Our Animal


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


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.


Boys and Trains


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


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.


The Short Schtick


Rebecca Salazar, Guzzle.  Anstruther Press, 2016.


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.



Poetry and Money


Stephen Collis, First Sketch of a Poem I Will Not Have Written.  Ottawa, above/ground press, 2017.


An emotion not felt so often in poetry is anger.  But I certainly feel it in Stephen Collis’ long poem (something above 150 lines) – anger at contemporary culture, at the stubbornness of capitalism, and perhaps at the corruption of poetry itself.  It’s full of interesting contradictions, the main one for me being that it is no flag-waving manifesto or populist call to the masses but instead intricate, fragmented, and often as not difficult.

At borders, frontiers, reaching
into the historical moment of listening
to insurrection and speech /
spur and limit
in place of the street / we have Facebook
Google is a universe we
No longer have to search the limits of
the revolutionary subject lies elsewhere
can we revive?

Sometimes he sounds like a tired and aging, but still raging lefty, hating the opium of the internet and pop songs that “tell us / nothing” (surely an unfair generalization these days).  He might be in an old-fashioned working man’s tavern, talking to a half-listening friend (“and sometimes David when I say politics / I mean poetics”), feeling defeated but with still some of the old energy in him.  His thoughts jump around, as if he might be half drunk or falling asleep-

swing low
Campanera. Missing. Cellphone. Rift. Blank. Space. Rosebud.
What body is general? Autonomous?
Gras. Roots. Bit. Torrent. Detainees. No one.  Illegal.

There’s another moment when a name is mentioned, likely a wife or partner: “Late now. Sound of the furnace. Cathy out. Girls asleep.”  This also gives the impression of a restless and unhappy soul wrestling with defeats and losses in the dark hours. But the lines always have a clean, sharp edge, expressing an intelligent consciousness that feels to me trapped inside a spiral of argument, trying to find a way out:

I ponder Empedocles and volcanos
the history of the oppressed
“If you go out and look for the economy
it is hard to find”
desire to become cosmos
to live in the limitless
connection of all things

As I read I began to expect some kind of uplift or release, some hope in the end, if faint or bleary.  Instead the poem ends in cynicism or perhaps just resignation: “god didn’t die / he was translated into money”.  But I took this as a momentary feeling, as if another moment chosen (five minutes before, one minute after) might have given us a different ending, a sense that the fight – in the street and on the page – must go on.



From the North



Christine Stewart, The Odes. Vancouver:Nomados, 2015.
Brian Dedora, Two at High Noon. Vancouver: Nomados,  2015.


Guest review by Bruce Whiteman

I am tempted to say that I do not understand a single word in Christine Stewart’s collection of odes, but that would be untrue. I do understand the words, all of them. It’s the lines I do not understand, much less the poems one by one as poems. Oh there are occasional lines that make conventional sense, such as “Men pass out over cups of wine,” or the more metaphorical “Your closed fist of cunning,” or even (two lines together) “I’m not big on details and/Would rather sing of the Olympics.” The latter lines even contain an apposite allusion to Pindar, the great Greek poet whose epinikia or victory odes alone survive complete, unlike the remainder of his poems, and comprise hymns to the winners of athletic games. It makes sense for Stewart to invoke the inventor of the ode. I’m surprised that she did not also invoke Keats, though perhaps she did and I missed it.

In large part these thirty-three poems are built out of lines that puzzle and obfuscate. Take “Sons of Orange Julius,” for example:

He had round limbs where he laid his simples.
The mini mall re-warmed him.
He had sores from his selves.
The hungry light of the highways
Treaded cars in soft cantations.
Swoosh, swoosh.
He should stop paving my yard with
Blacktop and the honeyed songs of pansies.
But still, I sing him here and there.
A slanderer does herself no good.

