Poetry That's Going to Grab You

These are poetry collections worth your attention this spring as we cap off National Poetry Month. And don't miss the League of Canadian Poets Longlists for their 2021 Awards for more poetic splendour.

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Undoing Hours, by Selina Boan

About the book: Selina Boan’s debut poetry collection, Undoing Hours, considers the various ways we undo, inherit, reclaim and (re)learn. Boan’s poems emphasize sound and breath. They tell stories of meeting family, of experiencing love and heartbreak, and of learning new ways to express and understand the world around her through nêhiyawêwin.

As a settler and urban nehiyaw who grew up disconnected from her father’s family and community, Boan turns to language as one way to challenge the impact of assimilation policies and colonization on her own being and the landscapes she inhabits. Exploring the nexus of language and power, the effects of which are both far-reaching and deeply intimate, these poems consider the ways language impacts the way we view and construct the world around us. Boan also explores what it means to be a white settler-nehiyaw woman actively building community and working to ground herself through language and relationships. Boan writes from a place of linguistic tension, tenderness and care, creating space to ask questions and to imagine intimate decolonial futures.

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Because The Sun, by Sarah Burgoyne

About the book: Vexed by the "unremarkable star" that "presses" Camus’s Meursault to commit murder, Because the Sun considers the blazing sun as a material symbol of ambient violence—violence absorbed like heat and fired at the nearest victim. Likewise, as a friendship between women confronts gendered aggression in Thelma and Louise, the sun becomes the repository of pain, the high noon that pushes us through desert after desert. Because the Sun’s pastiche of voices embodies both stylistic and formal relentlessness by teasing out tonalities that blend and merge into each other, generating a blinding effect, like looking into the sun.

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awâsis - kinky and dishevelled, by Louise B. Halfe - Sky Dancer

About the book: There are no pronouns in Cree for gender; awâsis (which means illuminated child) reveals herself through shape-shifting, adopting different genders, exploring the English language with merriment, and sharing his journey of mishaps with humor, mystery, and spirituality. Opening with a joyful and intimate Introduction from Elder Maria Campbell, awâsis - kinky and dishevelled is a force of Indigenous resurgence, resistance, and soul-healing laughter.

If you've read Halfe's previous books, prepared to be surprised by this one. Raging in the dark, uncovering the painful facts wrought on her and her people's lives by colonialism, racism, religion, and residential schools, she has walked us through raw realities with unabashed courage and intense, precise lyricism. But for her fifth book, another choice presented itself. Would she carve her way with determined ferocity into the still-powerful destructive forces of colonialism, despite Canada's official, hollow promises to make things better? After a soul-searching Truth and Reconciliation process, the drinking water still hasn't improved, and Louise began to wonder whether inspiration had deserted her.

Then awâsis showed up--a trickster, teacher, healer, wheeler-dealer, shapeshifter, woman, man, nuisance, inspiration. A Holy Fool with their fly open, speaking Cree, awâsis came to Louise out of the ancient stories of her people, her Elders, from community input (through tears and laughter), from her own full heart and her three-dimensional dreams. Following awâsis's lead, Louise has flipped her blanket over, revealing a joking, mischievous, unapologetic alter ego--right on time.

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The Debt, by Andreae Callanan

About the book: Set against the backdrop of a post-moratorium St. John’s, Newfoundland, The Debt explores tensions between tradition and innovation, and between past and present in a province unmoored by loss and grief. The Debt is about development and change, idleness and activism, ecological stewardship, feminism, motherhood, the personal and the political. It is also about resistance—against the encroaching forces of greed and capitalism, even against the accumulated notions of the self. The poems are an argument for community and connection in an age increasingly associated with isolation of the individual. The Debt explores the dues we all owe: to nature, to those who came before us, and to one another.

