2020 Poetry Delights

Pearl Pirie's new collection, footlights, is available now.

*****

These are compelling reads from Canadian poets. They delight in being imaginative and in distinct dense tellings of their worlds. These books turn and explore, question and listen.

*

Niagara & Government, by Phil Hall

These poems don't get swept up in themselves, but heckle easy assumptions, resist hero or villain, the lyric impulse for perfect beauty or paper-cut endings. He wants to be more real than that and escape the literary within the literary. "I dare not smear with wit or cheapen with harmony" (p. 79).

He reflects on past decades, and interpretations, and impacts within the moment's "deep accordion sigh" (p. 55) and realizing "this is Bottom I thought but I was wrong. /I was wearing the hole in Bottom// the bottle still had it over me/I was its tongue" (p. 51). His expression is fresh and deft. It is an ear candy to read, and fittingly absurd to stick candy in the ear. He is irreverent. "happy to muck about allow & accumulate".

He explores being an outsider to those he was born among, and coming to acceptance that he is as unchangeable in nature as the people he is unlike. The material is heavy but there's a resilience within grief, a self-awareness that it passes and returns to.

*

Orrery, by Donna Kane

I've been waiting 13 years for Donna Kane's next book and I'm relieved to be not disappointed.
Her ideas and metaphors are exciting and fresh, "catkins sealed inside/hulls that shine like polished caskets,/like taxidermy eyes" (p.38).

Her mind is alert, moving among all the magnitudes from a dull fly spinning on its back to Jupiter to gaps between one person's inner life and another. "My mother believes if she doesn't believe, /her prayers will be answered. What kind of god is that? /One who enjoys a good cry" (p. 46). 

She goes deeper and more dexterous in her already vivid phrasing. Billed attractively as a space probe poems her poems are also of earth and of family, "The answer is out there, I know, / but something generous keeps holding it back" (p. 45).

The poems are not sentimental, not blunt, but inquiring, measuring, testing the ground of words, avoiding confirmation bias or pat answers, but delving into sharp observation.

*

rushes from the river disappointment, by stephanie roberts

The book moves in a drowning rush of water, and gives a heady rush. The language surprises and the word choices are densely brocaded and sumptuous—"each spring a hesitation/the surface/of lindens throb ebonized by rain". It has starkly staked its truths "because pain don't care/what makes sense".

Within the awareness of ache there's a sense of agency fighting back, conscious of mind watching body thrash, listening knowing one must give the body the dignity of going through what it must, "into the toothsome sustenance of thriving" enduring sometimes feeling vaguely absurd about changing planned course and compensate for the "all to avoid a face/at your hair and height". Yes, sometimes we flinch and that's okay. It's a kindness to self, considering. One embraces this and the good, "tongue blueberries/from palms trusted/not to hurt you."

One goes forward, communicates though "whatever sieve can tongue it".

It's inspiring in form and content.
*

Haiku in Canada: History, Poetry, Memoir, by Terry Ann Carter

Rarely has seminal been such an apt word for a book. This is a feast of encyclopedic knowledge of the timelines, events, people and poems that have made up the haiku community in Canada. It gathers years of reading in an invaluable guide to orient on the history of the movement as a subset of Literary Who's Who. Over 180 pages have a fantastic number of biographies and sample poems from individuals, events and geographical groups. There are 35 pages of endnotes to geek out over.

Background stories fill in the gaps among the scattered practicing communities. It compresses it all accessibly and shows how haiku is a much denser form and more flexible in form than it was even 20 years ago.

"belonging/where I don't belong/giant sequoia" Victor Ortiz (p. 110).

It is a good companion book to Moonflowers: Pioneering Women Haiku Poets in Canada, by Terry Ann Carter (Catkin Press, 2020) which gives a bibliography and biography of 14 poets.

*

Low Centre of Gravity, by Michael Dennis

I love these frank, lively poems. They take you right into the moment of life in each reread, whether impish playfulness in bed or attending another concussive funeral as "we lumber though/what we don't have the skills to handle" (p. 25).

He has a sense of real and a sense of self-deprecating humour, such as "Slam Dunk" "you are halfway through/what you are convinced is a great poem/when you realize you have just repeated the plot/of a recent favourite movie" (p. 47).

In some hands, memoir poems feel like lineated prose but these have pauses and line breaks and turns that make it poetry.
He has a way of gliding from subject to subject in an unexpected way yet everything fits, from Kirk Douglas to Odin and a neighbour's dog named Odin to how how "Gods are never the deities/we think they are" (p. 73)

They move me and make me laugh no matter how many times I read them.

*

Bittersweet, by Natasha Ramoutar

The words tumble in a kind of direct speech of the stage, emphatic and passionate. Although conversational in reveal, the poems are dense with point of view pivots, such as in "Ink" "What she tells me (laugh): Grandma didn’t have a choice.//What she does not tell me: Our grandmother, tender and young, must have been branded like an animal."

Although focused on Scarborough, the poems bridge more universal gaps of what a generation lives. Rather than a silo of register, it embraces the wider communication, mixing in another language that we don't need to know, with the concrete tactile that we can.

Like all the other books on this list, it navigates trauma with strength, living vividly.

*

Long Division, by Gil McElroy
Many of the poems appeared in chapbooks and in magazines, or at readings I attended and I find it handy to have them bound together.
The poems challenge language and expectation. They are not a quick composition, and not a quick read.

They play with expectation whether self-deprecating as in—"You,/& the sacramental/Thou. Grief, weeping,/& the desert cans & cants. Un-/sayables." (p. 90)—or the rotting of language boundaries: "Be a tific. Be bop. Be but ever even. Be calm. Because the beams so estrange you. Because you find yourself turning. Because colliding is foreign to you." (p. 124).

The questions the text asks are large and within an awareness of constant change and chaos. "How very yesterday of me! Always thinking, etc. All this not to see, not to where I must, me in spite of myself." (p. 74).

*

footlights, by Pearl Pirie

Inside the phobic and the crushing we trudge through the wreckage, the slippage, and the comic, in our search for joy. The beauty in these poems is an amalgam, like a gathering storm, of the meteorological and political, the mundane and the distressing.

"There's a Zen story where a student asks a master to summarize his teaching in one word. The master says, 'Attention.' The student, not satisfied, asks for two words. 'Attention. Attention,' the master replies. In footlights, Pearl Pirie gives careful attention to the everyday details and daily strange wonders yielding poems rich in observation and nuance asking; What is it to live in the world and to have a life? What is it to pay attention to one's own attentiveness? Attend to these poems as they attend to you. They delight." —- Gary Barwin, author of For It Is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe

"Sensuous and deeply philosophical, the expansive poems in footlights put forth vital questions that push not only against but brilliantly into, the very essence of self as a combining form in these swiftly changing times." —Brenda Schmidt, former Sask Poet Laureate, author of Culverts Beneath the Narrow Road

November 26, 2020
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