Writings / Reviews

Poetry & Graphic Book Reviews

George Elliott Clarke

So Much Things to Say: 100 Calabash Poets
by Kwame Dawes & Colin Channer (eds.)
New York: Akashic, 2010
275 pp. $17.00

Edited by Kwame Dawes and Colin Channer, two stars of international black writing in English, So Much Things to Say: 100 Calabash Poets celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Calabash International Literary Festival, held at Treasure Beach, Jamaica, since 2000.

That term, “literary festival,” is an oxymoron: To herd readers to listen to writers, is surely a literary “do,” but the “festival” side of things is left to booksellers’ barking and writers’ off-stage parties. Except at Calabash. Indeed, The New York Times calls it “a mini-Woodstock on the Caribbean.” But even omitting the Yank hyperbole, there is something sassy, sexy, and savvy about setting poets and novelists at a microphone, inches away from surf, while an audience in the hundreds hangs on every word, puffs a spliff or two, or looks up as the stars begin to sparkle in their own hundreds overhead, or takes a Red Stripe beer and jerk chicken.

So this anthology gathers a hundred poets from the ten Calabash bashes to date, with each contributing one poem, some pages long, others just a breath. The result is a potpourri of verse from some of the famed, living names in English poetry to those who will be acclaimed, as well as pieces by those whose only claim is that they are poets (such as, admittedly, yours truly).

Derek Walcott, the Caribbean-born Nobel Laureate in Poetry, turns in an elegy for the late, great Jamaican novelist, John Hearne (a Canadian by birth): “He heard / his sentences rustle like branches, the hidden / noise of spring constant under mountain fern / walking straight as a gift that did what it was bidden, / to praise how a horse crosses a meadow, un-ridden, / but purposefully, pausing to whinny and snort, / the swat sheen on it, deep in remembering thought.”

Natasha Trethewey, a U.S. Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, pens a lyric for her poet-father, Eric (a native of Three Mile Plains, N.S.): “Overhead, pelicans glide in threes— / their shadows cross the sand / dark thoughts crossing the mind.” Jamaican-Briton songster Linton Kwesi Johnston keeps it real with his true-talk vernacular: “but weddah ebb ar flow tru rain tru drout / wi nevah stray far fram love rigid route.” (Read it out loud to get it.)

Scotland’s Jackie Kay is deceptively plain: “There was my son at the helm of the boat / As [it] lifted and crashed and smashed on the waves, / And there were the jackfish leaping, / The dolphins’ diasporic dive, and those strange birds / —whose name I have forgotten— / carrying an old song home.” Trinidadian-Canadian poet Dionne Brand produces her striking pairings of physical imagery and gaudy abstractions: “Marooned in music, dark nightclubs of weeping, in never- / sufficient verses, uncommunicated sentences, strict tears, in / copper throats. Where days are prisons this spirit is a tenant.” Her poetry assumes the look of prose, but remains steeped in song.

Michael Ondaatje is represented by “The Cinnamon Peeler,” a poem that is so ubiquitously admired, it nearly requires no quotation: “You touched / your belly to my hands / in the dry air and said / I am the cinnamon / peeler’s wife. Smell me.” Jamaican-Canadian poet Olive Senior notes the ways tourism seems to be corrupting Jamaica: She sees “a forest of hotels as thick as thieves,” a “new paradise” where “the only palms / are greased,” and “a dead straight / highway [that] leaves no scent, no monument to the past…”

Jamaica’s Velma Pollard speaks wisdom back to ridiculous claims, such as a teacher, “teaching Afro children / eight-note scales,” saying, “there’s nothing else,” while the children, “knowing polyrhythms / smiling sang in Euro rhythm… // ‘the teacher is himself a fool!’ ” The fine, new poet Christian Campbell, of Bahamian and Trinidadian heritage, mashes up Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley: “& because we holler for the bloodclad sun / & because we mourn the burst testes of the stars / & because we skank cross rivers of blood…” And yet another poet, this one, out of Halifax, tries hard to speak, “almost as graciously, graceful / As my unparalleled father would have.”

Profits from the sales of So Much Things To Say will go to the Calabash International Literary Fest.

Unanimous Night
by Cyril Dabydeen
Windsor, ON: Black Moss Press, 2009
95 pp. $17.00

The Empire’s Missing Links
by Walid Bitar
Vancouver, BC: Signal Editions, Vehicule Press, 2008
76 pp. $16.00

Born in Guyana, Cyril Dabydeen has called Canada home – for some decades now. (We are only acquaintances, but I can say that I first met him in 1980 – at a Black Canadian arts fest at Montreal’s McGill U.) Dabydeen is a Canadian poet and writer of truly international reputation. His verse has been anthologized in over twenty volumes in seven countries; his poetry and fiction have been nominated for coveted, overseas prizes; and this once-Poet-Laureate of Ottawa is also the recipient of the Guyana Prize for Fiction.