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nedi nezu (Good Medicine), by Tenille K. Campbell

About the book: A celebratory, slyly funny, and bluntly honest take on sex and romance in NDN Country.

nedi nezu (Good Medicine) explores the beautiful space that being a sensual Indigenous woman creates - not only as a partner, a fantasy, a heartbreak waiting to happen but also as an auntie, a role model, a voice that connects to others walking the same path. From the online hookup world of DMs, double taps, and secret texts to earth-shakingly erotic encounters under the northern stars to the ever-complicated relationship Indigenous women have with mainstream society, this poetry collection doesn't shy away from depicting the gorgeous diversity in decolonized desire. Instead, Campbell creates the most intimate of spaces, where the tea is hot and a seat is waiting, surrounded by the tantalizing laughter of aunties telling stories.

These wise, jubilant poems chronicle many failed attempts at romance, with the wry humour needed to not take these heartbreaks personally, and the growth that comes from sitting in the silence of living a solo life in a world that insists everyone should be partnered up. With a knowing smile, this book side-eyes the political existence and celebrates the lived experience of an Indigenous woman falling in love and lust with those around her -but, most importantly, with herself.

nedi nezu is a smart, sensual, and scandalous collection dripping in Indigenous culture yet irresistible to anyone in thrall to the magnificent disaster that is dating, sex, and relationships.

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Gospel Drunk, by Aidan Chafe

About the book: Gospel Drunk follows a speaker’s journey to find clarity and identity as he contemplates his Catholic upbringing and struggles with loneliness and alcohol addiction. Sharp, intoxicating imagery and a minimalist aesthetic combine in these poems to explore some of our darkest and strongest belief systems, dismantling them with wit and wisdom. Poignant boyhood memories of hockey coaches as “dragons in suits” collide with critiques of “the broken bicycle of recovery.” A child’s fingers interlace to form a gun during mass and Hulk attends an AA meeting. Boldly honest, Gospel Drunk is for all who seek humanity in a world where the personal and the political are equally complicated.

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Phantompains, by Therese Estacion

About the book: Therese Estacion survived a rare infection that nearly killed her, but not without losing both her legs below the knees, several fingers, and reproductive organs. Phantompains is a visceral, imaginative collection exploring disability, grief and life by interweaving stark memories with dreamlike surrealism.

Taking inspiration from Filipino horror and folk tales, Estacion incorporates some Visayan language into her work, telling stories of mermen, gnomes, and ogres that haunt childhood stories of the Philippines and, then, imaginings in her hospital room, where she spent months recovering after her operations.

Estacion says she wrote these poems out of necessity: an essential task to deal with the trauma of hospitalization and what followed. Now, they are demonstrations of the power of our imaginations to provide catharsis, preserve memory, rebel and even to find self-love.

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The Wig-Maker, by Janet Gallant & Sharon Thesen

About the book: powerful tale of violence, grief, resilience, and transformation, told in the voice of Janet Gallant, transcribed and lineated as a long poem by Sharon Thesen, The Wig-Maker gathers and weaves together themes and incidents that accumulate toward "the moan" of racism, sexual abuse, maternal abandonment, suicide, mental illness, and addiction.

Though the subject-matter ranges from a lengthy first-person account of sufferings both personal and cultural, historic and current, the pulse of the telling ultimately led to healing and reconciliation. Almost by magic — certainly with the assistance of the uncanny — the 18-month long process of Gallant's telling/Thesen's listening-writing resulted in Gallant's discovery of her true genetic, and social, identity. In the early part of her story Janet longs to know the reasons that her mother abandoned the family when Gallant was three years old, leaving four young children with their abusive father. She also wants to know what turned her father into "the monster" he had become. Her mother, Valerie Johnson, is Black and grew up in the Black community of Wildwood, Alberta; her Canadian serviceman father, Tom McCrate, grew up in Irish-Catholic poverty in Nova Scotia. As a biracial child, Janet was unaware until she was eleven years old that her mother was Black; nor did she know until very recently that Tom McCrate was not her biological father.

