past for the partnerless waltz.
A little cigarette smoke and the
zydecco’s sliding for aunts who drank sherry out back.
Grandpas who disapproved,
in rivermist foxtrot like they did in the old days.
And then there’s that best of the specters,
The one that I wait for in dreams:
The dead boyfriend who does disco while I shower, in steam.
The thing about dancing is that you do it in twos,
and the thing about dying is that you go it alone.
So these dead that are dancing, they dance all alone, but
they’re moving to music for me.
A snuffed candle smoking invites smooth
smooth jazz, and Uncle Edwin who used to teach math.
And the dust from a pillow-fluff is the swing of Sarah,
a neighbour from when I was small.
I can’t dance with the dead, no more than could die,
but they need me to see them and
I never ask why.
I’ve been staying home Saturdays to breath on the mirror,
wanting to see him appear.
Late for work Monday morning
because the steam from my coffee made possible
just one more encore.
Coerced to a party, I stay for three drinks, but
smoking weed in the garden brings disco and tears.
The left-girlfriend can leave, and
no one will stay me, it’s the right of all us bereaved.
I can run from a friend, knock over the cheese-dip, and
no one will ever say boo.
I can leave without speaking,
all runny-eyed, rude, but
I know in my absence
they’ll talk of my sadness, because
everyone knows about his absence too.
In my wake at the wake, or parties, or dinner,
this fleeing girl with a dead boyfriend casts spells.
Imaginations run rampant,
the romance of tragic,
and they wonder what I’m doing now.
Boys will imagine, bosses believe, that
tragedy breeds something deep.
They picture us powerful, all us widows-of-maybe,
knowing things that they can’t know unearned.
Who would think that his dying would earn me some secrets?
All that I had was all that I wanted,
and most that I wanted was him.
To ski fast and dangerous or crack up the car, or
get something stuck in the blood—such was the destiny
of that boy of my heart and mine
is to leave when the dance music starts.
Yet there are a few victories for those with our histories,
you can’t always be the one who does not.
There are ways to go wrong with it and ways to get over it and
I’ve given those ways some thought.
The rum and the smoke and the sex of it,
all those boys who breathe easily,
seem like they might have what I want.
Once you’ve stopped writing home about dead boyfriends and agony,
you can go out and see what they’ve got.
I can think about strangers and drink up the drinks and
if there’s no candles it feels like romance.
Yet sometimes when flirting, a moment of
hurting for boys who are now corpses or worse.
The skin sinking slowly and the soil surrounding and
those bugs that can bite into bone. In the restaurant
smiling, I’m giving the pitches and ordering chicken but
in the background I’m thinking
of maggots and lichen and
the ways that a grave isn’t home.
So I escape once again, to go haunting curbside,
away from the puddles that spray out the blues.
Leave parties, leave restaurants, leave school, work and friends,
there’s no end for the need to escape.
I run home for a tear, for a tear in the stockings, for
a moment that felt less than fine. Everyone indulges,
the bosses with bravado, saying take care of yourself,
take your time.
All this time given freely, for me to enjoy,
this time in the bathtub while dressed.
An afternoon off and I hide on the tile, wondering
if this makes me obsessed.
I could run the water but then there’s the steam
and Sinatra and all of it makes me feel caught.
The Lindy Hop’s cute but I’ve got things to do, and
sometimes I’m too tired to watch.
So I stay dry and stay dirty, I make it a motto
of all ladies who got left behind. We are a club of girlfriends
who laugh at disaster and get called brave or strong or
snow cool. All of that flattering, somewhat but laughable—
it’s only ourselves that we set out to fool.
We are a club of ladies
with no love for each other,
because it takes one to know one who lies.
Lying and hiding his tapes from the seventies,
I go out alone, but when two
girlfriends meet then we know
that dead boyfriends are haunting us all.
And still we get on with it, buy shoes on their birthdays,
spike heels we know they’d have liked.
Wearing those heels, in the bathtub bone dry, we can talk
on the phone and from the safety of home, admit
that top-forty songs make us cry.
In the funeral bouquet I got a burlesque,
a masque play of dating done by grieving instead.
Roses in lieu of the boy that I loved, white roses instead of his red,
In lieu of that boy who had something bad in his heart or his car or his head.
White roses like silk, in vases on tables, waiting to wilt but
I’m stuck with roses with stamina forever,
it’s always the wrong things that last.
Although, if a vase should fall after a table is kicked,
the pollen that rises might tingle of tangos and other things missed.
This rageful vagueness that takes me makes me
do things only now forgivable. In embraces of boys
still living with girls I feel soft and sweet for
the hard candy meanness in me.
The wrath of waking up wet for a boy
so long underground knows no bounds I can see.
In the club with my hand on a thigh, in
the fizz of the gin that he bought, in
the thump and slide of bass, I flinch
at a shadow of specter and the dream of the disco,
but the other boy’s real and there’s no synth and no mist
so I can dance and flirt and get kissed.
So he’s not all that cute—I’m not all that sober and
want not the best but a rest.
A piranha pariah, they say it’s made me so bitter,
they say it and they’ll say again.
Dead boyfriend’s no license, but what about my sense
that I’ll never get to feel it again.
Dead boyfriend’s a period to sentence not spoken, and
I can’t say if it would’ve got better or worse.
I was still really too young to know what I wanted,
to be a wife or not quite or alone. My head on his chest or
his tongue in my ear or jam eaten straight from the jar.
And here I am missing his toenails, his watch,
and the soundtracks sung loud in the car.
It wasn’t an epic, that’s what makes it so tragic,
just over six months since we’d met.
Whatever I wanted, whatever I’d get,
No one told me I’d never get to forget.