Guy Gavriel Kay’s tone poem of remembrance & loss in an alternate Renaissance.

Guy Gavriel Kay. A Brightness Long Ago. (Viking 2019).

If, like me, you are a fan of Kay’s historical novels set in another world so like & unlike our own, & especially if you enjoyed the earlier Sarantine Mosaic & his most recent Children of Earth and Sky, then you will find A Brightness Long Ago another profoundly moving entertainment. It’s not a prequel in any usual sense of the term, but the story takes place in that same world approximately 25 years earlier, & a few of its minor characters figure a bit in the previous novel. Nevertheless, this novel narrates various events in Batiara, with just occasional references by some figures to Sarantium, the embattled great city to the East. Rather it focuses, especially, on the bitter feud between the 2 most eminent & best mercenary leaders of their generation, as seen & experienced by one minor figure, who nevertheless narrates large parts of the story. This is something new for Kay, who has generally used a subtle & varied limited omniscient narration in his other historical fantasies/fantastic histories, & still does so here, constructing layers of narrating with subtle shifts backward & forward in time.

Guidanio Cerra remembers his youth, when three people changed his future, as he sits among the Twelve in Seressa deciding on the future of some of the central figures in Children of Earth and Sky. The son of a tailor in Seressa, by good fortune he was sent to the greatest school in Batiara, & from there to serve in the court of the ruler of a smaller city, Mylasia. Thus he is present in the palace the night a young woman assassinates Mylasia’s brutish count, known as ‘the Beast,’ & by choosing to help the wounded girl, whom he already adores, to escape, he changes not only his life, but the lives of many others.

Adria Ripoli, the daughter of the ruler of another city, the fast rising Macera, has been living with her aunt & the mercenary leader Folco Cino d’Acorsi, for whom, because she is intelligent, willful, & unwilling to be just another high born woman, she has chosen to attempt the dangerous feat of murdering ‘the Beast.’ Wounded, & helped to escape Mylasia, she will be tended by another fearless & intelligent woman, a ‘pagan’ healer who will encounter both Guidanio & Adria again (& also play a part in Children of Earth and Sky).

Folco is always trying to improve his own small city, & has a terrible, lifelong, conflict with the other great mercenary commander, Teoboldo Monticola di Remigio; & their various battles form the major narrative arc of A Brightness Long Ago, one in which Guidanio plays a minor but significant role. Kay weaves their stories, & those of the passionate love each feels for his wife, with the rivalries (economic always leading to some kind of violence, often war) of the various city-states, not least Seressa, where the acting duke, Ricci, takes Guidanio under his wing (& will become the head of the ruling Twelve in Children of Earth and Sky).

A Brightness Long Ago ends as the long twilight of Sarantium comes to a close when it is finally taken by the Asherites led by Gurçu, an event whose repercussions are still being felt some 25 years later in Children of Earth and Sky. In this novel, that event is shattering & affects political life across Batiara, as well as the individual lives of many of the protagonists.

Once again, though with the added aspect of some of the tale being the remembrance of one man whose whole life has been shaped by what happened around & to him when he was young, Kay fully imagines a world full of violence & passion (his novels are grand adventures, yes, but also, always, with tales of deep love woven into the narrative fabric) in which individuals must find a way to live, but also to live well. It’s also an historically accurate representation of that world in showing how violent it is & how it proscribes women’s freedom. Yet, as always, his narrative discovers a few strong, intelligent women who can find ways to live more freely than generally allowed, & Kay represents their battles for fuller selfhood as highly positive however high the cost.

A Brightness Long Ago delivers another tense, somber, brilliantly lit, highly complex, & often moving tale of war, court intrigue, love, &, always, loss of the kind we have come to expect of Kay. His fans won’t be disappointed, & new readers will want to find & read more.

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Kathleen Wall & Veronica Geminder’s ekphrastic collaboration

Kathleen Wall & Veronica Geminder. Visible Cities. (University of Calgary Press 2018).

