Poetry

Poetry

A review of The Art of DyingBlackbirdsSit How You WantQuarryEast and WestDelet ThisJourneywomanMechanics of a GazeShort Histories of LightBlowing Grass Empire by Sarah TolmieGreg SantosRobin RichardsonTanis FrancoLaura RitlandMLA ChernoffCarolyne Van Der MeerBranka PetrovicAidan ChafeMark Lavorato

Published on July 7, 2018

Like Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Sarah Tolmie makes it clear from the outset of her second poetry collection, The Art of Dying, that she is here to skewer everything, not just the easy stuff. The Art of Dying is a modern-day take on the Ars moriendi – a traditional text that offers advice on the protocols and procedures of “dying well.” Tolmie’s speaker is presented as an authority, sardonically steering the reader through the mysteries of death and dying.

The Art of Dying
Sarah Tolmie

McGill-Queen's University Press
$16.95
paper
110pp
9780773552715

Where The Art of Dying falls short is in its insecurity with this leadership role. Often, the boldly combative openers – “Most books of poems are far too short. / It’s hard to get your money’s worth” – fizzle out by the time they reach their end, or defensively push the reader away – “I’m not a Fitbit made for your mind, / Here to whittle your taste down a couple of sizes.”

Sometimes this glibness is effective, as with a reflection on miscarriage that sidesteps sentimentality and ends up breaking your heart:

I had to abort a fetus once at fourteen weeks.
That sucked but was less agony
Than its putative life, all back to front, a wreck.

But more often than not, it is in moments of vulnerability that the speaker presents true confidence. There is astute compassion in discussions of assisted suicide, the fleeting life of an imaginary friend, and the confusion of hospital stays that deftly turn daily incidences into larger existential considerations:

If things change, we’ll let you know ASAP.
Yes, thanks. I understand.

Things are much less clear than you might think
Here at the brink.
It’s very wide, though uniformly steep.

In these direct, personal brushes with death, Tommie is at her most clear-sighted, stripping away the rubble of euphemism we use as a salve against the enigma of death. (MH)

***

At some point in your elementary school education, you are required to make a family tree. Those from complicated diasporic backgrounds often find themselves traumatized by this – your tree is jumbled; you are a failure already, simply because yours is a narrative that is different from the status quo. Greg Santos’s Blackbirds presents family histories that soothe these wounds – family gardens in place of family trees – histories that leave space for the expanse and ambiguity inherent in the diasporic experience.

Santos uses crisp, direct language, with an informative style and a sensitivity that extends from the familial (“I want to coddle the egg, hug its insides”) to the political:

Our little American town is exhausted.
Please help.

A master of understatement, Santos presents one-liners that twist the reader around with their contradictions and sudden shifts in scope. In “I Have a Problem,” he opens with: “All I care about is everything,” while in “Hangry” he posits:

How do we respond to this horrible day?
I watched a video of how instant ramen noodles are made.

Blackbirds
Greg Santos

Eyewear Publishing
£6
paper
48pp
9781912477449

These meditative asides work to highlight the necessity of enjoying simple pleasures in the midst of the larger complexities of life. Whether those complexities are related to family or the political landscape we currently occupy, Blackbirds excels with its confident inner logic.

Always tender-hearted and often heartbreaking, Blackbirds heals the bruises of living in the twenty-first century with a unifying sense of resilience. The speaker finds emotional salvation through reclamation of that which has caused harm, most touchingly in “I’m Dog, Who Are You?” – a piece where the speaker reflects on the many violences of the word “dog,” yet ends with the overwhelmingly sweet intergenerational scene of a father playing puppy love with his kids:

Who are you?
I’m dog. I embrace my dogness.
Are you dog, too? (MH)

***

Sit How You Want, Robin Richardson’s third poetry collection, is relentlessly uncompromising in its brutal, often unflattering honesty. By virtue of its stubbornness, the collection captures the complicated facets of womanhood, abuse, and power with a raw vulnerability that is uncomfortable to read yet absolutely absorbing.

The speakers in Sit How You Want are contradictory: they constantly reinvent themselves, often without success:

…………………………………….I have been sculpted
to a crown then found too heavy, and removed

They long to be seen, even when it means facing violence. They frustrate themselves with their inability to subvert their own submission, and in this they mirror the truth of many abusive relationships – violence is easy to get used to when it’s what you know:

………………………………………………Same insatiable
old conflict: What pains, what intoxicates.

