Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Imaginary Maps - Darrell Epp (Signature Editions)

Today's book of poetry:
Imaginary Maps.  Darrell Epp.  Signature Editions.  Winnipeg, Manitoba.  2009.

Mission Statement

the disease of consciousness
and all that it requires:
nurses telling me to relax,
musty four-colour newsprint,
prophecies unheeded
and promises kept,
books packed with lies,
memories of redwoods,
mistakes on auto-repeat, your
woefully underwritten third act,
my unquenchable hatred
for whoever ruins a mystery
by solving it,
that first kiss and
the downhill slide,
the mathematical
laws that bind us,
twin sisters named
hope and rage, vagrants
i mistake for vampires,
all of it and
always the
terrible whiteness of
the empty screen, a 
burden too heavy
too put down.


Well, Today's book of poetry should have known, what we mean to say is that we are not surprised that Darrell Epp started out like this.  Imaginary Maps predates our previous outing with the venerable Mr. Epp.  Today's book of poetry lavished praise of Epp's After Hours (Mosaic, 2016) and you can read that blog/review here:

"Mission Statement" kicks off Epp's Imaginary Maps as a kick-ass-start-as-you-mean-to-go-on and he doesn't really let his foot off of the gas.  

Along the way he throws in an almost perfect love poem like "For Jane" and you forget his fierce mantle for a moment, the hard demeanour, and remember that Epp writes poems that will make you stutter-step.  He has the kind of clarity that will stop you in your tracks.  These poems are laced with lines of almost perfect clarity and simplicity.

For Jane

i step out of the ford f-150
to admire the lunar eclipse.
it's a scary shade of red. i'll
see another one when i'm 
old but i'll never see jane
again, there's a hole in my
pocket. i lost two dimes today.
when i go home after work no
one will be there to ask me for
anything. the moon is pulling
away from us, three inches a year,
because of tides and gravity, that's
a fact, jane told me all about it.


What Today's book of poetry really admires about Darrell Epp and Imaginary Maps is that Epp already has his voice - and it's clever, clear, wisely tapered.  Epp will say the thing but he won't drag it out.  Sometimes it's disguised as an observation, an almost throw-away aside but Epp is worth paying close attention to.

It helps that these stories ring true, experience won.  Epp isn't making up plot lines, he's relating pertinent events to provide the platform for his deeply humanist agenda.  Epp has a great dark sense of humour that helps keep his genuine urge towards rage in check.  There is always that yin/yang swing to the pull of violence and the fighting urge to do the right thing and Epps love to play with the tension.

Retro Cafe

off-screen, a match is lit.

your shaky hand spills coffee.

"i don't think you can truly understand
dostoyevsky until you've had your heart
broken and set on fire, then everything
becomes as simple as checker--"

look i really hate to interrupt, you
being suicidal and all,

but what is it with this place?

isn't our waitress the girl
king kong fell in love with?

isn't the bartender the pie-in-the-face man
in all those classic comedies?

doesn't the owner look like the fat man
from the maltese falcon?

and aren't you dietrichson, the luckless
husband from double indemnity,
directed by billy wilder,


Our morning read was a little earlier than usual as Today's book of poetry had some out of office commitments to attend to.  Epps helped keep the pace up as we toured Imaginary Maps.  This is a first book that shows no signs of being a first book, these poems read/shout experience.

Milo, our head tech, said they reminded him of the great Dave Etter's poems in that they have ample evidence of the same reasoned simplicity.  Surprisingly enough everyone in the room agreed.  Imaginary Maps will provide all the direction you need.

Happy Ending

3 or 4 years ago my entire
life fit inside a ziploc bag.

i've started cycling and writing again,
and my life is too big to be contained
inside any container i've ever seen.

and the universe, which weighs more
that i can guess, fits quite comfortably
inside my brains, which only weighs
3 lbs.--it's a miracle!

you're inside here, too.


Today's book of poetry knows Imaginary Maps is an older, first book, but we are convinced Darrell Epp came out fully formed.  

Today's book of poetry loved Epp's After Hours as well.  This older, first book only confirms the deal and we can't wait to see what Mr. Epp gets up to next.

Darrell Epp

Darrell Epp

Darrell Epp’s poetry has appeared in dozens of magazines around the world including Maisonneuve, Poetry Ireland, Sub-Terrain, and The Saranac Review.

Darrell Epp's poetry is just bursting with artistry, but you only notice the magic, never the technique behind it. These are, quite simply, marvelous poems --  poetry that's actually fun to read. Open up the book, read a few pages. You'll see for yourself...  And if you ever get caught in the subway between stations, try to sit beside a guy like the guy who wrote these poems.
     - David Gilmour, author of The Film Club



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration

Friday, November 24, 2017

Tusk-a-Loose'a - Mark Laba (Puddles of Sky Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Tusk-a-loose'a.  Mark Laba.  Puddles of Sky Press.  Kingston, Ontario.  2017.



