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Accessing Poetry (by Jacob McArthur Mooney)
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Accessing Poetry (by Jacob McArthur Mooney)

By 49thShelf
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Jacob McArthur Mooney writes: Having been asked to get some poetry moving around Canadian Bookshelf, I struggled to think of an angle of approach. Poetry suffers, some would say, from an over-analytic abundance of angles. It is something of a serial self-describer, and gets qualified with words ranging from the concrete and uninformative (“Canadian poetry”) to the abstract and euphemistic (“women's poetry”). I've opted to try and steer clear of all that. I'm writing this to you smart, literate, idea-lovin' people who, despite your bookshelves fat with assorted fiction, non-fiction, and other ephemera, have yet to test the waters or poetry. Consider this an early reading list, one that challenges, engages, and doesn't pander. One that covers a lot of bases. Not all of them, surely, but a lot. I'm going to use a word here. It's something of a loaded word among poets. The word is “accessible”. I can feel many a pair of eyes rolling in their horn-rimmed glasses as I type this, from Parkdale to Commercial Drive and beyond. It's not an awful word, inherently. I've made a list of books that clearly want you to access them, though they may have highly varied means of requesting that access. They are singular, eccentric, books. They're not populist in the way the word accessible sometimes suggests. They want you to work for it, but are willing to make your effort worthwhile every step of the way. So I'll say it just one more time: accessible poetry. And then never again. Not in print, ever again, for the rest of my life.


The Upgraded Edition
also available: eBook
tagged : canadian
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Why it's on the list ...
Of the kind of qualifiers introduced above, “experimental” poetry is maybe the most meaningless, and the one most choked dead by its unmeanings. There is a connotation regarding the word "experiment", suggesting that to experiment is to occlude, divorce, or make antic. Bok's simple, but baffling, conceptual gambit (five chapters, each written using only one of the five english vowels) has the opposite effect. It's a simplifier, a filterer. And the result is as subversive and erudite as the concept demands. Also, it's hilarious. No one remembers that. Alternative reading, if you're not into Eunoia: Try Joy is So Exhausting, by Susan Holbrook. For all the same reasons.
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also available: eBook
tagged : canadian, history
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Why it's on the list ...
For the clearest, broadest bridge in Canadian poetry between the poems you were made to read as part of your formal education, and the ones you're about to start reading. Lista's adventurous first collection acts as a sort of reappropriated college poetry reader, with works from everyone from Auden to Eliot reworked into a true-life narrative concerning a Canadian physicist in the aftermath of World War 2. Alternative reading: Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person, by Eirin Moure, does a similar trick with Fernando Pessoa poems, for if your first education was a little less WASPy, and a little more Mediterranean, than most.
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Observed over Miami, the city, an orange slick blister,
the houses, stiff-­haired organisms clamped to the earth,
engorged with oil and wheat,
rubber and metals,
the total contents of the brain, the electrical
regions of the atmosphere, water

coming north, reeling, a neurosis of hinged
bodies thicken, flesh

out in immodest health,
six boys, fast food on their breath,
luscious paper bags, the perfume of grilled offal,
troughlike cartons of cola,
a gorgon luxury of electronics, backward caps,
bulbous clothing, easy hearts

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

lines of visitors are fingerprinted,
eye-­scanned, grow murderous,
then there’s the business of thoughts
who can glean with any certainty,
the guards, blued and leathered, multiply
to stop them,
palimpsests of old borders, the sea’s graph on the skin,
the dead giveaway of tongues,
soon, soon, the implants to discern lies

from the way a body moves

there’s that already

she felt ill, wanted
to murder the six boys, the guards,
the dreamless shipwrecked
burning their beautiful eyes in the patient queue

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Let’s go to the republic of home,
let’s forget all this then, this victorious procession,
these blenching queues,
this timeless march of nails in shoeless feet

what people will take and give,
the passive lines, the passive guards,
if passivity can be inchoate self-­loathing

all around, and creeping

self-­righteous, let’s say it, fascism,
how else to say, border,
and the militant consumption of everything,
the encampment of the airport, the eagerness
to be all the same, to mince biographies
to some exact phrases, some
exact and toxic genealogy

