Friday, November 29, 2013

Light Light - Julie Joosten

Today's book of poetry:  Light Light.  Julie Joosten.  Book Thug.  Toronto, Ontario.  2013

Julie Joosten's first book Light Light floats in your hands when you open it.  These poems are meditations of the highest order.  When reading this book quiet descends around you, calm reigns.  This is a pretty good trick to pull off with poetry.  Julie Joosten debuts with a quietly contemplative book of little weight but hits like a brick and reads like an instruction manual to reason.


The wind is a tongue to watch or touch.

In it, a post with a hole bored by a beetle and three holes fissured by
drying. A violet trumpet vine extends a tendril, gentles into a hole,

Were the vine an animal, its motion would be instinct, the tendril's
spire turning through ellipses of thought.

Proof anticipates direction.  It is noon repeatedly, sky repeatedly. It is
wind repeatedly, the moon rising or setting in declensions of light.

To infer an existence.

Thinking, by analogy, of fossilized plants, of how little of life is alive
in the world.

How in a little hole a tendril may keep its point for twenty hours
perhaps, or thirty-six, then withdraw.

We extend to accompany the plant.


We sway in the hatchery, learn synchrony from the silkworm.

Tenses forget to pass or pass imperceptibly: silk moth above a
mulberry tree, caterpillar on a leaf, white pupa bending moonlight.

How fruit drops in a concordance.

A wasp crawls from a caterpillar cocoon.

Your eyes bend the light in your hands.

A surface to trace with the eye, to trace the eye with.


To grow by looking. Little peering efforts unexpectedly given.

Shadow of a hovering kestrel. Purple-starred hepatica. A rough sea.

I lick fog, taste evening. Invite forgetfulness as a way to perceive you,
to let hepatica become a sensation without thought: a purple sea
spreading in sunlight.

Here I feel myself there - the other side of the sea.

A kestrel's shadow hovers on the sea's surface.


Quanta of light move in waves over the sea, move the sea to the

Purple is a horizon extending the sky.

It seems not an earth-sky.

To think of attention as moving without trying to be moved to
shadow, hepatica, sea, to purple or sky.

Rain falls on the sea and forms a night field of circles glittering idly
in moonlight then dissolves into sea surface.

To give attention to what does not exist.

Here, there.


These poems read like very educated sermons from a service for a religion we have yet to discover.  Joosten is all about enlightenment.  These poems demand a certain pace from the reader, they slow you down until you become more patient, more considerate - but in an astonishingly clever move by Joosten, even as these poems require it of you they offer it to you, patience, consideration.

Wardian Case / Terrarium

As Thoreau was cataloguing flowers

a British ship came riding
from Shanghai, was a trough toward Calcutta (1851)
the ship's direction making crests from desire
carrying thousands of stolen seedlings.

An empire on the principle of the terrarium: in an enclosed
case, plants grow
                           fed only by light, watered only by
moisture condensed from the heat of the day and
returned to the soil at night

The tea seedlings were packed in sixteen Wardian cases,
boxes with glass sides and tops (later in the century
Darwin would write, "light [acts] on the tissue of plants almost
in the same manner as it does on the nervous system
of an animal").

It was an accident, Ward's discovery.

To watch the chrysalis of a sphinx moth metamorphose,
Ward covered it with a glass jar (the hills of Darjeeling
turned, too, turned green, then tended and pruned, turned empire)

and beneath the chrysalis, common grass and a rare fern sprouted.


Julie Joosten's long poem "If light stabilizing / if to receive a bee" concerns itself with Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717).  Merian who had several plants, butterflies and beetles named after her, was a woman of considered thought.  Joosten is clearly versed in biology, botany and all the other Bees but these poem has further reach and touches on sexism, ignorance, abortion, beauty, you get the idea.  Joosten's poems do what the best poems do, they cast light or they cast questions.  Joosten is not a boisterous voice, she is not screaming for attention but instead she is quietly and very articulately demanding it.

These subtle poems challenge the readers preconceptions again and again - consistently circumnavigating any bias the reader may bring to the work with arguments of reason, beauty and character.  Joosten talks science with the big boys, Darwin is in here, Ward and his tea seedlings, but these are just details to a much wider focus - Joosten wants us to see the light, literally.

the light losing our words

Once in a field of abandoned hives.

Once with my eyes I, ghostly, felt a river dry to clay, lay quiet beneath
a blank sky.

Once there was a field, a river, there were mountains, I saw
reflections like phantoms, a surface of forgotten water, said take
the curve of a daffodil

bending toward snow, but leave the field.

They took nothing, left a memory of a river, wild raspberry, and honey.


