Saturday, May 25, 2019

Patrick Warner's Octopus

Pick up a copy of most any poetry collection these days, flip to the back, and you’ll note the weighty thematic encapsulated in a bumpf so precise (yet paradoxically vague) you’d think you were about to dig into an epic novel were it not for the thin spine. There are several reasons for this: it makes for a more coherent outline in order to gain grant money from our government overlords; it presents as serious content, most often allied with current hot button topics and with others in the poetry community (in which the ‘transgressive’ poet always seems to join the winning team); and it’s easier to get away with individual poems that are mediocre since each is meant to be taken as a small piece in a narrative whose sum is (supposedly) much greater than its constituents.

Patrick Warner is a throwback in that he writes poems meant to be enjoyed and assessed within the parameters of each offering, attuned to the desires of present-day consumers of songs, who enjoy and assess them as singles, not oases in DVD deserts. Octopus, from 2016, is his fifth collection, and though themes and obsessions can be observed, volume to volume (as they inevitably will in any poet, good or bad), his focus is much more on intricate rhythms, sound patterns, dynamics, narrative surprise, vocal idiosyncrasy, apt and piquant diction, subtle irony, moral dilemmas, and a rare humour that combines the black with the compassionate.

Warner enjoys going for walks and looking at the earth, foregrounding his observations, rather than using them, as is usual in ‘nature’ poets, as metaphorical standbys for the spiritual malaise of the speaker (or author, let’s not be coy). In that, he’s aligned with Bly, Kinnell, and, closer to home, Peter Norman. But, unlike the aforementioned poets, Warner isn’t averse to including disparate comparisons within a poem. Take “Cold July” (dedicated to the late Elise Partridge), the first stanza of part one of which is recorded below:

I have seen it a beaver-dammed
lukewarm dribble, but this summer the brook’s a river,
deep and cold, running steeped tea
and a skim of froth around lichened rocks,
roaring like an air-conditioner.

The next poem, “Downpour”, is even better on the same front: out of a cistern, “oblong doilies;/crocheted antimacassars; gobs of/cuckoo spit; and here where two stones/make a whirlpool, a round lace pastie/ringed by seven clear bubbles – a rotary phone’s finger holes.”

Fun in contemporary poetry has been attempted through sheer will of personality, whether made up or natural. Blame Purdy, sure. But his followers are ultimately culpable. Flat or mild jokes – OK for stand-up comics, dire for repeated poetry readings – dominate the mode. Warner is having none of that. In “Guerilla”, the fun is one-hundred percent language driven : “Adios to my pueblo, my adobe abode, my white-washed hacienda of the mind”. It continues, through eight sestets, in the gathered and regrafted tropes of a scion of a Spanish conquistador, his revolution one of spiritual, not military or political, movement.

Painstaking observation, care in expression, emotional heft and complexity. Those attributes don’t have a chance next to the various popular social positions most are shouldering within to get positive ink and communal support. That is, until time, the ultimate judge, immune to hype, has its say.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Dan MacIsaac's Cries From the Ark


It’s been estimated by some environmental scientists that, each day, about a hundred species of bird, beast, or insect vanishes from this globe of water, dirt, and asphalt. Of course, we don’t know the exact amount since most endangered species aren’t headline news like the Malayan tiger or ivory-billed woodpecker. Rather, most species are microscopic, tucked away (e.g.) in Amazonian jungles, unknown to us, and are indispensable for the survival of many other creatures since they start the feeding chain. Scientists have been urgently trying to find and classify those species before they’re gone, so that at least we know what we’ve missed, as this will at least shed light on the interconnectedness of ecosystems in those areas. It speaks to the dire predicament we’ve found ourselves in when a concession of extinction is made even before finding those species.

Dan MacIsaac’s inaugural poetry collection, Cries From the Ark, celebrates and elegizes the eponymous critters, and, with that as a base, speculates on past life forms, and how they came to extinction, whether through human or natural challenge. The book is divided into six sections: animals; Biblical personnae; birds; anthropological digs and myths; insects; and anthropology updated.

