Friday, August 30, 2013

The Art of Plumbing - Brecken Hancock

Today's book of poetry:  The Art of Plumbing.  Brecken Hancock.  above/ground press.  Ottawa.  Ontario.  2013.

I'm remembering the great scene in the Steven Soderberg film The Limey, where an enraged Terence Stamp comes running out of a warehouse and screams into the camera "tell him I'm coming!", "tell him I'm FUCKING COMING!!".

Reading Brecken Hancock's sublime The Art of Plumbing, that's my reaction.  Hancock is coming and she means business and there is no way we are not all going to hear about it.  The Art of Plumbing is one of the most exciting reads I've had this year -- and it has been a very good year for Canadian poetry.

     603 BCE King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon crawls like a vole through the
     dust.  For seven years he lives with beasts, tearing and eating his own skin.
     God tortures him with dementia, body lice, swampy testicles, and
     incontinence.  In every bracken bush he sees a nightjar, the psychopomp's
     familiar, come to chirr him down to the Great Below.  Finally pardoned for
     sin of arrogance and allowed to live, he returns to the Hanging
     Gardens where slaves sluice the filth from his body, scrubbing him with
     soap congealed from goat blubber and cremation ash.

Broom Broom, a full length volume of poetry is forthcoming from Coach House Press and not a moment too soon.  Hancock simply stuns the reader with her dexterity, humour, breadth and wisdom.  The Art of Plumbing, a short chapbook of narrative prose poems is one of those rare finds, one of those remarkable "remember this" moments.

     1348 CE Forty-five percent of Europe's population succumbs to the
     Black Death.  Bathing, thought to transmit disease through the pores of the
     body, begins to decline as common practice.  One hundred and fifty years
     later, Queen Isabella of Castile boasts of having bathed only twice in her
     lifetime: once at birth and once on her wedding day.

Writing this blog is a gas when there is so much great Canadian poetry out there -- finding someone like Brecken Hancock is like finding an undiscovered Brando film.  Rob McLennan's above/ground press continues to discover some of the best new voices in the country.

     1984 CE When his fishing trawler sinks, Guolaugur Frioporsson swims
     six hours in the North Atlantic off the coast of the Westman Islands.  Two
     fellow fisherman die of hypothermia, but "the miracle man" somehow
     survives the cold and the Kraken by talking to mukki, sea birds, and
     unknowingly relying on his seal-like fat, found later to be three times
     thicker than usual for humans.  Finally navigating the cliffs and crawling
     up onto an ancient lava field, Frioporsson walks barefoot over two
     kilometers of terrain.  His soles turn to ribbons that unravel across pumice
     humps of molten rock.  He finds a bathtub meant to trough sheep and
     punches a hole through its ice, finally plunging his face in the fresh water
     to drink.

I really don't know whether to spit, swear or swallow - I liked this chapbook that much.  Start the line-up now for her first book.  Stunning.


PLEASE NOTE:  Off to houseboat through the Kawartha Lakes.  Will return September 8th.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Beckett Soundings - Inge Israel

Today's book of poetry:  Beckett Soundings.  Inge Israel.  Ronsdale Press.  Vancouver, British Columbia.  2011.

Like Samuel Beckett, Inge Israel has spent much of her life in Ireland and France, she calls on that familiarity of geography while studiously inspecting the life and work of one of our greatest writers.

They Don't Tell You

when you're born
that you're not really
born, not completely,
not all of a piece,
that the rest of you lags
behind, far behind
like the tail of a comet
trailing in ancient history.

               Personne ne nous apprend

               quand on vient au monde
               qu'on ne nait pas vraiment
               pas entierement
               qu'on n'est pas intact
               qu'une partie de nous traine
               derriere tout au loin
               comme la quere d'une comete
               dans l'histoire ancienne.


Israel has captured Beckett in repose, her voice has him reconsidering everything from the paintings of Jack B. Yeats to the poems of Charles Baudelaire and Vincent Van Gogh.  Israel echoes Beckett's friendship and admiration of James Joyce, but there are always hints of the darkness Beckett endures, the diminishing spiral of the gloom he inhabited, illuminated.

It's a Poor Memory that
Only Works Backwards

The play that cannot be
written is unlike the one not
written and those abandoned
--waifs dropped surreptitiously
by the roadside on a foggy night
in the secret hope they may
miraculously find legs or, better
still, wings

while we toss about in bed
and hear all we hoped
forgotten scream
in our dreams.

The title is a phrase of Lewis Carroll's


Inge Israel has captured Beckett's most intimate, least public voice, in these poems, the siren call of deep lament.

Coming to Go

Your mother may not have
meant to have you, may
have done all she could
not to have you, but there
you are, one fine day,
unasked, body, limbs
head in place, tongue
in working order with no
say but, even if you had,
what is there to say
so you want to say nothing
yet fill up the silence
as if it were an obligation
before exiting the great
"cunt of existence."


Beckett Soundings is an examination of Beckett's mature and minimalist voice.  Inge Israel has adopted that voice with clarity and confidence.

Shakespeare Knew

A strange compulsion pushes me
into pursuing the worst.  Always has.
As Lear says: "the worst is not
so long as one can say, 'This is
the worst.'"

If language, by definition, fails,
paring it down
to its absolute minimum
may be preferable.

My silences have always been wordy...
The attempt to do worse is doomed.
In reality, a writer
can only keep trying
"to fail better."


