Tuesday, September 30, 2014

No End In Strangeness, New and Selected Poems - Bruce Taylor (Cormorant Books)

Today's book of poetry:
No End In Strangeness, New and Selected Poems.  Bruce Taylor.  Cormorant Books Inc., Toronto, Ontario.  2011

You read some books of poetry and you still have little sense of who the poet is.  This does not happen in Bruce Taylor world.

Taylor gives us an encyclopedic open book to his world and how he sees it.

No End In Strangeness is not strange at all.  Taylor mines a very rich seam of the on-going conversation he is having with the world.

The Waterfall

Here the river, in a rage
of fury and self-hate,
annihilates itself.
It tears itself to pieces like a page,
and leaps from its own rocks,
a thousand times a day.
Then, in the smash and mist,
it shudders up again
to hang there like a fist,
shivering with self-disgust,
impatient to be done
and failing, as it must.

It roars like something in a cage,
scraping the walls with its nails.
Even as I lie not-sleeping
in my tent, it pounds and chafes,
milling itself to a fine rain.
Yet in the morning it is there again,
tall as a pinetree
but weaker than pipesmoke,
and always producing that roar,
a sound like everyone alive
talking at once.

I have come a long way
to watch this water fail.
I have paddled down rapids,
through keepers and sweepers
and carried my boat on my head.
I have punched through waves,
walked around logjams
and peeled out from the oil-black calm
into the rushing hydraulics
of the main channel
where the dark water flexes
and slides right under itself.
I came without capsizing once
to the place where the river
spends what it has in one throw,
and my plan is to stay for a while
with a plume of hysteria
rising inside me, as spray
cools my cheeks and my shirt
becomes drenched and just stare
at this collapse that lasts all day,
this demolition dangling in the air
as if caught in a tape loop.
And I can't tell if those are
fluted columns of long white hair
or whether this thing is strong
or effete, steadfast
or fleet. It slides
but abides, sways
but stays. One moment it is trembling
like an Edwardian maiden in her filmy dress,
pressing the back of her hand to her head,
and the next it's as stable as marble,
older than letters,
stiff as the bone in my arm

and standing before it
with shame and self-love
plunging and recirculating
inside me, I can't seem to tell
if this is a wise thing
or a foolish one, a teacher
or an idiot child,
a beginning or an end.


It's hard to tell you how gentle I found these poems.  When I tell you there is a gentle nature to Taylor's vast gaze I want you, the reader, to know it is a high compliment.

It's always easy to crack the whip, but a little wisdom and experience, a well placed word, will always get the job done better.

William Wordsworth, Dwight D. Eisenhower, St. Thomas Aquinas, Theodore Roethke and Samuel Taylor Coleridge all stop in to chat over the course of No End In Strangeness.  There are also orangutans and fireworks.

Checks in the Horn Timer,
and a Hogged Sheer

What the would-be
boat-restorer bought
for half the value of its wood,
was an unused future,
which had stood
for five years
in a quiet spot
behind the builder's widow's
           and what he got,
apart from a pretty good trailer,
was a new supply
of fresh, unsampled days,
and also the builder's
hope that, by and by,
he would be loading up
the thing he'd made
and sailing it away
to where the sky
is interleaved with orange
like a mixed drink,
and happiness arrives in waves
of salt and fronds
and green volcanoes wafting
in a horizontal haze.

That's what the builder thought.
But where he ended up with
was a brownish spot
that never went away,
and there is his Fiji,
flush with rot
in the long grass,
seedy with dreams,
the sun's heat slowly
opening her seams.

Meanwhile, the buyer
has a nautical
vocabulary to acquire,
a trampled field
to learn it in,
a patch of well-packed dust
on which to pour his liquid hours,
and make is own damned
ocean, if he must.


Taylor is a steamroller poet.  Steady and certain.  All of these poems take place within some fairly formal constraints Taylor insists upon.  As a result this collection reads with a remarkably consistent tone, Taylor keeps the temperature constant.


A cougar will attack from behind,
I'm told, and it will feel
like somebody cracking a two-by-four
over the back your neck.
Later, you may show the reporters twenty-nine
neat metal staples down your spine,
and what you will say is: I guess it just wasn't
my time.
And later still, in the deep night,
you will be alone with the uncontrollable
shaking, but that isn't you being afraid
of a lion, it is only your body,
that great confused baby,
attempting to figure things out,
too simple to know
that the past
has passed.

Anyway, it is something to think about
as I walk too quickly
up this gravel road, alone.
Except, it is regret
that is stalking me
with quiet steps,
while the past keeps pace
in the steep bluffs and dark foliage
on either side.


Bruce Taylor's No End In Strangeness reminds me of the great Raymond Souster.  Both eloquently simple and covering grand ground.  It's not that Taylor sounds like Souster, it is more the feeling the poetry inspires.  You always feel like you are part of an intelligent conversation with the world.

These are stories of the true human heart and who doesn't want to read those?  These are poems about that journey to understanding and happiness, love and loss, all that universal stuff that makes us so bleeding human.

Bruce Taylor

Bruce Taylor is a two-time winner of the A.M. Klein Award for Poetry. He has published three books of poetry: Getting On with the Era (1987), Cold Rubber Feet (1989), and Facts (1998). He has been a teacher, a puppeteer, and a freelance journalist. He lives in Wakefield, Quebec.