The title is the first oddity. Orange Julius, the drink? Like most of Stewart’s odes, the line is the basic unit, and enjambment is rare. (There is one example here in the seventh and eighth lines.) Most of the time the individual lines are perplexing. Who, in the opening line, is “he”? Why are there simples (medicinal herbs) on his “round limbs”? Why did he need “re-warming” and why did it take place in a mini-mall of all places? How does light tread anything, and why is the light of the highway hungry? “Cantation,” as Stewart uses it here, is last recorded by the OED as occurring in 1656, and even then it was in a book of hard and uncommon words called Glossographia. I like rare words too, so I cannot fairly object to this one. The subject of this poem, the “he,” returns in the penultimate line, but why is he celebrated “here and there”? The final line reminds me of Creeley’s famous line, “the unsure//egoist is not/good for himself,” from “The Immoral Proposition.” But who knows, in Stewart’s poem, whether she is making a general statement or chiding herself? The poem contains so many uncertainties and so little to go on. This reader, at any rate, is left frustrated and unconvinced.

Other poems are even less accessible. “Sons of Candles and Batteries” begins with four brief statements that add up to nothing, really:

Your spears flower.
Where shopping is more peaceful.
So keep quiet at home.
Cast out your swift wife ships.

The opening line could be powerful if it lead to anything, but what it leads to is just a collection of strange bits of language. “Your swift wife ships”? I guess I have to count myself, or get counted by the poet anyway, as among those who are addressed directly in the final, two-line poem: “After the singing, don’t bother me with invasions./I’m from the North.” I’m from the North too, and really, it’s not an invasion to hope for something to hang onto in poetry. Incidentally the two blurbs on the rear wrapper of Christine Stewart’s chapbook are as immune to meaning as her poems sometimes are. Blurbs should be seductive, not rebarbative.

Brian Dedora’s Two at High Noon can be opaque at times too, but usually the reader can understand his poems despite occasional obscurities. Dedora’s chapbook consists of two sequences, “Status” in conventional poetic lines, a poem dedicated to Robin Blaser, and “Lawnchair,” a series of prose poems. “Status” ranges widely through emotions, propositions, and experiences. Birth, copulation, and death, to cite that ancient trio, seem its inspirations, the things that create in Dedora a “text-urge,” his somewhat unappetizing shorthand for poetic inspiration. At its outset the poem invokes a very stark and intimate birth, with “juices” and the “warm wet” trajectory of the foetus emerging into breath and daylight. The “continual friction/between self, the world, the writing” produces both pleasure and glumness. A lover grows bored, and the poet, thinking that his name has been called from across a street, finds that “no one is there/not even you.” A confrontation with sexual identity seems to lurk everywhere beneath the surface of this poem, but sex is not just a source of difficulty. It is, at least when the poem ends, a joy too: “the unplanned kinder/ frolicking in the garden.” It is charming to learn that people still think of sex as frolicking. It sounds so much like a Boucher or Fragonard painting.

The prose poems of “Lawnchair” are, like most successful prose poems, focused on sensual experience and the possibilities of the longer sentence. Dedora’s typical poetic line is short, often so short as to mitigate against music. But in his prose poems he is not limited by phrase or line ending, and the results are mostly happy. He allows himself a richer vocabulary, for one thing, as well as more openness to the sound of poetry. A short example demonstrates his skill:

Noon, when summer heat becomes sleepy, birds hush, leaves droop, and people seek shade. Scarcely a sound save for the shrill chirp of cicadas when one sweats the vast weighted background of silence.

The repeated use of “s” sounds here contributes to the meaning. “Ess” is the sound of summer, after all, and Dedora creates a captivating susurrus in this short text. Many of the themes of “Status” return in “Lawnchair,” the “warm wet,” the idea of crossroads, where choices have to be made, the placing of ones finger on a point of initiation, “the point where it all starts.” The idea of “decision” is central to Two at High Noon. It represents what is built upon, the carrying forward of “the fragile structure of your living, naked…” The excision of the noun in that phrase–living naked what?–is the point, in a way. Mystery remains, and in fact the ellipsis after “naked” leads not to a noun, a thing, but to the adjective “forked”:

Heave crash and splinter of decisions made so long ago upon which you build, as you see now, the fragile structure of your living, naked…forked.

Of course humans, as Lear said, are little but a “poor, bare, forked animal,” but Dedora also wants to keep the more metaphorical meaning of “forked” here, its sense of admirable doubleness, its richness rather than its duplicity. The title of his little book, after all, encapsulates the same idea.

When Four Equals One


Yoko’s Dogs, Rhinoceros.  Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, Devil’s Whim No. 31, 600 copies, 2016.

