Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Brief Notes On All Books Of Poetry Read In 2008

Here are blurbs for all 83 books of poetry I’ve read this year. A handful were rereads, but most of them I encountered for the first time. (I didn’t count the times I dipped into pre-WWII classics, or journals, or online entries.)

Ken Babstock, Days Into Flatspin. (already blogged).Very good follow-up to his opener, Mean, though the philosophical reflections on his experiences detracted from the brilliant immediacy of the book’s first half.

Carmine Starnino, With English Subtitles. Steady progression from The New World to Credo to this volume. Starnino’s ushered in wider colour, mood, and subtleties of diction.

Geoffrey Cook, Postscript. The repetitive iambics distracted me from the strong narrative, and from the lyrical enjoyment not pertaining to rhythm. I’ll have to try this one again.

George Elliott Clarke, Blue. Powerfully voiced and unapologetic, detailing lives and issues in an onrush of verbs and nouns. My only quibble is with sonic repetitions which seem, at times, gratuitous.

Tim Lilburn, Names Of God. Lyric creativity, originality.

Tim Lilburn, From The Great Above She Opened Her Ear To The Great Below. I prefer allusions which crisscross and make historical, spiritual connections. This seemed an exercise in scholarship, a distancing consideration, rather than an invigoration of the lives of its heroes.

Tim Lilburn, Tourist To Ecstasy. Excellent. Marries exhortation and fast-flowing rhetoric with commentary on actual people.

Tim Lilburn, Moosewood Sandhills, To The River and Kill-Site. Similar in their emphasis on cloudy microscopic natural evocation twinned with allusive obscurity, all three volumes are katabatic poetic statements which piled up a brick façade between poet and (at least this) reader.

George McWhirter, Queen Of The Sea. Some interesting lyrical work, though filled with conjunctive quirks which distracted, at times, from some fine rhythms.

Mary Dalton, Red Ledger. The stresses are so strong it’s like eating a sumptuous hearty meal with most every fifteen-liner. The aftereffects are then pensive and satisfying. I’m in awe, and envious, of Dalton’s tone, here; she’s captured an incredible synthesis of sorrow and insouciance.

Lyle Neff, Bizarre Winery Tragedy. Nothing wrong with countering another unfortunate prevailing feature of contemporary poetry, that of preciousness. Too bad that Neff leaves little of substance with this promising opportunity in style and voice.

Lyle Neff, Ivanhoe Station. Much better. I very much enjoyed this volume. The anecdotes are more mature, the suggestive after-effects greater and deeper.

Margaret Atwood, Selected Poems 1966-1984. A well-arranged selection of all Atwood’s poetry, sans her last two volumes. I’d forgotten just how powerful, in metaphor and drama, some of these poems are. Unfortunately, even in this Selected, the Atwood wet blanket, in diction and vision, saturates the collected thrust.

David McFadden, Why Are You So Sad? I realize this voice is attractive to many: like Bukowski, like Purdy, the reader can sit back and be entertained or bored by an amusing and prolix raconteur, but, as with the aforementioned duo, it doesn’t flick my bic. Personality is one thing; artlessness another. If this verse were run together into short paragraphs (don’t they call that ‘flash fiction’ these days?), it would be improved by the switch in genre.

Margaret Atwood, The Door. Awful. After the very good, suggestive opener, the book collapses into superior plain talk, rhetorical goofiness, reductive theme-based falsity.

Paul Vermeersch, Between The Walls. I wanted to like this a lot more. The concerns are close to some of my own: the interior lives of those who populate the vast majority of our country: suburbanites. Drama was set up nicely, but the conclusions often stated the repetitive stereotypes, that of the vague uneasiness of those involved. I realize this is most often the point, but I think a lot more could be said here.

Lyle Neff, Full Magpie Dodge. Good, but not up to the quality of Ivanhoe Station. Also, the cuteness factor is increasing. I hope Neff doesn’t get carried down that path for his next efforts.

David McGimpsey, Lardcake. Very enjoyable. There’s a poem in here which is remarkable for its fusion of sadness and humour: the imaginative interior dream of the fictional lives of those in the old sit-com “Bewitched”. This is heads above anything I’ve seen in the area of literary responses to pop culture (though I admit, I don’t readily track much of it). And it’s a great response in depicting the lives of bored suburbanites, echoing my hopes for what I found wanting in the next-to-above book.

Tim Lilburn, Orphic Politics. A little better than Lilburn’s previous three efforts. The metaphors are -- a few times, at least -- effectively pinned by the circumstances of the volume: autobiographical illness. If Lilburn would continue in this line, he could write some incredible lyrics.

George Murray, The Cottage Builder's Letter. A few excellent subjective historical narratives.