To get to the heart of Light Light is to ask whether these poems work, do they entertain, do they excite, do they teach, do they illuminate?  Yes, yes, yes and yes again.  Julie Joosten's Light Light is heavy metal real, light light light as a thought.

Go to this link to see video of Julie Joosten reading her poetry:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Sound The Sun Makes - Leanne McIntosh

Today's book of poetry:  The Sound The Sun Makes.  Leanne McIntosh.  Oolichan Poetry.  Lantzville, British Columbia.  2003.

There is an enchanting familiarity to The Sound The Sun Makes.  These poems feel robust, strong and confident.  That's no easy accomplishment with your first book.

The Bedroom

where I stepped into a world of chenille and chiffon,
a green canvas blind pulled down,
where a blue cotton nightgown
draped the back of a wooden chair;
tortoise shell combs, hairpins
cluttered the polished vanity and a photo
of my infant aunt in her coffin
hung on the wall at the end of the bed—
where I cautiously fingered satin panties and lacy slips,
where I hooked a black brassiere around my pinafore,
padded the cups with silk stockings,
felt the unsure curves.  In this room
where my mother rouged her lips with her little finger
before a man, whose name I can't remember,
came to visit.


Previously in this blog I took a look at Leanne McIntosh's most recent book, Dark Matter, which was written with the help of Jack Sproule and published by Leaf Press in the spring of this year.

Both books mine the solid soil of narrative poetry and although The Sound The Sun Makes is a first book, McIntosh sets them up and knocks them down like they were ducks in a small pond.


She rolls a circle of pastry.
He sits beside her peeling an apple in one
long curl as she taught him.

The room smells of cinnamon and sugar
the talc from her evening bath.
He slices the apple into a pan

she covers it with a thin floury skin
flutes the edges with thumb and forefinger.
He carves a line with the tip of his knife

and the soft crust splits.  This is the way
they made me. Warm and scented
hands on his shoulders, she opens

her robe as far as he needs
until the planet tips and tumbles
from the bodice of the Milky Way.


Patrick Lane, High Priest of Canadian Letters had this to say about McIntosh's The Sound The Sun Makes:

     "These poems reach out and find the deeper meanings we
     always knew were there but needed her to remind us of.
     I love her quiet eroticism, the understated lyrical lines, and
     the delicate austerity of her poems.  There is a full life
     here, a kind of gift only the good poets can bless us with."

And of course, he is right.  If I could write like Lane I'd have said the same thing.

Humanitarian War

A woman wraps her husband in a blanket—
the edge of the cloth stitched in gold

silk thread fine as hair.
Embroidered blue horses prance

unfenced across a carmine field.

Open mouthed blackbirds bleed into the sun.
After a night of bombing

a woman wraps her dead husband in the blanket
they shared on their wedding night—

she leaves him at the side of the road.


Leanne McIntosh examines death and sorrow, joy and light.  It is all in here in these short sharp poems. Each of these poems is constructed like a heavyweight punch, while all the time McIntosh bops around, slips and moves like a fly-weight.  Constant motion, no idea of where the next strike is coming from.

Although published a full ten years ago The Sound The Sun Makes was new to me and fresh as the day it was printed.

Note:  As far as possible I attempt to write about books in the order they arrive from publishers.  I have also tried to create a rotation so that every publisher who sends poetry receives the same courtesy.  I will attempt to write about the most recent releases first, but am happy to read and write about books that come from back catalogues.  If you have any questions or comments please forward them to:

Monday, November 25, 2013

Infiltration - Ben Groh

Today's book of poetry:  Infiltration.  Ben Groh.  Grow & Grow.  2013.

Ben Groh's very handsome debut chapbook Infiltration is an entirely new kettle of fish for me.  This dazzling little book is made up of small quotes and passages from a myriad of sources.  Everyone from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Langston Hughes, Thomas Pynchon to Walt Whitman.  Add to the mix some bible passages and some quotes from science texts.

Groh has taken one word from each of these borrowed texts to amplify a brief quote from Franz Kafka that appears on the first page and acts as both an introduction and a Rosetta Stone.

If this sounds confusing it is because I lack the skills to properly illustrate what Groh has achieved. Reading his book is probably easier than reading this particular blog.

Without using a word of his own Ben Groh has created something truly new and original (at least to this reader).  More importantly he has produced a chapbook that is wildly rich in language, ideas and style.

It is fascinating work, the finished product is really quite amazing.  And fun.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The True Names of Birds - Susan Goyette

Today's book of poetry:  The True Names of Birds.  Susan Goyette.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  1998, 2008.