Not long ago I reviewed a chapbook by an anonymous collective with a strong political motivation called the Blunt Research Group.  Yoko’s Dogs is another collective, not quite so anonymous (being made up of four women poets whose names aren’t hard to discover) and with something perhaps less serious and more fun in mind.  Writing since 2006, the members of Yoko’s Dogs, each living in a different part of Canada, have been inspired by what they call Japanese linked poems to bring their four voices together as one.

This is their second publication (the first, Whisk, was published by Pedlar Press), an accessible, vaguely Japanese-feeling handful of poems.  Reading them, I couldn’t help wondering how much our reading experience is influenced by prior knowledge.  By the reputation of a poet, say, or what we know of her experience, or about how the poems were written.  In this case I knew in advance there were four authors and I found it virtually impossible to think of these as texts from a single voice.  While reading I was convinced that this awareness was caused not so much by prior knowledge but a feeling that each successive stanza came from a different pen.

Take, for example, “The Sphinx Moth’s Riddle”:

she’s never met the wife
yet knows the husband’s garden

today he thinks
his male nurse is a novelist
he rejected

Nabokov was also famous
as a lepidopterist

in the greenhouse
with a torch –
night-blooming cereus

the answer to the sphinx moth’s riddle is
not man

To me this feels something like that game where somebody in the circle starts telling a story and the next person continues.  In fact, I have no idea how the poems were written, whether by stanza or line, or with revisions that erased the question of who wrote what.  Some seem too short to have four hands on them.  This is really just an observation, and even if I’m right there’s nothing wrong with imagining a series of voices contributing to one poem.  But I did feel a discontinuity –  jokiness one moment, lyricism the next, haiku after that, etc.  On the other hand, they usefully confounded some of my expectations of what a poem should do.

There is also the interesting effect of English-language poems in Japanese forms – forms which, no doubt these poets understand far better than I do.  I enjoy reading English haiku, for example, without ever quite forgetting their transplanted nature.  Here’s a brief poem from the collective:

seagulls over no sea
the ballpark empty
though footprints run in the snow

The work in Rhinoceros is skilfully composed and enjoyable to read.  I would consider it a sort of appetizer to the individual work by the four poets – Mary di Michele, Jane Munro, Susan Gillis, and Jan Conn – all of whom are well worth knowing.


Just Visiting

museum poems

Lucille Lang Day, Dreaming of Sunflowers: Museum Poems.  Blue Light Press, 2015.

Lucille Lang Day has been to a lot of places – St. Paul, Washington, Paris, Florence, Orvieto, Barcelona.  And like most tourists, she has visited the museums and found herself thinking about her own responses to what she has seen.  Sometimes the result is a  descriptive impression, say of one of Monet’s water lily paintings (“Pink and yellow, they float…”).  Sometimes it’s a more obvious emotional reaction, as after visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington when the poet looks at the people around her:

this way and that, each one lucky,
each one blessed.  Their shoes will not
molder in piles, coated with ash and dirt.

These are perfectly human, perfectly ordinary responses, and the language is serviceable and plain-faced.  The places visited and things seen are rather typical; the poet and her husband have a pizza in Piazza San Marco, she looks at works by artists we’ve all heard of.  She offers feelings without showing any real vulnerability, in much the same way that her travels never seem to take her anywhere off the beaten path.


A manual for inner fires


Vincent Pagé, In a Burning Building the Air Inside is Heated by Fire and So Becomes Lighter.  Toronto: Desert Pets press, one hundred numbered copies, 2016.


It seems true that poetry can be found in just about any text, if one knows how to look.  And using another publication can be a useful way to bring cohesion to a handful of one’s own poems.  Vincent Pagé has looked into The Fire Services Manual Volume 1 to find both the title for his chapbook and each of twenty poems within.  Of course the idea of fire as a symbol (sometimes ironically) of emotional and physical passion is hardly new but that doesn’t prevent it from working well.  Interestingly, passion doesn’t always mean sex.  It sometimes means sleep and sometimes means dreaming/imagining, as in these lovely lines:

Let’s steep our bodies overnight
in the carriage of a caravan I’ll steal

or borrow without asking – return it when finished
homesteading next to some river near the ocean

