Monday, December 30, 2013

A Pretty Sight - David O'Meara

Today's book of poetry:  A Pretty Sight.  David O'Meara.  Coach House Books.  Toronto, Ontario.  2013.

I was lucky enough to be at the Ottawa launch of David O'Meara's A Pretty Sight.  His reading that night a Socratic howl and punk song with finger puppets.

Of course I bought his book.  And like the fan I am, got it signed.  Got the puppets signed as well.

But by buying David's book I disqualified it from my blog because I don't write about books I purchase.  There you go.  One of my favourite poets, a writer I've long believed is one of the best in the country.  

Luckily, a few weeks later, Coach House Books sent one in the mail.  They sent along the finger puppets as well.

'In Event of Moon Disaster'
              —William Safire (July 1969)

After Borman,
NASA's liaison, calls
and urges 'some alternative posture'

should things go south — unforeseen glitch,
technical whatever — leaving

Armstrong and Aldrin
stranded on the moon,
does Safire walk or run

to the Oval Office?
The president's aides rustle
around the furniture, their minds

touchy and tentative
like bees
in a cactus patch.

You can imagine Dick's face
when advised: cut all
communications, commend

their souls to 'the deepest
of the deep,' like a burial at sea.
Then call their wives.

As for text, it's left
to Safire
to get the spirit right. Christ,

this will be either
the speech of his life or words
that are never uttered.

Though he's no pacer, there
he goes on Penn Ave., ditching
the ride to a deli

with the government driver,
insisting he'll take
the few last blocks on foot.

He wants the air
of a summer night and an uncluttered sense
of the quotidian.

The stars might pull at time
like taffy out there, exhaling light,
but it's reassuring to know

that in the suburbs
someone's washing dishes, a curtain
is lifted by a breeze

and surely there's a midget team
looking for a homer under bug-infested
ballpark lights.

At the meat counter, he watches
them shave a sheaf
of pastrami onto the waxed sheet, pop

bread and mini paks
of mustard into paper sacks,

for what's going to be
an all-nighter in a toe-to-toe
with the typewriter.

If only he could peel
back the top of his head
to reveal slick words laid neatly

and glistening like that
cache of silver found
when a sardine key gets twisted round.

But all he can see
are two dead astronauts
canned in welded metal,

their ingress above the module's ladder
like Jacob's climb to heaven
and everything a question of how

anyone would spend their last few hours.
Would you stay inside, waiting till
the oxygen goes critical, tapping

the dead switch for the ascent engine
in a lonely Morse? Or, rather,
pull an Oates, and wander out into the cold

for one last stroll,
the whirling white like tickertape.
Safire slows

at the thought of it. All night
he'll haunt his office, taunted
by shades of scenario,

the moon's milky glow
hung in its pure potential,
stalled like those satellites of paper

balled up into the waste,
the future an empty shape
still left to fill with explanation.


O'Meara's is simply a voice I want to listen to.  

Henry Moore, Socrates, Sid Vicious and others come out to play as they bounce around and through A Pretty Sight.  O'Meara has an air of certainty, an astute voice.  He could wax eloquent and educated about the phone book and the results would be entertaining and enlightening.

Spoiler Alert

Wood warps.
Glass cracks.

The whole estate
goes for a song.

The cardboard
we used

to box up the sun
didn't last long.



David O'Meara makes me laugh, makes me pay attention.  When David O'Meara speaks other poets listen.  In four short volumes O'Meara has become an essential Canadian voice and it would seem like he's just warming up.

'There's Where the American Helicopters Landed'

Sixtyish, wrinkled, Ling Quang's hard look
lifts from the gravel where we've stopped,
the Honda's kickstand staked
to the road's thin shoulder,
our helmets laid like eggs on the leather seat.
He points at the place
near the silk factory where
the craters are almost overgrown,
green tangles scanned
through his knock-off Ray-Bans.

On the bike, I forget to lean
through curves, tires
eating the steep grade back to town,
past the bridge again
where a man stands fishing,
nylon net like a smudge of mist
that skims his catch from the creek
their fins struggling in the killing air.


A Pretty Sight is as engaging a read as you'll find in the poetry section.  

And finger puppets.

David O'Meara reads his poem Dawn Taxi, from the book The Vicinity,  at the Manx Pub

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Message Sticks/Tshissinuatshitakana - Josephine Bacon

Today's book of poetry:  Message Sticks/Tshissinuatshitakana.  Josephine Bacon.  Translated from French by Phyllis Aronoff.  TSAR Publications.  Toronto, Ontario.  2013.  (Bilingual Innu-aimun - English)

Ninan apu mitshetiat                          

miam assi


We are rare
we are rich

like the land
we dream.


"Batons a message" were signs that the people left to help others find their way.  Little sticks arranged to tell a brief, but important story.  Josephine Bacon, in Message Sticks, is carrying on that tradition.  She is leaving messages to help direct the people's way.

Tutamani essishuein,
tutamani eshi-nateunitamin,
tutamani nin
tshika min a kau nitinniun?


If I do what you say,
If I do what you ask,
If I build up my hope,
will you give me back
my roots?


My limited typesetting and computer skills hamper the full expression of some of the Innu-aimon text and for that I apologize.  But I thought it useful to see the poems as fully as possible.

Josephine Bacon has distilled the necessary to a very few words.  Ezra Pound would be proud.  And in a very few words Bacon has found a clarity and a laser focus.  The reader is never confused about Josephine Bacon's priorities.

manentamani nitassi


eka tshituiani


Kill me
if I don't respect my land

Kill me
if I don't respect my animals

Kill me
if I remain silent
when they don't respect
my people


Message Sticks is broken up into six sections, all composed of very brief and untitled poems.  But for Bacon brief never means terse.  These aren't the poems of someone of few words but instead poems from someone who chooses her words with certainty and precision.

Nikassenitamun katshi
nishtutaman ekue

Kashikat nushtueniten
eshinakuak nitinniun
nimateniten nuash


My pain,
become remorse,
is the long punishment
that bends my back.

My back is like
a sacred mountain,
bent from having loved
so many times.