When I opened Sue Goyette's first book, The True Names of Birds, I saw something you rarely see in a book of poetry:  SEVENTH PRINTING.

This will come as no surprise to those who have had the pleasure of reading Goyette's very fine poetry but it is very rarefied air for mere mortals.

There is good reason for reprinting The True Names of Birds.  It reads like very few first books.  Goyette is so astutely sure of her voice that it almost causes the reader to pause, the familiarity of it draws the reader closer to impact.  Goyette arrived on the scene fully formed and in this book there are moments of such recognition that you think she might be giving voice to things you've dreamed but never been able to say.

The True Names of Birds

There are more ways to abandon a child
than to leave them at the mouth of the woods.
Sometimes by the time you find them, they've made up names
for all the birds and constellations, and they've broken
their reflections in the lake with sticks.

With my daughter came promises and vows
that unfolded through time like a roadmap and led me
to myself as a child, filled with wonder for my father
who could make sound from a wide blade of grass

and his breath.  Here in the stillness of forest,
the sun columning before me temple-ancient,
that wonder is what I regret losing most; that wonder
and the true names of birds.


There is a casual authority in Goyette's voice, an insistent tone that breaks down all our illusions, we know she is telling the truth.  Goyette uses unassailable reason crafted with uncanny and bedrock solid lyricism.  She sings like an angel driving a dagger through your heart.

You Know This

You dream of fire and watch as your reading chair is engulfed in flame.
Curtains and the bird cage by the window.  Every cat you've ever owned

is meowing and winding its body around your feet.  And you know in this dream
that you must save something.  Something important, irreplaceable.  Instead

you grab the can opener and a shoehorn.  When you awake, empty
handed, that sense of failure begins to stalk you.  You feel it watching

when you speak on the phone, it makes you falter, stumble over
your words.  No one eats the chicken you cooked.  Cups of tea are left

half full.  This is how it begins, this part of winter.  Its hands, clawed
and chapped, undo the safety net over your ears.  Once that's gone

you hear things you shouldn't.  Whispers.  Winter undoes
all kinds of knots.  Lets loose those things you've tied up, the guard dogs

and the rescue boats.  This is the season when you're stranded;
anyone can sneak up.  And what comes to you, comes at night dressed

in your grandmother's flannel.  Superstitions.  Her whisper telling you curiosity
killed all the cats curled around your feet as the fire got closer,

got hotter.  You couldn't save them.  And your children ask so many damn  questions.
Fear is passed on like the colour of eyes, the texture of hair.  You know this.

Winter knows it too as it gnaws on daylight.  You also know that the candle you need
for its darkness may be what burns your house down and you light it anyway.


So as I read, read, read these lovely poems I can't help but think that wherever that bench is that Atwood, Musgrave, Bruck and some of those other giant talents sit — they have to be making room for Goyette.  This first book comes from a voice as old as Methuselah and as fresh tomorrow morning.

This Contradiction of Passion

If your husband owns a rifle company, you must face facts.
There will always be ghosts.  The ghosts of rifle victims follow
you out of your bath, clinging to your nightgown. And the ghosts

of your husband's hands, the contradiction of his passion,
his thin finger tracing your lips, touching your tongue,
and the same finger squeezing a trigger.  Wanting to squeeze a trigger.

And if you're a sculptor you're obsessed with the human body,
and must face faults.  There will be an arm longer than the other,
a thigh more muscular. But that vision you've seen, that slender

body of spirit with its feathers and wish bone hides beneath
those flaws and day after day you must chase it. Whittle and chisel
after that image you know must be true. When you finish,

your work is in powder, in dust that you sweep up and store
in matchboxes. Maybe you'll swallow it, mixed in your tea
and it will awaken something in you that doesn't yet have a name.

Despite these facts, these faults, I have licked the fingers
of a man who knows the secret steps of stalking
and can follow me anywhere. I have sculpted him here

behind the shadows I keep casting. This is my contradiction.
I still want him. I have swallowed the powder of his bones,
slept with his words beneath my pillow. It's the weight

of his body on mine when I lie in his traps;
his teeth, the gentle tracks they leave on my skin.


Goyette entirely lives up to her promise.  These poems will

"awaken something in you that doesn't yet have a name".

The True Names of Birds went on to be among the Globe & Mail Books of the Year and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award, The Pat Lowther Award, The Gerald Lampman Award and the Atlantic Poetry Prize.  Go figure.