Unanimous Night, Dabydeen’s ninth poetry collection (and #19 in the publisher’s CD-case-size, ‘Palm Poets Series’), sees the poet ruminate on intersections and divisions of culture, politics, travel, and history. Reading him informs us that we’re often smugly parochial in our view of a world that we glibly tout as “globalized.” In one poem, Dabydeen – wickedly, wittily - gives us a portrait of “the big Arts Organization,” whose mandarins bustle about to produce “change / to benefit the common man or woman,” and hustle to speak to (and for) “new people coming to our shores.”

Yet, the poet notes, none of these civil servants “has heard of Frantz Fanon—// as if his name would spell trouble, anathema / for sure… // because everyone’s afraid / of … real change….” But Fanon, the Martiniquan-born, French-educated, pro-Algerian Independence theorist of decolonization, was all about spelling out how institutions block or impede “real change.” So, the poet ends, “I keep asking why no one has heard // of Frantz Fanon—in a country where / everything will remain unchanged.” An awful prophecy, and even worse because it’s true.

But Dabydeen’s learned critique is not blinkered by his progressive sympathies. “Academics” consider Cuba “a model state”; but a woman begs the poet for “Treinta dolares” to buy stylish heels and couture. Nowhere is there peace in a world carved up by imperialist interests: “So I will keep conjuring up exotic places, freedom / being all I want, which keeps me going where // There’s far less of the tropics; or it’s living / in Canada merely: instincts alive in me….” The speaker settles for “being steadfast in the North…, / but going somewhere again, all the while.”

Yes, Dabydeen is ferociously analytical in his verse, but there is always irony and often humour—deadpan. In one poem, US playwright Arthur Miller asks his mother what she thinks of his fiancée, Marilyn Monroe: “A curmudgeon, or just hard of hearing, / the older woman (replies), / ‘She’s a nice girl, / but pees like a horse!’” Perhaps Dabydeen’s vision is indebted less to Fanon than it is to Jonathan Swift—the author of Gulliver’s Travels.

Walid Bitar’s The Empire’s Missing Links is the Beirut-born poet’s fourth poetry collection. Lebanese-Canadian, his vision relies upon the same astringent, if clear, irony that informs Dabydeen’s work. But there’s also a strain of classicism at play in Bitar, all of whose verses in this book are unrhymed, often run-on quatrains: The form disciplines his black humour; it gives a ballad style to his complaints. The poems communicate, really, a sensible Jabberwocky.

In the title poem, each stanza serves a political one-liner: “I often recall the magical day I / dropped my standard of living”; “I hear any day now a grain of sand / will rise up against the tyrannical desert.” Bitar’s work is so elusively allegoric, it is impossible to read him as taking any one side in the Middle East impasse—or imbroglio. All such rhetoric becomes a gag: “Relations with fact are diplomatic, / which means, of the ambassadors exchanged, / one hangs in the basement, one in the attic. // It was your rule they divide the big house. / Otherwise, how could they play cat and mouse?”

Or try: “a few foreigners convicted of treason / for resisting the fact we annexed them, / too good, it seems, to be us….”

On suicide bombers: “Need a hero? Dozens on the street / are underemployed and easily pass / for men unwilling to live without freedom. / We usually pick the one with the best ass.” If there’s one line that sums up the deliberate non-argument in these poems, it is, “We play games of chance by the rules of fate.”

If only Bitar were the Minister of Foreign Affairs—or better yet—our Prime Minister. His insight shows up the Inquisition vision of Harper—and the invisible wit of Ignatieff.

I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being
by Johanna Skibsrud
Halifax, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2010
pp. 80. $19.95.

by Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen
Hallifax, NS: Gaspereau, 2009
96 pp. $19.95

Two disclosures: Gaspereau Press has issued four of my titles; Johanna Skibsrud was once my student. I judge the press and the poet by their works alone. Skibsrud’s second collection, I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being, boasts an unwieldy title, and, arguably, a pretentious one. Except that the poems are elegies, and the title reminds us that the business of loving anyone is, damn-it-all-to-Hell, biblically difficult, as all religions preach.

These lyrics are plain because Skibsrud wants to embrace and explain the complexity of the beloved lost, the lost beloved, so that we better appreciate this painful beauty too. So, a moment at a beach, underwater, opens out to cosmic speculation: “We couldn’t speak, or touch each other. / We were like babies, a little unborn, / and everything was new, then, / … and clumsy… // Then, behind you I saw a thousand small lights where / a school of fish had gathered, then surrounded you entirely. / It was a great glow… // It is so intricate, all of it; there are so many parts, / … and so / often beautiful that it is always startling to find it out again, … how / even our limited planet, our own small, known, globe, / exceeds the very edge of vastness sometimes, / and of comprehension.”