I'd bury the hatchet with anyone

Whether it be in spruce maple pine

Or crime scene tape

On a TV show

Where a guy in a lakeside motel dies

While watching static on a TV screen

Thinking it was messages from

His dead wife

And the hatchet that I'm holding

Is the one that did

The trick.


It has finally happened.  

The first perfect poetry book.

Now, it's a short book, a chapbook in fact, but here is why I think Mark Laba's Tusk-a-Loose'a is perfect.

The front cover, perfect.  Simple, visually arresting, pure and twisted.

Inside.  Every single poem worked, pulled their weight.  Got the job done.  It was marvelous.  When I'm reading poetry for Today's book of poetry I usually write down page numbers of poems I particularly like and want to use for the blog but with Tusk-a-Loose'a I enjoyed the first poem, and then the second and then the third and then the fourth, and so on.  It was sweep, a perfect game, the opposite of a no-hitter but more rare.  

Today's book of poetry didn't have to write down a thing because every poem blasted past with the same high-tone velocity, we wanted to share every damned one.

Mark Laba has been around since we first discovered snow, but I've never met the man.  More's the pity.  Laba has endless wit, he knows exactly how close to the edge to take his reader - before pushing them over.


Asphalt opens

To the arteries of trees beneath

Scrabbing across shadow-strewn and rain-sodden streets

Where raccoons occasionally cross

To wash

The severed heads of their little squirrel victims

And encase them in plexiglass displays

They stole from the hobby shop.


It is hard to imagine doing more with any less.  Laba throws the reader around like a rag doll, not so much misdirection as vibrant lead step in a dance duo.  Mark Laba reads like Stephen Wright and Saint Nelson of Ball had a child with a young Raymond Souster, before the banks got him.  Laba is like that wisecracking kid at the back of the classrooms of our youth, the one that always had the right thing to say and was willing to say it at the wrong time.

Today's book of poetry had Milo, our head tech, check out the stacks to see what he could find from Mark Laba.  Our pickings were unfortunately slim with only Movies in the Insect Temple (Proper Tales Press, 1981) and The Thing In Exile which was co-authored with Steven Feldman and Stuart Ross (Books By Kids, 1975).  After reading Tusk-a-Loose'a Today's book of poetry will be on the hunt more of anything by Mark Laba.  It turns out he may be the best poet in Canada you've never heard of.


Lately I've thought about the narwhal tusk

As a navigation device for my mini-van

A way to breeze along through the bi-ways and highways

Of a nation I just invented that I call well I forget

What I called it

But you can bet your bottom dollar

It was one hell'uva nation

Before it sank into the ocean

Which wasn't my fault

As I was at the orthodontist

And my second-in-command

Was crushed under an avalanche

Of packing peanuts.


Mark Laba writes like a wise hipster Yoda.  "Good poems, you must."  This little chapbook punches way above its weight.

Our morning read was hillll-lair-eeeeeeeeee-ous.  These poems snapped around the room like the flick of a wet towel in a happy locker room.  The energy went around the room as though we had all had our fingers in the same poetry socket.

Today's book of poetry is here to tell you that Mark Laba is a poetry time bomb, and Tusk-a-Loose'a is one of those marvels that makes you happy to have it in your hands.


You can only Doppler your way

Out of so many situations like

Judging dog shows or liquefying things for future museums

But as the echo recedes

So does your memory

Until soon you're that old guy in the wheelchair at the beach

With a blanket over his legs

Yelling at the seagulls to stop crapping on his toupee.


Only flaw in Mark Laba's perfect Tusk-a-Loose'a is that we wanted more of it.

Image result for mark laba poet photo

Mark Laba

Mark Laba lives in Vancouver where he once talked his way into being a restaurant reviewer for a  Vancouver newspaper, but it ruined his appetite. He's been writing for a long time, although he takes breaks occasionally to indulge in his twin-passions for ventriloquism and cephalopod massage therapy. If you need to speak with him he's usually behind the cardboard baling machine in the Safeway shipping dock at 41st and Cambie on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10am until 1pm. Otherwise he devotes his time to a discarded sofa-bed rescue centre.


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Search Box Bed - Darryl Whetter (Palimpsest Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Search Box Bed.  Darryl Whetter.  Palimpsest Press.  Windsor, Ontario.  2017.

Today's book of poetry had to get my much smarter better half to translate the dedication that begins Darryl Whetter's most excellent poetry adventure.  We both thought it was splendid so I thought it should be shared.

à Gisèle. 
restes toujour, ma belle, 
dans mes bras et ma bouch, 
mon lit et ma vie
K's translation, late at night, while busy reading the second volume of three
of a Theodore Roosevelt biography:

a Gisele. 
always stay, my beautiful,
 in my arms and my mouth,
- my bed and my life

And so begins Search Box Bed, Today's book of poetry will warn you, "This is not your Grandmother's poetry."