Bruce Taylor reading his poem "Life Science
For the Biblio File"


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Canoodlers - Andrea Bennett (Nightwood Editions)

Today's book of poetry:
Canoodlers.  Andrea Bennett. Nightwood Editions.  Gibsons, B.C.  2014.

Canoodlers really is a charming book of poetry.  Andrea Bennett has debuted with a collection that is both entirely whimsical and completely down to earth.

And what a consistent read.  Poem after poem like target practice for an ace shot.  Bang.  Bang.
Bang.  Once Bennet sets them up - they fall like dominoes.

There's a story

and it happens when I am twelve. There's the back seat of a car, where
my best friend Jane is sitting -- I can see her in the rearview. Outside
it's a zoo, according to my mum. Rolling through downtown Ham-
ilton, she says, Some of these people truly belong in cages. She points
out the driver's side window, flicker her fingers at a woman walking,
Wouldja look at that, she says, and so I look -- crunchy blonde hair,
crop top, too-short cut-offs.

Then I say one of those things that emerges from your mouth like a
just-born giraffe learning to walk immediately on whatever legs it's
got. It's just a hop and skip, I say to my mum, between you and her.

In the rearview, a hyena. To my left, a lioness stalking, deciding if
now is the time to pounce. That's the thing, I say to myself. The thing
about cages. I get it now.


It's not that Bennett is harsh, but she leaves very little meat on the bone when she focuses her considerable talents on a hungry idea.  These poems are scalpel sharp.

Andrea Bennett's Canoodlers is so much fun to read it is easy to forget how serious Bennet is.  Or, better yet, the reader is lulled into tender anticipation before Bennett slides in the culling knife.

If I had a beak,

we'd have a neighbourhood. A roost, a rookery in the east; in the
     west, this block, these streets, curbs, runways of crab or turf.

If I had feathers, I wouldn't need a haircut. If I had feathers, I'd bathe
     in the unseeded dust.

If the water got low, I'd have a rock pile. If I had a beak, I wouldn't
     need hands.

If I had a gullet, I'd grind that.

If I had a worm, its meat would be plush as sausage. If I had a
     problem, I'd pluck its eyes out.

If you had a wire, it'd be my perch. If you had a tree, it'd be my perch.
     A porch? An eave? A roof, a parking sign, a storage pod. Mine.

If you took this house, I'd join you. If the people got too comfortable,
     we'd dive-bomb their skylights. If they got a dog, we'd land on
     its back.

If you were a crow, I'd be a crow too. And then, when we got
     together, it'd be murder.


Bennett has a great sense of humour throughout Canoodlers but it is never at the expense of the reader.  This is considered work without an ounce of presumption.

Of course I like all the books I write about here at Today's book of poetry, but rarely like all the poems.  This books comes as close as any to hitting that rare grand-slam.


happens when a solitary child builds a snow fort in his front yard. At
first there is excitement. All of the snow from the yard can be mobil-
ized without guilt. The months ahead are pack ice, firn, promises; no
one thinks about grass.

Christmas gets built closest to the street, where everyone can see and
be seen, whether they are walking a dog or parking a car or lighting
a menorah. After building Christmas, though, the child must crawl
inside of it.

Doubts are like graves, out of sight in a snow fort. The child might
remember an urban legend: a boy hiding in leaves on his own lawn,
unseen, found unwittingly by his father's lawnmower.


Canoodlers is a book filled with joyous menace and I enjoyed it as much as ANY other book of poetry I've read this year.  Pretty much a consensus around the office.  Andrea Bennett arrives on the Canadian poetry scene fully formed and with great promise.

Watch for Canooders when the awards lists start to be announced.

It will be there somewhere.

Andrea Bennett

Andrea Bennet's writing has appeared in several literary journals and magazines across North America; her poetry has been anthologized in books from McGraw-Hill Ryerson and Ooligan Press. In 2012, she received a National Magazine Awards honourable mention in the Politics and Public Interest category. She is a contributing editor at Geist, and a former editor at Adbusters, This magazine and PRISM international. Originally from Hamilton, andrea now lives in Vancouver with her partner, Will. She is a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s MFA program in Creative Writing.

ca'noodlers n  Oodles of ooze and flesh-smack, the nonstop smooching of juicy words, a Google-map-worthy gaggle of wannabe-lovers, wannabe-unfriends (everywhere on the girlfriend-boyfriend spectrum disorder!). From the "House of What Repute" to "Frank O'Hara's family secrets," andrea bennett's delectable poems "reach out and touch glistening lips, bellies full to bursting."
     Sylvia Legris

Canoodlers is an astonishing accomplishment not so much for a debut book but for any book. bennett's voice, her quality of mind, are extraordinary -- completely individual, hugely resonant. These shoot-from-the-hip poems carry an absolute authenticity and honesty. bennett is able to address human emotion in a language and a manner that is steady, entirely level, considered and frank. Nobody else does this. She has, in this book, created a new place for the expression of emotion, one that is entirely credible. A thrilling new voice in poetry.
     Rhea Tregebov

andrea bennett's Canoodlers is a charmer of a debut collection. There is an impressive authenticity and clarity of voice in these poems. They are chock-full of shrewd interrogations of the cultural, familial and societal. bennett often focuses on the small moment and through shrewd and strange acts of language, she discloses secret widsom. These poems are kisses, caresses.
     Jon Paul Fiorentino



Friday, September 26, 2014

Minutiae - Nelson Ball (Apt. 9 Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Minutiae.  Nelson Ball.  Apt. 9 Press.  Ottawa, Ontario.  2014.