Denise Brossard, Inter, art actuel, had this to say about Message Sticks:
     "Batons a message/Tshissinuatshitakana, Josephine Bacon's first collection of poetry is one of those      books you want to give to a friend saying, "Here, drink in this light.'"

Josephine Bacon is an Innu from Betsiamites who now lives in Montreal, she is also a songwriter and documentary film maker.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The April Poems - Leon Rooke

Today's book of poetry:  The April Poems.  Leon Rooke.  The Porcupine's Quill.  Erin, Ontario.  2013.

Leon Rooke's The April Poems are a bit like walking into a batting practice with the home-run champ.  Leon Rooke's free verse musings on April explode off of the bat with the confidence of someone who always knows where the sweet spot lays.  This guy is used to knocking them out of the park.

3. April Defined

     —What was it that attracted you to April?
     —How I was made dizzy through love. How I came
to see beauty in the strangest things. How modern art
suddenly made sense. Her pluck, her prink, her plumelets.
Her elegant feet.
     —That's it?
     —Clothes on the body, then the floor. I was eighty miles
away and saw her naked in bed. She was saying smart
things. I licked blue plates in cheap diners, thinking of her.
Knowing that she was smarter than me. She was an
intellectual colossus, big, big, and bigger. Call her up, you
got busy signals, you got guys from Nantucket, Singapore,
the Darwinian Isles. Because of her I could speak the
language of wild dogs. Gypsies jumped from blackberry
fields, shouting her name. Bees sacrificed their own air time
to fly with her. Even wasps.
     —What was it about you that made her keen?
     —She liked digging me out of holes, where insects
buried me. I introduced her to invisible birds which made
nests out of her hat bands. I was a man of action who went
out nights in a flying suit, in dyed underwear, stopping trains
that otherwise would crash. I diverted streams so they'd
trickle by our bedroom. I was savvy in the kitchen, slicing
beets. I was a brave son of a bitch in the workplace, turning
hot-headed thugs into limited-edition songbooks, Fords into
schooners on Lake Huron. I enacted legislation making
Mother's Day an extended foray through Greek isles.
     —So you're saying your marriage worked out?
     —Like the beauty of pure math. What did she say?
     —Like juggling bricks in a hurricane.


These poems abound with joy, passion and humour.  In April, Rooke has clearly found his muse and it really doesn't appear to be the cruelest month any more.  Lucky for us.

12. April's Hundred-Yard Run

     April ran a tulip posy into the end zone,
taking rank with the Packers man, Al Carmichael's
longest kickoff return, 106 yards in 1956. Good Friday,
I think it was, and predicted in the gospels.
     That she did it pulling a wagon stacked
with broken furniture from St. Vincent de Paul
does not diminish the noble achievement,
given that 200 warriors from the Sioux nation
were dead-level intent on scoring her hide
with flaming arrows.
     At the 50-yard line she paused to deliver
triplets seeded in gods knows what awful place.
     In the end zone, game-winning touchdown
against clicking seconds, she did the usual jig,
thumping her chest while executing cartwheels
her tulip posy riding a wind into the uppermost
balconies where we sat grooming, saying to each other
what can you expect from a bunch of Indians.


Rooke is a free range kind of poet as The April Poems traverse football fields, Edgar Allan Poe, God's Haircut, Henry James and Walmart.  But with a maestro at the helm — these disparate stories meld into a narrative that if not familiar to us all, is certainly enticing.

18. April and Henry James

And Henry James was weeping.
He was gushing tears,
Bright on his flushed cheeks as tiny marbles,
Having put to bed that minute
Tears of the Ambassador.
A young beautiful girl strode in
And said to Henry James
Seated in an English chair
By an English window:
Why are you crying?
Henry James said,
I am not crying, point of fact.
I am weeping.
April said. That is so cosmopolitan
It is almost divinity. But what
Is the diff?
Go away, said Henry James.
Return to Nebraska. Today
It is not my pleasure
To dispense sachets of sweetness
To American idiots.
April flung the English curtains
From the English window
As Henry James sat brooding.
My birth was in Manhattan,
Cautioned April, though I am now
Merrily Canadian. Or soon to be.
I have recently fled the arms
Of a famous, utterly experimental,
German novelist. I am
The baby in the family,
As was Gertrude Stein.
Dry your eyes, please.
I must see you clearly.
I like your new book's title.
I may enlist myself as your ambassador.
Henry James ceased his weeping.
I stand corrected, he said. Scant is the diff. Let's have tea.


Leon Rooke is a Governor General's Literary Award winning novelist, a member of the Order of Canada, winner of the Canada/Australia Prize, the W.O. Mitchell Literary Prize, a CBC Fiction Prize and in 2012 he was the winner of the Gloria Vanderbilt Carter V. Cooper Fiction Award.  Whoosh.

Leon Rooke's The April Poems were a perfect Boxing Day treat for me.  Refreshing, original and digestible without being overly stuffy.  Even a sweet aftertaste.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Announcing the first winner of the Kitty Lewis Hazel Millar Dennis Tourbin Poetry Prize.

In the past several months I have read close to four hundred books of poetry.  I must tell you all it is the most pleasant task I've ever set for myself.  Splendid.

As the year comes to an end I would like to thank each and every one of you who has supported this blog.

Thank you for reading.

And thank you, thank you, thank you to all the presses who generously sent work.

Kitty Lewis runs Brick Books.  Hazel Millar helms things at Book Thug.  Both of these women went far beyond the call of poetic duty when I first started this blog.  I cannot thank them enough, it was the support of these two women, and others like them, that gave me the confidence to actually keep doing it.

Dennis Tourbin was a poet and visual artist and a dear friend.  He was a fine poet and influenced I how see the world as much as any other person I've ever known.  I miss him.

So, the Kitty Lewis Hazel Millar Dennis Tourbin Poetry Prize.  Or - the book I enjoyed most this year.
As much as there were dozens of books that I thought were spectacular - this didn't take much thought at all.

Nora Gould - I See My Love More Clearly From A Distance

If I could only pass on one book of poetry from all my reading this year, Nora Gould would be the ticket.

