Gary Barwin swings & sings the twisted evolution of moon baboon canoe

MOON_BABOON_CANOE_PromoCover_LoRez-194x300Gary Barwin. moon baboon canoe (Mansfield Press 2014).

Gary Barwin’s imagination begins its weird & wild peregrinations a little beyond the world the realist eye sees. One aspect of surrealism as he practices it is speed of transformation: the imagination caught in the rapids of a river of images, fraught & freighted.The poems shift gear so quickly, one is left behind, staggering along the side of the read.

Barwin achieves his speedy shifts of perspective & tone mostly across short lines here (although there are a few poems like ‘eclogging,’ ‘psalm,’ & ‘animal intelligence’ that stretch out a bit & achieve a whole other poetic rhetoric, especially the first with its braggart blaggardly over-the-top wordplay). More usually, Barwin disperses oppositions across the line breaks, as in ‘postcard,’ where the ‘I’ puts ‘a postcard from my mother’ ‘under the lens’ of ‘the microscope’ that is ‘a gift from my father’ in order to examine it. The card shows ‘the Brockdan Motel, 1973′; & ‘I look up close at the window / and you’re in there’ or are you? The poem takes us into dream country & eventually admits, ‘you wren’t really there / in the window // of the Brockdan Motel — / under the microscope // you are coloured dots / fields of inky texture’ & ‘I’ am something altogether else & elsewhere. And his is how these poems proceed. As ‘a squirrel considers the sky’ puts it, ‘wisecracks / then winter.’

Barwin has a sense of (often very dark) humour, & this plays well with the shifty transformations he puts his various figures through. Watch the stops & starts of meaning between lines & stanzas in ‘spring,’ for instance: ‘Anne Frank now my grandmother’s age / sings the hummingbirds // return to where the hummingbirds / belong in front of my house kids // between parked cars / my daughter reads // books always an empty coffin / open’. Or see how he makes even an accordion interesting in ‘push and pull.’

In the long ‘woodland road with travellers,’ he ekphrastically improvises on a theme by Breughel, what the mind makes of what the eye sees on that canvas, allowing only the briefest line in the final section to remind us that this is all about a painting, a further artifice on which this one is constructed. There is a politicized darkness behind many of the later poems in moon baboon canoe, some of it tied to the devoted ignorance of so much of the polity. Indeed, although ‘inside,’ his Stephen Harper poem, is a jape, it concludes with a sharp slap meant to wake its reader to just how small he has made the country & us its citizens. We can laugh but only embarrassedly.

Language plays its sly games throughout moon baboon canoe: ‘injured by song / or inured to it / strangers are fossils / stethoscopes with no eyes’. Nevertheless, ‘an experienced guide can follow / 8 tracks through the city / the way a scientist follows / an atom’s breath’. Gary Barwin is our guide in moon baboon canoe; follow all 8 tracks & be rewarded.


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Amanda Earl’s (formally) kinky Kiki

kiki_coverAmanda Earl. Kiki (Chaudiere Books 2014)

Amanda Earl’s been publishing a variety of chapbooks for some years now; Kiki is her first full collection, & it is something of a roller-coaster of a ride through Montparnasse in the twenties & thirties, a place & a period that never stood still till the next war stopped it cold. In a series of sequences, made up of textual mash-ups & cut-ups, dream journals, & fictional memoirs, Earl imagines both Kiki (born Alice Ernistine Prin, &, says Earl, ‘One of the most exuberant celebrants’ of that special world) & the fantastic whirligig of artists, writers, dancers, actors, & just plain bohemians she came to know in the Montparnasse of the inter-war years.

