- Sina Queyras (Author)
Expressway. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Peter Dale Scott (Author)
Mosaic Orpheus. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Clint Burnham (Author)
Rental Van. Anvil Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Dennis Lee (Author)
yes / no. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Aaron Giovannone
In an increasingly global world, the movement of information, goods, and people has become accelerated, more frequent, and relatively democratic. In such a world, it makes sense to ask: how does movement shape our experience? And how does experience of movement find expression? The four books of poetry reviewed below each offer their own interpretation of what it means to move through literal and linguistic spaces.
Sina Queyras’s latest collection, Expressway, explores the sorrows and the pleasures of contemporary life through the networks of movement it makes available. We travel through the poems in Expressway in myriad ways: on a father’s bicycle in wartime France, on the persona’s “skateboard . . . feel[ing] the air under foot," as well as simply strolling through a park: “She walks near expressways, a patch / Of emerald green turf besieged by doggy bags, / Where frolicking hounds squat to pee, crimson / Cellphone at her ear. She is calling home, / Calling the past, calling out for anyone / To hear.” The natural setting, as well as the rhyme, recall the wandering Romantic poets, a connection Queyras makes explicit in this and many other pieces. The title itself is a pun on "express," as in personal expression, the highly-prized value of Wordsworth and company. Yet Queyras demonstrates that forms of poetic expression that we’ve inherited actually reproduce in us certain kinds of emotions rather than letting such emotion "spontaneously overflow." In Expressway we move relentlessly down the avenues that have been constructed for us; there is no outside, nowhere we can go that hasn’t already been tread upon. We exist in a continuous present, looking back nostalgically but unable to imagine a future that might be different: “You think the expressway is the future, but you are wrong.” The only escape is the dismantling of the expressway, a solution Queyras proffers in prophetic tones in the collection’s finale: “Go forth and undo.”
The poems in Dennis Lee’s yesno have their own unique way of moving through phrases that halt, stutter and collapse, that “walk like apocalypse.” In yesno the forward movement of speech is disrupted by language’s unctuous materiality, which seems to dictate the compositions more than narrative or self-expression do: “Combing the geo-pre-/frontal, scritch-/scratching for relicts of yes./ Giddyap, ganglia./ Skulldog, with sonic contusions. / Hushhammer riffs.” Words wretched from their referential function become, to a certain extent, unfamiliar ‘stuff’, organic material that decomposes and grows, sprouting shoots of half-meaning and tendrils of delightful sound: “Still singable / coleptera. Still ozone / ave, still / redwoods memorious: earth / clamant, earth / keening earth / urnal, earth / gravid with loss.” These poems question culture’s distinctness from nature by returning one of our most cultural tools, language, to the “boolean sands.” Once divested of its task to signify, words indeed become sonorous and surprisingly self-referential, lamenting that “disincarnate meanings mope” in the “whacked grammar of terra incognita.” Here language often sits pensively in self-contemplation.
The title of Peter Dale Scott’s Mosaic Orpheus suggests immobility rather than movement, but in fact this former diplomat’s collection travels from Quebec to Oxford, from Berkley to Bangkok, in poems that range from well-made lyrics to sprawling political analyses. This collection presents us with several touching pieces that pace out personal experiences in efficient verse: “The piano music / louder and louder / so completely beautiful / that even when I woke up / and could no longer hear it / I went on feeling the pleasure / that could have only come / from something inside.” A number of other poems treat politics and history through quotations and paraphrases from source material, an approach reminiscent of Ezra Pound. Some of these pieces provide marginal and bibliographical notes, suggesting that we are to invest them with a certain objective authority. Other poems, however, treat these same issues with a cinematic flair James Bond might bring to the job: “And what happened to Danny Casolaro / on the trail of the so-called Octopus / until he was 'suicided' in West Virginia / with my name and number in his notebook.” Whether this particular scene seems "true" or not, overall the treatment of political matters in Mosaic Orpheus is most engaging when told from a personal point of view.
For its part, Clint Burnham’s Rental Van largely eschews a stable subject position. In this restlessly experimental book, language itself is a rented van, of which we only have temporary use. While this collection offers poems in various formats, including columns, blocks, and giant fonts, it steadily treats language as a kind of mechanism: a set of grammatical rules and lexical options that function quite apart from their content. Bits of narrative and snippets of voices briefly surface before being lost to new contexts: “he drives the suv in the family the blank look of a progressive house dj cd cover next to others just like him nine opposing biceps . . . ” In this sense perhaps Rental Van is more like a bus which, regardless of who is aboard, pushes on to the next stop.
- Widening the Margins by Peter Dickinson
Books reviewed: The Ethics of Marginality: A New Approach to Gay Studies by John Champagne, Queer View Mirror: Lesbian and Gay Short Short Fiction by James C. Johnstone and Karen X. Tulchinsky, and Plush: Selected Poems by Jeffrey Conway, Sky Gilbert, Courtnay McFarlane, David Trinidad, and R. M. Vaughan
- Alberta, Bound by Owen Percy
Books reviewed: The Book Collector by Tim Bowling, Noise From the Laundry by Weyman Chan, First Mountain by Paulette Dubé, The Sweet Fuels by Erin Knight, and It's Hard Being Queen: The Dusty Springfield Poems by Jeanette Lynes
- Open Meditations by Karl Jirgens
Books reviewed: The Tapeworm Foundry by Darren Werschler-Henry, Burn by Paul Vermeersch, Chess Pieces by David Solway, and Light-crossing by Michael Redhill
- Donner à voir by Noële Racine
Books reviewed: Panoptikon by Francis Catalano, L'oiseau tatoué by Herménégild Chiasson, Un homme de trop by Antonio D'Alfonso, and La chasse spirituelle by Fulvio Caccia
- Poetic Off-roading and the Roads More Travelled by Joel Deshaye
Books reviewed: On the Material by Stephen Collis, The Essential Kenneth Leslie by Zachariah Wells, Time's Fools by Tom Henighan, and What We Miss by Glen Sorestad
MLA: Giovannone, Aaron. Language Movements. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 180 - 181)
***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.