For Claire Kelly, maunder is an active verb

Claire Kelly. Maunder. (Palimpsest Press 2017).

According to The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, ‘maunder’ refers to both speaking & walking, the former ‘in a dreamy or rambling manner,’ the latter ‘listlessly or idly.’ Well, the poems in Maunder, Clair Kelly’s first collection, definitely ramble & often have the intense visual specificity of dreams, & they do wander over a large territory in the apparently rambling manner of the flaneuse, but they are not idle at all.

Early on, in the delightful sequence, ‘Keeping Track, Keeping Pace,’ Kelly explores variations of walking: ‘Swagger’ (‘a tear to the target’; ‘John Wayne advertising adventure wholesale’); ‘Shuffle’ (‘Here’s an army of slouch and grimace’); ‘Promenade’ (‘Pretend your partner is a stable / influence: hook arms and match pace’); ‘Lurch and Reel’ (‘you stutter-step on too / shadowing some off-kilter scent’); ‘Hobble’ (‘spasmodic rhythm: / crimson marionette with / a snagged string’); & finally ‘Strut’ with its ‘Cluster poise and cluster pose’ & final

Strobe. Muybridge sequence:

a horse galloping. In slow-mo.

The variant phrasings in this series provides a neat introduction to Kelly’s wide-ranging interests & the vocabulary that attends them.

This certainly applies to Kelly’s titles, which often startle (‘Apollo in a Sulky,’ ‘I Dreamt I Could Fly; I Awoke Encased in Lead,’ ‘In the Torso of a Great Windstorm,’ among others) & offer strange doorways into the poems that follow. ‘In the Torso of a Great Windstorm,’ for example, apparently having something to do with Emily Carr, is filled with oddly appropriate images, such as ‘Airstream gale whipping / the pinprick stars into dashes,’ a lovely shift from visual to written. Many of the poems in Maunder demonstrate a fiction writer’s sense of catching the action of a moment in an ongoing narrative, except the narrative can only be sensed hovering somewhere behind the poem’s specific perception of the imaged now.

Kelly happily shows off some of the writers & artists she finds inspiring in her epigraphs, & quite rightly for a maundering poet, she includes that lunchtime New York walker, Frank O’Hara, who clearly acts as a spiritual guide in ‘Street Haunting,’ with its ‘inner walk gone wrong: / my mind, a gymnast’s spiraling ribbon, / something loose and beautiful about / the planned       the lack of plan, / as if, here, the only message is to maunder.’ The final sequence of this collection that wanders in its planned-unplanned way across a wonderfully eclectic range of topics,

Maundering,’ is a series of crisp ghazals, the leaps from couplet to couplet quick & sharp: ‘Your friend’s grandfather clock stops working. / A stilled scythe in a museum case. // Three right turns and you’re speeding eastwards again. / The sun resolute as a gobstopper stuck in your throat.’

Maunder is a fine & wide ranging volume that suggests Claire Kelly will be walking her poetic lines for a long while yet.

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Sandra Ridley does the elegy as dark construction

Sandra Ridley. Silvija. (BookThug 2016).

About midway through this volume of shorter serial poems making up a single longer one, we read: ‘Decide what to keep.’ In many ways this is the mandate of the whole book, a book the back cover announces is ‘a sequence of feverish elegies, . . . a linguistic embodiment of the traumas of psychological suffering, physical abuse, and terminal illness.’ Elegy has been an important form recently (see Sina Queyras’s MXT, for example), & yet the title slyly alludes to another tradition of memory (of) loss, referenced in the first epigraph, a definition of ‘Silva,’ both a ‘wood, forest, woodland’ & ‘in poetry, a piece composed, as it were, at a start, in a kind of Rapture.’ Which leads to the 2nd epigraph: ‘That they with Joy their own Requiem might sing, / And close their eyes’ – a note of that Rapture, yet with a sense of ghostly return, that here only the dead might sing their elegies, themselves.

