Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ocean - Sue Goyette

Today's book of poetry:  Ocean.  Sue Goyette.  Gaspereau Press.  Kentville, Nova Scotia.  2013.

As with most Gaspereau press books, Ocean by Sue Goyette is visually and esthetically beautiful.  Andrew Steeves and Gary Dunfield do superb production and design work.  And rightly so - poetry this good should be celebrated with excellence of craft.


Halifax, once the capital of the medieval fog trade,
still has its ancient fog-making bellows.  These bellows

look like cannons which explains the unfortunate
misunderstanding all those centuries ago between

the fog workers and the Haligonian shadow sculptors.
The dispute lasted for years and, often at dusk,

there'd be a showdown that resulted in barroom brawls
and heartbreak.  One dark November, there was a shortage

of shadows and only gasps of fog left.  Street vendors
sold cheap imitations, throwing cups of tea at people's feet

and declaring the wet street their new shadow.
Unfortunately, these shadows were steadfast which defied

the real purpose of nomadic darkness.  Replicas of fog
were easier to spot.  Men often glued cotton on sticks

or stood, arms outstretched, billowing out white sheets.
When they moved, they'd move slowly as if rolling in

from the ocean.  This did create jobs but also elicited catcalls
and debauchery from their women.  Real shadows were made

across the harbour back then, in Dartmouth.  The refinery
still stands and ancestors of lurking shadows gone feral

can still be seen in its parking lot and across the street
in Value Village.  Value Village isn't a real village

but a metropolis of used clothing where fog stitched into
the hems and sleeves of old raincoats can still be found.

This is the unspoken history of our city.  Fog was responsible
for many marriages and, consequently when it lifted,

many in-laws.


Ocean makes for stunning reading.  Goyette is profoundly playful throughout this collection but she is never underestimating the intelligence of her readers, these are deep laughs, deep thoughts.  It's no surprise that Goyette has won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, the Atlantic Poetry Prize, the CBC Literary Prize for Poetry, the Earle Birney Prize, the Bliss Carman Award, and has been short listed for the Governor-General's Literary Award.  It is rare enough to win any of these accolades, to have them all bestowed on Goyette puts her in intimidating territory.

But Goyette is never stuffy or too literary, these poems wrestle the reader into a slightly altered reality, it is a smooth transition as Goyette is in complete control.  With Ocean, Sue Goyette is at the height of her formidable talent.


It acted like it had something
to say.  We'd find trunks of broken

wine glasses, crab claws poised to attack
whatever had pulled them apart.  We were truly

bewildered.  Some of us were dreaming
of the same old crone who begged us to bend

and untangle her memories.  Some of us worked
at jobs that involved filing complaints

about noise in the same cabinet as proposed
ideas for a better city.  We had only just begun

to put leashes on things that had resisted
being caught.  In this way, we muzzled

our concerns and decided to turn on lighs
before it got dark.  We spent many hours

learning to sing with the open throats
of lilies.  But we were restless.  The crone

in our dreams cackled at our impatience
and started a fire in the kitchens of our childhoods.

We'd wake up smelling smoke and longing to be held
by our bedtimes again.  We ate copious amounts

of shadows cast by heritage buildings.  There was a safety
in numbers but no one wanted to head in the same

directions.  We were alone, the way the ocean was alone
and briefly we understood why it couldn't find the right words

for what it wanted to say and why it kept trying.


Ocean is a biopic intrusion into the great deep.  A conversation with waves.  Ocean is an urban legend you don't know yet, a discussion between currents and the shifting tide.


Filmmakers had started making films of the ocean
in 3D.  Scratch and sniff coastal cards were sold

at lottery booths.  Material for dresses was cut with the froth
of tide in mind.  We had wanted the ocean to be the new

flavour, the new sound.  We'd drive for miles to get a glimpse
of it because, let's face it, it revitalized the part of us

we kept rooting for, that apple seed of energy that defied
multiple choice career options.  The ocean had egged the best part

of us on.  And it scared us.  We never knew what it was thinking
and spent thousands on specialists who could make predictions.

And the predictions always required hard hats and building permits,
furrowed eyebrows and downward trends.  Why is it so hard

to trust something that leaps, disappears and then reappears
spouting more light?  When had our hearts become badly behaved

dogs we had to keep the screen door closed to?  Have you ever run
along its shore, the pant of it coming closer?  And that feeling

that yipped inside you, the Ginger Rogers of your feet, your ability
to not get caught then, yes, get soaked.  Didn't you feel like it was

part of your pack?  When it whistled, whatever it is in you
that defies being named, didn't that part of you perk up?

And didn't you let it tousle you to the ground,
let it clean between your ears before it left you?

Wasn't that all right?  That it left you?  That we all will?


Goyette is being playful when she amorphizes the ocean until the reader is cast adrift in a brave new world.  As a reader of poetry and a lover of that world I am ever so grateful that it has such creatures in it as Goyette.

Ocean was a privilege to read, Sue Goyette gets to take a deep, deep bow for this one.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Lease - Mathew Henderson

Today's book of poetry:  The Lease.  Mathew Henderson.  Coach House Press.  Toronto, Ontario.  2012.

The first couple of weeks of this blog, I was writing about books from my own collection, books I had gone to bookstores and purchased.  Since then I've been writing about books that a number of incredibly generous small presses from all across Canada have been sending me.

The Lease by Mathew Henderson did not arrive via Coach House Press but came to me through the Toronto poet and publisher Bardia Sinaee.  Bardia is less than half my age and twice as smart as me which is a little irritating but he is a great friend if you love poetry.  If Bardia wants me to read something, I'm in.