How to write ekphrasis? There’s no easy answer, but Kathleen Wall has approached the problem through collaboration, in the case of Visible Cities, with her daughter, Veronica Geminder, whose photographs throughout this book demonstrate an eye for the sharply defined abstraction to be found in cityscapes seen with clear sight & provide the poet not so much with some visual to describe as a generative image to propel a narrative out & away from it. On the whole, the poems in Visible Cities offer other views of what may be happening in the spaces so sharply delineated by Geminder’s fine photographs; they are complements rather than replicants. The photos are something to take off from, they let the poet’s imagination float free: ‘Patterns of poetry and physics / … mapped over the tangle / of your synapses.’

The photographer and poet move from Regina & Saskatoon to Ottawa, Montreal, New York, Chicago, Paris, & Venice, each city offering its own possibilities to see & to say. It works like this: in Chicago, Geminder has a quietly superb photo of a narrow alley, glass filled building on one side, brownish wall on the other, & what is probably a loading dock near the bottom; Wall does begin with that loading dock, but soon shifts (as her narratives tend to do) to the ‘back door of your life / … starkly, lawlessly / eloquent, a plain spoken relic.’ This you heads off to a home, where ‘Lightning had cut the power / and all you could read in the late / afternoon dark was your cell phone.’ Wanting ‘something / sublime,’ you ends up watching ‘the clouds billow / and unravel in the sharp blows of light’ & finally a ‘cold cup of coffee … / thunder rippling in its liquid oval.’

I see Wall as essentially a narrative poet, though her narratives can range from stories about imagined others to tidy tiny episodes of possible autobiography where ‘Walter Benjamin eyeglasses’ (through which Wall has been viewing all these cities) will oversee ‘a library of wool, / with its ladder’ & lead someone ‘plunging down the arcade’s years / like a time tunnel to bring Atlantis back / to Paris with colours brighter than the sea’s.’

Visible Cities is a gorgeous looking book, thanks to Veronica Geminder’s colour & black & white photographs throughout, but the photos invite the poems, & Kathleen Wall has taken up their challenge, not to simply describe them but to dive off their visual platforms into the sea of stories they make possible to an active imagination.

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Kelly Shepherd constructs a magpie nest of a text about Edmonton

Kelly Shepherd. Insomnia Bird: Edmonton poems. (Thistledown Press 2018).

With Insomnia Bird, Kelly Shepherd establishes himself as Edmonton’s chief bricoleur, honouring & copying the bird of the title, the magpie Edmontonians know so well, with its huge nests built out of the detritus it finds everywhere in the city. As his epigraph to the whole book (stolen in magpie fashion) puts it: ‘And of these one and all, I weave the song of myself. / – Magpie, on nest-building.’

With its many epigraphs, quotations & found materials both acknowledged & not (quite), Insomnia Bird builds its own nest of observations, insights, memories bad & good, & old-fashioned boosterism turned awry. Shepherd, something of a recent immigrant to the city, is a keen observer, seeing in the ordinary around him much that longtime citizens like me tend to miss or ignore. What he sees, & catches widdershins in these pieces is a whole that is both more & less than most of us acknowledge or comprehend. And it’s also what his magpie oversees, so to speak, as well as helps to construct. Not just the legendary Greek Pierides, ‘the magpies of the legend are // symbols of envy, / presumption, idle / gossip and snobbery.’ Fitting, perhaps, for the upstart, most northern large city in Canada; or perhaps just a description of some who live here, under Magpie’s eye (not to mention Crow’s, & Coyote’s, also featured figures in this far reaching book.

From the very start, Insomnia Bird wanders far, rambles around both city & texts, & city-as-texts, telling us that this ‘twilight bird – two-lighted bird – / feathered yin-yang’ pulls behind it ‘invisible threads, / you stitch stories together, / you needle through the sky!’ As the self-conscious poet figure needles & stitches all the seen & found aspects of the material city into a substantial & ironic bricolage that celebrates this city even as it undermines so much of what it tries to say about itself. Some of the stories (& many of these pieces/poems are fiercely narrative) are apparently personal, about the working people who build & fix the city’s infrastructure, while others are taken from histories, news stories, advertisements for the city. Shepherd’s reach is wide; he seeks & finds material for his textual magpie nest across this ever-expanding cityscape. For him, ‘The city hunkers down on the riverbank / under stands of aspen / with saskatoon fingertips.’ Not just ‘late sunset and brushfire,’ etc, it is also ‘[p]arking lots, flowerbeds, shopping carts / full of empty beer cans. Porcupines / and crows and coyotes / and chickadees.’ Not to mention the people on the sidewalks, &, oh yes, ‘whole herds of bison / that move in and out / of extension cords and blood vessels / and diesel generators / and wait in the dry pages of books.’

