Samuel Andreyev’s very relativistic empire of signs

The-Relativistic-Empire-Samuel-Andreyev-cover-510Samuel Andreyev. The Relativistic Empire. (BookThug 2015)

I had not heard of Andreyev, but he’s a composer & performer from Ontario who now lives in France, & is also known for his experimental poetry. The Relativistic Empire, his 2nd collection, is deliberately obscure in that its mostly short & short-lined poems playfully resist interpretation, or any clear narrative movement.

Yet, in their constant borrowing of snatches of ordinary, almost cliché, speech, they seem to act out an almost present series of dramatic moments, speeches that slip slyly away from normal meaning (a meaning their basically straightforward & ordinary titles hint at). And so a kind of almost collection of stories begins to almost manifest as one reads through the book. The speaker (the various speakers?) manufactures a near knowledge of a world (that empire) falling apart. Take the person in the 3 ‘A Prime Location’ poems, who begins by telling us ‘so i’m not going to / i mean i’m not going to feel that way / but she’s scattered right now’; moves to say ‘things you say aren’t things you do’ only to insist ‘erase this scandal from your memory / books don’t survive / all the way out here on the pier’s end’; & in the 3rd poem says ‘i require stability / and lightweight doors that don’t squeak or jam / only’. Or many other things that do or don’t achieve any kind of unity. In this sequence, as throughout, this ‘I’ slips & slides through many ‘doors’ or worlds. As he says in ‘Fancy Footwork,’ ‘the uncertainty principle / is very much in style here’.

Andreyev’s fragments of usual speech, his twists & turns of ‘natural’ rhetoric, are simultaneously off putting & inviting; there’s a comic edge to them that keeps one reading on. Tone of voice feels important, even as the lines jumble normal syntax: ‘right avoid     timing disasters accelerate / smashing into violin solo     an open / break intensified reminiscence’.

All of which sets up the lengthy title piece, a series of 11 line verses that accumulate something, but it insists on remaining uncertain: ’what’s happening / outside / the frame / this development /takes several / years ago’. The piece shifts among a variety of speaker positions, entertains many different possibilities, to end with a confession (perhaps?): ‘lacking words / to / inscribe on / an old man’s / cane so / future generations / can / comment on / it without / feeling embarrassed’. As ‘Exit Lines,’ the final poem says, ‘move toward a / fall along the / only way out’. Andreyev uses his line breaks a lot to undermine general sense, yet this jagged little pile of words does its job of keeping readers off balance & dancing to his tune. By the end I was enjoying the experience even as I recognized its darker hues.

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Brian Dedora’s profound journey to locate Lorca

Lorcation-Brian-Dedora-cover-510-183x292Brian Dedora. Lorcation. (BookThug 2015).

In the third & final section of this remarkable journey to locate Lorca where he lived, & died, & most importantly (mostly) wrote, Brian Dedora (who in Lorcation stands in for himself as writerly I in a manner unusual for him) insists that ‘Lorca calls us to witness. . . . Lorca in his work rises to stand universally, calling on us to recognize our rootedness, feet firmly in ground.’ But Lorca’s universality is ever hard won, Dedora would say; after all he was murdered for being gay, as well as leftist in his politics; perhaps mostly for being a poet, a representative of the imagination against a regime that sought to crush it.

Dedora’s journey in Lorcation gains much of its power from his identification as a gay man with this poet who, in a time when it was dangerous to do so, did not hide who he was & wrote poems & plays that remain honestly powerful because his was a morality of powerful honesty. As Dedora says in the essay ‘Uno Soy Yo = I Am One,’ the second part of Lorcation’s journey, in his reading he ‘could not help but follow Lorca’s threaded arc, being who one is, of the courageously written awareness of his growth as a homosexual. This is, of course, not the only thread to follow in his work, but for me this was the golden one that led to the centre of things both for him and me personally.’ The essay is a complex personal quest to comprehend the largeness of Lorca’s vision, in which he both ‘gifts us, warp and woof, weaving with morality, honour, and loyalty the most important homosexual testament of the early twentieth century,’ & writes some of the most wonderful poetry of his time with a universal reach. The essay offers the essence of a deeply personal critique.

