Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Happinesswise - Jonathan Bennett (ECW Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Happinesswise.  Jonathan Bennett.  ECW Press.  Toronto, Ontario.  2018.

Happinesswise by Jonathan Bennett, ECW Press

Today's book of poetry is quite willing to enter Happinesswise as our next choice for the newest English word.  Why?  Because Jonathan Bennett says so.

Back in January of 2015, Today's book of poetry wrote about Jonathan Bennett's excellent Civil and Civic (ECW, 2011).  You can see that link below.

If Today's book of poetry had been in operation when Mr. Bennett wrote Here is my street, this tree I planted (ECW, 2004), we probably would have had something to say about that as well.  The truth is that Today's book of poetry just likes the way Bennett gets to things and once there, we like what he does.

Happinesswise is several books in one.  The first go round is about all sorts of universal themes, love, death, happiness, sorrow, and is played out among the hardware and antiseptic hallways of hospitals, the low moan of medication.

Bennett hails from Keene, Ontario.  Today's book of poetry has never lived there, but I did play hockey there as a young man.  Today's book of poetry grew up mostly in Peterborough, but, I will reveal that I spent some formative time in the great metropolis of Warsaw, Ontario.  All of that to say that Bennett makes us feel quite at home in the familiar landscape of our youth.

Patient No. 1

Do I? Admit to the neighbour I need help?
She'll offer impatience, weak Earl Grey.

So instead I admit myself, impatiently,
thrown into that timeworn, off-grey ward

whose Hospitalists chart my chest rattle.
I suffer no fear. I am the recipient

of patient-centered, evidence-based care.
This promise made to me all alone,

on a wipe-able poster that's reinforced
by a tenderly chosen stock photo paired

with a font inspired by Cezanne's cursive
I curse the machine drone, the urine sting,

the sour C. diff smell, the pump throb,
the infection control, latex-free signage.

Only last March, the lake icy, gin and tonics,
tinkling wind chimes, your still-beautiful clavicle.


I presented to the ER with severe pain
in my lower, well—does it really matter

where this began? Things have evolved.
Let's keep up, I say. But he taps my gut.

Read the chart, I bark. He does, mumbles
left flank, I am deemed incapacitated.

Last summer I was myself. That recently,
really, independent, with plans in place.

I golfed. Was a snow bird. I hear this,
my diminished life as a chart note,

a biography no one considered worthy—
is it ever too late for morbid thoughts?


You dear, are elsewhere, gone in that
peculiar way—off the wall, in a facility

with advanced dementia. At the lake
last summer your dress removed one

afternoon for no reason and we stared
at each other until we remembered

the way it was done, by us. That was the last
time our bodies knew their lines. The first?

Another century. Same lake. We giggled—
poke, poke, poke. The results

of investigations indicate—no wait for it,
I require a biopsy of the ilium lesion

for a definitive diagnosis, but a working
one: metastatic renal cell carcinoma.

It chisels into me, their grave tones,
but I joke, adding colourful grace notes—

they do not know, I know, the meaning.


Before a doctor dies he becomes a person—
mortality being a pre-requisite for death,

which occurs to me in a postscript thought.
My goals: pain relief, symptom control. Not curative.

I do not speak, but am understood by blinking coyly
at said plan. My son has arrived. He is a doctor too.

He has a new wife. Younger, a prototype
of the previous, more luxurious version.

Their language is useless here because
I still understand it, even if I can no longer—

The resident's mind is so fresh it's still setting.
What are the words for that thing I wish to pray?

I try say to him, and he leans in,
I try to whisper to him: Overdose me.

He looks aghast. Did I manage to make a sound?
He says, what I am about to share is going

to be difficult to hear. My son and the resident
are speaking. I am still, listening. The cancer.

Likely metastatic. Left kidney. Multiple locations.


My next steps are to determine I cannot walk.
My son's first steps—across the lichen at the lake.

Radiation might be an option for symptom control.
It is not a cure. They discuss goals for my care.

My son takes the news hard. He is emotional.
He is relying on his child-wife for comfort,

condolence. I use my eyes to indicate Kleenex
without meaning, it has the tone of reprimand.

Comfort is assured. Remembering questions
can be hard. Try to write them down.

Pain and symptom teams get involved
and former colleagues in Radiation

Oncology and Orthopedics are called upon.
Or maybe they are just visitors. They see

themselves in me. Smile. The first week
my agony begins to modestly improve,

I am told. I walk a length of the hospital
ward with much discomfort, I am told.