It is a longish poem, this one, by Skibsrud’s standards: She excavates and explores each facet of the moment as if she were polishing an unearthed diamond. But such archaeology of emotion is risky: One piles up the ‘details’ in trust that even cliché can be cancelled by the assortment of fresh observations. But it is not always so: “The most beautiful / thing, I think, that I have ever seen” expresses an authentic feeling, but it is too hackneyed an utterance to be justified within the economy that verse demands.

When there is more stringent diction, dictated by the clarity of thought and feeling, the lyrics jet forth memorably vivid: “When after having shown you to the door, I sat / down at … the table again, I kept going / almost to the floor…. // (But) it did not feel like it was / the floor that I was headed toward…. // It was the floor by / accident, by / intervention, and as though / otherwise / I might have existed in entirely / different terms.”

The poem ends with a strong, searing image: “The melt-off water, in a single vein, has / split the long drive, / and outside, and all around, there is a great / rushing sound.” Anyone interested in the struggle that is healing (or trying to heal) from the agony of grave-claimed love should find these true-voiced and exquisitely wrought lyrics an uplifting education: Pain flowered into art.

Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen’s Lean-To, her third collection, appeared in April 2009, but disappeared into my stacks of review copies until now. Happily, it is as accomplished now as it was last year.

Born in Saskatoon, but now a Haligonian, Klaassen merges the minimalist and naturalist poetic of East Coaster John Thompson with the Prairie experimentalism of Robert Kroetsch (while her occasional domestic interests may be indebted to sister Saskatchewan Lorna Crozier). So Lean-To is part-Stilt Jack and part-Seed Catalogue.

What dominates, in any case, is a yen for linking bits of imagist observation: “Opening to a private sky— // birch bitings and burnt flutter. / Our tent stretched— / smoke over the threshold when you ushered me through.” Or try: “Polished toenails, cold tiles. Like that morning in Versailles: / light faltering through milk bottles and cobalt // bric-a-brac finds you teased me for buying, / filled with lotions and cologne.”

Such lines—though beautiful—fulfill standard expectations of the ‘Maritime’ (or just the ‘regional’) poem: rummaging through household memorabilia, or tramping the outdoors. What sparkles, though, are endings: “I am in love’s wrong place / in another hour, and another”; “I’ve already lost you, / husband—to this other you—husband / buttering toast, answering the phone.”

Perhaps the reason is, at these moments, the poet isn’t poeticizing, but speaking: “Unmake the bed, Sir / sleep with me.” Or “Let me lay my head in your lap, tell me what you dreamt instead or let me / guess. Suspend me, burl-kneed, between dark and dark. // Yes, burden me.” Lines like those last ones make this book mandatory.

This Way Out
by Carmine Starnino
Hallifax, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2009

A Short History of Forgetting
by Paul Tyler
Hallifax, NS: Gaspereux Press, 2010
73 pp. $19.95

This Way Out is Montreal poet Carmine Starnino’s successor to his stunning debut collection, With English Subtitles (2006), which won the A.M. Klein for Poetry and the Bressani Prize. That book reminds all of the peculiar complexity and power that ‘hyphenated,’ Canadian identities bring to our poetry. Following Klein (1909-72), who was Jewish-Canadian, the Italian-Canadian Starnino applies a multilingual intelligence to our verse, piling shocks of intellectual recognition upon thrills of verbal discovery.

This Way Out is more casual: Starnino, comfortable with his talent, seemingly not feeling any need to prove anything to anyone, just kicks back and observes, from a café or bar, the procession of existence, but with superb, acrid irony: “It was the kind of place where morning fell for everyone / but harder for some, where bad decisions were lived / counter-clockwise, and endlessly refitted to finish up flush, / where afternoons were a gradual squander of sobriety, / shot glasses lamped with whisky on cue and empties / were the crags of a quandary drunkenness clung to.”

If This Way Out is less startling than With English Subtitles, it is no less playful, no less thoughtful: Starnino’s youthful Montreal becomes “A stomping ground that never lost the feel of being the place / where bad weather always chewed up our (movie) shooting time, / where Quebecois girls were eager body doubles for the nice daughters / we later married…”

The collection’s title poem is another cinematic ‘take’ on Canada’s most intriguing city—neither as multicultural as Toronto nor as beautiful as Vancouver, yet more at ease in its location and more fluently polyglot in its styles. Starnino sees “balding towels and pink panties / drip dry together like arranged marriages”; “leaves / that rallied into piles and fought // the wind to a standstill”; and he registers “not speech but yeses and nos that add up / to a scoop of that, a pound of this.”