MacIsaac’s concentration on many members of Noah’s roll call is a welcome reprieve from the environmental grandstanding or abstraction that hampers a particular subset of advocacy verse. Some of the animals the author depicts are in a peculiar bind: their numbers and habitat aren’t at the tipping point (yet), so they haven’t gained sensationalistic press, but neither are they home and clear from current and various stewardship malpractices. The British Columbia Kermode bear is one such animal. Here’s MacIsaac’s “Spirit Bear”, in full (sub-heading: Ursus americanus kermodei):

At the river’s black mouth,
the white bear waits
for the swimmer.

He crashes into shallows,
seizing the quick fish,

glisten of silver
along cinder lips.

A cedar twig
cracks.

He lunges
for the far shore
murky with hemlock.

He vanishes –
froth spattered
on dark rock.


This is near perfect in its execution and vibrancy of images, and captures the grace, patience, strength, and ferocity of the bear with close observation, neither overstating the event nor interposing distracting, subjective layers. One such poem is worth a thousand hand-wringing self-regarding prosy salvos.

Elswwhere, the author accomplishes a wider perspective than the recording of events. In “Dandelions”, “my child, grown older,//will blow parachutes/of spun seed/over alien country.” A humble – even clich├ęd – ritual becomes sexual necessity, and the poem ends with, “love seems most/like the lion’s tooth.”

Consistently on display is an ear attuned to both appropriate rhythm and sound patterns. MacIsaac’s go-to notes are paired assonants, which emphasize importance of theme, and they often link to similar sounds in later stanzas. Internal rhymes also figure, and have a similar effect: “From a deep cirque of thorns,/the tribesmen goad the herd”.

Humour is sparse, but natural. The opening of “Red Pileated Woodpecker” is illustrative: “Headbanger,/mohawked,//with a buzz-saw/guffaw,//flaps over/the mosh pit”. But humour gives ground to the author’s sober insistence that what we call ‘nature’, or ‘the environment’, is not some cute concept to be proselytized in sentimental urgency, but a dynamic force, frightening in its potency, and often, like the “Bison: Wallowing”, “sweating out ticks/from its soiled hide/into the suety ooze.”

Friday, February 8, 2019

Dani Couture's Listen Before Transmit


Dani Couture’s latest volume of poetry, Listen Before Transmit, obsesses and moves over time shifts between present and future, by way of spatial relations. The present is personal, the future is abstracted. Both are dire. It could be labeled pre-apocalyptic lit. Teasing out those shifts could have been a fascinating exercise, yielding many insights, but the speculations would have to have been grounded in a convincing present reality. This is a problem throughout the collection. Too often that present isn’t a developed panoply of imminent environmental disasters, but a focus on the doomed individuals: death by accident (“It was/a black spot on their left shin after having/mown the lawn. During an eclipse,//they looked at the sun without their/daughter’s pinhole camera.”, from “Black Sea Nettle”), vague suggestions of mass capture and, perhaps, deportation (“The helicopter nears. Tonight, even the air is filled with bodies.”, from “Another Earth”), female subjugation and overcoming (“Jet propulsion will eventually erupt/and cause a break between her legs, at which point she will take off.”, from “Pioneer 14”).

Another problem is tonal choice. The most effective registers for apocalyptic speculation, near or long term, are solemn and scarily plausible or angry and accusatory. The voice, here, is distanced, cool, at times even ironic. Cool then becomes cold, and the inevitable fall-out leads to pretentious lines like, “The electric lever of passive care plasma fuels/or sometimes doesn’t” (from “A Casual Defence”), or “T minus the time it takes you to forget/your intention” (from “Minus Time”), or “An issue with constant values/and constant invalidation of facts.” (from “Flyby”).

Mary Dalton’s blurb recognizes the “uncertainty, estrangement and disconnection”, but also comments on “a countermusic in the book that strengthens the hold these poems gain over the reader”. I didn’t hear it. Similar to the failure of Dennis Lee’s Yesno, the author might listen, but fails to transmit any joy in the present world that should serve as the bedrock for the rage or grief that would necessarily follow from ‘the end of the world as we know it’. The collection’s closer, “Transit of Mercury”, ends with, “So when I say I miss you,//it’s not to you, but through to the palm trees/on the throw pillow that are not actual palms.//But I enjoy the idea of their shade/when the sun hits them right.” The only enjoyment is in “the idea”, which perhaps accounts for the joyless and dull phrase, “when the sun hits them right”.