But this is just a touch of the massively accumulated materials that make up Insomnia Bird. Set usually in a piece whose title both directs & misdirects (say ‘Spring: the tension between the enjoyment of patios and the enjoyment of motorcycles’ the first part of which is titled ‘1: On Dropping Your First Twigs into Traffic’), we might find a lyric perception like ‘Streetlights cast tangled orange / shadows of branches’ quickly overtaken by ‘”This strategy was developed / in the context of a renewed / Corporate Land Management Policy.’ Stark connections as contrasts rule throughout.

Insomnia Bird is a profoundly ‘thick’ text, with its mixture of personal perceptions (a lengthy bus ride ‘read’ as a long & confusing book, tales from the workplace) & such a variety of found materials ranging from the lowest administrative gobbledygook to admirable poetry. I have barely touched upon all it has to offer. But let’s say that though Insomnia Bird tells Edmonton specifically & therefore should be especially interesting to Edmonton readers, it also tells a story about the contemporary city everywhere (at least in North America), & thus has something to offer readers everywhere. It’s a keeper.

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Jenna Butler’s visionary voyage into the Arctic.

Jenna Butler. Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard. (University of Alberta Press 2018).

Although published in UofAPress’s ‘Wayfarer’ travel narrative series, Magnetic North reads as a sequence of meditational prose poems exploring one extraordinarily sensitive creative mind’s encounter with the Arctic on a Norwegian sailing ship dedicated to taking various artists on just such a voyage. Butler, who farms a small holding in the Boreal forest north of Edmonton with her husband, takes this voyage precisely to engage one of the most basic, & endangered, environments on earth, & she brings to that engagement all her senses plus the sensibility of a vital & environmentally engaged poet who can find just the right words to bring her experiences of this ‘hard place’ of ice, snow, & stone to her readers.

Butler is one of about 30 artists on board the Antigua as it plies its way from small port to small port on the island of Svalbard, but Magnetic North is not about them, & only peripherally about her: what it has to tell is glimpses of ‘this space’ ‘we carry… with us when we go.’ And it is the intensity of her perceptions that carry us, her readers, with her through the various moments she records here.

Moments like the chapter, ‘Bone’: ‘When the snow recedes, slinks itself upslope to glacial till, Svalbard manifests a landscape of bone. Old outposts bleach their siding under constant sun; in sheltered bays , whaling stations lean inland, stunted by poplar wind.’ Moments like ‘The Men at the Edge of the World,’ which begins with ‘It is a hard land of few women.’ Then notes: ‘Svalbard is a land of traces: what dies, lingers.’ And later: ‘Too many of the crosses have come down to time, turned to firewood in the deepest winters. Those left swing their pinwheel arms in the wind off the glaciers.

Butler sees; but she sees into, the depths beneath the surfaces summer shows, the history these rocks & bones, the glaciers & ice still there, carry. I could quote so many other bits from the various chapters, but the point is that throughout perception leads to further perception leads to insight. The ship takes them to mine sites, towns barely surviving yet necessary for what the miners still bring up out of the ground, yet she also notes is that “This is a hard place for women, for families. Most are back in the Ukraine; the few here are freighted by dark: the winter, the cold. The mine and what it does to their men, lurking upslope from the harbour, tainting every fall of snow with coal dust.’ Or later, at another site: ‘The ice on these mountains carry centuries, the guide tells us’; to hear & record the poetry of others’ speaking is also the poet’s job. As she nears the end of her journey & her writing, she comprehends that ‘Somewhere in this ice, Dachau plumes dark against the blue; London burns from a shop on Pudding Lane. I picture the ice sharding and Vesuvius issuing forth in a charred waft, the withering harmattan over the water from Marrakesh. A caftan of brittle wings.’

Before becoming ‘writer in residence onboard an ice-class barquentine sailing vessel in the Norwegian Arctic,’ what Butler knew ‘is the knife-edge of boreal forest, gantry of muskeg spruce hoisting ravens against the clouds.’ And it’s to that forest she returns, utterly changed, as the text has demonstrated, at the end. Magnetic North is a beautiful little book, full of moments of intense vision, but it’s also another ecological warning, couched in a poet’s deep understanding of what she has seen & recorded in our now changing north. Wholly engaging both emotionally & intellectually, it’s one of those books that truly adds to our understanding of the world we live in & continue to wound.

