Thursday, October 31, 2013

War Reporter - Dan O'Brien

Today's book of poetry:  War Reporter.  Dan O'Brien.  Hanging Loose Press.  Brooklyn, New York.  2013.

American poet and playwright Dan O'Brien uses Canadian war reporter Paul Watson as a conduit for this examination of what happens when someone sees too much horror, sees the worst we can do to one another.  By mining Watson's memoir, Where War Lives, his journalism, recording and transcripts, and apparently a great deal of personal correspondence between the two, O'Brien has taken it all and finely distilled it.  As a result we get this collection, War Reporter, a startlingly harsh and crisp telling of so many horrors, the brief respite of beauty.

The War Reporter Paul Watson on Suicide

On a bed we discover the body
of a child at the bottom of a pile
of children.  Quartered like chickens.  Outside
another's buried alive.  The hand is
like a tuber.  At the refugee camp
a girl stumbles barefoot into a ditch
of corpses.  Some wrapped in reed mats.  Looking
for help, crying.  But nobody's coming.
I say to myself,  This will make a great
picture.  This is a beautiful picture
somehow.  Raising my camera to my face
I step on a dead old woman's arm:  it
snaps like a stick.  In Nyarubuye
we push open a gate on a courtyard
of Hell.  Tangles of limbs junked.  They'd come to
this church hoping God would protect them but
it only made things that much easier
to be hacked to pieces.  A survivor
shivers on the filthy foam.  The mayor
asked for wallets, tossed them grenades.  Men blown
into pieces in midair.  These are snakes
whose heads must be crushed.  Neighbors took neighbors'
children and bashed their heads together till
brains strewed the dirt.  Infants keening beside
their decapitated mothers were plunged
head-first into latrines.  A pregnant friend
slit open and her fetus extruded
like a docile calf.  There was so much noise!
the survivor recalls.  All I wanted
was to close my ears and lay on the ground
and sleep in my family's blood.  Till her skin
itched with maggots.  Then 40 days cowering
in the charnel church.  Praying I'd be killed
too because I believed the world had been
swept away.  Of course I wanted to kill
myself before, write the war reporter
to the poet, but the truth is I lack
the courage.  So I tell myself, Just go
someplace dangerous, let somebody else
kill you.


Many of these poems are sledgehammer poems.  Vicious, kick you hard in the groin of reality poems, but a reality most of us have never really considered much less experienced.  O'Brien mines Watson's world and bleeds it into poems for us, one incredible story after the next.

The War Reporter Paul Watson Was Talking to His Mother

and I asked her, Did you ever ask him
about what happens after?  He'd been sick
for a while, of the same kidney disease
that's killing me.  Did my father believe
he'd be going somewhere?  And she said,  Well
how should I know?  Ha ha ha.  We just talked
about, you know, how to take care of all
you kids, what our savings account was and
that sort of thing.  And I told her, You know,
I find that hard to believe.  He's staring
into the abyss — how could he face this
fact?  And she just shrugged and answered, Bravely,
I suppose.  And, well, that kind of told me
everything I need to know.


Unflinching honesty and hard chemistry has Watson judging himself harshly, he has seen too much for any other vision.  Yet O'Brien sees Watson as a hero.  A flawed Colonel Kurtz type experienced hero full of flaws and fears and flitting through a world that both boggles the mind of the innocent and beggars belief for the inured.  Dan O'Brien's War Reporter feels more than true than the ground beneath your feet and explosive enough to knock you off them.

The War Reporter Paul Watson on Guilt

This was in Mosul at the beginning
of the war.  A boy was throwing pebbles
at a machine gun twisting like a hose
spraying death.  A bunch of students pulling
another student bleeding from a gash
over his eyes.  Someone made that sound click
like, you know, Take his picture!  I had to
swap my lenses, and you could see the switch
go off in someone's head.  I was lifted
off the ground, tossed around, stoned,  Someone slid
his knife into my back and I could feel
the blood pool in my shirt.  I was trying
to hold on to my camera as they stretched
my arms out like this till I was floating
on top of the mob, and I'm not trying
to be cinematic but it was like
Christ on the cross.  I am not Innocent
nor have I ever been.  I don't deserve
your mercy.  But the truth of these places
is always the same.  A dozen people
formed a circle around me, a dozen
people against a thousand.  Approaching
a row of shuttering shops.  And these people
simply pulled the shutters back up and shoved
me under.  That's when I saw my camera's
gone, the hand's empty, the mob is pounding
on metal.  The tea shop owner says, Look
you know I'd really like to help you but
would you mind leaving my tea shop soon?  Out
into the street again lying prostrate
in the dust at the order of some pissed
-off marines, and I somehow convince them
to take me back behind the wire.  That's why
I can't blame it all on my brain, Dan.  Or
my father dying when I was young.  Or
this missing hand.  It would be poetic
justice to get ripped apart.  Remember
what the ghost promised me:  If you do this
I will own you.  I just have this feeling
he's thinking,  You watched my desecration,
now here comes yours.


Paul Watson is a Pulitzer Prize winning war reporter, most famous for a photo of an American soldier taken on the streets of Mogadishu after the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter.  In these poems that dead soldier speaks to Watson again and again and there isn't enough forgiveness to go around.

Getting as close as Watson has to the dark heart of the beast, comes at a cost.  These astonishingly honest poems show the scars a witness must bare when telling the truth.  O'Brien has given these sad tales of woe,  and the stories that connect them, some elegance and beauty, perhaps even some purpose.  No one gets out unscathed seems to be a common enough theme but these poems are not common at all.

