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Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

Contemporary Poetry

Reviewed by Kathleen O'Donnell

The books by Christakos and Jenkins express with authenticity the very personal experiences of motherhood and of love. Vulpe’s civic lament has a familiarity of subject and style, in contrast to the striking images of Jenkins and to the computer experiments used by Christakos.

The first part of The Moment Coming includes five sections: four of prose poems and a final series of computer poems derived from the fourth section. The pieces under the title "Sudbury" reflect growth and change resulting from leaving a home town: "There were so many words she learned the very year she left that place. When she returned for a visit, it seemed no one spoke them in a daily context. ’Context’ was such a word." The gain of words is counteracted by a loss of communication with the people of Sudbury who were "still reeling from the INCO layoffs the year before." On her return, Christakos feels "naked, ousted and dumb."

"The Seating Place" consists often variations on the word "positions." The first piece states: "when the abdomen becomes a seating place / we know computers rate second." They rate here by forming lines from the last word of each line of the previous piece, a technique that provides no lyrical or thematic development, only mechanical interest. Christakos’s dissections rearrange various excised words; while the original material of each poem may have the interest of the personal subject matter, these word-puzzles allow only the satisfaction of recognition and no meaningful extension of thought or feeling.

In the central part, "Bringing You Up," the title of each poem is selected from the previous poem. The technique seems highly mechanical, in contrast to the deeply emotional quality of the work. "The Moment Coming" forecasts for the child "the universal / symmetries / you will unhinge." The mother’s feeling is stated nakedly: "I want to graft you to me / as if you won’t become / soon enough / one of the impenetrable." In this group of fifteen poems without computer techniques, the author conveys effectively the most personal unembellished experiences of motherhood.

The ten prose poems of "A Woman Goes for a Walk" (the fourth part of the book) use a word from each paragraph as title. Seemingly insignificant elements, rather than the titles, intensify meaning. In these anaphoristic pieces, one such relevant detail, for example, is the change from "her husband" to "her boy friend" in the eighth and tenth pieces entitled "True" and "Plot." The prose poems offer a coherence of character and of narrative within the context of the whole collection.

The concluding part of the book, "The Difference Between Dawn and Dusk," returns to memories of early life and also introduces the subject of the birth of twins, with some reference to the computer techniques of the first part. Description and narration intermingle with reiteration, for example, in "Fickle Moments," through a poem playing and re-playing the same words.

The somewhat less experimental poems of the central part, "Bringing You Up," are the most effective. The less the reader is involved in or distracted by typographical play, the more palpable is her response. Identification of character and continuity of narration are prominent in the central part of the collection. There, the experiences of the author predominate over journalistic topics or experimental wording.

It would be impossible to cite verbal strategies as any distraction in Catherine Jenkins’s book. The forty poems of blood, love and boomerangs present variations, often with shocking images, on the theme and experience of love. Frightening and violent though it may be, love yet serves to "chase away the demons / and ease the thought of death." It is a dangerous experience, through which the poet can present herself as "wondering if I can let you drown / knowing it’s safer for me if I do / not sure I can bear the weight of your self-abused body." The alternative is equally unsatisfactory, "watching romantic comedies / wishful but disappointed by unrealistically happy endings." The obsession leads to "the nauseating realization that I use sex as a manipulation / as a weapon in this war—the same way you do."

Amidst the violence remains the possibility of tender feeling. A street person is "surprised when I talk to her / uncomfortable when I show concern." The feeling intensifies in the author’s self-description as "ambushed by what would have been your fifteenth birthday" in an address to her aborted child. The poem concludes, "sometimes time decelerates and I am there / with you in my belly again." Here is the regret of the poet who comments on herself as "me so used to men telling me to lighten up."

There can be comfort received ("the gentleness of your hand") and comfort given ("I gave the last of my change to the girl with dirty hands / reminding me too much of myself before edges"). Any experience of love, however, is still violent: "bite marks on my arms and breasts / match your dental records." Truly a waste land remains for the poet: "sometimes I believe in angels / but I can’t make myself believe in god." Finally, love is a minimal necessity: "I want to be enveloped in the wings of angels / but you’ll have to do for now."

blood, love & boomerangs resembles many contemporary productions with its free verse, its monologic quality, its desolate outlook, and its totally personal record, set in a metropolis of casual assaults perpetrated or suffered by the persona. A sequence of poems leading to "15" (the poem that refers to the abortion) and subsequent pieces dealing with the "past settling on my skin in stages / like deposits of ulcerated context" provide some hope for redemption. The extended final poem asks "why not?" and gives all the reasons it can for love.

Love is most obviously lacking in Epitaph for a Good Canadian, which is actually more a life story than an epitaph, since the speaker remains living at the end though bereft and lost. The poem may have some reference to Auden’s "The Unknown Citizen," although it uses the first person to portray strikes, cutbacks, and various social problems. The speaker describes his unemployment and its devastating effects on his family, as he finds himself isolated and poor. The poem ends in darkness: "The snow’s blowing up, the lights have gone out / it’s time to lie down / sleep till the thaw."

Reading those lines, one may question the nature of the poetry. While the lines move quickly, they are unmusical and prosaic. Some sympathy may accrue to a speaker who has extremely limited resources. In hard times, he could say, "I made wire toys / and the competition was tough." This portrait of a man defeated by social and financial circumstances, as well as limited in expression, reflects a familiar contemporary plight.

However, the ability to make the misfortune a stepping stone to new power is lacking in Vulpe’s work. The poem (about one hundred lines) presents only misfortune, without any suggestion of a moral or imaginative victory to follow from the financial and social devastation.

Of the three books, probably Epitaph for a Good Canadian is the most readable with its sympathetic persona, its brevity, and its colloquial language. The same might be said of the few opening paragraphs of The Moment Coming, a book in which an interest in composition and structure soon dominates feeling. The book with the greatest effect on heart and mind must be blood, love and boomerangs where the reader identifies with the poet "waiting for love after closing time / watching the word shuffle by."

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MLA: O'Donnell, Kathleen. Contemporary Poetry. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 28 Aug. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #166 (Autumn 2000), Women & Poetry. (pg. 170 - 172)

***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.

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