Inge Israel grew up in France and Ireland, lived in Denmark for a period and then settled in Canada.  Israel has been named Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, won numerous literary prizes and awards and has published several books of poetry.  She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

The Scream

I'm bursting with Munch,
Shostakovich tugs
at my seams while Picasso's
white dove has wings
smeared with oil.

Alfred Nobel, a lonely man,
invented dynamite, then,
sitting on a keg of it,
bequeathed a Peace Prize.
Was his sleep henceforth
less troubled?  Perhaps
not, for there followed
his wife's affair
with a mathematician.
Peaceful by nature,
he shied away from
explosives, from fuses,
wanted no fuss or mess,
simply decreed that all
sciences receive awards
-- except mathematics.


That Inge gives voice to Beckett in these poems isn't remarkable, that she has captured the echo of his voice is quite an accomplishment.  Beckett would approve of these poems, if he approved of anything at all.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Conflict - Christine McNair

Today's book of poetry:  Conflict.  Christine McNair.  Book Thug.  Toronto.  Ontario.  2012.

Let me start by saying I am a Luddite at the best of times, old school, old fashioned, typewriter loving old fart.  Much contemporary poetry confounds me, it raises my hackles when I should be paying more attention.


unmake me before morning,

unhitch the straps and pull

apart seams, discover the tracery

of faults and pour whiteness,

a lake of fluid, rake eraser

till paper is pressure-burnt,

a thousand time crossed

over, take my name

from the indexes, delete

appendices, cut this

branch at the quick


Christine McNair's Conflict is an excellent example of a book that provides many challenges to my poetic sensibilities.  At the same time there are so many excellent poems that fulfill all my poetic requirements, aesthetic, imagined, self-aggrandized or otherwise.

My Problem With Machines

might have begun with the jolly jumper
swinging shit all over my mother's back wall
content as a lamb, crescent smile

then the bikes, always hobbling and
falling, the uneasy way my spine
curved over the handlebars

and the cars, the two I crashed
each broken at the centre, unfixable
a permanent scream of metal and glass

the plane is supposed to be safest,
walls curved against unpredictable
traffic crash acts of god

but the height tugs at my nervous
brings out mysterious hail marys
half-learned from a catholic friend

it tickles the back of my neck
as I pitch forward through wide fuselage,
flying seats, empty fingers, lost safety cards


It's a crazy bias that I will admit to:  if I see a "realistic" drawing or painting by an "abstract" artist - in my mind that somehow grounds the art, legitimizes it for my vocabulary, it simply builds credibility.  John Coltrane's Sheets of Sound, which broke musical barriers left and right, took on gravitas because they came from a master of the ballad, an artist who had mastered his craft.  Not all of McNair's poetry is simple narrative, there are poems from a myriad of styles represented.

It Would Be Better

to develop a tendency towards
buckets, towards the piling up of clocks,

torn coupons, chicken wire,
postcards, if you could accept

a tendency to loss, the solitary mitten
or unpaired tupperware.  no iron

bled sunset burnt out over endings, only
an ebb-flow light poured onto laminate.

flower blades wake, bust out of concrete
and lightning strikes again and again.  fists

punch down gravel and craving superhero
nylon stretched across knuckle,  I step over

every god damn crack but everything
still breaks.


Conflict was a joy to read and a challenge.  The best things about new authors and new voices are the promises of what is to come.  Christine McNair is going to write poetry that will both entertain and illuminate us if Conflict is any indication.


I can hold back heaven for half
a day, maybe more.  I can hold back

hell for one full week, a month at most,
the days in the calendar clicking.

I can hold back my heart for half a year,
for one full year, for two, for three -

I can stop the clocks and burn the books,
forget my name and forget yours.

Here - take this scarf and take this glove,
take this and this and this and this.

But let me stitch you back together,
just let me kiss it better,

let me find the seam and close it.


Auden couldn't have kissed it better himself.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

That Other Beauty - Karen Enns

Today's book of poetry:  That Other Beauty.  Karen Enns.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  2010.

Karen Enns' first volume of poetry, That Other Beauty, is a very promising debut.  Enns employs a gem cutter's vision when crafting these very precise poems.

The Smallest Thing

It wasn't that he looked at her with warmth
or tenderness.  He often looked away.
It wasn't that they read each other's minds--
there she drew a blank--
or that he needed her.

It was the unrelenting line of his jaw,
a certain stillness in his gestures,
and once, walking on the bridge,
he put his hand
flat against her back,
the lowest part,
and there were lilacs.


These poems are clear cut narratives free of an extraneous fluff.  The tone Enns creates in poem after poem is one of crisp lines, subtle cuts.  What appears simple is in fact the jeweller's/poet's revelation of the choicest facet.

Shadows on the Roof

Slow rain again and softly,
softly knocking on the door.
The gulls are sullen with the sound, a sinking
long in darkness, open-mouthed, and moss
accepting weight without its grain.  We know
no better here.  No more or less.
A movement in the firs like breathing
and the first stunned limb of night
breaks through the crest, the first call
from the bones of trees becomes a hollow stone,
the shell of light, a moon.
To wait for something closer now,
something drawing in:  a raven
gives itself to the clear, bright density of rain,
to the sound of our hands
beating back the wash
as the trees lean into nothingness,
their branches bleeding light.


"their branches bleeding light".  I could steal that line all day long and never tire of it.

Enns was born and raised in a Mennonite community in Ontario but now makes her home with her family in British Columbia where she teaches piano.  Some of these poems broach her Mennonite past and Mennonite history and these are elegant details but not the story.  Enns is one of those poets who could and should - write about anything - and make it interesting, it is not the subject matter that makes these poems but the delicate forcefulness of Enns' voice articulating the pageant.