The War Reporter Paul Watson Considers the Peacekeepers

At the traffic circle I see hundreds
of men, women and children, some waving
branches.  The blue-and-white flag.  Reciting
Aideed's name.  Pakistani peacekeepers
open fire so I hug the wall.  Trying
to meld with the brick.  A drill hammer.  Pause
and somebody's moaning.  Bursts of gunfire
and a child screaming.  A man is pleading,
Stop!  Please stop!  A crack.  Then another.  Then
nothing.  Nothing moves.  I turn to the sound
of moaning.  He's maybe seven, lying
on his side in the street.  While I'm standing
in a web of rippled gray mush.  No blood
on him.  The top of his head's sliced open
like an eggshell.  The skull's completely white
and empty as if someone's wiped it clean
with a cloth.  A spray from a machine gun
blew his brains out.  That's what I've been standing
in.  With his father lying beside him
facedown, an arm behind his back.  He's cut
almost in half.  Bullets perforated
his belly.  The moaning is a woman
next to them, rocking back and forth, Allah,
Allah.  Peacekeepers in their armored trucks
looking down on us as they drive around
and out of the circle.


O'Brien has also written a play about Paul Watson called The Body of an American, it opens in London, England, in January of 2014.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Death Centos - Diana Arterian

Today's book of poetry:  Death Centos.  Diana Arterian.  Ugly Duckling Presse.  Brooklyn, USA.  2013.

"I'm so happy"
     last words of Jacques Arterian (author's grandfather)

To quote the editors at Ugly Duckling Presse, "Arterian employs the ancient framework of the cento — a collage form that borrows from the language of others.

Mark Nowak, the award winning poet, playwright and critic said this about the Death Centos — "Here, Joe Hill and John Brown meet Emily Dickinson in that moment before the lights go out".

What Arterian does in Death Centos is to usher us into that most feared of conversations, the one about our own mortality, and she does it with the words of the dying.  This is fabulous stuff.

Each poem is followed by a list of the speakers and it is fascinating stuff connecting the dots.  These poems really do speak from the grave.


This is the fight of day
and night.  The taste

of death is upon
my lips.  Please

put out the light.  I want
sunlight.  The earth

is suffocating.  I feel something
that is not

of this earth.  Don't pull
the blinds.

It is very beautiful over there.
There is nothing ... there,

do you hear the bell?  Why
not?  Why not?  I see

black light —
it is nothing.

Don't you hear it ringing?

More light.
Up... Up...

Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Thomas Edison, Franz Ferdinand, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, Timothy Leary, Wolfgang Amadeua Mozart, Theodore Roosevelt, Tom Simpson, Rudolph Valentino


Diana Arterian is not only very clever, she is very well read.  And we are the beneficiaries.  Arterian lists her sources after each poem and it adds both depth and validity to the process without distraction of any kind, without the lists the poems might even seem less somehow.  These poems are really the product of excellence in quilting as Arterian connects all these disparate voices and makes of them one humanity.


Please don't leave me,
please don't leave me.

Nothing soothes pain
like the human touch.

I haven't drunk champagne
in a long time.  I have tried

so hard to do right.
Only you have understood me

and you got it wrong.
Does nobody understand?

I sang of pastures,
fields and kings—

I have not told half
of what I saw.

I am going away tonight
I am going over the valley.

Drink to me.  Drink to my health.
You know I can't drink anymore.

James Brown, Anton Chekhov, Grover Cleveland, Chris Farley, Bobby Fischer, Georg Hegel, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marco Polo, Babe Ruth, Virgil


James Brown, Anton Chekhov, Grover Cleveland, Chris Farley, Bobby Fischer, Georg Hegel, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marco Polo, Babe Ruth and Virgil.  Astonishingly, Diana Arterian is able to bring these voices together to give sorrow words.  This is a refreshing new embrace, a celebration, of a common humanity revealed in last words.  Arterian is reminding us of how the same thread of humanity surges through us all.  

Sometimes our last words are not whispered on scented pillows but instead come at the hands of others.

To the Executioner(s)


When I give
the command to fire

center on my heart, boys.
Fire straight at my heart.

Don't mangle my body.
Please, don't let me fall.

Here, here is the heart.
You are going to hurt me.

In a short while
we'll meet each other

anyway.  I will wait
for you.  Just

one more

Madame de Barry. Adolf Eichmann, John Doyle Lee, Michel Ney, Schillschen officer, Mary Surratt, Karla Faye Tucker


This very attractive chapbook takes the last words out of the mouths of historical figures and criminals to make poetry that reminds us all how terribly human we are.  Atrerian gets it right again and again.

No one gets out alive in this world or in this book.

Ugly Duckling Presse, out of Brooklyn, New York, makes some very lovely chapbooks.  Natalia Porter did the design work and the result is a very crisp looking little book.  Death Centos was published in an edition of 575.

On Innocence

Something very wrong
is taking place tonight.

I am innocent,
innocent, innocent.

We are innocent.  The state
has succeeded in its quest

for my life.  The priceless
gift of life.  Life purchased

in exchange for lies
could not live out in dignity

Leonel Torres Herrera, Ernest Martin, Julius Rosenberg


Diana Arterian is currently pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.  My poor research skills show that this is her first book, it won't be her last.

Diana Arterian reads Death Centos.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis - Robin Richardson

Today's book of poetry:  Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis.  Robin Richardson.  A Misfit Book.  ECW Press.  Toronto, Ontario.  2013.

Disco At The End Of Days

Saints go screeching down the underpass.
Black cloaks against the snow; they move like
phosphenes resurrected from the rubbed eye
of a diabolist.  Barbed gods gurgling
at the turnstiles.  Shiny, fashionable; they walk
as if the roads were runways, shredding
to confetti as they tangle briefly in the wheels
of a transport truck from Cincinnati.  Now
the Northern Lights touch down to torch
what's left of us: a misty green-lipped kiss.
The gods go ape-shit at the flame, the way
a dance floor takes to cheering
at the onset of a latest hit.


