- Ken Babstock (Author)
Mean. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Joe Blades (Author)
River Suite. Insomniac Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Adam Beardsworth
Demonstrating an acute sensibility for the anxious, traumatic, and even mundane instant, the poets behind each of these collections verbalize the hope and peculiarity coeval with the tragic and disparaging. The efficacity of technique and humility of tone, however, differs considerably between the two.
In Mean, Ken Babstock displays an extraordinary degree of poise and technical virtuosity. Densely lyrical, packed with alliteration and internal rhyme, his poems are demanding, but invariably yield rewards to a reader willing to contend with their intensity. Divided into three sections, Mean ranges in subject from the reconciliation of personal and familial history, to violent accident and injury, to encounters with the natural world and the sanctity of personal relationships as in “Night Portrait of B., Asleep,” wherein Babstock sensually describes his sleeping lover’s breathing as “A shy slight wind over white stones/ that sounds like elsewhere.” Beneath Babstock’s topical dexterity lies a sense of life’s proximity to tragedy. In “Father Thorne’s Bad Saturday,” for example, a priest on a groundhog-hunting excursion with a neighbour boy is frozen when he turns to find that the boy “Had trained the barrel-hole / to a spot in my chest. I swear the sun / dimmed to crimson, a cloud-shadow like black / crepe cut the tussocks between us.” Throughout the collection Babstock forges rough, tense imagery from a consonant verbosity that rivals Seamus Heaney. Wrenching his subjects from time he gives honest voice to the sad and beautiful moments realized at the edge of catastrophe. True to its punning, homonymic name, this collection is no “mean” feat; Babstock’s concentrated language and intensity of vision make his a highly accomplished collection.
In River Suite, Joe Blades’ second collection, a similar tone of anxiety pervades. Written from the banks of the St. John River, Blades’ poems meander through the emotional topography of small town life. Often using short lines, wide spaces, and fragmented line breaks, his poems stylistically emulate the tug of current, towing the reader through images frequently more connected in nuance than theme. Reading his world from the central position of a “riverbank prophecy stone” (“Summer Solstice”) this technique, at times, heightens the collection’s anxious tone, as in “Waiting Thru the Test,” one of several poems in the second section dealing with the fear of waiting for HIV test results: “thinking of that doctor / makes me want to shit myself / or squirt hot soapy water / inside to clean myself out.” Too frequently, however his self-reflexive position encourages a clutter of personal pronouns that blur the boundary between genuine suffering and sheepish confessionalism: “have to wonder what you think / (scratch think) what you feel / have to wonder at the sadness of myself” ([S]And 55). These forays into wallowing detract from the collection’s positive elements, namely its engagement with the flow of experience through its extended river metaphor, and to trivialize the force of its troubled tone. However, Blades’ open confrontation with emotions ranging from homoeroticism to disease to self-estrangement offers an admirably raw sentimentality, if lacking Babstock’s aplomb.
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Books reviewed: Clouds Without Heaven by Mary Cameron, all you expect of the road by Sue Nevill, A Woman Alone on the Atikokan Highway by Jeanette Lynes, and Facts by Bruce Taylor
- Poetics for Politics? by Tracy Wyman-Marchand
Books reviewed: Duncan Campbell Scott: Addresses, Essays, and Reviews by Leslie Ritchie
- Trois poètes et un essayiste by Vincent Charles Lambert
Books reviewed: Les Jours de l'éclipse by Paul Bélanger, Au seuil de L'inespérable by Jean Royer, L'usage des sens by Roland Bourneuf, and Un pont au-dessus du vide by Claude Paradis
- Poésie québecoise et canadienne-anglaise by R. Mésavage
Books reviewed: Souffle d'eau by France Tremblay and Contre-taille: Poèmes choisis de vingt-cinq auteurs canadiens-anglais by Pierre Desruisseaux
- Animate Perceptions by Monika Lee
Books reviewed: The Essential George Johnston by Robyn Sarah, Actualities by Monica Kidd, and Time's Covenant by Eric Ormsby
MLA: Beardsworth, Adam. Self-Assured Catastrophe. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #187 (Winter 2005), Littérature francophone hors-Québec / Francophone Writing Outside Quebec. (pg. 103 - 104)
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