Options for care outside of the hospital
are discussed. I am told. I cannot return

home. I will not be cared for at my sons's
home—for a reason never addressed.

I wish to be reunited with my wife,
but I cannot speak. A social worker

I was routinely rude to intuits what
no one else can and applies for spousal

reunification on compassionated grounds.
I apologize to her all night.


The resident finished his rotation today.
Dictated, in all seriousness, into his small

machine final thoughts for his Palliative Care
Reflective Portfolio:

                                  The patient is optimistic
he might be discharged to his demented wife.


There is nothing like opening a book of poetry and feeling instantly at home.  Today's book of poetry only had to hear the brief mention of an Otonabee hill to be geographically settled.  That and the smell of hot oil and white vinegar that lets you know you are near a chip truck.  Mr. Bennett has that knack of hitting buttons.

Jonathan Bennett is interested, as the title suggests, in our search for happiness, but he is equally curious about the other result.

Bennett isn't afraid to let us in to the personal and a suite of poems about his autistic son is as jarring and sad as it is beautiful, hopeful and wise.  Bennett will find the joy when needed.

In Relief

Lately, he says lemon squares a lot
and at night with his service dog

hard pressed to him, he admits worries:
I don't know what I'm supposed to do.

Where am I supposed to be right now?
Sleep wind. His oscillating fan is Larry.

There is an entire imaginary world
that he develops alongside this one.

It's a logical realm that makes sense,
 a refuge from fluorescent bulb flicker

and persistent AdeleMaroon5Bieber
folded into every wrinkle of existence.

He asks: Do cyclops blink or wink?
We laugh and I ask him to tell me

the riddle of Theseus's ship again
because I can't get enough of him

charting his way through a paradox.
And to hear him argue the case

for Bigfoot is to doubt everything
you thought was true in the universe.

Not a day goes by that I don't ask
what the word he just used means.

Lately, he says lemon squares a lot.
I know why he adores Coltrane and Dali.

Somewhere in his new world a city
is being mapped and named and whole

boroughs intricately sketched,
creatures are homed, or else they war.

All this while he thinks of a video game,
turns over some science he's trying

to solve, and four or five others, unrelated
items in a simultaneous, asynchronous

moment that we partly share, he and I
laughing at the bat of a cyclopean eye.


Today's book of poetry just wants to remind our dear readers that we are not a service for reviews, exactly.  Today's book of poetry functions as an appreciation society.  Our purpose is not to devine the nuts and bolts of literature, but to share our joy in poetry.

Our morning read was held in the office, as it almost always is, but this morning's poetry office was a quiet place.  All our guests have scattered back to their points of departure.  Hilary and Daemon are back in Toronto, Cranky Eric is back in school.  Erica will undoubtedly be either sleeping, reading or in class.  Stephen, our darling K's father, will be on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic when you are reading this.  Where Freida, Tomas, Thomas, Maggie, Pistol and Lucy are is anyone's guess.

Luckily Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, dependable as ever, was able to check the stacks and bring out the previously mentioned Civil and Civic, and our copy of Here is my street, this tree I planted (just an aside, but Today's book of poetry loves this title so much).  This morning's read became a Bennetthon.

Unassumed Road

That day we lost the hound down the way,
watched it bound tongue-slack, freedom-struck
beyond the yellow wood and lichen-crusted
boulders of pink shield rock and undergrowth.
That day we took chances, pressed on.
That day made no difference, even as you
plunged into a field of bemused heifers,
cursing all dogs, as it rolled in steaming dung.

That day we bushwhacked calling its name,
calling it names, until it returned
with a meaty bone that looked like a rib.
A last laugh that day, when glibly
you said, the person who nailed the sign
This Road is Unassumed, has trust issues.


Today's book of poetry wanted to send a shout-out to our painter friend Blair Sharpe.  He's been living his own set of poems lately and we appreciate all he's done for us here at Today's book of poetry.

We all need good examples in this life.  Jonathan Bennett's Happinesswise is a fine poetry example.

Our friend Blair, just a fine example.

Image result for jonathan bennett poet photo

Jonathan Bennett

Jonathan Bennett is a poet and novelist. He is the author of seven books, the most recent of which is the book of poems Happinesswise (ECW Press, 2018). His previous work includes the critically acclaimed novels, The Colonial Hotel, Entitlement and After Battersea Park, along with two collections of poetry, Civil and Civic, and Here is my street, this tree I planted, and a collection of short stories, Verandah People, which was runner up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Jonathan is a winner of the K.M. Hunter Artists’ Award in Literature.