The twists and turns of the narrative gather a range of topics and incidents; the human hair industry, Black immigration to Alberta and Saskatchewan in the early 1900's, maternal abandonment, the stresses of military life, adoption search websites, the suicide of Gallant's teenage brother, the sudden death of her young husband, the stress-disorder of alopecia, and the loneliness of surviving all this but never finding answers. But some important answers have been given and received as a result of Gallant's research being inspired by the mysteriously healing process of the telling itself.

"The Wig-Maker" is Janet Gallant's song; her story comes to life in Sharon Thesen's poem.

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Congratulations, Rhododendrons, by Mary Germaine

About the book: Through poems that speak to plastic bags and drones as much as they admire roses and the moon, Germaine surfs the confluence of artificial and natural environments, technology, and our small but consequential feelings about them. At turns devotional and suspicious, these poems toe the boundaries of intimacy, responsibility, and reason.

In anxious times, anything can be taken as a sign; a crow, a talking coin, and a news report are all sources of information whose truth (or “fake-ness”) demand investigation. Germaine’s poems scroll from a shrine in Lourdes to an augmented-reality sandbox, from a mall filled with loitering ex–love interests to a fairy-tale ending where all the men turn out to be chairs. Funny, provocative, sly, and melancholic, Congratulations, Rhododendrons makes a case for the hope that every apparent disaster of social investment might in the end be redeemed as meaningful, genuine, or at least in some way helpful.

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Creeland, by Dallas Hunt

About the book: Creeland is a poetry collection concerned with notions of home and the quotidian attachments we feel to those notions, even across great distances. Even in an area such as Treaty Eight (northern Alberta), a geography decimated by resource extraction and development, people are creating, living, laughing, surviving and flourishing—or at least attempting to.

The poems in this collection are preoccupied with the role of Indigenous aesthetics in the creation and nurturing of complex Indigenous lifeworlds. They aim to honour the encounters that everyday Cree economies enable, and the words that try—and ultimately fail—to articulate them. Hunt gestures to the movements, speech acts and relations that exceed available vocabularies, that may be housed within words like joy, but which the words themselves cannot fully convey. This debut collection is vital in the context of a colonial aesthetic designed to perpetually foreclose on Indigenous futures and erase Indigenous existence.

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This is How It is, by Sharon King-Campbell

About the book: Illuminating, poised, and wholly original, the poems of Sharon King-Campbell’s This Is How It Is range across the planet from New Zealand to Thailand to Newfoundland, gathering along the way voices both historical and mythological in a compelling display of dramatic empathy and poetic imagination. Subverting history and fable while always returning to vividly depicted images of our landscapes within the specter of environmental crisis, King-Campbell spans the far corners of the earth and the previously silent voices of our collective pasts to arrive here at our contemporary moment with poems of formal dexterity as prescient as they are captivating.

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Then Now, by Daphne Marlatt

About the book: A lyrical exploration of memory, family, catastrophe, immigration, and colonialism, Then Now was inspired by the discovery of letters written by Daphne Marlatt’s father, Arthur Buckle, who left England in the early 1930s to join a British accounting firm in multiracial Penang, Malaysia. He continued living and working there until taking leave in 1941, returning after WW II, whose looming threat striates his early letters, and staying until 1951. Decades after the letters’ composition, Marlatt began writing poems in response to them, interwoven with memories they provoked from her post-war childhood there. These poems are written from a sense of place and home on Canada’s West Coast now on the brink of another catastrophe, global climate change, so that throughout the book, “There Then” permeates any “Here Now” of immigrant consciousness and highlights the impermanent quality of “home.”

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The Bad Wife, by Micheline Maylor

About the book: Micheline Maylor’s The Bad Wife is an intimate, first-hand account of how to ruin a marriage. This is a story of divorce, love, and what should have been, told in a brave and unflinching voice. Pulling the reader into a startling web of sensuality, guilt, resentment, and pleasure, this collection asks: what if you set off a bomb in your own house? What if you lose love and destroy everything you ever knew? These poems have a disarming immediacy, full of surprising imagery, dark humour, and the bold thoughts of a vibrant and flawed protagonist. Balancing a need for wildness and the space to dwell, The Bad Wife explores the taut confines of those vivid, earthly pleasures that we all know and sometimes can’t escape.