Hope Santa finds each and every one of you.

Ho ho ho.

Michael Dennis

Friday, December 20, 2013

Jail Fire - Julie C. Robinson

Today's book of poetry:  Jail Fire - The Life and Work of Elizabeth Fry.  Julie C. Robinson.  Buschek Books.  Ottawa, Ontario.  2013.

These very tender and thoughtful poems are Julie C. Robinson's answer to the question "who was the Quaker, Elizabeth Fry"?  Robinson's answer is both surprising and rewarding.

Clearly Robinson has done all her due diligence in researching the life of Fry, her work with women's prisons, her marriage, children – it's all in here and rendered with such delicate affection you might fear the poems will get away.

They don't.

Robinson does that thing that the best poets do, they tie you to their subject, the subject doesn't really matter, good poems make every subject interesting.

Jail Fire
       The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its
       prisons.––attributed to Dostoyevsky

In a foolish gesture of appeal for trust,
she brings her infant. Fingers
blackened with grime stroke her baby's cheek,
                                   leaving behind
remarkable tokens of tenderness!

She seeks these remnants of soul,
these particular flickers among ashes,
believes they can be fanned into flame.

With a mother's bold heart
she demands enough bread,

offers salt of grace, oil of joy.

Poverty binds.
Stone wall locks in cheaters.
Two hundred crimes punishable by death.
Rookeries, Irish row, places respectable people would never go––
all these boundaries.

What about the limits of a woman's body?
Her need to bar openings,
to legitimately claim herself?

Fear of the male turnkey chars their hearts.
Their hair stinks with anger.

Elizabeth fears poverty of spirit,
atrophy within parlour walls.
Wary of a dying conscience,
she stops short, listens for a voice of need
not her own.

This adventure is launched like most others:
crawling. Extending one arm, one leg
till coordination comes and Elizabeth can stand
at her full height.

Making notes on the nurture of sparks,
she begins with the alphabet, teaches them
the rosemary scent of the letter Y,

to make with their lips the chestnut shape of an O.
She crosses logs in the hearth and T ignites,
flutters and morphs into F,I,R,E.

She teaches them to breathe in light,
exhale in ink. A child writes
the letters of her mother's name
and love appears––solid, permanent, a guarantee.
Through the portal of literacy
they enter a world of possibility
of belonging.

Together they knit imprisonment into a stocking
                                                                              and tie if off.
A testimony of warmth, they are no longer despised.
This is the creation of their hands, each small effort, a miracle––
blankets, socks, self-respect. Their lives
stoked new with faith.


Elizabeth Fry was a pioneer for prison reform, a dedicated Quaker, a woman of her time and a woman bravely ahead of it.  These poems illuminate that life, they never lose their connection to the Quaker principles that guided Fry, but most importantly for the purposes of this blog –– these poems entertain. Robinson has inhabited Fry well enough to speak with her voice but never loses the poets' perspective. We do believe we are hearing Fry speak through Robinson.

Anniversary (Joseph Fry)

Who doesn't enjoy chasing geese off the lawn?
A sprint down the slope to the pond
              opens the body to rhythm and breath.
              Each cell announces life.
And you know how much I love to sing––
              my nearest approach to flight.

In the beginning, I realize, I embarrassed you.
My laugh too loud and ill-timed,
              when your speech has never yet been side-ways.
You do all with amounts of consideration.

I remember our walk in the garden at Earlham,
              the currant between bloom and berry.
My offer of marriage struck you speechless
as though I had exclaimed
              the house must come down stone by stone
              and be rebuilt over there.
As you know, I am a man of blunders.
And maybe that is what I said.

When you finally consented,
              a thousand nuthatch burst from my chest.

I have kept my promise, Elizabeth.
I have not been a fence between you
                                                      and your god.
I have not sung so loud as to overwhelm
the whisperings of your spirit,
but followed as far as I was able.

If loving you has been of some price to myself,
I declare it the most beautiful of burdens.


Jail Fire, Julie C. Robinson's first book, is a very mature piece of work.  These poems are careful, but never calculated.  They are precise and never preachy. These poems do what the best poetry always does, they entertain, they educate, they open doors you didn't know were there.

Ladies Society for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate
       I never ask their crimes, for we all have come short––Society Lady

It might be a little like nursing:
the regularity of visits,
someone able to comprehend
the big picture, to offer a remedy.

Apart from poverty we do not know
what darkness brings them to us, locks them in.

If we are attendants of the soul,
it is because we have examined our own
secret places, are familiar with dangers––
pride, greed, self-centeredness,
that jut like roots on a path.

What does it matter, the variety of root,
when you are face down on the day?
How easily one stumbles.

We are merely sisters, vessels of gladness
who do not rebuff one another
but bear our courage up.
we dare to approach the invisible God
and reach, without shame,
for the hem of a second chance.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sea Level - Cornelia Hoogland

Today's book of poetry:  Sea Level.  Cornelia Hoogland.  Baseline Press.  London, Ontario.  2013.  (Edition of 60)

Sea Level is a conversational meditation about making a connection to the natural world - when the natural world seems to be so far away.

This contemplative shortish long poem, or series of short untitled and connected poems (it doesn't really matter) bear none of the earnest back to the land paradigms we have come to expect.  There is no polemic, curiosity and a keen mind are the focus.

Hoogland muses about hoped for sightings of salmon eating wolves, a whale sighting, the footprints left behind by rubber boots and the ageless trails that animals weave through the bush.

This mediation/conversation/poem is a bit like listening to your favourite wise Aunt, the one just a little sharper than her sisters.

Here is an excerpt:

Sea Level

...In the late afternoon the yellow heads of the flowers
turn sunward. So do we. We sit in a row on a log,
watch the beach scrub itself clean.

Show over, we clap.


This is not landscape, it is not outside us.
We are in it.  It is here and here
and here. Inhaling, exhaling.
Breath and respiration.

The trees say nothing.  The wolves too
are silent; stay hidden. In the end
we talk less. There is less
to say.


