Poems to Return To

Book Cover Our Latest in Folktales

A playful and wide-ranging recommended reading list—with dogs, poems that talk to each other, impossible plays and fridge magnet letters that spell it all outby Matthew Gwathmey, whose debut collection is Our Latest in Folktales.

*****

Short Talks, by Anne Carson

This is a good place to start for multiple reasons, as Anne Carson is a poet whom I return to quite a bit. Autobiography of Red and Red Doc> are two books in particular I’ve enjoyed rereading. Also, I’ll never forget the experience that was Nox. I remember she came and did a reading at UVA while I was there. She began with a joke she just heard: “Where do otters come from? Otterspace.” I remember at one point in the evening we the audience had to perform a response to her call, though I can’t remember for the life of me what exactly it was. It wasn’t forced at all, but felt natural in a great and surprising reading. This particular book, Short Talks, which I only read a few years ago, continued my fascination with the prose poem. It’s a collection of poetic blocks of text, on topics ranging from trout to Ovid to autism to the Mona Lisa. You have to search for the emotion here, but it’s present, and personally, that’s the way I like it.

“Well you know I wonder, it could be love running towards my life with its arms up yelling let’s buy it what a bargain!” —“Short Talk on the Sensation of Aeroplane Takeoff”

 *

Clockfire, by Jonathan Ball

What a singular work of brilliance. There really is nothing else like it! The back cover describes what’s going on in this book perfectly: “a suite of poetic blueprints for imaginary plays that would be impossible to produce.” To form it, these are prose poems. The surprising imagery found in the surreal ideas for the theatre really keeps you on your toes. Kind of reminds me of Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End (another collection of prose poems), but the central, unique conceit of Clockfire carries it through to the end. I have to wonder, when’s the sequel coming out? It’s hard to single out one to a few examples to highlight as my favourites or reinforce my point, so I’ll just flip to a random page right now. “Any Animal,” page 17. That’s a good one! After the audience members answer the question of what animal they’d like to be, the actors “begin the laborious process of transforming [them] into their animals of choice.”

Full disclosure, Jonathan Ball blurbed my book. And I do hope to meet him some day.

*

Book Cover Monkey Ranch

Monkey Ranch, by Julie Bruck

I was glued to this book from the moment I read the two epigraphs on page seven: “A life should leave / deep tracks… / It should abrade.” —Kay Ryan & “Sort of, said the monkey merchant.” —Russell Edson. Ryan, she of the short, punch-you-the-gut lines, and, Edson, he of the long, rambling, slow reveal lines (mainly, you guessed it, prose poems). Monkey Ranch runs the full gamut of line length, packing fast-paced rhythms and great images on every single page (except the blank ones). I especially enjoyed the change in posture using a trademarked Magic Sponge of “The Winningest Jockey,” the contrast between rock stars and the airport gate manager of “Men at Work”, and of course her “kid” poems, “Gold Coin” for example. Out on a stroll with her daughter, she asks: “What gives this day such perfect pitch, / a held note against the usual desolations?”

*

Feel Happier in Nine Seconds, by Linda Besner

Linda Besner once read at Poetry Weekend here in Fredericton. She read from her first book, The Id Kid. I’m not sure how many years ago that was now, but I do remember thoroughly enjoying her reading and looking forward to what she happened to publish next. Feel Happier does not disappoint in its scope and creative power! Take the long poem “Magnetic Variations on One and Six,” for example. It would take me too long to explain all that’s going on in this six-parter. Linda Besner offers up an explanation in her Notes, but I will try to paint a brief picture. There’s colour! The letters in red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple, corresponding to (in part) Fisher Price magnetic letters. Synesthesia central. Also, did I mention yet that they are prose poems? What’s up with my obsession? I don’t know… Finally, you have to check out the title poem, right at the start. Final rhyme? Quite awesome.

