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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Breaking ground, breaking rules:

ground_rules_thumbrob mclennan, ed. Ground Rules: the best of the second decade of above/ground press 2003 – 2013 (Chaudiere Books 2013).

There are a lot of Canadian (& other) poets who are grateful rob mclennan runs above/ground press & somehow manages to publish a huge bunch of chapbooks, magazine, & broadsheets every year, no matter what else he also gets up to. And he’s been doing so for more than 2 decades now. In Ground Rules, he offers up a generous sampling of what above/ground does for those readers who just haven’t been paying attention or else couldn’t keep up.

Some critics & poets argue that eclecticism makes for weak editing, but mclennan, who has also spent all that time learning as much as he can about (especially) modern & contemporary Canadian poetry, has made it into a virtue. He likes & publishes a very wide range of poetry, but, if this anthology is anything to go by, he has a pretty good sense of what works in any particular area. Ground Rules has a smattering of single poems, including a couple of concrete beauties from derek beaulieu; but the anthology really shines in its many & varied chapbooks. These range from Nathanaël’s gender bending self-examination, ‘what exile    this,’ through the faux (& witty) ‘Text Panels’ of Lisa Samuels’s ‘The Museum of Perception,’ to Rachel Zolf’s lovely minimalist homage, ‘the naked & the nude'; & that’s just the first three.

mclennan appreciates poetic comedy: see Sharon Harris’s ‘more fun with ‘pataphysics,’ with its ‘amazing’ (& always amusing) ‘findings’ & ‘experiments in progress'; or Stephen Brockwell’s ‘Impossible Books (the Carleton Installment),’ which includes (‘From Metonomies: Poems by Objects Owned by Illustrious People‘) these lines by ‘Stephen Harper’s Shoes': ‘Long days holding up the country, / short nights breathing fresh air,’ & ‘My steel / shank would never pass security / if the face did not control it personally,’ in which the ambiguity of that pronoun speaks volumes.

mclennan appreciates the elders: see, among others, D.G. Jones, with the sly & sophisticated lyrics of ‘standard pose,’ & Robert Kroetsch, with the subtle & actively probing wit of his letters to other poets in ‘Further to Our Conversation’ (one of his last chapbooks, generously offered to various small presses). He also appreciates formal experiments, such as Emily Carr’s ‘ ] / & look there goes a sparrow transplanting soil / ] /[3 eclogues]‘ or Gregory Betts’s deconstruction of the Canadian documentary poem in ‘The Cult of David Thompson.’ I also especially enjoyed Monty Reid’s striking serial poem, ‘cuba  A book,’ Marilyn Irwin’s ‘for when you pick daisies,’ Natalie Simpson’s ‘Writing the writing,’ Julia Williams’s ‘My City is Ancient and Famous,’ & many of Eric Folsom’s ‘Northeast anti-ghazals.’ No anthology can satisfy everyone, but Ground Rules has a higher percentage of the worthwhile than most; I found all of the chapbooks worth my reading time.

As a valuable overview of the kinds of poetry above/ground press publishes or just of the kinds of poetry being written in Canada (or North America) during the first decade or so of the 21st century, Ground Rules has much to recommend it. Because it gives each poet real room, & also because it publishes new work, it provides a genuine insight into a lot of what’s happening now. Anyone interested in getting a sense of what a number of our most interesting poets have been up to recently will find Ground Rules offers a terrific introduction to their work.

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bpNichol & Wayne Clifford’s long collaboration: Theseus.

201406_LbpNichol & Wayne Clifford. Theseus: A Collaboration (BookThug 2014).

From the beginning, bpNichol was an avid collaborator, a believer in the multi-inscribed (& he assumed that even so-called solo writing was multiply authored by the many selves we perform). With The Four Horsemen in sound poetry, Barbara Caruso, among others, in visual work, Steve McCaffery in TRG as well as various sound performances, Nichol could ever be found working/playing with others. One of the first such collaborations began with his meeting Wayne Clifford, his first editor at Coach House in 1966. The idea to use the myth of Theseus as a structural starting point appears to have been Clifford’s, & Nichol soon invited 2 west coast poets to join in the fun. That didn’t work out, so eventually the two poets constructed ‘Part I: Ariadne‘ of Theseus: A Collaboration out of all that had been written by then. Some 10 years later, they picked up the thread of this a-maze-meant & began a long correspondence of writing & rewriting ‘Part Two: Minotaur.’ Then bpNichol died suddenly, far too young, & Wayne Clifford, one of his many best friends eventually wrote ‘A Part Last: Labyrinth‘ as a late collaboration with other writings by Nichol, most especially the martyrology, & as an elegy to one more poet died young.