Church Job:  Day One

Just fifteen.
You've pulled out all the stops:
diapason, dulcet, vox,
geigen, flauto, hautboy, horn.
Fingers splay the manuals,
legs the easy octave,
couplers on.  One chord
to set the pitch, you're onto it.
Nothing missing but the signal from above.
He's up there now: a modern Moses at the pulpit,
white-haired, arms stretched high, palms out,
more divine aim than a forked willow branch
and the flock of four hundred
rising to their feet.
Momentarily the signal blurs, fogs up.
Palms out or down?
Must be out.  You let her rip.
All the rage of wood and steel in thirty-foot pipes,
a rush of air to bring down Sinai stone
and you're surging into absolute vibrato,
bells and sound of cello, trumpet, bass,
a chord to counter hell.
Then that sweep of elbow,
wrist, the final flourish
off the cuff.
Pure swell.
But no one has their hymnals out
and Moses looks down
resolute, says softly,
Let us pray.


Karen Enns has written a serious book of poems worthy of our serious consideration and attention - but the poet is quite willing to take a poke at her own solemnity.  These very human poems move the reader  with subtle shifts in tone, Enns is in full control and speaking with a very authoritative voice.

Highway Turn

The heat of the day is on you now,
a slow noon singeing in the glare, flat gold
of ragweed, thistle, wind as dry as whistling grass
and then cicadas, blasting through the orchard pears.
Everywhere the pulse of what you know
and what you don't: a rising shimmer coming off the road
as you head for the highway turn.

No rain in weeks and all you need is one voice
naming you, taking the stain on your hands,
your feet hard with dirt, one voice
turning the beat in your ears to something held
quiet, cool, offered in shade
to the wide open mouth of your heart,
and you will stay.
You will stay.


I'm very fond of this book and very fond of talking about poetry - but here is a far more recognizable voice, from the back cover of That Other Beauty:

     "Here is the strange, the other beauty, the one that makes us tremble a bit
     when we read these poems.  There is a purity in them, a rare and intimate choosing
     of images and ideas that can only be described as rightness, a delicate felicity of phrasing
     and rhythms that undoes me each time I turn to their quietness.  Karen Enns is a gift to what
     I can only call song, an offering to "the wide open mouth of the heart."
                                                                                                            - Patrick Lane

Who doesn't want to agree with Patrick Lane?  That Other Beauty was nominated for the Gerald Lampman Award for the best debut book of poems.  Ordinary Hours, a new book of poems from Karen Enns, will be published by Brick Books in 2014.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

No Ordinary Place - Pamela Porter

Today's book of poetry:  No Ordinary Place.  Pamela Porter.  Ronsdale Press.  Vancouver, British Columbia.  2012.

The well published Pamela Porter's latest book, Late Moon (Ronsdale Press, 2013), was reviewed on this site on April 14 of this year.  Today we are looking at No Ordinary Place, Porter's 2012 offering from Ronsdale.

No Ordinary Place

I turned to look behind me
and saw the long road of my life.

Now I lead a secret existence.
I fill pages with all the things
I can't tell to anyone.

They sway like tall pines around me.
The moon climbs among their branches
          like a barefoot girl
straining for a glimpse of the sea.

Now the wind whispers
          stories in my ear.
It says my life is not what I believed.
It says this earth is no ordinary place.

And god, that lonely child,
                                 I've seen him
tossing winged seeds into air,
turning round and round in his bewilderment
as they sail back to earth.

Now I can't tell heaven from an ordinary day,
or heaven from hell, or my left hand
from my right.

To all my questions come answers:
Turn around.  Look closer.
See where you have already walked.

And the stars, oh, the stars --
everywhere now, there is singing.


These poems are rich in experience, they are the tale of life lived looking at the world in wonder, they are textured and they are polished.  So often these poems, Porter's work in general, seem so simple, so straight forward.  It's a good trick.  Her poems sound so much like conversation, a directed conversation, Porter has a lovely voice.

The Night of My Conception

This is the dream that has recurred
all my life.  It is the farm
I love and long to return to, and know
                       I cannot.
It is no place I can find in this life.

They are still young,
          my mother, my father,
the trunk they carried off the ship
hunched and weary in a corner
of the cabin they built together.

The hearth logs lick the flames
                       of their desire,
her dress rumpled on the floor,
his hat hanging from a peg.  In the loft
where I will sleep in the bed
he will make for me,
            I hover, listening,
the night pregnant with stars,

the plow horses' thunderous feet
                      quiet in their stalls,
the milk cow curled in the straw, all
waiting for the day I will reach out to them
with my curious hands.

Tonight there is the moon
           in the window
of the barn.  But I remain
with the mother and father I will love
even beyond this life.
                        Like the rain
before it reaches us, like music
before the first note is struck,
                        I am the pearl
that will gleam inside her,
I am their song of songs.

And when the bright egg
                        of the sun dawns,
I waken and rise, wondering
where in the world they are now,

certain I would know them
by the sound their hands make,
              their quickening breath,
their sighing just before sleep.


Pamela Porter has mastered the most difficult aspect of poetry - she makes it look easy, the best poets do.  But there is nothing easy to writing a line that both sounds common and contains the secrets of the world.  The wondrous American poet Sharon Olds is a master of this form and Porter is no slouch.  These poems resonate because they sound and feel so real, so much like one's own life.