Then – it's like we remember the sense of touch.
Then – it seems that one of us is always bending down
to pull a deer fern through the hand, stroke
lichen, or grab a length
of cedar to bunch at the nose.

On the edge of a hemlock and fir forest
that marches en masse up the sides of mountains – grand scale –
we're still hoping to feel something but nothing obvious
happens. Six people at sea level

sit a bit long than before. Eyes at rest
in their sockets.


Sea Level was a finalist in the 2012 CBC Literary Nonfiction Awards.  Cornelia Hoogland has published six previous books of poetry (see below to hear her read from Marrying the Animals), and two other chapbooks.  She is Professor Emeritus of Western University.

Baseline Press, London, Ontario's premiere publisher of chapbooks continues to astound with the beauty, quality and design of their books.  Karen Schindler, the editor at Baseline, makes beautiful books.

Sea Level was bound in a cover of St. Armand Canal paper with a flyleaf of Thai Mango paper.  It was printed on Royal Sundance Linen 24lb.  It doesn't make any difference to the writing but it certainly gives good writing a lovely home.

Cornelia Hoogland reading from Marrying the Animals (Brick Books):

Monday, December 16, 2013

Waking In The Tree House - Michael Lithgow

Today's book of poetry:  Waking In The Tree House.  Michael Lithgow.  Cormorant Books.  Markham, Ontario.  2012.

Michael Lithgow's Waking In The Tree House is a startling good first book.  It's just damned good poetry period.  And it reads like Lithgow is an old pro.  These poems are written in a very conversational and accessible style and they all have the feel of having arrived fully formed.

The desire of everything

What was the fascination with fire telling us?
A crackling in the heads of eleven-year-olds,
stuffing ping-pong balls with matches,

igniting words written with butane in mud,
on sidewalks, in sandboxes –– watching something alive
burn from dead grass. There was a recipe

for gunpowder –– kitchen alchemy –– with sulfur scraped
from match-tips, burnt wood, sugar and saltpeter
in a bowl; moving the metal spoons slowly.

I loved that my fingers could snap ghosts
from almost anything, that liquids burned,
that we could burn and watch our fingers in flames

like Johnny Torch –– flame on!
before burying our hands in the sand.
I loved that we could reach past ourselves

with gestures as sublime and ridiculous
as we were, that we held a key to a beautiful secret.
I liked it more than smallness and boredom,

more than my room, more than my paper route.
A lot more than my paper route.
More than discovering a world of exhaustion,

of people who spelled magic wrong ––
I mean, who spelled it in a way that didn't spell
the desire of everything (almost everything)

to burn, burn, burn


A conversational tone while easy to mimic is very hard to master.  Lithgow excels.  Again and again, by the end of a poem –– I was remembering the experience as my own.

There's a very humanistic appeal in these Lithgow poems, there are moments of real tenderness that do not descend into trite nothings.  Instead, you feel Lithgow really does have a finger on a hidden pulse we all move to.

Spanish Banks

An old man drags a net across the beach,
something from the Old World, his feet
making unstable shadows bend in the sand
among them the shape of a Portuguese dory
upending in the tide. He moves his feet
through the waves to stretch the net over stones
trapping smelts. A woman in bright pants,
her hair piled high, watches from a log
eating sandwiches as the foam and water
plash up the bank of mud and sand. Herons
stand in the low waves with their bodies
cocked. When they move a flash of silver
comes into the dying light and is swallowed;
they never miss. Haze smears the old men,
onlookers, heron, and the hills around the
harbour. Each of us is waiting.  Whatever
we've come for feeds us.


The poems in Waking In The Tree House cover a wide gamut of subject matter ranging from the Old Jewish Quarter in Kracow and the rotting tooth of God to hiding one's own despair among the forgotten and unwanted relics of a dilapidated second hand store.

But Lithgows' steady voice is constant.

If you want

It's not so hard to walk away from love, a breath or two
and it's done. You can fuck, if you want to, to mark the end
like a delicate wax seal; or take it slowly to the street
then cycle away as if a fiend was giving chase. After,

if you want, you can take a long walk and feel
the cool wind blow on the wound, as if you'd sawed
something off. You can count the dead birds you find
and trace lines of exhaustion on other people's faces,

your reassurance that it is hard for everyone. You can
even whistle if you want.  Not that you're alone.


Michael Lithgow gives us his first book, and it is clear, he really does have his finger on some sort of collective emotional pulse, these poems often feel familiar on first reading, a deju-vu to the familiar.


The spiders come in the late summer heat.
Eight legs like tiny needles sewing silk
pendants in the air; they make their webs
in the windows of the store where I buy
my evening paper and imagine I charm
the pretty cashier –– dozens it seems,
waiting to capture what comes to the light.

They strew their work across the narrow steps
to my home, across thresholds where once,
I confess, I brought love then later threw it out.
They appear in windows in patterns of trapped
dust like cosmic plumes. These opposites
of satellites! placing themselves in their centres
waiting for what keeps them alive. I, too, must
wait for things, and I do it badly.

Their strange inscriptions enmesh so many
points in this city, a million million little signs
of patience, patterns braided from belief.
That the elusive things we need will come.


And patience.  Michael Lithgow is a patient poet, he never rushes anything, it is all build, build, build to the killer ending.  Lithgows' very sure voice sets its' own pace.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Slack Action - Jeffery Donaldson

Todays' book of poetry:  Slack Action.  Jeffery Donaldson.  Porcupine's Quill.  Erin, Ontario.  2013

Slack Action is the title poem of this collection  — and it's a hell of a poem to hang your hat on.

I have family who work on trains and I hear how they talk about that world.  I have always had a deep fondness for trains.  

Jeffery Donaldson says more about trains and fathers and fear and love in this one poem than you thought possible.  It's remarkable stuff.

Slack Action

It goes through my mind like a train at night,
the train my father rode in the night, his mind
a train of thought far from where he rode.

When I pull into the seniors' home I like to feel
the car drift in abeyance round the last corner,
another touch to come nearer, the braking slide

into parking easements and an end. Forty-two
years he leapt among the tracks, nights, to cobble
things together, shuffling boxcars and flat cars,

dealing their lengths part way into sidings–join
and hinge, muster and release–climbing the ladders
free of his uncouplings.  It took some sorting out.