Robin Richardson's Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis opens as though Richardson were the tail gunner in a dive-bombing airplane being chased through the sky.  She is letting it all fly.  These gem like poems are stacked with unthinkably charismatic lines of poetry.  Imagine a wood-chipper in reverse, the news, the detritus of the world, all of it spewing at pace towards the mouth of the chipper, these solid oak poems coming out the other end.

Porn Star On Monday Morning

The mole that itches at her hip bone barely shows.
She bends her knees unshaved, sits spread-eagle
like the camera is a thoroughbred.  Behind her: pale
plaster, lamp, an unlocked door.  But watch, when
she disrobes there is a flea half-frantic at the outskirts
of her girlish gaze.


These are some hot licks, some razor sharp poems.  Richardson changes directions so quickly that at times you'd think she'd lose her way.  But no, these poems, as frantic and multi-directional as they seem, are guided by a laser focus, a direct high-beam of insight.

Overheard In New York

Next stop: Sixtieth Street, transfer
to the four, five, six or the N/R.
Sixtieth Street and Bloomingdale's,
next stop...

Hi, everyone — I'd like to take this
red light to thank you for joining us
on this, the one hundred and fifteenth
run of the M103 bus.

Now, I know some of you have
had bad days at school, work,
church, et cetera, but please don't
bring that home to your loved ones.

Leave all your stress on the bus,
and I'll toss it into the East River
when we pass it.


Richardson and these poems can be a genteel as a nursery rhyme or they can kick like George St. Pierre.  Either way Robin Richardson's multi-faceted prism shines.  I really can't begin to tell you how spectacular some of these poems are, whoosh.

Monte Carlo, Mississauga

Synesthesia keeps my honorary uncle
focused on the game; four is Merlot, nine
the dentin on his mentor's molars.

A game of pool's the way
I first learned to look a good
curve straight on, watched
my uncle's oak-skinned opposition

sitting coked-up at the barstool,
steadied by the slow hoist of a cue
as he stood to take his shot.  Green
was the sound of a hustle, cueball

hop-scotched across a string
of solids, sunk for five grand.
Two years old and barely tall
enough to reach the rail when

I learned to rack.  They said
my mother was a shark.  She kept
my teeth in jade containers.  Jade
and mean was how she played.


Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis is incandescent as Richardson sets them up and knocks them down with ease.  Think of a female David McGimpsey, Richardson is that whippet quick on the page.

Salem:  Unofficial Transcript

The year her seizures became more frequent — dirtied
     bonnet too familiar with the wood and grassy patch
outside the barn — she burned her lips on chapel candles
     as is a kiss could be a prayer, could prove her innocence.
The year she found a ferret at the gate, gold-pawed, fond
     of recitation, whispered Chaucer in her ear to get a blush.
The year she broke her jaw against her father's riding crop,
     dropped daisies from a cut that split like batter.


Robin Richardson would appear to have all the ideas in the world at the tips of her talented fingers.  Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis is a startling good book.  If you are reading this you should stop, now, and go buy this book.

Excerpts from Knife Throwing Through Self Hypnosis by Robin Richardson
 © 2013 by ECW Press. Used with permission from the publisher.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Incarnate - Juleta Severson-Baker

Today's book of poetry:  Incarnate.  Juleta Severson-Baker.  Frontenac House Press.  Calgary, Alberta.  2013.

Juleta Severson-Baker takes a broad swat at lust in the pages of Incarnate.

Down Will I Lie

I want to be wracked like driftwood
I want wave after wave of you to lick me
lift me in your briney mouth
swish and strip and
spit me out

Reach for me

and please and again
without ceasing
reach for me


There is a brevity to Severson-Baker's longing, a straight to the point edge - but these poems are not harsh.

Avalanche Zone

Nearing the top of the chairlift the wind is most severe.
My gloves up to cut the shear between goggles and
cheeks — a helicopter enters from off right, crosses
the mottled sky, same sky I dangle in, apparatus
humming me up mountain, insecting westward,
a metal flight towards the avalanche slope.  I make
the top, skis kissing grooves of snow, thighs and
shoulders coordinating to push off and slide
down a little rise to where four of us in our costumes
pose very still, looking up and to the left.
There's people up there, someone says and three black
dots move and become suddenly human.  Eyes can't
fathom distance in this enormity of granite and white.
The helicopter lowers, slows, shakes loose some snow,
a widening puff in the whumpwhump wind of its blades,
ascends, wobbles, turns and falls out of sight just the
other side of the peak.  The dots scramble with what
seems unreasonable speed over the black line and beyond
knowing.  Just then I feel an egg drop loose from the ovary
on my right side, freestyling towards the powder of my womb.
I hold frozen for one slow inhale before turning, poling,
searing a long straight line down the cold blue bowl,
two solo minutes, to the bottom.


What these poems are - is clear.  Blue sky and endless horizon clear.  Which is something I appreciate.  These poems are full of life, full of possibility and full of hope, within reason.

Sometimes;  from the edge of a city

The shine and pulse of the airport becomes beautiful
when we're alone.  Not yet on a plane, electronic ticket
hiding on my new phone, walking down the wide bazaar
of commerce, huge wall of glass to my left, and beyond —
tubes of air-people rolling close.  All the engine and lift
of my life in a bolus of truth closed up, sealed.
Black phone in my hand.  Threads of people I'd once
loved trailing the waxed floor behind me.

As in a dream the thin man, so young he mightn't
have been twenty, slid into my hoop of space —
this boy-man, neatly dressed and with pretty white
fingers and a hat, came upon me from the right and took
my hand, released my phone.  Like that I loved him.
He did not meet my eyes, was working my touch
screen and yes, I needed his help.  We moved
somehow to a table and he was putting the magic
of the age and his lovely lovely touch into my
grateful phone and with something like horror growing
I knew he was not going to stay.  I asked him where
he was from, Edson.  The ordinary dirt in the word,
the way he spoke it, it would be the last time.  Montreal
he said, and my chance was slipping by.  He was making
music play from my phone and colours lean and I wanted
to gift him, needed to keep him here, so I offered with
the red of my cheek and my forty-year old voice
a life like mine.  He saw it, full and possible and already
starting;  he would only have to smile and stay, but
from across the lurch of the cafe table he shook
his empyrean head, and faded to gone.
Sometimes the edge of a life is all we have.