Nipple Clips On Amazon

the world's largest bazaar
hawks baby wipes alongside
bullets and butt plugs to target
you tip to tail. e-anonymity spares
the gum-chewers in customer service
tirades from the pant-suited
confronting their first strap-on,
all that prosthetic love
and necessity. no fallen soldiers
work security with their flashlights
to keep the boys from the fleshlights
and mid-aisle lube fights.
One-ClickTM Midas knows how keenly
we await drone delivery
of our non-drone desires


Darryl Whetter, in the context of these lascivious laments and poetic porn pastiche, could be the secret name of a super-literate 70's porn star or director. Search Box Bed starts off with an explicit warning shot, rim-shot: "This is not your father's Playboy."

Whetter is investigating the true unspoken sexual playground of contemporary society and the electronic Oz behind the curtains.  Whetter is looking at on-line porn and how, why, where and what we are watching.  Whetter's Search Box Bed is hardwired to your mainframe and there are no more secrets for anyone.


       If metadata is information about information, then meta-metadata
         is information about the information of information.
                          -U.S. PATENT

to classify is to know

chart and place
not just the scurrying
creatures of swamp, savannah and museum

but gauzy information, the churn
of abstract need

tag: a verb swatted
from the playground to the hurtling
subway cars of graffiti

label the grim
or smiling crowed then unleash
the comment feeds

touch (there you go)
and smear the video glow


Search Box Bed also wants to talk about the information generated and gathered in the "cloud" as our pulses race over the next moment of prurient passion, pause until this phase becomes passe too.  These poems are biting the reader in private places.  Whetter is constantly upping the ante on shock and awe by saying the thing we know but rarely expect to hear said.

That's the cleverest thing to do, to realize, often the most shocking thing is the thing that is most true.  Darryl Whetter's Search Box Bed gives us some truths, orgasmic barrels of it.


sexercise, not tantric marathons but daily
unconsummated orgies in expensive clothes.
now that lingerie is cheap the ostentatious curves
are yogic, every studio a rapper's choreographed dream:
upper middle class asses
up, faces down, bent reversing and candescent
in a heaving room

where else can men learn to last without whiskey.
each ujjayi breath a shaggy swimmer
kick-turning off one end or another . stitch an engorged
nostril into each thigh, dip the velvet
lungs into legs that will never feel longer

open and stretch the body entire, twist
with a gentler high curve ball
or Cossack's swung cutlass, thrust and unfurl
what you have and what you want
in the flush


Our morning read was certainly an energetic occasion.  Milo, our head tech, and Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, took over the reading this morning like they were minions from Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey's original research team, like they were the original Yin and Yang sock-slut puppets.

The pill, rape, anal sex, condoms, bondage, shaved pubis, class struggle, sex toys, patriarchal sexual mores, sex tools, computer mice that appear to be sperm in mid-swim, golden showers, porn kings and the perversity's of Pompeii, it is all in Darryl Whetter's appetizing, charming and carnally candid exploration of where we are in this electronic internet driven sexual revolution.

Whetter isn't offering explanations as much as examinations.  While not exactly a voyeur, Whetter sure has his eye on us.  He knows what we do alone and together, with the lights on and after we've made our peace with the dark and turn to embrace.

Spank Me

free from the tyranny
of hole one, two or three.
give me that starburst kiss
and map a wincing
ring road round the whole haunch.
garland my rump, this thickest meat.
each delicious whack
tugs me back from volume and insertion
to flower-press into the crimson
second skin of curved hurt.
rumbling Baghdad, blitzed London, the amber flare
and night shudder of our combat sky

glove my hair tight in your fist
to parse the pliant in compliance.
ribbon and cat-pull the entire
arm of dark speed, rubbing fling elbow,
wrist, then sparking finger
through the amped nodes.
lash velocity red and blossom
this necessary


Milo and Kathryn went home early today and took our copy of Darryl Whetter's Search Box Bed with them.  Something about comparing notes, doing research.

Certainly something poetic.

Whetter's purpose is perhaps to deconstruct the undeconstructable, our desire and the delectable fury of electronic freedom.  Or maybe Today's book of poetry got it all wrong.  That wouldn't be a first either.  Regardless, we, and everyone in our office, seriously enjoyed Darryl Whetter's Search Box Bed.

Read it with someone you can trust enough to read poetry with.

Image result for darryl whetter photo

Darryl Whetter

Darryl Whetter is a novelist, short-story writer, poet, critic and professor. His debut collection of stories, A Sharp Tooth in the Fur, was a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book. His debut book of poems, Origins, received a starred review from Quill & Quire. His novels include the bicycle odyssey The Push & the Pull and the multi-generational pot-smuggling epic Keeping Things Whole. A former CBC Radio books panellist, he reviews for The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The National Post, etc. He has taught creative writing and literature at four different Canadian universities. Currently, he is a visiting professor in Singapore, where he is the inaugural director of the first creative writing master’s program in Southeast Asia.