So, The Lease, by Mathew Henderson.  Bardia was right, again.  One of the cover blurbs by Linda Besner, author of The Id Kid, said this about Henderson's book:

     The scale of Henderson's almost hallucinatory rendering of work in
     Saskatchewan's oilfields is as small as the moths that circle the flares
     and as cosmic as the industry's effects.  The Lease crackles with
     perfectly pitched alarm at what human dominion does to our

First Day

Everyone can tell that you're a virgin,
that when your shot came, you were too full
of rum to do anything but bully your dick
into a condom and watch it cower.
And when Rachel said, Fuck me, you didn't,
couldn't, but shucked the Trojan to the floor
of Brian's cottage where the girls would
find it later, make you go and pick it up.

They know all right.  They see it in the way
you wrench, the way you tie your boots,
but they say nothing, hammering harder
and harder, sound off for you
the hundreds they've taken to bed.


Henderson is savagely honest and crystal clear with every stroke of his pen.  These poems are beautiful and brutal.


You've long gone by now, but you hear
that there's a baby coming and flashback
to hugging her, chests together, hips apart.
The most you ever touched, but for a second
you wanted to fuck her; maybe wondered
more than wanted.  You worry the kid
is yours;  it seems like enough that you
stripped her down in your mind, down to
the desperate teen you thought you were
too good to want.  It seemed real enough
to leave a kid behind.  And there she is,
in this prairie house, away from anyone
who knows you both, and inside her
stomach, a flesh about to kick.
And it is feet and hands that grow in her,
or something as lustful and sad as empty
as its father and the way that it was made.


These poems are an eloquent valentine to the men who get dirt under their fingernails and the women who love and tolerate them.

These sad dramas make for joyously good poems at the deliberate and deft hands of Henderson.


Men lose their trucks in April, cave by May
and pump gas at ten an hour.  The snow melts,
the earth soaks to mud too thick for rigs to move.

The sky is a leaky roof and they dream of catching
rain in buckets.  Cocaine turns to codeine.
Cash bleeds out like a well.  Their clothes stink,
they eat the dollar menu, bitch about road bans.

Some even go to Lakeside, work the killing floor,
shave beef from bodies hung on hooks and belts.
Run the gun.  Avoid the eyes.  The single-filed flesh
of thousands sluices through the grated floor.
All until the sun batters the earth to grit again.


Mathew Henderson has come out swinging and announced his presence on the Canadian literary scene with authority.  These are fine, fine poems.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Teeth, untucked - Nicholas Papaxanthos

Today's book of poetry:  Teeth, untucked.  Nicholas Papaxanthos.  Proper Tales Press.  Cobourg, Ontario.  2011.

Dog's Ode to a Dead Starfish

Dead Starfish!

All dried up
and crumbly

like an extravagant


He's here!  A Canadian Brautigan.  Ok, he grew up in Lefko, Cyprus, but Nicholas Papaxanthos was born in Vancouver and has returned to the country of his birth.  Those of us who love poetry will be happy he's back.

Snug Survival


a snake

slit it

slip it


Papaxanthos is delightfully dark and has mastered that nebulous area between reality and surrealism, the world of what we imagine while exploring what is.

This tidy little chapbook published  by the ever industrious Stuart Ross and his iconic Proper Tales Press (formerly of Toronto, now out of Cobourg).  Aside from being a great poet himself, Ross has championed the work of many - Ron Padgett, Nelson Ball and Tom Walmsley to name but a few.  Ross has an astute eye and continues his excellent mentoring with this offering from Nicholas Papaxanthos.

Hopefully Papaxanthos' first offering Teeth, untucked is just the first volume in a large canon.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Alongside - Anne Compton

Today's book of poetry:  Alongside.  Anne Compton.  Fitzhenry & Whiteside.  Markham, Ontario.  2013.

"Reading, it seems, lessens the sorrow of being awake.
                                                              from Reading Around, Anne Compton

Anne Compton's newest collection Alongside continues the high standard of excellence that won her a Governor-General's Award and the Alden Nowlan Award for Excellence in English Language Literary Arts.

Seeing Things

From so simple a beginning endless forms...
most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
                                                            Charles Darwin

According to the physicists, the photoreceptors of the eye
have reached optimization:  Practically perfect, they can't
evolve further.  For what, you have to wonder, sight so keen?

With those good eyes, a woman's bound to notice beauty
when it enters a room, like I did that once and once is enough:

Photons of light blooming around you.  Bones so elegant,
they testify to the first or final forms of things.

A voice summoning me to the surface, to attention -

to see, you said, how we are, like a child, surrounded
and adored by what we behold.  Reciprocal fit.

I could say you were sent, opener-of-eyes.  Unforeseeable,
your going 'though with no diminution of the light.

A harmed child, I was gutted and intensified:  An attention

I can't let go, needing to name the beautiful in the least sprig.


Compton is so precise and yet always at ease, the poems feel more conversational than worked over, worked on, text.  Clearly there is much happening beneath the unruffled surface of these elegant poems.

The Biographer

A dark pond at the centre of the hub city.
The first ice that forms is always transparent -
a fleck-free window, revealing what's there,
way at the bottom.  You can lie at your length
on ice only an inch thick.  Its cold - a breastbone
away from the heart.  This I did, looking into him.


When Compton could be seen as terse she has such an accuracy of tone that she never sounds abrupt, never falters.  Every word in this work is deliberate as a surgeon's stitch.


What's more perverse than the paradoxical dressing
of the dead?  Hired men straightening your father's cuff.
Rouging up the omega absence - wide as a country pond -
settling on your mother's face.

If, by its mass, a body can warp time and space,
what can't the sensational spirit do, vacating ours,
bearing with it so much touching upon our senses?

It's an evolutionary truth, everything's made to fit
with something else:  The long-tongued moth matched
to the deep-throated flower.
                                             The nectary of their loves,
where we sipped sweet water, is need-by-design.


They take with them the last aromas of a room
voices held in the semicircular canal of the ear.
The precise weight of someone's hand on a limb,
translated with alar speed to some new language.

The waters above the heavens have been drained,
a boggy backwater, but the iconography of flight
still suits the landscape-emptiness left to us.

We try to keep them near, pretend they're present
while we eat the burial cakes.  When what's gone
is parcels of ourselves.  First thing mornings, the mind's
a vacant pond.  Its surface tension scumming over.


