From the North

Stewartscan

Dedorascan

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

http://www.nomados.org/nomados.htm

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

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.

-C.F.

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.

-C.F.

A manual for inner fires

fire-cover

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.

http://www.desertpetspress.com

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
teeth

-C.F.

I Want to Be a Bakery

lost-privilege

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

http://www.noemipress.org.

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.

Disruptive

hall3

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

http://www.nomados.org/nomados.htm

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.

-C.F.

Canadian Soul

labbe

Sonnet L’Abbé. Anima Canadensis. Toronto: Junction Books, 100 numbered copies, 2016.

Guest review by Bruce Whiteman.

It takes guts, or something, anyway, to call a book of poems “The Canadian Soul,” in Latin no less. Was there ever a Canadian soul? Is there one now? Does Kateri Tekakwitha embody the Canadian soul? Louis Riel? Maurice Richard? Leonard Cohen? Harold Innis? Or perhaps a young writer with the undeniably perfect name for a Canadian poet, combining a poetic form with a French surname, although she writes in English? The Canadian soul should comprise poetry, bilingualism, and youth. Or so it seems to me, at the beginning of a year in which Canada will celebrate the sesquicentennial of the British North America Act (30 Victoriae Cap. 3). Anything that has a sesquicentennial surely ought to have a discernible and veritable soul.

This is Sonnet L’Abbé’s third book. McClelland and Stewart published her first two books, A Strange Relief (2001) and Killarnoe (2007). Anima Canadensis is a much more modest book than the McStew collections, consisting of just thirteen poems in a book of thirty-two pages that looks and feels like many a Coach House Press or Porcupine’s Quill book (Zephyr Antique Laid paper, etc.). It consists of two sections, the first entitled “Permanent Residents’ Test” and the second “Love Amid the Angloculture.” Ten of the poems are prose poems, in various ways, and only three are conventional lined poems. “Permanent Residents’ Test” parodies questions presumably asked on such a test, with questions that sound, well, not unreasonable (“Answer the following questions,” etc.), though the body of the answers is always a bit surreal. That is her point: take a semi-reasonable question, put a bit of spin on it, and fantasize an answer that goes off the deep end of poetry. This will yield an unsatisfyingly stultifying line such as “Our [blank] rituals and quarterly rituals are a social medium of ritual,” a strange line such as “Everywhere the green smell of cis-3-hexanal” (apparently what you smell when you smell freshly cut grass), or the rather repulsive line, “They [the bugs that live in our gut] know bad milk and bad touches and can transform into a stun spray of defensive puke.” Well, maybe, but as poetry? I don’t think so.

“Love Amid the Angloculture” is equally unsatisfying, unless you like lines like these:

Light leaves
and I am grounded.

My motility lays itself in a bed
of cotton.

Sleep closes
the corona of datastream.

“Sleep closes/the corona of datastream” is just a clumsy way of saying that, when you fall asleep, you stop dealing with input from your senses. It’s not really very beautiful, frankly. If you hear Christopher Dewdney behind these lines, you would not be far wrong. The scientific language sounds unintegrated to my ear, and hence pretentious. And yet, in that same sequence, occurs a poem of brightness and a down to earth quality that shows what L’Abbé is capable of when she is more direct. It is a prose poem entitled “The Trees Have Loved Us All Along,” and it eschews the words which, in other poems, will send every reader to the dictionary, if every reader cares to take the trouble. It opens like this:

That trunk there is alive. Up out of a paved patch in the concrete sidewalk at Main and Broadway and strung with blue lights in the middle of summer, that trunk there is alive. I’m in its space. It doesn’t give me a hard time about it.

This is real language imagined to respond to a real experience, and the fact that this poet can locate such language, even once, demonstrates her talent. I wish she had written more poems like this one, and fewer that hover at the edge of accessibility and play among a vocabulary that is not that of real poetry.

Bruce Whiteman is the author of Tablature (McGill-Queen’s Univesity Press) and many other books of poetry.

