Mortality Comes Home, and Other Poems: Brilliant Falls

9781554471232_bAnother bit of work slipping into the pleasure reading for the year, but John Terpstra’s Brilliant Falls would have been on this list anyways had I owned it when I made the list. Terpstra is a Hamilton-based poet who has consistently and unfairly flown under the radar of Canadian poetry`s landscape for a long time now. I`m not totally sure why this is, but it might be partly because he has taken a rather unconventional path to poetry. Where many Canadian poets are employed by universities or colleges to pay their bills, Terpstra is a self-employed cabinetmaker. This career is reflected in his poetic output with Naked Trees being a reflection of his own relationship to urban trees while numerous other poems take up trees and wood. The other reason that Terpstra might be passed over is because of his Christian overtones and imagery. His own relationship to the church and faith is explored in Skin Boat: Acts of Faith and Other Navigations, a work of non-fiction published in a beautiful edition by Gaspereau Press. Regardless, Brilliant Falls is a strong collection of poems by a mature poet who knows his voice and craft.

While many poetry collections lack a strong sense of connection across their length, this is not the case with Brilliant Falls. Human mortality is featured in many of the poems with a sequence of six poems, in particular, that reflect on death and its meaning for those who go on living. This is, in no small part, because Terpstra`s own parents have died in the last number of years and poems like “Driving Home Christmas” and “Emptying the House” reflect directly on these experiences. “Driving Home Christmas” is one of the strongest poems in the collection as Terpstra works his way through his father’s death near Christmas Day and the annual depression he undergoes at this time of year now. I particularly like how he skillfully weaves mortality with the Christian meaning of Christmas which celebrates the birth of God. What I think I like most of all is his honesty – it is clear that Terpstra struggled to write through these lines and I appreciate this. Reflecting on the lack of people at his father’s funeral, Terpstra writes

” … The place should have been packed,
but it was Christmas Eve, people were busy or away,
and it’s not as though the place was empty, but that I
expected more, and didn’t know I expected more
until the building didn’t fill to the rafters,
and the sky didn’t open to angels. Singing.”

The lack of crowd contrasts with the speaker’s own sense of death while Terpstra also alludes to the familiar Christmas annunciation story with angels announcing Christ’s birth. My favorite poem in the collection is “Topographies of Easter,” the poem from which the book’s title comes. Terpstra’s Falling into Place, a work of creative non-fiction exploring Hamilton’s geography, is a personal favorite and in “Topographies of Easter” Terpstra looks again at the Hamilton landscape. He describes Hamilton’s landscape as:

” … this body that is broken
by time and season and violence too deep
for us to wonder at the source, broken
into beauty that lures our present rambling
and leads us to the edge of this escarpment”

I love the way Terpstra recognizes the enormity of geological forces; forces which dwarf the human ability to manipulate the world. But I also love the way that Terpstra captures the rugged beauty of the Niagara Escarpment, a geological feature that lures us forward. I’ll admit that I am biased towards Terpstra because of my own religious views and the fact that I live in Hamilton. However, I do think that his poetry is well worth the time.

I highly recommend Brilliant Falls for any fans of Canadian poetry.

Terpstra, John. Brilliant Falls Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2013. Print.


What Does Justice Mean in Toronto?: thirsty

downloadChalk up one more bit of work slipping into the list as I recently read Dionne Brand’s thirsty. I had meant to read her No Land to Light On, an earlier collection of poetry, but the pressure of a dissertation forced me to include this one instead. And thirsty is a great long poem. This was my second time reading it and I got way more from it than the first time around when I sped through it, looking for usefulness to my research interests. When I read it this time, I took the time to let her words soak in, to look up words I didn’t know, and to take marginal notes on what was going on throughout. In fact, those marginal notes alerted me to how carefully constructed Brand’s book is and allowed me to appreciate her craftsmanship.

thirsty is a series of 33 linked poems that follow the tragic shooting of Alan, a Jamaican, by the Toronto Police Force and the ripple effect in the lives of his mother Chloe, his wife Julie, and his unnamed daughter. Mixed throughout are poems narrated by a first-person speaker, a person at a distance from the shooting and who comments upon the events. All three women’s lives have been essentially stopped by Alan’s death as Chloe retreats into religion, Julie into a broad feeling of emptiness, and the daughter into escaping the neighbourhood on her bicycle. Yet the speaker of the poem introduces this drama in the midst of Toronto, a seething mass of strangers that is at times comforting and at times violent. In reference to the waiting passengers in the city’s subway tunnels, Brand writes:

They are the echo chambers for the voices of the gods of
cities. Glass, money, goods. They sit in a universe of halted breaths
waiting for this stop Bay and that stop Yonge and that one St. Patrick

in early morning surrender to factories in Brampton,
swirling grey into the 401 and the Queen Elizabeth Highway,
they hold their tempers, their passions, over grumbling machines
until night, dreaming their small empires, their domestic tyrannies

but of course no voyage is seamless. Nothing in a city is discrete.
A city is all interpolation … (37)

I love these lines. I love how Brand takes the city and turns it into something unfamiliar and strange, a beast that reflects our hopes and dreams, but also takes and takes from us. An earlier stanza reads:

All the hope gone hard. That is a city.
The blind house, the cramped dirt, the broken
air, the sweet ugliness, the blissful and tortured
flowers, the misguided clothing, the bricked lies
the steel lies, all the lies seeping from flesh
falling in rain and snow, the weeping buses,
the plastic throats, the perfumed garbage, the
needled sky, the smogged oxygen, the deathly clerical
gentlemen cleaning their fingernails at the stock
exchange, the dingy hearts in the newsrooms, that is
a city, the feral amnesia of us all.

Again, Brand’s ability to capture the key details of a city stand out. She portrays in broad sweeps the contour of urban life and the way that the city forces us into intimate contact with many strangers. Of course, throughout thirsty, the question of how race interpolates the urban experience looms large. And Brand provides no easy answers to this, instead giving readers the textured details of three interrupted lives. But I think what I love most about thirsty is that it is great poetry. Brand is a very talented poet, and in thirsty, she ties together themes from her whole body of work into a seamless and meaningful whole.

I highly recommend thirsty to anyone who lives in Toronto and fans of poetry.

Brand, Dionne. thirsty. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2002. Print.

The Mundane and Everyday: placeholder

downloadCharmaine Cadeau’s placeholder sneaks onto my list because I am reviewing it for The Goose, journal for ecocriticism in Canada. I had hoped to read it without sacrificing more of the poetry I had initially chosen, but it is increasingly apparent my time is more limited than I thought. Such is life. Anyways, Cadeau’s slim volume of poems is an interesting read. Again, I had the sense that I just did not give it enough time in order to do it justice, so this review is less of a review of her ability and more of a reflection on poetry itself.

placeholder, according to the publisher’s description on the back, is “provisional, roaming, and obsessed with remnants and deferrals”. It also “goes beyond the quotidian in search of that which saves the day or ruins the souffle or makes us all squirm in self-recognition.” These descriptions are very accurate as I found the poems continually coming back to the everyday, searching in the cracks of our mundane lives and finding glimmers of wonder and awe. Some of the poems are very good while others left me wanting. Cadeau has a very good sense of image and I found myself regularly underlining an image or metaphor, amazed at its sharpness and clarity. However, this did not always mean that the poem itself was similarly strong. For example, “Signal breaking up” ruminates on the distances (physical and emotional) between a speaker who is at home awaiting her lover’s arrival from afar. The relationship is sharply defined with a few key images, my favorite being “At home, I’m worrying/ the dark finish/ off the arms of the chair, the part/ that curves down.” This, for me, is an incredible image, conveying a depth of emotion and history in a few lines. However, I found the rest of the poem did not match this image’s quality. The poem stays with this speaker trying to reassure herself she has not made a mistake in the relationship before ending on the dangers of mermaids who may waylay her lover. I didn’t like the ending partly because it introduced a new element to the relationship of the lovers but also because I felt it fell flat.

All of this to say that I’m not sure what to do with poetry anymore. Grand, epic poetry is no longer in style. It died a hard death with the advent of postmodernism (or something like that), such that it seems like most poets now are left with only the everyday or the quotidian to write about. And at a certain point, this poetry fails to excite me. I find myself wanting poets to aim higher, to be grandiose, to take risks. Of course, this type of poetry doesn’t get published anymore. Especially not by a poet with only one previous book of poems to her credit as Cadeau possesses. So is it her fault that the poems are occasionally ordinary? Or is it a publishing system that requires a poet to publish various poems in small literary journals (all of whom want their own style) before they will look at a potential manuscript? I’m just not sure about poetry anymore. Cadeau is a technically gifted poem and a number of poems like “Dog Star,” “Two Can Play,” “Slip,” and “Erosion” all attest to this. placeholder is a good collection of poems, but I am no longer a patient reader of poetry it seems.