Anne Compton's poetry is a long way from my hero Charles Bukowski in almost every way imaginable - but to me, I hear the same clarity of the honest heart, the clear voice, searching to understand our world, our place in it.

Alongside is rife with one lovely poem after another, brimming with vibrant intelligence and wit.  My kind of book.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Bee Garden - Marilyn Gear Pilling

Today's book of poetry:  A Bee Garden.  Marilyn Gear Pilling.  Cormorant Books.  Markham, Ontario.  2013.

When I read the books of poetry for this blog I keep a note pad beside me and jot down the numbers of pages/poems I want to refer to.  It's a measure of sorts, I keep track of the poems that knock me out.  Marilyn Gear Pilling's A Bee Garden is, thus far, far and away winner of the opening salvo.  Ten or twelve poems into this collection and I've stopped and made notes on ten or elevens poems.  Astonishing.

After Kabul

She has never hung the sheets outside in winter
but she wants that waft of wind and sun and lingering
moon to meet him
when he enters their bedroom again
at last.  Two degrees in Sudbury that morning.
She dons her winter coat and wrestles the wet
sheets onto the line, her plan
to bring them in
before the mercury drops, to drape them on counters
until they're dry.  If they hold their scent,
she'll do it again next week,
on the day he's due home.

     They arrive in full dress uniform that very
     afternoon, three of them
     on her front porch, making it small,
     the porch of a child,
     a place she will never sit again.

That night, late, she steps outside.
The cold gnaws at her face and hands
and she offers it her bare arms too.
Clothes-pegs a welcome scrape on her knuckles.
She shoulders the icy, cracking sheets
through the door, into the dark kitchen.
They stand up, stiff, by themselves.
Odd, inhuman shapes.


One stunning excellent poem after another, like dominoes falling in a line.  Then, still early in the collection the reader encounters THRENODY FOR BETHANY, a suite of poems about a suicide in the family - this lament of ten poems is breathtaking.  Pilling is one hell of a poet.  This first poem of the suite hit like a sledge hammer to the stomach:

i  As His God Holds Him

The day my sister had to go to the farm to tell our
brother that his daughter had ended
her life, she had a hard time
getting him off of the place,
succeeded at last in taking him home,
bathed him herself in her big
tub but still his clothes
stank, she said, of rotten eggs and manure and
mouse droppings and the barn, smelled as if
they'd been worn and slept in,
worn and slept in.  We'd promised our mother
we'd look out for this son
who'd turned the world
away, but it's been my sister, mostly,
who's kept the vow.  A month later, I walk in
the long farm lane through deep snow
to visit him, this man who once
sired a family of five, provided, sang
at the piano with the rest of us, recited Shakespeare
'til the last log burned down.
When I've passed through the stench of the
outer porch, passed by the
unemptied chamber pot in the back
kitchen and slid open the door to the big
kitchen, I'm hit
by a wall of heat the wood
stove blazing one of the heavy lids off
above the hole his hand a mouse
he holds it by the tail it is not
dead its small feet
paw the shimmering air above
the flames.


The nine poems that follow in this suite sew a family's torment into such beautifully powerful poetry I had to stop and take a break.

The second half of the book, following a necessary intermission, is no let down.  Marilyn Gear Pilling is droll, deadpan and dead on.


I clean the hill half an hour from home
for my mother.  She left her eyes
to science, yet I can feel her
looking down on me
these past twelve years, feel
her desire to see me at last do honest
work, by which she meant work of the hands
and arms, work of the feet
and legs, work of the muscles and bones,
work in which the suspect
mind has no part.

On foot after lunch, off to the top of the long green
descent to lake, its path
studded by styrofoam, plastic, cardboard, metal.
The surprise - that I love the work.
Rush of blood to muscle.
Yin of bending, yang of straightening.
Over and over, the movement
from sullied to unsullied.
Slow merge of her desire with mine.


Pilling's work has garnered her numerous literary awards including Descant's "Best Canadian Poem".  I didn't bother looking to see which poem it was as I figured it could have been almost any poem of dozens in this collection.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Two O'Clock Creek (Poems New and Selected) - Bruce Hunter

Today's book of poetry:  Two O'Clock Creek (Poems New and Selected).  Bruce Hunter.  Oolichan Books.  Fernie, British Columbia.  2010.

I like sport metaphors.  Bruce Hunter, may he forgive me, fits perfectly into my NHL of poets.

Billy No Longer The Kid

mean and mouthy
tough man on the cemetery crew
going for low
but the dead and those nearly
the old guys don't care

at twenty
proud of the fact
he's hot shit on the backhoe
(you can tell by the way he wears his hat
CAT diesel, high off of his forehead)

neck red with more than sun
under the striped tank top
gut already roly
from too many lunchroom beers
at the U.A.W. hall

the other day
one tree in the entire place
he hits it in third gear
it takes two trucks
to pull the bucket from the trunk

Billy hatless
broken glasses and nose bloodied
old Carlos tells him
what he already knows
what's the hurry
you're gonna get here soon enough


Bruce Hunter is the Bob Gainey of Canadian poetry.  Hard, hard working, every time out you get his best, and his best is professional at the highest end of the spectrum.

Spring Opening - Lock Four

After hours
on the grass banks of the Welland.

Drinking Billy's whisky,
squinting at black-bottomed lakers
downbound out of Erie.
Glare of white funnels,
idle deck gantrys and radar's easy lope.

Six of them squat in the current
where the lazy willows fan.
Their sailors smoking at the rails
watching leggy women with cameras
on the lock walls.

When the siren goes, six horns sound
and a ship descends
like a toy boat in a drained bathtub.

Water spills from the sluice,
spring shipping opens
with the great iron gates.

The stack shudders,
pops a cloud of diesel
as the iron-loaded laker
pulls for Montreal.

Beside me, Billy tilts the empty bottle
stares through the long neck
as if we're all sailors
set on this plank of earth,
this side of the telescope,
drifting towards that one day
when we wish we were elsewhere.