Jonathan Bennett’s other writing has appeared in many periodicals and journals including: the Globe and Mail, Best Canadian Poetry, The Walrus, Southerly, Cordite, and Antipodes. Born in Vancouver, raised in Sydney, Australia, Jonathan lives near Peterborough, Ontario.

“Bennett’s artistry lies in his ability to create poems that shatter complacency with bricks of loaded language.” — Quill & Quire on Civil and Civic



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Defense of the Idol - Omar Cáceres, translated by Mónica de la Torre (Ugly Duckling Presse)

Today's book of poetry:
Defense of the Idol.    Omar Cáceres.  Translated by Mónica de la Torre.  Ugly Duckling Presse.  Lost Literature Series #23.  Brooklyn, New York.

Defense of the Idol

"Outside your window poetry crosses the universe like a lightning bolt."  - Vicente Huidobro 

"The trees are drunk."  - Omar Cáceres

Chilean poet Omar Cáceres was assassinated in Renca, Chile in 1943.  He was a member of the Communist Party.  Cáceres  believed that his poetry was an attempt to translate the honest feelings of his soul.

When Defense of the Idol was first published Cáceres was furious.  Apparently there were so many typos that the enraged Cáceres burned all but two copies of the original book.  We can thank Ugly Duckling Presse for bringing his work to light and for the beautiful cover designed by Andrew Bourne - it is very faithful to the original design of Defense of the Idol which was originally published, in Spanish, as Defensa del Idolo (Santiago, Chile: Imprenta Norma, 1934).

Today's book of poetry was leery about posting poetry from so long ago.  The need to stay current and all that.  But when we talked to Stuart Ross, our poetry guru/editor and dear friend, he suggested that it was necessary to write about Cáceres so that an entirely new generation of readers could discover him.

Vicente Huidobro, who wrote the introduction to Defense of the Idol gives us proper serious direction, opens the door to Cáceres.  Huidobro wrote "Because the poems by great poets manifest an era's inner currents better than anything else, and because the concerns of an era's highest spirits can only be glimpsed through poetry."


   The trees are drunk, from nocturnal lights,
and they drag their shadows, nervous and stiff.

   Their shadows, strangling the night's winds,
shelter and rattle me, as if I were a bird.

   And my steps echo in their black boughs,
and the weakest hooks fill me with vertigo;

yet when I cast my eye on them from another, simpler pair,
they respond, swaying, that they remained intact...

   The leaves, dilating the communal shadows,
return like ruined boats to their tree.

   They cannot, oh, attain the solid banks
that the tips of heavenly bodies announce from above,

yet thick with silence they plow, quivering
through deep and frozen ponds of miracle.

   And in the nocturnal trees embracing the earth,
I find oblivion and mercy, when in despair,

while the light runs down their boughs,
thin, diaphanous...LIKE WATER BETWEEN MY HANDS!


These poems, almost one hundred years old, feel entirely contemporary, modern, crisp.  Omar Cáceres was crystal clear about his intentions.  Defense of the Idol contains an essay of sorts as an end piece titled "I, Old and New Words."  In this brief essay Omar Cáceres outlines how and why he writes.  Here's a brief quote:
     "Thus, I didn't write, as I said to a poet one day, "guided by the desire to WRITE LITERATURE,        such a common affectation in this land, but rather following irresistible urges: the need to define,        by expressing them, my inner states of being and the TRUE situation of my I in space and                    time...""

Fickle Oracle

   Stellar reprieve drunk on superior breaths,
forehead blue from weariness, from hurrying its double life;
double down on the staggering night and give me that clear strength,
streamer of your bones!

   Hoisting its lung of ash, moon,
softly intertwined between the two of us;
sleep splattering from my body—wait for me:
together we will tread the solitude through which I've opened
a new way out to things.

   Led to the buttress of your solid thirst,
(headdress of frail waves, distressed hips),
the meteorite of your body sets the seasons,
from the empty arc of its skin.


Our morning read was a rather spectacular spectacle.  We had guests galore this week, and as usual we made them all read.  K's father is visiting from Victoria, Otis showed up all smart and sleek, Kena came with Tomas and Freida and then, what do you know, Azaad walked in.  Today's book of poetry gave them the spiel, if they are here, they must read - and read they did.

Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, thought it was one of the better offices reading we've ever had.  Omar 
Cáceres gets the blame.