The sensuality that shaped all these poems is not without humour.  Incarnate doesn't pull back from pointing fingers or tongue cheeking.


You hold a pelt
and your mind revolts
at a death as soft as god allows

Still, you'd take a hundred pelts
and make a coat

             (and wear it naked, fur side in)


Juleta Severson-Baker is a romantic and realist.  The best of these poems have an intimacy beyond what is usually shared on paper and Severson-Baker has her eyes wide open in the dark.

His Gentleness With Her

Heel of his hand along her collar bone,
his voice with a soft edge, the curve
of her ear burning.  She feels the strength
across his back, contained, controlled.
Her role is the clumsy child falling
from monkeybars;  every bone in her body
softer than clover.  When it is over
he kisses her forehead once, twice,
slow, so she will know his gentleness
is a choice.


Whenever Severson-Baker decides to step on the gas, her fearless wit pops up and lashes out.  But the bigger accomplishment is when she turns her pen to joy...

Between Us

Bees in our bed,
their restless feet
where my hip fits,
your ribs bristled by
the fuzz of their backs.

harvesting the whole length
of one another's skin
and smell, the bees release
their hum and honey.

An entire season
surrenders with
the burst of our shudders,
and the bees hover
only wings between us.


Juleta Severson-Baker is able to capture joy in a real tangible way, and that is tremendously hard in this fractured world.

Birds So White

I believe that pain can reach completion.
     ~Sena Jeter Naslund, from "The Disobedience of Water"

Somewhere, my friend, on a green lake
a white swan has left her nest and is paused,
perfectly, as if for a photograph.  The lake water
is a mirror;  two swans it seems, in the middle
of a lake, at the edge of a deep, quiet wood.
Though there is no photographer, no one at all,
thought I know you are not there to see her,
take heart in this knowing;  somewhere
a great beauty floats in silence, serene.
Somewhere the tears have already fallen
and the air is so clean, the birds so white.


Juleta Severson-Baker is no young naif.  These poems are full-on life experience passion, with warts whistles and bells.  Severson-Baker is brave enough to be honest and writes well enough to be poignant.

This last poem is a killer.  It's a novel wrapped up in a shortish poem.  I think it is brilliant.


In Bristol in 1776 ropemakers worked near the muddy
shipyards hard every day grey winter or summer grey day after
day pacing lengths of the ropeshed twining hemp or burlap
rough and heavy turning and twisting the fibres layering anchor
cables into heavy existence.  These men might have sang or
jeered while working but I think by noon they'd have fallen
silent a hard labour bulging forth from their corded hands
shouldering the finest rope in England.  See their skin scratched
and layered torn in the early months of their apprenticeships
ships in docks waiting for rigging ropes hawsers cables lines
there were American colonies to be put down victory over the
French to protect these men toughened their skin for King and
country muscles rivaling the strength of finished rope six inches
thick and skin so tough it tore no more.

Their women had to tougher too.  Ropemakers' hands couldn't
feel softness in breast or thigh at night they became all lips and
cock unwinding their women fraying untwining to expose a
fragile first thread at the core.  By day finger and thumbing the
thickening rope but thinking of that cotton tie at the neck of her
nightclothes beneath it the pulse purple in candlelight of a tiny
cord in her neck feeling it beneath his lips then that quick burst
of freedom unroped undone before the sure short oblivion of


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bit Parts for Fools - Peter Richardson

Today's book of poetry:  Bit Parts for Fools.  Peter Richardson.  Icehouse Poetry.  Goose Lane Editions.  Fredericton, New Brunswick.  2013.

Peter Richardson is pulling our legs in a rather spectacular fashion.  One would have to search high and low, near and far, to find poetry as entertaining and flamboyant as that found in Bit Parts for Fools.

These are poems that demand you read them two or three times, for the fun of it of course, but also for clarity.  Richardson's exuberance is our reward in these richly textured works.

Professor Jacobsen Discourses on Another
Aspect of His Made-up Language

The words for today are broischni hydranya.
Saying them in your mind, you find
you can either be compassionate
or ruthless.  It depends on tone.

If you growl the Slavic-sounding phrase,
broischni hydranya, several men
will be bound and gagged
and lowered into a freezing river.

If you soften your voice, the locution
will spare enemy officers
and send them to a field hospital
to recover in clean linen.

This language where tone controls meaning,
and meaning, the lives of ex-occupiers,
can it pull the dying from boxcars
and reinstate them in a ghetto?

Even as you stormed the one bridge
to this ruined plaza — your makeshift
command post in the roofless opera —
works of art were being carried away.

But among these few captured
enemy reservists, some are polyglots
and they will be pitching their ears
to hear how words will exit your mouth.


Richardson is completely committed to the universe of each poem.  The infinite galaxy of his imagination is only limited by what the reader can take in.  Richardson constructs the world that each poem inhabits as this were all his playground, and language something he made up to amuse himself.

In a Belgrade Hotel Lift

To move the cabin, push the button for the wishing floor.
If the cabin should enter more persons, each person
should press the number of wishing floor.
Driving is then going by national order.
If you are from Bulgaria you will be driving soon.
Leave complaining to the Americans.
They are far down the list after Rarotonga.
Anyway, control panels such as these
will not alleviate a slivovitz hangover.
Foot traffic creaks in an adjacent stairway
accessible through the staff lounge.
Passes may be secured at the front desk.
Please give the phonetic equivalent
to the words Roman marsh in Estonian
written in non-Cyrillic letters behind the bar.
Distances will be called out in metres.
Weights and counterweights obey old gears.
Each may eventually attain his or her wishing floor.