Sue Goyette:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Robot Dreams - Michael e. Casteels

Today's book of poetry:  The Robot Dreams.  Michael e. Casteels.  Puddles of Sky Press.  Kingston, Ontario.  2013

Portrait of a Stranger on a Train in a Dream

Your eyes are twin oceans the size of grapes.  Your nose is a mountain
on verge of collapse.  Your smile, a twisted branch of a gnarled tree.
Your laugh, the jingle of loose change in a pocket.  Your tongue has
all the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast.  Your eyebrows contort to
question marks.  Your ears are freshly baked cinnamon buns.  Your right
scapula, the continent of Africa.  Your calves are baby cows.  Your thighs
are a phone ringing without answer.  Your hair, a plate of spaghetti,
dyed red with tomato sauce.  Your breasts are corrosive and properly
labeled to inform and deter.  Your teeth are Chiclets.  Your kidneys are
kidney beans.  Your left scapula, sculptured by Michelangelo.  Your spinal
column is Romanesque.  Your lips, a palate of oil-based paint.  Your
neck is a deep well of sorrow.  Your voice, the sound of distant traffic.
Your shadow is the shadow of an oak tree without leaves.  You are
perfect, just the way you aren't.
Michael e. Casteels poetry makes me feel he would be a most excellent quest at dinner parties for those times when the conversation was beginning to slag, or whenever words games requiring meanings and humour were called upon.
In this far too brief chapbook, The Robot Dreams, Casteels is simply wisely charming.
Dinner Party
After dinner the dishes smash themselves against the wall.  The remains
of the pork-roast oink and wriggle off the cutting board.  The fork and
knife slip into the cutlery drawer, feigning cleanliness.  The wine glasses
slosh and sway, one throws up.  The white tablecloth rushes to the
laundry room.  The chairs set themselves on fire with stubs of candles
left burning.  The table shudders and collapses under the weight of
social pressures.  The hostess dabs the corner of her mouth with a
lemon-scented serviette and smiles, as if everything is normal, which
it is.
These poems are filled with verve and energy and perhaps a little bit of Stuart Ross.  For those of you who don't know who Stuart Ross is - he is the best poet you haven't heard of yet.  For those of you who know who Ross is - you will understand what I mean when I say that Casteels embraces some of the same whimsy.
These shortish prose poems work like rides at the summer exhibition when all the carney's are in town.  Quick blasts of speed and rapid changes of direction while wild music blares and bright lights flash.  It's a pretty hard trick to pull off in a couple of lines and makes for very amusing stuff.
With over a dozen chapbooks to his credit Casteels has been busy.  If the others are anywhere near as good as The Robot Dreams you should pick them up as soon as you see them.
I know I will.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Previously Feared Darkness - Robert Priest

Today's book of poetry:  Previously Feared Darkness.  Robert Priest.  ECW Press.  Misfit.  Toronto, Ontario.  2013.


Einstein and Heidelberg both said
"There's no simultaneity
over vast distances"
at exactly the same time


Robert Priest, as the name implies, is one of the High Priests of Canadian Letters.  He has been everywhere and done everything.  Previously Feared Darkness is his sixteenth book and should anchor his reputation as a poet who can do anything he chooses and make it work.  (This is a poetry blog - but Priest is equally well known for his musical career and numerous CDs)

I met Robert Priest in the late 70's when I was a student at Trent University.  Robert had been brought into our class by an enthusiastic professor.  Mr. Priest made quite an impression both as a poet and a presence.  Now, almost forty years later here is Priests' latest offering, Previously Feared Darkness.  It is as fresh as new snow.

When reading Priests' book I made my usual notes, jotting down page numbers of poems I thought needed sharing.  If you follow this blog at all you will have noticed I usually pick three strong poems by any given author.  As I read and reread this book I hacked out an essential, you must read these poems list, I had to give up when I had eleven poems from the first part of the book.

One Day I Predict

One day I predict
We'll be amazed
At our strength
We will look at one another
Astonished and say
We didn't think we could do this

One day the path will be so clear
We will all say:  it's obvious
And we will hardly believe
We couldn't see the way before

One day I predict
We'll have this great true story to tell
A kind of anti-Iliad
For the coming age
Involving  all of us
Who think we are not warriors
And all of us who fear
We are not brave


Priest is an optimist of the highest order and of cheery heart.  But that doesn't mean he doesn't have his finger on the pulse of contemporary thought.  I love these poems.

The following two poems are homages to two of our cornerstone Canadian poets, Milton Acorn and Leonard Cohen:

Acorn's Oak

There should be some kind of oak
And great oak boughs above
The place where Acorn broke the law
When he shouted I shout love
In Allan Gardens week after week
Where Acorn spoke
There should be some kind of oak

There by the bust of Robbie Burns
Where Acorn roared
Through streams of reeking cigar smoke
That tree should be deep-rooted, firm
Enough to hold this place of poetry
And mark the time and the law he broke
By speaking in a public park
To all the crowds of Sunday folk
Who came to Allan Gardens
Week after week
To hear him speak

There should be some kind of oak
And great oak boughs above
The place where Acorn disobeyed
When he shouted I shout love


The Leonard Koans

Let us compare dictionaries
What happens when

An infinitely moving melody
Meets an utterly implacable voice?

