Reviews

George Elliott Clarke

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Poetry Blurbs

The Witch of the Inner Wood: Collected Long Poems
by M. Travis Lane
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2016
378pp; $40.00

Travis Lane keeps the Aristotelian tradition in poetry:  To move from lyric poetry to longer verse-forms. Thus, she has always done–with meet cadence, with right diction, with sweet wisdom. But the Collected Long Poems gather at long last her consistent achievement, her persistent excellence, her insistent, epic impulse. Lane accepts our collective debt to classical poets, the undead–deathless–bards of antiquity. Thus, she reanimates Homer, redeploys Odysseus and Penelope, in “Homecoming,” verses now forty years old, yet as vivid as today: “A suitor brings his appetite / … who should come, tanned and sauntering, / under a buck, or a bag of fish…. // I’d have [suitors’] leg plates for my ploughs / but one needs men to fight men. What for else? / For children, and for loneliness. A stranger kin.”  The wording is precise, the imagery compelling, the verses supple.  If you have not read Lane before, prepare to travel: Like T.S. Eliot, she wants you to have a a transporting experience in your imagination. If you have read Lane before, prepare for fresh astonishment. She is Homeric breadth and Sapphic brevity: In this suite of superb poems.

Marry & Burn
by Rachel Rose
Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2015
96 PP;  $18.95

Rachel Rose’s work offers a sumptuous discourse on the disappointments and emotional dilemmas 
given us in Loveand in Life.  These poems yield a satisfying–and thrilling–banquet of tears and drool,insights and shout-outs.  Through her saga of Elvis-style, hunk of-hunk of-hunk of burning love, same-sex and otherwise and unwise, Rachel Rose offers usblazing blends of ideas, dazzling mixes of language,and imagery that pivots easily from horses to infantmortality, from car keys to bees, from turbulence to  addictions, without ever being false to feeling. This extra-talented poet incarnates Sappho and Plath, Ginsberg and (T.) Hughes, providing us, not just with a collection, but with a literary event.  Here’s just one example of what you must not miss: “as the placenta was born // and the baby bubbled a scream.., / and my mother … // cleaned my blood-dried hands…. / All night / she kept kerosene lamplight vigil as I slept in her coat, / and in me the poem began its distillation, its slow symbiotic gestation.” Ladies, gents, a distinct, original poet is herein born.

 

Bring Me My Arrows 
by E.Russel Smith 
Pasadena, CA: Vrom, 
103pp, $15.00

In Bring Me My Arrows, E. Russell Smith Anglo-Canadianizes–domesticates–audaciously the queries and quandaries of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, updating and relocating its metaphysical and theological concerns for our era and locales. From his Ottawa abode to ventures abroad and about, Smith reveals resonances between Scripture and the world, and expresses rapture in The Word, words, bird-watching, and other pastimes. Thus, a Good Friday visit to Peggy’s Cove, NS, site of the 1998 Swissair 111 crash, occasions this witness: “The whole Atlantic heaves and breaks / against this treeless Golgotha, / rooted in that relentless sea. / Centuries of ice and baptism / gloss old faults to minor hazards / crisscrossed like  cracked porcelain.” Smith’s verse is quiet-toned, introspective, and confident in Art-even when Doubt is admitted. Thus, it is always resolutely Faithful, O Believer!

Barbaric Cultural Practice
by Penn Kemp
Toronto,ON: Quattro, 2016
$18.00

The inaugural Poet Laureate of London (ON), Penn Kemp is an expert tool-and-die versifier. Proof? Well, that very pun you’ve just read is indebted to her, for she employs every poetry technique available-every tool in the toolbox-to stress the stubborn connection between concrete reality and supposedly abstract words. Barbaric Cultural Practice is an urgent set of makings, of remarkable and dramatic word-acts, that reminds us that language–the hallmark of civilization–also enables barbaric, human imposition on Nature and the eternal. Nor does Kemp flinch from pondering how our distancing embrace (that’s not an oxymoron) of eletronica is interfering with our relationships to the earth, each other, and to Art.  Barbaric Cultural Practice is so timely, it is an alarm clock, shocking us awake to our drowsy, Eloi circumstances.

Dopamine Blunder
by Lori Cayer
Toront0, ON: Tightrope, 2016
$19.95

Dopamine Blunder?  Here is poetry in which algorithms inform rhythms and sense trades bons mots with nonsense. Lori Cayer knows that “happiness” is an equation that spells out a comfy reality.  The poet articulates the antics of language, so that abstractions seem as sensual as the physical–and vice versa. The poet appreciates that words tend away “from our singular hands / our rhetorical happenings sent / from the gift economy, received at the door like / on-line orders.” In Cayer’s vision, a diamond is “a light scissor, bright fossil, a hole of gravity.” Her poems are odes to metaphysical perception.

Even this Page is White
by Vivek Shraya
Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp, 2016
120pp, $16.50

Vivek Shraya knows that every “racialized” intellectual cannot look at colour-including “white”-without also always seeing “race.” We are not afforded the white-privilege luxury of “colour-blindness,” for that malady would blind us to grievous inequality and render us unable to see ourselves for who we are as persons both “of”-and independent of–“colour.”  even this page is white demands that all of us account for our visions of “colour” and/or “race” frontally and peripherally, with ocular proofs–no blurring except when focusing, please–both microscopic and telescopic. Shraya is the poet-optician, the poet-optometrist, correcting our vision and letting us see our identities-sexual too–without rose-coloured glasses, but with naked optics. His wit–black comic, blank-faced, well-tanned-will have you seeing red where necessary, clearly always, and sepia-toned, not merely, black-and-white. even this page is white isn’t even-handed, but dexterous and sinister, in demonstrating, in revelatory poem after revelatory poem,  why “often brown feels like but” and why even a good white person-with a “golden heart” -“can be racist.”  Reader, “you have work to do”!

Land of the Sky
by Salimah Valiani
Toront, ON: Innana, 2016
112 pp, $18.95

Land of the Sky delivers poetry that is moving, transporting, and transcendent. A citizen of the globe, Salimah Valiani has no time for the pedestrian and no room for the commonplace.  She recognizes that “things are similar and different simultaneously”: “What’s wrong with choosing the strange?”  In Land of the Sky, Valiani connects Canada, Tanzania, and Uganda; Ismaili, Ishnashari,and Buddhist; Anishnabek Cree, Chinese, and Luganda; Chez Rodin and Plante Bath; snow and savannah; astronomy that’s based on criminal justice forensics.  For Valiani, “The first crime is alienation,” and so she savours the world–exotic menus and mountain gorillas, public transit workers and women dancers–and each moment’s “eminence / decadence.”  This book is the result of the poet’s “fragmenting my life / into more new places.”  Why? “How many times can a heart be broken?”  The resolve? “it takes pain / to feel free.”

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