Bit Parts for Fools is like an intelligent boulder rolling down a steep hill - but in total control of itself, speed, direction and intention.  These poems steam roll over the reader, the subjects hardly matter as everything is being illuminated with a razor lens, a very sharp pencil.

August Scene at Spyros Inlet Resort

Corinthian shin guards fallen from a trireme in an ancient
     naval war
would entice a small man floating above sunken keels on a
     dawn dip

to dive down google-eyed over cordage and hull plates from
     our era
and not what was spoken of by the bogus archaeologist at
     the taverna,

but instructive to a tycoon lately up from Athens on a
     fortnight spree,
who can chat up the locals, greet the sun beside a sylph a
     third his age

and lust for antiquities in a capsized scow, before shooting
     chest pains
send him angling slack-bellied for his yacht with a prayer
     and a vow.

She springs to her feet, scurries to the bow ladder, yelping
     his name,
all legs and hips in that thong she wears, hands clamped to
     her ears,

ears he adorned with black pearls last night over an ouzo
after she suggested they go skinny-dipping in the hotel-spa's

He promises the gods he will sit at that pool and write out
     a cheque
for a library, oh, yes, a library, to be staffed by the
     unemployed poor

of this backwater, for its motorbike crazies, who roar along
     its roads,
if his left arm can stop going numb, if she will trust her own

and reach down the bow ladder a bit, if he can do more than
at the hand reefed in so all he can do is wave at its
     periwinkle nails.


Peter Richardson rattles off wise gems like a gone mad jeweller giving away his wares.  These poems are wicked tight and packed with startling images and incandescent language.

Sunrise Excision

It's sweet, this bandage that floats from your ribcage today
and the way you manage to look aghast but not pained

in the room whose louvered windows mute the light.
You sense that your lungs harbour a scabbed lymphoma

daily diminishing since you began the exercise of opening
a rabbit hutch door in your chest.  A mea-culpa-like tap

enables you to insert your right hand into the beehive
of cells clumped beside your heart and to further note

that as the stinking maroon cloth emerges, another
lump located under your left shoulder blade begins now

to shrink restoring you to the facsimile of someone
able to stand the sight of himself in a bathroom mirror,

someone less fearful of dying this week as the putrid gauze
piles into your hands and you take a whiff of clotted blood,

declaring what your body has produced sweet as the plunder
of bees nesting in crags above a shoreline of dirty syringes.


"Anything will travel if you clap on wheels" is a line from Richardson's poem Sven Takes to His Rollerblades.  It may be Richardson's mantra.  He can slap the wheels onto any subject and the next thing you know it's racing past us with vigor, elan and considerable speed.

Do you get the impression I liked this book?  These poems are not what I traditionally champion — but perhaps I am learning.  I'm not certain I felt smarter after reading this book but I certainly felt happier for the experience.

Porch Coronary

For the second or so his brain stays bathed
in the necessary projection room electrics

he travels forward to this cloudy evening,
to the pale beverage tipping from his hand,

the floor rushing up, the outflux of breath,
to a bit of scalp nicked by vinyl clapboard

but not before reviving a Forties childhood
himself with mumps then the Saturday Post

cover of him ogling a limited edition stamp
whose provenance he can't recall as scenes

fly by too fast for him to subordinate them
to his wishes under a fleet of mauve clouds.

But surely it doesn't work that way.  No one
believes the load of crap about a life's film

flashing before the eyes of the free-falling
alpinist or the hapless motorist ten metres

from smacking granite.  There's a gonging
by way of closing credits.  A crash of static

clearing pixels from the screen.  No rushes
dedicated to childbirth or a family opening

its solstice gifts, just whirling phosphenes
lighting a sky that moments ago produced

stories this husband and father could swear by
who now doesn't know a comet from a glove.


Bit Parts for Fools by Peter Richardson is an immensely rewarding read.  Can't recommend it highly enough.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Children of Air India: Un/Authorized Exhibits and Interjections – Renee Sarojini Saklikar

Today's book of poetry:  Children of Air India:  Un/Authorized Exhibits and Interjections.  Renee Sarojini Saklikar.  A Blewointment Book.  Nightwood Editions.  Gibsons, British Columbia.  2013.

This book is a sustained and articulate banshee scream, a well written wail against injustice, silence and indifference.  Saklikar brings together all the research concerning Air India Flight 182 and imbues it with the emotional toll, the frantic pull of the heart, of a parent, a sibling, who must face the unthinkable horror and loss.


This is a work of the imagination.
This is a work of fiction, weaving fact in with the fiction,
merging subject-voice with object-voice, the "I" of the author,
submerged, poet-persona: N––
     who loses her aunt and uncle in the bombing of an airplane:  Air India Flight 182.

This is a sequence of elegies.  This is an essay of fragments:
     a child's battered shoe, a widow's lament ––

This is a lament for children, dead, and dead again in representations.  Released.
This is a series of transgressions:  to name other people's dead, to imagine them.
This is a dirge for the world.  This is a tall tale.  This is sage, for a nation.
This is about lies.  This is about truth.

Another version of this introduction exists.
It has been redacted.


Saklikar is relentless and fearless as she forces aside the multi-layered curtains of a world that doesn't want to know.  There is a deft tenderness to many of these poems but it always girded within the fist of hard rebuke.

Exhibit (1985):  fourteen, eleven.

His brother excels––French, English, math, science––
                            he takes a paper route,
buys milk when an old woman offers two dollars
                   with the coins he fetches a carton,
holds it, high––

Father:  You took her money?  She's an old lady.
Son:  But Dad, she gave me, she gave––
                    I ran all the way.
Father:  Take the money back.

He slow-walks
to the woman's house.