He listened hard for the word come down
from the Dispatcher. Too heavy now for the staff,
he has to wait for the machine that will hoist him,

strapped, over to his chair or back to bed again.
A sandbag, his sullen mass slumps into the lift
and rises sloppy and unresisting.  He goes with it

staring in disbelief. I am borne here. For us,
mother and wife are let go, the love-ties
grappled loose in unbroken entanglements,

our new solitudes gathering and fanning out.
When the sliding door whispers open for me
–in hand his double-double and an apple fritter,

unlooked-forward-to, like a pill that you take–
I enter with purpose but am halfway off again.
Our family is convergence and divergence both.

I have a photograph of him in mind, a man
in his prime leaning out from the boxcar's ladder,
signalling ahead the slow recessions, the gaps

and clearances, the thrown switches and coupler
knuckles ... ten feet and closing, five feet, good.
His grief looks poor on him. Plan was he'd be

the first to go–with drinks and smokes, half by
his own wishing–and Mum's years would ease
ahead of him by whole decades. But after

Alzheimer's and a kidney ache, her body still shining
with something fifty about it went off and left him
cajoling his clogged arteries past eighty and beyond.

We never spoke of this, but I always imagined
those seemingly endless trains he assembled
in the night, a hundred cars and counting,

how, when the engine pulls up a little
and the cars buckle forward in succession
but have not yet stopped before the hogger guns it,

it must be that all the fastenings along
let up in turn and spread fresh gaps throughout.
Cars and clusters of cars at once go

clutching and unclutching down their length.
And I try to picture how, the jolting instress
unravelling, their reciprocal momentums

would meet and intermingle, the forward push
backing into slows, and the slows pulling off
pulling forward ahead of their kickbacks and jostles,

and you would hear the whole thing down the line
at once parting and gathering, the entire train
getting on, undecided. But how too, if you really

listened for it, there would be single cars hidden
in the midst, scudding alone, neither pushed
nor pulled, let gentled in hiatus, coasting free

an instant in the long line's accordion folds'
uneasy breathing. A hovering out of waiting,
the glide getting on in the inertia, itself still moving.

He comes to with a jolt. I take in my stride
his pantomimed 'Look who it is!' and we embrace,
our private journeys sallying up behind us

in opposite directions, gently coupling.  Not
a greeting or farewell, but a staying that is
neither between us. He keeps me close, and not

to come undone, I tell him what I've been
thinking about the train. 'Slack action, it's called,'
he says, and lets his arms fall open around me.


That's certainly one of the poems I've enjoyed most in the last year.  Wow.

You might be inclined to think the formal, technical rigidity displayed by Donaldson would make for formal, technical and rigid poetry – but nothing could be further from the reality of these verses.

Although these poems are as precise as train tracks they read like rambling free flowing, free verse.

With a Line from a Dream

A page of poetry on the table.
It is like a child bending down
and placing a hand on the earth
to find out what it weights.


I'm not a big fan of formal construction – but this is faultless stuff.  It meets all my requirements in story telling, surpasses all expectations in fact.  Jeffery Donaldson is an anachronism, a splendid one.

Anachronism - a thing belonging to a period other than that in which it exists, especially a thing that is conspicuously old fashioned.

Well, all of that is true, these are old fashioned poems – thoroughly contemporary and vividly alive old fashioned poems.

                          –– Charles Baudelaire

Nature is a monument to itself, an open book.
Its leaves are aflutter with all it would say,
but it keeps to itself, spies you on your way
in forests of dark totems, with a knowing look.

It echoes its likeness, distant and near
in the fallen dark, at one with themselves
and big as the night. You sense rising clear
the sounding-within of all colours and smells.

The almond incense of a newborn's fleece,
a meadow's green breath, woodwinds at dusk,
contend with rank spoilage, rich, in your face,

until the drift of it all, the whole, opens wide,
and the balm of amber and the gist of musk
gets carried away in your dumbfounded head.


Jeffery Donaldson's Slack Action was such a delightful surprise and a stern lesson.  Good poetry can come in any form where there is a good poet at the helm.

Loved this book.

Garden Variation:  An Epithalamium for Glen and Beth

Friday, December 13, 2013

The year so far...

Today's book of poetry will be seen tomorrow.  Until then, here is a list of the blogs/reviews so far:

The Flower of Youth - Mary Di Michele
Under the Keel - Michael Crummey
The Polymers - Adam Dickinson
1996 - Sara Peters
The Occupied World - Alice Major
The Fetch - Nico Rogers
There Devil, Take That - Jonarno Lawson
The End of Travel - Julie Bruck
I See My Love More Clearly From A Distance - Nora Gould
A Little Book of Meat - Selima Hill
The Illustrated Statue of Liberty - Bruce Rice
Trivia Thief - Alberto Nessi
High Lonesome - Patricia Lee Lewis
Excerpts From Improbable Books - Stephen Brockwell
Without End - Adam Zagajewski
Song of the Taxidermist - Aurian Haller
The Country Between Us - Carolyn Forche
Deep Water - Ward Maxwell
My Life in Pictures - Christian McPherson
The Chimney Stone - Rob Winger
All That Desire - Betsy Struthers
In This Thin Rain - Nelson Ball
Ghost Music and Fancy Clapping - Mark D. Dunn
When This World Comes To An End - Kate Cayley
Stever Kulash & Other Autopsies - Catherine Owen
The Hottest Summer In Recorded History - Elizabeth Bachinsky
Late Moon - Pamela Porter
Glossolalia - Marita Dashsel
Devilry - Yi-Mei Tsang
The Essential Tom Marshall - Tom Marshall
Ignite - Rona Shaffron
Porcupine Burning - Blair Trewartha
The Wind River Variations - Brian Brett
Between Dusk and Night - Emily McGriffin
Ink on Paper - Brad Cran
Timely Irreverence - Jay Millar
Metaphysical Dog - Frank Bidart
A Grain of Rice - Evelyn Lau
Everything, now - Jessica Moore
Great Canadian Poems for the Aged - Michael Boughn
Selected Poem - Tim Bowling
Undus Mundus - Mari-lou Rowley
Blissful Times - Sandra Alland
Runaway Dreams - Richard Wagamase
Day Moon Rising - Terry Ann Carter
What Happened - Tom Walmsley
Sucks to be You - Suzannah Showler
The Flicker Tree - Nancy Holmes
Gulf - Leslie Vryenhoek
The Truth of Houses - Ann Scowcroft
Hungry - Danial Karasik
White Sheets - Beverley Bie Brahic
Brilliant Falls - John Terpstra
How Poetry Saved My Life - Amber Dawn
Enter The Raccoon - Beatriz Hausner
milk tooth bane bone - Daniela Elza
Skin Like Mine - Garry Gottfriedson
Alien, Correspondent - Antony Di Nardo
Two-O'clock Creek - Bruce Hunter
A Bee Garden - Marilyn Gear Pilling
Alongside - Anne Compton
Teeth, untucked - Nicholas Papaxanthos
The Lease - Matthew Henderson
Ocean - Sue Goyette
Agony - Steve Zultanski
Dark Matter - Leanne McIntosh
The Adultery Poems - Nancy Holmes
Four Hundred Rabbits - Steve Artelle
Phrases - E.D. Blodgett
Whiskey Sour City - Vanessa Shields ed.
Rebel Women - Vancy Kasper
Punchline 1.0 - Aaron Tucker
Masham Means Evening - Kanina Dawson
Need Machine - Andrews Faulkner
You Exist. Details Follow - Stuart Ross
Animal Husbandry Today - Jamie Sharpe
Interruptions In Glass - Tracy Hamon
A Nervous City - Chris Pannell
Trobairitz - Catherine Owen
Indigena Awry - Annharte (Marie Baker)
Too Bad - Sketches Toward A Self-Portrait - Robert Kroetsh
Voices in the Waterfall - Beth Cuthand
Seawrack - David Helwig
Prez, Homage to Lester Young - Jamie Ried
No Ordinary Place - Pamela Porter
That Other Beauty - Karen Enns
Conflict - Catherine McNair
Beckett Soundings - Inge Israel
The Art of Plumbing - Brecken Hancock
In Defense of the Attacked Center Pawn - Jason Heroux
been shed bore - Pearl Pirie
Teeth - George Bowering
For Display Purposes Only - David Seymour
The Song Collides - Calvin Wharton
Rock Creek Blues - Thelma Poirier
Why does it feel so bad? - Simon Thompson
We Are Not The Bereaved - Jesse Eckerlin
Living Under Plastic - Evelyn Lau
Arguments With The Lake - Tanis Rideout
Petrarch - Tim Atkins
Children of Air India -Renee Sarojini Saklikar
Bit Parts For Fools - Peter Richardson
Incarnate - Juleta Severson-Baker
Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis - Robin Richardson
Death Cantos - Diana Arterian
War Reporter - Dan O'Brien
Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway - Alexandra Oliver
What's Best For Us - Linda Crossfield
The Secret Signature of Things - Eve Joseph
X - Poems and Anti-poems - Shane Rhodes
Medallions of Belief - Fred Wah
Previously Feared Darkness - Robert Priest
The Robot Dreams - Michael e. Casteels
The True Names of Birds - Susan Goyette
Infiltration - Ben Groh
The Sound the Sun Makes - Leanne McIntosh
Light Light - Julie Joosten
Thank You For The Window Office - Maged Zaher
Whirr & Click - Madeline Maylor
Rituals - Rae Armantrout
Psychedelic Norway - John Colburn
Bizarre Winery Tragedy - Lyle Neff
Her Red Hair Rises With The Wings Of Insects - Catherine Graham

on deck:
Slack Action - Jeffery Donaldson

Monday, December 9, 2013

Bizarre Winery Tragedy - Lyle Neff

Today's book of poetry:  Bizarre Winery Tragedy.  Lyle Neff.  Anvil Press.  Vancouver, British Columbia.  2005.

Lyle Neff's Bizarre Winery Tragedy is a breath of fresh air, a cleaning of the cobwebs that clutter the closet of your brain.  These short poems are precise, clear and on target.  Although some see Neff as the owner of the big rant I thought these poems were tempered with wit and wisdom and the occasional wet Willy in the ear.  If Neff were taking target practice - he'd be shooting ducks in a barrel.

How Did You Feel?

Like a chaotic small terrorist
operation, was how she'd felt.

One faction was all fiery, fired up
with dynamite. They had briefly
got the upper hand and round

A shotglass went her fire-orange fingernails.
Couple of great leaders passed through
the bed. Then came to power the jittery faction,

With a jittery power, wrenched ideals,
drinking coffee. The sects in fact screeched
to and fro till they all blew up
in a work accident. Which explains,

She says, her hair and how brutally
she's aged. She thinks a man's life
is such an enviable ride.

"You should be an admiral, honey,"
she says, "a smoothie with no friction,
smart sailor of the prevailing tide."


Neffs sets them up and knocks them down.  These poems work like quick little movies, short narratives, big results.  Time and again I found myself nodding in agreement at the end of a poem, nodding and smiling.

That Moody Bastard

Likes to sit near beach statuary, is amiable,
has stubble like an old old man, sometimes
feels that what he's saying is repulsive
or that he's repulsed by what he's said.

Makes a violent gesture, a pigeon flock
naturally explodes just then. You could die,
laughing, poor guy in his pea coat
of despair, his ethical self-loathing,

How hard done by he's really been, how
he's barely survived. Let's give
the moody bastard a hi-test to celebrate
how low in the water the coal freighters run,

How the flock congregates again
around his cheap spotless half-laced runners.


Blind Camera

You can't see it coming. How cement breaks up
As roots bust its back, all through your childhood years.

You can't see bright days coming, nor all the accidents,
Nor blacknesses that make flares into shadows.

Though you can hear the gunpowder hiss in flares,
Penumbra of sibilant points mapped around you.

