The Griffin Poetry Prize is one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world and annually grants two standout poets with $50, 000. This year’s Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology features selections from the winning texts– Charles Wright’s Scar Tissue (U.S.) and Don McKay’s Strike/Slip (Canada)–as well as from five other international and Canadian finalists. Selections from the international shortlist include poems from Paul Farley’s Tramp in Flames (England), Rodney Jones’s Salvation Blues (U.S.), and Frederick Seidel’s Ooga- Booga (U.S.). In her preface to the anthology, editor Karen Solie answers the banal but oftasked question “is poetry dead?” with a vertiginous “no.” Poets, Solie contends, continue to challenge, innovate and inspire, as evidenced by the surge of submissions that she adjudicated in 2007. Informed by philosophy, science, landscape, wit and song, the selected poems share a contemporary concern with the fragility of language, perception and time. In “The Silent Generation II,” Wright asks: “Garrulous, word-haunted, senescent,/ Who knew we had so much to say, or tongue to say it?/ The wind, I guess, who’s heard it before, and crumples our pages” (42). Scar Tissue opens the world–our elusive “landing zone” (46)–to its readers, to an “understory” of journey and cadence in which naming and nostalgia need not equal defeat.
Language here names the instability of being, even as it fails to capture what “just is” (48). Curiously, I found the poems from the Canadian shortlist–Ken Babstock’s Airstream Land Yacht and Priscila Uppal’s Ontological Necessities–most engaging. Like Wright’s work, theirs share a concern with the chasm between description and reality, yet they feel more forgiving, more compassionate. In “Explanatory Gap,” Babstock meditates on the advent of neoliberal ennui: “We can’t know what things mean/ in the place/ where they’re meant, or know what’s meant by place/ with no map in our head/ Say hello to coordinates- ordinates-ordnance, and a ground rodent/ sniffing the spruce air under a daytime moon./ There’ll be a sign here soon” (61).
Like Babstock, McKay’s attention to sound is particularly impressive; his poems hum off page, force us to listen to quiet moments and flickers of “after-echoes” (74)–to the “broken prose of the bush roads,” to the “pauseless syntax” of earthly transmutations (67)–with the same attention we accord to our daily inhabitations. Uppal’s poems are surprisingly irreverent in their tackling of identity’s violent scrawl, of the darkness that haunts us all, of futility in the face of death and hope in the face of political indifference. In the title poem of her Ontological Necessities, Uppal intones, “Stem cells grow off my neighbour’s balcony, fall into my tea./ Cancer paid my tuition/ The galaxy yawns and pops pills./ Dear Self,/ How am I to know You are still alive?/ Test me, you reply” (81). The poems collected here do just that: test us, map out moaning streams of recognition, unite. My only complaints are that, formally, the anthology is tame–there are few stylistic surprises here–and that the validity of the selection process for this international poetry prize is called into question by the fact that the finalists are all American, Canadian and British. (Erin Gray)
Poetry, 104 pgs, edited by Karen Solie, $16.95, House of Anansi Press, 110 Spadina Ave., Suite 801, Toronto, ON, M5V 2K4, anansi.ca