She begins with the prose poem ‘memories’ of ‘Alice,’ a name allowing more than a few allusions to the most famous fictional figure of that name, as she stares at herself in the mirrors of memory & gossip, wondering with every iteration of her ego (‘This is Alice. This is fucked up.’ but also ‘I am Kiki. I wear pearls. I drink red wine and sing love songs to old reprobates in the boites.’) just who she, always changing, is. The sequence follows her through those changes, imagining her artistic/erotic life in that looking glass milieu, falling down various holes, stepping through mirror after mirror. At the end, as the next war approaches to destroy the artistic utopia she & the many artists (including her American lover, Man Ray) imagined they might build there, she is lost: ‘I am common glass. / I am broken fragments. / i am ugly, a nightmare kaleidoscope. / I am mad. I am naked. I don’t know what I am.’

‘Tales of Montparnasse’ presents visionary vignettes of all those who moved through that place & time, all of whom Kiki touched in one way or another, all part of the floating art world there. Earl’s mash-ups achieve a kind of surreal music of dropped names, as in ‘Kisling and O’Keefe / rise like angels with horses’ & ‘Frizzy femmes damnées / shiver with Schwitters.’  The section ‘Opium’ borrows vocabulary from Jean Cocteau’s Opium; the Diary of a Cure as well as various other texts to allow the drug to speak for itself, & it has much to say: ‘I am Helen of Troy, mixing elixirs. I am nepenthe. / I am a sunless sea and a lifeless ocean. This is alchemy.’

Finally, ‘In Which K Meets B in a Dream’ sets up a weird dialogue between Earl’s Kiki & William S Burroughs as manifested in Naked Lunch. Here the cut-up approach, obviously carefully edited, releases an anger they both feel at a world refusing to acknowledge or accept the outriders they love to be: ‘It’s cerebral as horse, / raw as Ouab. Hungry as terror. / A throbbing hero fossil scrolling / up morphine peddled screams, cornhole. // No, it’s lunch in a cocktail lounge where the spoons are chipped as a / black habit, you insect.

Kiki is very much the sum of all its parts, & needs to be read through. These quotations give a but a taste of the whole rich assemblage. Earl finds in Kiki & all the artists of that lost place & time a kind of ideal world where the erotic & artistic meshed beautifully & madly for a short time. Her slippery & convulsed textual play in Kiki seeks to reveal in its revel something of the experimental joy & pain of that life.

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In Afterletters, R. Kolewe finds the less (is more) in loss

201422_LR. Kolewe. Afterletters (BookThug 2014).

This is a stunning first book by a writer previously unknown to me (well, he was educated in physics & engineering, & had a successful career in the software industry — during which time he obviously did what few engineers do: read widely, not least modern poetry). The title, Afterletters, is full of implication, not least the inventive wordplay Paul Celan constructed throughout his oeuvre. In Afterletters, Kolewe takes up Celan’s well-known parsimony with language, his ability to compress so much in a single small poem, to construct a short lyric suite based on the more than two decades long, mostly epistolary, relationship between Celan & Ingebord Bachmann.

As his Notes make clear, Kolewe has read both writers’ works as well a their correspondence, much of it in the original German. And he has extracted bits & pieces from these writings, cut & folded them into his own (anti-)lyrics to construct a compelling underground narrative of unavoidable loss. Or losses: those they endured before meeting, those that their psychological burdens of memory made impossible to avoid once they had met & connected. As the series of found sentences from both in ‘Decorrelation’ demonstrate, managing to cover their whole long relationship in one short acidic burst.

Indeed, Afterletters is an odd addition to both the genre of the found poem & that of the Canadian documentary poem, yet it refuses to lie quietly in either format. In so far as it quotes the poems & letters of Bachmann & Celan, it offers a kind of documentation of their long relationship, but because it only quotes fragments, & juxtaposes them for their impact in a particular poem, it refuses any attempt to lay out either a full narrative of their lives or any analysis of  their relationship or individual psyches. And even when it quotes one of them directly at some length, that quotation becomes part of Afterletters, an anti-lyric suite more fascinated in what language can do (& perhaps did to & for these writers) than in anything as banal as mere biography. So a poem like ‘After a quiet year, this October’ can begin with a(nother) reference to stars (the word or its synonyms appear in many of these poems, as it did in Celan’s work): ‘Every star is numbered. / Let me count the ladder steps from here. / Let me say I saw you climbing up / into the lead-grey constellations…’. It can then obviously quote Bachmann before slipping into reverie, & then seemingly continue that, while actually quoting once again: ‘Half an hour has passed since / the first sentence, and last autumn /is forcing its way into this autumn.’ But that quote is now in English, & the line breaks work to force multiple readings for us English readers.