We’ll retire our phones to cup holders for a whole
day and night

and inside
condensate will collect and slide

open thin windows in the window
Beyond a valley the river can call out to the sound

Asleep I’ll tell you that of all the parking lots
I’ve slept in this one by far is my favourite

This fantasy of running away is pretty easy (for me, at least) to fall into, and it occurs in the romantic, humorous, serious “For the System to Balance, there Must Be an Equal”:

Let’s   move to France
Let’s   start a business
Let’s   save our money
             do crosswords for two months
Let’s   buy a boat

And on and on.  One might not pick up at first the air of sadness and perhaps just a bit of desperation, a desire for connection, intimacy, escape that may be more hoped for than accomplished.

Pagé is a careful writer, neatly judging the effect of a line space or a single word.  There’s this moment of down-and-out intimacy that is made tender by the last word: “The toilet bowl breaks like a chipped tooth / so we piss in the sink for a week darling”.  The rest of this short, poem, however, I immediately forgot.  This experience happened to me quite often, the lines not quite adding up to a larger whole.    Instead, what I often took away was a single fine line, phrase, or image.

I don’t know how to mourn


a boy intent in tall grass


Want to count
your hard


I Want to Be a Bakery


Blunt Research Group, Lost Privilege Company: or the book of Listening.  Las Cruces, New Mexico: Noemi Press, 2016.


How does one write about a historical tragedy without exploiting it?  This is the dilemma of any writer who makes use of the suffering of others to create a work–a work that will bring profit to the writer even as they present themselves as deep,  caring, sensitive, politically engaged, etc.  It has always seemed to me an unsolvable dilemma but a shifting group of “poets, artists, and scholars from diverse backgrounds” who go by the collective name Blunt Research Group may have proved me wrong.

As explained by the effectively dry opening essay (a deliberate strategy, I assume), these found poems have been constructed, or arranged, from texts found in case files dating from 1910 to 1925 and found in a California youth prison called the  Whittier State School.  The chapbook’s title is taken from the name of the school’s isolation ward, where teens–placed in the school for such offences as begging, walking the street at night, and sexual activity–were sent for misbehavior.  The school was a kind of experimental laboratory, where teens considered incorrigible or mentally unfit or of unsound genetic background could be sentenced to compulsory sterilization, a practice that began in 1909 with the passing of a state law and continued until the 1940s.  The files from which the poems were made, filled with statements by “fieldworkers” as well as the “wards” themselves, were compiled as evidence justifying what we now believe (and no doubt many at the time would also have believed) to be not merely wrong or cruel but criminal, perhaps sadistic, and no doubt racist.  (A disproportionate number of the child inmates were Chicano and African-American.)  This program of eugenics, which resulted in the publishing of papers, was a significant influence on the Nazi program of forced sterilization.

It is a valid question to ask whether a good, or proper use, of these files is to make poems out of them, but first let’s take a look at the poems themselves.  Words by the teen wards are in italics or quotation marks, while the remarks of fieldworkers are in roman.  There are seventeen of them, each given the name of the ward in question: Alec, Francis, Albert,  Josephine, Oscar, Fred, Pedro, Theodore, Uriah, Ernest, Arthur, Javier, Raymond, William, Joseph, Carl, Helen.  The poems are brief and fragmentary, making use of space so that they appear to me like cuts across the page.  Here is “Fred” in its entirety, the only poem that only uses the subject’s words:

Won’t you forgive me for what
           I have done today?

I have never had anyone love me, or anyone 
                                                        who gave a ________ about me

            you can send me to Lost Privilege Company

                                        for saying that word

                                        but it is the truth you have wrecked

                                                                                    all my wrong tendencies

Sometimes the poems record the reason for incarceration, such as “throwing peach pits” or being “crazy about soldiers and sailors”.  Other times they imply a certain sympathy as the fieldworker records a child’s condition before coming to the school/prison: “and they wouldn’t let me to go my little sister’s / they used to punish me by not letting me see her”.  Elsewhere, strange and sad dreams get spoken aloud (such as the title of this review).