Making a Life

And wind, always wind rolled over the land,
pulling the clouds thin and grey.
We had to go out -- in snow, in cold, no matter --
I lay the baby in her crib to let her sleep
or cry.  Some part of the fence was down;
a deer, maybe, or one of the horses run into it
in the blizzarding dark, or the wind
had sheared it off, the post long rotted
but holding taut in the tension of barbed wire
until, like someone exhausted or dying,
it could no longer keep itself upright.
Wind watered my eyes, the razored barbs
cut my hands through gloves, the bleached
bones of grass bent with the weight
of snow.  First we had to pull the rusted
staples out, then the wire off the post,
the hard wooden knot like a face
etched with pain.  Then a new post to go in:
the pounding of the maul, my hands
holding the new post straight; I stood
unseeing but for a smear of colour, the tremble
in my bones when my husband hit it clean, each time
missing my hands, my wrists, the skin
exposed and fiery with frost.  The chokecherry
beside the cattle guard bloomed with birds
feasting on the final fruit, one hawk
on the power line, patient and lonely,
our child in her crib and her dark hunger.
My prayer for her sleep.  Then the wire, coiled
like a summer rattler, pulled snug with the claw
of the hammer I held in place, my feet braced
in snow hard as love, burrs catching on my socks,
sleet of tears stinging my face,
my hands just holding on, and my breasts
sudden with milk.  And when we finished,
the birds scattering from the chokecherry,
we stepped into the house as her newborn wail
shattered the air, and I, stunned with cold
and crying, my breasts burning
and the milk coming down.


Pamela Porter's wisdom seems obvious, there is a comforting sense of an author in complete control of subject and tone, a mature voice.  Porter won the 2005 Governor General's Award for The Crazy Man, a novel in verse.  She is a winner of the Prism International Poetry Prize and well as many other literary awards, she is also featured in Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac.

These very clever poems follow a crisp narrative tradition - each and every one of them polished like a gem.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Prez, Homage to Lester Young - Jamie Reid

Today's book of poetry:  Prez,  Homage to Lester Young.  Jamie Reid.  Oolichan Books.  Fernie, British Columbia.  1993.  2010.

Prez, Homage to Lester Young, by Jamie Reid, was originally published in 1993 and reprinted in 2010 by Oolichan Books.

This is a very good thing.  Prez, a long poem in nine parts is exactly as advertised, a homage to one of the greatest and most influential musicians who ever picked up a horn.  Lester Young didn't just influence other musicians, he changed the world.  Young had developed, quite naturally, a way of speaking, similar to the way he played the horn, a language we hadn't heard before but that was instantly recognizable.  He made poetry.

For all the jazz-rats out there, and all the poetry about jazz, Reid has given us a volume richer than most with the actual feel of jazz.

   "But here too is the voice of a language not yet spoken
        by a race of men and women not yet born."

These poems do not, nor should they, offer an accurate biographical map of Lester Young's difficult life, instead they rejoice in language he invented, the doors of perception he opened.  Lester Young was so far ahead of his time that we are still catching up.

Reid quotes Johnny Griffin, the great hard bebop tenor sax legend,

     "He was the most beautiful man, the trunk of the swing tree, I would like to say.
      No Prez - no Bird, no Dexter, no Coltrane, no Miles either.
      Prez was truly the master of time and space,
      nuances and understatements."

Prez was inspired in no small part by the Bertrand Tavernier film Round Midnight (1986), starring Dexter Gordon, a giant among living saxophone players, as a tortured legend named Dale Turner.  Turner is a composite of Lester Young and the piano virtuoso Bud Powell.  Gordon's delicately timed phrasing and sophisticated patter are direct nods to the brilliance of Lester Young.  Reid, like Tavernier, is deeply concerned with the mood and atmosphere and in Prez, Reid hits all the right notes.

Michael Ondaatje's most excellent Coming Through Slaughter was a book about jazz and the toll it takes on people's lives.  Jamie Reid's Prez belongs on the same shelf of great Canadian books of poetry as Ondaatje's tome about Buddy Bolden.

I love jazz and I love poetry, this completely charming book loves them both too.  Prez is a classic of Canadian verse and I hope it is reprinted every 10 years from now until Lester Young no longer sounds good, until the sun runs out of steam.

Jamie Reid was one of the five original editors of TISH, has published several volumes of poems, his work is well anthologized and he can be found at either of the two poetry blogs he edits:   Schroedinger's Cat ( and Remembering Gerry Gilbert (

Monday, August 12, 2013

Seawrack - David Helwig

Today's book of poetry:  Seawrack.  David Helwig.  (Contemporary Canadian Poets: Vol 7).  Frog Hollow Press.  Victoria, British Columbia.  2013

One of the first poetry reviews I wrote was in 1982 for David Helwig's just released The Rain Falls Like Rain, (Oberon Press).  If memory serves I doubt if I did the book justice.

And now my fears are renewed.  With Seawrack, published by Frog Hollow Press, Helwig continues in the same vein as his previous forty or so books - clear, articulate and erudite.

being human

Keep it brief.  The animal that lives
in cities.  Toolmaker.  Trickster,
him of the opposed thumb.  Primate
with the largest penis.  God's
boon companion.

The he and she of consciousness,
inexorable, inexplicable.  Does
a dog suffer with its mate?
Do you?  The longest bridge
cries out an earthling triumph.

Grow up, Chuckie, be a mensch,
small mortal with upright spine,
define eternal, sympathy, sublime,
kill what you don't desire
to eat.  Be reasonable.