One of the sailors sees us
and waves.  Billy blows across the bottle's neck,
like a ship's horn,
his eye ringed with whisky and spit.


This isn't Wayne Gretzky breaking scoring records or Christian Bok breaking language - these poems are those of a disciplined journeyman who makes everything real.  There is never a bad shift or a false move.  Hunter is always protecting the net.  Two O'Clock Creek is choice work, through and through.

Light Over Morning

The third floor of a flat
on Tyndell Avenue
after the final streetcar trundles in,
she rises like a blind sleepwalker
to sit naked at the piano.
Ovoids of white buttocks on the cool bench,
the slope of her shoulders,
soft works of light.
Her fingers roll deftly on the keys
while the neighbours below dream melodically.

Her man sleeps
somewhere across the city.
An old story, a woman:
he left at Christmas time.

But consider her and the half-light
over the face, the elegant curve of her hair.
The way the music rises like drowsy love.
On the piano a conch shell
curled like a pink ear.
And the light like a mist
waist-deep through the room.

And somewhere else, say Palestine
or a dozen other places,
in the same light
one man stalks another,
while her incendiary notes remain
pressed beneath fingertips.

But unlike those others
dying for scrubland, a village,
one God or another,
this man, the lover
if he has yet lived
has done nothing to earn his death.
And I tell you,
he or any of us
does not deserve such music.


Read Bruce Hunter's Two O'Clock Creek and you might want to call this "blue collar" poetry.  Narrative poetry that unfolds with grace and a consistent voice, the kind you can trust.  Hunter's poems are metronome constant, earth bound and earthy.  Real flesh and blood people living messy lives and attempting to be honourable.  That could be the story of any of us.

And back in the day the Russians thought Bob Gainey was the best hockey player on earth.  I don't think Bruce Hunter is the best poet on earth, but he sure plays an admirable game.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Alien, Correspondent - Antony Di Nardo

Today's book of poetry:  Alien, Correspondent.  Antony Di Nardo.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  2010.

So now I have to go searching for Antony Di Nardo's other 2010 book, Soul on Standby (Exile Editions), because I've just finished Di Nardo's Alien, Correspondent and it is simply great.

"Every note is equal"
       -Vince Gill (2008 Grammy winner)

I'm home on a Monday night in the Middle East
watching the Grammys on TV, the fiftieth
I keep being reminded.  Oh anniversaries, I think,

aren't they wonderful, and I turn to tell someone
but no one is with me,
just a leader of Hamas for a moment on a different

channel, and when I return to the blur of lights, I hear
a pitch of harmonies, counterparts, rips, raps, bass lines,
rockin' riffs (I really like those), and the screen metastasizes

into a sudden music, all kinds of it, overwhelming really
with that standard assortment of cheers from the audience
like bees in full armor about to burst out of the hive,

so I say to myself, anniversaries, aren't they all so wonderful,
which is when I sorely wish I had a 54-inch plasma
surround-sound TV system to really bring to life

another Monday night at home alone in the Middle East
celebrating peace and love the Grammy way
with words and music by those vicariously beautiful

people who give standing ovations to Ringo Starr and to all
their gifted friends for the best single of the year,
every year, but it takes a country-western singer, the sugar twang

sweet on his lips, to say that music is where democracy lives.
And the way he means it, the bees buzzing worldwide,
I really miss not having a bigger TV screen.


There are so many excellent poems in this volume it was embarrassing.  Antony Di Nardo should be a name we all know.  The voice in these poems is steady, reassuring and confident.

The Tourist

From bus windows I peer
like a peeping Tom into people's homes
and find the common blue glow of the six o'clock news.
The mountain sun I have just seen set has set the bus on fire
and cameras are clicking by the dozen against the windows.
There is a palm tree that will appear in my snap,
but not these faces.
We descend a curving, perilous dirt road,
the bus I know prefers the word, precipitous,
swallowing hard like a throat straight and neat
into the very belly of the village at the foot of this valley.
We will be consumed.
All signs blur past us:
the sign of the cross,
the invocation of dead mothers,
the stop sign at the crossroads.
If we make it down alive, dear God,
I pray from this moment on I will pay particular attention
to sunsets.  I swear to be home by the calendar moons.  I will count
my change.  I will lose track of time, forget
the war that is racing, the people back at home, the money I owe,
the faces on the walls of my hotel room.
I will buy sunblock and drink rum.
I swear to be a better tourist.
I will note the shells on the beach, imitate the birds overhead.
I will make plans to return and contemplate this life as another life.
I swear that I will one day live in sunglasses.
I want to hold the hands, dear God, of my unborn children.


Many of the poems in this collections deal with the misfortunes of Beirut, but good poetry is universal and Di Nardo makes the reader feel as though Beirut were something tangible, felt under your fingernails.  These poems read like a trail of wise crumbs through difficult terrain.

Antony Di Nardo is an accomplished poet, his love poem Arabian Nights is so crystal clear cut and fine, yet none of the soft edge has been removed.  These poems exceed my ability to do them justice.  Di Nardo's poems are an easy read, not because it is easy material or that he is casual about his craft - but these poems are an easy read because they have been crafted with precision.

This should be the next book of poetry you read.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Skin Like Mine - Garry Gottfriedson

Today's book of poetry:  Skin Like Mine.  Garry Gottfriedson.  Ronsdale Press.  Vancouver, British Columbia.  2010.