In Listen Before Transmit, Couture has bitten off far more than she can chew. It’s more convincing as a personal fear of death than as a speculative take on different apocalyptic scenarios.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Jeramy Dodds' Drakkar Noir

Who doesn’t enjoy entering a funhouse of mirrors at a county fair or city exhibition? You pay your five-spot (or get discount tickets), glance at yourself in the convex madness for a few minutes, and exit back into the brilliant sun or tragic snow.

Now imagine yourself as you open the pages to Jeramy Dodds’ latest poetry collection, Drakkar Noir. You chuckle a few times during the madcap shifts and distorted riffs, but you can’t exit, not if you want the whole experience. So you read the rest of the book, and the relentless one-note antics turn from humourous to annoying to numbing.

You’re led to believe the intention is to “bravely chas[e] after the new gods of our post-electric reality” which will reveal “the truth about what the hell is happening to us” (from Robert Montgomery), yet as soon as the carnival packs up, the contorted images disappear, and are remembered, if remembered at all, as adolescent jackanapes after a bender on chloroform.

Dodds isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to yoke comic absurdity with the whole nine yards of the contemporary information freeway. And he offers the add-ons of wordplay: homonyms, double entendres, rhyme replacements mid-phrase, arcane pairings. But a funhouse doesn’t refer to what’s outside of it, to “what the hell is happening to us”, it refers only to itself, and is giddy with what it sees, precisely because it ain’t real. Or of any import. Here’re a few examples:

“After a brief period of mourning, it was afternoon./This mirror is selfie-proof”.

“My daughter starts dating a dwarf./They attend a Bergman retrospective;/she gets home after midnight, every night./My child is nine” ... “He was wearing one of my shirts, taken in:/ ‘Time Traveller Caught with Miner,’ ” ... “ ‘Will you be heading to the beheading?’ ”

And so on.

Stay for the first few punch lines. Then cut your losses and get out.





Friday, January 25, 2019

Aaron Giovannone's The Nonnets

The cult of personality was outsized during Canadian poetry’s centennial heyday. Pick your favourites or denounce them – and there were many – but you couldn’t go three volumes down a bookstore shelf without encountering a front cover mug shot of an author setting his face (and they were mostly men) to the appropriate takeaway – tough, bemused, bewildered, laughing, or grim. Al Purdy gets blamed, unfairly, for starting the angle. (Most of his covers were faceless.) You could also point the finger at Frank “I do this, I do that” O’Hara. But they didn’t get the ball rolling. After gathering snow, that ball finally froze, motionless, at the edge of a sewer drain during the 90s when personality meant transparently autobiographical jokey or tender anecdotal blathering. Enter the brilliant new millennium. Personality, if present in any recognizable manner, was sublimated, or at least at the service of craft and narrative force. But the cult of personality never went away. New practitioners were clever enough to mask their foregrounded selves with greater layers of irony and wit, disjunction and ambiguity. Tone was fluid, which, in practice, meant provisional, confused (and confusing), overriding. We now have a spate of current CanPo titles that tweak 90s jokey or tender into jokey and tender. Aaron Giovannone’s The Nonnets is among those collections.

The Nonnets refers to Giavannone’s own form, nine-line poems which split evenly into three stanzas. Any other formal constraint, though, is an add-on, if present at all. For example, the author employs rhyme, end or internal, at times. As for organic development, that’s either not on the menu, or is subverted. Since an example is impossible without full quotation, and because the poems’ brevity allow it, here’s one entry, in full (all poems lack titles):

WHEN GREENPEACE CANVASSERS stop me
I say, I’m late for a meeting.
This is the meeting.

Just to be here’s amazing.
I’d like to thank the many people
who believed in me.

That was your first mistake.
A silver maple with twinkling leaves.
Just kidding. There’s no tree.

This poem’s fairly typical in procedure. Introduce one scene, sever that completely in the second stanza, then refer obliquely, even obscurely, to the first stanza in the wrap-up. The language is banal, the sentences or sentence fragments are short and often declarative, the poem references itself implicitly (and in other poems, explicitly, with the “Dear Reader” address), the tone is floating. The effect on the reader is of being in the audience where a magician keeps hinting that multiple and endless rabbits will, eventually, be pulled from hats. Unfortunately, in all but several poems, there are an awful lot of hats and very few rabbits.