Kolewe achieves such subtle formal play throughout, insisting that the writing (often of not writing) is the core of what he’s found in these two writers’ correspondence: ‘Writing I can understand that you / are not writing to me cannot write / will not — the flow parted / in the letters before I was / nothing is missing just / the ink for this and I can live.’ How these lines keep demanding ever renewed parsing by the reader is a major part of the pleasure the offer.

Although the notes allow us to see what Kolewe has taken from each writer for each poem, the double complaint of ‘Objects retreat from their qualities’ ‘A’ & ‘B’ argues that something as simple as I-dentification is precisely what Afterletters seeks to undermine. What is written, not who wrote what, that is what counts here. And while we might agree with whichever of them says, ‘I wish you’d told me more,’ in fact Afterletters tells all it needs to, & is telling indeed. Oh, & about those stars: the final poem presents a list (the note says is taken from a study of Celan’s use of the term up till 1967, a gloriously lyrical evocation of ‘any one place at midnight.’  This is what Afterletters does: it shows us that words count (& that counting words carefully makes for the most concise beauty, even if it’s only the beauty of loss).

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Kate Hargreaves’s Language Leak

201421_LKate Hargreaves. Leak (BookThug 2014).

If ever there was a need for the term ‘visceral writing,’ Kate Hargreaves’s Leak provides it. A bruising book of bruises, of both body & mind, Leak refuses to play down the internal & external wounds we all suffer, & sometimes even seek. Certainly the various ‘I’s,’you’s, & ‘she’s that appear therein sometimes seem to need to seek out the in-grown nails, backs burned & bruised, sore thighs, & various symptoms manically googled on a day of insanely obsessed self-examination.

A kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder perceptional machinery organizes many of the pieces in this book; nor does it go unnoticed by the text, as ‘Oxford Classics Dictionary’ slyly points out, with its references to various symptoms, ‘blood clots, leaks, or shaky limbs’ or even just thinking ‘for years Classics meant the Oxford kind . . . . I re-bought a whole set, 13 books I already owned so they could match (now that’s good marketing). Jay underlines the acronym for the Oxford Classics Dictionary.’

At any rate, whatever the topic — & they range widely — the poem enters the subject, then subjects it to some heavy verbal pummeling. Puns (‘She skims. / She skims the floating fat off his mother’s minestrone soup. / She saves it in a Ziploc bag in the freezer. / She skims flat rocks across the sodden backyard. / . . . She skims her milk. Sometimes she one percents. /She skims a little bit off the top at the office. / She scams.’)  lead the way through a forest of symbols leaking significance. They signal only what the many bodies (the various selves) perceive, experience, feel, as their senses betray them in all the usual, ordinary ways most of us tend (try) to ignore. Here’s one example, from ‘Blush’: ”words stack up in my throat, backed-up serifs scratching their way through like nacho chips / I wrap three red scarves one over the other over the other around my neck and chin and lips and forehead / fingers damp with saliva / backs in knots.’ Or this, from ‘Cracking,’ which begins with the familiar ‘ Step on a crack: break your mother’s back’ & rises to an hysterical ‘Eat your dirty spoon. Tip over the stove. Check your mirror. Go to court. Double-triple-check your mirror. Wash the blue skirt with yellow flowers. Eat green beans before 5 p.m. Leave a dirty stove. Check your mirror. Double-check your hands. Lose the cat. Don’t close the front door. Check your — / Step on a crack.’