Red Elk's Protege

I was schooled in Colorado
brought here in the name of Gerald Red Elk

Pearl Street poets promising
Naropa representation
of Ginsberg and Waldman, Faithful and Bye
standing in my mind
like circling Horse Dancers
channelling Beat movements
to this very day

it seems long ago now
that my words were young and naive
rhythmless and stupid
among those who knew
the hearts of paradise seekers
riding the tsunami sheets in Ginsberg's bed
or ducking Waldman's voice in poetic performances

Alan was at his best then
and Waldman relentless
Faithful stood firm crumbling beneath her fears
but Reed Bye was my favourite

I have never forgotten
that he taught me
poetry runs in my veins
it is imagery, meteors and metaphors
but more importantly,
a poet never compromises his voice

I miss those days
when I was Red Elk's protege


Odds are that if you are aboriginal and living in Canada or the United States of America - you have suffered the callous indignity of the average non-aboriginals indifference.  Garry Gottfriedson has quite a bit to say about all of that in this emotionally charged book of poems - Skin Like Mine.

Ghost Crawler

inspiration is a shy creature
hiding in corners
wedged in ceramic tiles or
lying atop the bed
waiting for the right moment to

it's a ghost crawler on
the fine hairs of the body
shimmering all the time
low rumbling a poem
springing alive the natural senses

it's a silent and secretive
power pushing people to become
chanting poets or storytellers
crossing boundaries
reaching new cultures
pressing intuition

it's another Picasso re-incarnated
churning images, mixing colours or
sketching out Cubisms
fascinating flamboyant sightseers
tugging at the imagination
like a puppet master

it's also Morrisseau and Odjig and Baca
all prolific and versatile
igniting the imagination
sculpting words slyly
working their way on canvas or paper
opening the hearts of observers
showing the world creativity lives

inspiration is puppy love
for those who read or seek
but who are too terrified
finally, it is the love of those who aren't


Gottfriedson is a modern narrative poet whose poems are full of his heritage, Mother Earth is a Deity, and there is no space between the natural world and man.  But this is no Dances With Wolves fairy tale, instead these poems deal intelligently with the task of being aboriginal in a difficult world.

Ten Steps Ahead of the Obvious

ice presses my lips
sweet Pepsi rots my teeth
on the way down
south from Kamloops

out of the corner of my eye
I spot George Clooney
sitting beside me
on the cover
of The Rolling Stone

the ride is dark
to the Red Dragon Centre
where Domenico Capilongo waits
with Elvis in hand

but it is the blonde lady
with a fake British accent
that awakens our ears
through the nose
Domenico and I share
a chief's nose she tells us
picking out our loving qualities

I crow laugh

am ten steps ahead of the obvious


Gottfriedson has been well published and anthologized, for good reason.  The best of these poems are funny, wise, angry and sorrowful, but they are always poems full of emotional action.  Gottfriedson is a good poet.


at the threat of losing out
I feed wet promises

I know remorse is more
than saying sorry

so I pack a little black book
just in case nothing else works


Garry Gottfriedson's entertaining book Skin Like Mine won't be his last offering.  This strong voice obviously has much to say.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

milk tooth bane bone - Daniela Elza

Today's book of poetry:  milk tooth bane bone.  Daniela Elza.  Leaf Press.  Lantzville, British Columbia.  2013.

Daniela Elza's second book of poetry milk tooth bane bone is populated with poems that are so sparse  that on first glance you might think there is nothing really there.  On a closer inspection, say a quick running read over, it reads like clever haiku.

When you finally give this work the time and energy it deserves you discover that these carefully crafted minimalist poems have everything you might need, including an element of surprise.


"The World is a semantic sign
that cannot be pronounced."
           -Lyubomir Levchev

today     a crow             flies up
                              a mussel in its beak.

                                          drops it.

                                          I pick up a word.

                                         drop it.

                              and again

             to see it


                            we look                    at each other
sideways              crow & I

for an instant        agree--                                   this kind of
                            sustenance is                                     miserable.

               yet                                         with unexpected

we resume                         our efforts.


These poems ruminate about family and the natural world using a crow as a symbol, a key to Elza's own mythology.

     in the pines
                   on lampposts

     on wires.
                  cawing me
                                                                out of my skin.
     so close
                  I look them
                                                                           in the eye

     down by                the grates                         the garbage.

     on the edge of the water
                                                               they shine
                                           a whole murder of them.

     so blue-black    you would                think

                                           they are standing               in rain.

     picking thoughts                  clean.


This crow is a catch-all figure, a utilitarian tool that Daniela Elza wields like a Maestro with a baton, perfect pitch, and always on time.

Elza's milk tooth bane bone is almost elemental in its' purity.  You hardly notice, at first, that these apparently fragmentary passages read with a clear narrative, insight and enlightening conclusions.

By the time I neared the last passages I was utterly hooked.

     there are no recipes       for getting to
                                                       know you.

     fascination aside:
                                          today    every sound
     that comes out of you
                                          grates    on my ear.

     I try to ignore you                      better.

                                 unwilling to listen
                                                                 I do.

     I want to be
                                             as you
                                                          in the rain.

                                 as you
                                                          in the city.

                                 as you

                                                 in the landscape.

     the light in your eyes
                                 has taken years
                                                              to reach me


Ted Hughes had Crow, I've often had to eat crow, Daniela Elza has widened the canon with her own mythical beast.  A more human crow would be awfully hard to find.  Elza's milk tooth bane bone is a very good read for your head and your heart.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Enter The Raccoon - Beatriz Hausner

Today's book of poetry:  Enter The Raccoon.  Beatriz Hausner.  Book Thug.  Toronto, Ontario.  2012.

Beatriz Hausner's Enter The Raccoon echoes back to Marion Engel's novel Bear from the 1970's.  In Bear the heroine carries on a romantic relationship with a black bear.  Hausner has replaced the bear with a raccoon, but not just any raccoon, THE Raccoon.  Enter The Raccoon is basically a dialogue between the raccoon and his female, human lover.

If that first paragraph gives you pause, take heart, there is a cavalcade of good reasons to read Enter The Raccoon.  At first blush all descriptions of these poems have to accept bestiality as a given.  In a world where there are human sized raccoons with mechanical hands, almost anything is possible.

What is totally unexpected (what could be unexpected after human sized raccoons with electronic hands?), is that the reader is drawn in and conclusively accepts this conceit before finishing the first poem.