Theseus: A Collaboration is many things, then, not least a wonderful gift to Nichol’s many readers, so long after his death. Clifford & Nichol shared much in their poetics, &, at the beginning, shared also a modernist-Romantic vision that served them well in that first section. It begins: ‘I learn nuance / I gain a sense / of echoes'; soon followed by a questioning of both the ‘I’ & the ‘you’ of the expressive forms of love. A moon appears in the poem, a mirror & a river almost the same, & a quest which is, not so simply, the writing of the poem. The mainly short lines, the spacing, & the yearning felt in the verse all bespeak the poets’ youth. I certainly hear echoes of their early books here, as I also hear echoes of what they had written in the 10 years or so before they began their work on Part Two in that section.

By the time they began to work on ‘Part Two: Minotaur,’ Nichol was deep into the early books of the martyrology & Clifford had moved on too, into the complexities of GlassPassages. It doesn’t matter who says ‘that when I opened your envelope, odour of old words / led me empty-headed to the source again'; it does matter that the poem swerves further from that source in myth to the ‘real’ lives of the writers & the real life of writing.

That means they brought their other writings into this collaboration as well as little reminders of the first part, as when the poem interrogates the security of the self where ‘his voice breaks    confusion / confession    these postures /patterns blurred by self pity’ leads to ‘Arrogant, this you? angry and stupid? / (Nuance. A sense of echoes.)’ A dream or vision of past stories or future meetings invokes 2 old men arguing, friars or saints, or just poets, it doesn’t matter. The echoes come from within & without:

  • “‘The sea is also a garden.'”
  • Voice doubled,
  •                             a man & a woman
  • speaking years apart,
  • We speak her speaking of his heart.

There’s also a playfulness readers will recognize from their other writing of the time, as ‘fingers / & what lingers is / the ryme’ soon entertains ‘as f to l shift’s the spell / gesture completes’. Which in ‘A Part Last: Labyrinth,’ Clifford will echo ( along with that early moon & river) in ‘f to l/in/ear’ — a perfect homage to Nichol’s punning in parts of the martyrology. But in this labyrinth of loss, he will also admit, ‘It was mistaken  / of us to use / Theseus as thesis / , wrong of me.’ And then demonstrate that this collaborative poem was always more specific, more now, ‘there no(t) here // The distinction between the faces blurred / in the moon, mortal at last no less than // is // us // yes’. Yet at the end, the poem (Clifford’s now if in response to Nichol['s writing]) returns to that thread (of what: love? discourse itself? Nichol’s famous ‘speech / each / to / eech’?) & finishes ‘yes you feel it / here / in your h and’. A final lovely & loving bow to his friend.

Theseus: A Collaboration is many things & will repay the returning reader, but it is perhaps most forcefully a gift of friendship, as true collaboration always is.


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Brecken Hancock’s exciting debut

9781552452882_Hancock_BroomBroomWebBrecken Hancock. Broom Broom. (Coach House Books 2014).

Somehow I’ve managed to miss Brecken Hancock’s work in magazines & chapbooks, but her bright, fizzy, fast & furious book, so full of energy, wit, & odd & jarring juxtapositions, definitely announces a talent worth paying attention to. Broom Broom sweeps aside a lot of conventional cobwebs while offering a richly bracing series of views of history (through bathtubs), family troubles, & the usual mix of love, friendship, anger, etc..

From its 2 epigraphs (Swinburne’s on ‘the great sweet mother,’ the sea, & Yoko Ono’s ‘Mommy, I’d rather have you dead than crazy’) onward, despite its many turns away into eccentric side streets, the main thoroughfare Broom Broom treads leads always back to the mother & her disappearance into dementia, leaving all behind, most especially the daughter who appears as a series of not-quite-the-same ‘I’s:

  •  I won’t pull myself together,
  • I’m my own distraction.
  • There’s a widening gulf
  • between each brazen
  • erection of I-I-I,
  • a whole brood of knockoffs
  • infecting me.

That from ‘Evil Brecken,’ a long & highly internally-rhymed song of her selves matching the slightly demented lullabies that open the collection. Here she tells us ‘I need protecting…’; every one of the ‘I’s protesting their fate in that off key song of selves under attack.

The attacks come from the mother lost & savage portrayed in both sly little haiku (‘Hush now, Mama, don’t / say a word. Daughter’s gonna / drink until you’re cured.’) & the long prose poems ‘Her Quiet Not Quite Not Her’ & ‘Once More,’ harrowing portraits of the loss felt by both the narrator & the mother figure as she descends into dementia. A barely contained & deeply clarifying anger fuels many of these poems, while a kind of wry archivist’s irony pervades others. ‘Once More’ oddly, beautifully represents that anger, inner-directed as much as at fate. It also takes up the challenge to write a ‘confessional’ piece without falling into the genre’s dangerous simplicity of sentiment. ‘Disconnected from language, from subjectivity,’ the mother ‘still ached for home. She forgot her name, forgot her pronoun: adopted the neuter “it.”’ As the piece accumulates its rage against this dissolution of the mother, it takes up many positions, noting how ‘Before the disease rendered it completely dumb, it was abusive.’ Or; ‘I married my second husband six months after the death of my forty-thousandth mother. There is no first.’ There is a hard factuality here, but as the argument (& it is one, with fate, with Roland Barthes, with the selves warring within her) gets ever more complex, it also escapes mere personal memoir into something harder, deeper, & a part of the larger argument that is the whole book.