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Michael Ondaatje’s extrardinary play of warlight & shadow

Michael Ondaatje. Warlight. (McClelland & Stewart 2018).

Set in early post-WW2 London to begin with, told from the point-of-view of a young man in his late 20s writing in 1959, Warlight takes up the tropes of mystery, spy thriller, & youthful family abandonment, & as one would expect of Ondaatje, tramples them underfoot while offering mysteries galore, extraordinary invention, a beautiful opaqueness, the usual Ondaatjean deviousness of narration, & a slyly oblique series of imbedded stories slowly unfolded by a narrator who knows just how unreliable his memory & the fragments of historical archives force him to be. It is, as one would expect, a terrific & emotionally engaging read.

In 1946, the parents of 14 year old Nathaniel (‘Stitch’) & his 16 year old sister, Rachel (‘Wren’) tell them that their father’s job will take the two of them to Singapore for a year, & so their upstairs lodger, whom the kids called ‘The Moth,’ would be their guardian for the year they were away, while the kids attended their different schools & were home for the holidays. All those years later, Nathaniel is trying to recall their life during that time, to see if he can reconstruct what happened to him (he’s estranged from his sister, & can’t now understand her interior life then) & what it all did to make him the person he is now. Yet, he drops some earlier memories remembered, that hint at other stories, those of his mother & of some of the other people whom The Moth knew & invited into their home.

Some of these other people become Stitch’s wayward mentors over the next few years as his parents, especially his mother (his father quickly disappears from his narrative, & in a quietly traumatic way from his memory) fail to return, & he & Rachel learn quite early that she never joined their father in Singapore. So in the kinds of unrelated/deeply related narrative fragments that slowly accumulate into the larger narrative that is the Ondaatje novel, Nathaniel writes of his younger life, the love affair with a waitress in one of the places he works, his adventures with The Darter, who uses a borrowed mussel boat to ferry illegal greyhounds across London, & of his sister’s epileptic fits (not large but needing to be dealt with properly), & some of The Darter’s lovers who influenced him.

Then, he starts writing as his older self, now working for the Intelligence service as a reviewer of archived information, much of which is to be destroyed. And his mother, whom we will learn later, left the Service to protect her children & returned to her ancestral home in Sussex, where he lives with her when not at university, but Rachel never visits. Nathaniel now begins is obsessive research into her double life, & finds enough scattered hints to start imagining her life, & that of her mentor (a man mentioned as a boy in passing in the first few pages of Warlight). Slowly both narrator & author begin filling in the spy thriller/mystery story a more conventional writer would have made the central & driving plot of the book. But, of course, Ondaatje is after subtler, more difficult game here: the psychologies of both narrator & narrated, how Nathaniel’s telling tells about him, the kind of isolato he has become, the kind his mother perforce had to be to do her intelligence work both during the war & perhaps more importantly in the tiny wars among various participants, especially in Italy & the Balkans, afterwards.

The accumulation of details, whether ‘real’ or simply imagined by Nathaniel, the ways in which some of what seemed unimportant ones in the early tales of Nathaniel & Rachel’s teenage lives come into the dark foreground later, the ways Nathaniel’s tracking of soon-to-be-destroyed Intelligence documents as well as rumours & occasional memories passed on, slowly add up, creating their own devious & oblique suspense, leading the reader ever deeper into the maze that is this skein of interrelated fragments of mystery. The title is offhandedly explained late in the novel, & suggests the hidden light & strong shadows in which everything takes place in these interleaved stories. There is a richness, a depth of arcane & ordinary information, to Warlight that lends it immense fictional weight (& I haven’t even mentioned how craftily & sneakily the adjectives & adverbs do their devious work throughout). Indeed, although I’ve barely begun to touch on all that Warlight accomplishes in its complex narrative bricolage, what I can say is that it’s a wonderful addition to the Ondaatje oeuvre, an experience to enjoy slowly & fully.

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Jennifer Still plays the silences

Jennifer Still. Comma. (BookThug 2017).

