amongst books

amongst books

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Wander Through Liminality in Poetry

I pack a large bottle of water. My cell phone is charged.
I am ready to step into the elevator. If I am trapped I will
dial 911. If I am trapped I will sing. If I am trapped I will
take deep breaths. I will try to breathe. First the sound
of metal upon metal grinding. Will the cables snap. Will
the elevator car lose its grounding & shake us like rag dolls.
I am a rag doll. Every day I feel it. A dog can pick me up
& carry me away in its jowls.

[Fear of Elevators, 2012]

In his article "Thresholds and Liminality," Dr. J. Michael Stitt tells us that Limin is Latin for threshold or doorway. Liminality is a threshold period or a time of waiting. I think elevators, escalators and revolving doors are liminal urban spaces. They represent a period of non activity in our lives. We are simply waiting to pass from one realm into another. We are in limbo.

Perhaps then even fear itself represents a kind of liminality in its anticipation of what could go wrong. there's a stillness, a kind of waiting, we are on hold until the inevitable happens. we always have a packed suitcase on hand, should we need, suddenly, to flee.
Googling around to find instances of liminality in literature, I came across this very lovely blog, which explores " the fragile borders between landscape and people. Of architecture, cities, geography, maps, mythology, drifting, perambulation, wanderlust, deep topography, psychogeography, the creative spirit and the environment." I like the idea of liminality representing the concept of borders. There are posts about snow, the river & Ballardian space, which if I understand is a kind of fusion between past & present memories…There are references in the blog to Ulysses' wanderings, Ben Jonsons' poetry etc.

Another blog makes me think about liminality as a form of stillness or rather, stillness as a form of liminality: Shawna Lemay's Calm Things which offers still life photographs of dried flowers, & frost on fences, food not yet eaten, the play of light and shadow in a room. The quote on the day I looked at the site comes from a poem by Galway Kinnel called "Saint Francis and the Sow": "The bud/stands for all things,/even for those things that don’t flower,"

Off the top of my head, I can think of other poets who work with liminal spaces. Sandra
Ridley' in Post-Apothecary about a woman who is ill & confined to her bed. she thinks of
the dark and the woods and the outside. sometimes the outside takes on a malevolent
potential, but all of this is within her imagination.

Writers, such as Anne Carson & Nathanaƫl, who blend or blur genre lines come to mind
as possible practitioners of liminality, if one can practice it like it's a religion or a violin.
Liminality is also seen as a transformation from one state to another. Just another way
of restating the above, I guess, but the idea of transformation seems to add a new idea.
In this article, Liminality in Literature by Sarah Scott , the author talks about speculative fiction as a genre with liminal beings such as werewolves etc. I can't think of too many contemporary poems where
such a literal transformation appears. Dennis Cooley's Seeing Red (Turnstone Press, 2003), a re-imagining of Dracula, comes to mind, but there are less literal transformations in poetry. Transformations from one state to another.

To fall is a downward movement
that stops breath [Nathalie Stephens'
paraphrase from At Alberta].
Elevators are liminal. Neither here
nor there, but somewhere in
between. To pass each floor is to pass
residents in the process of being
alive: cleaning floors, baking a cake,
making love, talking on the phone.
While the elevator redraws its
vertical line over & over, the
building's inhabitants reach
outward. Elevator riders fall into the
middle of what has already been
going on before they arrive.

[Fear of Elevators, 2012]

Jane Hirshfield suggests that writers ourselves must be liminal to maintain openness. In this case, liminal seems to mean fluid, changeable.

Given the preceding thoughts, the dream state also seems to be a state of liminality. The dreamer is in an unreal world of dreams where anything could happen but also lying in her bed in the real world, a kind of hybrid. Dreams themselves are liminal in nature.

What about longing? Longing seems to be a liminal state to me. It's a state of waiting for something to happen, even if it never does.

Oana Avasilichioae's We, Beasts (Wolsak & Wynn, 2012) opens with The Distant Song, a song of longing. The whole book has a dream-like feel to it & includes liminal spaces & concepts such as shadows, borders, the activity of listening, half-opened hands, time displacement: this hourless hour, an uncertain heart, the outsider: the muse sits on a stoop, a valley between slippery rocks and creek where something is happening, tales of witches & wolfbats, transformations of caterpillars into butterflies, thresholds: a home knocks on the door of itself, a hybrid of multiple languages, wings, tears, personified natural elements such as dawn, the use of "about to," interiority, as an outsider element: the violet season turns interior, etc

Maybe poetry itself is liminal in that its status in society is often questioned, written by marginals, reprobates, those who live outside the bounds of mainstream convention. Contemporary poetry is often hybrid, often mixing formal constraints with experimentalism. See my favourite poetry anthology American Hybrid (Norton, 2009), edited by David Saint John & Cole Swensen . Contemporary poetry, thankfully, often escapes genre classification. It is neither one thing nor another, is a threshold, an entrance to the real or a return to the imagination.