There are poems addressing other Anglo-Montreal poets. Though Erin Moure is absent (by name, though not by linguistic influence), Starnino nods to Ralph Gustafson (1909-95) in the title, “Abandoned Fence Post, North Hatley.” A lovely gesture. Starnino’s first book stressed the conundrums and the surprise conjunctions permitted by his metis consciousness. In This Way Out, he seems more at home with who he now is: a Montrealais, with debts to Klein, et al., and an Italian heritage linked to Roman stays and the Rialto typeface in which his verse settles—but keenly—here. This Way Out appeared a year ago, but somehow was delayed in reaching me.

Paul Tyler’s A Short History of Forgetting, his first book, is brand new. Tyler wants to take nothing for granted, leave nothing the way it is. So, Adam’s naming of animals becomes a discourse on the birth of language itself: “Bilabial hum, its quick, // knowing roundness, / sweet on the / tongue, woke him // to the crunch of speech.” Other animal poems bid us to view Creation anew. So “Crickets” want you “to give up everything—little socialists.” Thanks to our mortality, “Eventually you will.” But forbid morbid thoughts! “For now, / moonlight enunciates your body.”

“House Sparrows” is a fiesta of Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, sharp observation, and arresting slang. The birds are “little humdingers”; “Wind thrips, preening / in dirt pits with snail-slicked / beaks”; and “riffs on a street-grub origin of species.”

The book’s title poem reinforces the elegiac sense that glistens just under the sparkling surface of each verse: A ragpicker—a being rather like the house sparrows—sorts through the cast-off goods of a moved-away couple as if rummaging through “debris after a disaster”: “it feels like robbery, / but he knows the line between stealing and archaeology, walks beautifully / among the ruins of belonging.”

Tyler is Robert Frost—but with smiles and zest: Or maybe he is a more upbeat Wallace Stevens.

The Sylvia Hotel: Poems
By George fetherling
Thornhill, ON: Quattro, 2006
60 pp. $ 14.95

Selected Poems
By Robert Bringhurst
Hallifax, NS: Gaspereaux Press, 2010
272 pp. $27.95

Originally named Douglas, George Fetherling changed his name a decade or so ago to honour his late father, who was also the subject of his son’s fine, infuriatingly excellent poem, Singer, An Elegy (2004).

“Original” is the best way to describe the ex-American, daunting polymath (as independent in thought as any autodidact), man-of-letters, editor and author of more than fifty titles, who is celebrated, in particular, for his memoir, Travels by Night, with its indelible portrait of the rise of Can Lit in the 1960s & 1970s. But Fetherling returns to verse in The Sylvia Hotel: Poems, yielding a series of poems on unrequited love, linked by their association with the hotel, a Vancouver institution, famed for its inexpensive rooms (with letterhead and envelopes in the desks), inviting restaurant and bar, and beautiful situation on English Bay and beach.

The Sylvia (1912-), ivy-clad, is an ideal site for visiting writers, artists, and Britons who like to travel with their dogs. (Canine guests are welcome). And it is a site that Fetherling says is connected to “a majority of the (romantic) turning points in my life.”

His verse itself is vers—conservative—libre, but piercingly quirky in metaphor: “I was in love with a text long before we met / and there’s still a faint aftertaste of narrative // when I pry myself away from your mouth in that dream / I wrote… // The books will fight back. With music and / painting we could bring a class action. // I crave to be embedded in the story of your journey / and watch your face as I worship your advice.”

Some of the poems are, yes, prose, but still exude cadence, much like the non-fiction of Travel by Night; I mean, there’s that memoir music of rue-soaked romance: “I was there when you were so beautiful to everyone and not just to me. I saw you stride in confident compassion on long legs with shoulders drawn back, straight of spine, the chest cavity open wide, your hair your breasts your eyes ripe with the wisest love…. I am proud of what little friendship I’ve been able to steal.”

Fetherling fills these verses with what feels like honesty and, thus, with a lot of hurt. These pieces aren’t academic fun-and-games; they’re not unearned. At times, they exemplify poetry: “Poems should be wisdom or be love. / Deficient in one I am overstocked in the other.”

“I was young and narrow without you because I was without you / and the narrowness survived the youth till your appearing cured it. / The middle years were those of anguish and desire. / I thought a great deal about Art Deco as one of the culture’s finest moments / to which you have remained true so tall sleek streamlined, / elegant in your simplicity of line.” That last line applies to this collection as a whole. One hears Ezra Pound’s Cathay; one tastes sake’s warm melancholy….

