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Slipping Into Poetry: A List by Paul Pearson

By 49thShelf
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Paul Pearson writes: There is a very good reason why I didn't continue my studies and become an academic. I was terrible at it. Every time I try to write critically about a piece of art I care about, I slip into poetry. I just can't keep a grip on straight discourse. When I'm feeling uncharitable with myself I say that I have no ability to order my thoughts in a logical, rhetorical way. At best I am a mimic, squawking like that magpie sitting just out of reach. See, I'm doing it again. Here are just a few of the shiny things that I stole and heaped around Lunatic Engine
Collected Works of Pat Lowther, The
Why it's on the list ...
A Stone Diary, by Pat Lowther
There are books that sit in the memory like a stone in a river, just there, under the surface of everything that is moving over, solid, perfect in its imperfections. You forget about it, sometimes for years, and then suddenly, when you're looking for something else, it catches your eye and you pull it out. Feel its weight blood-printed in your palm. Run your thumb over its texture. If no one is watching, put it in your mouth. Its shape will sit under your tongue for years after you've returned it to the river. That stone is part of the foundation of everything you write.
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The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane

The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane

tagged : canadian
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Why it's on the list ...
Winter, by Patrick Lane
The person at Coteau Books who wrote the back cover blurb for this book back in 1990 got it right when they described this collection as being "as clear and precise as frost etched on a window." Winter in the bush brings on a kind of synesthesia. Cold is best experienced through sound. Light itself cracks. Snow and ice are known by their "small impossible music." I clear paths through memory with whatever shovel comes to hand, often using just my hands to dig myself out. Winter memories of things I did with my hands: sculpting snow forts, pressing snow balls, gripping the T-bar, the lift bringing me closer to the mountain.
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The Double Hook

The Double Hook

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
also available: Paperback Paperback
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In the folds of the hills

under Coyote’s eye


the old lady, mother of William
of James and of Greta

lived James and Greta
lived William and Ara his wife
lived the Widow Wagner
the Widow’s girl Lenchen
the Widow’s boy
lived Felix Prosper and Angel
lived Theophil
and Kip

until one morning in July

Greta was at the stove. Turning hotcakes. Reaching for the coffee beans. Grinding away James’s voice.

James was at the top of the stairs. His hand half-raised. His voice in the rafters.

James walking away. The old lady falling. There under the jaw of the roof. In the vault of the bed loft. Into the shadow of death. Pushed by James’s will. By James’s hand. By James’s words: This is my day. You’ll not fish today.


Still the old lady fished. If the reeds had dried up and the banks folded and crumbled down she would have fished still. If God had come into the valley, come holding out the long finger of salvation, moaning in the darkness, thundering down the gap at the lake head, skimming across the water, drying up the blue signature like blotting-paper, asking where, asking why, defying an answer, she would have thrown her line against the rebuke; she would have caught a piece of mud and looked it over; she would have drawn a line with the barb when the fire of righteousness baked the bottom.


Ara saw her fishing along the creek. Fishing shamelessly with bait. Fishing without a glance towards her daughter-in-law, who was hanging washing on the bushes near the rail fence.

I might as well be dead for all of her, Ara said. Passing her own son’s house and never offering a fry even today when he’s off and gone with the post.

The old lady fished on with a concentrated ferocity as if she were fishing for something she’d never found.

Ara hung William’s drawers on a rail. She had covered the bushes with towels.

Then she looked out from under her shag of bangs at the old lady’s back.

It’s not for fish she fishes, Ara thought. There’s only three of them. They can’t eat all the fish she’d catch.

William would try to explain, but he couldn’t. He only felt, but he always felt he knew. He could give half a dozen reasons for anything. When a woman on his route flagged him down with a coat and asked him to bring back a spool of thread from the town below, he’d explain that thread has a hundred uses. When it comes down to it, he’d say, there’s no telling what thread is for. I knew a woman once, he’d say, who used it to sew up her man after he was throwed on a barbed-wire fence.

Ara could hear the cow mumbling dry grass by the bushes. There was no other sound.