I have been reading backwards in Lorcation, because although Dedora gestures in his Preface to the unusual-for-him narrative arc of beginning, middle, & end, his text is, in fact, deeply recursive, & the violence to his subject he represents throughout the poems of the first part seem to invite a careful rereading after you have read the rest. They mix the poet’s responses now to the places Lorca lived (& died) with the moments in which he faced life & death there. ‘Granada,’ for example is both the place where the poet writing this book joins the poet he is writing about in a delirium of shared joy & sorrow, but also where ‘I have a gift for you / we have a gift for you / Lorca has a gift for you’ & in a moment of trans-historical synthesis, ‘We will make a new brotherhood / Federico de la Expiratión / his breath ascending . . . // A last gifted breath / . . . / to move out beyond the plains of Granada / reaching out to Al Andalus and New York / invigorating a world of the sympathetic / mouth to mouth . . .’ This is the joy, always there in the work, but the sorrow, the terrible loss will out, & this connection severed as ‘I think of him’ while ‘you don’t think / of the funnel jammed into his mouth / for the jugs of castor oil /to humiliate himself / tied to a chair’; yet even there ‘he has a gift for us // who are those men / who stand on the bottom rung / of the ladder of Hell / chained in the slaughterhouse / by the revulsion of their selves / who live next door?’

As these poems pursue the poet Lorca living & dying they dig deep into the well of dark personal & public politics that killed him. It is Franco, the Caudillo, whose minions riding in ‘on your clouds of gunsmoke’ killed the poet who nevertheless ‘lost /his words were free / rippling silver in water / that feeds furrows / lifting into winds / keening canto jondo / to the beat of gypsy boot heels / from a depth of soul you never owned.’

From this vision, Lorcation moves forward into the essay that declares the union of poet then & poet now, how this knowledge fortifies the writer discovering the depth of his connection to the older poet & his vision, finally realized in ‘The Last Part of the Journey,’ with its concluding lines, for all readers: ‘he is one, / i am one, / as are you . . .’ Lorcation is a heartfelt journey we can all be glad to share.

It’s only fitting that Lorcation is published with a Spanish translation on facing pages by Martin Rodriguez-Gaona.

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Jennifer Londrys’ tattered tales tell & toll.

tatterdemalion_coverJennifer Londry. Tatterdemalion. (Chaudiere Books 2015).

Ragged & raging, dilapidated & defiant: some ways of describing Tatterdemalion, a book that seldom stays in place, keeps throwing around what rags of discourse it finds & shapes into the dirty clothing of fragmented story. About a third of the way into this book, ‘House’ lets the reader know that ‘Oval coffee table is innocent,’ but we already should have figured out that nothing else is. ‘Prayer       beads’ for example argues that ‘forgiveness is / a toxic conundrum.’ And throughout, it’s clear that whatever the circumstances (Anne Sexton on a drunken cross country joyride with a figure, ‘Patience,’ who keeps cropping up in a number of these poems; the inferred lives-before-death of various people figured in ‘Momento Mori, by Dan Meinwald, and his collection of nineteenth century funerary photographs depicting the dearly departed’; ‘the Black slaves of the Delphine LaLaurie household, the French Quarter, circa 1834’), everything is questionable & ‘Life is not that kind.’