There is a melody
With no notes at all

It is so we may travel with her
That we are blind

We are all connected by
One blue butterfly

You may even take away
What is there for good

If you take away
A poet's money —

Go buy rivers
Buy yard goods

In my secret life
I shout his praises, I sing his songs

I bellow them
If there's a way to say goodbye don't

When a Leonard Cohen song ends
It is not over


This is high praise from the High Priest to a couple of our deities, one living and one waiting for us in eternity.

Book of Jobs

Once God was talking to Satan and He commented how pleased
He was now that people were finally good.  Now that they finally
truly loved Him.  But Satan said, "They love you because you have
given them abundant lives and much freedom.  It's not yourself
they love you for."  In this way God was tricked into testing people.
To settle the issue with Satan he destroyed all unions everywhere.
Even without their unions most people clearly still loved God.  But
Satan was unconvinced.  So God took away safety regulations and
then he took away health care and many of them were burned
or had their hands crushed but still the great masses of people
continued loving God.  Satan was not persuaded.  "They still have
jobs.  They still have purpose.  That is what they love," he asserted.
Ten million jobs disappeared with a wave of God's hand but Satan
just sneered.  So God took away their social assistance and then
their employment insurance.  When love of God remained high it
was clear that Satan was beginning to waver.  But God went even
further to make his point.  He took away their homes.  He took
away their rights.  He even took away their family bonds so that
they fell to fighting among each other.  "Do you see how human
love for God is undiminished?" he gloated.  "Look!" he roared.
He began to kill their children.  They were crushed by cars.
They were blown up by roadside bombs.  They fell into fratricidal
wars and a great hunger fell over all the earth.  But even more
frequently the people fell to their knees and prayed.  Even more
loudly they yelled their devotions.


Previously Feared Darkness is sometimes startling in its' simplicity.  Robert Priest shows once again how much of a political junky, social activist, jester, he really is.  Some of the poems in this collection coddle, some soothe and some are a slap in the face followed by a wink.  Excellent.

Priest should be a household name, Previously Feared Darkness can only bring more readers to one of our best read poets.

This book makes me remember the feeling I had when I first tackled Irving Layton and tried hammering through his books.  Dense, humourous , knowing, pleading, consoling and entirely invigorating poems of the first class.

Interview with Robert Priest

Excerpts from Previously Feared Darkness by Robert Priest
 © 2013 by ECW Press. Used with permission from the publisher.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Medallions Of Belief - Fred Wah

Today's book of poetry:  Medallions Of Belief.  Fred Wah.  Book Thug.  Toronto, Ontario.  2012.

In Medallions Of Belief  Fred Wah takes on the Occasional Poem.  Occasional poetry is written to mark an event.  It could be a wedding song or a dirge, but it is usually of note because of the poets connection to the event, the occasion.  Most often an "occasional" poem is one written for public performance.  Think of the inauguration of American President Barack Obama and Elizabeth Alexander's poem "Praise Song for the Day".

But not all occasional poetry is written for historical events.

Winter:  65th Year

the roads feel longer after 54
the age my father danced to
as he fell to the bathroom floor
dreaming of islands
mountains and oceans crossed

a final new bed for the back
a little pain behind our conversation

another winter full of night

its dark brightened by the snow
foot falls awkward, a hesitation

older but knowing no better
still in love, wanting
that good song to be sung
inging it ahead
into the dark beyond
the high beam


Fred Wah has a large body of celebrated work that ranges in style.  Medallions Of Belief is another stop on Wah's illuminated journey, he invites us along to trundle the path with him.  These poems read like comfort food and are as smart as the dictionary.  As always, Fred Wah seems the Wise Man, but there is nothing pompous to any of this, quite the contrary, Wah is comfortable in these pages, his language always the voice of reason.

To The Dogs

Dear Bear,
Be aware
this door
should make you
stop and stare.

Mostly fir
and pretty thick
the bark is gone
but the scent is fixed

Dear dogs,
Late at night
our hunger
is a love with bite.

I can smell you
on the other side
and feel a need
that won't subside

The dogs the bears
the nights the moon
the distant dreams
and appetite.

Absence is a door
that all pass through
the I that opens to a You.