This article talks about Aristotle's poetics, saying that poetry was placed separately from history & philosophy, thereby making it liminal. ‘The poet’s task is, Aristotle writes, to speak not what has happened really, but of what may have happened, i.e. of the necessary or possible as need might arise’. The poet is a kind of mediator between history & philosophy, between the real world & its possibilities.

A poem,
like trying
to remember,
is a movement
of the whole body.
You follow the
into more fog.
Maybe the door ahead
the facts
from natural affection. How
can I know. I meet
too many
in every mirror.

Rosemarie Waldrop, from section 1 of “The Ambition of Ghosts: I. Remembering to Sleep,” Another Language: Selected Poems (Talisman House Publishers, 1997) [found on Tumblr via LiteraryMiscellany

Also consulted:

Charles La Shure, Liminality, the space in between 

Friday, June 06, 2014

Devilish Shenanigans at the Fair

Making mischief & mayhem at this year’s fair & pre-fair reading will be AngelHousePress, along with our new imprint, DevilHouse.

Tonight (Friday, June 6, 2014) we launch a debut collection of short stories by David Menear, One Dead Tree, at the Carleton Tavern, 223 Armstrong Street, UPSTAIRS, doors 7pm; Reading 7:30pm.

I’m very excited & pleased to publishDavid’s chapbook. He covers taboo subjects with humour & daring. I’m hoping his will be the first of many darkly entertaining chapbooks to corrupt & provoke readers via DevilHouse.

Copies will be available for sale at both the pre-fair and the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair on Saturday June, 7 at the Jack Purcell Centre from noon to five pm, along with Issue 1 of the Tawdry Goat, which features new & previously published fiction by Ottawa writer Bill Brown, Montreal writer Daniel Allen Cox, Toronto writers Tamara Faith Berger & Tom Walmsley & all the way from jolly old England, London-based writer, Remittance Girl. These are writers whose work I’ve admired for some time & in some cases have previously published via AHP’s online magazines, or or have worked with as a fellow writer or editor. 

AngelHouse will offer “Bone Sapling.” a new chapbook, a collaborative visual poetry collection by Gary Barwin & myself, Amanda Earl. I had great fun working with Gary on this chapbook last winter. He is a creative & prolific artist & a dear friend.

I’m  very excited about all the doings at AngelHouse, especially the new imprint, DevilHouse, which has been in the planning stages ever since I first doodled the name in my red journal at the Meet the Presses Fair in Toronto a few years ago. is an investigation of the meaning of transgression in creative work, whether that transgression be in form or content. Go visit & take a look at the interviews with various publishers & writers who take joy in pushing boundaries.

I hope to see you at tonight’s reading &/or at the fair on Saturday. There may be some devilish treats if you’re ever so good.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Notes on Sina Queyras' M x T

Sina Queyras – M xT (Coach House Books, 2014)

In M x T, Sina explores grief. Feelings = Memory over Time, a mathematical equation  is offered. I had the pleasure of hearing Sina read from M x T at the Ottawa International Writers Festival this spring. One of the poems she read was “Water, Water Everywhere.”  The poem moves through various scenarios & subjects, sadness & humour. Throughout the book, the abstract & concrete are explored, trying to analyze grief to understand it or at least to have some kind of control over it through the use of math, science & engineering. Throughout the book, abstract mathematical, scientific & engineering documents divide the work: plots of Alternative Mourning, Direct Mourning, Circuit Symbols, Emotional Overload Sensor Circuit, Emotional Field, Ohms Law of Grieving, Emotional Circuit Breaker, Emotional Frame Dimensions, Solenoid. There are also mentions of diagrams & calculations of adverbs etc, a manual for remembering that isn’t a standard manual at all…  In opposition to the abstract is the concrete, showing grief’s effects on the senses.  the letters to Dear One are full of concrete details, colour, texture “Dear One, the long lashes of swirling grey: death was so clean and of the world.” Dear One, I am lost in a familiar tongue I cannot love, I am lost in concrete and iron and brick. I am lost in a shadow world.[p. 53]

“I don’t want a grid. I want arms. I don’t want a theory. I want the poem inside me. I want the poem to unfurl like a thousand monks chanting inside me. I want the poem to skewer me, to catapult me into the clouds. I want to sink into the rhythm of your weeping. … I go to the hollow when I want to empty, I go to theory when I want to sit with someone else’s thinking, I go to myself when I want to see you” [Water, Water Everywhere.]