If Fetherling is a poet exiled from our canons, one held unfairly marginal to the anthologies, Robert Bringhurst is a vortex, an apex, a matrix: Inescapable, exemplary, a poet idolized by other poets, for his lyric erudition, his multicultural empathy, his unfailing ear for disparate dictions.

Like Fetherling, an ex-American and a polymath, Bringhurst suits beautifully the bias in English-Canadian verse for the learned and the (s)elect (not the populist, as is the case for American verse). But he merits this favouring, as his Selected Poems proves.

The esteemed typographer and linguist is able to don just about any verbal mask. In “The Stonecutter’s Horses,” Bringhurst gives us a dramatic monologue in the voice of Francesco Petrarca,” but this Renaissance figure sounds appealingly like a San Franciscan of today: “Urban / has got off his French duff and re-entered Rome… / the muggers on the streets in broad daylight…”

Another voice—Zen-lean, Buddhist-incisive—tells us, “Eat light. / Where there is nothing to listen / to you, nor to listen to, / listen.” Aboriginal—First Nations—wisdom is also translated and articulated: “Our one and only refuge is the elements / to which we are exposed. // Air, earth, water, fire, be here / to rebuild what we destroy.” Haven’t read Bringhurst yet? Do start here.

Valley Sutra
by Kuldip Gill
Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press, 2009
88pp. $16.95

Confessions of an Empty Purse
by S. McDonald
Calgary, AB: Frontenac House, 2010
72 pp. $15.95

Born in India in 1934, poet Kuldip Gill passed away in her new domicile—the Fraser Valley of British Columbia—in 2009. Her second and final book, Valley Sutra, is a work of love for both homelands. Indeed, Gill updates Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston (1974), that classic verse-journal of a B.C. mill-town. Gill covers Punjabi-Canadian workers in Fraser Valley towns, relating their experiences here to Indian cultures. Thus, in a “Letter to Peter Trower,” a B.C. proletarian poet, Gill’s persona states, “Dear Peter: You were only half-right in your poem / ‘The mill was our mother.” For Gill, the mill was also “Kali-like,” invoking the Hindu deity, “a destroyer.”

It—“She”—“chewed off arms, legs and / rolled the men around her / gnashed her steel teeth, / spewed out ground / that burned, smoked and smoldered / all night long….” “Mill Yard Sounds” is a portrait of Indian “mill-men”: “The hemlock, fir, cedar sawdust rose cumulus and turbaned / around [their] heads…. / They sat on the lumber with tin lunch buckets / open, eating curries, achars and rotis in the sun.”

These are fine documentary poems, and work best when Gill seems to see inside an experience, not just describe it. Check, for instance, “Seventeen—Summer Job at Aylmer’s Cannery”: “The fun shift was the sugar shift in the attic where we lolled / over sugar bags stacked by hundreds, talking, / laughing, sometimes flirting…. / Then we jumped, grabbed knives, cut bags, poured sugar / into hoppers, over the top and down / into our clothes, hair and shoes, sticky sweet / in the sweat and heat.”

Gill’s persona concludes, “Hot syrup / foamed and splashed all over me. / Three AM I punched the timecard out, / my hands and body crisp, / glazed.” The need to document, to say, ‘we are here, we have done this, we have known these things, we have loved these people,’ is not a sentiment that permits nuance or tolerates metaphor. Gill’s power is that she inducts the reader into a powerfully heartfelt cultural and labour experience; her weakness is her mistrust of whimsy and trust in prose.

Yet, Gill’s presentation of her experience is compelling: “Away from India the Fraser is our Ganga / at … Matsqui / Mission … / New Westminster … / Steveston… / Whole lives in these waters. These. Our previous lives / float down, encircle the cosmos / join the waters of desh/pardesh. Again.”

S. McDonald’s Confessions of an Empty Purse is something else again. A transgendered Torontonian, McDonald’s first book is the result of his manuscript being selected, in a national, blind competition last year, by a three-person jury (of which I was one), for publication by Frontenac House of Calgary.

This book is equally comedic and wrathful, satirical and acerbic. The lines seem journalistic, but are vivid and personal: “I saw two transsexuals / —talking and laughing— / walking north on Parliament Street. // They were tall, kinda pretty though, / with fabulous height-of-fashion winter coats, / long thin legs and high spike heels.”

What is fresh in McDonald is the delight in vernacular description: “And in the glow of an orange mushroom lamp, / staring into my 3-sides-of-Eve mirror on top of my dressed, / my round baby Huey/Little Lotta fat face covered in cosmetics / both bought and ‘borrowed forever’ from Shoppers Drug Mart”: Yes! Here are the “luminous details” that Pound demands for good writing. But other strong lyrics are as succinct as this entire poem: “I want to be as thin as the scars on my wrist.”