Most of the poems in this volume are untitled and prefaced with a short five line stanza, sometimes only two or three lines.  There is a casual and almost playful tone to this entire collection.  As serious a cat as Helwig insists on being there is smile on those lips, sun and sand on his toes.


What like?  Thus: in sanctuary,
asylum from the ice, the criminal,
the nakedness of wretch and scold,
the bad gas of corrupted skies.

Always within, all that is not without.
You must query the grave empiricist
on the mystery of just how the one
moment by moment becomes the other.

Blood swirls skinward and back
in its daily cycle of adventures.
The miners descend to hack and hew.
Submariners pass beneath the icecap.

Each doorway reveals the one
to its adjacent other, or in reverse.
Food swallowed fills the gut, makes
its retreat to the universe in due order.

It is everything sheltered, from shower stall
to the slithery architectures inside
beloved Milly, Anne, Maria, Jane,
or stasis in the tall silence of the nave.

What like?  A where to go, away
from the centrifugal dissolutions
of cycle, climate, furious accident.
A companion, a chair, a book.


The perceptive introspection remains.  Helwig has always been a serious poet, but there is evidence of a lighter side at play here.

In the neighbour's yard
let us come over, but only

at the second bidding.

Tell the lost summers, cry out
the innocence of the games

Wide in the haunch now, still a smart listener,
she has scribblers full of fancy reminiscence,
embroidered pillows and a worn red rug,

stands tall and strong even yet
and keeps the secrets of postmen,
detectives, clerks and steamfitters.

New names of war appear in the daily news,
and quiz shows fish for answers
but never the best ones she knows.

On thread around her neck a golden ring,
boon of a short bald man who rubbed her
just the right way until he packed and left.

She teaches pure love to the early shift
on icy mornings, the first hot cup,
two over easy and the buttery toast.

All winter she paints her toenails scarlet
as soldier's blood and plucks her brows.
It is what she achieves in the quiet nights.


Seawrack is a beautiful book.  Frog Hollow Press produce stunningly lovely books and this one is gorgeous with a cover by George Loewen that is incandescent.  Seawrack is Volume 7 from Frog Hollow's Contemporary Canadian Poets Series and has been published in two numbered limited edition versions.

David Helwig was born in Toronto in 1938, has won numerous literary awards and is currently the Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island, where he now resides.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Voices In The Waterfall - Beth Cuthand

Today's book of poetry:  Voices In The Waterfall.  Beth Cuthand.  Theytus Books.  Pentiction, British Columbia.  2008.

Post-Oka Kinda Woman

Here she comes strutting down your street.
This post-Oka woman don't take no shit.

She's done with victimization, reparation,
degradation, assimilation,
devolution, coddled collusion,
the "plight of the native Peoples."

Post-Oka woman,
She sashay       into your suburbia.
Mackenzie Way, Riel Crescent    belong to her
like software microwave ovens,
plastic Christmas trees and lawn chairs.

Her daughter wears Reeboks and works out.
Her sons cook      and wash up.
Her grandkids don't sass their Kokum!

She drives a Toyota, reads best-sellers,
sweats on week-ends, colors her hair,
sings old songs, gathers herbs.
Two steps Tuesdays
round dances Wednesdays,
twelve steps when she needs it.

Post-Oka woman she's struttin'
not walkin' one step behind her man.
She don't take that shit
Don't need it!         Don't want it!
You want her         then treat her right.

Talk to her of post-modern de-constructivism
She'll say;                    "What took you so long?"
You wanna discuss Land Claims?
She'll tell ya she'd rather leave
her kids with a struggle than a bad settlement.

Indian Government?
                   Show her cold hard cash.

Tell her you've never talked to a real live Indian.
       She'll say:                "Isn't that special."

Post-Oka woman, she's cheeky.
       She's bold                She's cold.

And she don't take no shit.

No shit!.


I could be so wrong but I suspect that might be partially a self portrait, my apologies if I am wrong, but for me this poem embodies Beth Cuthand's poetic.  Informed, educated, and not about to take any crap.

These poems offer an oral history from a seldom listened to perspective about subjects that rarely get our attention or respect.

August Heat

Auntie died after Christmas.
She lay in the band hall,
her strong brown hands
meeting over her ample lap.

Those hands made the best
Saskatoon berry pie.
All the ladies of the four bands
no one could match her skill.

Auntie guarded her berry patch
up on the south hill.
Under the poplars
shaded from the hottest sun
those berries grew fat.

Auntie made it so
carrying water up by her
own strong back and her
iron will alone.

In August when the crows
flocked in the trees and
bears meandered down
from the bush country,
Auntie knew she had to share
those purple jewels
hanging heavy
ready to bow to the weight
of bear's paws and sticky fingered
children picking and eating.

Picking and eating
til lips and teeth turned blue
and purple tongues grew thick
on the blooded prairie sun
shine of purple berries

When the bears and children
ate their fill, Auntie
picked her pails full;
some to freeze for winter dances
and some to bake in pies.

This was Auntie
loving us,
her sweat running off the
ends of her braids
as she bent over her oven
in the late August heat
while thunder rumbled
over the hills.

These were her pies:
              crystallized sugar dusting
              crust that melted
              in our mouths
              mixing with the sweet berry
              juice of Saskatoons
              baked tender with her
              fire and tindered pride.

And when she was sung into the earth
the dogs howled and ran
to the other side
to guide her home.


Beth Cuthand is a poet, and a good one, but you might also think that she is a Social Historian.  As with most narratives, and that of First People's in North America, it is the loudest, most aggressive (read powerful) voices who get heard.  Cuthand is changing that story, one poem at a time.

