Poetry Review Roundup

An online exclusive

By Angela Hibbs

Other Poems
Jay MillAr , Nightwood Editions, nightwoodeditions.com, 96 pgs, $17.95

MillAr exposes the mechanics of writing. Rather than suggesting a sphinx, for instance, by evoking the shape or mentioning Egypt, he opens the book by repeating “Consider a sphinx” eight times, implying the coercion that can be part of the writer/reader interaction. The repetition makes the reader ponder, why eight times? Why not seven? Why italics? Why the indefinite article, rather than the definite? Thus, in Other Poems, meaning and technique take the foreground.

MillAr’s satires of Romantic lyrical poetry, particularly Wordsworth, as well as lyrical narrative strategies that are currently practiced in that tradition, point out important questions that their characteristic emphasis on emotion overlooks: “Whose wood is this? What lives here?” Poking fun at the loss of placeness in an emphasis on subjectivity in a tradition that claims to be entirely interested with nature. MillAr in particular does away with the Romantic notion of the sublime and emphasizes the thing itself.

While executing satire, MillAr also dramatizes its weakness: that the satire could not exist without the ridiculed or abject “other.” Mocking a lyric is just as self-conscious as writing in its tradition; in other words: rejecting a self-conscious tradition requires self-consciousness. MillAr highlights the importance of epiphany in lyric poetry, as his parodies of it eschew epiphany, they come out hollow, mechanical: “The baby points, understands/ his connection to things that/ move.” The baby pointing in a Romantic poem tends to be a symbol of lamentable lost innocence, think: “the child is the father of the man,” Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” MillAr successfully demystifies the Romantic tradition and beholds the absence. (Angela Hibbs)

Jim Johnstone, Nightwood Editions, nightwoodeditions.com, 80 pgs, $17.95

Toronto poet and Misunderstandings Magazine editor Jim Johnstone’s follow up to The Velocity of Escape arrests the reader with startling images and dense language. When formulas are quoted from Kepler and Friedmann, the separation of reader from writer is emphasized; pointing out how the writer has access to a vocabulary the uninitiated reader does not. The binary of self and other is dealt with frequently; sometimes the separation is celebrated and other times it is treated mournfully. Johnstone’s speaker is often a wry companion, perambulating snappily through the world, observing, for instance: “500 years of solitude brought us the cuckoo clock.” Johnstone communicates his vision of the world with sharp jabs, such as in “On Bohr’s Mode Of Atomic Structure” where the line “skull of a chandelier” reclaims the chandelier from the jewelry realm of comparison where it is most frequently found and shifts its resemblance adequately to that of a squid. The squid is seen afresh as well as the chandelier, all in four words. Johnstone’s second book, which includes a selection of poems for which Johnstone received a 2009 CBC Literary Award, is at once subtle and breathtaking, standoffish and intimate. (Angela Hibbs)

A Good Time Had By All
Meaghan Strimas, Exile Editions, exileeditions.com, 88 pgs, $18.95

More than any other poet I have heard read, Strimas’ voice with its firm consonants is present in my ear when I read her second collection, A Good Time Had By All. Strimas’ narrative instinct is strong as ever and keeps the forward momentum pulsing in a way uncommon for poetry books, that tend, not always in a good way, to pause and ponder. Ponder, yes, but keep moving, her iambs insist.

Her grasp of the workaday world is present from the first poem in the collection “Nod to the Drunkard I Once Sat Next to in the Park,” “lunching/ and lonely I’d like to chuck my ham sandwich/ across the park just to see the pigeons flock.” She longs to chuck, not toss, the consonance of park, flock and chuck creates a forward momentum, creating productive tension in a poem about the contrast between imagined life and reality. Strimas doesn’t have to mull over the poeticism of things; she has poetry to burn. The pull between doing the practical thing (eating the sandwich) and being carefree is a central tension of the collection.

In “Job Search,” a poem that is centred rather than left justified, Strimas humbly and humourously nails a spot-on portrayal of desperation, “The polyester clad employees dazzle./ I’d kill to wear that navy smock.” If we haven’t been there, Strimas’ vivid rendering makes it familiar. (Angela Hibbs)

Priscila Uppal, Exile Editions, exileeditions.com, 104 pgs, $19.95

An inquiry into the meaning of health and trauma divided into Body, Mind and Spirit (the book’s three sections), Traumatology overflows with the many factors that contribute to “wellness”. At times the poems feel like they are playing tag with the many ways we can feel well/ unwell, leaping from sex to peer pressure to digestion.