McDonald refers to classic—good—camp fare like the film version of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Marcia Brady of The Brady Bunch as well as other pop—people’s—culture icons, such as Avon: “dusky pink lipstick, / thick and waxy, // I can still feel it / tight / on my child’s lips // sometime in the sixties.”

The book is a bravura performance: “Suicide never quite panned out for me / in that perfect Hollywood way. // I guess I’ll just have to / go out the way I came in. // Hand me my purse.” There’s pain here—poignantly—but also the salve of poetry. Read McDonald while playing Rita Monico’s “Thrilling” (1965) on a perpetual loop.

Millennium Madness
by Raymond Souster
Eugenia, ON: The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2010
222 pp. $24.00

Learning to Count
Douglas Burnet Smith
Calgary, AB: Frontenac House, 2010
88 pp. $15.95

Raymond Souster was born in Toronto in 1921, and so he is a true Elder Statesman of English-Canadian poetry. In the 1950s, he was a member of that Great Generation, like the just-late P.K. Page, who brought our verse fully into the age of The Now and The New. A soldier during the Anti-Fascist War (World War II) and a 40-year employee of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, until retiring in 1985, Souster scored a Governor-General’s Award for Poetry in 1964.

Though his career in numbers may contradict his art of letters, Souster resembles the great U.S. Modernist poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), himself a corporate attorney, for Souster’s poetry often has a touch of whimsy even when it offers a serious point. (But there’s also a core of charity—of late-Lear compassion—in Souster that is niggardly in Stevens.)

Now blind, Souster continues to compose, and his newest book, Millennium Madness, offers over 600 epigrams—occasional musings on today’s headlines as well as on humanity’s timeless predicaments.

“Code of Conduct” defines morality: “Be generous / in your giving / and grateful / in your receiving.” “Sheer Chance,” we read, “plays such / a great part / in love.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in “Gaza, 2009,” is resolved in irrefutable words: “It’s better to have / a simple give-and-take / before two enemies / each drown / in their own blood.”

The International Capital Crisis of 2008-2009 (and 2010) is touched on: “All the Big Companies / both sides of the border / fire their workers / like a rain-soaked dog / shaking water / off his coat.” That much-abused word, “Bailout,” is given a new and definitive reading: “They (financiers) wait / until their vessel / is sinking well below / the waterline / before they begin / the necessary bailout.”

Canadian politics also receives a knock: “Washington, D.C., Inauguration 2009”: “Here in Canada / we have to be content / with a George W. Bush / made-to-order clone.” One complaint that can be lodged against these epigrams is, their brevity brooks no argument, no counter-claim: They are retorts, rebukes, injunctions—that unanswerable wisdom of parables….

But they are also accessible, and they do the right thing, which is to make one think. See “Usura,” with its reference to Pound: “Old Ez, was right after all, / usura / is the curse / of the world / as we know it.” Or smile at this witticism: “He believes poets / are damned / from the day / of their birth, / and for some / it goes downhill / even from there.”

Douglas Burnet Smith’s newest collection of poetry, Learning to Count, is the result of his manuscript being selected, in a national, blind competition last year, by a three-person jury (of which I was one), for publication by Frontenac House of Calgary.

Smith teaches at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS, and at the American University of Paris, and so these lyrics are born in the juncture of Europa and Nova Scotia, past and present. But these poems are not about travel, they are about the shifts in being that result from recognition of international, cultural similarities.

The manner recalls the composition-by-juxtapositions Pound employs in his epic The Cantos, but Smith’s content is definitely more delightful. Look at “Halifax Dionysiac,” where Smith imagines Pablo Picasso come to Halifax, with “sixty dancing girls / naked / except for tiaras and triangles / of diamonds / in strategic places.”

“They are chanting L’Amour L’Amour / snaking down Lower Water Street, Picasso / at the end of their Conga line, his chest / barreling out of his blue-and-white-striped blouson, / legs like a mad satyr’s pumping….” Soon, the artist is coupling explicitly with his demoiselles all “along the Halifax waterfront”: Now that’s a different sort of Natal Day parade! Smith even imagines “the Lieutenant Governor in a flaming two-piece / by Dior, ecstatic / over the relocation of Provence, a glass / of champagne in hand.”

Smith’s lyrics entice, and there’s even a touch of the epigrammatic here and there: “Bees, houseflies, wasps— / they tumble in curious / and buzz around furious // that they waste so much of their lives / simply looking for a way out.” These travel poems unravel clichés and get at complexities. Reading Smith, you don’t feel you’ve ‘been there, done that,’ but, rather, that you are here—and more intensely now.