Cuthand, along with writers like Garry Gottfriedson (Skin Like Mine), and Richard Wagamese (Runaway Dreams), are breaking through an invisible barrier in Canadian letters.  Although they are all clearly aboriginal, Cuthand is Cree, these writers, and others, are breaking through the colonialist facade to be recognized as poets without a necessary tag line, they are just good poets.

This Knowledge

The old man
sits in the cloudy sunlight
to let the day unfold
as it will.

His gnarled hands
speak of a life
well spent in contemplation
of matters more profound
than material.

His eyes are ancient
older than many lifetimes.
He speaks to me
the young one
impatient to be off.

"This knowledge comes in many ways.
Quietly sometimes
in the whisper
of a butterfly's wings,
or the rustling of the grasses
blown by the winds...

It can come quickly
       in a flash so fast
may miss it
   a single bolt of lightning
       in a silent         humid

It can come slowly
    piece by piece
        over the years
           ...partly revealed
in the markings of a feather
    then on to a misty
half remembered dream
         leading to
voices in a waterfall
barely heard
just barely heard.
Those are the times
that try an old man's soul.
You, too, my girl?"

We watch raindrops
on the window pane
The wind is knocking
a tree branch
against the house.

a clock is ticking
silenced         drowned
by the sound
of our beating hearts.


Beth Cuthand's Voices In The Waterfall has a short prose section called Beginnings that is a deeply moving account of her coming to writing and life choices and perhaps could be seen as a mission statement.

There are also poems about Louis Riel and other heroes, and poems about those we'll never know.  Most importantly Beth Cuthand is sharing her dance, telling us her stories, with grace.

It's All in the Stories

It's all in the stories, you say.
Story is metaphor,
your round head nods.

It's not about male nor female.
That's not right.
There are no words for
he or she.

And you grin
your feminist daughter
likes that sort of thing.

It's all there in the stories,
you repeat
and somewhere rabbit
tricks Keewatin yet again.

The thunder tree
shelters the innocent
while horses paint stars
on flanks and withers
and kind old man buffalo
turns to stone.

Story is like a dance -
a metaphor for life
and it's always a different dance.

You understand?

The knotted hairs
gather metaphor and symbol
archetype          and context,
They store them in hankies
and tea cans
under the bed
or back of the house.

They're always gathering
new ways to make
things clear.

Don't listen to the people who
say the stories have to be told
exactly the way they're
given to you.

That rule was made for
who didn't understand
the stories come from down here.

You touch your belly and you grin.

If you feel it, you can tell it.

Write it down.
Make a poem.
Make a video.
There's always new ways
to tell a good story.

Someday my grandchildren
will use computer animation
or virtual reality.

The stories won't die my girl.
As long as we tell them
they'll live.


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Too Bad - Robert Kroetsch

Today's book of poetry:  Too Bad, Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait.  Robert Kroetsch.  University of Alberta Press.  Edmonton, Alberta.  2010.

I could not possibly agree with Judith Fitzgerald more, in her Globe and Mail review of Robert Kroetsch's Too Bad she suggested that Kroetsch was inhabited by Samuel Clements, that Mark Twain was twitching away inside the skin of Kroetsch.  But it must have been crowded in there because it seems to me that Kroetsch, one of our finest writers, had as many personalities in there as he decided to reveal.

We all know the novels, if you haven't read The Studhorse Man stop reading this and get to work, nine novels and fourteen volumes of poetry,  and finally Too Bad, Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait.

These short poems are exactly what the titles suggests, sketches.  But at the hands of a master even sketches contain all the beauty and wisdom of the world.

Afterthought 2

A tree is a kind of calendar, our teacher
explained, each ring in the wood a year,
each tree a memory of itself, a history

of the place and time of its growing.
Our teacher said we might bring
a sample to class.  I was a good student.

My father's favourite tree was a Manitoba maple.
It stood at the edge of our garden.
It gave him shade on hot summer days.

What I did was, I cut down my father's
favourite tree.  With a handsaw.
Then I cut off a slice from the fallen trunk.

The rings in the wood were a wonder.
I counted the rings.  I went and told my father,
You are the same age as a tree.

My father said, where did you find that
slice of wood?  I was proud of myself.
That tree at the edge of the garden, I said.

I wasn't lying.  He could see the evidence
for himself.  If he wanted to.  I asked him
to help me check my counting.

A tree is a kind of calendar.  I remember
my father, after a moment, managed to smile.
He taught me that love has many seasons.


It is a bit like watching a major league home run champ at batting practice.  The pitcher throws to his sweet spot and the batter knocks every ball out of the park.  There is a particular sound sluggers make when they connect, THUNK!  For the purposes of this review, imagine that sound every time you read one of these short gems.

Robert Kroetsch has perfected his swing and pops these little numbers out of the park, one after one.

Ancestors 2:  Hoofing it

It was our walking that found the world.
Bipedal us, scavenging after lion and bear.
cracking abandoned bones for marrow,

cracking abandoned skulls for brain,
seeking seeds, insects, the eggs of nesting birds--
we walked the world round.  Sorry, Magellan.

We are the keepers of the travel gene.
The ice caps drained the oceans low.
We found whole continents with our feet.

Now we arrive at land's end, wondering.
There's still a chance that we might
fall off.  We are at land's end.


"This book is not an autobiography.  It is a gesture toward a self-portrait, which I take to be quite a different kettle of fish."
      Robert Kroetsch, from the introduction

These funny poems are serious.  These serious poems are funny.  Take your pick.  Kroetsch has always been comfortable leading by example.  These effervescent poems are a joy to read.