Robin Richardson strikes me as poetry’s Elena Ferrante, with her presentation of genius women in powerless situations turning the tables on the men in their lives through language. She has an impeccable rhythm with words; these poems have a maximalism that drums masterfully, with meticulous internal rhymes and jaw-dropping, biting poetic disses:

In a Star Wars-themed fever dream
…….I saw him lassoed by a solar flare and held
there in a warmth I couldn’t provide. Blue light
…….clicked as I woke, wishing

caffeine came easy as a boy of twenty

Sit How You Want
Robin Richardson

Signal Editions
$17.95
paper
78pp
9781550655049

This keen eye extends to the structure of the book; Sit How You Want’s heroines exist in timelessness. They can be both mother and daughter – “She’s a child. My child: Me.” – at one time. Richardson is working with a controlled burn here, a journey from confined, private terror to a loosening of ties. Perhaps there is no freedom from the violence of men, but Richardson presents a freedom in how this violence is absorbed and redistributed. (MH)

***

Tanis Franco’s debut collection of poetry is as dense as it is moving, with new dimensions presenting themselves on each re-read. Franco positions nature against a changing body with skilful grace, creating unexpected metaphors out of chained trees, pebbles, oceans, and excavations. In “anthroposcopy,” parts of the body are mined for connections amid their surroundings – “the forehead is a plain scarred with grooves” and “the pupils are craters of ash.” The body adjusts, as nature does, embarking on a journey of unfolding and exploration – “hope is the slowest emotion but it is tireless.”

Quarry explores various forms of bodily intimacies, and Franco’s images hold a sensuality that breathes through even in darkness or doubt. In “voyeur” the speaker studies bodies through the window and seems to meld into them:

there is no difference between
in / out, you / me

Quarry
Tanis Franco

University of Calgary Press
$17.99
paper
80pp
9781552389812

While later, a tantalizing image creates sparks of sexual tension in a bar interaction:

crack me open a club soda
and spray me like a wave –
who i am doesn’t matter.

Franco’s speaker shrinks and blooms with the seasons, learning through observation. They are an amorphous observer, evolving over time in the ways they seek an understanding of their own body and humanity through nature and their surroundings. More than any one specific, defining piece, the book weaves a sense of continual evolution and emotional growth from beginning to end:

in the salvation army a man with his wife, staring
flat chest, hairy legs, hairless face
……..i pass by close to say, i am real,
……………………..an invitation to figure his discomfort

Quarry lovingly layers academic and philosophical references in a way that fully integrates them, burying them within their heartfelt questioning while remaining entirely emotionally accessible. (MH)

***

In East and West, Laura Ritland explores feelings of foreignness, nostalgia, and loss in ways that insist on simultaneity. In the last suite of poems, “Outpost,” the speaker admits and asks: “I was of two minds […] Just where did I think I was going with thoughts like that?” Being of two minds, for Ritland, is not the premise for equivocation. Rather, it speaks to the ability of the poet to understand her subjects deeply – “A respectable, wood panelled / apartment,” for example, or pigeons, for another. Ritland’s debut collection is rich and smart, which is why she can successfully write a multi-page poem about the airport and plane travel with wonder and without cliché. This is how she lets a poem expand:

Entering the terminal’s shipyard, I gave
my secrets to the x-ray and my boots
to the nation. We fed our watches and belts
to a ticking furnace.

East and West
Laura Ritland

Signal Editions
$17.95
paper
118pp
9781550654967

Ritland’s ability to make the familiar strange without being coy makes any place she takes you worth visiting. This collection, though, is also about leaving, and what is lost (and generated) in leaving repeatedly. There is the sense that if one always feels foreign, that feeling is what becomes familiar. It becomes so intimately known that the speaker expresses desire through this feeling: “O make me / foreign to homesickness and exile.” Homesickness is a “geographic hunger,” but it is not just a longing for
a place; it is a desire to understand one’s history:

………Did we belong? We were related.
A lineage of exits and arrivals, patriots
of a barber’s chair, a small country we’d visit
and abandon in the tradition of our elders.

This is a book of detail and depth beyond the given examples, with tours through the air, the ocean, city streets, bodies, histories, and futures, with a speaker who understands “The gravest error […] was to believe you stood alone on a shard of time.” (TL)

***

.

In their collection Delet This, MLA Chernoff immediately alerts us to the keyboard and the text itself. It opens like this:

th qt quotes a typo in a passage,
capturing a singularity, renounc[ing]
everything [it] ha[s] ever wanted

A typo unnoticed is an error, but a typo noticed and kept is a singularity. A typo noticed, kept, and quoted is a gesture of mocking or appreciation or both or neither. Chernoff points us toward the mechanisms of writing (typing), re-writing (re-typing), and referencing. They embrace the typo and use style conventions wildly. In so doing, they dare you to do a close reading, to develop a theory and see if it holds up. I’m both certain and uncertain that such things are beside the point(s) of Delet This. Besides, Chernoff is already always ahead of you: “it isn’t a passage or a typo, / but a glitch.”