Londry approaches all her materials with a kind of demented & surreal bricolage. Throughout, she keeps readers off balance with fragmentary hints of dark tales, a sense of disjunctive narratives always slipping just beyond the curt lines & sentences whose implications insist the hidden story is possibly in reach & definitely important. As in this bit from ‘What time is it         wolf?’, a noirish little summer sequence:

Brisk walk through vodka lamplight

she followed

wickedly red entering the Swelter Motel on the edge of town –

out of sorts

just past

switchblade alley

The various sections of Tatterdemalion each throw open doors to possible tales of ordinary human horror, but all we are allowed to see are some slyly cut & fitted bits & pieces of whatever whole was there. Londry constructs a form that allows a long prose line that can shift suddenly into short intense ones; her rhythms feel jagged, ragtimey, alert. Tatters, indeed, but darkly brilliant ones.

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Andy Weaver makes This happen

this_coverAndy Weaver. This. (Chaudiere Books 2015).

In many ways This is a book of many various & entertaining challenges, & some of that entertainment, designed specifically for the pun-oriented reader, can be seen in the opening of this first sentence. A seemingly chaotic collage of many different modes or forms, This is always both inviting & demanding a special kind of attention for which it offers special rewards. Andy Weaver has been reading widely, studying all kinds of history, & taking voluminous notes it would seem, in order to bring so many rhetorics to bear in This capacious collection of language hard at work.

This clearly recognizes that all writing, wittingly or un-, is a kind of quotation, & so he begins This with a slew of them. As This is, among other things, a series of riffs on late Capitalism (with all the weight of earlier ones assumed), the various kinds of writing keep angling back to how even poetry is complicit in the economy that may be destroying us: ‘There’s a reason / why it’s not called flow-down economics. / I know you love me, Capitalism, but can’t we / stay just friends?’ This from one of a series titled ‘Politics.’

There’s another series of capitalized (yes, really) prose of varying kinds, in which Weaver acts as a kind of prose-lytizing dj, mixing so many different sources to produce an illuminating analytical questioning of them all: ‘VICIOUS BY WEIGHT, THE LIGHT BULBS INTO MAGNOLIA TREES IN SPRING. THE FOUNTAIN BABBLES AT THE CARDINALS, THE WITHOUT SUFFICIENT TIME, EVEN SPRING IS LOST, SWINE GNAW AT THE PEARLS.’ These, like the ‘Politics’ poems, the little visual pun poems, & the one-word-per-line alphabetized poems full of obscure & invented terms, are mixed & matched throughout This. The latter set is full of oral/aural delights, as this one (lacking the way it’s played across the page) shows: ‘ideation / jargonizes / knowledge / langue / masks / nothingology / obtenebrating / parole / quiescently / Realpolitik / shifts / the / unspoken / vernacular / weakens / xenocracy / yawps / zombification / accomplished / bemuted / citizens / drag / employed / feet / globalizing / heedlessly.’ These pieces demonstrate a wild awareness of how words both support & betray our sense of how they (should) work. Like much else in This, they slyly mock & criticize the status quo. As does ‘this poem,’ a light dance of the always interpellated intellect: ‘this poem fears capital and for good reasons. Capital / punishment and capital gains – literal death and taxes. / Capital ideas.’

Although it’s not immediately apparent, & I at least read on just enjoying & reacting to the variety of discourses This kept throwing at me, This is, in fact, a carefully ordered poetic argument, in which the lies of lyric poetry are both unearthed &, in a way, mourned because loved. This, or its author, pays homage to a number of predecessors, like Creeley, Duncan, Olson, among others; their work too was an argument with the inescapable politics of its time. ‘Politics,’ in all its aspects, interrupts, it muffles, it wounds writing itself, yet, as, toward the end, ‘words [Politics]’ puts it, ‘i believe in / their honesty / their treacheries which / is their honesty.’ Later in another ‘Politics’ poem ‘he’ says (does the writer ever appear, & if so, how is the question these various formal ploys keep addressing): ‘I sit here writing a poem for the age / called Love in the Time of Late Capitalism,’ but it doesn’t, it can’t, work, or at least not This way. ‘I love this first person singular, so quaint. / Then it’s over – the rhyme is how we know / the play is done, and it is time to go.’ But not quite, there are a few more poems, lyric demanding its place in This book, & then This ends with a reprise of the opening quotation from Jean-François Lyotard (which I will leave to readers to discover). In This book, the political becomes the personal, & it hurts, but it also lets possibilities enter the conversation book & reader always have. This is a book to savour.