So that’s how Leak works, full of strange sounds, the groans & whines of the body-machine in extremis; & it slowly draws you in to its cracked, wounded, bruised world. Luckily, a kind of mad desperate comedy animates many of these pieces, such as the demands of ‘October 9th’: ‘Take transit to the mall. / Purchase pregnancy test four-pack. / Cramp in right calf. / Bump into shoppers in the aisles. / Set off alarms by standing too near the entrance. / Call clinic and demand an appointment. / Vomit in a planter. / Check for blood. / Cover face with scarf. / Call back. Demand cancellations.’

Kate Hargreaves takes chances with this, her first book, knowing her acerbic vision may out off (at least some of her potential) readers. Leak is not easy going, but there is much inside its bloody body to exhilarate anyone willing to face it, head-on so to speak.


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Monty Reid takes care of his Garden

garden_coverMonty Reid. Garden (Chaudiere Books 2014).

In Garden, Monty Reid turns his own soil with wit & precision. This sharp, taut, often funny, always witty book once again proves he can also turn a phrase. a line, with the best. Fronted by a gorgeous cover image, but Argentine artist Andrea Bula, who discovered some of the poems when Reid published them online, Garden‘s poem show all the rich complexities the painting suggests.

Reid has chosen an intriguing formal restraint for Garden, each section (each ‘month’) is 12 poems long, beginning with the title month, so that as we proceed through the book, we get a series of sequences moving forward from ‘September’ to ‘August.’ The writing shift from almost naked imagist poems through longer lined lyrics to near-prose poems, each suited to the ‘argument’ of its section. And make no doubt, much of the writing in Garden takes on the form  of argument — undermined by paradox, irony, oxymoron, & other such tropes.

All this growth & undergrowth is held together by various repetitions, imagistic links, personal references. Such as the clothes he says he wears in ‘(dec unit)’ that turn up as th clothing of a (failed, of course) scarecrow in ‘(june unit)’; although ‘So far, the scarecrow has kept nothing out.’ And that line is part of one of the continuing arguments in Garden, partly about Paradise & other walled gardens, & the usefulness of such walls against the living force in all the green fuses the gardener seeks to grow. There are other such connections.  ‘(dec unit)’ plays with concepts of (what we might call) ‘garden philosophy,’ with its references to ‘my non-transcendental shovel,’ & its suggestion that ‘our apprehension of the world cannot be contained by thinking — at least not by thinking as philosophy has traditionally conceived it –’ & its throwaway ‘It’s not my garden. I just worked there.’ Much later, a kind of ‘garden comedy’ plays out in ‘(june unit.’ where both the useless scarecrow & garden gnomes (‘I prefer gnomic to cryptic’) tumble in a jumbled farce, that nevertheless allows, even as it grants them centre stage for this section, ‘They don’t have to worry about their originary selves / and they don’t have to worry about ownership’ (unlike the owner of the scarecrow?), ‘They just work here.’

Readers can already see my problem: the temptation to quote from every part of Garden is hard to resist. If ‘[t]he subjects of interest are long gone,’ you still ‘have to think of something else or it will not grow.’ And continually ‘think of something else’ is exactly what this serial poem enacts throughout. The putative poet (‘Monty Reid’) & his personal life as a new father of a daughter & a gardener reworking his back yard figures here, but as just one of many layers of a structurally complex text, itself the image of the garden it invokes. Yet, for all its wandering out of that one, seemingly homely & domestic, garden into various gardens of myth, legend, & history, it brings them all back in to its ‘contested site.’ All the variants of ‘garden’ that appear in Garden join together in the garden the poet is building, both in his backyard & in this text. If ‘it is now impossible to say “garden” without / reproducing some whiff of the “other”,’ well ‘Je est un garden,’ & will somehow grow the selves necessary to cultivate his own.

Garden is a fine new take on the pastoral by a poet who understands that the real dirt & flowers, fruits, & vegetables mean more than any grafted imago. At the end, his book has earned its final lines: ‘Give us the garden. // Save us from paradise.’



