Dear Tiny Vanities

Cornelia Hoogland, Dressed in Only a Cardigan, She Picks Up Her Tracks in the Snow.  London, Ontario: baseline press, 2021, 60 copies.

Without doubt there are particular challenges in writing about a parent, whether blamed and resented or loved and admired.  The bad parent, while unfortunate in life, can make for some excellent dramatic material, while the good can easily lead the writer into the swamp of sentimentality.

Fortunately for her personal life, Cornelia Hoogland’s mother seems to have engendered only love and devotion from her daughter.  And fortunately for the reader, Hoogland still manages to avoid being gushy in this series of twelve prose poems about Wilhelmina Grootendorst Van Rooyen (1924-2019).  She has managed this by largely avoiding the mother/daughter relationship and instead by depicting Wilhelmina at the end of her life, as an independent but sometimes struggling woman in her 90s. 

There are earlier moments in the life as well.  Here is Wilhelmina’s father teaching her to swim by tying a rope round her waist and throwing her into the river.  And here she is, a young married now, crossing on the Volendam from Rotterdam to Quebec City.  The scenes that have the most effect, on me at least, are in old age; Wilhelmina needing help with her walker at the mall or talking to a photograph of her son even though she knows perfectly well that he has been dead for several years. 

There’s a particularly nice moment (and a nice sentence) when she speaks to an old friend on the phone:

88 years of friendship, 68 years of newsy letters, gossip about a friend’s luckless marriage back home, but never malicious, everything kind; a husband’s new job, same pay but better hours; Wilhelmina’s bowling score, old news by the time Binky receives it, but who else can she tell?

I also liked the image of her and her visiting sister posing for a photograph as they “straighten their 90-year-old backs.”  The poet cannot help turning into the daughter here: “Dear tiny vanities, long may you bind these women to the earth.”  All right, a little gushing, but can you blame her?

There doesn’t seem to be any scheme or plan to the sequence; rather, the poet has used what has come to her.  Wilhelmina’s mind drifts back to the Dutch landscape she left behind, or she is cozily watching Dr. Zhivago with a cousin.  Here are a few lines from the penultimate poem, the one that comes just before “Wilhelmina in Heaven”:

Wilhelmina feels a chill.  Sets her plate in the sink, follows her aluminum walker that glides over the floor on its stockinged feet.  A Little Nap.  Sits on her bed, removes her coat, places her glasses beside the clock.  And now everything shrinks, every action, every thought, is spliced in half and again.

But Wilhelmina is never reduced for us.  Her full life, her memories, the way she holds onto the people who matter to her—all of that remains fiercely present.

Faces Everywhere

Alix Hawley, Your Eye: On Photography. Windsor, Ontario: Woodbridge Farm Books, 100 copies, 2019.

https://thewoodbridgefarm.com/chapbooks

I very much like the idea of a chapbook publisher encouraging the creation of new texts, and Woodbridge Farm Books has found quite a nice idea for doing so.  “Writers at Rest: Authors on their Pastimes & Hobbies” is the name of a series that is meant to complement a residency program. Participants are asked to write about something other than their work.  A writer not talking about writing?  What a swell idea.

The fiction writer Alix Hawley’s “Your Eye: On Photography” is the third in the series.  First I must complement the look and feel of these small chapbooks—everything from the dimensions to the Zephyr laid paper (a tip-off that the book has been printed by Coach House Books) to the small, clean type is admirable, and the two that I own are graced with images as well.

Hawley is refreshingly uninterested in taking photographs for any reason other than her own pleasure, although she does share them on Instagram.  In fact, it was her need to feed that particular social-media beast that encouraged her to return to a practice that she had once enjoyed as a kid.  But in a series of associations around the idea of making images she goes back farther:

First, I thought about a friend I had in preschool, whose face I can’t remember.  Just her hair, thick and dark as an ebony frame.  I thought about being very young and closer to the ground-level and to things in general, the way you find faces everywhere then, in tree bark or twisted sheets.

She goes on to find the origin of her eye for ordinary things: 

If I’d had a camera then, I probably would have taken pictures of the shower, the dark closet, the cat as seen from the rear….  Maybe I’d photograph the house, with its chimney and green roof.  Maybe adults’ stalky legs.  Maybe my toys.  Probably not my younger siblings.   Probably no human faces, which didn’t seem so important or so close.