As a sign of just how large & crowded the poetry scene, just in Canada, is, although she has published 2 previous books & been nominated for many awards, Comma is my first encounter with Jennifer Still’s writing, & right up front I must tell you it’s a brilliant & complexly moving book, a kind of serial-of serials volume constructed out of several hand-made chapbooks (at least one of which appeared in an edition of one).

Comma as inscribed on its cover displays a major aspect of Still’s writing practice here, that of what she calls in the long assembly of prose fragments that anchors the book at its centre, ‘Paper Acts’: ‘Erasure as regeneration. Silent stammer.’ The full word indicates a pause, the shorter one inside it, ’my long pause’ of her brother’s illness, his breath held by machines, full of trauma to be dealt with, & lasting years. How she dealt with this erasure/loss, it seems, was to write & then cut, to inscribe through blank space on the page the empty space in her life of his silent apartness. She tells us: ‘My brother’s illness was a constant process of breakdown and regeneration. Under his long sleep, the physiology that took place inside his body was almost unthinkable. A re-building of the skin. The nail. The eyelid. The voice.’ Among the many other things it does, Comma enacts that breakdown & rebuilding in words.

There are 7 sections to Comma, each one (but the explanatory ‘Paper Acts’) a powerful & dynamic example of intense construction-as-deconstruction, the power of ever fewer words ranged across the open field of the page. Among the many texts Still quotes, paraphrases, & alludes to, Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space plays an important role, but I would perhaps call what she does in Comma a rhythmics of spacing, how words & phrases carefully laid out far apart on the page can be made to sing their silence. As Miles Davis said, ‘Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,’ & Still makes wonderful use of the not there, the silent spaces, in Comma.

Comma begins with a single poem, ‘Chrysalis,’ in which Still alludes to her brother’s coma while preparing readers for the ways in which the following sections will work – on them. ‘Somewhere / just below the breath, silence / reorders’; ‘I sit quietly at my desk. Scraps / of sounds work into something’; ‘You are turning back /into yourself.’ In the book these two actions are united in both the words finally found & the wide open spaces between so many of them.

Still does collage, bricolage, she makes beautiful constructs, ‘the honest and raw and intimate . . . handmade that I want my writing to embody.’ And that final word is important, these poems seek to be embodiment, something we touch, we feel, not just read.

Of course, because they are so openly spaced, or reproductions of handmade pages (& BookThug has done a terrific job of that), with drawings, pen & pencil & typed words & phrases, much of Comma resists any easy quotation (& indeed, some of the reproduced pages are deliberately difficult to read, though lovely to look at, & that is part of their deliberate resistance to ordinary comprehension: they refuse easy commentary as they offer us a kind of ghost writing/drawing, a stark beauty to be felt as much as read.

‘Blue’ offers a series of fragmented takes on that colour: ‘the last hue to print / when the toner runs dry’; ‘BLUES are small and usually / secret’ leading to ‘MY BLUE / the smallest of all / its / well- / camouflaged / tongue.’ The spacings play the silence beautifully. ‘Scroll’ begins in dreams, & dream dis-logic dislodges images, phrases throughout. The poems are first quite aggressive, then something as quietly lovely as ‘Rush-Wick’ emerges: ‘From stair to star the i is drifting.’ ‘Swarm’ is inscribed on the pages of Still’s ‘mother’s Le Voyageur exercise scribbler,’ words & drawings/ illustrations scattered across the yellow pages, hard to read, lovely to look at. ‘Papery Acts,’ with its many quotations mixed with Still’s own thoughts on her writing practice, delivered as a lecture, explores her poetics & provides a better introduction to Comma than any commentary could. ‘Thorn’ is perhaps the strongest example of erasure in the book, reproduced pages of collaged cutouts leading to fuller poems of ‘Hedge,’ where ‘The line grows into itself. / Trying for the widest possible // privacy’; different readers will have different associations, for me Ronald Johnson’s RADI OS & the work of Susan Howe comes immediately to mind. ‘Greif Silhouettes’ mourns across its pages the continuing destruction of birds & trees, of the very fields of flowers & grasses her brother studied reflected in the fields of its pages. And finally ‘Comma’ reads through & under her ‘brother’s handwritten field guide of prairie grasses,’ finding in his words a way to say her specific keeping watch while he slowly healed in that long pause.