George Murray, The Rush To Here. Couldn’t get into this one. The philosophical statements of assumed authority turned me off, as did the (ironically different) open-ended questions. And the thought-rhymes were a nice trick, though I didn’t see how it enhanced the necessities of these particular sonnets.

Patricia Young, More Watery Still. (already blogged) Some very nicely done lyrics. Emotional openness with intelligence. Appealing nouns, evoking art, nature, and human foibles and joys.

A. F. Moritz, Rest On The Flight Into Egypt. Voice, tone, mood, hook me. This volume, to coin a cliché, didn’t “speak” to me. I’m devoting more time and energy to his Early Poems, and’ll have something more substantive to say about those in a while.

Susan McCaslin, At The Mercy Seat. (already blogged) Sermons are such whether they’re conducted by Presbyterian pulpit-pounders or populist Buddhistic followers. That McCaslin has tapped into an appetite for the latter doesn’t -- in itself -- make her poems any better. Abstractions pile up, as do the bromidic conclusions.

Don McKay, Birding, Or Desire. McKay captures some lovely lyrical snapshots, but his tendency, in many poems, to insert himself into most scenescapes subverts any organic fascination they might otherwise enjoy.

Susan Glickman, The Power To Move. Intelligent, affecting emotional anecdotes. I wish she’d get back to poetry; I think she’d have some interesting things to say.

Seamus Heaney, Selected Poems 1965-1975. Heaney’s work reminds me of a time poets used to chisel every word into a meaningful avenue with every other word in the piece. Sound lives!

A.F. Moritz, Now That You Revive. See note above on Rest On The Flight Into Egypt.

Ralph Gustafson, Tracks In The Snow. (Reread) Gustafson’s one of my fave Canadian poets. I’d only read this volume one time before, and a long time ago, at that. Intelligence and wit are very subtle in all of Gustafson’s later work, and there’re many small delights here.

Robert Hilles, Nothing Vanishes. (already blogged) This is taking flatness to a level new level. Tenderness and compassion, by themselves, aren’t poetry, nor are they even necessary for poetry.

Judith Fitzgerald, Habit Of Blues. This was very tough sledding. Even if it’s not narcissism, it’s certainly mired in its one-to-one obsessions. And the puns get tired fairly quickly. (I love the “low” humour of punning, but here it seems gratuitous.)

Jon Paul Fiorentino, Hello Serotonin. Instantly forgettable.

Patrick Friesen, Carrying The Shadow. (already blogged) The mawkish end-lines sunk at least one-third of the poems in this collection. And I didn’t enjoy the others, either.

rob mclennan, bagne and aubade (already blogged) cut up the words from a small dictionary, toss them in a hat, pluck out 60 of them w/out looking, and after making small allowances for syntactic adjustment for semi-literate ease …… voila! instant poetry!

Martin Espada, City Of Coughing And Dead Radiators. (already blogged) Social seriousness. Lyrical and narrative power. A brilliant contrast to the theoretic irrelevancies issuing from workshop and university cookie-cutter factories.

Ralph Gustafson, Shadows In The Grass. (Reread) Subtle anger, proud assertion, joyous recollection. The euphonic connectives are so deep I always discover something new no matter how many times I go over these poems.

John B. Lee, The Pig Dance Dreams. (already blogged) There are many powerful images, and a few outstanding poems, in this collection. The only thing that mars it is a propensity for piled-on similes. That’s too bad, because they either don’t work to make the connection, or they do work as such, but dilute the arresting image by redundancy.

Douglas Fetherling, Selected Poems. The emotion is too distancing. More effective as reportage than as poetry, which is not surprising considering his other work.

Mark Cochrane, Boy Am I. There’s some talent here, but it’s at the service of didactic defensiveness and simplistic social siding.

George Bowering, Changing On The Fly. Diaristic noodling. Unaccomplished, self-congratulating in-jokes. Insulting to, and dismissive of, any audience outside the author’s own artistic circle.

John Pass, Stumbling In The Bloom. (already blogged) Some colorful images, but flabby, uncoordinated, and technically maladroit.

Harold Rhenisch, Free Will. (already blogged) Witless poem sequence that rides the felicities of Shakespeare, but releases into the moat.

George Johnston:, Endeared By Dark: The Complete Poems. A handful of these poems will stand out as Canadian classics. A little lightweight in its entirety, but there’s always room for subtlety and technical piquancy in any poetic option, especially so when those qualities are often lacking in contemporary verse.

Robyn Sarah, Questions About The Stars. Proves that accuracy and suggestive depth can result from bland anecdotes. Many anecdotal-obsessives think that an anecdote is fascinating in itself, I suppose because “hey, it happened to me, so it’s significant”. But Sarah drew me in. Who cares about content as a stand alone? If that’s the case, pulp fiction and newspaper reports have it over poetry any day.

