amongst books

amongst books

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

above/ground press 2017 – final favs – Ottawa

N.W. Lea, Nervous System (November)

The cover is a visual poem of a flower with a brain at its centre and a spine for the stem It’s the work of poet, visual poet, musician and former Ottawan, Jesse Ferguson and it’s striking and fits with the poems in this collection, particularly the title poem.

These poems are minimal and quiet, apologetic and humble, but they pack a punch. There’s a playfulness in poems like March List and An Ecstasy and beneath the playfulness or at times brushing off of feeling is depth of feeling. The imagery in Nervous System is vivid and active. For example, in The Wound: “The wound is a rune. Sobbing goblins tend its fire.” Or in Nervous System “this sketchy head/fused to the landscape/betraying whole civilizations.” And “rain-slick alders in fall,/ the blooded dusk of an amalgam town. Night’s freak//beater of stars.” In Pyscholyric. Why am I thinking of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip now? Cue Wheat Kings.

To a certain extent, these poems represent a Millennial experience: malaise about world events, self-doubt, loss, an emptiness, observation as if from a distance. “Then you recall/and have to re-feel/the serrated embrace/of young panic.” (Pyscholyric).

Whenever I get the chance to read N.W. Lea’s poetry, I always feel a certain relief. I’m no Millennial, having been born at the dregs of the baby boom, but I relate to these poems and they reassure me that I’m not alone.

Jason Christie, random_lines = random.choice (January)


Speaking of minimal, here’s Mr. Christie with 9 poems that from appearance make me think of Twitter and of code. I’ve always admired the profound nature of Jason’s poetry. In these poems he blends the everyday with philosophy and receptive file formats and a pinch of absurdity. There’s a tenderness to his poetry that always catches me off guard. I expect a kind of cool objectivity and then I get “tin”y song islands/replete with music: you gotta watch your own back.” In # morning fragments, for example, or a portrait of a grey day and then “Emmett playing the piano,/hidden stars in our time/lapse” in #anvil and a swing timer. These are contemplative poems by a parent and a poet: “the child/inside considers itself whole -/family he recognizes into/bells and song bells -/his music to be a joy to.” In “ day – what does a child. Despite the guilt and shame and despair we all feel, there is music: “Through amber Snow/we sing we sing to create.” In # hitch And every A hitch. I loved this line in # ballad highway “Unbegun is the most/all three of us can manage/at this time of day.” In many of these poems the light is juxtaposed with grey, with metal with bleakness with gravel and it works. “you let it burn through.” In # encumbrance at dawn. “hope shedding months of /drudge and resist” in “from that great game of bridges. Something I repeat often in February is that life is mostly pain, suffering and tedium punctuated by moments of joy. Jason’s poetry always gives me moments of joy.

natalie hanna, dark ecologies (October)

These square prose poems offer long sentences that wind over dark sleep men in suits, along ants that crawl on a woman’s calves into a winter forest. There’s a sensuality to Natalie’s work that I have always admired, a keen eye for detail and a compassion. This compassion that launches itself into full blown anger in poems like syrian aperture and blue, bad mothers. The speaker of these poems and the poet herself is a ferocious bad-ass and the poems show that, while at the same time, quieting down just long enough to smolder. I can smell the smoke when I open the pages.

rob mclennan, It’s still winter (August)

This chapbook contains 18 lyric prose poems that engage with the sentence. “I awake myself to sentences: common, and unmoved” in “My daughter is in New York City.”  I like the rhythms of these poems: “The poem is the distance between early morning rustlings: the toddler, cat.”  There are juxtapositions I hadn’t thought of before, “Skin like a cobra, a keyboard.” in the title poem and “When might depression feel like fire?” in Brockwell Madrigal. I enjoy the playfulness: “I’m feverish. I’m lovin’ it.” in the title poem. Many of the poems mention the work of the poem, of writing, contemplating the nature of sentences and prose and silence and grammar, scattered notes. The sentences in these poems are often short and staccato.There are lots of questions and fittingly, no answers. I enjoy the thinking behind these poems and the way the sentences are put together.

Marilyn Irwin, north (March)

The cover of the chapbook is a woman with a ribbon in her hair, possibly a fascinator, in the dark water up to her chest. She is gazing up at the dark sky, the moon and a sprinkling of stars. The words “Les Ondines” and “Madeleine Morel” are attributed to the image, but I could find no info via Google search. I was intrigued. As I’m rereading the chapbook, I am listening to Timbre Timbre, attributed as the soundtrack to Marilyn’s writing, editing and life. These are beautiful, soft acoustic songs, swampy ragged blues, says Wiki. No Bold Villain, one of Timbre Timbre’s songs is the epigraph for north: “One of us is not normal/And it might not be you.” So I am fully prepared for the dark quiet lady of the swamp offering up her blues.

These are small poems. This is Marilyn’s speciality. I have been a fan of all of her poetry for several years. 23 poems begin with (&) and then we have an epilogue. They are precise and sharp, often wry. The opening poem (&)/he said he wouldn’t speak/to me ever again/if I killed myself” gives you an idea of what to expect. I wonder if the woman on the cover is about to drown herself while gazing up at the moon and the stars. Another poem describes the room inside a hospital, another an unhappy spider plant: “it turns away from the sun/it is trying.” There’s a feisty fuck-you-ness to these poems amidst the despair. I believe that the woman on the cover climbs out of the water onto the other side. To paraphrase the final poem, she chooses north.

Faizal Deen, Open Island (March)

Three poems in this small ocean blue chapbook offer startling lines and imagery, perfume and a modern soul. There’s an energy to this work, to all of Faizal’s work and a push against conventional tropes of literature. I think of Shakespeare’s the Tempest when I read these poems and the speaker as Caliban. I love the beauty of the open island with its ghosts and jasmine, the films, the hippogriff. These poems give off the feeling of the misfit, not just any faggot. I love the energy and the magic of these and all of Faizal’s poems.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

above/ground press fav chapbooks of 2017 - part 2

Sandra Moussempès, From: Sunny girls; translated by Eléna Rivera (March)

“These poems originally appeared in French in the collection Sunny girls, published by Flammarion in 2015” 

I enjoy translations for a multitude of reasons, but in particular because they either introduce me to work in a language I don’t know or because they introduce me to a voice I have never heard before, or both. In this case, I am new to both the poet and the translator. 

I don’t recall ever having read a translation through above/ground press before. It is possible that it has published works in translation and I may have missed. Either way it is a wonderful thing to do for both writers and readers. I commend rob mclennan on doing so.

I appreciate that the English and original French text is included.

I was intrigued from the opening lines, minimal and simple in structure but unusual and often fanciful in nature. By the second poem, which contains the line, “Poetesses who bet on the banal don’t ride mopeds despite appearances,” I was charmed. In French the sound is gorgeous, a real tongue roller.

The work contains a longer prose piece entitled “Momentary Resurgence of Visual Sensations”  which moves slowly through the actions of thought and speech. “I like voices she could say I like not synthesizing not telling not retracing instead of shutting up, I ask myself and my answer is a question that has become a remake of my supposed previous life, track the sound that delayed leaves my mouth track that which spills out in thought, do you think then that one can become a person that will come back that one can come back in thought in the though of those who question you?

I like the repetition and the minimal punctuation in this piece, the way it mimics the way we think, or at least the way I think, a kind of self-talk. There is something Lisa-Robertson-ish about the way the author turns philosophical musings on thought and speech into poetry, into a subject for poetry. The thread of desire.

The poem ends with “and nonchalantly the red sun penetrates the purely theoretical text.” I feel that about Moussemps’ poetry.

The final small poem “I had noticed an unadorned house” is three lines that end with the line “I hear a breath behind me”.  We continue after this poem, after this work. I like poems that end without concluding.

I look forward to reading more of Moussemps’ writing and Rivera’s translations and poetry.

Jessica Smith, The Lover is Absent including poems from The Daybooks (April)

I have been a fan of Smith’s writing since I read her first above/ground press chapbook, “Shifting Landscapes” in 2006. She may have been one of the first writers I’d seen, in addition to rob mclennan, to play with horizontal space on the page. I was excited by the possibilities of reading the text that was opened up via this space and various alignments.

Let me start by acknowledging the beautiful line art by artist, writer and tattoo artist, Alixandra Bamford, which I loved.

I’ve attempted to make a day book before and I’ve failed because my entries are too mundane. There’s nothing mundane about Smith’s poems, which feel tender, slow-moving and lush to me in the way that they unfurl like the vines on Bamford’s illustration.

You know when an artist creates something, and you feel this sense of kindredship with her? This is what happens to me when I read Smith’s work. For example, in “21 March 2015 / Brooklyn [and I apologize for not spacing the poems as they are in the text; get the chapbook and you’ll have the right spacing; also note that this is one reading of the text, there are other ways to read it and include the text on the left-hand side]:

“people still say ‘soul mates’/they mean/ this kind of ghost/longing for the one who fits with you”

or in “28 March 2015 / Buffalo”:

“I am sitting in your attic after Mark/Kaplan’s attic/ patron saint of mad women/fuzzy aqua rug/and perfect light”

Later in the poem, Smith describes perfume as “tiny vials of sensory experience/transparent or slightly golden/interruptive”.

I admire the way Smith takes such close up looks at things, watches and listens with such attention. There is nothing more rewarding to me than being offered the fruits of a good poet’s attentiveness, as I am here.

I love the way she translates desire into images that make sense once you know they exist…in “2 March 2015 / Birmingham” for example, “the boats of us/the same slippery wood/ribs shiny with salt” or “my wide love for you/kept toggle-closed/spreading like too-large wings” in “19 September 2016 / Birmingham.”

I follow Smith on social media and I was overjoyed when she shared her experiments in dyeing fabric, the different textures she used and the natural materials and plants. Her poetry has this appeal for me too: “Swede-blue eyes/against the dark red houses,” “fields of wildflowers,” “slightly blue translucent webs” in “27 June 2003 / Ulvön / Sweden.

In “The Lover is Absent” Jessica Smith offers us the wild, untameable light.   

In “poorsong one” (March), Lisa Robertson writes “You May Pleat This Verse/or cut across freshly/To Make Any Sort of Refrain/That may be needed/Very Often/We are in Great Error.” I’d like to have this as a stitching sampler on my wall. This type of humility is one of the many things I admire about Robertson’s writing.

Another is her engagement with texts from earlier ages, particularly Medieval France. This chapbook opens with the cover of “Les chansons de Guillaume IX, duc d'Aquitaine (1071-1127), this edition published in 1927, known as the earliest troubadour and he wrote in the Occitan language.

I love this chapbook for its whimsy, for the possibilities of rearrangement, for the collage-like nature of the accumulated imagery, for the oddnik phrasing and the list-like nature of the poems. “The Current Enlivened/Between Comet and Cricket/Between the Bark and the Core/Wildrose and Girl.” From Scarce Dawn/Rimes Person with Song*”

Poems are formatted like songs, centred with title caps on each word and titles in uppercase. In the above poem, we are told in a footnote that “She appears wearing Pucci” and “52 out of every 154 syllables / Are bound into Pattern.”

Each page of this chapbook offers surprises, whimsical and beautiful juxtapositions. The relationship between the offerings and the songs of Guillaume X? You’d have to ask the fox of joy.

Buck Downs – the hack of heaven  (July)

There’s a humility to these short, spare poems. “I’d settle/for getting my tail/pinned back on –” (a Loop is not a circle), “life that beats/the philosophy/out of me” (switchborn cinder) and “I do not know/what I am talking about/and I am talking about it –” in handyman of the spirit. I almost get a feel of blues music with lines like “a curious crow/born to quick picking//lay down raging/wake up running/back to my home door” in bottom wheel and “it ain’t no sin/to keep on living” in dragon slider or “that fool made a man out of me” in Lamentude. The style is intimate. I feel like the listener the speaker is writing to in a poem such as the earth is rent: “silver bells are ringing/a dirge for those who yearn.”  There’s a lyricism and loveliness to some of the imagery: “hybrid means/to a shared end//twin cats in the wild//like some relative/I didn’t know I had//bruise colored hay/we made” in sweet reaction. And a  quirkiness too: “kisses like pop tarts,/sugary/& crisp where they/burn the mouth” in what I did not plan/to do today.
There are engagements with song. Stevie Nicks song lyric from Dreams as poem title and word play of You were always on my mind becomes “always on my grind.” There are philosophical musings about death and time and love here. The whole chapbook has a laid-back feeling. Kind of Kerouac/modern day Beats.

Sarah Dowling – Entering Sappho (July)

The cover is a map, which hints that we are not talking about Sappho, the poet. A note introduces the poetry at the beginning of the chapbook claiming that “the town was named by the original family that settled here in the late 19th century, and they were fond of Sappho’s poetry.”  I was hoping that this town was made up, but it is real, located in Washington.

This is a long, incantatory and sensual poem that opens with a list poem chant of numbers and places and a disappearance and this form appears once more in the middle of the poem and then again toward the end. Like Sappho’s poems, this feels like a song. The work is evocative of Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho, If Not, Winter. I confess that Carson's translations of Sappho are the only Sappho translations I have read. 

These are long, serpentine couplets, and  the content has to do with the body’s reaction to desire, to love. Here this desire also translates as agony, anxiety and cold sweat. I loved the sound in this poem, the buzzes and the sibilance, the liquids and the repetition, the rendering of the madness of yearning. I cannot do justice to the energy of this poem, but here is one example for me of this coiled up energy about to break free: “My  heart in my chest—thousands of/bees hovering around hives—all//invisible—then it is a subtle fire whose/scents radiate through my skin—"