I would recommend placeholder to serious readers of poetry because it displays some spectacular pyrotechnics.

Cadeau, Charmaine. placeholder. London, ON: Brick Books, 2013. Print.

Toronto Uncovered: The Martyrology Book V

0889102511This another bit of work slipping into pleasure reading, but in its defence, bpNichol’s The Martyrology Book V was very enjoyable. I have a special place in my heart for bpNichol, one of Canada’s most innovative and experimental poets. I ran across a portion of The Martyrology, his life-long long poem, in an anthology for a CanLit course I was taking in my second year. Nichol’s world of lost and forgotten saints enthralled me and I have a copy of the book now on my shelves. I had meant to re-read it this year, but instead took up Book V because it addresses Nichol’s Toronto neighbourhood of the Annex.

If you have not encountered Nichol’s work before, I would highly recommend it. He was a poet of many stripes, working in concrete poetry, sound poetry, conventional poetry, and everything in between. You can see some of his work here or see portions of the first five books of The Martryology here. There is a bit of a learning curve with Nichol’s work and I can’t say that I totally get everything he does. However, as my experience reading Book V has shown, if you give him time you will enter a wondrous world of punning, word play, and other such delights.

In Book V, Nichol sets out to explore an alternative cosmology of the Annex with streets becoming characters. Brunswick Avenue becomes Brun, a legendary figure linked back to St. Brendan, to the Greek god Chronus, and to Bran of Norse mythology. St. George becomes a troll under a bridge after St. Clair rebuffs his advances. This imaginative re-telling of city streets opens up a mythical space in Toronto’s landscape that Nichol explores and ruminates on. At the same time, Nichol also remembers friends now dead, previous experiences in different parts of the city, and his experiences travelling across Canada. If the first books of The Martyrology dealt with lofty and grand themes of death, religion, and mortality, Book V seems more rooted in a specific time and place.

I am struggling to review Nichol’s work both because it is so unique that it escapes summary but also because it can be willfully obscure. The book is organized into twelve chains that appear as footnotes. Chain 11 is concrete poetry (or at least I think it is) that was totally beyond me. I had no clue what Nichol was trying to do in this section. Then again, I did not take three days to try and unpack it either. So, Nichol’s work is both rewarding and frustrating. However, if you have not encountered it before, I would highly encourage an excursion. He was one of the primary writers of Fraggle Rock for a period as well as a long-time employee of the University of Toronto’s library. He is an enigmatic and entertaining figure in Canadian literature.

I highly recommend any of Nichol’s work for fans of Canadian poetry.

Nichol, bp. The Martyrology Book V. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1982. Print.

Reading a Long Poem: Towards the Last Spike

CP00647-002E.J. Pratt’s Towards the Last Spike has been on my to-read list for a long time. I read a portion of it in a 3rd year Canadian literature course way back in my undergraduate days, and have always had a desire to read it in the full. After doing so this week, I am not sure where I stand. I think one of the things that I am realizing with 10-10-12 is that poetry does not match well with time-constraint reading. If you have force your way through poems, they lose a lot of their value and potential enjoyment. This is not to say that I raced through Towards the Last Spike but rather that I am no longer sure where reading poetry stacks up in terms of my reading preferences. I think poetry plays a vital role in the literary world and can be a very productive force of change, but I also think that it is slowly falling away from our culture’s lens of focus (this is not necessarily poetry’s faulty so much as a change of preferences in form).