(My)self

helium

Jeff Latosik, Helium Ear.  Anstruther Press, 60 copies, 2016.
http://www.anstrutherpress.com

Jeff Latosik’s poems are tricky to read but it has taken me a while to put my finger on why.  It’s that they are very much concerned with the self but not with myself, with the being but not the individual.  As a result, the reader gets few glimpses of J.L. the person or even the practising poet, despite the fact that Helium Ear is so often about what existence feels like from the inside.

One of the most relatable poems and so a good place to start is “On Meeting a Former Self.”  Imagine meeting that earlier, younger version of yourself with the knowledge you have now:  “You know everything he will not listen to. / and he knows some, as well, that you won’t hear again.”  This poem where “the person you wanted / to be is talking to the one you couldn’t become” might have been very different.  Another poet might have used details (real or fictional) to show this contrast: you couldn’t have known your father would die so young; if only I could tell you that your loneliness would ease one day, etc.  There is absolutely none of that ordinary stuff.  Instead, Latosik spins out his idea in a more abstract manner.

These are clever poems–clever in a good way, meaning astute and quick witted as opposed to canny and slick.  The first poem, “The internet,” is one of the rare ones to use the first person, and although it never gets personal (detailed, yes), anyone my age can easily relate to it:

I first heard about it in a Burger King.
Its aims seemed elusive as the stock ticker
or why some people stayed in marriages.
I bused tables with a cloth that mucked the laminate sheen
and, just that Spring, an annular eclipse ringed the sky
like we were suddenly looking down a cabled conduit.

These lines have a very pleasing cadence, and sound good read allowed.  Latosik’s smarts make it easy to take for granted his finely chiselled language.

The other poems are as interesting and, yes, as tricky.  I’ll finish off with “Mind” since it takes as its subject what seems to me Latosik’s main interest.  “Having one means you’ve got to be / at least two about most things,” he begins jokingly, but then the poem works a different binary idea, not the mind against itself but the mind wishing to disassociate from the body, to rise above “liver, spleen, and heart” as something not only superior but able to know all without the body’s knowledge.  “Where was in all of this…?” wonders the poet, his own recognizable identity somehow lost in this labyrinth of ideas.  It is a question that might be asked of this fascinating, elusive little collection of graceful, poetic thought pieces.

-C.F.

Heaven’s Gates

saadi

Yusuf Saadi, Sonnets on a Night Without Love.  Montreal: Vallum Society for Education in Arts & Letters, 115 copies, 2016.
http://www.vallummag.com

The other day I tried a little experiment.  I stopped ten strangers on the street and asked each if he or she knew of any poetic forms.  Four came up with haiku and a whopping eight offered the sonnet.

All right, this did not actually happen.  But I suspect that if I were really to accost ten strangers about their knowledge of poetry, the results would be pretty close.  Many people in the west think of haiku as something children write but the sonnet–that’s the delightful form that Shakespeare used as an address of love.  The extraordinary thing is that poets still love the sonnet form; one finds it used and re-invented and turned on its head all the time.  It’s a favourite way of connecting to the tradition even while making it new.

Yusuf Saadi’s chapbook has two parts, the first of which consists of five sonnets.  Each has fourteen lines and there are some rhymes but (at least as far as I can tell, my knowledge being hardly perfect) otherwise Saadi doesn’t feel too rule-bound.  Some begin with a trivial premise, others are more serious from the start, but all of them are gorgeous things, rich in rhythm and sensual language and ideas.  Here are the first lines of the first, “Love Sonnet for Light, which is exactly what it is called:

I know a star in Andromeda broke
every colour in your heart.  That you
shivered yourself to sleep in a meteor’s
crevice or moon’s crater whose dust

is now my skin.  Beyond my finitude
you dream a wave and particle at once.
Know I love the way you warm my fingers
and pour gilt on my hardwood floors.