     And, just now, into my study has walked a human-sized raccoon.  He
     greets me and seems kind, despite the threatening teeth.  I welcome
     him, mostly because he will provide warmth for the next few hours.  It
     remains to be seen how long he can stay seated in the uncomfortable
     wicker chair I have set in the corner, the one covered with the elegant
     Oaxaca weaving, meant to be worn as a skirt by women in the Mixtec
     region.  His breathing is distracting, perhaps because, as he has just in-
     informed me, he is suffering from an uneven heartbeat, wrought, as it is,
     by the insertion of an extraneous valve into one of the chambers of his
     heart.  I tell him that these procedures are quite common nowadays.  He
     seems tired, worn out.  Perhaps Raccoon is simply echoing my own state
     of mind.  Perhaps not.  It's hard to say.


Assuming there is no real human sized raccoon we can safely figure that he is an allegorical figure, but the concept works because Hausner gives Raccoon an animated intellect.  He mulls over everything from the origins of joy to the joy of Stevie Wonder, the depths of despair and the prophetic dark under-lay in the music of Amy Winehouse.

Raccoon is one smart cat.  The following are two of his monologues.  The book is made of up a dialogue between Raccoon and the lover, it takes place on alternate/facing pages.


In an age ruled by the speedy transfer of ideas and information, a
feeling, best described as slowness, ennui, overtakes one as the middle
years invade the bones.  Perhaps ennui has always been there, quietly
sleeping inside the heart, like a warning against excessive confidence,
urging one to doubt, to question.  Is ennui the flipside of vivacious-
ness?  Is it another, less energetic way of being somewhat happy?
Ennui was the emotion of Decadents, as if this emotion somehow
conjured that yellowish light that suffuses the images of fin de siecle
photographs.  The Twentieth Century avant garde was, by contrast,
intensely energetic, its confidence firmly planted in the new struct-
ures and forms borne of a mind rattled to its core by the violence of
modern war, hopeful its ideas could be used to change the world.


"Now in the corner of a hallway there was a saucer of milk for the cat.
"Milk is for the pussy, isn't it?" said Simone.  "Do you dare me to sit in
the saucer?"

"I dare you," I answered, almost breathless.  The day was extremely
hot. Simone put the saucer on a small bench, planted herself before
me, and with her eyes fixed on me, she sat down without my being
able to see her burning buttocks under the skirt, dipping into the cool
milk.  The blood shot to me head, and I stood before her awhile, im-
mobile and trembling, as she eyed my stiff cock bulging in my pants.
Then I lay down at her feet without her stirring, and for the first time,
I saw her "pink and dark" flesh cooling in the white milk.  We re-
mained motionless, on and on, both of us equally overwhelmed...

                                                 -From Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye
                                                       (translated by Joachim Neugroshel)


Beatriz Hausner's Enter The Raccoon is raucous but never ribald and it is always entertaining.  Hard to believe you might want to take advice from a very large raccoon, but Raccoon speaks volumes in this beautiful little book.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

How Poetry Saved My Life (A Hustler's Memoir) - Amber Dawn

Today's book of poetry:  How Poetry Saved My Life (A Hustler's Memoir).  Amber Dawn.  Arsenal Pulp Press.   Vancouver, British Columbia.  2013.

In How Poetry Saved My Life (A Hustler's Memoir) Amber Dawn provides these labels for herself in one of her poems:

     I am thinking of how my community is so keen on labels.  I have
     more ID tags than dollars in my savings account.  Queer.  Femme.
     Third-wave feminist.  Daddy's-girl-switch-mommy-dom.  Clean and
     sober bar star.  Pillow queen.  PoMo sexual.  Homoflexible.  Post-gay
     gay snot-turned-community revivalist.  Art fag.  Lit nerd.   Whore.

Which leaves me thinking that this might be a manifesto, a polemic.  How Poetry Saved My Life is anything but that.

Amber Dawn worked in the Adult Sex industry and that informs every poem and piece of prose in this extraordinary collection.  But don't be misled by  that tawdry promise because Amber Dawn could just as easily be turning her voice to philosophy or religion.
What I'm so inelegantly trying to suggest is that like any good author - Dawn could write about anything and give it an intelligent going over.

Discussions range from the proper resting place for Lucy's bones (Lucy being the first "human" according to anthropologists), to adult fetish behaviour.  Larry Fine's (one of the original Three Stooges) hair is discussed with the same gravitas and delight as Frank Zappa and the Soap Lady.

     My client -- the human -- you know, he limped too.  I don't know why.
     I thought it would be a turn-off to ask him what had happened to
     his leg.  It would have been a turn-off to ask him what he knows
     about vanishing flora or, worse still, vanishing nations.  It would
     have been a turn-off to ask him what will happen to those Chinese
     factory workers when the Bratz doll craze is over.  What would
     Samuel Beckett say if he knew that Broadway musicals are all that
     survived of the theatre world?  And what would Lucy think if she
     knew a drunk paleontologist named her after a Beatles song before
     she was returned to Ethiopia under an international agreement?
     What would I pay to feel human again?

This book is a bold statement about being human in an inhumane world.  How Poetry Saved My Life is all about being human, original wisdom is always a worthwhile read.

Hey F***Face

Let's be honest.  The truth is, I never meant to become an adult fetish
worker.  I was twenty-four years old, a masseuse at Sensual Bliss
Massage & More, on my knees fixing to give a routine blowjob to a
man named Stan.  Stanley said he had something for me.  Something
in his briefcase.  He shyly produced a pair of handcuffs, a bottle of
Tabasco sauce, and a rubber mask that looked like Larry Fine from
the Three Stooges.  That's how it really began.


Humour and horror arm wrestle all the way through these poems and short prose pieces.

Startling and sparkling honesty and authenticity from a genuinely entertaining and educating voice.  Amber Dawn's How Poetry Saved My Life is like the siren and lights on a police car that blare "PAY ATTENTION", "BE CAREFUL", "SOMETHING IMPORTANT IS GOING ON HERE".