These are not autobiographical poems but they are a substantial trail, path, conduit into the heart and mind of Robert Kroetsch, and as things turned out, an eloquent, jaunty goodbye.

Robert Kroetsch died in 2011 at the age of 83, he was killed in a car accident.

Too Bad, Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait is all mischief and mayhem and now a little melancholy with the passing of Mr. Kroetsch.  Writing this fine is always a celebration.

Living Life as a Poet

I hope I can resist.  It's a stupid idea.
What I was thinking was,
I could buy an estate in the Florida Keys,

mix with the Hemingway look-alikes.
I'd have to grow my beard longer.
Too bad I'm a little short of cash.

I suppose I could rent a house
somewhere on the Mexican coast.
They say the prices are right,

if you don't mind the drug wars.
I can say please in Spanish, Por favor.
Too bad my stomach can't take jalapenos.

I suppose I could borrow a tent
from one of my camping friends.
A summer on Lake Athabasca.

Not too close to the tar sands.
Commune with nature.  Poach a moose.
Too bad I'm afraid of guns.

Well, finally, I suppose I could just stay put
where I am, drink coffee, rewrite this poem.
What a stupid idea.  I hope I can resist.


Monday, August 5, 2013

Indigena Awry - Annharte

Today's book of poetry:  Indigena Awry.  Annharte.  New Star Books.  Vancouver, British Columbia, 2012.

Annharte (Marie Baker) is Anishinabe (Little Saskatchewan First Nation, Manitoba), but she is not aboriginal.

This articulate woman has published three previous books of poetry which I now will have to read because Indigena Awry is not just fine revolutionary type poetry, it is a manifesto.

South Dakota News

The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls printed
news years ago about militants.  Today
Indian people no longer blame anyone but
themselves.  No matter how you treat them
it is the other guy gets the breaks in the news.

     South Dakota to South Africa
     a long road to walk
     Mississippi of the North

     arrest Indians
     not city businessmen
     damned embarrassing
     walking around
     drunk Indians

     get them out of society
     individuals not Indians
     50 years integrated
     after all it makes sense

You stand over a dead cow in the middle of the
road on a checkerboard reservation.  Only one
side is tribal.  The rest go by blanket rules.

You line up all the Indians to sentence them.
Whites go one by one.  Only 10 percent of the
population of South Dakota make up 20 percent
of the arrests.  Nothing new in the news.

     next generation will be worse
     young men and women grow up
     never being punished
     Indians lack ambition
     carry a chip on their shoulder
     when if you see them walking
     on the road gravel paved or ruts

Whites drink in private bars in their own
neighbourhoods.  Indians can't afford to
drink in the nice bars, you see them on
the street.  You invent more stories.
They are people without a home unwelcome
even on the reservation or border towns.

It's insulting then to say "go home".
You know all the answers even to that one.
If you can't beat them up, join them for
a drink.  Spread your kind messages.
Indians must become white to succeed.
A reservation is a perfect place for crime.

Different mantra:  Whites must become Indian
to fully understand.  Make Elvis Presley chief.
One warbonnet he deserved for flaming star.
Elvis was blood brother.  Part Cherokee.
You put any group of whites on a reservation,
they'd do the same.  Shaky at first.

     sweat lodge
     pray sister pray
     for a better way
     our flag is frayed

It's a cop out to say that two whitemen
killed an Indian woman and spent 3 months
in jail.  The cops went out for coffee excuse.

Wasichu paper doesn't get all the news.

     walking on the right side
     of the road
     sun going down
     they hit me

It reports that these people live in violence.
If you do something violent to them, it doesn't
hurt them nearly as much.

     uncertain it was human
     might have been some garbage
     maybe she was lying
     on the road

More Indian cars are stopped.  Never pick up
white drunk ranchers.  No one spends a day in
jail.  For first degree manslaughter, you get
a suspended sentence.  An Indian was killed.

     remember Chief Eagle
     he was cold and hungry
     he got 5 years
     stole that can
     hot dog & beans
     from a parked car
     on Main Street

You have to hire people that don't fit the image
of Indian so they can see cops as people.  They
are harder on their own kind.

     pour the wine on the ground Chief
     turn the bottle upside down
     let me pour you a drink
     inside your pocket
     let's put this one
     in a dumpster
     check on him later

White people fear Red people on the front page.

     lonely stretch of highway
     patrolman pulled this Indian over
     tell me I'm a racist
     put me on the defence
     I am asking for it


Annharte is so far beyond fear and enmeshed in truths, her poems fight against oppression of all kinds, gender, race and thought.

Rev Me Up Double Take

In Nicaragua, a woman revolutionary celebrates
with her cadres.  One of them might notice her
dark colour.  Ask her if she has been to the beach.
It is a subversive way to ask if she is an Indian.
Stories told about solidarity & racism in Nicaragua
divulge greater quandary of how colour & class mix.
Woman thinks she must be Inca.  Let's hope she is that.
She confesses she has many resemblances to one.
Cuna might be another possible rival ancestry.
For sure Cuna because she is so like a friend I know
who is genuine San Blas Cuna when dressed in regalia.

It is not always the convincing evidence we need.
Someone at work told her she has the hands of
a potter.  Generations sculpted those hands.  Proof.
Five hundred years have faded our recollections
of who we are.  In 1992, we trade past glimpses.