 

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Jenna Butler professes hope in a market garden on the edge of the Boreal Forest.

Profession_Hope_front_coverJenna Butler. A Profession of Hope (Wolsak & Wynn 2015).

Subtitled Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail, this collection of essays makes a fervent argument for small organic farming, even as far north as the Southern edge of the Boreal Forest, which is where Butler & her husband, Thomas Locke, decided in the early 2000s to buy a small lot of land & woods & turn it into an organic farm garden. A Profession of Hope is Butler’s memoir & meditation on the work (& deep pleasure) that went into this profoundly optimistic operation & on the deeper meaning of doing so in an age of mechanical food reproduction.

A fine poet, Butler writes of both the wonders of their patch of woods & slowly cleared garden & of the often incredibly hard work that has gone into turning it into a market garden where the two of them hope to live & farm (at the moment, both are teachers, she at the post-secondary level, he at a primary school, which means that during a good part of the year they commute every weekend from Edmonton or Red Deer to the Barrhead area about an hour & a half drive north of Edmonton, where they pitch in on all the various & difficult bits of work it takes to keep even as small a farm enterprise as theirs going).

Over the years, they have slowly expanded their gardens, encountered all kinds of wildlife they hope to offer a place to live in their woods & around their now fenced in garden & (after some years of ‘living in a fourteen-by-six-foot truck camper for four months of the year’) lovely log cabin. As Butler argues throughout, they are doing this both because it feels right & good for them personally & because they believe in the necessity for those who can do it to expand the organic farm movement in order to help the planet, all its living inhabitants, survive humanity’s ravages of the natural world.

As a city dweller who is also a friend, & one of the lucky people who was able to subscribe to their ‘community-supported agriculture (CSA) food box program’ for a few years before flooding wiped out a whole summer for them (& will be back on it again very soon, I hope), I both support their work & recognize that I could never do it. A Profession of Hope is full of delightful tales of success, & failure, of high hopes & the ways in which a recalcitrant nature can dash them, but never fully. Butler makes her case warmly & brilliantly, saying that ‘there’s a very specific love that drives us out here, that makes us want, more than anything, to be able to enrich our lives and those of others by working with this land, taking just what we need from a small corner while safeguarding the rest as a wild place for future generations.’ But she is wholly aware that such an effort is not for everyone, & tells city people like me just how poorly we would do in their place, unless we have their powerful desire to be there, in what, in one of these lovingly connected meditations, she calls ‘a place that always exists, as it does on this June evening, half in the real world and half in imagination,’

Reading through A Profession of Hope, I found myself delighting in Butler’s rich & delicate descriptions of the varieties of animal & vegetable life they encounter on their land, her lovely evocations of the landscape, the sky, & especially the very changeable weather, as well as her often slyly comic representations of the many trials & tribulations any such adventure, & their creation of their farm is certainly that, will encounter. The thing is, they are in it for the long term, & they not only believe in the importance of what they are doing, but it gives them the greatest pleasure to continue their almost utopian project – living on their little farm provides a spiritual sustenance they thrive on.

This is a short book, yet I’ve barely touched on all the various aspects of their life on the farm that these essays separately take up. Throughout, Butler writes with a poet’s perceptions & precision, as in just about every paragraph in the chapter ‘The Birds’: ‘The real stunners make their appearance in late April and early May, bringing the warmer summer weather with them, brightening the garden with flashy plumage and fluting calls. We see goldfinches only occasionally, so sunflower yellow that we almost doubt our eyes, and so shy that we’re more likely to witness the feeders swinging in their wake and just an afterimage of gold.’