Back in April of 2013 Today's book of poetry looked at Nelson Ball's In This Thin Rain (Mansfield Press, 2012), and we loved it.  Today we look at Minutiae, Nelson Ball's latest from Apt. 9 Press.

Nothing has changed.

Ball still has more to say with less.  These precise and polished little gems radiate good will and an understanding beyond pretense.

Little Things (Mean A Lot)
To Mary Neff, in memory of Nelson Neff

In the pocket
of his favourite golf jacket

three candy wrappers
and a shopping list:

coffee cream


shaving cream

ice cream--



I doubt very much if Nelson Ball realizes the very high esteem he is held in by other poets.  I've never had the pleasure of meeting Ball, but I'd sure like shake his hand.

I also doubt that Ball would like the comparisons to Richard Brautigan or e.e. cummings but I see them both at work.

Perhaps they are my fanciful projection, but they are two of my heroes.  I am lazy - so I measure against the greats.

To Barbara in absentia

you talked a lot

you are gone


to me

but not
nearly enough


This lament to his departed love echoes and haunts.  Nelson Ball is one of Today's book of poetry's favourites.  This is poetry of unadorned beauty, humour and tenderness.

A Rattle Of Spring Frogs

they are close

they sound
like a two stroke engine in the distance -

a motorcycle, or
a chainsaw -

but no
it's frogs

the rattle
of frogs


Apt. 9 Press continues to impress with their beautiful handmade books.  Minutiae was published in a limited run of 100.  Hard to imagine they won't be pressed into a second run.

Almost perfect.

Nelson Ball

Nelson Ball is a poet and bookseller living in Paris, Ontario. He operated the small press Weed/Flower Press from 1965-1974. Ball is the author of numerous books and chapbooks and the editor of Frank Harrington's Kristmiss Book and two editions of bpNichol's Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Field Marks - The Poetry of Don McKay selected and with an introduction by Meira Cook (Wilfred Laurier University Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Field Marks.  The Poetry of Don McKay selected with an introduction by Meira Cook.  Laurier Poetry Series.  Wilfred Laurier University Press.  Waterloo, Ontario.  2006.

The entire Laurier Poetry Series should be on the shelves of every school library in our country. These slim volumes attempt an impossible task - to popularize poetry, and they do with such diligent elegance.

Meira Cook does Don McKay proud with her thoughtful and informative introduction to a man who
should need no introduction.  Don McKay is a benevolent Godfather to Canadian poetry.

VIA, Eastbound

To this widescreen three-day tracking shot--equal thirds
of mountain, prairie, boreal forest--
each of us will add a plot:
it is always The Past, but eased,
oiled so it glides and
whispers from its depth, often
with the voice of a lost dog.

Travelling east, we age more quickly,
running into time, which travels
west. This train wants to be evening, wants that
blue grey wash of snow and sky
eliding the horizon
fading fast.

Toiling through the mountains like the seven
thousand dwarves,
earning every upward inch,
it dreams that the hell of its gut will find release
as lightning.
Everything will lie down in its speed,
a sort of sleep.
Meanwhile each Rocky poses in a sculpted
slow tableau, easily
seducing us to grandeur and glib
notions of eternity.

By nightfall it is chuckling over prairie
running on nothing but the cold air
of Saskatchewan, its dome car
empty as the mind of Buddha.
Window turns to mirror,
a black lake faintly smoked by blowing snow.

In it we can see our ghosts, transparent
creatures of the dark, bravely reading their
reversed editions of the Calgary Herald,
riding the freezing wind like gulls.


I copied the following list of titles from Wikipedia, when I checked the shelves here I only had nine of the little rascals.  A perfect job for the new Today's book of poetry Intern, finding the rest. Look at what Mr. McKay has been up to:

Air Occupies Space (1973), Long Sault (1975),Lependu (1978), Lightning Ball Bait (1980), Birding, or Desire (1983) (nominated for a Governor General's Award), Sanding Down this Rocking Chair on a Windy Night (1987), Night Field (1991) (winner of the 1991 Governor General's Award for poetry), Apparatus (1997) (nominated for a Governor General's Award), Another Gravity (2000), (shortlisted for the 2001 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize), Varves (2003; chapbook),Camber (2004) (shortlisted for the 2005 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize), Strike/Slip (2006) (winner of the 2007 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay edited by Méira Cook (2006), Song for the Songs of Birds, audiobook (2008), Leaf to leaf-Foglio a foglia (Italian translation by Sara Fruner and Filippo Mariano), edited by Angelo Longo (2010), Paradoxides (2012).

McKay has been publishing a steady stream of  his highly reliable and influential poetry since 1973.

from Black Spruce

Along the shoreline, shelves, soft
curves as the rock
erotically enters water. Shoulder
knuckle skull hip vertebreast combined and
recombined: three
hundred million years before the animals
appeared in the Triassic
they were dreamt of in Precambrian
volcanoes. Feel the muscle
slide over bone as your crouch
beside a Harebell, think of rootlets
reaching into rock, licking its slow
fury into food,
hoisting this small blue flag.