Before the car drives away, before the plane takes off––
                  this paper-route boy
lags behind in his home––
                  everyone is waiting––
he touches each piece of furniture,
                  goodbye sofa, goodbye lamp––

His arm brushes
against a locked door.


Status:  It is his brother's body, found.


When she hears the news about her paper-route boy, the old woman––
                  the woman, old,
when she hears the news––


Renee Sarojini Saklikar lost family in the tragedy and you feel the personal loss, that hole that never gets filled.  But Saklikar is never saccharine or maudlin, instead she moves forward with her voice in full song as she tackles the litany of sorrows.

These poems are sometimes lists, legal documents with redacted, crossed out sections.  Saklikar melds all these fragments, the fractured data, the emotional girth, and gives us an indictment, a Kaddish, a funeral prayer, a howling denial of what is represented as the truth.


"...a twelve-year-old boy, darling of the house, so pampered ... suddenly turned
into an orphan with very few good and honest relatives ...  very hard for me ...  to
explain all these years ... grew up learning how mean this world ... none of the
governments ... ever cared to ask ..."

          Witness No. [redacted]––Name [redacted]
           Air India Inquiry

This is brave stuff to be sure and Renee Sarojini Saklikar is as fearless as she is frantic to justice served.  As a debut collection this is dazzling work.  Children of Air India should become a book we are all familiar with.

Exhibit:  "Yes, that's what I said.  It didn't sound like a bomb."

          Look, I've taken early retirement.  Ask my lawyer.
          Sorry, don't mean to sound rude.  It's just––
          haven't we been over this enough times?
          I was doing my job, proud of my work.
          Yes.  Yes.  How many times have we gone over,

this, sitting and then,
just rocked me
                 I mean the force,
the thing exploded and I fell out
my seat, the whole car jolted.
                   Was there any smell?  There may have been.  I can't recall.  Not anymore.

           I was one of the few women hired, you know, it wasn't always easy.
           Of course I took it seriously. Followed him all the way from Vancouver, right?


Wade Compton, Joanne Arnott
Michael Turner and Renee Sarojini Saklikar discuss poetry.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Petrarch - Tim Atkins

Today's book of poetry:  Petrarch.  Tim Atkins.  Book Thug:  New British Poets Series No. 2.  Toronto, Ontario.  2013

Tim Atkins' Petrarch  from Book Thug's New British Poets Series is edited by Stephen Collis and Amy De'Ath.  If the quality of this read  is any indication of what is to follow we are all in for a big treat.  This chapbook pops and spits and crackles in your hands while you are trying to read it.  If this is what they are doing in Britain then I want to see more of it.

 to J.S.with L.

In England     or     Hobbiton        & in denial of my age
     now that summer has been sold off
Without dividend from whatever privatized public service
     deigns to lease my leg to the national grid & then charge
     for it

                      After 300 years of being Japanese
                In the process of giving up wishing for the rewards
     of a poetry written towards a ship made of bricks
     Or of 'literal' fulfilment                having been closer than
      most hairdressers to both
In a taxi   back from a fortnight's canapes & quality time
     with chinchillas   at a conference on Karl Marx
                                 Let me state              although it is late –
To be a poet is to hitch-hike 5000 miles in a kayak   in order
     to see
A jar in Tennessee          Rioting     Inna me khaki suit-an-t'ing
In Godalming
                                                           Selling out is the new
     keeping it real            Unhappy for 3/4 of a haircut
                                      We always fall into the
         Utopian     Camp      Poets
                                If you want to fix the world go to Wall St.


Tim Atkins is quite unlike anyone else I've encountered, the mix of styles, his range, his humour –
these poems, ostensibly a translation of Petrarch, simply soar like somewhat unorganized fireworks.  Each explosion more illuminating than the last.


Her white breasts pressed against a green tree-trunk
The orange of oranges        as   only oranges can
One cat kissing another cat     on a card      in a card shop
     in Clapham
Different from a blue tongue in the mouth or the hand
Of a Chinese doctor  trembling just a little at the front     of
     the concept of reciprocity
Her yellow body       as white as white paper      really white
Two boxers standing silent in a ring     perhaps       hugging
     Jack & Art           What Spunk!
Light on wrought-iron in the dome of the mind of the
     Dadaist Restauranteur
Whoever wishes to love nobly     when she presses her green
     something against a white what –    friends –


Book Thug, the most adventurous small press in the country at the moment, is producing this new series, New British Poets, in runs of 100.  Tim Atkin's Petrarch would be better served as a Gideon Bible type promotion, you know, one in every hotel room, maybe a run of 100,000.  This isn't about religion, not remotely, but instead a new kick start to reason.  "O, brave new world that such people in't!"   This book in every hotel room would put things in a new perspective.


Sitting upright in front of a lie detector
& failing test after test
A male nurse called Pam says
Wake up Mr Atkins – it's time for your Phil Spector
There is the pot test and the one involving fire and domestic
In order to discover any new planet
In the prose poem entitled "The Shrimp Exaggerated"
I am that tulip
In London SW19
The camera records everything but     love
     & on the other hand
Again – love –
If you can get it from my kung-fu grip
Only then you can have it


Atkins isn't really concerned about our fractured history or kaleidoscope future, he's riffing fantastic, about the present in poem after poem.  I would be a liar if I said I got it all, some of it flies past me so fast I don't see it, but these poems resonate with me and call me back for more.  Atkins makes me laugh.


No lovely small noisy birds with dark shiny feathers that
     roam through empty pieces of clothing for a woman or
     girl that hangs from the waist
No well-oiled water creature with a shell upon a tranquil
     person who does sculpture
No place where old or injured horses are taken to be killed
     and their flesh sold in low comfortable chairs with
     supports for the arms through the part of a cheque ticket
     etc which can be detached and kept as a record
No swift and frisky tall thin people in charming women
     especially the women of a family or community
     considered together
No recent tiny piece of atomic matter of long-awaited thin
     sticks covered with a substance that burns slowly and
     produces a sweet smell
No small piece of material sewn into a garment of a small
     insect living on the bodies of people or animals in lofty
     ornate state of being nearly unconscious or not fully
     aware of what is happening
Nor there amid clear small young onions and red hats with
     a flat top and tassel but no brim of green
Sweet device or system for finding objects under water of
     the production of milk by women or female animals
     virtuous and lovely
Nor other part of the human leg between the knee & the
     hip can ever touch my number of things or mass of
     material lying in an untidy pile
She buried it so deep with her own instrument for detecting
Who was along for my extreme views in politics or religion
     a person employed at a beach or pool to rescue people
     and a girl who is playful or cunning and does not show
     the proper respect
So long and heavy is the pain of animals kept on a farm for
     use or profit
That I call for the books giving information to investigate
     and report on complaints made by citizens against public
     authorities I should never have seen


We can't all be the sharpest tack or quickest wit which is exactly why we need voices like Tim Atkins to lubricate the wheels of the roller coaster.  Reason isn't the reason for reading these exciting poems.  It's the ride, an amusement park ride for the noggin.


The boys are singing to drive away the noxious birds
Before women it is useful to practice on statues
& now I am here to tell you all that I have discovered
That living is one of the best things – there where I ripped it
that her eyes couldn't have been more beautiful – I just
     thought they were
Driving my utopian car over the dystopian roads
I go over and look at myself
& look surprised
Because living is one of the best things          I go over
I stand there listening to the sunshine burning the grass
My horn a crumpled dream
Earthling!  Comrades!  Adios!
Work out your salvation with diligence
As if all things were still possible


If I didn't know that he were dead I would have thought Kurt Vonnegut might have had a hand in melding some of these poems.  Tim Atkins Petrarch makes me anxiously excited to read more in Book Thug's New British Poet Series, and it certainly makes me want to read more of Atkins.  In his world, it all seems possible.

Tim Atkins talks about poetry in England.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Living Under Plastic - Evelyn Lau

Today's book of poetry:  Living Under Plastic.  Evelyn Lau.  Oolichan Books.  Fernie, British Columbia.  2010.

I've had the pleasure of reading four of Evelyn Lau's previous collections of poetry, You Are Not Who You Claim (Porcepic Books, 1990), Oedipal Dreams (Coach House Press, 1992), In The House Of Slaves (Coach House Press, 1994) and 2012's A Grain of Rice (Oolichan Books).  I wrote about A Grain of Rice earlier this year, in May, for this blog.  Evelyn Lau has consistently hammered out books taut with emotional violence and vision.

Living Under Plastic is a collection full of lament for the dead, confessional poems of deep sorrow, touching tenderness.

Palliative Care Ward,
Lions' Gate Hospital

In the end you let go so easily
as if your life were a bit of dander
you shook from your sweater and watched sail
into the breeze.  For weeks I sat by your hospital bed,
the ferries outside carrying their cargo of light
across the ink harbour as minute
by minute you sank down
towards your death.  At first
you exclaimed at your penthouse view,
ashamed to accept such luxury
after a lifetime of self-denial––
the nurses laughed at you
for trying to slip them something extra
from your own pocket, for trying to make up
for the disgrace of having to handle
your humbled body.  In those days you could still
pace the corridors while I tried not to watch you
shake at every stumbling step––
I would come to miss that time
when later there was nothing to do but watch.
The coil of catheter that carried away your urine,
the black orbs of your eyes fixed and unseeing,
your cracked mouth with its sweet stench.
It was then I reached for your hand
for the first time and you took it like a child
who needed help crossing the street.  But you let go
of your life without a fight,
you who could argue the worth
of anything, who fussed over the price of a tip
in a restaurant, who bartered for hours
over some trinket in a street stall,
your high-pitched Cantonese complaint
enough to turn heads––
when it came to your own life you simply
went dumb.  Some spirit flew out of you
so that you took the bad news
lying down, as if this was what you deserved,
as if death were a reward
like the retirement banquet and the gold timepiece
you worked your whole life to accept.


Living Under Plastic is divided into three loosely thematic sections.  The first, Part One: Blindness, deals with family history and grief, the emotional mine field that we are all dragged through.  These poems talk about the cost of loving and losing what we love, losing those closest to us.

Caffe Artigiano

This was my glamorous aunt, from whom a stray smile
or pat on the head was better than any treat––
eyelids painted like miniature skies, lily skin
now foxed, though a dot of gold glitter
winks from her cheek as she cries.
Gray dusts her hair but she doesn't care,
wears a patchwork coat like a cleaningwoman's,
misses a tooth, the gap like a tiny door onto darkness.
Behind her shoulder another woman is weeping
into her latte, mascara streaking her cheeks,
the man opposite her stone-faced.
So much sorrow on a Wednesday afternoon
in Caffe Artigiano.  The wind lashing down the street
between the office towers, blur of blue.
A boat show at the marina, streams
of parrot-coloured flags snapping in the sea breeze,
strains of music, fairground pleasures
tucked around the corner, out of sight.
The day my aunt drove her husband to the hospital
and he passed through those gleaming glass doors,
she hurried off to plug the meter.  The last thing
she said to him before his aorta burst,
flooding his body with blood––
I need to get change for the meter.

Why?  she asks now,
why was that so important?
Coins for the meter!
She is as thin as a centipede, a girl
in a magazine, her pale face floating
above the stalk of her body––
refuses the treats from the bakery case,
the lemon muffin, the hunk of bread and chocolate.
Lifts a mug of black tea with both hands
like a child, like it's the weight of a stone.
It's like having a stone in my head, she says––
shivers when the door opens, winces
at the coffee grinder's roar.
I remember the men who courted her,
faces greasy with nerves and hope,
wide open with lust.  My uncle
who was late for every appointment
had rushed ahead to meet an early death.
Outside, the lights wink on in the luxury stores––
they sail into view like cruise ships,
take your breath away in the gathering dark.


