Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Everything Brian Palmu Read

Well, all the poetry, anyway. He includes a couple of brief reviews of Jailbreaks and Track & Trace:

Edited: Zach Wells, Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets. “What’s left out?” is usually the first question asked of an anthology. It’s a strange reverse take, especially in this case, since the title doesn’t include “The Best” before “99”. Hey, I would have liked something by George Faludy. But the initial question should always be “what’s in?”, and what’s in is very fine, indeed. A various, quality-saturated volume, surprising when considering that 99 poets (actually 100 since one poem is co-written) are included. Absolute favourites are hard to pinpoint, but perhaps my three top picks would be Eric Ormsby’s frightening “Childhood Pieties”, George Johnston’s moving “Cathleen Sweeping”, and the piece to which the volume owes its name, Margaret Avison’s gift-packed “Snow”. Lest these three point me out as a fossil (if praising the work of 50 years ago makes me such), I was both surprised and delighted to discover recent poems (and some poets) unfamiliar to me. Peter Norman’s “Bolshevik Tennis!” was delightful, especially so as a political sonnet immediately brings to mind message-stuffed solemnity. Here, Norman’s stripped-court conceit is fun, and the reader doesn’t have to choose different sides of the missing net to laugh. And there’s also a funny existentialist poem! I haven’t perused a thirty-pound tome of them, lately. David O’Meara’s “Postcard From Camus” lifts the philosophical weight from that polarizing author with the paraphrasable defence, “it was the sun!” Wells’ notes on the poems include intelligent historical context, but are also highly personal, and in that spirit, I’d challenge his take on Adam Sol’s “Sonnet With The Morning Paper” in which he claims a “suckerpunch” at the turn, “[b]y toying with the reader’s expectations”. The hints are more than subtle, though, in the development: “stealing morning” (the first word bringing out the homophone in the second); “enmeshed in … wire”; “raucous tribe”; “conspire”; “spooking”; “mesh fences”. As for “enmeshed”, a few duds were nestled in amongst the firecrackers -- David McFadden’s “Country Hotel In The Niagara Peninsula” and Mike Barnes’ “First Stab” -- but in a book covering one hundred years of sonnets, limited to Canada, from traditional subjects and form to any subject in forms at first hard to identify with the grand(ma)pappy (isn’t being politically correct cute?) of them all, Wells has worked hard to provide a living repository that colourfully fills a neglected alcove in our national literature.

Zach Wells, Track & Trace. If there are more than a handful of Canadian poets currently writing better music in which the poems are meant to be heard as cadence, dynamic shift, and sonorous repetition and variation, I haven’t chanced upon them yet. I could fill a lot of space here with examples, but that would be longer than a trailer, and would defeat the surprise, the discovery in the context of an entire poem. But here’s a few: “Tender tight fists of fiddleheads/fronding into bitter-leafed ferns.” (from the opener, “What He Found Growing In The Woods”, a fine metaphorical study of birth and death); “chunks of trunk thunking like dud munitions” (from “Nimble & Poise”); “[t]he sudden stink of mussel mud drifting” (from “Mussel Mud”). In fact, mud stink is a sensory motif wafting through T&T, decomposition as difficult beauty, the rot in life not only natural and inevitable, but strangely transcendent, at times. I’m not partial to Wells’ anaphoral poems; the procedure distracts from the back end listing, and the insistence dulls rather than amplifies. And there’s still a straightjacketed concision, at times, which strangles feeling. That those feelings are strong and honest makes this a greater frustration. I was delighted by the often subtle meaning, only apparent in elementary form after several readings, and that the meaning cohered in a curious winterized vision, creatively enacted in Seth’s specific sequence of drawings.

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