There are a lot of such selves in these poems, many in pain. Five sections, all but one a separate piece yet linked by that trauma of loss & of deciding what to keep of & in such loss. Linking them, in pieces between each section, the carefully titled ‘In Praise of the Healer.’ Thus the book itself begins, ‘Swallow the word. // Swallow the tongue.’ Yet ‘Farther/Father,’ the first section refuses to swallow any of the punishment that figure forces on everyone about him; rather it deliberately & resolutely parses it, while insisting elegy is the way to do so:

Our dead call out our dead / …

From the old butcher / your leather strap / unbelted

Crescent buckle for a skinning / hiding / each of us/

Slickened with blood / held down in your hinterland

Each barren mile unabating / say mercy

The shifts of focus, the puns so painful, each line a stanza to slow the reading of the pain down, as it came upon the ‘we,’ the ‘I’ remembering after the father’s death & always the one who’s ‘been meaning to say,’ among other things that, ghostly,

we find you not as we want

You / still where you are / dead on the floor / facing down

The long shadow / incalculable

The prose of the following ‘Clasp’ evokes a bitter & brutal relationship, also dead, yet even so mourned, somewhat. In between each section a page of ‘In Praise of the Healer’ offers something of succor: ‘Breathe you in.’ ‘After the long sought // reckon — // surrender.’ ‘Vigil/Vestige’ then seems to enter & entertain personal loss, illnesses that strike both speaker & the natural world. There are ‘The scripture of leaves’ & the ‘shy sweats / and the cold we’re night-blind by’; & then, ‘Our after-dream terrors / of a slaughterhouse — / or a labyrinth / akin / to a slaughterhouse.’ These poems move with great force to cement love & suffering: ‘We ghost-slip out from the drowning.’ Yet in the end, ‘Press deep and rest in me — / there is space enough for us both to die.’

And in that break before the last longer piece, ‘Courage — / stay in my arms / until / you can’t.’ ‘Dirge’ does what it says, echoing much of what has come before, sifting & shifting through the themes: ‘The undaunted / spectral’; ‘fear departing as soon as it’s spoken’; & ‘the essential / sylph / shadow / detached from // A great shade / shale eyes /released to darkening // Night // only you are present when the heart stops.’

And then the final statement of ‘In Praise of the Healer’: ‘What I mean is this is where I choose to die.’ As a reader I cannot know how much of Silvija really relates to its author’s life (the ‘Notes’ tell us that various sections were written in response to requests or to gallery installations), but I do see how carefully the ‘I’s of these poems have been constructed, partly to deal with/ speak to their ‘you’s. Beautifully designed, Silvija is a structural whole, a beautiful web of language, doing elegy as a constrained & compelling dance of words.

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Kate Sutherland draws the reader in to a dark rhinoceros history

Kate Sutherland. How to Draw a Rhinoceros. (BookThug 2016).9781771662604

Kate Sutherland is a scholarly lawyer with a troubling sense of mission, almost obsession, concerning the now nearly extinct rhinoceros, & in How to Draw a Rhinoceros she has constructed a complex compendium of historical rhinoceros lore, which when read in that context becomes a fascinating & deeply troubling introduction to a hidden history of colonial exploitation. What she has made is a kind of book length documentary-(become-near-or-wholly-) found poem, although only one poem, ‘Great Family of Giants,’ is forthrightly distinguished as such, perhaps because it’s the only one ‘with all of the text taken from a single nineteenth-century circus poster.’ For the rest, her general notes about ‘Fragments of text borrowed from…’ serves to warn the reader of just how much of this text is, indeed, other texts she has sought & found in archives around the world.

How to Draw a Rhinoceros is a good title, because it seems no one knew how back at the beginning of its introduction to the European world in the renaissance & later. So the first piece, ‘A Natural History of the Rhinoceros,’ presents a series of contradictory descriptions (not the last: a major aspect of the book has to do with how poorly ‘western man’ perceived the rhinoceros [& its countries &, if we but make the imaginative leap, the people thereof]). The poems entertain, as did the exhibitions of Clara, the famous first one in the 18th century, & the others brought to England & Europe in the 19th.

Sutherland is somewhat sneaky here. She presents the presentations, the comments by important viewers, the slowly expanding tale of exhibitions of the exotic, without comment, & it is kind of easy to read these with that pleasure of knowing better & seeing the past as simpler & less sophisticated in its understanding – of biology, geography, etc. The many false (the ‘fake news’ of the time) reports of Clara’s death suggest an historical comedy of errors, but the final one, & the poem’s uncertainty about even that, remind us of how she was used: ‘London / died unexpectedly / at the Horse and Groom / may or may not have been stuffed / by a pioneering taxidermist / and continued on tour’.

How to Draw a Rhinoceros slowly builds a lawyer’s case that, like many such, takes in a much larger situation than the singular one it seems to be about. Readers (like me, perhaps like you) can enjoy the early sections, the historically distant stories of this extraordinary animal (& seen as such, then), being transported across Europe & put on display for the amazement & amusement of the locals. Only a few, & look at how they fascinate. But, as How to Draw a Rhinoceros draws nearer to the present, with the chilling descriptions of such hunters as President Theodore Roosevelt, King George V, & Ernest Hemingway & his friends, laid before us with a dryly nonchalant tone that dissolves into a sardonic accusation, what came before falls into its proper perspective. The section of the Roosevelt poem that repeats the ‘I’ over & over again as ‘I put both barrels into and behind the shoulder / I fired into the shoulder again’ devolves into pure slaughter on the male egos behalf. The even darker repetitions of ‘Officials said,’ a wonderfully (de)constructed series of broken reports in which the repetition of poachings overwhelms formally as well as factually. The lovely lyrics, sort of lovely lies, about Clara as a star, eventually an astronaut, with her final comment (‘from a very early Buddhist text known as the Rhinoceros Sutra’), ‘wander alone / like a rhinoceros,’ cannot undo the knowledge of colonial destruction How to Draw a Rhinoceros has slowly built throughout. Like many documentaries, it entertains with its arcane knowledge, but it packs a dark political punch.

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Anthologizing the energetic Calgary writing scene

calgaryrenaissancederek beaulieu & rob mclennan, eds. The Calgary Renaissance. (Chaudiere Books  2016).

In his piece, ‘Dawn (from the Day Book),’ Jordan Scott asks, ‘Who has faith in the arbitrary?’ & one answer, given the alphabetical ordering of writers in The Calgary Renaissance, is that the (lower-cased) editors (& many of the writers) do. How else would we have gotten such a perfect first piece in an anthology that celebrates the amazing energy emanating from the Creative Writing Program at the University of Calgary & the combustible community of writing surrounding it in the city over the past 2 decades or so. Hollie Adams’s delightfully snarky ‘Project Description by: Jenny Weingarten,’ a sardonic subversion of one possible CW situation, is precisely the very funny introduction this anthology desired. It bursts open the doors to this wide-ranging sampling of the work of a large number of writers, many of whom are well known by now, although I’m willing to bet that every reader of The Calgary Renaissance will find at least one writer new to him or her.

The ‘arbitrary’ plays a role in many of these writers’ work, for example Louis Cabri, Weyman Chan, Susan Holbrook, Nicole Markotic, Nikki Sheppy, among others. It hovers nearby in a lot of the writing herein (there’s certainly a sense of it in Helen Hajnoczky’s ‘Other Observations,’ a sharp & snazzy feminist takedown of Eliot’s ‘Prufrock,’ that wonderfully captures the vocal tone of the original). It plays out in a wildly different mode in Paul Zits’s evisceration of the simile in ‘The Destructive Impulse Becomes Automatic.’

Many of the writers included in The Calgary Renaissance have long left Calgary & gained a reputation elsewhere; some like Suzette Mayr & Christian Bök came there & added much to the Creative Writing Program at U of C. With these two, as well as some of the others, their contributions should lead readers to their books (all helpfully listed in the ‘Contributors’ section at the end), another thing any good anthology should do. This is a highly eclectic one, & the writing within reflects the breadth of the various poetics shared among the writing community in Calgary (& reflects the generosity of spirit in one of this ‘renaissance’s’ godfathers, Robert Kroetsch). As a great introduction to what’s been happening in the city over the past few decades, The Calgary Renaissance is something of a Calgary cornucopia.

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Adrienne Gruber’s craftily controlled buoyancy

9781771662222Adrienne Gruber. Buoyancy Control. (BookThug 2016).

That cover illustration, the octopus arms writhing, is more than a little suggestive of the fluid shifting about of concepts, motifs & motives inside this provocative assemblage. The concept of body (leading to mind) transformation is central to the poems (& poetics) of Buoyancy Control. As the speaker in ‘Mimic’ says in ‘The Freak Show,’ ‘I regenerate lost limbs.’ And these poems keep telling us of how many losses we can sustain & recover from. But she adds, ‘I’ve got resources. / I’m just saying.’ And she keeps ‘saying’ things metaphorically (although the extended simile—‘tears that flow like glacial melt, where, as kids, / we’d place our warm sodas to cool’—also gets a workout), shifting the ground, or rather the lake or ocean, under the reader in almost every line.

So the world is fluid in Buoyancy Control, definitely including sexual identity & the pulls & pushes a fluctuating sense of self invokes; the borders will not stay in place: ‘Insomnia tonight, rebellion tomorrow. / Pulling teeth. And still, they insist, / the heart is the measure of success.’ Gruber sees the world, perhaps, through water, the light refracted, & thus her descriptions, so to speak, get at things at an angle: ‘Dirty pond browning in the sink. / The sinkhole in the dark // is his cleft of hip. / Count ribs with a drift of index finger’ (& I love the spark of that ‘drift’ in that line).

Gruber gets the comedy of errors that desire portends, & she writes with wit & humour, even when, perhaps most when, attempting to catch the conflict embedded in love & desire, ‘How furious you are’ one moment, ‘Your face like a clown, laughter / between my legs’ the next. The ‘Intertidal Zones’ sequence, a series of prose poems about why to choose certain sea creatures as lovers, or not, demonstrates just how successfully she controls the buoyancy of both language & love/lust. Like so much of this intriguing volume, it unsettles while drawing us in.

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For the fathers: Erin Moure’s translation of François Turcot’s Mon dinosaure

9781771662307-94x1452xFrançois Turcot. My Dinosaur (Mon dinosaur). Trans. Erin Moure. (BookThug 2016).

Following her postface, the title of which, ‘Si Moure traduit Turcot; A Book of Hours becomes a Book of Ours,’ begins to suggest the complications embedded in both the original text & in this translation, Erin Moure’s Acknowledgements concludes: ‘Finally, François Turcot’s Mon dinosaure was a fierce companion to me during my own father’s terminal illness in August 2013 in Edmonton. I knew I had to translate the book; in every way, my translation is fuelled by my love for my Dad, and by my gratitude to François for loaning me his.’ So this book comes to us as a doubled labour of love, first of Turcot’s love for his father turned into a kind of translation of his (never written, it seems) stories, & second, of Moure’s love for her father turned into this real translation of the book, already written in our second language, that so spoke to her in her grieving.

The original is a series of suites in poetry & prose that attempt to write for the father as they write back to him, that figure looming so large in the son’s (& in the daughter’s) memories, so a dinosaur, a whale, a whole lake full of fish & events, & most tellingly a source of tales. The first of these, ‘Six Weeks Before the Shades,’ presents in a kind of countdown a series of tight, taut, minimalist poems that keep sliding into a surreal world of memory & loss. ’36 // cold ramble like a first / snow // in the refuge / of his hand // there I’d settle / my rectitude’. Or: ’32 // true geographies, numb/ journey // sucked into the verbiage / of décor // tense as a plaster / dog // I’d militate, silent’.

All this passes through seasons, months, mentioned or alluded to in passing, ‘setting down the Book of Hours’; yet ‘ill-equipped to / say a long while’, until finally ‘-1 // January four butterflies / melting // would leave at night without / lips // without / wings without // saying tomorrow’. Which leads to ‘Meteors’ (one cause of the end of dinosaurs?), where ‘When January burst / December // two minutes short / two // in the white of his / eye // the clock froze / to zero’ (& see Moure’s explication of how difficult the translation of this bit was). Here the poet engages with the whole concept of dinosaur, in a quest to discover what has been hidden, in the bones, in the man: ‘To lift up a dinosaur, suspend it out of reach, is to measure its silence right to the crater of its teeth, is to calculate its wrinkles and its coves, is to grab fast onto all its crevasses. // A dinosaur: creature or man who exists by half, who offers a reading of a world without words.’ But, most importantly, ‘It was my dinosaur wedged in the folds of his own time. / Unreadable, imagining the weight of further stars.’

The father speaks (or writes) to say that his Book of Hours can not exist except in his son’s book, or the next section of it, ‘Prehistories.’ Here a story (or some stories) of fishing & hunting with his dad emerge & dissipate in ‘Contraband of memories / adulterated // white gin of / ravages // at 6 o’clock the gin / tasted of the past’. Any reader will understand ‘never was there such / uncertainty of / landscape / he names of streets / as if family / stories / strewn everywhere’. As these pieces continue, the ‘I’ finds himself lost among memories, hopes, & desires, all combined & ever more fused, or confused. Here the son has only himself left, to ponder. These poems keep invoking the father, but keep returning to the self invoking, & a palpable sense of the love holding on, the loss refusing to leave emerges. Despite its feel of a fragmentary collage, My Dinosaur coheres, an arc of longing-as-story hides within.

In the final section, ‘The Box of Whalebones,’ where the giants evoked earlier seem reduced to the whalebone stays for shirt collars his father left, they (he) reassert their place in the son’s remembering: ‘It might just be a case of a step back so as to dive in, I reminded myself, my dad’s one devious dinosaur, at the very least. // Schemes and stratagems one after another. // I’ve never compared him to a fickle animal – sea mammoth – somehow he has always – been one’. And a power; in the final piece, the poet ironically acknowledges that (while demonstrating his own power to inscribe remembering): ‘I’m going to the lake with its bonfires – to call up his whales more elusive – loquacious – than me’.

But the loquaciousness we have encountered here, in this writing (rewritten in translation for those of us with insufficient French) belongs to François Turcot & it offers us a tough, awkward, fantastical, & loving remembrance of a father missed, & now booked for his readers.

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Another strong new voice: Jennifer Zilm’s Waiting Room

waiting-room-jennifer-zilm-cover-510-9781771662147Jennifer Zilm. Waiting Room. (BookThug 2016).

For a first book, Waiting Room demonstrates Jennifer Zilm’s already strong talent & insight. She joins a large number of fine young poets emerging in 21st century Canada (far too many for any single reader to keep up with them all). It’s a bit sneaky, in that its first two sections, ‘Sugar Discipline: Dental Poems’ & ‘Academy of Fragments’ are rather playful & even light. Having read them I was highly entertained but also wondering a bit if her work might be directed at a rather small audience (how many poetry readers really get the ins & outs of working on a dissertation? wait: maybe more than I at first thought). But as she takes us further into ‘Singular Room Occupancy: Canto from Main & Hastings’ & ‘This Holy Room: the great listeners,’ & the dark nights of homelessness & mental illness, the book achieves a bleak yet open grandeur.

It’s a smart move, then, to show off some of her formal stuff with wit & comic timing in the first sections. A book that begins ‘At the end of my benefits my mouth holds a temporary crown’ & ends that sonnet for her dentist with ‘in my raised chair: I am enthroned’ definitely grabs my attention. She ends this short section with a poem to her ‘Mouth  Guard.’ Anyone who’s had one can identify: ‘Clasp it / over the     half-moon, / bottom     teeth. // Cripple your sibilants. // Go to bed.’

‘Academy of Fragments’ addresses professors of different ranks, a committee (most likely her dissertation one), & the dissertation itself, as well as its aftermath. These are funny, & likely cut into still open wounds in any reader who’s been there. As when, in an email to the Full Professor, in response to his demand that she revise a chapter, she says: ‘I can’t go back to those vacant spaces. / It’s not that I can’t imagine what syllables filled them. / Once I start I can’t stop imagining everything else – ‘ There’s a mise-en-abyme if ever there was one. The ‘erasure’ of her dissertation leads to sharply acute fragments like: ‘A crucial part of a gulf / between this passage and imagination’; ‘Mode of thinking / continues in theology of lost’; ‘The explicit degrees of how’; & ‘Any definition is anthropology, / authors humanity, judgments / about the existence of something. // Therefore exclude scholarly investigation / altogether.’ All together, the poems in this section provide a dark comedy of academic (t)errors.

In the next 2 sections, Zilm seeks various formal means by which to enter the lives of others while not simply (& ‘lyrically’) vocalizing them as personae. She uses a lot of found material here, in a kind of mix-tape of their own words & those of doctors, artists, & others in the bureaucracies they must interact with. She’s also a master of titles, many of which set tones while unsettling any usual expectations. The first piece in ‘Singular Room Occupancy’ constructs the figures to come: ‘dually diagnosed / “hard to house” / adults.’ The poems that follow slip in & out of the figures, seeing them as clearly as possible, letting them speak for themselves. This makes them difficult to excerpt, as they are tales or long descriptions, laid out in long, nearly prose, lines or scattered across the field of the page. There are echoes & reverbs, as when early on, having ’let / poetry wake again. Calliope’, she tells of how ‘Jodi flails, a mixture of up and down in her blood. / Before her detox intake, her body is taught.’ That implied ‘taut’ says a lot about the disciplinary system she finds herself in. In a later poem, ‘Chemistry,’ we learn (or at least I did): ‘Up; see also: Powder / Down; see also: Heroin / — Speedball (v./n.) together.’ Between these moments, poems that narrate various lives under these signs, & that need to be taken whole. There’s art history, there’s math, there’s an erasure of Dante’s Canto Six of Purgatorio. After which, the lovely dark finale of ‘Elegy, a rain fragment,’ which ends: ‘Theft under / your chargeable offence, your diagnosis. Goodbye / from the boundary shore. If she said / that to me.’

‘This Holy Room/the great listeners’ slips into history to find examples of people on both sides of what the epigraph calls ‘Talking therapies,’ with important walk-ons by Sylvia Plath & Vincent van Gogh as well as their doctors. Again, the stories invite full readings, fragmentary as they are; it’s their gaps that count, & must be felt. Here titles once again do some heavy lifting, as in ‘Seven Seeing Parts for Dr. Barnhouse,’ of whom ‘Sylvia’ wrote ‘in her notebook: / There is nothing I can do that would make her / withhold her listening,’ but then tells us that though the good doctor perhaps gave Plath extra years of life, she forgot too much, perhaps including that. It moves through the doctor’s life, to end all too ambivalently: ‘We live out the parts of ourselves that aren’t patients / in (y)our blind spots; / dog whistle a dance in your tone deafness. // O great unseeing; O vast / withheld listening.’

In similar ways, Zilm explores van Gogh’s encounters with his doctors, their ways of trying to ‘cure’ the artist’s ‘delusions.’ Though there’s a moment of cutting mirroring: ‘Vincent diagnosed: this country doctor         is in worse shape / than I am, / perhaps he can help me.’ Stories, then, whose fullness insists upon a complete reading, & some knowledge. Ziln shifts to what seems a more personal telling, including ‘Placing the Fragments: Instructions for Grieving an Unfinished Dissertation.’ The last few poems address the possibility of writing, of, it seems to me, possibly making this book: taking what she needs from others, as in the cento, ‘S.Elective S.Oothing R.Adiant I.Nventory,’ with its every line taken from other poets she was reading when she wrote it. Yet its ending has become her own, & looks back over the whole of Waiting Room: ‘When next we find ourselves / don’t give up the ghost. What we mean is / attend.’ Zilm has done a good job of doing just that throughout this fine first collection.

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