- Paulette Dubé (Author)
First Mountain. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jeanette Lynes (Author)
It's Hard Being Queen: The Dusty Springfield Poems. Freehand Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Weyman Chan (Author)
Noise From the Laundry. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Tim Bowling (Author)
The Book Collector. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Erin Knight (Author)
The Sweet Fuels. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Owen Percy
Edmonton-based Tim Bowling has certainly become the poet laureate of the poisson and the sage of the salmon. He begins his latest book with yet "another salmon run to the Fraser River," and, as ever, the salmon are not just salmon, they are "[m]etaphors for the absence of metaphor." Bowling's is a poetry of conflation and interconnection which stresses the oneness of the world, so when "the salmon throb in the chemical flow / and sewage," so do we who generate the sewage. This collection's stronger poems like "Playing Tall Timbers" and "The Book Collector" enact the ability of well-wrought poetry to access hopeful connections between past and present, human and ecosystem, so that the following stanza comes across in absolute seriousness:
I couldn't get out of bed this morning.
It isn't what you think,
not illness or a hangover. Simply,
I'd become a tributary of the Fraser River
and the last wild salmon
had chosen my body in which to dig her redd
The Book Collector's loudest lament is for Edenic youth. It is a search and struggle to recall a childhood innocence in the face of an ever-dawning mortality. Poems like "1972" and "Names" reach backwards to simpler times which the poet tacitly knows to be long gone, imaginary, Romantic. This is a predictable Tim Bowling collection, but one that is hauntingly imagined and deftly crafted. Perhaps the poet describes it best himself when he suggests that "Nothing is original, only authentic."
Weyman Chan's poetry is also one of complicated oneness: Noise from the Laundry is a cacophonous collision of Chinese ancestry, Western Canadian life, and the politics of wrestling with language(s) through it all. The speaker of "how could they forget my birthday?" walks through frozen Calgary (where Chan lives) with his father who asks him "Gong mah't-ah-wah? / which means, Speaking what? / What are you saying? Although / the true inflection is more like, // tell me another story-." Like The Book Collector, this collection is focused on recollecting the fleeting memories of a purer youth, but Noise is also haunted by more collective histories as well. Kafka and Marx meet Tu Fu and Li Po, all in the shadow of the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima, the massacre at Nanking, and 9/11. When Chan's typical long lyric lines stutter at the impossibility of telling these stories, we get an articulate disarticulation reminiscent at times of Fred Wah's stylistic troubling of meaning. In its joy of language, Noise from the Laundry is "the best uncertainty," and although it is occasionally uncertain of itself, it exults in admitting that "all that's left to join substance with shadow / is the art of reading."
Paulette Dubé's First Mountain lyrically chronicles 183 "days" in the mountains surrounding Jasper, where the poet has made her home for nearly fifteen years. Varying in length and style (from Confucian nuggets like "a thorn of experience is worth a wilderness of warning" and "if you are still/ pushing against the wall when / it falls, so will you," to recipes, instruction manuals, and prayers), these poems are the culmination of a sustained engagement with the majesty of place. In "One hundred-seventy-eighth day," for example, Dubé writes that the "peppery smell of leaves" is a "small miracle that / doesn't compare with castles, museums or mosques / with cafés, operas or running the bulls in Pamplona // like that stone, there / I am content to be where I am." The aesthetic of First Mountain is predominantly Romantic, and the book becomes a poetic sequence full of unabashedly personified nature: dancing wind, smiling stones, and laughing creeks. Imbued with a degree of Aboriginal sensibility (Coyote, Raven, and the Creator make repeated appearances), it is also where the physically and spiritually injured retreat in order to heal. The speaker suggests that "the heart must be broken / to accept big love," and this collection finds that love in its mountains.
It is not often that one wholeheartedly agrees with back-cover copy for a new book of poems, but one might hardly say it better than Goose Lane does of The Sweet Fuels: "With a supple, meditative approach, Erin Knight explores the complexity of transformation in her astonishing first collection." Knight's verse is preoccupied with travel, thirst, and translation, and with the inextricability of the specific from the universal. A lyric poet with a penchant for the sonnet, the Edmonton native's distinctive syntax and diction disorient meaning as much as they ground it, resulting in a reading experience with the ability to alter one's sense of equilibrium and hierarchy. The poet's translations of Spanish verse into English (or, in the case of "Milagro por el nevado in Three Translations," English to Spanish and back again) expose the fickle nature of both language and memory and suggest the possibilities behind realizing that "we haven't expected enough / of the silent letters in our language." Knight's speakers weather prairie chinooks and shortness of breath in the Peruvian Andes, all the while remaining engaged in assessing the connections in the world around them. The book bears all of the excitement and originality of a debut while harbouring notably few of a first book's common infelicities such as unevenness or inconsistency of voice. Contemplative and self-deprecating (see the book's first poem in which the poet second-guesses her opening lines: "Did I really say end of a healing?"), these poems exude a comfortable confidence which mark Knight as a poet to read now and to watch in years to come.
Maritimer Jeanette Lynes' connection to Alberta is immediately less evident, but as a member of upstart Calgary publisher Freehand Books' inaugural lineup, It's Hard Being Queen dons its white Stetson by default. Here, Lynes joins the pantheon of contemporary poets recently concerned with what has become a generic staple of CanLit: the poetic biography. These poems reimagine the life of British soul icon Dusty Springfield and gracefully raise her up to stand alongside Ondaatje's Billy the Kid, Atwood's Susanna Moodie, MacEwen's T.E. Lawrence, and Steven Price's Harry Houdini. Springfield's rise to stardom, her struggles with depression, her destructive tendencies, her ambiguous sexuality, and her golden voice-"A breath breathing a breath breathing a breath"-make her story fertile ground for the true lies of poetry. Lynes gives us a Springfield who rarely speaks in her own voice, but who is, as she often was, constructed by others. Her "lost years" see her struggling against Aerosmith and the advent of production technologies she can't appreciate ("A machine beating a drum, a monkey typing / Shakespeare, why not?"). Like The Book Collector and Noise from the Laundry, this is a meditation on identity, and it strikes a similar elegiac chord for an imagined moment when life and self seemed rather more concrete: Springfield is "pretty sure / she was, in a previous life, authentic. Like America. / Float down a river, find something real." This is a rare book in which nary a word seems out of place, and in which every poem contains a line demanding to be re-read for its sheer shocking appropriateness. It is indeed as if each poem becomes the answer to a question you hadn't known you wanted to ask. So long live the Queen.
- What's New? by Moberley Luger
Books reviewed: Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets by Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry by Carmine Starnino, and Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry by derek beaulieu, Jason Christie, and Angela Rawlings
- Images vives de la mort by Ghislaine Boulanger
Books reviewed: Aeterna: Le jardin des immortelles by Nancy Vickers and noir blanc nabis by Diane-Ischa Ross
- Versifications du sublime by Katia Grubisic
Books reviewed: La Lenteur au bout de l'aile by France Cayouette, Savanes, suivi de Poèmes de septembre by Joël Des Rosiers, L'Oeil de la lumière by Pierre Raphaël Pelletier, and Entre les murs de la Baltique by Dominique Zalitis
- First Things by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: Collected Poems of Elizabeth Brewster I by Elizabeth Brewster and The Year One by David Helwig
- Self-Assured Catastrophe by Adam Beardsworth
Books reviewed: Mean by Ken Babstock and River Suite by Joe Blades
MLA: Percy, Owen. Alberta, Bound. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #201 (Summer 2009), Disappearance and Mobility. (pg. 142 - 144)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.