If I’m not careful, this review will be nothing but direct, telling quotations.  Hawley thinks about (every section begins with “thinking” about something) finger-painting, about the appeal of garbage, about school photographs.  She has a very precise visual memory, recalling the colour of the school photo backgrounds (“a flat dry blue like a cake of unused paint”) and how the photographer asked them to look up in a certain way, “as if we were maybe at an airport waiting for planes to deliver gifts or relatives.”

She received her first camera, a simple point-and-shoot Ricoh, when she was twelve.  Inevitably, the prints that came back from the drugstore were disappointing.  Then the camera got lost and so did the hobby until adulthood, when she directed her phone away from the kids and towards a C-shaped picnic table that, along with its shadow, became almost abstract.  Since then have come many more, taken quickly and carelessly, without thought.  Without, she does not say, the thought that writing demands, but it is easy to see how refreshing such a practice might be.

Interestingly, the last association isn’t about photography at all but learning to drive and the taking of a colour-blindness test.  There’s nothing definitive about the essay, nothing formal. Instead, perhaps it is a writer allowing herself to do in words what she usually reserves for the camera: don’t think, just write.

We have lots of water

Justin Million, Kill Your Way North. Peterborough, Ontario: bird, buried press, 50 copies, 2020.

https://birdburiedpress.wordpress.com/

Let it be said that I like a good dystopian, apocalyptic literary novel as much as the next person.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?  Check.  P.D. James’ Children of Men?  Done.  Emily St. John Mandel’s Station 11? Roger that.  But I had not encountered a dystopian, apocalyptic poem in which characters keep moving, weapons handy, and try not to remember the before days when there were “tall cans and peanut butter.”  Not, at least, before reading Justin Million’s chilling poetry sequence with a title that sounds like the kind of movie I watch when my partner is out for the night.

But it’s time to put the joking tone aside, for Million is not in a joking mood and given the state of the world and the prognosis for the future, there’s no reason he should be.  The short lines and fragmented sections of Kill Your Way North do an admirable job of conveying the alternating emotions of sadness, desperation, fear, and anger, while keeping the narrative rolling the way the characters themselves keep moving ahead.

            We have to

            Kill

            To survive

            We have to

            Have that

capacity

The characters include the speaker (presumably male), his female partner, and a dog.  The dog is the only one with a name—Nutmeg—and I suppose it’s ironic that the pooch eventually gets eaten and receives one last “good girl” from her affectionate owner.    They are moving through the woods of northern Ontario towards Provoking Lake, an exquisite spot near Algonquin Park (I looked at online photographs).  Along the way they encounter a stranger:

            We have not achieved telepathy

            so

            she does

            that passé romantic gesture

            and puts her finger

            to my lips

            to remind me to shut the fuck up

The stranger has a gun but the poet’s partner is faster with her knife and while she ends up with “thick blood/on her hands” she also reminds us that there is no need to descend into barbarism and that these new kills “shouldn’t be praised”.

Apparently, it is hard to keep an artist down, for the speaker is writing a play and tells us, without any irony that I can detect, “I’m sure/there will be a crowd somewhere for it”.  Even so, there’s not much hope to be found in this poem, nor belief in anything communal or collective or spiritual.  Not when “the individual’s/the new nation”.  Justin Million’s poem is a brief nightmare vision of the future, with a violent narrative to keep the pulse raising and—for good measure—a real match on the cover just in case we need to use the chapbook as kindling for our own fire.

I jumped on the trampoline

Kevin Mcpherson Eckhoff, Circadia.  Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gasperau Press (Devil’s Whim Chapbook #37), 400 copies, 2018.

http://www.gaspereau.com

Turns out it is possible  to cover a whole poetic year in a 32-page chapbook.  All one needs to do is condense each month into a single poem, and to do that all one needs to do is write a single line a day.

This appears to have been Kevin Mcpherson Eckhoff’s strategy in the clever, personal, funny, occasionally self-indulgent and highly readable Circadia.  Here are the first lines from “January,” naturally the first in the 12-poem series:

I fried some Mennonite sausage.  I watched 18

Minutes from somewhere in the middle of Pirates of

The Carribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.  I got a

Birthday card.  I cleaned the hedgehod’s hutch.  I

Lifted some weights.  I learned that I have anterior

Spondylolisthesis, coinciding with a previously

Fractured pars interarticularis, which sounds way

Worse than it is, I think.  I finished a crossword

Puzzle.