McKay's poetry is like drinking pure spring water.  It goes to and comes from a deeper root, an essential source.

Perhaps as important as his poetry is the mentoring role McKay has quietly taken on.  You will be hard pressed to pick up a really good book of Canadian poetry today without a thank you of some kind to Mr. McKay in the authors notes.


astounded, astonied, astunned, stopped short
and turned toward stone, the moment
filling with its slow
stratified time. Standing there, your face
cratered by its gawk,
you might be the symbol signifying aeon.
What are you, empty or pregnant? Somewhere
sediments accumulate on seabeds, seabeds
rear up into mountains, ammonites
fossilize into gems. Are you thinking
or being thought? Cities
as sand dunes, epics
as e-mail. Astonished
you are famous and anonymous, the border
washed out by so soft a thing as weather. Someone
inside you steps from the forest and across the beach
toward the nameless all-dissolving ocean.


I have long admired the poetry of Don McKay.  I've met the man a couple of times and was gobsmacked at how nice he was, how down to earth.  I must confess to a man-crush.

Don McKay

Don McKay is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently Paradoxides. He has won two Governor General’s Awards for Poetry and has been shortlisted twice for the Griffin Poetry Prize, most recently for Camber: Selected Poems, which was a Globe and Mail Notable Book of the Year. McKay is also known as a poetry editor, and he has taught poetry in universities across the country.

Méira Cook was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1964, received her PhD in Canadian literature from the University of Manitoba, and has recently completed a two-year term as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. She has published poetry, criticism, a novel and, in 2005, Writing Lovers: Reading Canadian Love Poetry by Women. She has taught creative writing in high schools, literature at university, and has worked as a freelance film and arts reviewer and editor. She lives in Winnipeg.

Poet Don McKay reads from Strike/Slip
Griffin Prize reading


Monday, September 22, 2014

Ordinary Hours - Karen Enns (Brick Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Ordinary Hours.  Karen Enns.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  2014.

Last August Today's book of poetry thoroughly enjoyed Karen Enns' first book That Other Beauty. You can see that blog here:  http://michaeldennhttp://michaeldennispoet.blogspot.ca/2013/08/that-other-beauty-karen-enns.htmlispoet.blogspot.ca/2013/08/that-other-beauty-karen-enns.html
Now we happily suggest to you that Enns' second book Ordinary Hours fulfills all promises made.


Nothing is happening.
Rachmaninoff plays in the other room
but there is nothing here. No heavy veils lifting,
no burning cities or collapsing kingdoms.
No one is drinking wine and talking politics.
There are no communists in sight, high priests
or seers, prophets or angels, no dark horses
taking to the hills. Not a train in view
or bicycle, no bells or chimes,
the light is simply window light.
There is no moon, no path
to take you through the underbrush,
through rain or sleet to clearings and wide vistas
or a glimpse of lemon trees against a low stone wall.
No one comes carrying a package,
an orphaned child or green apples in their arms.
There are no hands at the window, no doves
or nightingales perched on the eaves,
no blooming trellises or dusted flagstone walks.
There are no tin roofs from which to see
the domes of cathedrals or the sea.
No rivers, nomads or sacred bulls.
The walls are white.
The floor is made of wood.
There is absence, not emptiness,
and something close to echo.


Enns is obvious.  She writes with such unveiled honesty and unfettered purpose that you barely notice the vice grip her reasonable voice employs.

Reading Enns is a sublime pleasure.  Like hard candy, a succulent.


Maybe she knew what she was doing
following him to the bunker
like she did.
Maybe the girl who hung from fence posts
making faces for the camera,
who water-skied and danced,
who took pleasure in hats
and swimming and shoes,
wasn't as simple
as they thought.
Maybe she knew
the way we know sometimes.
A solid wall comes down,
quietly, intact,
locking into place something not yet said,
not even thought,
but heard.
That low whirring in the inner ear,
the wolf ear,
barely turned.


It's all in here.  The secrets to knowing the universe, what Eva thought going into that bunker before she didn't think anymore.

There are several unnaturally large sunflowers directly outside the Today's book of poetry offices.  It is late September and the bees on the sunflowers are slow in the cooler air.  They walk across the faces of the big flowers like little old men with arthritic hips.  Karen Enns' poems know these things, and more.

Whether Enns is riffing on farm implements or the murder of a farmer by a hired hand, Polish culture and crystal or the precise nature of beauty, this is a voice I will strain my ears to listen to.

In the Waiting Room

The man who walks out into the day and the city
isn't you, but there is something in his shoulders,
in the way he holds his back
as if he's lived with reticence and dream
too many years, that reminds me
of your slenderness,
and I wonder, sitting here,
if someone ever watched you walk
from shadow into light, years ago,
someone seeing someone else in you,
And isn't this the finest bloom of loss?
the opening of recognition into all its other lives.
In an instant: resonance
reminding us of everything at once
and love.


I so like the poetry of Karen Enns.  Ordinary Hours is no surprise.  I told you all last year that this woman was the bomb and I was right.  She still is and I still am.

Karen Enns

Karen Enns grew up in a Mennonite farming community in southern Ontario. She currently lives and writes in Victoria, B.C., where she works as a private piano instructor. Her first book of poetry, That Other Beauty, was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award.