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Rachel Zolf’s anti-arcadian (de)constructions:

JaneysArcadiaRachel Zolf. Janey’s Arcadia (Coach House Books 2014).

Ezra Pound said of poetry that it’s news that stays news; or, as in the case of this angry brilliant book, there’s the news that is more than ever the news right now. In September 2014, a book taking direct aim at the deaths & disappearances of ‘close to 1,200 Indigenous women,’ among much else it does, couldn’t be more relevant. Janey’s Arcadia is a work of bitter bricolage, chilling collage: the poetical political destabilized as it always must be.

There was a ‘real’ Janey; as Zolf points out, Emily Murphy ‘also wrote under the pen name of the plucky white-supremacist settler, Janey Canuck.’ And the cover of this book wonderfully represents her in all her naive assertiveness. Combined in Zolf’s mind with Kathy Acker’s Janey Smith, she becomes ‘Janey Settler-Invader, a fracked-up, mutant (cyborg?) squatter progeny, slouching toward the Red River Colony, “Britain’s One Utopia,” in the company of “white slave” traders.’ Janey’s Arcadia assumes her dreams as nightmares, & reassigns colonial gestures from Canada’s past to aspects of the present with its asides on the Israel-Palestine situation. It does so through an amalgamation of documents, mash-ups, illustrations, & carefully garbled lyrics. ‘Janey’s Invocation’ sets the stage for then Arcadian dream: ‘Infallible settlers say this is the latest season / they have known. All seed life seems somnolent, / yet a delicate suggestion of colour is at the tips / of the willows.’ Yet (its) destruction is too close by: ‘The wine / of spring aflush on the face THE COPS- FIND- 2J3<3 / I H *^\ Hn is a Goad of Death Gourd of chanqts Takt / Life is totally totally lonely of Nature.’ And here we see, on the very first page, one of the tactics by which Zolf undercuts every kind of rhetoric found in her researches, the use (& marvelously it was necessary in dealing with archival material) of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, which ‘blithely surveils and recognizes characters without meaning’ (but which becomes all too meaning-full when utilized by a poet so determined as Zolf), & ‘is also notoriously prone to noisy glitches or “errors of recognition” of seemingly unreadable text. These accidents can, perhaps (in Derrida’s torqued messianic sense of peut-etre), conjure other forms of mis- and non- and dis- and un-recognition — and hauntological error.’

I quote Zolf’s ‘What Else Said Author Says’ at such length because her after-words are integral to the text as a whole & also explain a lot about what has gone before. Janey’s Arcadia is both a highly involving work & one which works its readers hard. there are pages of verse, contaminated in all kinds of ways but still asking to be read as such. Janey’s Arcadia seeks to uncover the dark politics of both the ‘settling’ of ‘the territory now called Manitoba,’ & more contemporary versions of such colonial usurpation. Thus, even though on one page Janey might admit, ‘But I was telling you about the Indigns,’ on a later page this speaker who begs our pardon for her ‘digressions,’ tells us what ‘Persian slave traders teach their children,’ & that ‘the Indign’s deadly and unpardonable sin lies / >> a better peasant j.T’J olKO oil this peasant is better / in the act that he has not made money as a whore / and had nothing else to feel.’ There is nothing simple happening here.

Whether it’s Janey on ‘the traditional territories of the Niitsitapi, Nakoda and Tsuu t’ina peoples’ or Zolf’s grandfather, Falk, almost in ‘Eretz-Yisroel,’ the results are the same, & continue. If there are ‘terrorist pleasures of the chase upon the plain,’ there’s no easy way to identify the terrorist, & that’s one of the points. The fragmented tales of Janey’s Arcadia keep un-clarifying the history & politics of those (who think that are) in charge (& who therefore wrote the history being undermined here). I haven’t even begun to discuss the many other genres discombobulated in Janey’s Arcadia, the grammar & ‘vocabulary’ (here a 4 page list of the meanings of invisible terms), the memoir (‘Who Is This Jesus? — a narrative definitely complicated by the OCR), the questionnaire (only the names of responding women & their answers, or, in the case of the missing, non-answers), among others. Nor have I mentioned the ways in which Zolf inscribes varieties of desire into so much of the text. Not just Derrida, but Bakhtin is looking on.