Steven Heighton, Stalin's Carnival. (Reread) (already blogged). Three bold lyrical sections, the middle and best of them being an amazing, highly personal study of Stalin, one effort therein being one of the best Canadian poems I’ve ever read.

Steven Heighton, The Ecstasy Of Sceptics. (Reread) Original lyrical shaping. Very good sea poems.

Ted Hughes, New Selected Poems (1957-1994). A bulging Selected. Hughes’ first two books are excellent: strong yet subtle metaphorical mother lodes. With the “Crow” obsession, his heroes become anthropomorphized, and the reader has to be familiar with a wide library of multi-ethnic folklore to get the connections. A return to form approximating his early efforts then occurs in the late 70s -- a lower, though consistent, quality.

George Bowering, His Life. Artless reminiscences.

Elise Partridge, Fielder's Choice. A few remarkable poems, and I enjoyed the variety of topics, mood, and rhythm.

Evie Christie, Gutted. (already blogged) Very uneven collection. Passionate, with surprisingly apt metaphors, at its best; at its worst, private messaging.

Eric Ormsby, Time's Covenant. (already blogged) Excellent Selected, though a little top heavy with recent work.

Fraser Sutherland, The Matuschka Case. (already blogged) Wise mix of content and mood. Entertaining, filled with people and unpopular psychological conclusions (I swear that Canadian poets are among the most ‘spiritually’ attuned in the English language, at least in their own eyes).

John Steffler, Helix. (already blogged) It took quite a while for me to warm up to this Selected, but the last book’s entries were a pleasure to read.

Weldon Kees, Collected Poems. My first encounter with Kees’ work. Slim collected body , and I was surprised, because of that, to see so much repetition in form, diction, mood. He had one note to sing, but he sang it well (reminiscent of Robinson Jeffers).

Christopher Patton, Ox. Tight, sonic interplay. The stertorous section two left me cold, and a few of the end-line spiritual recyclings put me off (“That thou art” sounds more convincing coming from Nisargadatta, e.g.), but the imaginative welded to the particular was largely effective and realized.

Ken Babstock, Airstream Land Yacht. (already blogged) The best book of new (to me) Canadian poetry I’ve read in years. I haven’t seen anyone else in this country, lately, write with such musical enjoyment, such a seamless thread between experience and thought, as has Babstock., especially in this book.

David Solway, Franklin's Passage. What a dramatic letdown after his excellent Saracen Island. The most diligent research on this topic can’t replace or even remotely approach some familiarity with the experience these men were put through. Because of that, the book was emotionally flat, and embarrassingly so when considering the story.

Adam Sol, Crowd Of Sounds. I enjoyed this one. Confident, various, and thoughtfully constructed.

Jean Mallinson, Between Cup & Lip. Unmemorable. Some interesting erudition, but as emotional engagement and original formation, a no-go.

Michael Redhill, Asphodel. Again, unmemorable, but I think it’s unfair to say so, since I didn’t give enough time to this one. (And I just read it two months ago, more should be registering.)

Christopher Levenson, Arriving At Night. Unmemorable, by poem or line.

Eric Miller, Song Of The Vulgar Starling. As a more accomplished McKay, Miller’s birds I can experience. The diction and allusions sometimes flew over my head, but I enjoyed the book.

Eric Miller, In The Scaffolding. Enjoyed this one slightly more than the above Miller.

Wayne Clifford, The Exile's Papers: Part One. I see a lot of Berryman’s sonnets in these by Clifford. Interesting and purposeful distortions in syntax, dramatic emotional shifts, the high tone with the low. Some of the referents confused me, as did some of the resolution or ambiguity of content, but an ambitious and worthy collection, all the same.

Don McKay, Apparatus. A few very good efforts, but, as for the rest, the wit didn’t work for me, either as a tie-in to the “outer” subject matter, or as humour or irony.

Bobbie Livingston, The Chick At The Back Of The Church. The sexual content in the book’s first section was decent (or perhaps indecent and partially effective); the rest was quite banal in form and aspiration.

John Reibetanz, Midland Swimmer. Carefully crafted. Overwritten, at times -- sometimes it’s good to decompress.

Matt Rader, Miraculous Hours. Unremarkable debut. A sameness in content, voice, and diction. One very good poem, and a few other good lines.

Matt Rader, Living Things. (already blogged) An excellent collection; a dynamic improvement over his first effort. Sound, sense, and a successful variation in form and voice perspective.

Tim Bowling, Low Water Slack and The Memory Orchard. (already blogged) Disappointing and frustrating to read because of the fascinating subject matter, as well as the sporadic talent on display. Prolix, too abstract, and precious.