*

Revolver, by Kevin Connolly

Where to start with this one? First of all, there are no blocks of text, all staggered lines, so there! But the variety of form and various points of reference make this a true collection in the sense that it’s a bunch of poems seemingly unrelated collected together and put in a room. And then they start talking to each other, and echoes abound. There’s a sonnet (with assembly required) with some great suggested rhymes (“aerodrome,” “genome,” and “syndrome”) and a list poem rewinding adolescence. There is a gloss on a Shakespearean sonnet, a collage using text from Mind Benders: Deductive Thinking Skills, and a poem composed entirely of Mark Twain aphorisms. There are references to The Pixies and Oasis. And I have to point out one of the best sports poems I’ve ever read: “I Really Need Ted Lilly to Throw the Hook.” “It changes nothing, but it’s suddenly important now.” Throughout, there’s wordplay worthy of enjoyment and dissection.

*

Pigeon, by Karen Solie

When I come across a poem that I know I’ll want to return to, I carefully fold down the corner page, forming a triangle not big enough to block any text but big enough to quickly find it when flipping through. This is one of the few collections of poetry where I’ve pretty much folded every page… Realizing too late that my whole process became pointless. But I mean, pretty much every poem in here is great. Worth returning to, for sure. And they somehow seem to speak directly to you, no matter where you are in life. Ever read “In New Brunswick” in New Brunswick? Ever read “Prayers for the Sick” when praying for the sick? Ever read “Four Factories” while working in a factory? Ever read “Franklin” and then wrote a poem called “Franklin the Icebreaker?” No? Well, I guess I did. Solie is a master of enjambement, of keeping the momentum going in a poem to the too-soon-to-be-true ending. And then you’re on to the next one. “It was added to us, / our fire visible for miles, as late afternoon bent / to the rangeland and laid its shining weapons down.”

*On a side note, this book wins a tight competition for best cover in my list. You have these horizontal bars of the image that don’t quite line up, some Da Vinci-esque figure scrawl at the claws, and the barest hint of an eye.

*

In the Scaffolding, by Eric Miller

It’s hard to write poems about your kid(s). Julie Bruck can do it. And I remember reading Eric Miller’s last section in his book, In the Scaffolding (the second coming of Gerard Manley Hopkins, anyone?), poems about his two children, and wondering, how in the world is he able to do this so well? Specifically the poem “Reading.” I’d quote the whole poem here if I could. It begins: “Never forget this, the two children leaning / over the book from either side, pressure, / warmth of their bodies, as though they compressed / their mass of life to the utmost mammal /essence.” For the rest of the poem… Thanks to Ross Leckie, by the way, for bringing this book to the attention of anyone and everyone who took a workshop with him. One of the most interesting things I found in putting my manuscript together is that a few kid poems actually made their way into the book. Sneakily almost.

*

Now we move to the Dogs section of my recommended reading list, purely a coincidence that these next three titles all have Dogs in them. I actually do have a poem with a dog in its title: “Rat the Dog,” another pure coincidence, so I think. I’d say it all started with the dogs in Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry.”

Monologue Dogs, by Méira Cook

First of all, what a great name for a collection! If there’s a good rhyme in the title of a poetry book, I’ll pick it up. The Id Kid also comes to mind. There’s a lot of back and forth in these poems, between Young Eve, Her Boyfriend and Any Old Snake, between King Lear and His Best Girl, between Virginia Woolf and Leonard. The range here is incredible! Definitely a connection to Revolver that someone should delve into one day. I especially liked the personification of Hunger in the section The Hunger Artists, an inventive retelling of the story of Hansel and Gretel, with a dash of Persephone thrown in for good measure.“Hunger, my lover, sits at the head of the table, / sharpening his knives and his teeth, / while the brats crawl / from their mother’s eyes.”

