Raw Power

Reviewed by Jim Johnstone

In 2010, Mansfield Press established an imprint to brand books acquired and vetted by poetry editor Stuart Ross. Including the title “a stuart ross book” is Ross’ way to add to a publishing legacy that began with Proper Tales Press in the 1980s and has expanded to include a diverse cross-section of small press ventures. This review focuses on five very different trade collections that were edited by Ross over the past three years.

Robert Earl Stewart’s Campfire Radio Rhapsody works best when its subject matter suits its bombast. “The Country Reporter,” a six-part long poem that follows a newsman as he photographs accidents
in a small town, is one such instance. Each section reads like a snapshot, and Stewart’s winding lines allow him to shift adeptly between microscopic and macroscopic levels of detail to produce a sense of uncertainty and anticipation. His protagonist “capture[s] the farmer’s sarcoma noses, / their cruel, wet, meat-speculating mouths— / an archive of their simple darkness,” and as he does, the poem becomes an extended meditation on death from the perspective of a man whose life is shrouded in “a gorgeous oblivion.” Unfortunately, the excess that makes “The Country Reporter” compelling muddles the rest of the collection. Take “A Moon Called the Moon,” which is marred by redundancies such as “The tide raises all boats. / All boats rise with the tides. / Rising, boats; a moon.” These lines strain to produce meaning through juxtaposition but ultimately fail to rise above the vista they describe.

In “Eye on the Prize,” the poem that opens Goodbye, Ukulele, Leigh Nash asks, “Who / will hug a scavenger.” It is a question answered over the course of the collection by combining lyric fragments to craft poems that read like collage. Nash excels when taking incongruous narrative strides. Her poems often shift abruptly, exploiting rhetorical devices to keep the reader off balance. She also has an eye for unsettling images, and similes like “clouds scattered / like wisdom teeth in a silvery bowl” and “A delicate bomb / ticked down like a mallet apologizing / to the sweet side of a bass drum,” from the excellent “A Suit of Light,” add depth to her observations and make Goodbye, Ukulele a compelling read.

Hooligans, Lillian Necakov’s fifth full-length book of poetry, is equal to its title: raucous, daring, and playful. The most experienced writer in the quintet reviewed here, Necakov relies on an innate musicality to provide a cohesive through-line in her poems; her work is sparsely punctuated and propelled forward with sonic, rather than narrative, momentum. Among the standout pieces in Hooligans, “The Walking Debt” impresses with the subversive character of lines like “a hundred dark judgments fluttered / out of my incision / the distance we must walk / is in direct proportion to our trespass” and “The Burning Man” benefits from a jubilant inscrutability. When Necakov writes, “I am as dangerous as a burst fire hydrant” in “Secret Hanging,” she does so with conviction.

Natasha Nuhanovic’s Stray Dog Embassy is populated with unreliable narrators. The opening stanza from “Revolution in the Hospital” provides an example: “Nothing is wrong with me, / everything is wrong with the others, / in this country of mumbling iron beds / where hospital prisoners trade sheets warm as sunsets / for a journey through morphine landscapes.” While the protagonist’s egoism in this stanza could be used to distort meaning, Nuhanovic does little to exploit her delusion and “Revolution in the Hospital” devolves into a prescriptive take on institutionalization that romanticizes mental illness. The poem also suffers from flat diction and clichéd imagery, both of which prove symptomatic of the collection as a whole.

Finally, Carey Toane’s debut, The Crystal Palace, mixes high and low culture to examine the evolution of human achievement, focusing primarily on the impact of the industrial revolution. Her work is more polished than that of Nash, Nuhanovic, or Stewart, and she displays a natural feel for rhythm and meter in poems like “The Lives of the Engineers” and “The Crystal Palace (Reprise).” While she is often bogged down by the trite nature of her subject matter—poems devoted to soft drinks, Google, and corn dogs lack the emotional character needed to extend beyond the surface of consciousness—Toane’s work is consistently engaging and embodies the raw power of the Mansfield titles chosen by Stuart Ross over his tenure as poetry editor.

This review “Raw Power” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 184-85.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.