During the year we discover that the poet has a female partner, two young boys, does some acting, watches parts of movies, is quite handy around the house, doesn’t have sex, does have sex, lifts weights annoyingly often, drinks a lot of coffee, takes care of the garden, wishes he could live in a big city (he’s somewhere in B.C.), has a best friend, will save a kitten when necessary, doesn’t like to kill small creatures (even accidentally), rolls down hills and holds his children when they nap but sometimes grows tired of them, runs, drinks, and cuts down his own Christmas tree. 

I suppose these are prose poems, since they are set ragged right rather than with line breaks designated by the author, and there are no other signs of prosody.  There is an awareness of more prose-like rhythm and sentence length, although as far as I can tell no deliberate rise or fall or other shaping of the order of events.  One poem ends with “I wanted a pet bat” and the chapbook’s last line is one of many references to food: “I ate three slices of homemade pizza.”  The special moment is not privileged over the ordinary.  Almost all the lines begin with “I”—clearly a deliberate strategy and partly responsible for the feeling of self-indulgence, while also keeping the other figures in the background.  But hey, aren’t we all really Matt Damon in the movie of our life?

Are there times when I wished for a little more depth, or emotional vulnerability, or surprise, or even just a moment of lingering sadness?  Sure.  But maybe Kevin Mcpherson Eckhoff isn’t that sort of guy.  Maybe he’s always moving on to the next chore, the next game with the kids, the next slice of pizza.  I bet he makes a swell best friend.

I have always been careless

patricia young

Patricia Young, Consider the Paragliders.  London, Ontario: baseline press, 60 copies, 2017.

http://www.baselinepress.ca

And really, what is a prose poem?  Like a novella, it’s a hard, perhaps impossible thing to define.  One description I came across was a short work of prose that reads as if it were poetry.  Of course the next question is: does it matter?  Patricia Young calls the eighteen paragraphs in Consider the Paragliders prose poems but they read to me (most of them, anyway) like miniature stories.  Perhaps it’s a matter of you say tomatoes, I say tomahtoes.  Either way, I very much like what I’m being served.

Here’s the first line of the first poem: “He grew up in a blue room by the sea, the light so hard and luminous it ricocheted off the walls.” It has a character, a setting, and the hint of a narrative to come.  It’s also quite a beautiful line, the room itself seeming to become the sea, as if the child is submerged in its blueness, a comforting image were not not disturbed by the violent energy of “ricocheted.”  And in a handful of sentences about solitude, stargazing, and an angry father, we are given a vivid portrait of the unhappy childhood of boys.

This first poem has a stand-alone feel, but it is followed by a short series that deliberately gives the feeling of autobiography or memoir (of the character, not necessarily the author).  First she is a thirteen-year-old girl, paid by a neighbour to move boxes.  Then she is eighteen and pregnant, using an empty suitcase found on the beach (a wonderful, Ondaatje-like image) to make her escape.  Next she is asleep on a floor, her babe resting in a crate beside her, his skin smelling  “Like a Fuji apple wrapped in red tissue”.   It’s the delicacy of such images, perhaps, that make this poetry.

Again the narrative line seems to shift with a poem (playfully named “Story”) that begins: “My husband’s missing arm was a mystery.”  Some of the pieces have a dreamlike, or perhaps surreal quality, such as the marvellous “Some Questions” which I take the liberty of reproducing here:

patricia young 2

The two short lines on the left-hand side, by the way, are the ends of the binder’s knot.  The chapbook, like all the publications from baseline, is a carefully made object, the cover and inside pages printed on heavy paper from the La Papeterie St-Armand in Montreal. It is beautiful without being excessively precious, or one of those book objects that one is afraid to touch.

These poems have a sort of weary wonder to my ear, the work of a dedicated, experienced poet who continues to find life mystifying and beautiful, brimming with regret and forgiveness.  There are many more lines I want to quote, such as this one: “I have always been careless with people and now it’s too late.”

But not too late to write about them.

-C.F.

 

 

 

 

 

Pointing Into the Thicket

abel 1 2

Jordan Abel, Timeless American Classic.  Ottawa: above/ground press, 2017.

http://abovegroundpress.blogspot.ca

I am writing this while we are in the midst of a heated and painful debate about voice appropriation and Indigenous authors that we surely all hope will, in the end, be useful and productive.  Access to publishing is a relevant issue at all levels of publishing, even the micro level, but those of us who read chapbooks can rely on rob mclennan to provide a host of interesting voices with his busy above/ground imprint.

