Space in [Ab]sence

  • Nicole Markotić (Author)
    Whelmed. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Juliane Okot Bitek (Author)
    100 Days. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Sheryda Warrener (Author)
    Floating is Everything. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Crystal Hurdle

Each of the three cover images urges decoding/translation. Bitek’s is a close-up of calligraphy in an undetermined language—from Julie Mehretu’s Invisible Sun (Algorithm 5, second letter form)—, a more vibrant depiction of coding than the black and buff-white of Markotic’s (Floating Data from Laurie Frick’s art installation Quantify-Me). The explicit brightly coloured image of intersecting circles with their planetary texture/relief (from the Lunar and Planetary Institute) sets the tone of Warrener’s book. The poetry books seem to ask “what to make of the space where those circles // [of a Venn diagram] overlap” (Warrener). Her “Absence accumulates” could be thoughtful commentary for the other collections, too.

whelmed, Markotic’s fourth poetry collection, ambitiously explores the English language devoid of customary prefixes. With cynicism and humour similar to Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, Richard Lederer’s Anguished English series, or Lederer’s The Cunning Linguist, but with greater academic intent, it is closest to bpNichol’s The Martyrology, alluded to in “a headstone rephrased St One” from the word-poem “prehend” in the “re-“ section. Yeats and Dickinson are mentioned, as is Swift—homage? The unique book is coy, insightful, charming, dense, and perhaps too much of the same thing repeated. It holds a catalogue of words, minus prefixes, such as “chievous” without the “mis-” or “sadaisy ” adrift from “up-.” The “dexed,” a list of words defined, is a poem unto itself, inviting the reader to determine which prefixes might have come uncoupled from which words. The last segment, “prorogued,” includes “snickety,” “undrum” (“buttered philological bacles”), and “trocity.” In “post-,” “humously” is “the last, last error, motivated by burial. an afternoon of asundering vowels and pie whimsy. not so funny now, what? er . . . um . . . it . . . soil, more than bread and cheese. poned piano positions. I mean it: haste and haster. er.” Licious!

Aristotle, mentioned in Markotic’s “ergy” (“en-”), is alluded to in Bitek’s absolutely-must-read 100 Days, an astonishing debut poetry collection, one hundred poems for each day of the Rwandan genocide, examined twenty-odd years later by a self-proclaimed “Canadian/Ugandan poet.” “Day 19” begins in medias res—“So this is what the Greek storyteller foretold // first the pity-inducing event”—and ends “& now it is time for catharsis,” the voice simultaneously weary and mocking—the mere telling will do nothing. Bitek’s Author’s Note mentions the initial posting on social media—to accompany photos by Wangechi Mutu—of poems inspired by stories of Rwandan poet Yolande Mukagasana. Pieces are stark and plangent with simple concrete imagery and sensory detail. Pantheistic personification—“nature chattered on” and “earth sobbed”—is striking. Loss runs deep, but “beauty is always undeniable.” A first-person narrator, sometimes plural, adopts varying roles of spouse, parent, sibling, witness, survivor, interrogator, with each story sadder and more haunting than the next—the child who can’t remember the feeling of her mother plaiting her hair, a sister whose laugh alone propelled the family into laughter (“my sister is not here / I wonder if she remembers laughing / I wonder if she remembers anything”), those who look like the dead loved one, “three so far.” How complicit is Christ? Erasure transforms “Savage” to “saved,” questioning the concept of reconciliation.

The table of contents begins with the sense of a countdown in two directions:

1 Day 100

2 Day 99

3 Day 98.

Will moving backward from “Day 100” (disturbing) bring closure or a sense of a beginning? The book furthers the sense of relentlessness never-ending, one day as horror-filled as the one before or the next. The University of Alberta Press has produced a tall, beautiful book. It is pleasant to hold and leaves more than the usual amount of white space on a page. Absence. “Day 53” is an abecedarium, mentioning “echoes” of war in other countries:

Tonga

Uganda

Vietnam

Wales

there were echoes in

xenophobic attacks everywhere

Yugoslavia

Zimbabwe.

While specific, the book’s range is far-reaching. The simple image of the cut flowers at commemoration, “all dead from the moment they were cut . . . just like the children,” haunts.

Poems, lyric and prose, are literally and figuratively all over the map in Floating is Everything, Warrener’s second collection, with wide-ranging epigraphs, from David Letterman to Elizabeth Bachinsky (“Repetition is not rhyme, missy”). “Trace Objects,” one of the three long poems that show Warrener at her best, successfully explores loss in the face of familial death: “Who inherits the sound when I’m no longer around?” ends a section. The enigmatic “There’s an underside to everything!” means much. Poignantly, the poet/narrator discovers her name taped to the bottom of a dusty figurine, heir to porcelain. Poems feature or allude to visual art and music. “A Sudden Gust,” based on a Jeff Wall photo, excellently explores dislocation and the origins of poetry.

Less successful is “Half-Deflated Heart Balloon” with its self-conscious run-ons and occasional wordiness, and the odd forced simile: “My chest / lifts like a page from // the daily calendar I’ve forgotten / to rip off.” However, these are exceptions in an otherwise strong collection. The poem “Pluto Forever” was published in Best Canadian Poetry in English 2013. The well-researched “Long Distance” innovatively imagines the Soviet astronaut Polyakov adjusting to life on earth after 438 days in space. What “[t]ethers” him after the return to the quotidian? How soon his sense of power descends into a Willy Lomanesque plight. (Three pieces follow this pleasing long poem, which would have better ended the section of the same name and the collection as a whole.) Polyakov’s words have the effect of runes: “[b]lack asterisk on the page its own smashed galaxy.”

What to do because (and not if) humanity and faith are suspect, and even language fails? Bitek wonders, with a question posed as a statement, “if there was a sky / how could it witness what it did / & still maintain the calm hue.” In “lorn” (“for-”), coincidentally, Markotic writes, “to bargain a dreary release that refunds that lugubrious sky hook.” Warrener’s “memory search task” (from “Long Distance”) begins, “Today is made up of a million silver hooks perturbing the sky” and ends “I half-expected the world to reveal something of itself to me just now but it’s only the minuscule hooks of the imagination rearranging air.” In all three worthwhile collections, revelation is elusive, but perhaps the mere possibility, not to mention being alive, is enough?



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