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration

Monday, November 20, 2017

Diaspora - Selected and New Poems - Frank Varela (Arte Publico Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Diaspora - Selected and New Poems.  Frank Varela.   Arte Publico Press.  Houston, Texas. 2016.

     "All I wanted was the impossible:
     To be the who I am in a land
     unafraid of the me I have become."
                     from "Autobiography"
                     Frank Varela

Frank Varela is all about family and community and place and belonging, the real basics, and these are virtues Today's book of poetry can get behind and applaud.  It makes Diaspora - Selected and New Poems, into a very personal investment.

Varela, from what Today's book of poetry can tell is Puerto Rican but born in the continental United States as part of the great diaspora of economics.  Varela's world somehow seems richer than our even though one takes places inside the other.  Varela's world seems richer despite the implied financial divide between the haves and the have-nots.  The us and them.

What Today's book of poetry takes away from Varela's Diaspora is a clear vision of inclusion, the "diaspora" Varela speaks of isn't limited to the Puerto Rican community and Varela is clear about that.  His world is all about inclusion.

But mostly Varela is a fine story-teller disguised as a poet and he wears it well.

Black Earth

Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away.
                      Our God, Our Help in Ages Past (Protestant Hymn)

I hoe furrows in my garden, careful not to disturb the roots.
This land is rich with decay and past seasons.
On my best days, I can reach into the soil
and marry my soul with the green world--
tarragon, escarole, lemon balm, sage.
Envy the power of black earth,
before clay seeps into view,
and no stones, the farmer's curse.

Years ago, grandfather cleared twenty acres by Cibuco
to wrench subsistence from red clay.
Family portraits revealed a lanky, broad-shouldered man
silhouetted gray against an aqua sky,
red dust staining his shirt orange in days rough and without mercy.
Yet he loved his land and seeded that love among his children
even when the wind scattered them to distant places.
Grandfather watched as a public car
carried my mother and father
for their journey north to Babylon and exile.

Years later, I saw the farmhouse set among overgrown fields;
the barn long collapsed; only the ribs of the north framing
stood raised against the turquoise sky.
Your soul spoke to me that night,
when the wind troubled the netting around my bed.
I laid half watching a moth batter itself
senseless against the light.
The room's furniture reminded me of another era,
when men defined their lives through the labor of their hands.

Footsteps sent the floorboards creaking.
I felt your presence in the hallway.
The door opened and there you stood:
A specter dressed in white haunted
by a stranger in search of his past.
Abuelo, I have travelled far to this place of silence,
where your labors broke you before your final rest.
My people took your bones and set them down into black earth.
Sleep easy, grandfather, nothing kills love.


Words to remember:  "nothing kills love."  Family in the present and family in the past, Varela seems intent on paying proper respect to his ancestors and that is a good thing.  Varela is a city boy who is still tied to the red clay his beloved Grandfather tilled with fierce determination, love, sense of purpose.  And perhaps that's the biggest impression Today's book of poetry takes away from Varela's Diaspora - Varela wants to make it clear where he came from and where he feels he belongs.  To understand that, and to see that even on hard pavement a little red dust escapes from Varela's footsteps.  Varela is writing from the perspective of the other, from the outside of the bigger, dominant culture.  More than anything I hear echoes of Henri Charrière's bold voice as played by Steve McQueen - "I'm still here you bastards."

It takes a big voice to bridge those cultural and social walls but Varela has big shoulders, just like his grandfather.


It was never who or what I was
I am simply who I am
and what I am never depended
on what people thought of me.

That wisdom got drilled into my head
by an iron-willed grandmother
who could out think any man
in the five boroughs of New York.

Identity was never a question
of geography and language
or time and distance

I was a spic in the United States
a gringo in the land of my parent's birth.
I got it coming and going,
but I never came to sorrow
for skin I never was.

I was always on the outside looking in,
so call yourself what you will,
because I am who I am
and not the who you think I ought to be.

All I wanted was the impossible:
To be the who I am in a land
unafraid of the me I have become.


We had our first snow of the season yesterday and some of the minions decided it was the perfect excuse to sleep in. Luckily I know where they all live.  After I snow-trudged through the morning's ice and hammer-fisted a few front doors demanding response - I was able to raise sufficient enthusiasm for this morning's efforts.  That and a little terror. 

Once everyone had arrived back at our offices, hands warmed by the latest Annette Funicello latte special with whipped cream and the cinnamon chocolate sprinkles from Toby's arse -- we were able to have our morning read.

Frank Varela's Diaspora - Selected and New Poems made for a great morning read.  Humour and sorrow, love and respect, duty, all of it with a warm and human, almost gentle touch.

The Sweatshop

                     for Shirley Stephenson

If you don't know anything about work,
skip over the next few lines.

Mama was always home after dark
even during the summer from her job
at the sweatshop.

Labored for Mr. Klein,
an old Jew from the Bronx,
who hired anyone who wanted to work
bend over an industrial sewing machine,
an ebony beast snarling, spitting,
its silver fang, piercing, stabbing,
consuming bobbins of threads,
and fingers if you're not careful.
And she wasn't that day.