Jordan Abel is a Nisga’a writer who lives in B.C.  He writes in the afterword:

The pieces in Timeless American Classic are all derivations and creative distant readings of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans.  This project was in part inspired by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s argument (in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States) that Cooper’s novel plays a role in reinventing the colonial origins of the United States, and in creating a narrative that was “instrumental in nullifying guilt related to genocide.”  Ultimately, this project seeks to disrupt the colonial logic in the novel by displacing (and reorienting) the text itself in order to expose the problematic representation of Indigenous peoples.  The project is also deeply inspired by current digital humanities techniques of visualization, machine reading, and algorithmic allocation.

My first thought was that Cooper’s 1826 novel was not really on our Canadian radar as a significant text, but my second was that anything that influenced the standard American narrative must surely be an influence on us here in Canada.  There are various ways of exposing or upending that narrative. One is through protest, newspaper editorials, film, etc. – in other words, through the media in ways that reach a large number of people.  But another way is quieter, its canvas smaller, Timeless American Classic being an excellent example of that.  If small-circulation chapbooks matter at all, then they matter here as well.

Abel’s method, as I make it out, is two-fold.  In the first, he draws out phrases from Cooper’s novel that contain the word “Indian” and isolates them in parallel texts with the word itself running forcefully down the centre.  Here is a reproduced example:

abel 2

The second way is to create a kind of visual collage, either by overlapping sentences or by (as in the following example) employing different text sizes and directions and grey scales:

abel 3

I don’t know much about “current digital humanities techniques” or “algorithmic allocation” and it’s more than likely that some of the results of this text play is lost on me. I find both quite effective visually and that their general impact is strong.  I find it much harder to actually read every word on a page (am I supposed to?); rather, my eye skips from here to there, picking up a word or phrase.  Is it ironic that the collage-like pages are so visually appealing?

The book begins with a useful quotation from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz so that, all in all, this modestly-appearing chapbook provides a powerful introduction to both the influence of a “classic” text and the way in which that influence might be challenged.

-C.F.

 

King of Nothing

akbar

Kaveh Akbar, Portrait of an Alcoholic.  Little Rock, Arkansas: Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017.

https://siblingrivalrypress.com

Kaveh Akbar was born in Tehran to a Muslin family and grew up in the U.S. (He now lives in Florida.) He writes personal, confessional lyrics, a kind of poetry that I haven’t been encountering in chapbooks lately. Usually the poet is far more elusive and hidden these days, but part of Akbar’s strategy is to tell us who he is, perhaps (I might be crossing a line here) to expose himself and still hope that we’ll care about him.

The first of a series of poems with the title “Portrait of an Alcoholic” (“Portrait of an Alcoholic with Home Invader and House Fly”) is harrowing, possibly lurid, but also thoughtful, the violence hushed by introspection and calmed by the casual formality of its two-line stanzas, its straightforward diction and soft enjambment:

It felt larger than it was, the knife
That pushed through my cheek.

Immediately I began leaking:
Blood and saliva, soft as smoke. I had been asleep,

Safe from sad news, dreaming
Of my irradiated hairless mother

 Pulling a thorn from the eye of a dog.

Another unusual aspect of Akbar’s poems (for these days) is their absorbing narrative. In “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)” the poet waits in a medical facility, alternately trying to control his thoughts (“everyone’s forgotten I’m here,” “I try to find small comforts”) and recounting a news story about a drowned tourist (“his bloatwhite belly was filled with radishes and lambshank”). The poem appears as a wide, vertical rectangle, each statement separated by a caesura that gives them breathing space and makes it, like all Akbar’s poems, easy to follow.

This ease is part of the seductive quality of these poems, an aspect that I’ve been struggling with how to characterize. It feels to me as if the poet wants to win us over, win our love and our pity, and that this, too, may be part of his alcoholism or may emerge from the same vulnerable place.  I hear this in lines sprinkled throughout the poems—

When I wake, I ask God to slide into my head quickly before I do.

It’s exhausting / remaining humble

Lord, I meant to be helpless

I was born the king of nothing

You should just hang me / in a museum

I’m almost / ready to show you the mess I’ve made

Let me be / calm for one fucking second

I blame everyone but myself

I don’t know if someone else would read these lines the same way, but they strike me as both self-romanticizing and touchingly human.

Another thing that makes Akbar so appealing is the strong presence of the child in the man. He recalls his boyhood as a kind of touchstone of innocence, sometimes feeling still the child inside him: “As a child I was so tiny     and sweet she [his mother] would tuck me in saying moosh bokhoradet a mouse     should eat you”. Elsewhere he finds his young self bewilderingly inaccessible: “I don’t understand the words / I babble in home movies from Tehran”. These lines come from a particularly sympathy-inducing poem that mixes a story about Hazrat Ali, the brother-in-law of Mohammed, with his own desire to die sober.   The poem ends this way: “I will keep making these noises     as long as deemed necessary until there is nothing left of me to forgive”. The line almost gives the impression that, once forgiven, there will be nothing left of the poet at all.