When Giovannone drops the casually practiced and ineffectual comic shtick, his efforts can stick. He’s much better when at his most directly vulnerable. Here’s a terrific nonnet, fifth from the final poem:

ZOOMING SEMIS ROCK my car
on the highway’s shoulder.
Hazards flash in the gallery of pine.

Is anyone here afraid of bears
or of that blue pickup
parked at the edge of the woods?

Because we’re alive, we’re growing
a moustache, at least its wispy beginnings.
Dead, we will be too.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Stevie Howell's I left nothing inside on purpose


I left nothing inside on purpose, the title of Stevie Howell’s 2018 collection of poems, is taken from a note in the window of a Mercedes, in a ridiculously optimistic request for preservation of property. Howell’s header uses that naive note ironically, realizing we – I use that collective pronoun seriously – can’t shut out disaster, whether we’ve money and good health, or, in the speaker’s case, little of the former and even less of the latter. The title also refers to the fearless revelations of the speaker, impatient with the poses and tertiary peccadilloes that comprise so much of the tea-cosy-and-grey-sky school of poetry.

Voice is a particular challenge in this volume. The tone, I feel, left plenty of room for various inflections, tempi, and dynamics, yet I didn’t feel this an arbitrary exercise. The poems have to be read aloud – all of them – and I found myself stopping and starting frequently because of the constant indentations, caesurae, ellipses, one-and-two line stanzas, short phrases, and sporadic period disappearance. The effect is halting, but not tentative, and certainly not flat. Though sentences are paratactic, they don’t fill the page with numbing, unresolved repetition, the latter a cheap ball-peen in the postmodern toolkit. Actually, the ‘flat’ tone emphasizes the terse and not infrequent tragic maxims that follow the earlier strategy. And those harsh conclusions are earned by the (now) heightened earlier content. This is difficult, even impossible, to relay accurately here because of the typographical misrepresentation which would result. And unlike the often arbitrary indents and erratic spacings other poets use in an attempt to impart complexity, Howell’s efforts in layout are instructive. So I’ll just pick a few quotes from various poems that can be rendered here with fairly close representation, realizing that, in this volume more than most others, excision doesn’t do justice to her work.

“A dream of diaphaneity by the calcified. Life requires 3 people to make a//tragedy. & for the tragedy to be performed. A 3rd person can’t come between a couple unless//you let him, & he wants to.”

“That I can close my eyes & make you//mine on loan is a miracle////God help me –


“a retired train station, too. A maze of different platforms makes you panic – you might miss your ride into oblivion.”

The bravery on display doesn’t just result from exposing the extremes of mental and emotional states – (“I refuse to describe the tangible world in signs anymore. Since Google killed/the lyric, all we have inside//(states, not traits)”) – but on laying out spare relational settings (objects in a room; mundane images) and somehow managing to link the humble beginnings to interesting, even profound, observations, and all this through transitions that, initially, seem maximally disjointed.

Here I note that her editor was Ken Babstock. I don’t normally comment on a book’s editor, publisher, or designer, preferring to let the poems speak without the support system, not that that system is unimportant – far from it – but that those details can easily veer into the ‘business’ of poetry, important for sure, but also dangerous in that false conclusions, or at least banal ones, can be drawn from the links. In I left nothing inside on purpose, though, Babstock’s influence shows. His latest book, On Malice, now four years in the rear view mirror, uses flatness and disjunction to mirror emotional reactions to history as impersonal insult. Howell has learned well, and has added her own deft touches, dependent on no one.






Friday, January 11, 2019

Catherine Owen's Dear Ghost,

Catherine Owen’s previous poetry collections have stuck pretty closely to an all-encompassing thematic: life in the fast lane of a metal band; grief over, and elegies to, a dead lover (twice); studies of other artists (Egon Schiele and Robinson Jeffers). In her latest collection, Dear Ghost,, the focus is on herself (though there’s also an extended section on others), including artistic excitement during childhood and work experiences in the present. Unlike many other poets who rework the same source material until every mundane detail, post-wringer, is rank and dry, Owen has had a varied and interesting life that can withstand (with caveats) the frequent dead-ends and narcissistic concentration that overwhelms lesser efforts in the autobiographical mode.