Kick it open
make it slide
where's a door
we haven't tried.


Medallions Of Belief is another lovely looking chapbook from Toronto's Book Thug who continue to pump out important works by some of Canada's most important poets.  But Medallions Of Belief is really just a teaser.  Here is a partial list of Wah's publications:

Lordeau  (1965)
Mountain  (1967)
Among  (1972)
Tree  (1972)
Earth  (1974)
Pictograms from the Interior of B.C.  (1975)
Snow Fall  (1977)
Selected Poems:  Loki is Buried at Smoky Creek  (1980)
Owners Manual  (1981)
Breathin' My Name With a Sigh  (1981)
All The Maps  (1981)
Stomach  (1981)
Grasp The Sparrow's Tail  (1982)
Waiting for Saskatchewan  (1985)
The Swift Current Anthology, edited with Frank Davey  (1986)
Rooftops  (1987)
Music at the Heart of Thinking  (1987)
Limestone Lakes Utanki  (1989)
So Far  (1981)
Alley Alley Home Free  (1992)
Snap  (1992)
Diamond Grill  (1996)
When I Was Eight  (1998)
Isadora Blue  (2005)
Articulations  (2007)
Sentenced to Light  (2008)
is a door  (2009)
The False Laws of Narrative:  The Poetry of Fred Wah, Selected with an introduction by Louis Cabri  (2009)

My new hobby is going to be finding all of these.

Fred Wah at Ottawa's VerseFest.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

X - Poems & Anti-Poems - Shane Rhodes

Today's book of poetry: X - Poems & Anti-Poems.  Shane Rhodes.  a blewointment book.  Nightwood Editions.  Gibsons, British Columbia.  2013.

Shane Rhodes and I know each other, although not very well, and we are friendly although it would be presumptuous to say we are friends.  We were once both nominees for a local literary prize and I'm pretty sure he won, I know I didn't.  All of that just to be clear before I start in on X - Poems and Anti-Poems.

The great Chilean poet Nicanor Parra wrote from a social myth shattering soul when he produced his Poemas Y Anti Poemas.  The following link explains Parra's poetics much better than I ever could:

 Shane Rhodes has done Parra proud and has produced the most important book of poetry in years.  This brilliant, brilliant book is incendiary.  A poetic indictment to make the most political South American poet proud, a poetic achievement that demands to be noticed.  It is also a challenge to read.

Text can come from several directions and in several fonts.  But not to worry as the reader is transfixed almost immediately as Rhodes writes:  "this book of verse demands more of verse, this book demands perversity."  Rhodes really is ready to burn it all down.  There is nothing comfortable about X - Poems & Anti-Poems.

Rhodes makes poetry out of madness by re-purposing the text of the eleven numbered treaties with Canada's First Nations.   Rhodes has done incredible home work and re-purposes all sorts of found texts with astounding results.

Most of the book is made up of pages that defy description as the text is fractured, illustrations abound, text appears transcribed over other text in other fonts and sizes.  Again, madness, but Shane Rhodes is a Shaman of sorts in these pages.  Oh, yes, the book must be read in two directions, from front to back and from back to front, sometimes you have to turn it upside down.  Yet in the end it is a cohesive and startling statement.

Let me be clear, I think Shane Rhodes' X - Poems & Anti-Poems is the most important book of poetry I have seen in years.  Sid Stephen wrote Beothuck Poems in 1976,   Nicanor Parra published Poemas Y Anti Poemas (Poems & Anti-Poems) in 1966.  Both of those books are high-water marks in my poetic understanding of the world.  Shane Rhodes is in deep with the very best of them.

Shane Rhodes

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Secret Signature of Things - Eve Joseph

Today's book of poetry:  The Secret Signature of Things.  Eve Joseph.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  2010.

Golden Retriever

I'm content
curled at the feet

of the old men sitting at their tables
in the sun.  They talk

about what went wrong
after a strong season, pause

at the sound of high heels, and then
resume; they reach down

absent-mindedly -
I am a vague memory

of grass and mud and the dirty tricks
that boys will play on boys.

On and on they go
deeper into the past -

like them,
I dig things up

and bury them


The first section of Eve Joseph's splendid The Secret Signature of Things is titled "Menagerie".  Although not made of glass every animal, insect and bird that makes up Joseph's clever little menagerie is precious.  Simple and beautiful when held up to the light.


Summers, I imagine
so much more
than the sound
             of my own falling.

Heads of flowers dip,
they swallow me whole -
the scent overpowers.

What boy doesn't wish
to disappear
so completely?

I brush against
their sex.  I am
their golden boy.