And then, on top of the casual allusions to the rebellions & the death of Riel, & to the Residential Schools & their attempt to ‘take the Indian out of the child,’ there are the many pages of hand-written names: the women who have been murdered or disappeared, & for whom the Harper Government refuses to hold a Parliamentary Inquiry. A reader must stop every few pages to read these, & their accumulation slowly gathers over the rest of the text as a cloud of loss. Janey’s Arcadia appears to be a post-colonial deconstruction of the kind of advertisements & tales of the great new land to be settled, but it’s much more than that: a scathing, doubled edged, poetic attack on both that history & its continuing effects. After reading through it once, one feels compelled to go back & really dig in to truly comprehend just how much terrible information has been packed into its pages. In Janey’s Arcadia, Rachel Zolf has built something uniquely disturbing, in the best sense.

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Back to School with Jen Currin

9781552452899Jen Currin. School (Coach House Books 2014).

Back in January 2011, reviewing Jan Currin’s The Inquisition Yours, I suggested that she is working an interesting anti-lyric poetic, in which the ‘I’s of the poems mingle, mix, & often seem close to the poet in the conventional lyric manner but never fix themselves or their action in such a site. This remains true in School, a sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frightening, always intriguing collection of advice, admonitions, exhortations, reminiscences, cris-de-couer, in which some I is always alert & on the move. But to where?

Most of the pieces in School take on the sentence, rather than the line, as the controlling formal aspect. In many of the poems each sentence, usually only one line long, serves as a stanza (in some the sentences are broken into 2 or 3 lines). Sometimes, they fulfill much the same role as the couplet does in a ghazal, & they are (dis)connected in the manner John Thompson praised when describing the ghazal: they ‘have no logical, narrative, thematic (or whatever) connection.’ ‘The link between [them] is a matter of tone, nuance’; & Currin proves herself a master of same. Yet, like many writers of ghazal in english, Currin does construct odd connections, often with a surrealist twist; as in ‘Back to Our Bodies’:

I still smell the incense of those rooms.

Come back and I will sing for you and show you I am not surprised by death.

A ghost is made when someone dies and feels restless.

She is living in the park with a guitar.

She is one of the critics who most believes.

The city is full of verbs and selfish people.

A quiet class of city dwellers  siphoning all the money.

Hovering above their habitual clinics, I saw the sickness and paranoia,

the waves of fatherly protectiveness,

the cold intelligence animating it all.

And I fell.

This ‘I’ wants, a lot. It also feels, especially loss, both personal & worldly (in the sense that it recognizes how much of the world we are losing in our modern rush to take & to have it all). I think the ‘School’ of the title is the world, & that it is schooling the ‘I’ & all the rest of us in ways we both do & do not recognize, but the poems offer some insight into this process we are all suffering. Watch this ‘I’ in action: ‘I have come early to watch this disastrous show // & I am taking notes — using first person, it’s convenient,’ she says in ‘Imperfect Teachers,’ a title whose reference is very wide, indeed, While in ‘Shifting Teachings,’ she (that equally shifting ‘I’) notes ‘All of these ugly books,’ then adds, addressing just whom we must wonder, ‘You never said you understood, & all these years later // I don’t know if you did understand. // There were things we all forgot to do. // Like love.’

Understanding. Teaching. Learning. Listening (& hearing). Both in the politics of love & of, well, politics, these poems make clear that few of us do understand, either the situation or the stakes. School is smart enough to know that a book cannot, & shouldnt try to, teach, but it can, through the gritty pleasure its pieces provide, provoke reflection. It offers wit, precision of speech, weird connections, odd juxtapositions, jarring images, & a variety of moods in a swirl of sentences that refuse to stay still but argue with each other & with their readers. This School is well worth attending.

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