Minor Revelations

  • Cameron Anstee
    Book of Annotations. Invisible Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Aaron Giovannone
    The Nonnets. BookThug (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Heather Cadsby
    Standing in the Flock of Connections. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Carl Watts

Book reviewing is a fraught endeavour. Reviewers respond to a text in the present while also envisioning, or just dreading, some future periodization that will make their observations seem laughable. These problems are exacerbated when an author seems to be classifiable as somehow minor—that is, someone like Heather Cadsby, whose reliably inventive poetry has nevertheless flown just below the Canadian Poetry Anthology radar, or like Aaron Giovannone and Cameron Anstee, who deal in the minute, particular, or extremely subtle.

No poet is entirely free of the influence of schools, peers, or the zeitgeist, but Cadsby’s work has long avoided any too-obvious resemblance. Her focus on decidedly minor, often mundane yet infrequently foregrounded subject matter (she’s co-edited a collection of poems about jealousy, for instance), as opposed to big-ticket topics like identity or place, continues in Standing in the Flock of Connections. The book is populated with moments of gentle defamiliarization, as in “This morning, starting out”: “I’ve asked to be alone. I need natural things / like toddlers on the telephone, / like old men walking rhythmically with canes.” Cadsby’s work has moved gradually towards longer lines and prose forms. This trend continues here with the “Text Steps” section, but the technique is perhaps more compelling in her verse-prose hybrids, like the briefer “Mentionables,” the long lines of which blur the distinction between the two while adding a degree of visual organization: “Rope, fly swatter, old telephone, baster, ratchet tie-down, / boxing glove, satin teddy, piss shoe, garden paraphernalia, / rings, plugs, vibes, beads, The Garden of Earthly Delights (centre panel).” Poems like “Hot talk. Not really” obliquely address lots of ideas—science, postmodernism, the Internet, poetics—without being overly beholden to them:

The conversations range in all directions.
Now anything is fair game.
If visual perception in monkeys
and circumference/diameter ratio are meaningful,
so are comments on oatmeal cookies
and nasty digs about upstarts.

There’s a subtle tension between this quick variety and the strange continuities in Cadsby’s work, as with the familiarly disorienting bird imagery that crops up in a poem like “Eats fish and small birds” (in which a drake “blasts a trumpet-tongued honking squawk / like no duck I’ve ever heard”), or “Out the hospital window I saw a dove. It was a gull,” a poem that describes the death of the speaker’s mother without ever returning to the fleeting, shape-shifting bird in its title.

Giovannone’s work is also quietly innovative. The Nonnets, named for the nine-line “sonnets” of which it’s composed, extends the unique-but-not-really style of his debut, The Loneliness Machine. Like that collection, The Nonnets frequently breaks the fourth wall, speaking knowingly to whoever it is who makes up a contemporary Canadian poem’s readership. (The opening poem ends, “Reader, you seem extraordinary.”) That the book is simply a swath of nonnets—no sections, no table of contents, not even any titles beyond the fact that the first three words of each poem are capitalized—makes for an unselfconscious, seemingly genuine faith in its conceit. Giovannone’s tweaking of the form is at once subtler than an augmentation like David McGimpsey’s sixteen-line “chubby” variant and yet, due to its brevity, almost unrecognizable as a descendant of the sonnet. The steady sweep of miniature triptychs variously creates syllogisms; shifts the sense of a word or idea; transitions from a lyric treatment of a theme to a discussion of said treatment to addressing a reader; or just tumbles in picaresque disjunction, as when “I Don’t Drink Big Gulps” finds itself “At the Art Gallery of Ontario” for the second stanza and then begins the third, “I’m in the Portuguese Wine Club now!” Giovannone is also just really funny. But the consistency of his persona makes it all the more surprising when real darkness or anger seeps through. When “It’s Hard to care” ends, “On Facebook, you seem to think / you’re having fun, but you’re not. / Not without me, you’re not,” the switch in register requires so little disruption of the goofy, self-effacing tone that the creepiness is off the charts. In “My Phone’s GPS paused at a winery,” the passive voice, along with the simplicity of Giovannone’s form and conceit, brings out the totality of neo-liberal surveillance: “My credit card was charged // ninety-six dollars. / I know how this looks.”

Unlike The Nonnets, Anstee’s Book of Annotations cycles through many different iterations of an aesthetic of tininess. It also reads like a meditation on modesty; even the book’s measurements—seven by four-and-a-half inches—make it seem like only the humblest of upgrades from Anstee’s sometimes tiny chapbook publications. And yet there’s a palpable compression, and concretism, lurking within Anstee’s minimalist exercises. The influence of Robert Lax is evident at several points. The untitled first poem, which repeats the lines

in rest
a pulse
the eye

and then ends with the first two, draws attention (in what seems like the most direct way possible) to the experience of perception at the poem’s core. Elsewhere, as in the four-word “Salvage,” Anstee wrings multiple interpretations out of incredibly few elements: “each hour comes / apart[.]” The erasure poems in the third section are themselves instances of compounded brevity. Basho’s omnipresent haiku is plotted out only with six instances of the letter o; Lax’s “the air” is reduced to “the,” “and,” “of,” and two punctuation marks. Anstee’s notes outline his methods, but the titles and blank spaces of the third section render explanation superfluous. Similarly, the method behind “Dissertation,” a list of typos such as “hisotries / amterials / ripture,” is almost immediately evident, as if Anstee’s version of method-based or found poems exists in elementary particles. His miniature explorations, like Cadsby’s and Giovannone’s hiding-in-plain-sight topics and techniques, are “minor” in a deliberate, holistic sense. As a result, they’re relatively free from self-conscious participation in any school or camp, settling instead for the minutiae of being their own kind of poems.

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