The question of, the need for, forgiveness is a continual quest throughout and it draws us in, as if we the readers might be able to offer this hungered-for absolution.  But forgiveness, perhaps, comes not from others but only from the self. As the poet writes late in the collection, “one way to live a life is to spend each moment asking / forgiveness for the last”.  This seems like a longed-for ascetic practice, a way of being alive to the moment, and an escape clause for a feeling of continual trespass.  May the poet find them all.

-C.F.

 

 

Our Animal

DSCN0068

Joshua Poteat, For the Animal.  Tucson, Arizona: New Michigan Press, 2013.

http://newmichiganpress.com

The working procedures for Joshua Poteat’s chapbook (described on the back cover) seem pretty strict – “9 fully-stopped lines per stanza, each opening with “For the animal”.  In one sense that’s true, for each poem is made of seemingly independent sentences that give up many other formal possibilities.  And yet there’s a great inventiveness, not in style but in tone and potential meaning.  It might be best to quote one poem in full, and although almost any of the eighteen included here would probably do, I’ll choose the second one.

For the animal in snow chooses what to fear.
For the animal pulls glass from her sleeping foot, golden as fog.
For the animal volunteers its illegible years to live inside the river.
For the animal manufactures the day.
For the animal there are flowers of purpose in death.
for the animal is not ancient.
For the animal is not accident.
For the animal chooses what pain to protect.
For the animal’s labor calls above the drought-lake.

It is a natural impulse to find coherence and meaning in language and I find myself strangely moved and puzzled by every one of these sentences.  There are similarities–a series of active statements followed by a couple of negative definitions, etc.  And there is, for me at least, a sense of flow.  Yet what exactly does any one of these sentences mean?  Take, for example, “The animal volunteers its illegible years to live inside the river.”  What is this sacrifice – or so I take it to be – that the animal makes?  Who or what is asking it to volunteer?  (It’s hard not to anthropomorphize.)  And why does it make the sacrifice?  For us?  Does living in the river relate somehow to choosing “what pain to protect” a few sentences down?  Whose pain is it, the animal’s or ours?

It seems to me that these are questions the poem doesn’t, refuses to answer.  Only we can – if we can, or choose to.  As for the animal, it (I almost wrote ‘he’) seems to me some sort of trickster figure that transforms itself at will.  Here it is, in lines taken from different poems:

A mocker: “For the animal shops for headstones online and gets a good deal.”

A god: “For the animal eradicates the eternal.”

A destroyer: “For the animal holds the nail gun against the rotted foot.’

A time traveller: “For the animal waves to us from across the years.”

A superhero: “For the animal encounters no barrier in its invisibility.”

A dumb American: “For the animal is frustrated by the failure of the Dallas Cowboys.”

A changeling: “For the animal was a girl once and was afraid.”

A Christ: “For the animal dies for you in several ways.”

Reading these poems, it sometimes feels to me that a line is exquisitely crafted and at other times that it must have been made by some online poem generator.  While I didn’t try it, I suspected that the lines could be mixed arbitrarily, with other combinations being no more or less effective.  True, there are occasional repeated words in adjacent lines (“childhood,” “white”) and some have last lines that feel somewhat final, but such things might happen by accident just as easily.

In the end, the animal feels to me like some religious figure, travelling through the years of human history, helping and harming, saving and condemning, sacrificing and just kibbitzing around.  But that’s just me; you might come up with something completely different, the way children lying on their backs on a summer day might find their own mysterious patterns in overhead clouds.

-C.F.

Boys and Trains

Carlson-Wee

Kai Carlson-Wee, Anders Carlson-Wee, Mercy Songs.  Qatar: Diode Editions, 2016.

http://www.diodeeditions.com

Mercy Songs is not merely a poetic collaboration between brothers; it is a work about brothers.  And it begins with a nostalgic and resonant evocation of a shared experience, a memory of an acute childhood sensory experience:

  We knew
by the whistle if one was a coal train, or one
was a mail train headed down south.  We knew
by the rhythm and clack of the joiners, the speed
they were taking the turns.  We knew there was
something important inside the sounds.

It’s not only a boyhood being evoked, but also what feels like a now disappearing industrial America of gritty blue-collar jobs: “The factory smoke stacks leaching off  / pillars of heat.”  Are these real memories or fictions?