“The dead are not firewood. They cannot be collected, ordered or made useful to the living.” [The Dead Ones]

Oppositions between what is natural & what is automated, between order & chaos, between the idea of maintaining control & letting loose one’s emotions, between perfection & imperfection abound: paradise & LED or LCD or Thunderbolt Display, neurons & sparks of fire, a cyborgian island. [in the Emotional Circuit Overload section, the letter to Dear One.]

“We want to thumb through nature, we want it beautiful, ordered, containable. We want it to remain and yet we want to enter it like a gallery, cool, smooth, minimal, ordered in leather, elegant at Le Corbusier.” [Of the Hollow]

“We are ragged with imperfection. We bash ourselves against lithe hips. We aim, we fall short. We limp into the amber moments sheepish. We are bent with emotion. We are uneven in our ability to move forward, we say, Beware of the empty boat, but we are often, ourselves, the empty boat. [Of the Hollow]

“Why is pain so much better than nothing? Or the mark of it more recognizable? Why is saying nothing so much better than airing?” [Five Postcards from Jericho]

“my thoughts of you fully indexed, ready to step into.” [Five Postcards from Jericho]

What heartens me about this book is the passion, the feelings of grief unreleased, the personal nature of the grief & the humour: “You can give a girl a cleaver but you can’t make her swing.”  

The other subject running through the book is women, how we are seen, how we’re supposed to react, what does it mean to be a woman.  “She understands the interrogative to be male. Instruction is also male. Certain forms of syntax elude her. If you can’t speak with authority, please remain silent.” A Manual for Remembering.

“I call you from Matthew Marks, from Gagosian, tracing the lines of a huge Richard Serra curve. I have seen so much thinking gleaming, I want to roll it too, make it big, manly, I want to ride it through Manhattan, but mostly I want it solid, a deep root tethering me, an unflappable sense of calm.” Water, Water Everywhere

“How will we be women without using the birth canal? We want to cut off our bottoms, we want to be rigid, unyielding. We lie in the clearing and let the rain come. We lie with our feet touching. We lie with our faces open. We want to be strong. We think of the women.

Anne Cameron has a face carved out of cedar.

Daphne Marlatt with her words a peak of foam.

Helen Potrebenko driving a taxi across the bay.

There is a war canoe made of conceptual poems. It floats with a small town of angry women, a ghost warrior in a grass cape takes up the rear, the canoe floats high on the inside passage and knows no one’s name. [Of the Hollow].

“We want to know how to be women artists in the world. [Of the Hollow].

“We are an economy of women grieving.” [Of the Hollow]

“What is a woman’s art without pain?

What is a woman’s art without painting in blood, writing from the darkest recesses of her vagina.” [Over to You]

Some of these poems, could be responses to other poems, written in the style of earlier poems on grief, especially some of the more formal poems, such as” Like a Jet,” a series of seven sonnets, the mention of Ozymandias, Shelley’s sonnet. Sina mentions Eliot’s the hollow from the Hollow Men & then gives us the poem “Of the Hollow.” Sylvia Plath’s Elegy for Sylvia Plath is written in couplets. another elegy refers to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, another one mentions Virginia Woolf’s the Waves. Elegy Written in a City Cemetery, title adapted from the poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Grey & includes lines from 52 other elegies.

“Grief is a century of death, and a century of death before that, and before that, death, I want to drag you into the fold, Death, I want to drag you right into the mall, the earth, which is made of death.” [Water, Water Everywhere]

“You won't find a couplet in the wild, my love; a sestina is a formal garden, a villanelle is the court, a sonnet is an urban love story, an epic is the senate, a prose poem is the city.” Water, Water Everywhere

I am bowled over by the shear accumulation of objects in this book, so many from the natural world but also from the world of art, from domestic life, colours & textures, unique language & juxtapositions, the variety of styles, the playfulness of the text.

This book is chock full of references to art & artists: sculpture, photography, the book is chock full of everything. the speaker struggles to figure out how to deal with her grief. the book is a gracious  & feisty homage to those she has lost. I would recommend this book for mourners. it had great resonance for me. I have to say that I loved this book. there are times for silence & times for expression. M x T contains a necessary balance of silence & shouting, celebration & mourning.