amongst books

amongst books

Sunday, December 16, 2018

above/ground press 2 - more fav chapbooks of 2018


above/ground press 2018 – part, the second

Jenna Jarvis, year of pulses (July)

Yes, I’m biased. I’ve loved Jenna’s poetry since we first published her on Bywords.ca seven years ago and I had the chance to help edit her first poetry chapbook, The Tiger with the Crooked Mouth (Bywords, 2013).

There are only six poems in this chapbook. They are quirky and smart and humorous at times. I had to look up words.  Expectation is suspect, and beauty is paired with ugliness: “kantō” “the mall punks sulk at a deluge/they’re expected to crave//but rain binds them and clouds/of fresh smoke to the entrance//I vomit over an empty stomach…” There’s a feistiness: “we decided that la famiglia was/a mob of stone butches who sulked in parking lots…” (24 Fried Foods You Have To Try In This Lifetime) so yes, lots of sulking in public spaces.

There’s lots of pairing in these poems: beauty with ugliness, local with international places, humour with frankness.

Jason Christie, glass language (excerpt) (July)

Also biased, I like Jason’s poetry and on rare occasions we have coffee together. I can hear his voice as I read this. He astonishes right from the beginning: “Writing it’s like/Snowfall,…” and “poems like/the look of molten metal/or friendship.” You think: “weird, but …yeah…” There’s a sweetness too in the way Jason lets his life into the poem: “Hey Emmett Starts daycare” and “kindness is a child full of packed weather, grammar in a tide he calls joy a rock/we coalesce”

I love the accumulation of odd similes and light, the lack of articles doesn’t make for telegram type lines as it sometimes does in some poetry. here they would detract from the associative feel. Weather is here. the word “Unbegun” is repeated. “i have no time to have time.” I feel empathy. This language as fragile as glass, but also containing a lot and looking beautiful in the light.

Bill Mavreas, A Mercy of Signs (August)

11 black and white visual poems made no doubt through a manual process, perhaps copied multiple times. Mercy towards imperfection as seen in drip, imperfect black lines, degradation of image, bleed of black and grey, overlap of keys, such beautiful signs. Also while I haven’t made note of most memorable readings of the year, Billy’s interpretation / explanation of his process during the above/ground press 25th anniversary celebration last August was wondrous and bears mentioning.

Stephen Brockwell, Immune to the Sacred (August)

I have been a great admirer of Stephen’s writing for many years and include this chapbook as a reason why. The poems in the chapbook balance reflection and depth with play and vigour.  These poems address border crossings, the environment, social media, immigration, personal history, the wonder of nature, metaphysics. These are comments on nature vs technology or man vs nature depicted in ironic wonder and beauty. “so many colours even the worst days/are flecked with one beautiful/but toxic unrecycled utterance” in “Convocation Address.”

There are poems in which we see the subject as a manipulator of nature for his own sake, such as in “Sad Child, Happy Child,”: “You logged an old forest/to clear a small plot/for your cottage. The flames a beautiful sight,/the stumps a fine source of fuel.” Or in “Silent Uses for Trees” in which we find the title of the chapbook when the speaker talks about cutting down a tree for Christmas: “Peter spooled the saw up/through the branches./Swaying, he topped the crown./Maybe we’re immune to the sacred./ […] We burned the tree on New Year’s Eve.”

There’s a wryness to these poems, which respond to contemporary politics, the destruction of the environment and social media. For example in the poem, “Questionable Social Media Metaphor” in which the social media cliché of migrant children interned in camps have been likened to butterflies: “I won’t shake my fist/in a public square./Your neighbour won’t. One of his kids might,/Ashley not Cam. Look: a hummingbird/darting between the columbines and panies/patriotic blooms for July!”

One of the things that impresses me about Stephen’s poetry is his ability to move from understatedness to emotion without seeming to be emotional at all. For example the poem, “Ceiling” beings by talking about a corporate ceiling and moves to the speaker’s “mother’s ceiling” to a wish to burn down the house. The emotion builds and builds until it explodes. I admire this type of control. It strengthens the poem. And it echoes some of the techniques used in Stephen’s last book, “All of Us Reticent, Here Together” (Mansfield Press, 2016) which uses various methods to deal with trauma, including accumulation.

The poems in this chapbook contain specific and unflinching descriptions.
“Out of the shell,/slugs make their way through/human tracts,//hasty, eviscerating.” in “My South Florida Vacation.”
There’s plenty of humour and word play in the collection. “all the fallen angels/eat ripe damson plums/and watch Ted Danson wash glasses.” in “We all have Wants.”

“Immune to the Sacred” is a collection of poems that refuses the view of the world as if through rose-coloured glasses or perhaps accepts that these glasses probably were made by sacrificing something in nature. The speaker of these poems has rejected Pangloss’s optimistic philosophy and is embracing a shared culpability for the state of the world, perhaps one could say he is attempting to cultivate his own garden.


Might there be a final part 3? Let's hope so. I still have a stack of chapbooks to go through.

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