This is Owen’s best volume. Always bold and engaging, she shows a deeper vulnerability here that works lyrically to hold the emotion while also, paradoxically, setting it free. The excellent “Against Billy Collins’ Refusal to Read Poems called ‘My Grandfather’s Binoculars’ ” ends, after a curious exploration giving the lie to Collins’ typically facile and jokey remonstrance, with, “the small ships drift by and I want to mark their names,/to enter their fierce ceremony of water for awhile.”

The same problems apparent in her earlier work also surface in Dear Ghost, , though their evidence is more scant. Questionable (or outright wrong) word choices intrude. Thoroughbred horses aren’t “shot” when they break down, which softens much of the sting and (otherwise) complex rage of “Just the Way Things Are (He Said)”. And, with “The Window Washer”, I have a hard time with the verb wherein a wind “bashes him into his bucket”. These are faults of overwriting, or, more particularly, raising the stakes for a falsely heightened dramatic effect.

Owen publishes too much (volumes, and poems within volumes), but her best poems, and there are many here (“When I Love Film the Most”, “Residual Lingerie”, “The Dildo Craftsman”, “Swallows’ Nests of Isla de Janitzio, Michoacan”, “The Combination”), dominate the more negligible efforts with their intense lyricism and sharp observational capture.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Jeff Latosik's Dreampad

Pick up most any poetry journal or magazine from the past 50 years and you’ll meet at least two, possibly 50, poems of mild observation, event or anecdote – the crushed roadside raccoon, the carrot steaming in the pot, grandfather’s rheumy eyes. One reaches the end of the poem with unbearable ennui, and hastens to the next page, fingers crossed for a more enlightening guide.

Quite a few of Jeff Latosik’s poems start out on (not metrically) similar feet. Moving through a house, playing guitar, sliding a hand inside his parka, checking a bump on his knee. These are openings to poems from his 2018 collection Dreampad, but Latosik has an interesting and inquisitive mind which is able to branch off in many directions from such humble sources. Time and space are the author’s primary considerations. Nothing ever ‘begins’ in the usual generative sense, anyway, and Latosik’s observations are fascinating to follow as they link to concurrent and disparate thought patterns, time loops, and speculative outcomes based on shifts in spatial possibility. This may begin to sound like sci-fi tomfoolery, but only to the unimaginative, obtuse, or stubbornly prosaic. There is much to latch onto here, and, far from the emotional plastic landfill of an Adam Dickinson, Latosik’s ruminations often run parallel with wise sadness, cautious acceptance, and transitive joy.

The anecdote’s usual goal, in a standard poem, is a set-up for the reassuring – or, at least, hopeful – epiphany, boring and solemn as an Oral Roberts telethon. The religiose comparison is also apt in that the reader is asked to join the writer, through an emotional sales job, in hazy communal faith. Latosik undercuts all that malarkey. “To know that no one and nothing is coming” begins “Oath of an Unaffiliated Boy Scout”. How’s that for immediate black irony? But progression is still possible, through reversal: “To know it will take many years but might not”, “To know there’s no bedrock but still agree”, and “To live, for as long as you can, in the difficulty”. There’s a church I could get used to attending! But what’s a church without good music?

Latosik’s wayward thought processes wouldn’t seem to be suitable for formal designs, but, moreso that in his first two volumes, Dreampad is notable for internal rhyme, close-shouldered assonantal comparisons, and chiming unrhymed gerunds. As well, he relaxes into a more personal mode, which helps to relieve abstract congestion that tended to mar some of the poems from his first two collections. Here, to illustrate, are just a few passages, but there are many standout poems throughout: “[y]ou’re met,/ as ever, by the range of choices your qualm half fits,/a cache of wants crushed on a touchpad of options/that feel as though they’ve been free-floating//and present forever.” (“Troubleshoot”); “But what I am now can’t/be made real to whoever was once lying there.” (“Silverado”); “It wasn’t a place, but you could go there.” (“The Internet”); “spike the microphones in the grass/so no one sings; and spin again the giant carousel/I must step off to just see anything.” (“The Bright Note”).