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Why it's on the list ...
A big, exquisite, roundhouse kick to the pants of anyone who has ever told you that Canadian poetry is provincial or quaint. Brand's long poem is ambitious, ambidextrous, and deeply angry. Probably the best reaction to the morale chaos of the last decade I've ever read. And I read a lot. So believe me. Alternative reading: Ossuaries, also by Brand, is something of Inventory's sequel. But that's sort of cheating, so I'll offer up Steve McOrmond's The Good News About Armaggedon or Ryan Kamstra's Late Capitalist Sublime, which could both be described as “similar to Inventory, except they have jokes”.
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The Reinvention of the Human Hand

the painted beasts of lascaux

Their discovery has been a kind of homecoming, too.
Part of you has been here before, germinal, hidden.
A painted hand resting on the stone, a molecule,
a memory of muscled, brawling bulls entombed
deep within, their horns goring the darkness
locked in the rock of ages. These yellow ochre horses
were born too long before they could be anything
but horses, before they could be centaurs, before
they could be starships. Remember, these herds
are the same on these walls as they were in their fi elds,
the same as they are in your mind. Listen.
Their hoof beats trampling this ancestral earth
are still the drums that drive the song in your blood,
the abiding chant of the hundred billion dead
who came before you. Their distant voices vanished
into your voice, deepening it. Their song the song
that’s been snarled in your heart – breaking it,
trying to pound its way free – for your entire life.

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Why it's on the list ...
As an example of the broad humanistic possibilities of the lyrical collection, this book is about as strong as it gets. Vermeersch engages with a great variety of subject matter, from disease to evolution to space travel to cell phones to apes, but does it all with a certain stalwart publicness that keeps it civilization-facing throughout. Inventory borrowed that old “prophetic poet” dramatics that characterized past centuries, but Reinvention takes a different path. It's just one sad dude, lookin' at the planet. Alternative reading: Modern and Normal, by Karen Solie. One sad dudette, doin' likewise.
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Little Bird
Why it's on the list ...
I offer this up as a reminder that while all the politics and publicness in the last two entries is well and good, poetry remains a lonely activity done in preparation for another lonely activity (to wit, the act of writing it, and the act of reading it). Little Bird is an intimate experience, about familial concerns, and while there is maybe 40 times more Canadian poetry like this than we need, it should be recognized as great when deserved. This book is also a prime example of formal constraint (rhyme, mostly, but there's more there) used on the side of the angels. Good rhyme shouldn't announce itself, but instead steer the lilt of your reading voice in the subtlest possible matter. Coles does this better than anyone in the country. Alternative reading: Undone by Sue Goyette for the AAA-Grade domestic experience, and Patternicity by Jim Johnstone, for that exquisite melodic dexterity.
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by Pierre Nepveu
translated by Judith Cowan
tagged : canadian
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Why it's on the list ...
This is here in part as a reminder that many Canadian poetry fans take their verse in the langue of Rimbaud et al, instead of English. Judith Cowan's translation of Nepveu maintains as much of the original as you could expect, and introduces it to the rest of the country. This book brings the kind of iconoclastic mindfulness towards place that only something like poetry allows, as Nepveu navigates the afterlife of the infamous Montreal airport with an elegiac nod and a smirk. This is the kind of poetry I respond to the most, personally. I love to read the products of someone's singular, inexhaustible, obsession. If that's not for you, it's okay. Some people like pluralism, some people like the variety offered by collecting. It's a big thing, poetry. There's room for lots. Alternative reading: Sachiko Murakami brings a similar sociological ethic to Vancouver's Downtown East Side in The Invisibility Exhibit.
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Execution Poems
Why it's on the list ...
This book shows the ties that bind contemporary poetry to two of its more popular cousins (to wit, drama and song). A good starter text for people with experience in either of those fields. Also, for history buffs, Canadianists, and (with the rich book craft of Nova Scotia's Gaspereau Press) object fetishists. Alternative reading: Nine Visits to the Mythworld, by Robert Bringhurst.
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