A blue line of thread stitched clean
from nail to knuckle
the bloody flow
from finger to finger
elbow to floor.

The doctor ordered seven days off,
the same with Mr. Klein.
Even the shop steward,
who never did anything for the seamstresses,
shouted: "Maria, go home."

But you never missed a day at the sweatshop,
because if you didn't clock in,
you wouldn't get paid.

Next morning,
the alarm rattled the stars.
Mama in slippers and robe
shuffled from bedroom to bath,
from bath to dresser,
blouse on, earrings next,
make-up last.

At five
she left for work.


Today's book of poetry will have Milo, our head tech, on the hunt for Frank Varela's earlier titles.  You will too after Diaspora. 

Sometimes good poetry just makes you feel like you are welcome.  Frank Varela may sometimes sound like he has a complaint or two, entirely justifiable, but in fact this sweet bird is singing.

Image result for frank varela photo

Frank Varela
Photo: Doug Mungavin


FRANK VARELA is the author of Serpent Underfoot (March/Abrazo Press, 1993), Bitter Coffee (March/Abrazo Press, 2001) and Caleb’s Exile (Elf Creative Workshop, 2009). He lives and works in Las Cruces, New Mexico.



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan - Edited by Brian Bartlett (Icehouse Poetry/Goose Lane Editions)

Today's book of poetry:
Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan.  Edited by Brian Bartlett.  Icehouse Poetry.  Icehouse Poetry is an imprint of Goose Lane Editions.  Fredericton, New Brunswick.  2017.

Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan

Three reminders of why I love this poetry game.  Earlier this week we finally heard from our Sr. Editor, Max, who had gone on a bit of walkabout.  He's fine, keeping out of the bad weather and we are greatly relieved to hear he is okay.  Today's book of poetry also got a phone call from our Southern Correspondent, the Twangster.  A phone call from his lair is as rare as hen's teeth but more welcome than Christmas.  Damn it, for the first few minutes of the call my short-term memory left the room and my old brain didn't even recognize the voice.

Why were these calls so important to Today's book of poetry?  Max knew me back in the day and tolerated my poetry just enough that I kept going.  The Twangster, through a variety of selfless acts of charity has helped Today's book of poetry renew his love for poetry and our small community.

The third.  Sir Alden Nowlan.  I gave him the Sir moniker and if you want to make something out of it - you know know where I live.  Alden Nowlan (1933-1983) was around when there were real giants roaming the poetry earth, Laytons, Cohens and such.  But Alden didn't get quite the same sort of press or recognition or fame.  I'm here to tell you that long before I worshipped the legendary Irving Layton I was hip deep in Alden Nowlan.  The perfect gateway to a life of loving poetry.

Bread, Wine and Salt (Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, 1967), The Mysterious Naked Man (Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, 1969) and Between Tears and Laughter (Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, 1971) were cornerstones of my early poetry world.  Today's book of poetry never met or knew Alden Nowlan but we loved him because his poetry was real to us in the most important sense of being real.  The emotions I felt as a young man reading Sir Alden of Nowlan have never gone away.  When I read these poems they still feel fresh.

Did I say Sir?

Saint Alden of Nowlan is a genuine Canadian poetry hero.  Brian Bartlett, the editor of this massive completest's joy, the Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan says it all much tidier and with less emotional bombast.  Here is his opening salvo:

     Czeslaw Milosz once wrote of another great twentieth-century Polish poet,
     Wislawa Szymborska: "Poetry that speaks to the enduring and irreversible
     coordinates of human fate -- love, striving, fear of pain, hope, the fleeting
     nature of things, and death -- leads us to believe that the poet is one of us,
     and shares in that fate." The same could be said about one of Canada's most
     distinctive and beloved poets, Alden Nowlan.  He once wrote of a desire to
     leave behind "one poem, one story / that will tell what it was like / to be
     alive" ("Another Poem").  Many times he did just that, with candour and 
     subtlety, emotion and humour, sympathy and truth-telling.  Only now is the
     true range of Nowlan's poetic achievement finally available between two 
     covers.  Collected Poems offers in one volume all his poems previously
     published in three early chapbooks, eight full-length collections, "new
     and selected" compilations, and the script of a long poem for voices.

And here is mine.  The first time I opened a book by Alden Nowlan I was in high school, I graduated over 47 years ago.  Alden Nowlan was one of the first poets on my bookshelf.  Because...

In Those Old Wars

In those old wars
where generals wore yellow ringlets
and sucked lemons at their prayers,
other things being equal
the lost causes were the best.

Lee rode out of history
on his gray horse, Traveller,
so perfect a hero
had he not existed
it would have been necessary to invent him--
war stinks without gallantry.

An aide, one of the few who survived,
told him,
Country be damned, general,
for six months these men
have had not country but you.
They fought barefoot
and drank blueberryleaf tea.