"A patient, observant poet...Enns is most interested in life's peripheral moments, the things that vanish if you turn to look at them directly, like the light from distant stars."
     -Quill and Quire

"Using unfussy language, Enns has a sumptuous knack for the visual and a stateliness of observation that allows for a slow, deep rhythm to be established across the poems..."
     -Jury Citation, Gerald Lampert Memorial Award

Karen Enns reads from That Other Beauty


Friday, September 19, 2014

Mountain Redemption - Nick McRae (Black Laurence Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Mountain Redemption.  Nick McRae.  Black Laurence Press.  Pittsburgh, PA.  2013.

"Miracles can't save us from our fears - "  says Nick McRae in the poem 'Pessimists Guide to Miracles'.  But perhaps poetry can help us understand the relationships that govern our congress.

McRae just sounds so true.

These poems read like sermons dispatched from some higher plain, yet McRae is never speaking down to his readers.  That's some fine juggling.

That's some fine poetry.

Mountain Redemption

When Ottis Wilkins lost his arm,
he burned his tiny sawmill down
then sold his long-dead in-laws' farm
and moved his family into town.
He opened a barber shop
and hired his sons to sweep and mop
the place each day and brew coffee
for the men who came to see
the one-armed barber. Inch by inch,
the fresh-barbed rose up from the seat
like sinners from the mourners' bench.

Petunia Eckert's heart was broken
down and blown out like a tire.
The skinny girl she loved had taken
all Petunia's pluck and fire
and moved to Blue Ridge. Petie took
to church and, Sundays, wailed and shook
and made the preacher smile. That summer
Pete got work as a part-time plumber.
In basements she would flail her wrench
and watch rats, terror-maddened, clamber
like sinners to the mourner's bench.

Old Jackie Raburn didn't hold
with killing. Even the mice and snakes
that shimmied nightly over the cold
stones of Jackie's floors caught breaks
no other man would care to give them.
He had a shotgun, though, one trimmed
with etched brass plates. Some days he'd haul
the thing outside and discharge all
his shells at the ground and blast a trench
in it, then wait for silence to fall
like sinners to the mourner's bench.

Whenever Sheriff Biggers drank,
and that was often, he revved his Chevy's
engine up, sped past the bank
and dingy Main Street shops with a heavy
foot and siren wailing just
to see the townsfolk gawk as the rust-
and dirt-stained cruiser barreled by.
Once, he had to shoot a guy
to death. He watched the man's jaw clench,
his dead eyes lifted to the sky
like sinner's from the mourner's bench.

Preacher Greene, a handsome man,
a widower of just a year,
made all the married women fan
themselves and smile from ear to ear
when he preached of David's lustful pride
or the spear that pierced the Savior's side.
At home, the phone set off the hook,
he's open to his favorite book--
Song of Songs--then feel the pinch
of chaste Paul's thorn as his fingers shook
like sinners on the mourner's bench.

And mountain people--hard as limestone,
rich as black silt, deep as clay--
dreamed each night of valley towns
where valley cornstalks stood up tall
like sinners from the mourner's bench.


McRae's mountain landscapes and people would almost seem to be carved out of another time and sensibility.  McRae's great gift, one of many, is that he bridges the gap between rural mountain understanding and those of us in the valleys with fierce candor.

These narrative poems echo.

Deacons Meeting

Five men smoke outside the convenience store
that doesn't exactly have a name. Over the door
hangs a sign: COLD BEER CHEAP GAS.
The men smell of hay and cow and hot skin.
Two perch on a tailgate, their boots
barely scraping the gravel.
One wears a damp red hat and he lifts it
to wipe sweat from his balding skull with a rag.
The one in the white t-shirt swears
and says, hell hath no fury like a woman's scorn,
that's what the Bible says, and the one
beside him disagrees, reckons it's not even in the Bible.
The hell it ain't, the other says, because he knows
it's a good one and all the good ones
come from the Bible. The sun pours out wet heat
like a steam engine and the ground
radiates and the hood of the truck shines dully,
reflecting in the eyes of a hound
whose tongue lolls and who hogs
the only bit of shadow cast by an old turnkey
Coke machine. The older one get to explaining
how that ain't necessarily so when high above
in the hot sky a jet breaks the sound barrier
with a jarring crack and the five men and the dog
crane their necks upward to figure out
where exactly it's flying to. I bet that sumbitch
is headed to Warner Robbins, one of them says.
Naw that's north it's headed, says another,
I betcha it's headed to Chattanooga,
and the shirtless one with the stubbled jowl
who has until now been silent
figures it's about damn time they talked about
something else besides women.


There is much dramatic tension in Nick McRae's Mountain Redemption.  It is a dark and cold world that does not favor the weak.  This narrative is about hard people in hard situations having to make hard choices.  But there is also a sense of hope.  McRae shows a sense of optimism as he hammers out Christian myths on the unrelenting anvil of the mountains.

Orpheus in Huntsville, Alabama

My mama, godly as she was,
never forgave my daddy for quitting
the church. For politics. She couldn't.
She'd always wanted to marry a preacher,
and married one, but then he ran
for mayor and won. The king of Huntsville.

Years later, when her mind was gone,
she told me how he'd lay her down,
his fingers circling her bellybutton,
breathe the scripture into her neck--
Thy navel is like a round goblet
which wanteth not liquor--and take her
with biblical authority.
She said that, once he'd shed the cloth
his touch no longer felt the same.
How could it? He forsook the Spirit.