A Profession of Hope is, then, both a delightful & sobering series of glimpses into the many ways of trying to create a space in which to work with the land to feed at least a small portion of humanity – in a time when, as she argues passionately: ‘Our every interaction with an increasingly threatened environment needs to become one where we meet at an interface. . . . We can’t take back the damage we’ve inflicted, but with effort, I do believe we can change it, as long as we are willing to give up our notion of being at the top of the power pyramid. Let’s face it: things are dire, and there is no hierarchy in this struggle for survival.’ Even the most city-centred readers will find much to delight in & to learn from in A Profession of Hope. An emotional & thoughtful argument for learning how to care for the land, it belongs on the same shelf as the ecological classics she refers to throughout.

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K.I. Press’s very Exquisite Monsters

380d25d8d08b30f6a93b74397bf8e996_LK.I. Press. Exquisite Monsters. (Turnstone Press 2015).

The monsters certainly abound in K.I.Press’s latest, & many of them speak. The eyes, the ‘I’s, open themselves to weird experiences everywhere. A kind of sly horror mixed with surrealist vision takes control, as the first poem, ‘Code,’ asserts: ‘Particular we come into this world, and particular / we leave. Bits and bytes and everything nice.’ Or not so. Listen to the speaker in ‘The Land of Dread,’ dealing with ‘All the judgments. I told me so.’ And then apologizing: ‘I’m sorry I’m not well. / I know you can never forgive me.’

Press ranges widely in Exquisite Monsters, with many of the poems challenging the conventional lyric confession; I mean, who can trust that speaker, like so many of them perversely constructed? But the one in the section titled ‘Research Notes Toward Creation,’ exploring the ongoing action of pregnancy & birth, seems closer to the writer who dedicates her book ‘for Sylvie, for later.’ The dark comedy of many of the other poems takes a lighter tone here, but the snap remains: ‘I, like last year’s taxes, am overdue.’ This taken from the ‘Birthday Calendar,’ a series of odd saints’ days investigated as signs of wonders sort of refusing to manifest. Until ‘The Feast of the Series Finale of Battlestar Galactica’: ‘I must have willed her the extra weeks in the womb / so I wouldn’t miss the end. / My calculations off, she slid out and squinted while / the last episode aired all over / North America. Except in our delivery room.’ At any rate, with all their mad comedy, the poems in this middle section at least suggest the imaginative wanderings have some connection to the author’s life: ‘Perhaps it is a blessing / when the baby turns into an episode of Lost. / Simultaneously existing in more timelines / than a drowsy mother can follow.’

But this central section stands apart; the other 4 sections, not just the almost titular final sequence, ‘Exquisite Monster,’ owing much, as Press says, ‘to the exhibition Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination,’ which showed at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2012 (see that first poem, ‘Code,’ for example). Life itself is monstrous, as various sequences argue: ‘Phantom Siblings,’ with its ‘barely mother of the barely worth living’ and ‘Blood, babies, buses’; ‘Excavation Site,’ where trees are given only to die, ‘Organs harden, / crack and fissure,’ and there are ‘things in which / dolls and little girls got lost, injured, or encased / in cement and glue’; & ‘Objects of Affection,’ with its tales of ‘Mrs. Berlin Wall,’ ‘Mr. Statue of Liberty,’ & other such figures, even Nancy Drew, who ‘got married. / To someone we’ve never met’ & in the end, ‘She ignores the sounds of monsters moving. / Muted howls from the bottom of the sea.’

Those being the last 2 lines before ‘Exquisite Monster (in interchangeable parts).’ Each of those parts, wonderfully warped ekphrastic responses to that exhibition, are printed on one side of the page in serrated sections that can be cut so as to read them in any order you want. They certainly evoke the monstrous as seen, & then interpreted: ‘It is all mouth, / forty teeth as sharpened pencils, / points dark and bloody, ready / to correct you.’ The wit at work throughout Exquisite Monsters grabs & will not let go. This large & entertaining phantasmagoria revels in its dark ironies & slyly appropriated rhetorics, offering a horror-show of contemporary pop & techno culture with just the right soupçon of black & bleak wit.