Joseph's second section of The Secret Signature of Things is titled "Amongst Strangers".  Joseph's voice doesn't change in tone with this new section.  The subject changes and Joseph opens another prism from her kaleidoscope eyes.

Old Age

It surprises me each time
I see a horse lie
down in a field

                    a protest

in the bend and
fold, the way a body
relinquishes its hold as it
sinks, unguarded,
to the earth.


Like many artists Joseph references other poets in her work.  There is a lovely poem about Akhmatova in this second grouping.  It often happens in poetry collections that there are poems about poets and poems about poets talking about poems - the reader has every right to expect that these might drag - but Joseph has animated her poems with a perfect sense of pace.  She knows when to put her foot on the gas and when to coast so as to best navigate the road, regardless of the terrain.

Or maybe I am just reacting on a personal level to these poems.  So many of them seem to have been written out to the fabric of my life - the better explanation would be that Joseph has done that difficult thing and has found that voice we all hear, submerged, but honest.

A Brief Visit

In his last weeks he called out
the names of the dead.

Most often it was a kind of greeting.
the way one might leave the gate
to the garden open, or
the chair pulled slightly back
from the table.

Occasionally he seemed surprised
by the peripheral dead, the ones
spoken about in hushed tones
in the stunned days of summer.

I didn't know him.
I was only there at the time
of his dying, the short hour
before his death.

What I saw was this:
his wife bent over him
whispering the names of the dead.
throwing open the gate
to let them all in.


"A Few Provisions" is the title of the third section of Eve Joseph's The Secret Signature of Things.    This grouping of poems contains prose works.


Are we drawn from sleep like fresh well water surfacing, hand
over hand, into the morning light?  Or do we stand in the doorway
watching the guests as they leave in their various disguises?  Either
way, we leave one place behind and arrive at another.

Some dreams, I'm told, are visits; others, old problems working
themselves out.  I envy those without doubt, the ones who find
comfort in the appearance of a hummingbird in winter or an eagle
circling above a freshly dug grave.  I looked for you on a remote
beach, a crow hopped near the surf, another watch from a twisted
arbutus;  as much as I wanted to believe, I remembered how much
you hated crows.

It's not easy looking for a sign;  hoping for a pinwheel of light to spin
in the middle of the night or a woman in a long white dress to finally
appear.  Sometimes I think I'm too stubborn to see you, rejecting
everything you offer as proof; your address on a random licence
plate, a favourite song playing in the doctor's office, "A Nightingale
Sang in Berkeley Square," or perhaps something else by Vera Lynn;
and what was I supposed to think about the bees, hundreds of them
spilling out of the flowers in the chapel and the one lying motionless
on the pillow in the morning?

Sometimes a voice singing in one room breaks a heart in another.  A
figure crosses an empty square where hours ago a bride stepped into
her new life; sometimes a voice sweeps across a tiled city lifting scrap
and leaf, calling a name, the same name over and over.  The doorway
is empty.  Impossible to say if somebody once stood there and waved.


The last section of The Secret Signature of Things is made of up of one long poetic sequence titled "Tracking".  This moving work is one long poetic plea/treatise on missing aboriginal women in Canada.  One of the least talked about tragedies in our society is the blight of missing aboriginal woman and the general ignorance with which the issue is dealt with.

Eve Joseph is crystal.  This entire collection is packed solid with strong poems, wicked vision and a voice we all recognize as a familiar.

Eve Joseph reading from The Secret Signature of Things.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What's Best For Us - Linda Crosfield

Today's book of poetry:  What's Best For Us.  Linda Crosfield.  Nose In Book Publishing.  Castlegar, British Columbia.  2013.

Over the past three days I've read several books of poetry with the intention of blogging about each and every one of them.  But I couldn't, they lacked music, humour, grace, they had too much of one thing and not enough of another.

Linda Crosfield's What's Best For Us turned out to be what's best for me.  This chapbook is a delightful tonic for my frustration.  These thoughtful poems lack ornament but are never under-dressed.  Crosfield
writes in a relaxed manner, full of confidence, and for good reason.

The result is that these poems feel familiar on first reading, they hit that main vein of collective knowing that is under the skin of us all.

Martha's Idea of Heaven

     when I leave
     this city
     I will leave

     the face
     of the earth
     & enter

     a heaven
     full of cactus
                     George Bowering

Adrian, in shorts and a ball cap, Canada on the brim,
walks the beach he's walked for thirty years, calling
Happy Hour!  Sunset Prices!
Write your name on a grain of rice!
which he does, hands surgeon-steady,
a name on one side, picture on the other,
then slides the rice into oil in a glass vial
that hangs on a cord around your neck.