The politicians
strung up Grant
like a carrot,
made him a Merovingian.
They stole everything
even the coppers from Lincoln's dead eyes.

In those days, the vanquished
surrendered their swords like gentlemen,
the victors alone
surrendered their illusions.
The easiest thing to do for a Cause
is to die for it.


Today's book of poetry's old copies of Bread, Wine and Salt and The Mysterious Naked Man have been rifled through so many times the bindings are loose, they have so many paper page markers sticking out of the tops -- they look like they've grown plumage.  

What Today's book of poetry found in Alden Nowlan was a voice that sounded so real and true and fine you wished he were your Uncle.  Your smart/wise Uncle who wrote poems like this:

The Hollow Men

They tell me they have never aspired to be poets.
Their jobs, when they were young, were more
     demanding than mine.
With their sweetest smiles: "Nothing great was ever
by writing before breakfast; to create a man must
     be free."
Someday, perhaps, they'll live in Mexico or Italy.
Meanwhile, they endure as they must...
Then hand me the poem
they've preserved since their last year
in university.



The Last Waltz

The orchestra playing
the last waltz
at three o'clock
in the morning
in the Knights of Pythias Hall
in Hartland, New Brunswick,
Canada, North America,
world, solar system,
centre of universe--

and all of us drunk,
swaying together
to the music of rum
and a sad clarinet:

comrades all,
each with his beloved.


Our morning read was splendid.  The air in Ottawa is crisp, the way it always is before the first big storm of winter.  The sky that foreboding sunless gray.

The minions did Sir Saint Alden of Nowlan proud, we read poems from every lovely section of the Collected Poem of Alden Nowlan as though they were the Psalms and we were all religious.  Even though we are not.

Here's the truth of it.  Alden Nowlan never seemed to be speaking over us, he spoke directly to us, me.  It felt like I was being included in an erudite conversation about things that mattered, it was  a conversation I wasn't expecting to be included in.


It takes even more than this to make you cry
or laugh
            when you are old enough
to find a forgotten snapshot of yourself,

take it up in your hands,
hold it close to the light,

discover slowly
     and for the first time

that once
     long ago
             you were almost



Nowlan was a gem factory.  A high class jeweller.  Try this jewel on for size:


Fireworks are being set off
from the highest point in the city
and because explosions scare me
I sit here sullenly, bracing myself for the next one,
hoping it will be the last.
       After all, we've set off so damn many
explosions this past seven or eight hundred years
it stands to reason God must be getting sick of them.
One of these days he's going to hear a firecracker
and decide that's it, I've had it, they've gone far enough.

What a hell of a bang there'll be when that day comes.


Icehouse Poetry and Goose Lane Editions have done a national service with this handsome book.  The Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan may be the most important book of poetry published in Canada this year.  Every poetry bookshelf in the country should have this book on it!

Why I am not more afraid of the dark

You are:
is the name
                    for you.
And the darkness
and behind
                      your terrible brightness
is not
           the wings
                            of bats caught
in a furnace, not
something nameless
                                  rising, but
and women
behaving like humans.
                                     Still I all but
say it aloud:
And am grateful
that I possess words:
unknown to animals.


Sir Alden Nowlan, bard, poet-Saint and namer of things, names it here.  "I possess words: /  charms / unknown to animals.  

Today's book of poetry has looked up to Alden Nowlan since we first picked up Bread, Wine and Salt in it's tidy small paperback format.  It didn't take me long to realize it was one of the biggest books on my shelf.  Over forty years later -- nothing has changed.

Alden Nowlan should be remembered from that time when giants strode the earth for he was their equal in every way.  I know, he took giant steps into this poet's heart all those years ago.  And just like Mr. Coltrane and his own Giant Steps, they are there to stay.

Photo credit: A painting of critically acclaimed Canadian poet, novelist and playwright Alden Nowlan by Stephen Scott.

Alden Nowlan

Born in Hants Co., Nova Scotia, in 1933, Alden Nowlan moved to Hartland, New Brunswick, when he was nineteen, and worked on the Hartland Observer as reporter, editor, and general facilitator until he went to Saint John (and the Telegraph Journal) in 1963. In 1968 he was invited to take up the position of Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Alden Nowlan died on June 27th, 1983.

Brian Bartlett has published many books of poetry and non-fiction, including The Watchmaker's Table, Ringing Here & There: A Nature Calendar, and Wanting the Day: Selected Poems. He teaches creative writing at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.

