The Best Friend


Souvankham Thammavongsa, Zevart.  Toronto: Junction Books, 26 copies, 2016.


I like single-poem chapbooks; they slow down my reading, make me savour what’s on the page.  The physical object itself is usually a little flimsy, even fragile, and seems to want to be handled with care.  Junction Books used to publish substantial chapbooks (I have a copy of Karen Solie’s The Shooter’s Bible from 2004) but has lately been dedicating itself to broadsides as well as this “poem pamphlet” series.  Their design is crisp, geometrical, clean: a speckled cardstock cover, a single matching folded sheet within.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Zevart is presumably named after the subject of the poem.  Here the poet is remembering the intensity and devotion of a school friendship:

Every day at lunchtime, you gave me half
your sandwich.  I never went hungry because

of you.

These two inseparables saved money for candy, wrote letters, and above all talked about love.  It isn’t hard to imagine the pair lingering in some park or lying head-to-toe on a sofa while Zevart solemnly offered her (his?) youthful wisdom:

how it can’t be hurried, how there can only be one,
and today could be the day that changes everything.

There is something simple and yet stately about the two line stanzas, with their little hesitation and then rush at the end of the unfinished second line (except for the last above).  The language is ordinary and fresh, as are the emotions, and when I reached the end I felt myself give a little sigh of nostalgia for feelings that were so easy to recognize, and for the distance that the years had put between them and myself.


Words in Space


Michael e. Casteels, Solar-powered light bulb and the lake’s achy tooth.  Ottawa: Apt. 9 Press, 80 copies, 2015. (

It would be a serious challenge to try and write a review of Michael e. Casteels’ delightful folio of poems using only as many words as the poet himself.  For Casteels (besides being a chapbook publisher himself under the imprint Puddles of Sky) is a minimalist.  Indeed, I once read an essay of his on minimalism that consisted (if I remember correctly) of two words: “Less is.”  Say no more.

And yet, being a reviewer, I can’t stop there.  What does it mean to be a minimalist?  I’ve never considered the question before, but thinking about it now my first thought is the old expression , less is more.  But that doesn’t seem to be quite right for Casteels.  More accurate would be less is enough.  Not more than enough, not less than enough, just enough.  Well, didn’t the poet say it better himself?  “Less is.”  Indeed.

What strikes the reader first about Solar Powered is the lovely format, care of Apt. 9 Press’s inspired publisher, Cameron Anstee.  A heavy cream card stock with a decal edge has been folded in half and given a triangular pouch inside to hold a stack of square white sheets. Most of the poems have their title on one side of the sheet with the poem itself on the reverse.  Sometimes the title of the poem is longer than the poem itself.  For example there is “moon poem” which consists of an open parenthesis.  This is one of several that use type (from an old ribboned typewriter?) as image.  Another, and my favourite, is the charming “the fisherman’s poem”: turn the sheet and find an upside down question mark in the centre of the white space, the fisherman’s friendly hook.

The sort of wordplay that Casteels uses has been around for a long time but it still feels fresh. A morning poem dedicated to “allison” is a simple play on the name itself:




Let’s return to the notion that less is neither too much nor inadequate but just enough.  Surely this is true of a poem like this, to be enjoyed for just what it is, without subjecting it to crushing scrutiny or dismissing it as “light.”  When I read it, I smiled.  Just enough.

The poem called “sonnet” most obviously plays with traditional form in that it has fourteen lines but all the other rules (two words a line) are the poet’s own.  Made up of a hefty twenty-eight words, it strikes me as perhaps the most ordinary in the pack–a love poem with a sweet but conventional idea behind it.


The end of the collection (unless I mixed up the loose pages) are a series of untitled poems.  I rather like

f ( r ) o g

but think somewhat less of


All of them, however, make wonderful use of the empty space around them.  (The unbound square pages are a perfect format.)  There’s a stillness to these poems that makes me feel as if I’m standing beside a pond of bullrushes and listening to the call of that f (r ) o g.  No, there isn’t a single poem in the collection that was a waste of the few seconds it took me to read it. That sounds like a back-handed compliment, but I don’t mean it to be.  These poems remind us not only modesty’s virtue but also of its beauty.