Now both of them are long buried.
But daddy taught me the fiddle, and mama
sang her hymns so sweet they shimmied
out her throat and into mine.


Nick McRae illuminates the world these poems exist in from within with a language both borrowed from and steeped in the past - he does this in a thoroughly modern way.  Seamlessly.

There is no evidence of a white collar around McRae's neck but make no mistake, this Biblical diction comes from a broader sermon.  McRae gives body and depth to all his assertions by providing unanswered questions to ponder.

What is basic goodness?  Community?

Mountain Redemption is a surging voice, a choir, attempting to illuminate a vanishing space and time.  These are noble poems.

Nick McRae

Nick McRae is the author of Mountain Redemption, winner of the Fall 2011 Black River Chapbook Competition, as well the De Novo Prize-winning full-length The Name Museum (C&R Press, 2013). He is the editor of the anthology Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets (Sundress Publications, 2013). His poems, reviews, and translations appear in Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Linebreak, The Southern Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. He serves as associate editor for 32 Poems, poetry coordinator for the annual Best of the Net anthology, and is a member of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference staff. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and raised in the Northwest Georgia foothills, Nick earned an M.F.A. in creative writing at The Ohio State University and is currently a Robert B. Toulouse Doctoral Fellow in English at the University of North Texas.

"In Nick McRae's splendid Mountain Redemption, the contradictions of family and faith are hard to hold in balance. They are the fulcrum of a teeter totter that tips back and forth between passion and violence. But as he meditates on growing up in Georgia and the complexities of the faith he was born into, the poet himself is balanced, thoughtful, judicious--and loving. As he struggles to sustain that love, McRae sometimes borrows the cadences--large, passionate, and elegiac--of the prophets he knows so well: "Where, O Lord, is the home I only almost had--/mythic, bloody as a psalm in the mouths/of old and dying men who will take it/ with them wholly when they go?"
     Andrew Hudgins, author of American Rendering: New and Selected Poems

"These rich and strange but familiar and American poems remind us that the roots of the American language are in Jacobean English, the English codified in the King James Authorized Version of the Bible--a text often quoted in this book. In every mark of dialect, in every turn of a country phrase, we still hear a language that Shakespeare and Jonson would have recognized. But the experience--what would they have made of that? It is familiar to us, it is authentic, and this latest rendering reminds us that our language originally redeemed the heart and soul of English. Nick McRae's book prods us with the memory of that redemption. It is one to treasure.",
     Mark Jarman, author of Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems

Nick McRae - Paging Columbo
May 10, 2012


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Blame It On The Moon - Lisa Shatzky (Black Moss Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Blame It On The Moon.  Lisa Shatzky.  Black Moss Press.  Windsor, Ontario.  2013.


She owns a motorbike she never rides.
It sits shiny and new in an over-stuffed garage
with other trinkets hardly used.
She dreams of its speed.
Imagines it between her legs.
Thinks of all that power.
Black metal ice.
Thick sensuous tires.
Hot fire breath of its engine.
Wild exotic tongue of its exhaust.
She imagines, One day, one day...

Somewhere there is a husband
wandering around, a little lost
and a little not here,
in an over-stuffed house
with a thousand other projects
that will never be finished.
Sometimes when she's not looking, he finds his way
back to the garage, searching for that one tool
he will never find.
A tool that will set him loose
from the wide gasping mouth of the house
and its incessant appetite
and cold hand and matching curtains.
A house that wants to consume him one piece at a time.
He is looking for that one thing
that will give him wings to fly again
and feel the wind caressing his face
and the sun's warmth on his skin.
That one thing that will make him
feel he did not die. Not yet, not yet...


Lisa Shatzky writes with such emotional confidence that reading Blame It On The Moon gives the reader optimism.

These poems crackle with energy and dare I say it - love.  Shatzky is attempting to rejoice in our higher natures, fully cognizant of our limitations and therefore our failures.

If I have erred...

If I have erred, let it be
because I got the colours wrong and was intoxicated

by them anyway, mistaking blue eyes
for the arms of the sea and brown eyes for

the autumn meadows I yearned to roam
and green for all the forests that called to m

and always I came running, my howls
unheard in the domesticated glitter of city lights.

If I have erred, let it be
because time was mango juice dribbling

down my lips and my heart wanted
to suck every last drop even if

it was foolish and messy and meant falling
off the map again. I heard music

in the confusion, ravens flying out
of midnight, whales dancing storms

at the bottom of the sea, and your skin
screaming yes to me even as you were leaving.

If I have erred, let it be
because I touched scars and kissed lost causes

and prayed to the lone cactus
blooming a golden flower in the war-drenched

blood stained desert
as if it might save the world.

If I have erred, let it be
because I followed friends - who followed me -

into burning buildings and onto runaway trains heading over
cliffs, believing the music we make

when we love is the same music we make
when we die and eventually, however broken,

we all learn to fly.


Shatzky is witty and wise.  These poems do "sing the body electric" and promise hope, and how brave is that?  These aren't head-in-the-sand naive - but the other end of the spectrum - firmly rooted in the heart.  These poems dare the revelation of sincerity.  Not a dance many poets go to.