"Both the Ukraine and Russia lay claim to Gogol, Wales has Dylan Thomas, and America, Poe. We (in Atlantica) have Alden Nowlan. He might tell you you've got the balls of a bull moose to say something like that. Just think how hard as a youngster he was treated by his native place. That doesn't matter now, since he turned it all to gold. Nowlan reminds us our English is good. Our cold winter-tempered Irish English, modern, spare, and mythological. These poems are enough to make you want to put your guitar down." 
     — Al Tuck

"The publication of this book is an historic event in our literature. The collection is a life's work, and like the work of life, this writing wrestles with ancient forces that are pure and unchanging. Nobody else saw the world with Alden's kind of clarity and nobody else worked the language so hard — trying to make it hold, or embrace, our shared experience with such furious tenderness. If you still think honesty is possible, if you worry sometimes about truth and the struggle for sincere connection, Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan will give you comfort." 
     — Alexander MacLeod

"Well over thirty years after his death, Alden Nowlan's poems are still hot-blooded — living, breathing incantations that beat with the pulse of Eastern Canada. Imbued with what Brian Bartlett dubs "the illusion of speech," Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan brings together the work of a master craftsman, a writer whose rangy, conversational poems benefit from appearing where they emerged within his career arc. A definitive volume that consolidates Nowlan's standing in Canadian letters." 
     — Jim Johnstone

"After I was brought up on the Romantics in school, my love of Alden Nowlan's poetry began with his dense, metrically perfect lyrics, some of them so dark they made me shiver. Later, his plain-speaking voice, his honesty and vulnerability drew me in. My husband and I hold Alden in such high regard that shortly after his death we named our first cat after him. He is our laureate of human frailties. No one makes me feel less alone in life and in literature than Alden." 
     — Lorna Crozier

Alden Nowlan: The People's Poet
video: Norflicks Production



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

This Sweet Haphazard - Gillian Wegener (Sixteen Rivers Press)

Today's book of poetry:
This Sweet Haphazard.  Gillian Wegener.  Sixteen Rivers Press. 
San Francisco, California.  2017.

These remarkable poems seem to do two things at once, they gently reassure you that all will eventually be okay, until it's not.  Gillian Wegener's This Sweet Haphazard plays both ends against the middle as though she were a rationalizing mall-mom, but dressed like a gun-slinger underneath.

Or we can approach This Sweet Haphazard this way.  How does Wegener know what she knows?  The precision of her approach, how a neighbour who doesn't want to rock the boat by telling her firework-crazy neighbour that she hates fireworks.  Only to find herself pleasurably lost in the beauty of same, the final spectacle spectacular and Wegener finds the beauty.  And then to fold that like taffy, Wegener twists to the real end of the poem where accuracy takes over and the smoke and the dust from the fireworks obscure the real beauty of the night sky, all those stars burning bright.  Wegener pulls off this sort of savvy machination repeatedly, seemingly at will.

America by Train

America passes by the window like a set of slides being shown too fast.  Here are
the desert scenes with long stretches of blank landscape, but you know that it's 
all in the details. How the gray-green cactus will open up the most beautiful pink
flower for just one day, but you'll never see that flower from this train window.
How the lizard will wait on its rock for the unfortunate cricket to land and
become a tiny meal. You won't hear the screech of the hawk welcoming sunset
or see the startle of the mouse in hearing that cry. What you can see is brown
and gray and vaguely green, with the wide, darkening sky overhead, and it's like
holding a book you know will be a good read but that you aren't allowed to open.
      But here are the passengers, their unchosen details out for display. The
man and wife who argue about every little thing in hard whispers and then
in loud voices, not quite shouts, not much softer, but not really meant for
the entire car to hear. She has something to say about how he shaves. He has
something to say about the way she cooks turkey. She is wearing a yellow hat
fifty years too late for yellow hats with small cloth daisies, and he has a cane
that he whittled himself, and they are going from Bakersfield to Kansas to see
her sister. He has something to say about that, too. Another passenger peels
an orange, and another says he was attacked by dogs in Indonesia and is going
home to get treatment, but the sores on his arms and face don't speak of dogs,
and the gloss of fever means everyone for the most part leaves him alone, and
what he wants most is a mug of tea, but because he is so tired, he decides to wait
it out. Another passenger walks ahead for a smoke. A baby sleeps on her father's
shoulder. The conductor reads a magazine and wishes he were elsewhere.
      And America passes by like that in the night, when the windows show
nothing but passenger reflections. It becomes New Mexico. It becomes
Oklahoma. It becomes a train moving through a world made up of nothing
but darkness punctuated by the little comma moon overhead. It becomes
a train standing still as the world moves past. The arguing couple grows
quiet, her head on his shoulder. The feverish boy sleeps and murmurs
with feverish dreams. The baby is awake and watching her own reflection
in the window, waving at her sweet new self as the night folds around us.


Well crafted almost sounds disparaging these days but Today's book of poetry still thinks that's how things should be done.  Gillian Wegener's poems are air-tight.

Frequent readers of Today's book of poetry will remember that we are suckers for a good list poem and Wegener obliges in fine form with a dandy, "The Old Mill Cafe."  Today's book of poetry would normally use it for fodder but frankly we were so smitten with Wegener's particular disposition that we were drawn to several other poems.  You meet women like Wegener every day, smart, decisive and decidedly kind and gentle (when she wants to be).  The wrong assumption that is often made is that these attributes reveal a weakness of some kind.  But the real lion doesn't always have to prove herself to be a lion.  She just is.  She can be as kind and gentle as needed.  Until she has to be that other kind of lion.