Thus, what a different kind of essay-poem (for that is what these longer prose pieces can best be described as), the eerily cheeky historical overview of ‘The Art of Plumbing,’ has to do with these more personal essays into family history becomes clear in its final 2 entries, set in the present & the future, where the narrator enters into watery contact with her mother, potentially only, of course.

Many other kinds of poem knock into each other throughout Broom Broom, presenting a contemporary version of metaphysical conceits, apostrophes to whomever, footnotes to articles on plumbing history we’ll never see. In other words, Broom Broom offers a wide range of poetic delights, yet different as many of these poems are, they all circle around the empty abyss of the mother-gone-too-soon & the daughter angrily mourning that loss, however ironically sometimes. Broom Broom invites while pushing away; in that ambiguity lies its power.

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Sina Queyras & Elegy in the 21st Century: M x T

9781552452905_MxT_Queyras_webSina Queyras. M x T. (Coach House Books 2014).

How write elegy in the 21st Century? One way is to go back through all the layers of inscription to the beginnings (which in a way Ann Carson does), but the weight of eons of such works is heavy indeed. And perhaps individual loss has lost some of its lustre as we watch each day the thousands dying around the world. Yet both our sense of loss & outrage at death both personal & public invites the writer to respond. Sina Queyras accepts that to elegize one is, now, in some way to have to elegize all, past & present — the huge death toll of our world, our culture(s), our histories. So M x T speaks individually, yes, but as a floating ‘I,’ overseeing a vast graveyard, remembering, in a way, for the multitudes that ‘I,’ as written, contains. ‘Water, my dead ones, and you with your ravaged look.’

M x T is a complex & complexly organized book; no single review can cover all that its various pieces do. But even as many of those pieces, mostly prose, dig deep into the emotional dirt of grief, it also sets up baffles to mere sentiment, as one of the sly illustrations that seem to come from some postmodern How-To volume of machined grieving suggests. These arcane little documents, with their instructions (‘Direct Mourning is the gold standard of consumer grief. The first line above measures time, the second line measures current. With direct mourning there are no surges of feeling, no outbursts; it is unidirectional, a consistent, even, unconscious current.’), head each section of M x T, providing a bit of high tech ostranenie before the following poem explores an other aspect of loss & the grief attached.

The impersonal personal, then: Queyras finds so many ways to express deep emotion, to catch our breaths with the potency of elegiac speech; yet she never falls into confessional emotionalism. This is a high wire act carried out with great craft & sensibility. And as a woman artist, she speaks especially to honour other women artists, the dead, & those who, like us all, will die (perhaps most so in ‘Of the Hollow’ but elsewhere too). Not exclusively throughout, but still, when she writes of ‘The Dead Ones,’ for example, who assemble ‘in the centre of any city,’ & who are rather noisy — ‘The humming silence is their slow, methodical dance. The dead have no weight but they stomp nevertheless. They hold hands in long lines; they are determined to be heard, to be seen: look at me, they say, diving in and out of the earth like porpoises, look at me.’ — it is Lee Miller of whom she asks, ‘what city does she haunt?’

Each section begins with a page in italics that addresses the reader more directly on the matter at hand. As, for example, this: ‘I said, Write all the names, melancholy, primordial ecology, streams of echo, the affective fallacy is precise, not like memory, a chiasmus lit with electric eels, but memory doesn’t work that way, to remember is singular, breathes through wood. Under each rock a signature. Remember them one at a time but not in the same spot.‘ Here is a good example of the wide & wild palette Queyras draws on; one of the delights of M x T is its mastery of a myriad of styles, each suited to its particular place in the whole work. Toward the end, she does write a number of short elegies, but each one differs to match its titular figure, Sylvia Plath (elegizing herself), Jackson Pollock, Alice Martin (a grid of ‘whitewords’ for the painter of white grids), or the ‘Elegy Written in a City Cemetery,’ in which every phrase is footnoted to some earlier elegy.

There’s so much more one could say about the various darkling glories of M x T. Let’s just say it’s a brilliant & moving work that, in its contemporary exploration of the continuing power of the elegy, will repay repeated readings & should be on every reader’s bookshelf.


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