And in the spirit of poetry Today's book of poetry has a few people to say hey to.  Jim Wick, our Vermont poetry friend, helped to arrange the purchase of a small, but excellent poetry library.  And he went way out of his way to do it.  We will be grateful for ever.  Pearl Pirie was visiting last week with her find husband Brian.  She had some poetry books to drop off.  Our offices have become that place where people take the poetry the can no longer handle.  We've had to build more shelves.

Words to a Mirror

   Brother, you, I will never comprehend;
I see in you such a deep and eerie fatalism,
you could as well be the eye of the Abyss,
or a tear shed by Death, already dead.

   Without moving, in my hands, the world you seize
with the mute stupor of a deep outburst
and stone-faced you say: "know yourself,"
as if at some point my belief in you could cease!...

   For its sky-like depth, how sweet is your sense;
nobody stops loving you, each afflicted countenance
pours its bitterness onto your clear source.

   Tell me, who sleepless perpetually stays,
has some naked soul, upon its body's decay,
ever approached you, to meets its face?


Today's book of poetry was very pleased to be able to introduce you readers to Omar 
Cáceres.  Clearly the Chile was a hot bed of excellent poetry, Pablo Neruda was born the same year as Omar Cáceres, 1904.  My favourite Chilean poet, Nicanor Parra was born ten years later, 1914.  

Mónica de la Torre has opened up a new world for Today's book of poetry. Translators rarely get the attention or appreciation they deserve so we'd like to throw a big Today's book of poetry "Hey" in her direction.

Omar Cáceres was a new discovery for Today's book of poetry.  But we will remember him now and hopefully you will too.  Larga vida Omar Cáceres.

Image result for omar caceres

Omar Cáceres 

Omar Cáceres (b. 1904) was a cult poet in the Chilean avant-garde. He published one book of poetry, Defense of the Idol (1934), with an introduction by Vicente Huidobro, of which only two copies survived after Cáceres tried to burn the entire print run upon publication due to the edition's numerous typos. He had ties with the Communist Party, and according to poet Jorge Teillier, played the violin in an orchestra of the blind. He was murdered by unknown assailants in 1943.

Mónica de la Torre is the author of six books of poetry, including The Happy End/All Welcome(UDP) and Feliz año nuevo, a volume of selected poetry published in Spain (Luces de Gálibo). Born and raised in Mexico City, she writes in, and translates into, Spanish and English. She teaches in the Literary Arts program at Brown University.

Mónica de la Torre

Mónica de la Torre
Photo: Bruce Pearson


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.



Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Bec & Call - Jenna Lyn Albert (Nightwood Editions)

Today's book of poetry:
Bec & Call.  Jenna Lyn Albert.  Nightwood Editions.  Gibsons, British Columbia.  2018.

Jenna Lyn Albert is going to blow the lid off of it all.  Today's book of poetry is sending out our crack team of researchers, we want to confirm Albert's birthplace, birth date.  Why?  These are otherworldly poems of screech and joy.  

We love this stuff.

Bec & Call has just the right amount of brio and just the right portion of brash.

Actually we suspect that Albert might buckle and baulk at both "brio" and "brash."  Both wildly insufficient words - so Today's book of poetry will try again.  Jeanna Lyn Albert's Bec & Call is beautifully raw and raggedly precise.  These are gems cut from rough stuff and Today's book of poetry couldn't be happier.

One and Only: A One-Night Stand

I cabbed over to your bachelor, hair braided and in a low-cut
black dress without the emotional support of a bra, wind-
shield wipers pleating November rain like a ballerina skirt.
You paid my fare when I got there, glowering from behind
thick-rimmed glasses as I took my time getting out.

Janis Joplin called Pigpen "Daddy," but it doesn't sit right
with me. I'd barely made it through the door before you
thumbed my thong to the freshly-shaved bikini line, using
a wet finger like a weather vane to test the direction this
was going, canoodling my mouth inelegantly: tongue al dente.

We got as far as the couch—did you even own a proper bed?—
my swollen tonsils fighting against your hand at my throat
(we'd established choke-play as okay) but my stomach rolled
as ferociously as my eyes when you called me your little slut.
I returned the insult with insolence and you red-handed my ass.

We talked about your job afterword's, how you got to Freddy,
my Santa Sangre lipstick matted into your stubble, your pores
like dried blood from a shoddy shave job. I forgot my cardigan,
you'd said, and I forgot your number on the cab ride home,
avoiding eye contact with the same driver who'd driven me over.


Jenna Lyn Albert simply doesn't care, she'll say the fearless thing and then back up her play.  Our morning read was hysterical.  Not only does Albert's Bec & Call cut the heads off of some chickens, she barn dances 'em right into the pan.

Today's book of poetry simply loved how much fun Albert has in these poems, and you will too.  Deadly, heart-wrenching, and funny like Red Skelton's Clem Kadiddlehopper.  Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, just asked me who Red Skelton was.  Kathryn is now glued to You Tube watching old bits with Clem.

So, funny like Robin Williams, if he were an Acadian feminist poet.

Today's book of poetry wants to quote Zoe Whittall's blurb from the back of Bec & Call, where she simply states "I love these poems."  Because Whittall echoes our own sentiments exactly.  In our office we always do a blind taste test with books that knock us out.  Bec & Call scored abnormally high on our test.

There have been many fine poets to come out of New Brunswick, remember this is the province that gave us Sir Alden the Nowlan.  Gallant knight of the poetry realm.  But Albert just might be the best thing to come out of New Brunswick since.  She's dirty witty and some smart.

Bec & Call

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir? Non, merci.
Note to self: abstain from sharing French origins
with men at Dolan's or Callaghan's or Cougar's—
any dive bar this far from Kouchibouguac. Shediac.
Bouctouche. This much I can deduce. Yes, my lips
are the colour of cabernet: sashay away. I'm throwing
enough shade to eclipse Jupiter's moons. I will drop
you like Pluto's relationship status: Solar. Sole. Single.

Ask me if I can French kiss and I'll flood your mouth
with marmalade. Memere always had Crosby's fancy
molasses in the cupboard despite years of factory-floor
labour. Arthritic hands squeeze Honey Bear nectar
into my little bird mouth. Ask me again, and I'll regurgitate
thick, brown sugar down your throat until it overflows.
Blackstrap is rich, snarky syrup. Kiss and tell yourself
that it's mutual. Mutiny. You were never any good
at differentiating desire from just plain fucking tired.

The women's washroom is stained chatterbox pink,
suckulent scarlet, lewd lavender. The contoured
impressions of pursed lips pressed to Winter White
Benjamin Moore paint are more artful than the Sharpied
proverbs customary of bathroom stalls. I study the curves 
of each kiss: Cupid's bows bent with pouts flavoured
like circus concessions. Bubble gum. Cotton candy.
The artificial cherry syrup pumped over snow cones.


Today's book of poetry does not share Jenna Lyn Albert's fascination with cats, we would argue that only a superior skill set (along with Jenn Huzera like tolerance) could carry a feline to the end of a poem and still have my attention.  But damn it all anyway, Albert catnipped Today's book of poetry with her poetry wiles.

Albert arrives fully formed and boiling over.  These are energetic poems full of colour and cynical contempt.  They are also flavoured with candy floss lipstick and kisses so hard your lips will bleed, and the smell of the sea will seep into your brain, and not always the good smell.

Hors D'oeuvres

Cream cheese and maraschino cherry pinwheels add
colour to the reception platter, pyramid-piled amid
tuna and egg salad sandwiches, pates spread on
"wholesome" whole wheat bread, crustlessly cut
into squares as small as this church basement feels.
Clear plastic cups and cutlery start off the banquet
table, fruit punch and soda tie-dying the white
tablecloth—the drops of juice blooming on cotton
like sympathy flowers. A great-auntie, or is that 
a cousin, butts in line to grab a napkin, feigning
obliviousness, like the driver who merged into our
funeral procession, a deer in hazard lights turning
tail as soon as possible and failing to be inconspicuous.
Under fluorescent lighting, Dad's flask gleams
discernibly and no sermon'll guilt him today: an open
casket warrants an open bar, in his opinion, and I'm
hard-pressed to disagree. We're all brought into this
world with finger foods and it's how we'll all go out.


If books like this Bec & Call bundle of miscreant joy arrived at Today's book of poetry every day our job would be a lot easier.

Like Zoe Whittal loves these poem, Today's book of poetry loves these poems.  So does Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, Maggie, our new intern, loves these poems.  Freida and Tomas visited today and loved these poems.

Jenna Lyn Albert is going on our list.

Image result for jenna lyn albert photo

Jenna Lyn Albert

Jenna Lyn Albert is a poet of Acadian decent and a recent graduate in creative writing from the University of New Brunswick. Her writing has appeared in The Malahat Review, Riddle Fence and The Puritan. Albert lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where she is an editorial assistant at The Fiddlehead and poetry editor of Qwerty.