Navigating, navigator. Navigator, rise up
And be strong: blindnesses ending, work to be done.


It started with the first poem in this collection and the rollicking ride never slowed down or let up.  Lyle Neff's Bizarre Winery Tragedy was such an enjoyable and entertaining read that as soon as I type this all out, post it on the blog - I'm going to read it all over again.


Never used to get so sick so often.
This grey stubble in patches is also new.
Baby puts his arms around my neck now,
scrambles up me,
anxious about the belly-high sea, my
pale scrabbly ant, handsome as the foamy surf.

The harder his white arms clutch,
the wider death gets. It flies scythely
widescreen at us. I'm not ageless, and
someday he'll die too. I'm revolted by his

death loitering here; I lift him; you can't have him,
it's repulsive. You too were a child once
and still death'll kill you,

I was a child once and shall still get
killed by death, the last trustworthy day
was what? Generations ago?


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Psychedelic Norway - John Colburn

Today's book of poetry:  Psychedelic Norway.  John Colburn.  Coffee House Press.  Minneapolis, Minnesota.  2013.

     "Plain, simple: open this book to page 149.  when I heard John Colburn recite
     the poem on that page he made me believe in poetry again, all over.  It is a list,
     it is creation, it is the apocalypse, it has jokes, it talks about people someone loves
     or doesn't love, or know.  The plurality—the every all of it—forgets itself for a
     moment—'and they built a word for us / they called us the future'—John Colburn
     has brought us there, and you can have it.  Thank god for this book."
                                                                       —Amanda Nadelberg

This statement appears on the back of Colburn's Psychedelic Norway and it caught my attention.  I did turn to page 149 and read the following:

the number of heaven and earth

They stole chickens and
slaughtered cows
they castrated pigs
they cut the tails off piglets
they followed deer through the woods
shot them in their necks
they put out traps
they raised lambs then slit their throats
they hung animals upside down in their barns
the blood drained out
their guts were baskets
they carried babies or carried bread
downriver to grandmother's gut
in the fall they slaughtered and they boiled meat
they canned the meat and stored it
in root cellars in shelved rows
and other parts, even brains
they used for sausage
and they tied horses to iron equipment
and whipped them
while the dogs just ran free
they put meat in a clearing
and waited for a bear
all of this meat is how I am

          my great-grandfather stole three chickens
          he was put in jail
          he got out had a stroke
          then he could only swear
          only from half his face
          his wife lost her mind, was
          "committed" but when he died
          she "came out of it"
          lived for years
          never stole chickens

they caught fish and slid steel knives
into their bellies
they dreamt of animals
the animal terror went into their bodies
and they too lost their minds
coyotes came to speak to them
they killed other people
as they were told to
they kidnapped a Lakota woman
it was winter and there was so much snow
and nothing to kill
they survived on potatoes and
canned meat and canned pears
so that I was born

          and one day a rabbit bit the tip off my finger
          and chewed it up
          so we killed the rabbit

some of them lived with mules in Kentucky
or horses in Massachusetts
some of them turned their front yards
into pig wallows in Iowa
and they kept slaughtering
they bought guns and sows
and killed who they were told to kill
and made whiskey
and killed rabbits and raccoon and foxes
they poached and ran
or later drove their cars into ditches
and more of them went to jail
they wanted sex and families
they wanted to slaughter more animals
even a horse in the worst of times
they were ready
in their root cellars
and they sang about food and animals
they played guitars by the stove
or on porches
and more animals died and became songs
meat dripping everywhere
and I got here and began eating

          this morning I saw a rabbit in the driveway
          I saw its beautiful eye
          it was feminine
          it carried a baby it carried bread
          its eye was a womb
          I was given a heart-shaped basket
          made from dried plants
          and I rode it down the river
          I thought who is riding in the basket
          it feels like no one
          the incinerator came on at dusk
          in the old yellow sky
          and wolf-children came out
          their hair gone poisonous
          the people grew tired of their bodies
          grew tired of how years
          run together after dark

they kept their bodies warm to stay alive
they cut down trees
and burned them to boil water
they shaved the sheep
they spun and wove the wool
children watched the looms fill
they had to keep warm
and some of them burned animal shit
some burned oil from the ground
or oil from giant whales
hauled onto boats and hacked to pieces
and the chimneys glowed hot
the lanterns glowed
children slept near whatever could burn
the adults killed to stay warm
they killed to eat
they burned lost people passing through
and the children watched their faces melt

          he has a face problem
          there's the seed of a face in there
          all withered
          someone check his teeth
          looks like the kind of person
          to squish in a machine
          press the juice out of
          rip apart with horses
          pour boiling water onto
          shoot metal into
          tell him to keep moving
          or we'll set him afire

they wanted to stay warm
they wanted to make more children
the rivers flooded
they were alive but winter came on
night came too and they wrote letters
someone lit a candle
the church bell froze
a crow perched on the chimney meant
someone would die
a white dog on the road at night
was a spirit
a woodpecker at the window
meant prosperity
a coyote in the yard
meant bad luck and a hard winter
souls inhabited the fires
ancestors spoke from the mouths of fish
the cemetery glowed at night
an elk wandered up to the house
to deliver its message
how fire keeps the busy spirits away
sunlight in the pines
wild turkeys half-mad along the road
long lines of eggs and mothers and
sunlight in their feathers
each evidence of glowing sound
mind expansion practice dream
the squirrel alive and
the hawk in its piece of sky
and they prayed for sanctuary
they dreamt of the number twelve
and of twelve gears
turning this world
through the levels or urge
and in their dreams
where celestial fruits fell
into twelve tributaries
they prayed to be absorbed
by the divine
but instead they woke up
and drank whiskey
and wanted to fight
they distilled moonshine
in Kentucky
they took amphetamines and kept working
kept killing
the word was sacred
so they didn't speak
they built El Dorado
they built industrial parks
on the graves of each other
they built flashbulbs and stark faces
they built orchards and winding roads
and shutters for the windows
of home they built or stole
and they built a word for us
they called us the future
and they kept killing
they got to twelve and they started over
the future was both heaven and earth
the gods the months the stars
a spiral of twelve
a fulfillment
an eating sound.