Fashion doesn't favour clear candor in heart talk - Shatzky embraces it.


Across the landscapes we inhabit
I imagine you touching
the paper I am folding
just for you.
Your eyes filling
in the blanks, your strong hands
like commas, hesitating upon certain words.
Then the night of your breath inhales them
as if they must be coaxed
out of hiding.
Maybe we write letters
because we want something
tangible in our hands
because words are not solid things
but doors swinging open

and we are always coming and
going and reinventing ourselves
out of the loneliness we are born with.
As if we sense the light singing
beyond the cave is within reach.
How far the door swings open
depends on how easily
we move through the forest.

You write, tell me how
you spend your days
and it is the sun incandescent
on my face. The quivering skin
remembering what the mind cannot.
The smudge, a kiss.
The creases, where you fold to me.
The ink, our deepest rivers.


Did a straw poll around our office, Today's book of poetry defies anyone to read Blame It On The Moon and not feel a sense of joy, a modicum of hope.  Lisa Shatzky writes poems from a well of intense emotional honesty.

If the object of poetry is to create a connection with the reader, to bridge that infinite gap between strangers with something on a page, Shatzky can rest easy, job well done.


Lisa Shatzky’s poetry has been published in The Vancouver Review, Room Magazine, Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine, The Nashwaak Review, The Antigonish Review, The Vancouver Sun, The Dalhousie Review, Canadian Literature, Canadian Woman’s Studies, The Prairie Journal, Jones Ave., The New Quarterly, Monday’s Poem, and has published six chapbooks by Leaf Press (edited by Patrick Lane). Lisa Shatzky has also had poetry published in a new anthology This Island We Celebrate (Bowen Island Arts Council, 2013), as well as anthologies and magazines across Canada and the U.S.A.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Newcomer - Nathaniel Farrell (Ugly Duckling Presse)

Today's book of poetry:
Newcomer.  Nathaniel Farrell.  Ugly Duckling Presse.  Brooklyn, New York.  2014.

Nathaniel Farrell's Newcomer is the imagined journal of a very eloquent foot soldier, most likely from the American Civil War.  But Newcomer is not about war.  It is about being human.

These short verses are untitled but connected.  Newcomer flows with a silky Shelby Foote voice.  It is a quiet, considered look at the minutiae of life that continues unabated by the calamities of war.


Horses move between
rifles and shoulders and unsent letters.
We pass a place where one body of water
meets another body of water. Down below
the surf moves like a lock of hair
twisting up and down the coast.
When we stop I wonder how a man
can eat with tears in his eyes, how
another man can eat with sweat over his,
how I can eat in sight of so much water.


I was completely transfixed by Farrell's steady, sure tone, his hypnotic hold on the reader is a pleasure to endure.  The voice in these poems is an instant familiar.


The morning sun burns off the fog. In this heat
the smell of the sea follows us inland.
Every hour I spend lagging behind, telling my own future
like a dog chasing a stick into the surf, wondering why
fog feels more wet when you rub your fingers in it.


Farrell muses about the weather and the when, why, where of spider webs - and just like a spider's web, these poems works mostly by unseen tethers, with delicate ferocity.


I am in every photograph we take. I put my heart
into the flat part of another forking road, the part still with grass
after the tracks have been dug by the loads carried over it, as if
beneath the road there were still grass. But beneath
the part that is and isn't a road
the part that is and isn't a heart
there is only dirt.
Our hats tilt back across our foreheads a little more every hour.
I could tell then that I would be able to tell
what time of day it was when we took each picture
just as I can tell where we were
when we took it by how many of us there are.


Farrell does not avoid the blunt face of war, he marks that bitter pill - but mostly he wants to be human and not fodder.  Our narrator reminds us of his humanity by constantly marking his place in the natural world.


At night in the clearing
the moon shines on the sleeping faces of men
making their beards curl up
like in dim pasture
lambs curl into the shape of sheep.
Lesser men moan in their sleep
to be treated like they are during the day
to dream out of rank at night.


I loved the precision in these poems, the human warmth in the hero's voice.  Newcomer is a mesmerizing read from the opening salvo.

Nathaniel Farrell

Nathaniel Farrell, an educator and poet, was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. He holds a doctorate in English Literature from Columbia University in New York. His chapbook The Race Poems—a take on race relations during the Iraq War and the Second Intifada—was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2005.Newcomer (UDP, 2014) is his first book, a long poem set in an undefined American-soil campaign. He has published poems in 6×6, Greetings Magazine, and The Recluse. He currently resides in St. Louis.

These are Nathaniel Farrell’s poems, of course, but when I read them they are mine, too: common life told with common words, resounding and clean. Their setting may be historical, ostensibly the Civil War, but their concerns are the stuff of daily life, glimpsed from porches and saddles and moonlit camps and recorded with quiet intensity. The simple counters of weather, family, fields, and roads make for homesick songs that anyone might sing. In an age of hard trying, such anonymity is a virtue and a pleasure.
     Devin Johnston

With mesmerizing grace, Nathaniel Farrell’s poem sequence interlaces the world of memory with radically immediate impressions of the land. Sense exceeds circumstance as a soldier from an indeterminate time, fighting an indeterminate war, moves through new country, grasping at the specters of the rural life he left. In faceted lines and precise diction, Farrell creates a landscape where the enemy may have just passed “the same hawks menaced by little birds,” where soldiers become “nothing more than needle and thread / pushed and pulled in and out of the land.”Newcomer is a stunning milito-pastoral in daguerreotype, fading to amber at the edges.                                                
     Ted Mathys


Monday, September 8, 2014

In The Tiger Park - Alison Calder (Coteau Books)

Today's book of poetry:
In The Tiger Park.  Alison Calder.  Coteau Books.  Regina, Saskatchewan.  2014.