Towards the Last Spike is one of Pratt’s major long poems. At 1626 lines long, it is an epic and sets up to be such. Pratt’s other long poems, Brebeuf and his Brethren and The Titanic, similarly aim at a high voice with high action, modelled on classical models of epics. If you are not familiar with Towards, it takes up the construction of the Canadian National Railway across the continent, driven largely by Sir John A. MacDonald. The line represented a symbolic unifying of the continent and helped to solidify the country economically and physically as a nation. Pratt’s earlier Brebeuf takes up the work of Jesuit missionaries in early Canadian history and sets out to mythologize those events. Throughout Towards, you get a strong sense of Pratt attempting to lift a historical event into the mythological realm. Whether he succeeds in this is a different question. I get the sense that immediately following the poem’s publication, he did succeed. The long poem won a Governor General’s award and capped his long career as a poet and professor at Victoria College. However, in the 21st century, I think the results are somewhat mixed. Given that the CN rail has diminished in importance at the hands of the automobile and airplane, we tend to view this achievement as less than absolutely necessary for Canada’s history. Historically speaking, it may be an extremely important event but I think culturally speaking it does not pack an emotional punch for most Canadians of my generation (maybe if the NFB made a film version … just kidding).

Reading the long poem at a friend’s cottage by Algonquin was an interesting experience as the monstrous lizard of nature that Pratt sets up as the foe lay right around me. This was the aspect that I liked most about the poem. Pratt uses this trope of man against nature throughout to create tension, and even if I have critical reservations about it, I think it is quite effective in capturing the unique geography of Canada. I found that the poem worked best when it focused on the physical building of the railroad rather than on the political battles which surrounded it. Again, this might be a problem of my generation of readers rather than a lack of interest. Overall, the process of reading a long poem was enjoyable and I cannot say I was disappointed with Towards the Last Spike. I do think that F.R. Scott’s criticism of Pratt’s omission of the many Chinese workers who built some of the hardest sections still stands. For historical and literary reasons, I do think Pratt’s poem retains a high level of importance even if it does not necessarily hold the same appeal and weight in the 21st century.

I would recommend this poem to scholars and students of Canadian literature.

Pratt, E.J. Towards the Last Spike.” E.J. Pratt: Selected Poems. Eds. Sandra Djwa, W.J. Keith and Zailig Pollock. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000. 155-204. Print.

Read This!: Paradoxides

9780771055096This is a completely biased review and is probably not impartial. I love Don McKay’s work, so it is going to be hard to put on the critic’s/reviewer’s hat. C’est la vie. Paradoxides, McKay’s newest collection of poetry, is an amazing book. You should read it now. Seriously, stop reading and go get it. Or click here to see him read some of his work from Strike/Slip, his previous collection.

If you are not familiar with his work, he is Canada’s foremost nature poet. However, this does not mean that he simply wanders around in the woods rhapsodizing about trees and birds (although he does do this on occasion). McKay has a razor-sharp sense of humor that permeates all of his work along with a healthy dose of irony. Coupled to all of this is a near-complete mastery of words and poetic technique. Reading McKay gets me excited about poetry again, and I cannot say enough about his work.

Mckay is probably most known for his work with birds and bird-watching, but this book enters new territory by engaging with geology and paleontology. A paradoxide is, as the back cover explains, “the genus of trilobite whose fossil serves to identify the parts of the planet that once belonged to the Paleozoic micro-continent of Avalonia”. McKay also includes a three part poem on paradoxides that reflects on both the ability of fossils to signal “a secret alphabet”  and their ability to utterly disorient our sense of space and time (40).  The middle section resembles Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno (click here to see it) in that it is a series of short phrases beginning with the preposition for. Here are a few lines:

“For they appear like a fully accoutred medieval knight stepping onto a nearly empty stage

For they are elegant and monstrous

For their pleural spines extend past the thorax like the kind of drooping moustaches sported by bad guys in        westerns

For they are local and exotic”    (41)

You can see here the mix of serious reflection and McKay’s humor which seems to undercut that reflection. I say seems because I do not read it as a biting sarcasm or the kind of humor which tears down the subject. Instead, it offers different ways into the material. I know this sounds very untechnical, but I have hard time expressing just how McKay’s humor works. It is probably best to just read him for yourself.

Paradoxides has a number of these rock poems, focusing on geological features (mostly found in Newfoundland). But it also has some bird poems including “Song for the Song of the Canada Geese” which, instead of denigrating the bird as most Canadians are wont to do, praises them for their “existential yammer” (5). For me, the most interesting poem is a long poem called “Thingamajig” where McKay reflects on his walking stick, his boots, a rock and a rocking chair. The long poem is made up of both prose pieces and poems and I like how they work together to re-orient readers in their approach to what seem like inconsequential objects. I found the final section, “Taking the Ferry” and “Descent” a little upsetting in the sense that the poems are direct meditations on death. It is almost as if McKay is seeing himself at the end of his career and is preparing readers for this by these poems. I truly hope this is not the case, hence my worry. However, these two poems work quite well and bring something unique to the collection.

So, this has been a very paean-esque review, apologies for that. You should just read Paradoxides for yourself and make your own decision. I, of course, highly recommend it for any lover of poetry.

McKay, Don. Paradoxides. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2012. Print.

Why I Am A Not A Poet: Harmonium

HarmoniumWell, I had hoped that Wallace Stevens`Harmonium would be a great read and re-kindle my interest in modernist poetry. I can`t say that it has. At one point, I had considered going into modernism before I ended up in Canadian literature as a scholar, and reading Stevens`work vindicated that decision for me. It is not that Stevens is not a good poet, he is, but more that I was often left confused and scratching my head. Reading Harmonium was like riding a roller-coaster (a terrible cliche, I know), it had some amazing highs but also lots of lows and some moments where you are just clicking along hoping that the thrills will start soon.

Take the opening poem, “Earthy Anecdote,” for example. It is a short poem, 20 lines, with short lines. It concerns a firecat who makes the bucks swerve away from it. Who or what is the firecat? It is not the name of an actual animal, or at least not a recognized name for one. So do we take it as an allegorical animal or an actual one? The poem itself is quite elliptical, repeating itself and coming back to this action of the firecat threatening a hear of bucks in Oklahama. The poem ends with the firecat closing his “bright eyes” and sleeping, suggesting that it has eaten its fill and now rests. I read this poem a number of times, trying to make sense of it but ultimately coming to frustration. I cheated for this review and glanced at Bart Eeckhout’s “Wallace Stevens’ ‘Earthy Anecdote’: or, How Poetry Must Resist Ecocriticism Almost Successfully”.* He goes through a number of different readings of the firecat before settling on it as an actual predator of some kind. When I read the poem again, as I did just now, I still feel like there is a river of meaning to which I can only gain glimpses and small tastes rather than full mouthfuls. This is, perhaps, Stevens’ goal (and if so, he does it well). At its best, poetry fills  me with joy, longing, desire, and a raft of other emotions. At its worst, it leaves me feeling confused and wondering what I missed.

Harmonium does have plenty of interesting environmental themes running throughout it. In “The Snow Man,” the speaker ponders what it must take to truly regard winter in a place:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

The connection between bodily awareness of cold and the perception of winter here is intriguing and apt. Having grown up in Canada, I do feel that you do not truly perceive winter until you feel its cold biting into you so that your perception of icy beauty is also tinged with the pain of cold air on skin. The poem ends with:

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

This elliptical ending brings the reader back to the speaker standing in the cold trying to “see” the winter truly. Instead, he only sees that there is nothing there to behold (note the confusion of senses with him listening to the wind and regarding the frost visually at the poem’s beginning), and then he realizes the nothing that exists in winter. Having been outside on a day where the temperature fell below -50 with windchill, there really is no sound around, instead an absence of sound and movement (because everything else is just trying to survive in their hole/home).

I found Stevens’ environmental poems (if I can call them that), the most rewarding and I wish I had taken more careful notes on which ones I like best. However, too often I found myself confused by poems like “The Load of Sugar-Cane” or “Cy est pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et les unze mille vierges” where the titles make reference to some event or character I don’t know and the words of the poem seem disconnected from that same reference. You could easily write a dissertation or three on Harmonium, but this is not what I wanted to do when I set out to read the collection. Perhaps, the fault lies in trying to get through it speedily rather than reading it several times over the course of a year. Anyways, this collection made me realize why I am not a poet: because I want my meaning to be understood, not always immediately, but at least accessibly in a way that does not require ten minutes of Google searching and Google book scanning to get a sense of what is there.

I recommend this books for grad students of American literature and the most ardent of poetry lovers. Otherwise, this probably is not for you.

Stevens, Wallace. Harmonium. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947. Print.

*The article is available on Eeckhout’s webpage or in Comparative American Studies 7.2 (2009): 173-92.