Christopher Wiseman, In John Updike's Room. Although he boldly takes chances with placing his heart on his sleeve with the blitz of fond commemoration, his work usually succumbs to the fatal poetic disease of sentiment. Grammatically uninteresting, as well.

Chris Banks, Bonfires and The Cold Panes Of Surfaces. (already blogged) Philosophically and spiritually self-important in the popular abasing manner, these poems left me cold.

Sonnet L’Abbe, A Strange Relief. I couldn’t find an entry point to relate to, let alone enjoy, this book.

Sharon Thesen, The Pangs Of Sunday. A mildly enjoyable Selected at times, though there wasn’t a definitive voice, troubling for a long retrospective. (The Lowry poems were a surprising exception.)

Richard Outram, The Promise Of Light. Tighter than a soldered screw in a Brink’s truck. An appealing lightness, at times, but the technical precision quickly became smothering.

Steven Price, Anatomy Of Keys. This volume must have taken Price a long time and a lot of effort to compile. 130 + pages of poems of (often) complex development, it’s amazing that his debut entry has so little filler. The sound is crisp and apt, the suggestiveness often multi-layered, and the narrative unflagging in interest. The only quibble is with a gathering force of earnest overreach towards the end. Price has a tough act with a follow-up, but even if he fails to hit another home run, he’s already done more than enough to make a lasting impression.

Richard Outram, Hiram And Jenny. A delightful surprise after reading The Promise Of Light. The technical virtuosity is still there, but it serves an insouciant voice, making for a warm contrast between control and release.

Christian Bok, Eunoia. (already blogged) A colossal overcoming of self-imposed strictures, the book is a fascinating revelation of what can be accomplished with hard work. Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately), poetic success isn’t defined purely by jumping through a tight fire of technical hoops. The gathering insanity of its music, along with its nullity of voice and content, make the work much less interesting and important than the hoopla surrounding it would indicate.

Tim Bowling, The Witness Ghost. (already blogged). The most uneven collection I’ve read all year. A few amazing poems, quite a few more remarkable lines in others, but a frustrating lack of sustained quality throughout, considering his successes.


Judith Fitzgerald said...

Good evening, Brian. You know, I wanted to express my thanks for your comment on Habit of Blues, for the fact you spent time reading it, for the care you obviously took in your "tough sledding."

The highest compliment I have been paid, in many a moonbeam, issues from your obversation concerning the not-narcissism of the book. Thank you.

How I wish you'd read the first of the two books comprising Rapturous Chronicles, though; I think, perhaps erroneously, you might understand the speaker(s) / character(s) in HofB better.

(Yes, it doesn't fail to register on yours truly that a book ought not require any explanation from its creator; but, in this instance, I guess I justify same with the defense novelist Juan Butler ought to be properly remembered, one way or t'other.)

Did you know the section titles spell "IMMACULATE VICE," e.g.? Welp, now you do :).

The first book addresses the deceased creator of Cabbagetown Diaries (whose brother is as big a horse-fan man as you are, BTW); thus, the second book speaks from within what I took and still take to be his mindset. Juan speaks for himself; and, sadly, he went off the rails a little, to put it mildly, before dying at an obscenely young age.

I knew Juan and his death did affect me profoundly, I will admit; however, I also saw him in his full-blown "madness" stages and they were neither pretty nor entirely communicable.

Sometimes, babble resulted (erp, sorry ;), sometimes his insights scared the lifewits out of yours truly. He was punnacious, pugnacious, and occasionally stunningly brilliant.

Finally, you share an "elevating" love of puns with McLuhan; and, at the time of the writing of RC (Book II), guess who found herself knee-deep in rereading his work? Yep. Have a peek-see @ this brief obit from The NYT so you may understand my logic (which concurrently coincides with the kind of insanely correct and astonishingly vatic language and linguistic play Juan deployed or, do I mean detonated?).

Natch, McLuhan, through no fault of his own, wound up laying a little rubber on the information nerveway HofB became. HTH.
p.s. Whoa, though; good on you that you actually read an astonishing number of poetry collections; and, FWIW, I generally agree with your no-punch-pulling assessments so, genuine thanks and best 'gards to you

Brian Palmu said...

Thanks for your gracious comments, Judith. And for the additional info.

Yes, it's often difficult to get into the author's head regarding motive or impulse. Of course, the reader has to work with what appears, and I'm always suspicious when a book HAS to have prosaic exegesis in order to understand the work more fully. That said, perhaps I'll pick up the first two books you mentioned, at some point, and see if I can't shed some additional light on the one I read, as well as those others, as well.


brizo said...

aha, I see the ethereal beauties have made an appearance. :-)