The old lady was rounding the bend of the creek. She was throwing her line into a rock pool. She was fishing upstream to the source. That way she’d come to the bones of the hills and the flats between where the herd cows ranged. They’d turn their tails to her and stretch their hides tight. They’d turn their living flesh from her as she’d turned hers from others.

The water was running low in the creek. Except in the pools, it would be hardly up to the ankle. Yet as she watched the old lady, Ara felt death leaking through from the centre of the earth. Death rising to the knee. Death rising to the loin.

She raised her chin to unseat the thought. No such thing could happen. The water was drying away. It lay only in the deep pools.

Ara wasn’t sure where water started.

William wouldn’t hesitate: It comes gurgling up from inside the hill over beyond the lake. There’s water over and it falls down. There’s water under and it rushes up. The trouble with water is it never rushes at the right time. The creeks dry up and the grass with them. There are men, he’d say, have seen their whole place fade like a cheap shirt. And there’s no way a man can fold it up and bring it in out of the sun. You can save a cabbage plant or a tomato plant with tents of paper if you’ve got the paper, but there’s no human being living can tent a field and pasture.

I’ve seen cows, he’d say, with lard running off them into the ground. The most unaccountable thing, he’d say, is the way the sun falls. I’ve seen a great cow, he’d say, throw no more shadow for its calf than a lean rabbit.

Ara looked over the fence. There was no one on the road. It lay white across the burnt grass.

Coyote made the land his pastime. He stretched out his paw. He breathed on the grass. His spittle eyed it with prickly pear.

Ara went into the house. She filled the basin at the pump in the kitchen and cooled her feet in the water.

We’ve never had a pump in our house all the years we’ve lived here, she’d heard Greta say. Someday, she’d say, you’ll lift the handle and stand waiting till eternity. James brings water in barrels from the spring. The thing about a barrel is you take it where you take it. There’s something fixed about a pump, fixed and uncertain.

Ara went to the door. She threw the water from the basin into the dust. She watched the water roll in balls on the ground. Roll and divide and spin.

The old lady had disappeared.

Ara put on a straw hat. She tied it with a bootlace under the chin. She wiped the top of the table with her apron which she threw behind a pile of papers in the corner. She went to the fence and leaned against the rails.

If a man lost the road in the land round William Potter’s, he couldn’t find his way by keeping to the creek bottom for the creek flowed this way and that at the land’s whim. The earth fell away in hills and clefts as if it had been dropped carelessly wrinkled on the bare floor of the world.

Even God’s eye could not spy out the men lost here already, Ara thought. He had looked mercifully on the people of Nineveh though they did not know their right hand and their left. But there were not enough people here to attract his attention. The cattle were scrub cattle. The men lay like sift in the cracks of the earth.

Standing against the rails of the fence, she looked out over the yellow grass. The empty road leading from James’s gate went on from William’s past the streaked hills, past the Wagners’, down over the culvert, past Felix Prosper’s.

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Why it's on the list ...
I will admit to outright theft here. There is an image in Lunatic Engine that I lifted directly from The Double Hook. The raising of a hand and then letting it drop can mean so many different things at once: the admission of the futility of supplication, the realization that an action is perhaps best not taken after all, a signal of a rupture, a break, a cutting, a chopping, a dismissal, a small act of symbolic violence. There are some gestures that are so powerful they go beyond symbol and become allegory.
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Why it's on the list ...
This book is that magpie back again sitting in that tree over there looking over all of this. The tree in question appears in one of the poems in Lunatic Engine. It was a tree that stood halfway between the apartment my mom, brother and I lived in when the three of us moved to Lethbridge after the separation, and my friend John's house into which I would smuggle slurpees and chips for me and John and Thomas King's son to inhale while playing Age of Archon on the Commodore 64, our hands sticky on the keyboard. Later, when I read this book in University, I recognized that magpie as the one I would pass nearly every wintry Sunday afternoon, perched next to a plastic bag in a leafless tree.
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The Logogryph

