I have always been careless

patricia young

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


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.







Pointing Into the Thicket

abel 1 2

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


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.



King of Nothing


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


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.




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.