Sand & Fury: A Scream Queen Adventure
by Ho Che Anderson
Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2010.
144 pp. $16.99.

Attenuations of Force
by Lori Cayer
Calgary, AB: Frotenac House, 2010
96 pp. $15.95

The ‘graphic text’—or narrative told in pictures (art/cartoons) and words—is here to stay. An offspring of comic strips, comic books, and, especially, the underground ‘comix’ of the Hippy era, it is a form that owes more to Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman than it does to Walt Disney. The stories tend to emphasize shocks of sex and violence (horror), always to suggest that these facts-of-life always threaten to break through the bland façade of consumer-friendly normality.

Canadian graphic text artist Chester Brown has been celebrated for his comic-strip bio of Victorian-era, Manitoba Metis revolutionary Louis Riel (2003). Less well-known, and undeservedly so, is Ho Che Anderson, whose graphic text bio of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sprawled over three books published between 1993 and 2002, was collected together and published in a Special Edition just this year.

An African-Canadian graphic text artist, born in London, England in 1969, and named after Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, Anderson’s depiction of King was both laudatory (stressing his saintly heroism) and idiosyncratically honest (depicting King’s earthy side). But Anderson has not only sought to illustrate the lives of the great; he is also an avid consumer of pop culture—comic books, Hip Hop, and horror movies—and these elements come together in his latest book, Sand & Fury: A Scream Queen Adventure.

It’s a romp concocted of homage to the weird horrors of filmmakers David Lynch and Dario Argento, with a shout-out even to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. But it also features the signature Anderson political subtlety. Thus, the motel that appears on the cover resembles The Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, TN, where King was assassinated in April 1968.

The storyline tells of a woman who, not-quite-murdered, wanders the U.S. desert lands as a banshee, whose duty is to scream out an alarm of approaching death to the unlucky souls who, alone, can hear her. The panels are black-and-white, but crimson swathes and spots appear whenever a character, who hears the ‘Scream Queen,’ meets the prophesized (utterly brutal) end, or when the banshee’s own not-quite-fatal neck wound opens. A graphic text is, by nature, more explicit—graphic—than it can be subtle. So, Anderson’s love scenes verge on kink, while the death scenes owe much to the gore of recent vampire flicks and George Romero’s Zombie franchise.

The idea of the banshee (bien siedhe) derives from Irish folklore, but Anderson’s lady-of-death drives a VW ‘bug’ and wears tight-fitting black leather and dark sunglasses that resemble goggles. She is like a character from an Italian giallo film of the 1970s. (In these flicks, the murderers almost always wear black and almost always are women, and everyone drinks J & B or Black & White or Punt e Mes.) Sand & Fury is not canonical literature, but it is memorable pop art. See it to believe it.

Lori Cayer’s second collection of poetry, is the result of her manuscript being selected, in a national, blind competition last year, by a three-person jury (of which I was one), for publication by Frontenac House of Calgary. Her short bio hints that Cayer is Manitoban.

Her lyrics show that she is a consummate explorer of different forms of verse and registers of language. She strikes few false notes; indeed, she conjoins marvelously everyday diction plus special words born from unique circumstances or of distinct communities. So, a lover’s “opened eyes descend the shearing lines of her lip’s / vermillion ridge,” and fairly orthodox words win surprise thanks to the luminous freshness of “shearing” and “vermillion.”

The book’s opening poem, an elegy for a dead pigeon, is rich with unusual conjunctions—i.e. trips, travels, among ideas: “Dying, like a comet dies as it falls? / A bird-shaped star arcing out…. // Above the 45th parallel old people are cooking / to death in their beds…. / The weather drums your body apart.” Also agreeable are insights: “We, too, become homeless, but only / one family at a time.” Elsewhere, we read, “Science begins from the moment measurement begins.” Cayer wants to try—and seems able to do—practically everything.

by John Steffler
Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart,
120 pp. $19.00

Standoff Terrain
By Jocko Benoit,
Calgary, AB: Frontenac House, 2010
80 pp. $16.00

John Steffler served as Canada's Poet Laureate, 2006-2008, and is the recipient of the Atlantic Poetry Priz and the Newfoundland and Labrador Prize. He is also the author of the award-winning novel, The Afterlife of George Cartwright.

Although he's related to a family that settled in southern Ontario, Steffler grew up in Newfoundland and his writing continues to meditate on The Rock and all its mysteries and mores, vernaculars and adversities. His newest collection of poetry, Lookout, is maybe his most free—in attitude, diction (some four-letter words), and being able to look back—in anger, yes, but also with humility. The writing is that of someone with plenty to say but nothing to prove—no scores to settle.