In this world the two brothers played sometimes dangerous games, in which a hammer became a potential weapon and a pet frog a threatened hostage.  Entertainment was a matter of destroying without getting caught:

…lighting the trashcans on Division Street
on fire, watching the fat police lumber
to the flames.  And my thirteenth birthday,
setting off flares in the train yard, scraping my name
on the rust-lined door.  What became
of those abbreviated years?  Now they slump
inside the passing days like sand.

(“Deer Bones”)

Over and over these poems call on the elemental (fire, iron, wood, rock) with actions to match (stomping, hammering, smelting, beating).  Somewhere along the way the boys turn into men, but their lives seem only older and more desperate versions of what they had before.  They ride trains, beg on the street, survive on stamps and thrown-out food.   While many poems are written in a collective voice (“we”), others are clearly the work of one or the other, such as “Man in the Glass,” in which the damage of a neglected life gets stripped of its allure:

The anti-psychotics I took that year made the world
inside me sublime.  My eyes moved over
the shape of a face, the delicate wind in a tree.
I felt nothing.  I wrote no poems.
The language of beauty divided itself
into basic descriptions of fact.
I wandered from place to place…

And yet the nostalgia and even romance of such a life doesn’t disappear.  The real power of these poems is their muscular description, used to great effect in the title poem in which “Mercy Songs” reverberate in its rust-belt memories:

He heard them in the weight room, in the white
expanse of the courtyard covered in snow,
the way it reminded him always of Sundays,
waking up late in the empty apartment at noon,
pulling his socks on, holding a cold can
of Steele Reserve to his chest.  He heard them
in the mess hall, in the empty machine shop walls,
the drone of the late-night stations on faith…

This piling on of images is effecting, but sometimes become too much of a good thing.  A more careful use of them, combined with a greater variety of line length, space, breath, etc. might have made these good poems even better.  I was refreshed near the end to come upon “The Mark,” a poem that makes use of its three-line stanzas as it considers the question of what turned us into humans:

Some say fire, some say language.
Some say God made us in his image

on the sixth day.  some say tools,

some religion.  Some say whenever
we first dug a hole, marked
a grave – maybe the Neanderthal

family found in northern Spain:
skulls, ribs, jaws, dozens of teeth,
a nearly complete spine, a hand…

Here is still a piling of one image after another, but they are given more room to breathe.  The poem does end on a disappointingly obvious note (“Some say we’re still on the way // to becoming human”).  For me, the last lines of many of these poems are a bit of a let-down, as if the brothers don’t quite know what to do with their promising material.  However, as the saying goes, it’s the journey not the destination that matters.

-C.F.

The Short Schtick

salazar

Rebecca Salazar, Guzzle.  Anstruther Press, 2016.

http://www.anstrutherpress.com

A series of poems, all of a uniform size and shape, can feel almost calming to me, like biking over a sequence of identical and gently rolling hills. Rebecca Salazar’s Guzzle ought to feel that way, give that each of the nineteen poems is made of five couplets with natural line endings.

Calming they’re not. Not when her lines are so knotty, gnarled, bumpy, and stutteringly alliterative. “Black spruce swoop at oil-clots swamp” begins the first poem. “Impossible animals sinew the cranes of your bent neck,” continues the second. An almost fantastical mix of natural imagery and ordinary life, wildness and urbanity, they give to our days the anxiety of a prey-and-predator world:

You can’t reach your pants; the swans
At my bedside are pecking your pockets to bits. 

Resisting any direct narrative reading, the poems pile moments one upon the other, uneasy, physically aggressive, full of shame and effort and hurt and desire. Often I come upon odd juxtapositions that feel like they should but don’t make sense to me, like nights “tasting” of “whiskeyed, brassy orbs.”

Less frequently, the poems offer high romance. One begins

You’re my Brooklyn jazz cellist,
My barefoot, dog-walking cartographer

 and ends, “I ache only to love everything.” This is Salazar at her cleaned-up sweetest, but immediately she’s back to making us squirm as she forces us to watch her “pulling small fish from my skin” or witness “my molten-slag afterbirth.”

The poems are not without a wry sense of humour. When she writes, “I can’t fail to get the short end of your schtick” it occurs to me that she’s giving us both—the schtick and the short end. Reading Guzzle I feel as if I’ve been touched all over by hands sticky with some ripe organic goo, sometimes stroked, sometimes tickled, and sometimes slapped.

-C.F.