The Logogryph

A Bibliography of Imaginary Books
also available: Hardcover
tagged : literary
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Why it's on the list ...
Are you fortunate enough to own a copy of this book? Published by Gaspereau Press in 2004, this book is a book's book. This book needs to be in more hands. This book needs to be as widely read as Calvino. It needs to be on all undergraduate course syllabi. Thomas and I did our undergraduate English degrees at the U of A at the same time and we created a couple of poetry journals together. We photocopied things, we stapled and folded our work and others by hand. By hand is how the ink gets in. The Logogryph is a book of books all made by hand. They don't make them like this anymore.
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There's a rumour about beauty,
its long whiskers and golden eyes,
its stripes as dark
as the moon shadows of trees.
There's a rumour that the forest
took the beauty,
that the people who took
the forest took the beauty.
The beauty's stripes tightened,
sliced right through--the people
said they had nothing to do with it.
The whiskers caught fire
and the golden eyes burned
right through.

--Javan tiger

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Why it's on the list ...
Though I have literally hundreds of photos of my daughter, I only have a few of my father and I have only one of the two of them alone together. She's small, perhaps 3 years old. He is in his mid-seventies and stands beside her in a dry riverbed, just 5 minutes north of my childhood house, the car parked in a wide spot off the dump road. My daughter has her favourite bear tucked under one arm, a stone cupped in her hands. This stone is not one of the fossils for which we've been hunting but a pretty stone. My father stands beside her with his knowledge and experience cupped in his hands around her hands, naming the stone. Joanna's collection of poems about extinct animals are like these stones. New eyes on the the weight of that which is long past.
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By Hand

By Hand

also available: eBook
tagged : canadian, nature
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This music goes a long way back before the needle
coasted in its groove on your grandfather's black vinyl
before the bow sang from valleys in the flexed sawblade
of his grandfather before ancient breath fluted from
the vent-holes ancient tools notched in the small vaulted roof
of a hollow bone back to where a flintstone burin
etched silent scales into softer stone or to the beach
where a pointed fragment of shell gave the hand's airy
motions a home in driftwood the way the waves in their
ins and outs hold the rhythm of the wind's breath this hand
makes music with the world around it but not without
an instrument chisel or gouge to transpose the mind's
notations to the range of pith and grain wood pushing
against the carver's flexed wrist retorting giving back
its own resonance to the tuning body duet
of earthbound songsters that becomes a trio when long
after the woodshed stills you run your finger over
the carving thrill to the flutings and you're in the groove

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Why it's on the list ...
In some ways the most obvious book on this list, and in others, not. I had never read any of John's books before we had him as a guest on the Olive Reading Series last year, but his evening with us turned me into a fan. This is a book that rewards multiple, careful, slow readings with an almost tactile sense. The hands in these poems stand in for imagination, culture, history, politics and the emotions we have used to shape the world around us into art. Note also the cover, cave painting, blood print, mark that we have been here, are still here.
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Lunatic Engine

Bodies That Stay Atop Water

or don't
move without it or
without remembering or
when movement didn't rely on
water and bodies
to write books about water and memory
this body from city and science
and our bodies to the bush and its bodies
and its past and its
it is
so many bodies so much memory
moving like water or so much
water moving over bodies
of memory bodies moving within bodies
that stay within memory or
move atop
it or


fuck it

let's just start this let's just
get married against our mothers' wishes and have
miscarriages and have kids and be good mothers and
fathers and get jobs and buy houses and buy cats and
bury cats and bury mothers and ignore signs and deny
sorrows and
see who
floats and who

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Why it's on the list ...
I’ve talked about all of the shiny things I’ve stolen, but I haven’t talked about in whose house I keep them. Lunatic Engine is built inside Dava Sobel’s GALILEO'S DAUGHTER. This biography of Galileo is told through letters from his daughter, Suor Maria Celeste, who spent her adult life in the convent of San Matteo. I use the chapter titles from Galileo’s Daughter as the titles of the poems in the first section of Lunatic Engine. The foundation and walls of my book are built from the 124 letters, that daughter sent to father, her words, written with her hands, translated by Dava Sobel’s hands, driving my creativity.
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