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A Number of Stunning Attacks, by Jessi MacEachern

About the book: A Number of Stunning Attacks contributes to the ongoing association of fragmented forms and women’s writing, yet the insistent repetitions and crystallized imagery produce something more coherent than a fragment and more dynamic than a single whole. Drawing on a line of innovative women’s poetics in Canada, these poems recall the radical experiments of Lisa Robertson, Erìn Moure, and Gail Scott. Intoxicated by disorientation, the reader will ask: Which city is this? Which woman is this? Which reader am I?

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il virus, by Lillian Necakov

About the book: il virus brings together 113 poems written over seventy-eight days during the spring 2020 pandemic lockdown in Toronto. These responses to daily news and eclectic media posts encompass dogs (lots of them), Zambonis, jazz and blues, Jackie Gleason, mathematics, thermodynamics, and geography (real and imagined). These miniatures are Lillian Necakov's most spare poems, but each is jam-packed with explosives: anger, grief, love, need, and a foraging for ink.

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Duct-Taped Roses, by Billeh Nickerson

About the book: In Duct-Taped Roses, Billeh Nickerson shares heartbreaks and offers odes and elegies in reflections on family, community, life, and loss.

As a bush pilot, Nickerson's father would duct-tape his planes to keep them flying. The poignancy of his relationship with his father is celebrated here in the long poem "Skies." Other poems reminisce about love and the complex resiliency of gay men.

Through his signature irreverence, honesty and wit, Nickerson explores what can be repaired, what must be celebrated, and what—inevitably—is lost to time.

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Coconut, by Nisha Patel

About the book: In her debut collection, Canadian National Slam Champion Nisha Patel commands her formidable insight and youthful, engaged voice to relay experiences of racism, sexuality, empowerment, grief, and love. These are vitally political, feminist poems for young women of colour, with bold portrayals of confession, hurt, and healing.

Coconut rises fiercely like the sun. These poems bestow light and warmth and the ability to witness the world, but they ask for more than basking; they ask readers to grow and warn that they can be burnt. Above all, Nisha Patel's work questions and challenges propriety and what it means to be a good woman, second-generation immigrant, daughter, consumer, and lover.

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sulphurtongue, by Rebecca Salazar

About the book: An urgent, powerful examination of place and the ways in which all kinds of identities exist and collide.

The poems in sulphurtongue ask how to redefine desire and kinship across languages, and across polluted environments. An immigrant family scatters over a stolen continent. Oracles appear in public transit, and online. Bodies are transformed by nearby nickel mines. Doppelgangers, Catholic saints, and polyamorists alike pass on unusual inheritances. Deeply entangled in relations both emotional and ecological, this collection confronts the stories we tell about gender, queerness, race, religion, illness, and trauma, seeking new forms of care for a changing world.

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Is This Scary?, by Jacob Scheier

About the book: A challenging exploration of mental illness and disability from Governor General’s Award winner Jacob Scheier.

Is This Scary? digs deep into internal landscapes of suffering, including depression and anxiety, chronic physical ailment, and rare neurological malady. With its many eccentric songs and odes to medications and medical procedures, this book is full of both levity and unapologetic lament. Pushing back against societal stigma, Is This Scary? unflinchingly addresses experiences of psychiatric institutionalization and suicidality, without either romanticizing or pathologizing them. Scheier rejects much of the mainstream cultural views of mental illness, subverting the biochemical model by emphasizing the radical subjectivity of mental suffering. While the poems render the difficulty of communicating pain to others, they defiantly celebrate its expression and evocation through visceral lyricism.