Are you fricking kidding me.  This poem hit me like a punch in the face.  I was very dubious of Amanda Nadelburg's bold statement.  Now I bite my tongue.

John Colburn's Psychedelic Norway is a little like hearing John Coltrane's 'sheets of sound' for the first time.  It's all in there, the past, the present, the hoped for future and the sense of loss.  It is all bopping around and flashing out like sun-spots.

For this reader the individual lines became less important than the over all, the cumulative effect of Colburn's words as they bend the reader to their will.  The reader is constantly bombarded by the kaleidoscope focus which seemingly encompasses everything from the beginning of time.  Colburn's vision is crisp, crisp, crisp, but his panorama is sweeping by at light speed and on first read can be a bit of a blur.



Saturday morning I fought the poison of sleep.
Hands came through the small window next to the door.
I believed I had a metal contraption affixed to the roof of my mouth that restricted the range of my                                                                                                                                                   lower jaw
Later, I realized I did not.
I drank cold tea and ate crackers for breakfast.
Two blue herons walked in the swamp where the horse track had once been.

Rain and snow do not have a house to live in.
A fish does not have a house to live in but lives in a specific area of water.
A cloud lives wherever a cloud lives.
A hoofed animal has limitations these days.
Room 11 featured a dirt floor I covered with a black mat from Wal-Mart.
A suitable room.
To my left was Alan, Room 10.
To my right was Jones, Room 12.
The hallway made by a low wall was otherwise open to the elements.
Rabbits occasionally wandered through.

At the County Information Center I read a pamphlet titled So You Want To Enlist in The Armed
It was illegal for me to enlist during the course of my probationary period.
I read a pamphlet regarding the etiquette of tourism.
It held the following recommendations:
          Never kick garbage cans.
          Speak kindly to prostitutes.
          Never stand and stare at any happening.
          Never ask an interesting-looking individual if he or she is an artist.  
          Do not attempt to direct traffic.

The period of my probation was indefinite, pending yearly review.
A moth flew into my throat.
I began to cry.

I was using myself up.
Some animal experts claim that pigs exhibit emotions, including shame.
I walked the corridors between various information centers, then to the inner district.
I sat near the Angel of Milk Park, disguised as a dangerous candy.
Birds were free to leave the country.
They followed migratory pathways in the sky.

"Hello," I said to the women who passed.
I said this politely, with my head bowed, a common practice
One replied but continued walking.
I bought a day-old at the bakery.
People got mad.
They heard some music and started popping.
A jeep bounced into the curb and flipped over.
"All is well," I told the crowd.
The decisions an elephant makes in one day.
In one minute!

The bus station was near Mill Park.
We were legally required to wear orange shirts.
For the bus ride we covered these shirts with white coveralls, left behind at the Down
                                                                                                                     by painters.
Orange showed through.
Five of us, spread throughout the seats of the bus.
I leaned my head against the window.
A man named Frank sat next to me.
Small eyes.
His vision swerved.
He held a paperback book.
It was illegal for me to visit a lending library.


That was poem 1 in a sequence of 31 that make up the long poem sequence 'pre-occupation'.

Colburn seems to be re-discovering the universe with every new line shooting a different phosphorus trail to a new reality.  There really isn't a narrative thread to follow.  The experience of reading these poems is something like weightlessness, that moment on a trampoline where you hit the apex, the top of your bounce and for one instant are beyond the rules of gravity - before gravity and reason weigh you back down to earth.

Colburn has some of the sorcerer in him and as much as these poems can be playful there are moments when something profound is being asked, dark challenges are being made and the reader is cajoled to Colburn's will.

Better minds than mine are necessary to give full meaning to John Colburn's Psychedelic Norway –
but it is one hell of a carnival ride of a read.  Worth full price of admission and then some.

John Colburn lives in Northeast Minneapolis.

5 Original Compositions by Steven Rotchadl + Poet John Colburn

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Rituals - Rae Armantrout

Today's book of poetry:  Rituals.  Rae Armantrout.  above/ground press.  Ottawa, Ontario.  2013.

This short chapbook by Rae Armantrout from the ever industrious above/ground press, is proof pudding that good things do come in small packages.  This thin work and these terse poems play much bigger than they first appear.



In this now ancient ritual
a succession of young women

are saucy,

which is to say they name
common objects and relations

as if they had mastered them
but shouldn't.

Each receives false approbation.


As Xmas sells winter
to its prisoners.

As warmth
feels like love;

and love is warmth
only more capricious.

Fingers uncurl.

Organs expand
and rise

toward a surface
that must never

be broken.


Armantrout's succinct style reminds me of a car that's been chopped, channelled, tuned.  Everything unnecessary has been torn out, cut away, thrown out.  What you are left with are the essentials for acceleration, thrust.  Maybe an automobile analogy is the wrong way to go but these poems are lean and crisp.  To paraphrase Ezra Pound, Armantrout is purifying the language of the tribe.



When did you first learn
that the bursts

of color and sound
were intended for you?

When did you unlearn this?


Believing yourself
to have a secret identity
can be a sign 
of madness.

On the other hand,
the lack
of a secret identity
can lead to depression.

Many have found it useful
to lie down
as men
believing themselves
to be little girls

or as girls
believing themselves
to be mermaids
in their own bodies.


Rae Armantrout's most recent book Just Saying was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2013. Prior to that - Versed, (Wesleyan, 2009), won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Books Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.  Armantrout's publications and awards form a list as long as your arm.

The astounding above/ground press, which is run by the tireless Rob McLennan, continues to astound by publishing some of the best writers on the planet.  These non-descript, photo-copied, gems probably form one of the better catalogues in the small press world.

Rituals was Rae Armantrout's second above/ground press title as she had previously published Custom in 2012.

Conversation: Poet Rae Armantrout.  From PBS NewsHour

Rae Armantrout reading from her Pulitzer Prize winning book Versed.  From 92 Street Y.

The Holloway Series in Poetry - Rae Armantrout