The second part of Living Under Plastic, Part Two: Tarantula, deals with the emotional toll of the death of love, the failure of love.  Romance gone rancid.  These poems are the angry/sad tale of woe of the spurned lover who now has to question their place, their purpose.  Evelyn Lau doesn't flinch with these visceral, taut missives.

Part Three:  The Drowning, deals with the loss of friendship, companionship, sincere loss that comes with the horrible realization of our own mortality that comes through the prism of lost friends.  It all comes at a cost and Lau is fearless is sharing many of the emotions most of us keep secret.

The Heron Returns To False Creek

There he was, standing by the water.
Wearing his frayed, Chinese-silk dressing gown,

his beak the colour of copper
or hammered gold.  Waiting all day

for the flash of a fish in the stunned water.
Imagine being blessed by faith––

to see this as a sign, a visit
from the afterlife.  Your spirit reincarnated

into this patient fisherman,
standing like a mourner on the shore,

head bowed, robed in silence.
Above, the boiling white clouds

blown apart in the blue sky.
The vault of sunlight burning down.

You are no longer anywhere in this world.


Evelyn Lau is polished but never pristine.  These poems work at a most primal level.  Her family becomes your/our family and we are intimately interwoven into the lives Lau cares about.  These fine poems are Lau in sharp form, crisp, but never abrupt.  Evelyn Lau has become one of those poets who you can not not read.

Friday, October 4, 2013

We Are Not The Bereaved - Jesse Eckerlin

Today's book of poetry:  We Are Not The Bereaved.  Jesse Eckerlin.  Frog Hollow Press.  Victoria, British Columbia.  2012.

Over the past several days I've had the leisurely pleasure of reading, reading, and then reading some more.  It has long been my habit to reread my favourite books whether they are novels or poems.  This week John Irving's The Cider House Rules came around again.  For me it remains one of the great novels of the 20th century and I enjoyed it more than ever.  As I like to read multiple books, have several things on the go,  also looked at Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace and now you don't have to.  As much as I love much of Mr. Young's work – as a writer Mr. Young is a good musician.

I read another thirty or forty pages of Histories by Herodotus, it's been beside the bed for several weeks now and no matter how much I read I don't seem to be able to turn the pages very fast or get very far ahead...  and as much as I enjoy it, I hardly understand a thing or retain much of what I do understand.

Megan K. Stack's Every Man In This Village Is A Liar is making for a very interesting follow up to Karina Dawson's Masham Means Evening.  Of course Dawson is a poet and Stack is a journalist but they are both writing from very rare positions of privileged information about dark parts of the world the rest of us never see, about human experiences most of us never have to consider.

Read Austin Clarke's Where The Sun Shine's Best and dipped into Stanley Crouch's Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker.

But the book I enjoyed the most was the Steampunk poetry of Jesse Eckerlin's We Are Not The Bereaved.

What They Inherited

toque on a maul handle on a canoe

braying candle lost somewhere leprous beyond
the slope and they sound distressed

wild strawberry patch its stunted bitter berries
twisted 'tween overgrown tire tracks

pile a' toxic trash by a rotting split-shake shed
rusty cans, kerosene, fabric softener & brood

toque on a maul handle on a canoe

Looking for tenants with an expired lease
The haggard rats that pray and feast
upon the bodies of the recently deceased

Tragedy is comedy for those who have
a short attention span

Comedy is tragedy for those who are born
with an impaired sense of humour

the will, they said, itself was skewed

that toque on a maul handle on a canoe

Looking for tenants on a month-to-month lease
The eager rats that pray and feast
upon the bones of the recently deceived

History is comedy for those who have
a short attention span

Lineage is tragedy for those who are born
with an impaired sense of humour


Eckerlin hasn't rediscovered the wheel, but he is a new voice with an utterly clear recast of modern traditions.  Eckerlin has a vocabulary so splendidly robust and playful that his moments of harsh drama tend to sneak up on the reader.

For an Arctic Tern

In a pseudo tundra with errant pines
tossed about like so much salad––
in a yogurty landscape hemmed in
by the glare of a moon askew as
a defective hourglass––
I would set my 35 dollar
secondhand magnesium snowshoes
just to reassure your skittery
that the Northern Lights
are indeed


Eckerlin has overtures that are almost operatic, finely detailed glances that snag your attention and an exciting tone that is constant throughout We Are Not The Bereaved.

 This lovely book from Victoria's Frog Hollow Press was edited smartly by Shane Neilson, designed by Caryl Peters with cover and illustrations by Joshua Bastien.  At 48 pages We Are Not The Bereaved is a chapbook, and a limited edition (100 copies), one as good as any other book I've read in a long time.

Jesse Eckerlin's excellent debut We Are Not The Bereaved delivers a great read, promises very good things to come.

What They Finally Discovered

To no longer want to grow into the shape of things to come.

The outflow of a borough's artery
diverted through your bedroom transom,
cholesterol levels intolerable.

Cafes & bistros frequented out of habit,
entryways buffeted by moral credulity,
inflamed throats clogged with beige stucco.

Imbibed & flirting, sharpshooting the shit,
we incensed a rat in calico, bungled over
a gum-rot border, then went our separate ways.

Renunciants emancipated upon the fault lines
of championing bumph we were decrying in private,
emaciated by all that tenuous dread sovereigon stuff––
wondering whether Captain Scavenge be fate or a favour.

What we finally discovered made monuments cringe,
bronze soldiers peel their eyelids like so many anonymous onions.
What nobody knows can't hurt 'em,
but that was the biggest misnomer of all:

continually mistaking the baby for blood
in the virgin shape of things to come.