In “My Stomach Files a Lawsuit” Uppal deploys litigious language to her own artistic ends, resulting in a hilarious romp through the way one abuses one’s intestines: “Negligence, I’m sure it/ will be called.” Furthermore, Uppal troubles the binary of mind/body and revises the traditional notion of the mind dominating the body. Flaunting a flair for a theme and exploring it from many angles, Uppal’s Traumatology entertains while encouraging reflection on the medicalization of the body and ontological discourses of many kinds. (Angela Hibbs)

Tiny Frantic Stronger
Jeff Latosik, Insomniac Press, www.insomniacpress.com, 75 pgs, $11.95

The speaker of Jeff Latosik’s first collection, Tiny, Frantic, Stronger is approachable and hospitable. Towards the end of the collection, “Cactus Love” exemplifies the calm assertiveness that makes TFS so inviting, “someone you’ve kissed all light from/ is curled under a blanket in her own wrinkled mood.” It is the wrinkled mood of the cohort that draws the reader in to this persona; this is no narcissistic lyric writer.

Latosik’s metaphoric language is strong throughout the collection, as when “Silverfish hold the house together” in “Silverfish Elegy.” As a first line, this one dares the reader to stop reading in protest of the impossibility of such a house, but reels you in to discover the nature of a house held together by silverfish. His audacious images arrest and attract.

Dickinson’s imperative “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” comes to mind with Latosik’s similes, which are all the more fitting for their unexpectedness, “Standing there/ our cavities getting slightly deeper/ like questions at a press conference.” Little in the valences of meaning around cavities and press conferences overlap, have faith, however, ever the expert tailor, Latosik deftly makes them hang together. Latosik’s relaxed confidence makes his subsequent collections a body of work to look forward to. (Angela Hibbs)

The Night Also,
Anna Swanson, Tightrope Books, tightropebooks.com, 93 pages, $14.95

Finding its strengths and shortcomings at once in its relentless sincerity, Anna Swanson’s debut collection is interested in the body and spirit in terms of illness, sexuality and loneliness. Overstated sincerity plagues poems like “Away from here” in which, “It takes strong hands to stay open when beauty gets this sharp.” However, in “When women were clouds” the observation “There were many/ and better words for women/ who put out” is more concrete, voiced with a glint in the eye that lets the reader in on the joke.

Victim of a six year long Chronic Fatigue Syndrome-like illness that never gets the satisfaction of a definitive diagnosis, the sympathetic speaker, too weak to work, is forced to apply for welfare but still defends herself bravely, confronting a doctor in the waiting room after a consult, repeating back to him what he had said, that, “I was lazy and it would help if I washed more often… loudly in front of an entire waiting room.”

Swanson’s narratives are sympathetic and her gestures towards self-advocacy are inspiring. Her speaker is highly personable, with straight-forward language. Having executed the realm of the autobiographically-oriented first collection with panache, I am eager to see what she will take up in subsequent work. (Angela Hibbs)

for and against
Sharon McCartney, Goose Lane Editions, gooselane.com, 73 pgs, $17.95

Infinitely relatable, McCartney’s speaker introduces herself after three days of accidentally brewing decaf, such a suffering whose ending we delight in with her. Accidentally consuming decaf, McCartney reveals, is like “donning a tiara of nails.” She feminizes a Christ image, thereby personalizing it. Her own kitchen has let her down.

McCartney’s characteristic piercing simile regarding the desire to collect quiet nights is described as “stacking up good days like plates”: how boring after a while, how slavish, how in need of the Bacchanal for a break. Her direct titles are characteristic of the taut harness with which she guides language.

In “For Alcohol” McCartney describes a hangover. The narcissistic act of trying to piece together what one said and did is recreated. Her characteristic use of straightforward titles works well here, suggesting that we get a hangover for alcohol, as an offering to it. An exchange is implied, alcohol gives us fun, forgetting, fuel, what-have-you and asks only suffering in return.

Indeed, suffering can be a unifying theme of the collection, from the dying cat (“Impending death of the cat”) that becomes a symbol of the dying marriage that is described in several poems to the invocation of dying relatives (“How they died”), the world is largely to be endured in for and against. (Angela Hibbs)