Friday, June 7, 2013

Brilliant Falls - John Terpstra

Today's book of poetry:  Brilliant Falls.  John Terpstra.  Gaspereau Press.  Kentville, Nova Scotia.  2013.

John Terpstra was nominated for the 2004 Governor General's Literary Award for his book Disarmament.  Brilliant Falls, his latest publication, will only bolster his reputation.

These poems examine the family relationships and the close proximity we inhabit while we orbit those we love and those we merely tolerate.  There are flights of fancy:

The Spirit Of Sitting Bull Returns
To Canada, Appearing As A Hawk On
Highway 13 in Southern Saskatchewan

With a deft tail-end twist the deer,
at the last possible moment,
neatly sidesteps the front-bumper's tackle
and lives,
               unlike the grasshopper
who emerges from a dashboard vent,
poses, then pops like corn against the windshield
until I do him in with a tissue.

                                               But these two
visitations from the natural order
do nothing
                 to prepare me for the hawk
who stands just inside my side
of the broken yellow medicine line
of the highway, stunning and squat
in its buffalo robe of feathers,
its head already turned toward me,
its eyes already wise
                                 to the fact
that I will need to swerve
as I top another rise
                               of rolling shortgrass prairie

to avoid its bloody demise.

Able to, and not much more
than a century or so
late, I do --
                 my foot never grazing
the brake.


Then there are poems that are love stories disguised as tragic-comedies:


I have fallen in love with yet another woman.
Is she beautiful? I do not know. I cannot be objective.
She is not a Shih Tzu or a pug,
if that's what you're asking.

The longer she spoke the stronger the attraction grew.
She pointed out adverse reactions
some people have (very few, it turns out),
and I wondered what were the odds

that I was one of those few, or that such a woman
would fall in love with me.
I was conscious of my age, to tell the truth.
She was not too young.  Would she be immune?

She touched my arm lightly
just above the elbow, and laughed.
What we were talking about,
I forgot.

Funny, isn't it? I am willing to fall in love
with almost any woman that I meet,
(some more willingly than others)
as readily as others catch cold or the flu.

The woman who works as a labourer
at a construction site up the street.
The last time I drove past,
she was loading bricks into a wheelbarrow.

Even the women sitting in a quiet row
under the dark windows, waiting their turn
for inoculation, and old enough to be my mother --
a scary thought.

The woman I fell in love with last night
had been easing apprehensions all evening.
When she reached to prick a needle into me arm
she had so recently touched, I felt nothing.


And there are page after page after page of simply solid, well built poems.  Terpstra has a meandering narrative style which sometimes leads to very unexpected conclusions, but it is clear that Terpstra always knows where he is going.

Terpstra takes on the classic dilemmas of aging and dying - but as with every other subject, he has a distinctive twist to his poetic resolutions.


After buying a used van on Gladstone Avenue today,
I drove off,
and all the people on the sidewalk
stopped in their tracks, pointed
and began to cheer and wave and throw streamers
from the higher buildings, causing
a big commotion.
All for this used van I bought today on Gladstone,
or so I thought,
until I saw
the Queen of the Commonwealth
in the rearview mirror, tailgating, kissing my exhaust
in a classic '53 pickup, souped up,
with a hood-scoop,
itching to pass.
She was wearing a halter top
and looked impossibly young,
and I wouldn't have recognized her at all
except for the tiara,
and that distinctive profile, coined
in the side window as she gunned past me,
squealing round the corner like she owned the place,
beating the lights like a local.


After reading John Terpstra's Brilliant Falls I couldn't get past a sense I had (of course this is only in MY mind) that this strong poetry reminded me of the American poet Ron Koertge.  Koertge is a peer of the popular novelist John Irving although never quite as well known.  Koertge has a deep current of irreverent dark humour and whimsy that cloaks the more serious work at hand.  Terpstra is equally skilled at this difficult trick.

Brilliant Falls is well paced, well written and much appreciated.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

White Sheets - Beverley Bie Brahic

Today's book of poetry:  White Sheets.  Beverley Bie Brahic.  Fitzhenry & Whiteside.  Markham, Ontario.  2012.

Beverley Bie Brahic is a Canadian who was born in Saskatoon, raised in Vancouver and now lives in California and Paris.  This poetry reflects, casually, the world weary wisdom of a traveller who has seen her share of the world.

The Cigarette

     First let us render the atmosphere, both hazy and dry - dishev-
elled - in which the cigarette reclines, all the while creating it.

     Then the personage: a tiny torch, less luminous than fragrant,
from which a calculable number of small heaps of ash fall at a rate as yet
to be determined.

     Lastly, the passion for it: this fiery button sloughing off its silvery
scales, cuffed by the most recent ones.

                                                                            after Francis Ponge


These poems are never condescending but they certainly do test the reader.  White Sheets is Brahic's second book of poems (her first book of poetry was published outside of Canada)  and is jammed full of poetic gems.  Brahic has been perfecting her craft busily translating the works of Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Ponge, Helene Cixous, Jacques Derrida and Julie Kristeva.  After sharpening her teeth in translation Brahic has become a deadly serious poet in one poem and then uproariously funny in the next.   But the tone is consistent, there is an undertow of excellence in this book that must wash away the dross.

The Same Complex System Can Contain
Both Predictable and Unpredictable Behaviour;
or, Two Views of a Squirrel

Trapeze artist, tumbler, high-wire act -
it never falters long enough for air
or leaf to let it down, never miscalculates
the velocity over the distance
a body must travel to bridge the gap, it
is the pippin that flouts Newton's laws,
the arrow whose trajectory
is divided and divided again, the messenger
dispatched from the scene of the battle
whose body count never hits the front page-

this one lay under the mailbox next door
Reposed on its side, cheek on a cushion
of mulch.  It was a glossy, well-exercised
Silicon Valley squirrel.  My stomach
lurched.  Tell me it's taking a break
the way birds stunned by their reflections do;
say it found this sweet spot to lie down and
listen to the background noises of every day;
sprinkler systems sprinkling as programmed; gears
crushing trash; next door that voice insisting
it be allowed to stay outside and play
for half an hour, just one minute more.


