Wolf, Star, and Ash
- Lorri Neilsen Glenn (Author)
Combustion. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Dymphny Dronyk (Author)
Contrary Infatuations. Frontenac House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Gil McElroy (Author)
Last Scattering Surfaces. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Joshua Auerbach (Author)
Radius of Light. DC Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Alison Calder (Author)
Wolf Tree. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Joel Deshaye
Alison Calder’s Wolf Tree and Gil McElroy’s Last Scattering Surfaces are my favourites in this selection of recent publications. They are both worth re-reading. McElroy’s book is marvelous, though highly abstract. Calder’s Wolf Tree is initially more accessible and is equally imaginative.
The wolf tree in Calder’s title, and the book itself, can be understood as a family tree that traces an atavistic line from people to other animals. The people include circus freaks such as Zip “the What-is-it” and “the Ape-Girl” in addition to a woman who feigned giving birth to rabbits and another who simply stopped shaving her legs. There is also the hirsute and simian Julia Pastrana. In “Charles Eisenmann Looks at a Photograph of Julia Pastrana,” Eisenmann says, in a line with an appropriately pompous iambic ending, “Put her with potted plants, decked out in paint and feathers: / from jungles hot and dark we bring the missing link.” The misanthrope in me loves the varied and subtle criticism of anthropocentrism in Wolf Tree. Even sections that initially seem not to fit, such as the series of poems about inner-city Winnipeg and the Kroetsch-inspired “Sexing the Prairie,” show that the human-animal division is much like other divisions that prevent us from establishing healthy relationships with others. Animals are in us; the book’s first poem has a bird trying to escape from the eye of the speaker, who says: “Lately I’ve learned to see through wings.” “The wild comes back,” Calder later states in the title poem, and sometimes it comes out of us, sometimes as poetry.
Although Calder’s book is thematically wild, the language and conceptual risks in McElroy’s Last Scattering Surfaces are wilder. Last Scattering Surfaces is McElroy’s latest experiment in applying astrophysical theories and nomenclature to the writing of poetry. McElroy’s ideal reader would learn to calculate Julian dates and decipher lists of astronomical objects written in idiosyncratic shorthand. In describing the Crab Nebula, his text “Messier List (Dreyer Descriptions)” begins “Crab / !!, B, vL, gpmbM, rrr / !! eB, vL, vsmbM / Cl, rrr” and continues for three pages. Readers who would rather not feel compelled to consult secondary sources should avoid this book. Usually, however, McElroy writes in understandable and vivid language, as in “(The Work of Art) in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: “There was / a sort of world outside / my skin, so / I tried gathering / my hands, / suspicious like rebels.” In that poem, a second column on the right side of the page offers an airily spaced, parallactic companion: “Snowflakes // all / possess / a point, / a not very // long // fact, // outstretched, / official // & / military.”
There is only one obvious death, in a conspicuous elegy, in Last Scattering Surfaces, but there are more in Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s second book of poetry, Combustion. The title refers to cremation—of a brother, of a parent—and to the flame of inspiration. Although the first poem’s allusion to “an old / [John] Prine tune about angels and living, / about one thing to hold on to” made me anticipate sentimentality, the emotions in Combustion are often monastic in their austerity and here have mantric assonance: “Grief is the forest you enter, confused / by the doxa of ritual around you, path radiant // with ruin” (“Lineage: On the Death of a Parent”). Often alternating between sentence fragments lengthened to Faulknerian dimensions and curt imperative statements, Neilsen Glenn sounds contemporary even when sounding wise. In “Prosody: Some Advice,” she offers symbolic instructions for persistently getting motivation to write: “Sing the cave / in twenty-six notes / for twice that many years.” At the end of the poem she advises, “Lay yourself on / a dry page, soak / under the sun // . . . Until.” The cliffhanger evokes the seemingly inevitable immolation of the poet on the page. That’s not advice about prosody except as advice about commitment to the craft, and Neilsen Glenn shows more than the usual attention to it in Combustion.
Posthumous ashes are also scattered throughout Radius of Light. Despite the gravity of these poems—several of them award-winning—they are somewhat overrated in my opinion at this time. Auerbach does not always display the “almost clinical precision” that one of the back-cover blurbs promises. “Strange-Blessings” is not precise but suggestive: “Again, light-filled shafts // Spirit-made blood returns // All to G-d, desire / Dreamt // Walking, breath-turn / A radius, a slant of light . . .” The scarcity of verbs here is neither atmospheric nor exacting enough to be imagistic. Nevertheless, I like many of his images, as in “Hive”: “Scores of bees seek nectar / Hover, wings pull petals into sky.” The imagistic synecdoche of “wings,” or bees in unison, and the ascent of the “petals” is compelling. Auerbach’s lyric poems tend to be the most exact, such as “Measure” and the poems about having a herniated disc.
A much deeper injury is the basis of Dymphny Dronyk’s Contrary Infatuations which is dedicated to explaining the death of the narrator’s husband (more ashes), her grief, and her efforts to become independent—and remain emotionally open—afterward. The feelings that inspired this book were undoubtedly profound and I hope, on the assumption that the book is autobiographical, that sharing them has been a healing experience.
My main complaint is that poetry might not have been the best choice of forms. Although every poem in Contrary Infatuations is divided into lines, the lineation usually breaks up prose rather than calling attention to the structural and sonic patterns that endow poetry with its compact energy. Dronyk also relies too much on adjectives for description, as in “Harvest Storm.” On occasion, however, Dronyk surpasses cliché and reaches higher ground. In “Widow,” she describes the death of her husband as “amputation, / after years of being / joined at [his] hip.” The narrator recovers, mostly, but continues to wonder how to feel again: “it is the prosthesis / for the heart / I long for.”
- The Use of Beauty by Wilhelm Emilsson
Books reviewed: A Different Silence: Selected Poems by árni Ibsen
- Worthy Tribute by Samara Walbohm
Books reviewed: Life and Works of Ethelwyn Wetherald by Dorothy W. Rungeling
- The Spiritual Subject by Amanda Lim
Books reviewed: Ox by Christopher Patton, More to Keep Us Warm by Jacob Scheier, Riding Backwards on Dragon: A Poet's Journey Through Liuhebafa by Kim Goldberg, I Will Ask for Birds by Kelly Parson, and Duet for Wings and Earth by Barbara Colebrook Peace
- Rolling Over the Stone by Emily Wall
Books reviewed: Red Ledger by Mary Dalton, The Enchanted House by Beth Janzen, and Pink Purse Girl by Susan L. Helwig
- Matrices et dédales by Émilie Théorêt
Books reviewed: Le même souffle by Normand Glénois, Miniatures, balles perdues et autres désordres by Monique Deland, Dictature de la solitude by Joel Pourbaix, and En haute rumeur des siècles by Robert Berrouet-Oriol
MLA: Deshaye, Joel. Wolf, Star, and Ash. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #205 (Summer 2010), Queerly Canadian. (pg. 140 - 141)
***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.