- Diana Hartog (Author)
Ink Monkey. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sylvia Legris (Author)
Nerve Squall. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- sheri-d wilson (Author)
Re:Zoom. Frontenac House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Mark Abley (Author)
The Silver Palace Restaurant. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Meredith Quartermain
Grumpiness as a major trope is hard to pull off over the length of an entire book. In Nerve Squall, which won the prestigious 2006 Griffin Prize, Sylvia Legris sustains this perspective with considerable panache. Through the lexicon of electrical storms, migraines, and Hitchcock-like threatening birds, Legris invokes an irritable world, full of foreboding and anxiety. One is inclined to think it is the world we actually inhabit with its global crises of overpopulation, wage slavery, biosphere destruction, climate change, and interminable ugly wars. These poems seem to mimic the mood of our times—the colossal headache of the planet which humans have unleashed, though Legris does not make this connection particularly explicit.
Fish are an important motif in this disturbed world. "Barbed" is the title of the first section, which includes drawings by Legris of fish swept in by wind currents into the air, and a series called
Fishblood Sky, which makes the whole atmosphere into a watery world.
Falling fish; wounded fish; carp carp carp, she writes, ever playful with subtextual connections,
Stench of cod liver and creosote./ Everything slips. The last section of the book, entitled
Truncated, begins with a telling quotation,
The cameraman has tried to make an amputee whole again; it closes with a drawing called
Fish / stump showing a dead fish on a sawed-off tree.
In the middle section, entitled
Ornithological Tautologies, birds reign supreme, in poems entitled
Ravenousness (referring to
Strange Birds; Twitching Birds,
Birds (An Apocalyptic Poem?), and
Agitated Sky Etiology. The poems are liberally peppered with bird calls, screeches and hollers, and words mimicking or describing bird-like sounds:
Kittiwake Kittiwake Kittiwake (getaway-
Thorny nerves and bird-suspended
bridges. O frigate frigate frigatebirds—
even pelicans won&’t look you in the eye.
The sky creepy with rooks and here you
are, condemned, to the wrong side of the
a never ending game you are destined to
Legris is intensely playful with puns, half-rhymes, rhythmic echoes and onomatopoeia—at times rather formulaically, but often very subtly. Her poems rise like wind squalls in gusts of words, whirling insomniac dithyrambs; but there is much method in this Dionysian madness.
Mark Abley, in contrast, is a quietly ironic writer with a fondness for conventional rhyme and transferred epithets (
spreadeagled land), which he puts to good use. A delightful series,
After Pinocchio, poignantly explores the education of young boys, and calls for rewriting the story:
Allow him his raucous innocence,
his rude brand of fun.
Allow him to keep his father
if Geppetto accepts a son
who may not follow orders
and won’t be whittled away
by anyone who sees pleasure
as the herald of decay.
The high point of the collection is a sequence of 23 prose poems,
Food: A Travelling Quartet, which brilliantly juxtaposes four voices: three describing travels in Croatia, Grand Manan, and Hong Kong, and a fourth telling the Innu story
How Wolverine Got Stuck in a Bear’s Skull. In other sections of the book, we find Abley enjoys poking fun: at himself having a vasectomy; at Canadians photographing mountains or fly-fishing in the Bow River; at Italian phrase-book notions of the world. The poem that gives the book its title
The Guangzhou Engineering Student: A Letter concerns a young woman telling her father she won't be coming home for new year celebrations:
…her name is Lo Chung,
and for seven months she has served the public
in the Silver Palace Restaurant. Father,
you have been young, can you please imagine
the joy of wandering a city with my friends
on a Saturday night, not discussing metallurgy.
Abley is also an angry poet, who uses humour to address pressing social and environmental issues. In
Labrador Duck, a museum duck has a thing or two to say about its presumed extinction, and
Dominion takes issue with Biblical decrees giving humans dominion over the earth.
Ink monkeys, Diana Hartog explains, are 200-gram monkeys who slept in desk drawers or brush pots and were
once kept by scholars to prepare ink, pass brushes and turn pages. In the title poem of this collection an ink monkey dips his tail and begins its own poems, commenting
the best lot for a poet is to be ignored. Perhaps the ink monkey’s action implies that the best poems emerge when the poet relinquishes control and the poem itself, inhabited by its own spirit, determines its course—as in Hartog’s very fine series in this collection, entitled
Japanese Prints, based on woodblock landscapes of the Tokaido Road by the Japanese master Utagawa Hiroshige. With haiku-like brevity and startling contrasts, the poems in this series are drawn with simple and powerful brush-strokes, along the way contemplating a Japanese tradition, the
to be intoned on the eve of one’s death after being
carried about for years in the head of the poet. In another series,
The Jellyfish Suite, Hartog uses the image of the jellyfish to think through human perception and dream, likening the mind's eye to a Portuguese man-of-war glistening,
near-invisible, adrift on the surface tension while dangling fathoms down, a hidden agenda of stinging cells. There’s lots of wry humour and quiet observation in this collection, where at one moment you will hear about a lynx crossing a forest clearing and the next will consider the moon over Hollywood.
All titles in Re:Zoom begin with
Re: creating amusing puns such as
Re:finery of Bella Donna or
Re: Re: Re:member Snapshot as in the subject line of numerous email replies. Founder and Artistic Director of the Calgary International Spoken Word Festival, sheri-d wilson writes for entertaining, public performance, a chatty style of verse. At her best, as in an attack on U.S. imperialism in
Re: We Are the Domesticators, wilson’s poems are witty and pointed. Readers who prefer poetry written for the page will likely find Re:Zoom somewhat wordy and burdened with rap-like doggerel (
cry of the loon on the harvest moon).
- Chewing Through Poetry by Zöe Landale
Books reviewed: Cold Sleep Permanent Afternoon by Ray Hsu, Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children by Amatoritsero Ede, and Maple Leaf Rag by Kaie Kellough
- Contemporary Sensibilities by Eric Trethewey
Books reviewed: A Dream of Sulphur by Aurian Haller, With Averted Vision by Hannah Main-van der Kamp, Blue by George Elliott Clarke, and The Asparagus Feast by S. P. Zitner
- Wary of Angels by Marilyn Iwama
Books reviewed: Imprints and Casualties: Poets on Women and Language, Reinventing Memory by Anne Burke, The Elders' Place: Iniqnirit Qalgiat by Margo Button and Natasha Thorpe, and Jacob's Dream by Elizabeth Brewster
- Premières pages by Emmanuel Bouchard
Books reviewed: L'Émondé by Judy Quinn, Qui s'installe? by Hector Ruiz, and Lests by Jacques Audet
- Environmental Sensibilities by Stefan Haag
Books reviewed: Mahoning by A. F. Moritz, Ariadne's Thread by Soraya Erian, Spells for Clear Vision by Neile Graham, I Mention the Garden for Clarity by Vivian Marple, and Marine Snow by Karen MacCormack
MLA: Quartermain, Meredith. Poetry Weather. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 10 Jan. 2012. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #193 (Summer 2007), Canada Reads. (pg. 106 - 107)
***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.