Brahic's poems jump around between styles and emotions - but the weight and presence is always the same.  Beverley Bie Brahic cuts like a surgeon, kisses it better like an old pro.  These are the poems of a mature writer who has mastered craft but is more concerned with content.  Some of these poems appear deceptively simple and that is a very hard trick to master and pull off.  Brahic does it with alacrity.


Shortest day
of the year, almost.
Redwood tip
bedraggled as the pelican
feather you scavenged
from the beach.
The pomegranates
split, they spit seed
underfoot.  Crisp
taffeta of leaves wrens
tussle in - see, just
what's here.  Look

at this kitchen
from Chardin! burnished
kettle upended on
a slab of wood; an
earthen bowl (big
enough to beat
two eggs) glazed
umber brown. Erect
in its wooden fist
the pestle. A knife
pares the shadow
of a red onion.


Short and sweet, like this book.  White Sheets will have me looking for more from Ms. Brahic.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Hungry - Daniel Karasik

Today's book of poetry:  Hungry.  Daniel Karasik.  Cormorant Books.  Markham, Ontario.  2013.

Daniel Karasik is a successful playwright and Hungry is his first book of poetry.  In it, Karasik sets scenes with a playwright's precision and his voice is always razor sharp and clear whether he is being wry, coy, witty or wise.


The next poem
will be important.

It will speak
to contemporary issues.

Give a voice to the voiceless
and ease the plight

of the hungry is what
the next poem will do.

the hungry will eat it,
that is.  The wretched

will wrap it around their insulted
harrowed flanks.  All the injustices of the world,

being named by the next poem,
will rise, sleep-dazed and lazy,

to an assembly of the readers of the world,
by whom they will be spat on

and cast out.  There will come a time
after the next poem when a silence

will fill the high vault of the perfectible
planet.  All the man-made sufferings

vanquished -- all tribalism dead,
power a fetish of millennia past --

the writer of the next poem
my find himself, in the face of the global

triumph, not quite sure
how to spend his remaining days.

He may consider suicide,
or golf.  Or he may

find the pen won't stop.  If so,
the poem after that

will change your life.


Daniel Karasik is moving a lot of paint around on a very large canvas while he explores the basic dilemmas that confront us all.  He asks big questions about life and what it takes to be a good person.

An Observation from the Window Seat of the Starbucks
     at Yonge and Charles Streets

This style of gliding down Yonge Street
moves me to remember everything I like about
the way you move me.

The girl gliding past the window must think she's headed for a big day.
I'd watch you walk like that too, if it were possible now,
and feel happy about being an accomplice
to the parting of the Red Sea.  Where would we walk, in that way?

First I'd show you this enchanted lane that's hidden by Front and Church,
lined with restaurants and a crunch of jazz
as you walk -- the most breathing gravel I've ever met.

Then we'd probably wander into strangers' bedrooms,
grinning; I'd try not to get conceited and obnoxious.

Finally we'd take our position
on the green patch of grass that is the point the world spins from; and someone,
perhaps remembering us from a cool March walk under a passing train,
would shout:  Welcome Home!

All this and more
I wish.


This poem, An Observation..., was the winner of the Toronto Star's 2004 poetry competition.

Karasik's poetry can make you feel slightly off balance in the same way that rapid fire Mamet dialogue can entertain and perplex.  You are off balance but under control, waiting for the author to reel you back in.

These are confident poems, the kind that come from a writer who is thoughtful and surprising.

This Cormorant title is from a new series designed by Angel Guerra, the front cover is a detail of a painting by Pierre Coupey - (Notations 20 [As If]).  Very striking books, and this one, by Daniel Karasik, given the chance, will negotiate with your brain until you submit to Karasik's will.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Truth of Houses - Ann Scowcroft

Today's book of poetry:  The Truth of Houses.  Ann Scowcroft.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  2011.

Ann Scowcroft does a very difficult trick in The Truth of Houses.  This is the trick where one writes about the banal day to day, cradle to grave journey we are all on - and gives it new meaning, gives us a new understanding.

There are harrowing poems of haunting stories in a section of the book called (Palimpsest) and it is preceded with the poem Letter to my mother.

Letter to my mother

We have years of words, decades
of clauses caught in the soft spots of our throats
where the skin is supple and concave;
they have massed in our vocal chords
disorderly, unruly --
sheer numbers make it difficult to breathe.

The sound you hear is not a rasp,
not the result of cold or strep.
It is an echo, listen:
the words are saying themselves in my throat.

And you?  I always assumed it was emphysema,
but perhaps it is the breath constricted by your
own words, air whistling through
the crowded space of your best intentions,
of what you would
have said, of what you meant
to say, if only


Scowcroft shows no fear as a poet as she explores the fear felt by the voice in the poems.  She mines that fear and scours the corners of family secrets and the consequences of silence.

This is brave poetry.

What remains

Be careful that it is not
only dust between floorboards,
orphan screws clustering on window ledges
like hollow winter flies,
drawings drawn,
dishes washed.

Let it be the memory of a gesture
in a difficult moment,
the brush of lips when the red and yellow leaves
rattle the air like rain,
the belly laugh of nothing in particular.

Your gesture as it slips into our boys' bodies,
making their hands move to their chins
like this


And redemptive.

I never set out, on this blog, to provide any sort of critical response to poetry - that isn't my skill set or my interest.  Instead, I am striving to share the books that I like, the writing that impresses me. The Truth of Houses by Ann Scowcroft is a perfect example.

The emotional response I felt when reading this was visceral, in my gut, and that is most often what I depend on.  If poetry touches my heart, punches me in the stomach, kicks me in the nuts or makes me laugh out loud - then to me, that poem is working.

Scowcroft's The Truth of Houses, her first book, is filled with poems that worked for me.