Tuesday 30 June 2009

Dennis Lee approaching seventy

Jacob McArthur Mooney weighs in:

To see septuagenarianism looming in Dennis Lee’s near future is as inarguable a sign of time’s passing as exists for Canadian culture. His breakthrough success (1972’s Civil Elegies, the entirety of which Lee plans to read at the Scream) is so evocative of a certain point in the history of burdened optimism that it forever fixes its creator to a specific time and place ? as the perpetual radical twentysomething buzzing around Yorkville in the years before Canada stopped concerning itself with questions of what it meant to be Canadian.

Even more important than its introduction of Dennis Lee, Civil Elegies is memorable for its reintroduction of anger into Canada’s literary arsenal. A real, blood-and-spit kind of anger. And not just personal anger, either, or domestic anger. Instead, a massive, coast-to-coast, national anger. Anger as unifying theme. Lee’s early-career masterwork hums with a volatile disappointment that imposes itself on its readers, and that drags them into hard and surprising new territories. The humanism in Elegies is the kind that’s willing to put its head down and charge, unflinching, through to the far reaches of its philosophy and arrive as a kind of reactionary anarchism; as an anger that presents itself as both pout and polemics, before settling into its heartbreaking final movement as one young man sits in a public square surrounded by his fellow citizens and tries to give voice to his loneliness and rage.

Read the entire essay here.

And check out this event in this year's Scream Literary Festival. Lee will read Civil Elegies, Un, and Yesno in their entireties.

Sunday 28 June 2009

New on my bookshelf

Poems 1959 - 2009 by Frederick Seidel

Sometimes I don't know what to make of Frederick Seidel. Just when you think he's cracking off some bit of eye-rolling Muldoonish clownery, swoosh! Out comes the switchblade! (or sometimes vice-versa). He's been called both a "ghoul" (by Michael Robbins) and the “the best American poet writing today” (lots of people). His writing is extremely complex, not only in its poetics, but also (probably even more so) in its psychology. All this is compounded by the mystery of the author. I went out today to enjoy a coffee and read the introduction to this substantial volume of collected poems. But there was no introduction. No context or commentary. No welcome mat. No doorway in. Just the poems to wrestle with... and readers better be ready for a royal ass-whooping.

House of Anansi didn't have its annual poetry bash in Toronto this year, so I'm only now getting around to the rest of their 2009 poetry titles after first reading Karen Solie's Pigeon.

Gun Dogs by James Langer

Langer is a poet clearly energized by the present-day Canadian renaissance of New Formalism in lyric poetry (which is the hot topic in CanPo according to its champions ...and only 25 years behind the Americans who have long since moved on to more interesting discussions). The mode, however, suits Langer to a tee. Forget whether or not it's fashionable right now (and right now, it is); he's just really very good at making the sounds of language do his bidding, and reading very good writing of any kind should be a welcome pleasure for anyone, shouldn't it? Occasionally the style wins out over substance (a few poems are like scrimshaw -- rustic and ornate, but what do they do?), but overall this is an extremely polished and eloquent book.

Mole by Patrick Warner

There must be something about Eastern Canada that lights a fire in well-rounded poets like Patrick Warner. He strikes me as the same kind and calibre of poet that those other Easterners Milton Acorn and Alden Nowlan were at their very best: equal parts Romantic and Modernist, equally at ease with a tight quatrain or a whirling and lunging stretch of free verse, but also deeply and empathically contending with the haunting material substance of their worlds. Best of all, he possesses the ability to surprise the reader with small yet sublime revelations. Like a beam from a lighthouse, wherever Warner fixes his poetic gaze, he exposes the jagged rocks in the seemingly placid shallows.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

New on my bookshelf

Poetry in the Making by Ted Hughes

Hughes' classic 1967 work on the writing and teaching of poetry is back in print. For me, the first chapter (called 'Capturing Animals') alone is worth the price of the book, but there's a lot more. It's always a pleasure to read a book like this by a great poet who is also a great commentator on poetry. Delightful.

Fish Bones by Gillian Sze

Taking their cues from painted scenes, photographs and portraits, these poems bring the quiet tableaus of their subjects' private lives vividly to life. Often, poems that describe still images are overly static themselves, claustrophobic with stagnant austerity... but not these. Sze's poems are often tender, funny, erotic or ardent; this is another encouraging debut by a writer who isn't content to ignore the physical world or the readers who inhabit it.

Saturday 20 June 2009

Some recent reviews I've written for the Globe & Mail

Love Outlandish by Barry Dempster

"...it could be argued that love has been the principal subject matter of poetry since we began writing it, and from Solomon to Sappho, from Shakespeare to Sexton, many poets have made it their specialty. To that long list we may now add Barry Dempster.

Love Outlandish
, Dempster's 10th collection of poetry, contains (let me count the ways) exactly 60 poems, and each one aspires to approach the well-charted subject of love from a new direction. In order to accomplish this feat, there are at least 4,000 years' worth of sap, sentiment and cliché to navigate around. It's a very tall order."

Read the rest of my review here.

This Way Out by Carmine Starnino

"What is surprising is how much more free-wheeling and playful Starnino the poet seems to be than Starnino the critic. For example, the poem Doge's Dungeon brilliantly uses this emoticon (:-o) as a kind of conceptual end-rhyme with the word “terror.” And the poem Heavenography is a stream-of-consciousness prose poem about “working-class” clouds. It's a rollicking, surrealist vaudeville of a poem that has more in common with experimentalist sensibilities than Starnino the critic might like to admit, but its jazzy freeform lightheartedness suits the poet so well that we should all hope he'll write more like it soon.

I like this version of Carmine Starnino best: the good-natured poet, full of beans, approaching his aesthetics with an air of carefree mischief. It's so refreshing, one has to wonder..."

Read the rest of my review here.

Monday 1 June 2009

New on my bookshelf

To Be Read in 500 Years by Albert Goldbarth

It's here! Let the bells ring out and the banners fly! Feast your eyes on it! It's here! It's here! Reading Goldbarth is guaranteed to improve your life, and now his new book is here!

Selected Poems by Robert Bringhurst

One of our preeminent poets, thinkers, and typographic gurus has a new selection of his poems. It's been a long time since his last selected, The Beauty of the Weapons, in 1982 (CORRECTION: The Calling in 1995). This volume is (still) long overdue.

Sleeping It Off in Rapid City by August Kleinzahler

I was enjoying my friend's copy so much, I had to buy my own in paperback. Kleinzahler's poems really get into your blood and stay with you for while... like a symbiote. They speak to you when the world around you goes silent. I love these poems.