"I love these poems."
     - Zoe Whittall

Bec & Call's elliptical contemplations are both almanac and road map for contemporary New Brunswick. Albert is eyes open in her search for raw experience, buried light.
     - Tammy Armstrong


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Cairn - New and Selected — Peggy Shumaker (Red Hen Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Cairn - New and Selected.  Peggy Shumaker.  Red Hen Press.  Pasadena, California.  2018.

Perhaps there is no better time than now to look at the very considered poetry of Peggy Shumaker.  Shumaker, as Keven Clark says in his introduction to Cairn - New and Selected, that Shumaker has "a need for inclusion and affection."  Today's book of poetry felt exactly that after reading Cairn.  We did feel included by the instantly accessible poetry of Shumaker; and we certainly felt a great affection by the time we got to the end of Cairn, all four-hundred pages.

Today's book of poetry wanted to write about  Peggy Shumaker because of her apparent need for joy.  She comes by it honesty, the need for joy.  Maybe that is the search we all need most, the need for joy.  Today's book of poetry guesses there might be some prose in Cairn but we're not certain, it all seemed poetic to us.  The prose-poems sound just like poems should when read aloud.   

Peggy Shumaker comes by her chops honestly and they are cherse.  These are poems that want to find that warm space between people, they strive to create community.  And to hold back chaos.

Owls' Cough Balls

Snake season—we bushwhack
sneezing past bobbling quail

start the unoiled windmill whir of
Inca doves

feigning wounds to draw us past
chicks and nest.

Globemallow, pinkeye bush,
childhood legends, lesions,

fears grown up with us—don't touch—stay
other, safe, apart. Mummy Mountain,

steep hillside named for the wrapped
and embalmed, the body hot

in its sarcophagus, graven
images outside of the idealized

ruler, divine, not guessing.
The soul sure for once—

this earth dances, palo verde
delirious yellow dances

blue-banded lizards skitter, waxy purple
petals on the prickly pear

samba their brief lives in splendor
then make way for ripe fruit.

Ocotillo for its cool day tangos
lush, abundant

stiff leaves secure
among thorns,

graceful droop of the sexual
blossoms, flamboyant

for their moment, this morning.
Foxtails' fine plum brushes

stroke, poke through to bare skin
skin still harboring

early morning chill of the snake nest,
coyote den, the burrows

of ground squirrels, the refuge
all creatures born of this earth

return to. Abandoned
radio spires

pick up signals
beyond our ken. Wiry

perches for three harbingers
among the spatters—screech owl

cough up
what they can't digest—

minute molars, half a skull,
femur and pelvis

mashed together, mangled
matted among clumps

of rodents' coats
of many colors

dried fur binding
this new body, matter

immobile, but filled
with stories,

left over.


The reader gets the feeling that Peggy Shumaker is a woman with great patience, and the experience to back it up.  From the start, Shumaker's poems have had the relaxed pace of a good story-teller.  These poems resist urgency and fill up that space with necessary inquiry.

Shumaker's poems are very essential in a world where truth is suspect and lies the great rhetoric of the powerful.  Shumaker says it all in her poem "Anyone Who Comes Here Must Be Transformed" when she says:

          ...you refine
          loss's life-giving

          how to keep love

There is a certain type of bravery involved, Shumaker is fearless to be sure, when you are laying it all bare and searching for the best of us.

A Meditation

Come closer. Ask your foot to widen
as it meets the floor.

Ask twin handrails
to lead you on.

Flirt. Play
with your food.

Be hands-on
with your love.

Touch your tongue
to your teeth, fire pose.

Breathe in
Breathe out.

until language remembers you,

until words bask in your light.


Reading Cairn - New and Selected Today's book of poetry was happy to discover that Shumaker is a big believer in grace and honour and spends considerable time searching it out with these poems.  One of the ways Shumaker searches is by sharing.  

Shumaker writes about nature with both awe and simplicity.  Shumaker is trying, constantly, for the hardest thing a poet can do:  she is trying to be true.

Today's book of poetry will argue that Shumaker is totally successful.

Sand Rubies

The best treasure came to us mostly after rain, when the arroyo
rearranged itself to suit the wet. We'd have to kneel at least, or
sit quietly for a long time. This meditation turned us into vi-
sionaries, ones who could see what lay buried not far beneath.
Red glints, stones precious because they disappeared. Sand
rubies.  Deep red and transparent one moment, flecks diving
out of sight the next.  In this way, we learned to savor what is
always there, especially when we can't see it.  In this way we
learned to love ephemera: the sand of the ancient ocean, this
earth, this life, everything loaned for a brief time to us.