I remember I am a Mohican queen not half
wit half baked half hearted descendant but one
total regal caste in blood bones bare chested
Indigena who paddled out to check her weir.
Never precious Pocahontas or Matoaka waiting
for discovery in original Tsenacomoco land.
Takes five centuries for resurgence take back
ancestral dreamtime before us forgotten women
use imperialist nostalgia to reconnect the power:

resistance revitalization regeneration revolt

Taken for granted a woman juggles identities
poet, revolutionary, Indian, mother, daughter
wife, ex-wife, grandmother & cultural worker
I catch a peek of who I am when she talks.


Indigena Awry addresses a litany of unending indignities with a scathing, all-seeing laser sight vision.  It's not just Silas Erminskin and Frank Fencepost Annharte wants to kick in the nuts.  Annharte wants to reboot the way we all look at the world.

"let's not worry about being mean to them
we're going to be very busy
building a barricade
they won't know we mean business
they must see the barricade
they will have to send in the army

to stop us from reading our books"
     -from Help Me I'm A Poor Indian Who Doesn't Have Enough Books

Each and every poem in Indigena Awry tweaks at our belief system, all those static "knowns" that are in fact false.  Annharte is in those cracks hammering away and happy to tell us about it.

These aren't easy pills to swallow, but the best medicine never is.  Eldridge Cleaver put an axe through Black consciousness back in 1968 when he published Soul On Ice.  Annharte is writing incendiary poetry full of political wisdom and hope along with many suggestions for steps to enlightenment.  She challenges not only how "white" society sees indigenous peoples, she throws down the gauntlet for "red" people to see themselves differently.

Annharte is a powerful poet, warrior princess, politician and whatever else she says she is.  Indigena Awry will most likely make you feel uneasy, stirred up, agitated....

Friday, August 2, 2013

Trobairitz - Catherine Owen

Today's book of poetry:  Trobairitz.  Catherine Owen.  Anvil Press.  Vancouver, British Columbia.  2012.

Catherine Owen is a Vancouver poet who has appeared on this blog before.  I wrote about her Angel House Press book Steve Kulas & Other Autopsies back in April.  Today we look at Trobairitz, her latest Anvil Press title.

Trobairitz is a coat of many colours.  Ostensibly it is where Metalheads/Metal Music (which you can not begin to imagine how much I do not enjoy), meets 12th Century troubadours, courtly tradition and the women who give voice to the spectacle.

This is so much NOT my cup of tea.  So, why and how did I enjoy it so much?

Canso 14

"I know it's easier to lose than gain;  still, though I be blamed,
I'll tell the truth"
                 - Azalais de Porciarages

No desire without tension
(you tell me).

that the ocean at Dauphine needs cliffs
or else the salt flood would devour the town

(all its edicts       all those battlements)
and then

(what then?)
only rubble of our love and not this sweet

unyielding endless scarce-succumbing
between us

would you want this
(o would you?)

(o would you


Catherine Owen apparently doesn't care about old men like me and our biases, she simply writes through doubt and into the world of her own creation.  This book is a fully formed universe we have never seen but through Owen's carefully measured direction we understand where we are immediately.  It is an astonishing feat of time-travel and gender navigation.

Canso 16
     for the Domna Assag or Love Test

"But she knows my sorrow and my pain/and when it pleases her,
she gives me comfort and honours me, and when it pleases her, I
make do with less:
     - Bernart de Ventadorn

There is one condition:  darkness.
Then the Kalamata light of her flesh,
her name's difficult spices.

Suddenly she is naked as a perfect seed
and you do not know why
she is embracing you, why

her mouth's small rupture finds yours
or your hands the sleek clay of her breasts.
He is watching us both

like someone at the site of a collision
helpless in the beauty of accidents
but when she calls for him to join us

he is already in our arms
as if our bodies are the only room.
Then she is gone

and he is entering me from behind
like someone praying, as in those dreams
where I had imagined him, wet and bent

over my back, hair working its rivulets
into skin and I know somewhere she is
listening, our cries translated by night

but she never once tears us apart --
I thinking this is her gift.
How wrong I was.


Trobairitz has so many of the qualities that brought me to poetry in the first place.  It's fun.  Owen is wickedly clever and rains her wisdom down like confetti at a large wedding.  It gets everywhere, into everything, and hangs around for days.

"we are in love with love, not death"  - Canso 6

This collection may be seen in the future with the same reverence we currently give books like Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy The Kid.  Trobairitz is a game changer.  Like Laura Nyro did for Pop music, Catherine Owen is utterly unapologetic about mixing genres, metaphors and centuries and whatever else she requires to achieve the alchemy of her purpose.

Why the Trobairitz Picks
Up Men at a Metal Festival

I enter

the Coliseum of Flesh: boys

with elaborate hair & symbolic skin, shirtless and moist

in the whirling bodies around the stage
& take my pick from them all.

How is this wrong.
High-born I proclaim --.

monogamy is for those who fear.
To not be owned by a single

set of arms as a moat without a drawbridge
but to hold when I please these men of intensity --

here receiving the sleek bolt of a touch, there
a tongue playing its lightning in my mouth &

moving on in the way of music, finding a song
for it in the morning perhaps, as the boy

sleeps his moment in my bed,

his string-worn fingers sweet.


Owen has declared herself the modern female troubadour, Trobairitz is a refreshing gender shuffle, a new history being hammered out in front of us.  Owen has such a vibrant and exciting voice and clearly so many things to say that are worth listening to.  Trobairitz was an exhilarating surprise, I can not wait to see what this absurdly talented writer does next.