"On the way to work we hold hands"

Utterly charming.  The last line of this excellent collection.

Alison Calder's conversational poems are both subtle and surprising.  These poems sneak up on the reader, bite in when the moment is right.

In the tiger park, Harbin

In the tiger park, only Americans
can afford to throw a cow to the tigers,
if throw is the right word for a dull animal pushed with sharp sticks
till it stands among the pride of tourist buses.
No one is more frenzied
than the tourists, not even the tigers
who lean casually on the cow's flanks with their mouths
until it sinks slowly to the ground, resistant
as a Sunday roast. Still, it hurts, and dies, and everyone inside the bus
is loudly outraged at being ripped off, that it's not at all
like Wild Kingdom here at the city's edge,
not like what we thought we paid for.


"not like what we thought we paid for"

Alison Calder is a last line stone-cold killer.  I love it.  Isn't a great deal of life "not like what we thought we paid for"?

Calder has mastered the old 'bait and switch'.  These poems lead you down one road only to find you've reached an unexpected destination, new illuminated by the light of your wide open eyes.


In Germany, I stood at the top of a tower and,
without warning, a roof opened across the road
and through a dark trapdoor
stepped a man in full morning dress,
black and white perfectly enunciated against the dull red tiles,
starched and dapper,
startling as an elephant.

Of course, there was an explanation:
chimney sweeps still wear the costumes of their guild,
they climb on roofs, and so on.
So really it was nothing: logical,
this beautiful shape appearing out of nowhere just
some Joe doing his job, mind full of cigarettes and overtime.

Descending the stairs, I emerged chastened
into a street full of bicycles, bakeries, graffiti,
myrrh-scented roses climbing the walls beside the bookstore.
It was remarkably pedestrian.
It's like a _____________, I thought.
Another trapdoor opened.


Today's book of poetry loved the gentle malevolence behind Calder's sweet wit.  These poems feel familiar, all that deju-vu air, that comes when you connect.  It is almost like you have been here before.  That's the magic, Calder makes the reader feel at home - all the better for when she pulls the rug out from under your feet.

Don't think of an elephant

Drop your finger onto the map, and you will not hit
an elephant.
Yet the first bomb dropped on Berlin in World War II
killed the only elephant in the Berlin Zoo,
his death's logic no weirder
than his transplanted life behind statues
of the Tiergarten's Elephant Gate.
by cart, by ship, by train,
commercial lines reeled him into paddocks he could never
have imagined,
penned up in the wrong place, wrong time.
At the Gate his doubled likeness, hobbled, carries emperors
over cobblestones, escapes the zoo's walls
to annex the city. Behold
an image trampling on its model, heading
straight for the blank space at the centre
of the flag. Here the lion, here the rhino,
the animals of empire,

Meanwhile our elephant is only flesh.
As his granite twins, bejeweled, command the street,
he flaps his ears, eats candy. In the shade
he naps, swats flies, ambles pleasantly along
the inside of is fence, takes peanuts.
Drinking from his curled trunk,
he lifts his head. A thick-skinned beast
charges toward him from the sky.


In The Tiger Park, Alison Calder's second book, is filled with promise.  Today's book of poetry promises you that young women who write like this end up being less young women who write like our Grand Dames.  Hope that sounds like the compliment it was intended to be.

Alison Calder

Alison Calder's first poetry collection, Wolf Tree, was published by Coteau Books in 2007. A selection of poems from this manuscript received the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award for writing excellence by a writer under the age of 35.
Her poetry has been published in journals and anthologies, most notably Breathing Fire: Canada's New Poets and Exposed, and has twice circulated on Winnipeg city buses.
She is the editor of Desire Never Leaves: The Poetry of Tim Lilburn (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2007) and a critical edition of Frederick Philip Grove's 1924 novel Settlers of the Marsh (Borealis, 2006), and the co-editor of History, Literature, and the Writing of the Canadian Prairies (University of Manitoba Press, 2005).
Alison Calder was born in London, England, and raised in Saskatoon. She obtained her BA in English at the University of Saskatchewan before completing Masters and PhD programs at the University of Western Ontario. She teaches Canadian literature and creative writing at the University of Manitoba.
She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, Warren Cariou.

"Will you join me?/ There is room for us both." Although what these capacious poems see (blind children in a museum, a white heron "delicate as a swizzle stick") draws us in, it is their balance of tenderness and wit, their eloquent reflection of loss and anticipated loss, that include and mark us."
     Stephanie Bolster, author of A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth

"Calder measure the head of expectation and the weight of disappointment, figures entropy against inevitable return, and conjures the lyric as "a skull with missing teeth." This collection keeps an eloquent and sure-handed grip on the ladder of sublime disorder. It's a must-read for anyone thinking about the wild in the contemporary world."
     Tanis MacDonald, author of The Daughter's Way: Canadian Women's Paternal Elegies