Our morning read was splendid.  Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, took a real shine to Peggy Shumaker, and why wouldn't she?  Cairn is a massive collection with nary a let down moment.  This morning's reading was a real pleasure for both the readers and the listeners.  Cairn lent itself to reading aloud because Shumaker imbues a calm and certain assurance to the reader.  These are journeys you are going to enjoy, be enriched by.  You can be a friend and follow.

Cairn - New and Selected is exactly what Today's book of poetry wants from a book of poetry; beautifully true and intellectually fulfilling (if Today's book of poetry can say such a thing), and emotionally satisfying.  Nothing simple about Peggy Shumaker's poetry, anyone who says so can't read.

That's the whole can of soup.

Image result for peggy shumaker photo

Peggy Shumaker
Photo: Cybela Knowles

Peggy Shumaker is the daughter of two deserts—the Sonoran Desert where she grew up and the subarctic desert of interior Alaska where she lives now. Shumaker was honored by the Rasmuson Foundation as its Distinguished Artist. She serves as Alaska State Writer Laureate. She received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Shumaker is the author of eight books of poetry, including Cairn, her new and selected volume. Her lyrical manner is Just Breathe Normally. Professor emerita from University of Alaska Fairbanks, Shumaker teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA at Pacific Lutheran University. She serves on the advisory board for Storyknife and on the board of the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation. Shumaker is editor of the Boreal Books series (an imprint of Red Hen Press), editor of the Alaska Literary Series at University of Alaska Press, poetry editor of Persimmon Tree, and contributing editor for Alaska Quarterly Review.  Please visit her website at www.peggyshumaker.com.

Peggy Shumaker
at Boston Court/Pasadena
Video:  Poetry.LA


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Thin Air of the Knowable — Wendy Donawa (Brick Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Thin Air of the Knowable.  Wendy Donawa.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  2017.

Oh Thank You, thank you, thank you, Wendy Donawa.  The spirit of St. Earle of Birney is alive and well and kicking in Canadian poetry and Wendy Donawa has made it so.  Listen to this:

          crenellated sawback
          dogtooth, lace—
          pouring scree down cross-hatched gullies,
          sending shale, sandstone, limestone,
          spilling this chert, cousin to flint, to chalcedony.
          And slate—shale's bastard progeny—fine-grained,
          foliated, its fossils' traces
          measuring Earth's time scales.

                                                     from "Stone's Deep Accord, Its Steady Presence"

You'd almost think big Earle was standing behind her dictating magic through a tall angels breath.  And this is not to suggest in any way that Ms. Donawa is anything but original, in a day when it is hard to do so.  And she's not borrowing diddly from Sir Earle, but Thin Air of the Knowable will remind you that giants and their ghosts still roam, we can hear them whisper when we can incant their names.

And then, in her poem "Travelling Light" Donawa invokes the voice of the graceful, subtle and wise  Phyllis Webb's "Wilson's Bowl."  Turn the page, put your foot on the gas and all of a sudden you are neck deep in "Coming Down Through Rockfall" and you realize you could be under the pen of Patrick Lane, maybe even a gentler Peter Trower, Lorna Crozier too.

On My Bedroom Window, Frost Flowers

Chunter and clunk from the basement
where my father stoked the morning furnace
by the concrete laundry tub, the coal bin.
The old house coughed up lukewarm air
through baseboard's metal grates,
I dressed fast,
             cold toes clenched on colder lino.
             On my bedroom window, frost flowers.

After school that day
chrysanthemums tapped frozen heads
against the fence
where I leaned my bike.

I let myself in, groped
in the darkening kitchen, blowing
on red knuckles, when,
just perceptibly, the house groaned,
gathered and puckered the air like
skin on scalded milk, like
hair prickling my neck.

Only my father, home early still
overcoated in the desolate front room,
moaning.  My brother dead these six weeks, I 
slammed the cocoa tin down
hard as anything and 
lit the fire.

Odd to find the old place still there.
It stands quiet in the dusk; it seems smaller,
its sensible brown shingles now a heritage palette
of caramel, cobalt, plum,
liquefying through a scrim of mist,
and the first lights coming on.


