The Poetry Percentage

Reviewed by Tanis MacDonald

At the end of December, I did a little math and discovered that books of poetry comprised 34% of my reading for that particular year. The number seemed to shock many people, but for a variety of reasons. Some friends—poets themselves—wondered what I was doing reading so much in genres other than poetry, while other friends wondered exactly where I was finding all that poetry to read. The answer is simple: small presses publish much of the poetry in Canada, with a hefty boost from academic presses. These three books, two by Toronto small-press publishers Quattro Books and Mansfield Press, and the third by a prairie university press with a strong poetry list, are diverse in style and subject matter, but taken together, they cast a wide net for readers.

The experiment in poetic partnership between Douglas Barbour and Sheila E. Murphy in continuations 2—the title a pun on duality and continuity—is a project of considerable length and accomplishment. A true collaboration in which neither poet can now remember which of them wrote which lines, this series of rolling sextets are titled simply with lower-case Roman numerals (beginning at “xxvi”—this is part 2, after all) but cover a lot of ground, from philosophy to ecopoetics to lyric time travel, like this passage from “xxxv”:

time might shuttle its own

weight beyond the lift

of small lights flecked

against stone cut from ages

evening the flow

of miracle as seen /not seen

This stanza, in particular, seems to speak also to the seamlessness with which these lyrics tumble into one another: time shuttling the flow of miracle. There is a questing persona at the core of these stanzas; these are continuations not just from the earlier volume, but that also work with continuation as an aesthetic—the unstoppable poem. In their afterword, Barbour and Murphy discuss collaboration as work that creates “a third, phantom voice” and that phantom voice is relentless even in its ordered stanzas, pursuing meaning and its slippery twin, non-meaning: “just for the nonce be / fore the lashing savage f / ails to be queath.” This is a book that expands as you read: book as accordion, as rolling rock.

If you are reading in nearly any genre in Canada, it is hard to miss Priscila Uppal, who has recently published poetry and fiction as well as a memoir (Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother) and its adaption into a play, Six Essential Questions, performed at Factory Theatre. Summer Sport: Poems is a follow-up to Uppal’s 2011 Winter Sport: Poems, the products of Uppal accompanying the Canadian Olympic team in competition. Uppal was dubbed “Canada’s coolest poet” by Time Out London during her time with the Canadian Olympic team at the London-hosted summer Olympiad. Summer Sport: Poems is more than a poetry collection, with additional features of the book meant for readers who may be new to poetry, sports, or their intersection, including a short essay “Training for Your life, or My Poetic Triathalon,” referring to Uppal’s time as poet-in-residence for the 2011 Rogers Cup Tennis Tournament, as well as for Canadian Athletes Now at the 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Uppal’s afterword, “Sports Writing Boot Camp,” is a series of writing exercises (or “literary coaching tips”) to introduce novices to writing sports literature. Uppal has carved out a niche for herself with these sports poet-in-residence gigs and the poems are full of the energy of each sporting event. She changes up her poetic styles and the analogy of exercising the poetic form as the athletes exercise physical form is well worked throughout the collection. It is awfully good fun, especially because Uppal is not above making puns, as in her “clerihews for Clara Hughes,” or riffing on tradition with her rewrite of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous sonnet as a tennis poem: “I shall love thee better after match point.” It is this kind of play that carries the day in Summer Sport: a summery, breezy grab bag of sports poems that honour the athletes and the idiosyncrasies of their chosen sports.

The last of these three collections of poetry is terrifically worth the wait. Susan Helwig’s And the cat says…offers lyric poems that are spare in structure but rich in their invocation of what’s missing and what’s possible. In the eponymous poem, the cat decides not to eat the sparrow right away, but rather to keep it alive and talk to it. The sparrow is both the lover and the reader, and Helwig is the cat with the stories: a reverse Scheherazade. And beautifully bleak stories they are, too, drenched with rain and missed chances, eight-day affairs in cold borrowed apartments. It is as though Helwig has taken Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight and rewritten it in twenty-first century Prague. Helwig’s narrator wades in Rhysian longing and loneliness, and wafts upward on the same kind of hope, but is drugged on impossible love instead of wine. But where Rhys’ narrator ends in despair, Helwig’s poetic speaker finds a wry strength in the distance between the lover and herself, and the books arcs into an exploration of women’s survival after love. What Helwig offers towards the end of the book are not strategies but evidence of a stringent resistance to slipping away unnoticed; the feminist sass of “Letter to Philip Roth” and “The Snake’s Poem” and the melancholic mysteries of “January 1975” and “And I” suggest neither tragedy nor hope, but rather something more tart and more knowing. The strength of Helwig’s collection is that she knows exactly how to bring the reader to the brink and then just leave her there, thinking.

This review “The Poetry Percentage” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 121-23.

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