Comma, this beautiful piece of book making, is simply a deeply moving, rhythmically sparse & intense, example of how the traditional lyric can be transcended while never losing lyric’s subtle song. A book to read & reread, a major work.

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Stephen Cain raises his ante & his anti- in False Friends

Stephen Cain. False Friends. (BookThug 2017).

In his first full length collection in over a decade, & playing off the multilingual opposition contained in his title, Stephen Cain offers hifalutin (& low) games, lots of play on & with various ‘friends’ in literature & art, & a decisive retort to the personal lyric. As he says in the first sequence, ‘Stanzas,’ which is, he acknowledges, a kind of ‘allusive referential reduction on “Rooms” by Gertrude Stein’ (one of the avatars of this book), ‘Starve the saccharine smiths,’ possibly with ‘Minimal music, rapid repetition.’ One of the things that happens in this piece, as it stretches out, there are many such phrasings that more or less make sense, but they’re part of of a whole that keeps stopping doing so: ‘Nano nexus next strike, some storm, contain the converse more measured’ or ‘Missing kitten altered ivory smoking area.’ The whole holds one’s attention because each sentence or fragment thereof catches the (inner) eye, but the accretion resists interpretation in any ordinary sense.

This is generally true throughout False Friends, although some pieces are more accessible than others – to the reader who knows more or less what Cain knows. That isn’t necessary to enjoy the various pieces, but it definitely helps. For example, as someone who taught Canadian Literature as he does now, I can really enjoy ‘Mod Cons,’ in which he ‘revisits poems by A. M. Klein, Irving Layton, F. R. Scott, Earle Birney, & W. W. E. Ross.’ That they are all men is deliberate, I believe, & these rewrites offer sly critiques of that situation & their easy acceptance of poetic privilege in their day. They’re all sharp, although I like the visual synopsis, so to speak, of Birney’s ‘Vancouver Lights’ the best.

‘Idiosyntactic ‘ has more games with language & artistic inheritance. Here Cain takes on clichés of all kinds, but especially those of ‘the writing life.’ Especially in ‘Sportstalk,’ with its long list of things writers say & think: a hoot. But once again, a reader’s knowledge helps. Putting Gertrude Stein & Oscar Wilde together on fictional lecture tours in ‘Geniuses Together’ works for anyone, but adds a certain piquance for those who have read these writers & the book from which the title is taken. Knowing who Adorno was & his comments on jazz & the US lack of culture will make the addled review article on the (not music but the article reads like something from a pop music mag) group, ‘Adorno Hates Jazz,’ & their generally bad (according to the reviewer) releases. Because I am a big Gibson & cyberpunk fan I get those allusions in ‘Cyberpunk,’ but because I never paid much attention to it, I miss many of those to punk music. That is how most of these poems work.

On the other hand, everyone will get & laugh with the visual ‘signs’ in “Wordwards.’ But you really need to know your bpnichol to get much of ‘Etc Phrases,’ which he calls ‘an ekphrasic translation of bpNichol’s “Allegories”.’ They’re brilliant, & can certainly be read & enjoyed as sharp examples of the anti-lyric, singing & stinging, & not ever rendering the emotions of an ‘I’. Any one would do to show how they work, each line apart & a part, as in ‘Etc Phrase’ #21’ (where we are meant, I think, to hear ‘phase’ as well): ‘Return to the slippery trope. / Basic Buddhism. / Half-baked Hinduism.. / All the syncretism you can stand.’ Here again, as throughout, we see Cain’s almost alchemical addiction to alliteration in False Friends.

Indeed, it’s one of Cain’s major forms of sounding in this collection, &, as the penultimate sequence, ‘Zoom,’ a weird ‘translation’ (the term almost meaningless when dealing with sound poetry) of sound poems by Hugo Ball & others, alliteration & repetition form an important aspect of allowing sound to make a hash of sense. What’s interesting about ‘Zoom’ is that Cain has ‘translated’ these sound pieces by writers of other mother tongues into mostly English words, but run these together in a way that forces any reader to default to something close to mere sound anyway. Cain closes False Friends with the comic flourish of ‘Proverbs for the Jilted Generation,’ all of which slide away from any helpful advice. All in all, False Friends offers intellectually stimulating & formally complex delights to any reader willing to take a chance on such chanciness.

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