The Dyerville Giant

When a tree falls in a forest,
a tree like that, anyway,
with all those years ringing it,
having sprouted out of the soft earth
before Jesus was even a spark
in his Father's bright eye --
when a tree like that falls,
it cracks and echoes so that
even the gnats careening
in the sun near the creek
take pause. And when this tree
fell, the crash was like trains colliding.
The ground inhaled and held
its breath, waiting for impact.
The sound rolled through the forest
and made salamanders hide
in their damp burrows. It thundered
like a train wreck, and so
the townsfolk drove out
to the trestle to see the havoc,
while the fine silt of redwoods
rose and then settled
in the forest behind them.


Today's book of poetry's morning read was a slightly more subdued event than some of our recent escapades.  Milo, our head tech, and Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, apparently drank all of the Scotch in Vanier last night.  Their little wounded souls are being dragged around the office today like corpses with open wounds.  Neither of them appreciated this morning's Ornette Coleman concert over the office box.  His ground breaking saxophone and disharmonic reverberations were beyond their reason.  They didn't enjoy it at all.

Our reading was without musical accompaniment and Gillian Wegener's particularly humane kick at the proverbial can helped Milo and Kathryn see some light on the horizon through their caked and crusty eye-slits.  If for no other reason than they could see kindness still existed in the world at large.

This Sweet Haphazard

No one calls this town pretty.
Not with the dusty oleanders off the freeway
and the ragged fence boards of backyards
propped up with two-by-fours, and
the canals with their twin likes of slow and safe,
and the ash trees, dead branches dangling, and
the large, pale no-one's-home houses and
the foreclosed houses and the small houses
with their carefully tended geranium borders,
with the plum trees gone overripe and sticky.
No one calls this town pretty, with the heat
rippling of the parking lots and the sighs
of aunts and uncles sitting in the shade of garages
filled with cars that were once meant to go places,
and the church marquee scolding that
Jesus Did Not Read Porn, and the swarms
of mosquitoes buzzing the standing water
from the leaking sprinkler heads in the park.
And yeah, no one calls this town pretty
as the creek laps at its share of shopping carts,
and the untended grasses bleach dry by April,
and the public pools are mostly closed,
but the sky here turns indigo on summer nights,
and the hummingbird chases the sparrow
from the feeder, and the kids on the soccer field
run as fast as kids anywhere, oblivious
to the town around then, because after all,
it isn't so bad. It's an okay town.
We know where all the roads go,
and we know where to get good coffee,
and we know what time the train pulls through.
We know too we're more than soil, more than sky,
more than what you've read in the news,
and no, it isn't pretty, but we still live here, and
tonight the moon will rise, almost full,
over this sweet haphazard of home.


Gillian Wegener's long poem "Neighborhood" sounds a bit like every neighbourhood on earth from Minneapolis to Moscow, and from Houston to Helsinki.  Today's book of poetry felt a bit like going home when reading This Sweet Haphazard.  Not a home we've ever had but a place we'd like to be.

Gillian Wegener cooks.  Her sound reason gives us hope.

Gillian Wegener

Gillian Wegener is the author of three books of poetry: a chapbook, Lifting One Foot, Lifting the Other (In the Grove Press, 2001), and a full-length collection, The Opposite of Clairvoyance (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2008), and her new collection, This Sweet Haphazard (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2017). Widely published, she has won several awards for her work, including the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize in 2006 and 2007, and the Zócalo Public Square Prize for Poetry of Place in 2015. Wegener, a junior high teacher, lives with her husband and daughter in Modesto, where she coordinates and hosts the monthly Second Tuesday Reading Series. She is a cofounder of the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center and has served as the poet laureate for the city of Modesto.

“In This Sweet Haphazard, Gillian Wegener turns her well-tuned ear, her sharp eye, and her considerable intelligence and humor to the California of lightning fires, bulldozed almond trees, and murky rivers with unpredictable currents, as well as that of clear desert night skies, foggy coastlines, and the green light that filters through the sequoias. She sees the beauty and melancholy all around her, and she approaches it with tenderness and without aesthetic pretension. This is a beautiful book of powerful poems.”
     —Jane Mead, author of World of Made and Unmade

“‘Place, to the writer at work, is seen in a frame,’ writes Eudora Welty. ‘Not an empty frame, a brimming one.’ Everything is brimming in Gillian Wegener’s fantastic new collection of poems: rivers, bees, the Old Mill Cafe, forest fires, churches, Neville Bros. Service, the ghosts of Humboldt County, the streets, shops, and citizens of Modesto, California, and most importantly, the unmapped geography of the human heart. Candid and creative, Wegener charts past and present, interior and exterior, in order to create a poetic landscape we never want to leave.”
     —Dean Rader, author of Works & Days

Gillian Wegener
Sacramento Poetry Center
Video: Tim Kahl



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration