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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Phill Hall conjugates something special

9781771662185Phil Hall. Conjugation. (BookThug 2016).

In his latest, masterful book (although in a sense his whole poetic works against any sense of mastery), Phil Hall continually tests: language, the concept of poetry as such, himself; &, therefore of course, us, his readers. It makes for an exhilarating experience: ‘To not let poetry be furniture // milled from an arbre de la liberté / how every word chosen sets out to save us // from shame & earn us praise // past that     the chase     of an odd lilt     in the vowels / past that     Time dies     & Colour     & all frames . . .’. In a sense all his writing is an attempt to get ‘past that’ & he has discovered/keeps discovering new ways to try to pattern the movements of mind as he does so. Conjugation is an apt title, for the 7 sequences plus opening & closing poems here seek connections among the chaotic collection of fragments that are everyone’s memories & thoughts.

Hall is thinking the writing into being & somehow managing to catch on the wing the difficulties of inscribing that action as it happens. The reader, or at least this reader (for Hall’s work allows for many different ways of reading [into] it), registers how he shows us the ways thinking meanders, no matter how stringently the thinker may try to follow a single line of thought. And here’s another thing about these poems; they invoke their companionate reader, we are assumed on some level to be participating: ‘I send you silence // . . . // I have missed how an empty page // is a sacred space between / / two words that are the same / like us’.

But this thinking, in these poems, returns, always, to the brute fact, the material, of the word. ‘Reading     bored     out of my tree / I look up the word     word // there it is     the root     of my problem // bored into its tree     ignoring its definition / pointing at itself’.

Or: ‘In the morning     the poem solve everything // in the afternoon     it stinks     & I stink too / the little structural satisfactions     have to be broken // so     the trite suck     of my ego     at play     in a line // is exposed’. Here he makes an interesting play off the traditional lyric, as he so often does. This is ‘the poet’ speaking (writing) but what kind of confession occurs. In fact a lot of ‘I’s speak in these poems, & some, as here, are meant to be read as the poet whose work we are reading, yet the intimately personal stays allusively/illusively just out of sight. We do hear of incidents with friends, many of them poets, & there are allusive comments about his past, but this ‘I’ remembers with a carefully structured distance fragmentation brings And many of the ‘I’s are figures out of history, both known & unknown (again, personal). There are so many entrances to these poems, no single way to read them; each reader will find their own path through.

Though Hall leads his readers into many dark places, he has a sly sense of humour, & it can flash out anywhere, but often targets the act, of writing, by which he defines himself (or he wouldn’t write so many intriguingly complex books). As:

Kinds of poetry:


2 I miss it . . .

3 I’ve had it!

4 Lampoon. Inherit. Bestow.

5 It: big hitching post / little church /

6 eye tea


(1 & 7 are not the same)

So I find one way in via the allusions & references, mostly to other poets (many but not all mentioned in the Notes). Others will find what seem to be personal memories, or the tales of farm life, historical events, a good way in. there’s just so much going on in Conjugation.

I have been quoting from the first sequence, ‘Gap & Hum,’ because it sets up the rest of Conjugation so well, even unto presenting & undoing that confessional ‘I’. the meandering thinking I mentioned as the mode of these poems also sets a temporal pattern: the pieces brought together here in Hall’s specific form (he indents every 2nd line by just one em, but just that small gesture calls attention to the fact that these utterances are made, they are, no matter how much they look like first thoughts thought, his own kind of radical artifice.

Having in the first lengthy poem taken us through a series of grapplings with the action of responding mindfully to a world always in a state of change, in ‘The Chase,’ Hall offers a group of titled & individualized poems that still fall into the development of the whole book (like one of the poets he mentions frequently, bpNichol, Hall constructs books, not mere collections). These ones tend to be memory pieces, of essentially public events or moments (even when wholly invented, as in the comic ‘Festivities,’ with its many new holidays). Hall is a politically aware poet who nevertheless knows Auden’s caveat that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’ Or, as many have asked, does it? How would a ‘political poem’ act? ‘Poor’ attempts to explore the problem: ‘ under the word     reason / you can still make out the word   hunger // if you know how to read // (or maybe     if you don’t     know how to read / the palimpsest   is starker’. As the poem demonstrates, at least poetry can witness, in however fractured a way.

And, indeed, this is what Conjugation does throughout, in far too complex a manner to elucidate in a single review. Late in the book, there’s a kind of denied denial of what the poet does: ‘ And   to   how   with / words alone     speak     letters alone     speak // after     the anecdotes     stop’. But this poet has just said that, nearing the end of a book that invites rereading for, among other things, the ways in which its poetry explores so deeply the world of words & letters, as did his previous volume, The Small Nouns Crying Faith; as does all his work. Conjugation is a major addition to a major oeuvre.

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Guy Gavriel Kay’s fantastic history: Children of Earth and Sky.

9780451472960Guy Gavriel Kay. Children of Earth and Sky. (Viking 2016).

Following his two novels set in an alternate Tang & Song dynasty China, in Children of Earth and Sky, Guy Gavriel Kay has returned to the world beneath two moons of many of his novels, most relevantly Sailing to Sarantium & Lord of Emperors, setting this new, &, as expected, wondrous novel some nine hundred years after that duology. In the continent that looks somewhat like a simplified Europe next to the Middle East, Sarantium has fallen to the eastern forces serving the god of the stars, Ashar, while the western empire, much smaller now, still follows the sun god, Jad. The map at the front is both important & necessary.

In this world, which he has so completely & complexly imagined, Kay introduces a number of protagonists, whose lives & stories will intertwine throughout this highly satisfying network of plots & counterplots (all orchestrated by the historically learned narrator, who assumes a mastery of the inner lives of these people but also offers commentaries on the ways of the (this) world, & the crises both individual & social/cultural that confront them all. The main figures, those whose changing lives will most propel the narrative, who come from all levels of their various societies, are: Pero Villani, a young & mostly untried artist of the city state of Seressa; Leonora Valeri, a young noblewomen with a past, from the same Seressa; Danica Gradek, a young woman archer from the fighting town of Senjan; Marin Djivo, younger son of a major merchant family in the lesser city state of Dubrava; Damaz (the name given him by the Asharites who abducted him from a village near Senjan when he was 4; this will be important later on), a 14 year old trainee in the khalif of Asharias’s infantry. There are many other figures, many of them people of power, such as the Grand Khalif Gurçu, residing in Asharias, once Sarantium, which he conquered & made the capital of the Osmanli Empire some 20 years before this tale begins; or Duke Ricci, the head of Seressa’s Council of Twelve, whose plotting propels the stories of Pero & Leonora, & thus those of the others, whom they encounter early in their travels, into motion.

To go into much detail about their stories would be to deny readers the pleasures of this complex text. Suffice to say, Seressa is a great trading city whose leaders are willing to do just about anything to maintain its primacy as the major centre of trade in its part of the world beneath the two moons. Dubrava is also a trading city, smaller, & nearer the edge of the Osmanli Empire, trying to maintain its place, & even increase its trading power, especially if it can also do some damage to Seressa’s. Jad’s Holy Emperor lives in the city of Obravic far to the north of Seressa while the High Patriarch of Jad lives in Rhodias, somewhat to the south. And in Asharias, the Grand Khalif sends out his army every Spring to try to break through the great walled city of Woberg to conquer the ‘infidel’ lands under Jad.

Spies are a necessary part of war & diplomacy in this world, & all states use them. When the Grand Khalif expresses a wish to be painted in the western style, Seressa chooses a young man without family to send to Asharias to do that job, & perhaps manage to spy & even try to kill the Khalif; they also induce a young woman to become a new spy in Dubrava. To get to Dubrava & thence onward to Asharias, these must sail on board a trading ship from that city. And fighting men, & one woman, from Senjan will board that ship to steal any wares from Seressa or Asharias (they are, after all, not pirates but heroes of Jad, dedicated to fighting the followers of Ashar in any way they can). From this conjunction much of the rest of the narrative follows, & it is multifarious, full of deceit, betrayals, battles, & confrontations both large & small – an extravagant tale full of tales, an adventure of bodies, minds, & souls in conflict.

Kay has perfected a fascinating narrative voice over his decades of constructing these marvelous tales set in an invented world with a history so neatly parallel to our own. It is that of a somewhat scholarly, but never too prim, historian all too aware of the vagaries, injustices, & just plain unfairness of life in such a world, yet one who can find moments & individuals that rise above the general chaos & loss. There is a place for love & loyalty among the ruins of a greater past. As an author, he likes people of intelligence & wit, & he finds them in a variety of places in the societies & cultures he constructs with such subtlety & nuance; & he includes a touch of the supernatural, which deeply disturbs any who experience it. All of which makes him one of the few truly philosophical fantasists writing today. Like his other novels set in a history just a few degrees off from our own, Children of Earth and Sky is a superbly entertaining, profoundly moral, & politically astute, novel.

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Chris Turnbull’s continua(lly) performative twists & turns

continua_coverChris Turnbull. continua. (Chaudiere Books 2015)

There are many possible ways to read continua, a multi-voiced, verbal & pictorial collage text the square pages of which shape a reading anew each time one opens the book. For the moment, I’m going to suggest that one way is to treat each page as a visual field, a kind of print to be seen as much as read (including the many photographs interspersed with the texts). The pages are filled with fragments in various type faces & sizes, all demanding simultaneous responses but because they are words making it impossible to give them that.

On another hand, Turnbull thanks ‘those who have performed continua with me.’ And it certainly helps to see/hear the various bits & pieces overlapping & contra-dictating at one another on many of these pages as engaged in a heightened conversation where everyone is talking at once.

Among those rhetorics playing off against one another on these visually engaging pages, Turnbull has included what appear to be personal recollections, historical & ecological statements about the Rideau Canal, architectural arguments, & much else. Who (and how many) are making these textual & photographic comments remains illusive, but not illusory: the sheer accumulation of information, however much of it is lost in archive, memory, or natural decay, is material.

continua shifts among many different & differing rhetorics: found prose from various documents; diary entries; historical documentation in both words & images; poetic meditations. Some pages are so full of text(s) that overlap(s) & interrupt(s), that the eye does not know where to begin taking it in. Others seem clearer, where, say, the phrase ‘got // lost // looking’ appears beside a photo of a few links of chain; below & to the right, in another type, ‘days clean pass, / I forgets and it / gets away’; bottom left in smaller type yet, ‘refusal to permit the closure of form’ (which might serve as the rallying cry of the whole book); & almost impossible to see bottom right, in very light grey shade, ‘lichen shows up / stone here, / crenellated musing’. How to read all that (following a page of 2 almost mirroring [quite literally, as one is upside down beneath the other] pieces of near-hallucinatory descriptions accompanied by ‘clean window’ for the upper & ‘oublier’ for the lower) is part of the quest continua lays out for its readers (& performers).

In its final pages, continua moves to an almost imagistic simplicity of utterance, each page floating just a few phrases or words; after all ‘(finally just you and me / and all this space)’. But the ‘no silence in the flow of breath and arms’ has been hard won from all that went before: a dance of syllable & syntax that seeks a kind of erotic rest after all. I like the way continua continually challenges its reader to step up & out.

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