*

Gun Dogs, by James Langer

The whole book’s really good, but I just want to talk about one poem. The title poem here is a veritable doozy. “Gun Dogs.” It starts so strongly: “And I’ve unleashed the dogs, out of season, / on days so hot all solids seemed to rise / from a quantum and kindled crux of yeast.” What follows are ten-syllable lines detailing hounds hunting a hare, spinning out to the confessional. And so many spondees: “snowshoe,” “headwind,” “crossroads,” “fog-clot,” “lug wrench,” “gun dogs” for that matter, that drive this poem home. It’s worth more than a few reads.

*I tried something like this, naming my book after a poem in there that I thought was significant. It may not be the best poem, but it’s the longest!

*

Invisible Dogs, by Barry Dempster

The back matter of this book says that “this is a book for anyone who has […] made it past fifty.” I would argue that it is also for those of us who have not hit that milestone just yet. Oh yes, it’s also for “anyone who has ever survived a broken heart,” so I believe that covers everyone! What I really like in Invisible Dogs is Barry Dempster’s construction of great and absurd (in the best sense!) metaphors and lyrical turns in poems like “Obsessed,” “The Oyster Cafe,” “The Pink Sock,” and “Bare Trees.” Take “The Pink Sock” for example. After the speaker sees this one pink sock, “curled on top of a boxwood hedge, pretending / to be a blossom” (pretending is the perfect verb there), which sparks the “I’s” search for other lost and discarded clothing, we have the end: “Here I am, in love with a pink sock. / How badly I wanted to snatch it, stuff it / in my pocket. Can’t you see that naked foot / gliding across the grass, slipping itself / into a sheath of petals?” The question connects us in a moment of imaginative beauty. I can see it! 

*

Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan

Finally, you can’t live and write poetry in Fredericton, New Brunswick for too long before you get caught up in Alden Nowlan. His home now holds the UNB Graduate Student Association and the Grad House Bar. He’s buried in the Poets’ Corner of the Forest Hill cemetery, along with Charles G. D. Roberts and Bliss Carman. His Collected Poems allows you to venture off the Nowlan beaten path. I was struck by the bombastic changes of direction I followed. Needed a map at one point.

“A Poem about Miracles”:

Why don’t records go blank / the instant the singer dies?

“The Jelly Bean Man”:

“He carries jelly beans,” a neighbour told us / when we first came here. “You’re lucky you don’t / have any small children.”

“There Is a Horrible Wing to the Hotel”:

"But one night on the roof we released balloons / in the shape of little animals; / there was a bear, for instance, and a giraffe / which was bright red, and a blue rhinoceros."

*

About Our Latest in Folktales:

On-stage in Matthew Gwathmey's debut collection are agitated 19th century horsemen, 80s comic book beetles, plaid-clad suburban grunge enthusiasts, Korean aunts turned traffic cops, Parisian mimes—in short, "a multitude of horns." Meanwhile, the "understories," the sub-spectacles of these poems, are the everyday trials and thrills of marriage and family, the search for meaningful love and friendship, and the palpable relief at being able to perform not as a primary character in the cultural narrative, but as a member of an elemental audience, as "water/ at the bottom of the wind."

Working a hand-mixer in one hand and a spade in the other, Gwathmey writes formally accomplished, linguistically playful poems with deep roots. He couples an implicit understanding of the stories passed down to us as necessary blueprints, with an occasionally nihilistic (in the spirit of the modernists) and occasionally giddy (in the spirit of the New York School) pull toward embellishment and reinvention, making these folktales rhythmic, humorous, and full of unexpected turns.

February 17, 2020
Books mentioned in this post
Short Talks

Short Talks

Brick Books Classics 1
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook Paperback
tagged : canadian
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Clockfire

Clockfire

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : canadian
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Monkey Ranch

Monkey Ranch

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : canadian
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Revolver

Revolver

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : canadian
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Pigeon

Pigeon

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : canadian
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Monologue Dogs

Monologue Dogs

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : canadian
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Gun Dogs

Gun Dogs

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : canadian
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Invisible Dogs

Invisible Dogs

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : canadian
More Info
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