Why is Today's book of poetry seeing all these great Canadian poets?  Because Wendy Donawa evokes memories of the poems we love best, there is an old time elegant wisdom inside this musical voice.  It's that we've heard songs like these from voices we looked up to, learned from.

Today's book of poetry wants to draw attention to every line on Donawa's "Time is Enough."  Donawa draws these poems right out of the earth beneath her feet.

Time is Enough

                   Time is enough, more than enough, and matter multiple and given.
                                     — Annie Dillard, "Newborn and Salted"

Time arrested, the nutty kernel secret in its shell.
And prairie burrow, either trap or haven.
Perhaps the marrow, soft and fatty in its boney cavities?
Or should I say, the spikey peach pit of the stalled heart?
Stasis, something diminished, but still
                                     time is enough, more than enough.

The coiled fiddlehead unfurls, glaciers melt and
hurtle down riverbeds, a child's soft weight
turns to bone and sinew and denial, and we transport
the day's gleamings into night:
those astonishments of sorrow, of joy.

In the brown shallows at the lake's edge,
three ancient pickerel—as long as my arm!—
scraped their bellies on smooth stones.
Slow arching backs, fins signalling out of water,
a lolling pod of miniature breaching whales.
Their languid progress through bright air,
dappled water, lattice of branch and root,
                                    and matter multiple and given.


This morning's reading was a quieter affair than the norm for two reasons; half our usual gang were at large and Wendy Donawa's poems are quietly insistent.  Maggie, our newest intern, has been strangely absent for the past few days.  Kathryn and Milo, our Jr. Editor and Senior Tech, apparently have foot and mouth disease but it could also be foot in mouth.  I called their doctor, Dr. Vinnie Boombauts, and he denied knowing both of them, by name.

Today's book of poetry cannot adequately cover all the ground Donawa's Thin Air of the Knowable tracks over.  Cancer raises its villainous head in Thin Air of the Knowable, so does treaty rights, feeding pots and Schrodinger's cat and all the while Daedalus is watching as Icarus shrugs himself into the sea.  David Blackwood and Rip van Winkle conspire.  All the while Wendy Donawa comports herself with class, finds the story, rips out the poem, and shares the landscape.

Consider the Heart and its Breaking

A hollow fist-sized muscle, an incessant
knock on the door of our lives—
whether in love or terror,
ennui or tranquility.
Its receiving galleries set the beat of our breath,
our passion's pulse and cling,
and the long sleep after.

Buddhists have one word for heart-mind.

Mammals, we have fully divided hearts, two pumps.
Fully divided. We know this well:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,
says the Book. But with heartbreak our two-ness splits, falls apart,

our woe bypasses reason, hijacks self-respect,
leaks through Vivaldi's adagios and the radio's hurtin' songs,
sobs abjectly.

Heartbreak, intransitive, parses the body,
puts on old clothes I thought had gone to Oxfam.

Longing's soundscape is ecstasy's simulacrum;
its cadence moaning oh, oh, oh,
and stretching vowels: alienate, ache, crave.

Consider whales' hearts, car-sized.
You could somersault in them.
How to imagine their unfathomable longing;
the massive adagio of their briny lust
must roll down ocean trenches,

cross latitudes,
fill the abyss.

Envy the hummingbird the tiny berry of its savage heart.


Today's book of poetry was entirely enthralled by Wendy Donawa's excellent Thin Air of the Knowable.  We suggest reading these poems out loud with the person you love most.

Image result for wendy donawa photo

Wendy Donawa

Wendy Donawa, formerly a museum curator and academic in Barbados, now lives on the West Coast and participates in Victoria’s vibrant poetry scene. Her poems have appeared in anthologies, magazines, and online publications across Canada. She was a finalist in The Malahat Review’s 2013 Open Season Competition, and in 2015 she was runner-up in the inaugural Cedric Literary Awards. She has published three chapbooks, Sliding Towards Equinox (Rubicon Press, 2009), Those Astonishments of Sorrow, of Joy (Leaf Press, 2012) and The Gorge: A Cartography of Sorrows (JackPine Press, 2016). Thin Air of the Knowable is her first collection.

“Wendy Donawa’s poetry rests at the very edge of beauty where a wild delicacy resides.” 
     —Patrick Lane

“Like the watchmakers of old, Wendy Donawa puts a spyglass to her eye and fixes her vision to the minute, to all that carries on beneath our imperfect sight—worlds upon worlds brought into the sharpest focus.” 
     —Pamela Porter

Wendy Donawa
Reads from Thin Air of the Knowable
Video:  Brick Books

Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.