This infusing of the self’s mind and body into the larger universe is a common strategy for Saadi.  There is the love song to an actual person, “Pedagogy,” in which the love object’s rather common, monosyllabic name gives a sentence its surprisingly abrupt, down-to-earth stop:

Ghosts stalk our thoughts at two a.m.  Silence
shawls the temporal: night wraps a black sari
around your skin.  I memorize each strand
of your hair, Jess.

Other poems have a wonderful sense of play as they meld formal tradition with easy casualness, the high with the low.  There’s a sonnet to a “Forgotten Twix Wrapper” which, ironically, sounds the most Shakespearean, and one to sound that reminds us that Chopin, a child’s screams, and a flushing toilet are all perceived with the same sense.

The best, though, is  “Love Poem for Nusaybah’s Hijab.  I’m fascinated by the way it combines the subject matter of Islam with a western poetic form (the sonnet was born in Italy).  I had to look up Nusaybah to learn that she was a female companion of Muhammad and a “warrior of Islam” and that Uhud was the site of a battle between the Muhammad-led Muslims and the Meccans in 625.  It opens with a word worthy of Joyce but its mix of erotic sensuality with the result of violence almost overwhelmed me with its sickening beauty.  I take the liberty of quoting it in full.

Cloudflesh gaped, and skies above Uhud
revealed the moon’s kneecap.  Survivors
crawled among the dead–eyes salivating.
Your cotton hijab was caught in windmoans:
it spelled its threnodies in Arabic
calligraphy, while angels rolled the moon
across the sky.  Behind you, mountains flexed
their muscled arms among the shadows dark
as pubic patches.  Yet no stare had claimed
your body.  Pupils slithered down your cotton
veil, their gazes scrambling for a form to fix you.
Even I can’t write your hair, each strand
a bridge to heaven’s gates.  Although
I glimpse your heart which nearly blinds me.

The chapbook contains another section of five poems and while I read them, the sonnets were still too much in my thoughts to make much sense of them.  I look forward to reading them, and the sonnets again, as well as any more poems by Yusuf Saadi that I can get my hands on.

-C.F.

 

 

Shrinking

maggie

Suzanna Derewiez, Maggie Monologues.  Toronto, Words(On)Pages, 2016

http://www.wordsonpagespress.com

Not long ago I reviewed a chapbook (Carrie Olivia Adams’ Grabble) that was originally the spoken text accompanying a dance performance.  Suzanna Derewiez’s poetry sequence was originally a theatre piece, performed at the London (Ontario) Fringe in 2014.  While it was easy to imagine how Adams’ work was meant to accompany the movement of dancers, it’s harder to see  Maggie Monologues on the stage.  The words don’t seem particularly performable or dramatic, don’t feel much to me like spoken words.  Also, there’s the matter of the illustrations.

Many illustrations (drawn by Bogumila Derewicz) accompany–or rather are integrated–into the poems.  Perhaps the best example is the begining of the first monologue, where the words “a suitcase” and “a taxi” (or something like them are represented by images:

maggie2

As you can see, the pleasing drawings have a retro, 1940s-ish feel. They’re soft and rounded and I might even say cute; I’m not exactly sure what they add to the poems, but they make the chapbook itself a nice object.

There are fifteen poems, or monologues, and they can’t be described as cute.  They are confessional, unhappy, suffocating.  They are the voice of a person who feels that she is flaking away, bleeding, and (in the last poem) shrinking. It is a voice that imagines itself on a track with no warning of an oncoming train, as a young girl being teased by others, as a dreamer screaming.  They are sometimes dated, as in a memory from “’52 or ’53” of new skates:

i guess i forgot how to love someone,
but i can’t seem to forget balancing on
thin ice holding her hand.

This is a poignant moment, even if I’m unsure who the “her” refers to.  There’s a lot that is confusing about these poems to me–the language is ordinary enough, and the ideas aren’t dense–but I found myself losing the thread over and over.  Even so, the feeling of the poems didn’t leave me.  I felt keenly the speaker’s wanting “my world to be just like this”–words followed by a pretty image of a snowglobe.

-C.F.