Scheier also challenges our culture’s desire to be inspired by stories of “triumphing” over illness and disability. Nothing is overcome here, the journey from illness to wellness is one of narrative and aesthetic disruption. The perpetually incomplete search for self and home is ultimately at the heart of this book: along with being a person with disabilities, the poet-speaker identifies as a Diaspora-Jew, engaging exile as a chronic state of being that isn’t intended to be resolved, but rather explored, expressed, and honored.

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Strangers, by Rob Taylor

About the book: In Strangers, Rob Taylor makes new the epiphany poem: the short lyric ending with a moment of recognition or arrival. In his hands, the form becomes not simply a revelation in words but, in Wallace Stevens' phrase, “a revelation in words by means of the words.” The epiphany here is not only the poet’s. It’s ours. A book about the songlines of memory and language and the ways in which they connect us to other human beings, to read Strangers is to become part of the lineages (literary, artistic, familial) that it braids together—to become, as Richard Outram puts it, an “unspoken / Stranger no longer.”

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Catalogue d'oiseaux, by Aaron Tucker

About the book: Catalogue d’oiseaux recounts a year in the life of a couple separated by distance, carefully documenting time spent together and apart. When reunited, they embark on travels across the globe—from Toronto to Berlin, Porto to the Yukon. This expansive poem moves sensually through small, intimate spaces and the larger world alike. Traced through art, architecture, and the cultural life of various cities, this stunning celebration of love lives between geographies and chronologies as a kaleidoscopic gathering of the many fractals that make up a couple's life.

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The Shadow List, by Jen Sookfong Lee

About the book: In these devastating lyric poems Jen Sookfong Lee unfolds the experience of her narrator, following her through frost-chilled nights and salt-scented days, as she pulls at the knot of accumulated expectations around her trying to create space to want and to be. The Shadow List is a book filled with desire, where we question the politics of who gets to choose and who doesn't and where the narrator creates hidden lists of what she really wants. With a novelist's way with character, Lee builds a deep connection with the narrator of the poems, yet each individual poem creates a vivid snapshot of moments many will recognize. The slick of black ice, the killing light of day, the cheap, plastic diamonds—they are all pieces of a life we gather and put in our pockets to remember with.

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Primal Sketches, by Caroline Wong

About the book: Fueled by our perpetual need to find meaning and purpose in our lives, Primal Sketches is a book that considers how our actions profoundly effect the lives of fellow humans as well as the natural world around us. How our desire to connect, care, and empathize, are constantly interrupted by feelings of insecurity and growing anxiety of our uncertain future in a world that is continually bombarded by global conflicts and environmental crises. However, our determination to carry on provides glimpses of hope amid brutal and unthinkable actions and these bright, tender moments reveal our capacity to learn, understand, and love--the essence of our humanity.

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Smithereens, by Terence Young

About the book: In Smithereens, Terence Young ranges widely among forms, subjects, tones and moods, invoking the domestic world of family and home, as well as the associated realms of work and play. He describes the simple pleasure of losing one’s bearings and seeing the world anew in “Tender is the Night,” and in “The Bear” he records the near-magical appearance at a summer cabin of a creature that hasn’t been seen in the area in over fifty years. The ironic benefits of a house fire, the late-night sounds of a downtown alley, the smells of a summer morning in the Gulf islands—all of these serve as vehicles for reminiscence, meditation and humour. Elsewhere in the collection, he summons an elegiac mood, remembering in poems like “Surcease,” “Fern Island Candle,” “The Morning Mike Dies,” and “Gary” some of the friends who have left his world. More than any of his previous books, though, Smithereens features poems that are playful, in which language is often associative, surprising and fun. It is a collection that will reward readers, whatever their temperament upon picking it up, and it will also invite them to return to its pages again and again.

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April 26, 2021
Books mentioned in this post
nedi nezu (Good Medicine)

nedi nezu (Good Medicine)

edition:Paperback
More Info
Gospel Drunk

Gospel Drunk

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

Coconut

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : canadian, lgbt
More Info
Is This Scary?

Is This Scary?

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