He made one for Martha last year
but she died before I got it to her.
When all of us were throwing roses in her grave
I tossed in the necklace,
her name and a tequila cactus on the rice,
and her brother threw in a joint
so she's got something to do in the afterlife,
Martha's idea of heaven.


At a scant 20 pages and limited to 60 copies What's Best For Us will only be seen by a lucky few.

What's best for us, the reader, would be more poems, more of Linda Crosfield's wise and entertaining voice.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway - Alexandra Oliver

Today's book of poetry:  Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway.  Alexandra Oliver.  Biblioasis.  Windsor, Ontario.

Formalism is not the ground I usually walk, so how do I explain my complete fascination with the poetry of Alexandra Oliver?  These very structured poems are in disguise, it is a trick of the cleverest kind.  Oliver  is speaking plainly enough to us even though she has ornamented her stories within the framework of very traditional formal rhyming schemes.  It is mostly invisible magic because these poems read with the casual tone of free verse.  That is a huge compliment.

The Promise We Made
To The Earthquake

I'm going to turn my back on death, forsaking
fatalistic anomie.  I'll forge
a human heart from rogue tectonic plates,
a way to make the flocks of birds return.
I'll wait until the church has ceased to burn,
the arms to pull away from iron gates,
rebel against geology in rage.
I swear I'll do it when my hands stop shaking.

I'm going to turn the world back by a day,
raise stone wall and conjure panes of glass
from mournful piles of sand and broken streets.
I'll tell my neighbour what he means to me,
give back his toaster, skis, and new TV.
I'll make the rude wind raise tarpaulin sheets
and let them part until the children pass
to parents resurrected from the clay.

I'm turning over fifty-two new leaves.
I'm going to speak with kindness to my wife
and tell my baser thoughts to disappear.
I will not steal my brother's medications,
fake illness at my in-laws' celebrations,
or make my office intern weep in fear.
I fell apart so I could make my life
a binding deal within a den of thieves.

I swear to you that, when the ground stops shaking,
I'll put this day behind me like a dream.
I'll step out with my ordinary hands,
clear lumber and lay bricks for twenty years,
re-irrigate the gardens with my tears,
endeavour to be one who understands
how our own better angels can redeem
a country from the hell of earth's own making.


Alexandra Oliver is seriously funny when that is what she is striving for.  These poems are precisely weighted and measured but the reader never feels that as a burden.  I'm pretty sure Oliver can hit any target she aims at, she is assassin clever and precise as a clock.

On Fifth Avenue

Today's there's a boy in the bookshop cafe
In frock coat and black satin vest
And a hat and a cane and a silver pince-nez
And a pocked watch tucked in his breast.

He tells me he's Russian and likes to compose
(Folk opera's big in demand),
And he somehow seems more than a loon in old clothes,
So I reach for his thin, offered hand.

I wonder what colours the life that he leads;
(How often are people unkind?
Does some other age give all that he needs?)
I follow him now, in my mind:

I picture him later, on one of the trains—
The passengers goggle with groans,
Make fingertip squiggles right next to their brains,
Nudge neighbours, take pictures with phones.

His family waits by the small garden wall
On the coldest of cold Jersey nights,
And nothing is Russian here, nothing at all,
But he is the brightest of lights.

Though not quite what Bubba describes as a mensch,
Such love is a fixed guarantee,
As they listen for scrapes of the Schweighofer's bench
And wait for the flight of the bee.


These poems are a lesson in classical poetry writ large and modern.  Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway is a towering accomplishment.  Oliver would describe  her poems as "text-based home movies" and they are - but honed through a very particular lens, shot back onto the screen and made real through Oliver's pyrotechnical mastery of form.  Oliver writes as though wit were her middle name and eloquence something she was born to.

Meeting the Tormentors
in Safeway

They all had names like Jennifer or Lynne
or Katherine; they all had bone-blonde hair,
that wet, flat cut with bangs.  They pulled your chair
from underneath you, shoved their small fists in
your face.  Too soon, you knew it would begin,
those minkish teeth like shrapnel in the air,
the Bacchic taunts, the Herculean dare,
their soccer cleats against your porcine shin,
that laugh, which sounded like a hundred birds
escaping from a gunshot through the reeds—
and now you have to face it all again:
the joyful freckled faces lost for words
in supermarkets, as those red hands squeeze
your own.  It's been so long!  They say.  Amen.


The surprise for me is how much I thoroughly enjoyed Alexandra Oliver's Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway.  This is strong, deliberate writing that pulls you into its' orbit immediately and holds the reader in its' own particular gravity, the embrace is enchanting.

Alexandra Oliver - Launch of Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, Toronto