Moreover, he brings to bear an unstinting intelligence and an unblanching eye—to describe the reality that he has lived. As he declares in the first poem, "Tell me how else to deal with the world!" Nature draws Steffler's concentrated attention. He's a poet with a notebook, remarking on what he observes: "Unnatural snake twisting up from a cold cleft into sun, / opening a mouthful of leaves." Elsewhere, "Frost causes rocks to boil—wedging ice into cracks, / it splits stones, then slips its water blades deeper in, / levers them. Spades the gravel up in rolling domes." "Marine Drive" expands the treatment of nature to the human world. At first, it seems merely a catalogue: "The millside road, woodsmoke and sulphur replacing air...." But the forest "drawn into this chewing mouth ... comes out, not only in "paper, smoke, sludge, et cetera, but also in "crackups, breakups, poems, single men sitting in cars."

In Steffler, material things—made things—art or garbage—are as expressive of emotion as we may typically think of nature as being. Steffler's precise about their meaning, but also colourful. Here is his take on a sunburn: "The other time my skin put on a show like this was after eating ocean perch. / I lay in hospital three days, a man-shaped movie screen showing Gone with the Wind. Atlanta burning, sunsets, burgundy lusts, and the rash shrank into red lines all over my body like Arabic writing, most likely blasphemous.”

This poet is always thinking about states of being, of the physical relationship to experience, how food, lust, love, and drink shape us bodily—or wound our hearts.

Interested in folklore and history, Steffler also considers odd occurrences. Thus, an invitation to a forest picnic (romantic rendezvous) turns into an occasion for Jack to chop off the head of an animal and cook it, right in front of his date, Betty, but not before "the headless body" continued to crawl about on the ground. Even after, the animal's heart "kept beating until about noon the following day."

Lookout is a fine collection to keep a lookout for. It is poetry about nature that never forgets the troubling, human element. In "Under Mad Dog Lake," reference is made to "Benoit's Cove, gold discovered, the birth of a town famous for people / dying in bar fights or blasting rock."

Steffler likely isn't referring to Jocko Benoit, whose second collection of poems, Standoff Terrain, is with us because it was one of ten manuscripts accepted by a three-person jury (of which I was a member) via a national competition last year. Benoit's coup here is to preface poems of love and loss with quotations from Chinese writer Sun Tzu's Art Of War, thus making the point that all's perilous in love and war. No: Reading Benoit is like reading a more erudite version of the U.S. barfly-poet Charles Bukowski (1920-94). There's the same tone of Eros-weariness, but it is more elegantly expressed.

Born in Montreal and raised in Cape Breton, a perpetual traveller now ensconced in Winnipeg, Benoit has truly looked for love in all the wrong places (as the song goes), but also a few where it has worked out well.

These lyrics ooze bitter-sweetness: "If I were a government, I'd make Machiavelli / My Minister of Love because only he could translate for me / What your body says out of sync with your lips.” Benoit's imagery is also inventive: "[She's] a black-skinned white-haired negative / That I press hard onto the white sheets, hoping that / In the morning when she's gone she'll leave a proof behind."

Such lines recall Leonard Cohen and his own view of love as being one-part salvation and one-part martyrdom. Anyone who has ever argued with a lover should appreciate Benoit's verses.

About The Author


George Elliott Clarke is arguably one of Canada’s most accomplished poets. He has several groundbreaking verse and dramatic poetry collections. His works are lauded with many Awards, amongst them a Governor General Award for Poetry. He was recently inducted into the Order of Canada.

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Andrew Suknaski, Poet of the Prairies

Rob Mclennan

Esiaba Irobi: The Tragedy of Exile

Olu Oguibe

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Lequanne Collins-Bacchus

Poetry & Graphic Book Reviews

George Elliott Clarke

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Julia Cooper

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Candace Fertile

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Michael Hingston

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Rosel Kim

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Rena Klisouris

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Julie Leroux

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Justin Pfefferle

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Stephen Potts

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Tom Ue

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The Hunt for the Big Bluestem

Mary Baxter

The Oak Tree

Claudia Del Balso

Another Way of Putting It

Maurice Gotlieb


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The Lunch on Good Friday

Sylva Nze Ifedigbo

An African Attends St. Georges Day

Austin Kaluba

Pounding Peppers

Ifesinachi Okoli

Back When We Were Superheroes

Taryn Pearcey

Ramki and the New Christmas Tree

Pratap Reddy

Allspice Dreams

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Opening Eyes

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Wine Dark Sea

Ross Laird

Under the Overgrowth

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Adebiyi Olusolape

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Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis

Nicolas Billon

Excerpt from 5 ½: Montreal Suite

Lara Szabo Greisman

Fresh Paint

Celeste Parr

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