To me, it is hard to imagine a more moving or effective group of poems with so specific a purpose–to bring these lost children to our attention and to make us at least begin to feel the depth of their misery.  Perhaps they don’t rise above this purpose, but I don’t see any reason why they need to.  Nor should one see the poems in isolation, without the opening essay or the chapbook’s third part, titled “the book of listening.”  Here the anonymous authors themselves ask, in brief prose paragraphs, a variation of my own question: is it right to make use of the suffering of others?    It is telling that instead of “writing,” “quoting,” or some other word to describe using the files, the group calls it listening:

The poem hovers between the necessity of asking permission to listen and the impossibility of obtaining it from a voice that cannot be reached. 

They acknowledge the impossibility of getting that permission and the possibility of violation:

Needing to seek permission to listen begins by aknowledging the submerged will or disposition of voices that have been silenced.  We presume that a lost voice would welcome the change to be heard, but this presumption ignores the need to ask permission.  It is always possible that the unknown voice may insist on remaining silent.  It may refuse permission.

All of these parts (including one more,  a description of the group’s practises) add up to an informative, painfully moving, thought-provoking work.   Quite remarkable for a book that is a mere five inches square and forty pages long.

– C.F.



Phil Hall, Notes from Gethsemani.  Vancouver: Nomadis, 2014.


The modest chapbook is a paradoxically capacious receptacle, able to accommodate a seemingly endless variety of texts and images.  One category that makes good use of the chapbook is the public speech–too short for a book, perfect for a single signature.

What happens to a speech when it is read rather than heard?  Somewhat like a play, I suppose, it loses the voice, the occasion, the dimension of time, and the communal experience but gains in close and even repeated reading, in the possibility of note-making, looking up words or references, etc.

Notes from Gethsemani was originally presented at Queen’s University on November 14, 2012 as the  inaugural lecture in honour of Joanne Page.  Page (was a Kingston-area poet then in her late fifties and it was Hall’s idea to begin a lecture series in her honour.  Page has since died–in 2015, of cancer–but the series continues under Hall’s guidance.  It is only on Googling the series (a luxury that his original audience didn’t have) that it has become clear to me that Hall’s lecture is a play on the poet’s last name–Page.

The spoken word, then, becomes a text, turning this from a speech into an essay-poem (as Jay MillAr usefully calls it on the back cover) made up of 278 fragments, sometimes in related strings and sometimes not.  Despite the title it’s not a religious work, unless you consider Hall a worshipper of the page itself.  The many pieces  make up a loose, rambling discourse on the nature of the book, the page, and the mark.  It begins more or less with a memory of a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky where Hall spent time in the monks’ library and archives and examined the personal library of Thomas Merton.  The visit becomes an opportunity for him to think about the page blank and printed, from incunabula to recent books of poems.

He makes points by quoting many writers; some sections are a string of quotations. These words of Guy Davenport catch what Hall is after: “When language emerges–the verb to draw is the same as the verb to write“.  He reaches imaginatively back to pre-writing in the form of cave drawings and connects it to poets who like to draw or scribble on their poems–an arrow drawn by Erin Moure, a slash mark reproduced in Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Found from a notebook of her father’s, a child’s drawing at the end of a George Bowering story.  It seems to me that he is trying to emphasize writing as a physical act, as a gesture (his word) of the body as well as the mind.

All of this takes me back to the first line of the speech, which I imagine raised a laugh from his audience:  “I have killed a bug on the page I am reading.”  He doesn’t say it, but in the context of what comes after, this must be considered an act of writing itself, just as many pages on–

The Australian Aborigine fills her mouth with ochre & spits over her hand against the rock–her hand is written there by its absence.

Elsewhere he speaks of the impulse to drag a stick across the sand.  He wants us to think of writing the way we think Cy Twombly (who he references) painted.  He wants, I believe, to return our thinking of poetry to something elemental, ancient, active, violently creative.

The form of Notes allows for meanderings into related byways, such as a series of quotations from writers who, Hall believes, have gotten a word so right that it becomes branded by that use.  Near the end he returns to the library and, despite his suspicion of the well-ordered work (which drives him, he tells us, to always tear up a copy of his own new book) one feels him heading towards his ending.  He concludes–generously, as if presenting us with a collaboration–by offering a line from Juan Ramon Jimenz: “If they give you lined paper–write the other way”.  And is not crossing the lines a kind of slashing of the page?  Of course we must write, Hall seems to tell us, but there is no need to be polite about it.