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Rahat Kurd’s linguistic love for a contradictory world

2367Rahat Kurd. Cosmophilia. (Talonbooks 2015).

In the final poem of Cosmophilia, ‘Married to English,’ Rahat Kurd admits she is indeed wed to the language she has played with & broken up with other tongues throughout this collection. English is unavoidable for a poet born in Hamilton, but it’s a ‘dark fidelity’ accompanying a sense of loss for ‘gorgeous Urdu’s melting afternoons,’ & she has to ask, ‘Pitiless English, what have I become?’ After all, this language she must use is darkly imperial, & so ‘It’s true, I whisper tender Arabic curses / over lies you swore were sterling; I console myself // with half-remembered Farsi endearments.’ All this arrives after a series of poems & sequences that envelop readers in a world resisting much of what English-speakers have done to it, & a vision endowed with a Muslim woman’s understanding. This very rich world of images & sounds offers something of a gift to English-speaking Canadian readers as the poems in Cosmophilia range over history, both public & personal, theology, & family inheritances, especially on the maternal side, from the Kashmir they left behind.

In other words, as the 2nd poem declares, ‘We won’t trace our names on the walls of old Delhi, // we won’t warm our hands on the walls of old Kashan.’ Instead, despite sharing ‘Faiz in Shahid’s English’ with the dedicatee, Usamah Ansari 1985- 2008, who ‘delighted everyone with Faiz in his own Urdu,’ the two of them ‘spent all the time we would ever have // describing borders of suspicion’ & now only questions remain: ‘Who would welcome you, after Burnaby? / What language, broken, avails you now?’ And it is that sense of brokenness, in language, in inheritances, in personal & public politics that haunts the various stories inherent in the longer poems that lie between the two I’ve mentioned.

Kurd has fascinating histories to explore, not least in the title poem, which tenderly takes up & renders into words the history of an old embroidered scarf, made in the traditional Kashmir way by a man, but given unto the women of the family down through the years. It begins with its maker imagining the woman who will one day wear it somewhere far away in a distant future, & follows it through a world of machines that take away the lustre of the hand made yet also render it as ordinary as their product. Where in this world, this & other poems ask, can the aura of the handmade real still be found?

Some poems develop an imaginative connection with older languages: Nastaliq script, for example, transforms into an old woman who smokes too much & tells the speaker stories of her treasured past, ending with ‘You know I lived in the breath, / in the quick movement / of human hands. What else / can satisfy the human heart?’ Others engage traditions of her faith (that may not quite be enough for a strong contemporary woman): the sequence ‘Seven Stones for Jaharat’ takes readers into the history of the stoning of the Jamarat pillars full of devils in the Hajj, but does so with an angry wit directed to both the modernization & commercialization of the event by Saudi Arabia’s rulers & the ways in which women have been marginalized & nevertheless have subverted that marginalization. Its 7 sections ranging over various times & figures makes for a wonderfully rich, sly, & allusive sequence: ‘The stone contains time before rude borders. / The stone outlasts the reign of guns and tanks.’

Many of the later poems speak to a marriage now over, how the grief attached to that loss shifts into anger, neatly turned into an array of metaphors before becoming simply ‘my anger, freezing, flickering, / burning, waiting, spiteful, bereft?’ These poems cover a lot of ground, learning ‘tajwid the art of Quran recitation,’ coming to grips with the world around her, meditating on ‘The Last Seven Minutes of L’Eclisse,’ which ends thus: ‘I tell myself again / how Mecca was founded / in the steps of a woman / frantically running seven times / between two desert hills / named for the daughters of other women, / on a hot day, in search of water.’

Cosmophilia is full of moments like that; they strike to the heart. It’s a rich & rewarding first collection by a writer I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from.

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