Delet This
MLA Chernoff

Hybrid Heaven
$12.00
paper
60pp

It’s possible Chernoff is concerned with the destabilization of language’s relationship to meaning. It’s possible they are making new lyric poetry out of phrases like “so: u let it slide into ur DMs” and emojis printed on the page; or that they’re over the idea of lyric when they write “daddy, i ated th lyrics poems / what do now?” It’s tempting to compare what this work does to flarf, a kind of internet-based found or conceptual poetry known for its use of search results, among other online processes. However, these poems have a speaker, a body, and an acute awareness of themselves and all these possibilities:

o! m’whiteness; o! m’[k]ikeness!
hear ye, hear ye – sweet, sweet
bambinx, i declare thee a regular
Donne, doth gonna call u:
MLA Chernoff n usually just a t-shirt

They are attuned to sound, too: “n making malware of my / many-mouthed muscles,” adding to the joy of reading them. In Delet This, there is delight in bewilderment and a vivid engagement with the way we read and write. (TL)

***

The preface of Journeywoman confirms what one might have suspected from the title. It functions as an extended epigraph in which Carolyne Van Der Meer primes the reader with an Emerson quote and the etymology of the word “journey.” Although the majority of the poems in this book appreciate the significance of everyday moments like snuggling with her child or mowing the lawn, the journey, of course, does not only refer to the quotidian. Van Der Meer travels to places like France, Italy, and Morocco. The poem “ABVD” combines the experience of enduring chemotherapy with the historical significance of such cancer drugs. The speaker in these poems about illness moves between curiosity, resilience, and resignation. As a whole, this collection suggests an inseparability of two kinds of moments: those held onto tightly and those you cannot forget even if you wish to.

Journeywoman
Carolyne Van Der Meer

Ianna Publications
$18.95
paper
100pp
9781771334495

The everyday aspect of this book may be summed up by a moment in “The Sewing Box,” in which a woman replaces a missing button with one slightly different from those on the garment she mends. In the process, she loses herself as she looks through “pins and bits of tangled thread,” and while reading the labels, “[t]he breakdowns, no matter how predictable / never fail to hold her attention through the fine print.” Often the moments described in Journeywoman seem to function allegorically and here the speaker’s fascination with the bits and extra buttons of her life extends to represent the book itself.

In this way the closest cognate to “journey” seems to be “journal.” Van Der Meer has composed a lyric journal documenting joy, epiphanies, and regrets of a journey still in progress. (TL)

***

An ekphrastic poem, one that describes a work of visual art, is a a reproduction of a reproduction, a game of broken telephone, the success of which depends on the poet’s ability not only to write, but to see. With her debut collection Mechanics of a Gaze, poet Branka Petrovic turns her keen eye to the work of early twentieth-century artist Gustav Klimt, whose best-known paintings are ornate, sexually charged portraits of women.

Mechanics of a Gaze
Branka Petrovic

Mansfield Press
$17.00
paper
110pp
9781771261524

The poet seems aware that, while ekphrasis once carried a heavy descriptive burden, today’s reader can almost instantly Google the images to which the poems refer. Released from the work of exposition, then, she mostly disregards the gilded and decorative aspects of Klimt’s most famous paintings to instead explore the dark, erotic force of the artist’s subjectivity and how it works on the viewer. Often Petrovic gestures beyond the image’s frame, as in “Studies in Pencil: A Sketch,” which does not describe a drawing of a woman with her legs open so much as the experience of looking at such an explicit image:

………………………..without wanting

we are skewed voyeurs, surveyors
of incoming delight. Still,
we imagine what we do not see
(wanting more) for where there’s everything,

something’s missing—
what came before.

Attentive and questioning, Petrovic moves slowly, like the artist himself, stepping back and forth, toward and away from the canvas, considering at once the details and the wider view. Mechanics of a Gaze is an extended meditation on visual representation and how a gaze is an expression of a self. “The I exposes / multiple scenarios of itself / at once,” the poet writes in “Opera Glasses,” where she considers her own place in this game of telephone: a woman looking at a man looking at a woman, and recording what she sees. (AP)

***

Aidan Chafe understands that an artist’s gaze reveals as much about the artist as it does the artist’s subject. While few of his poems are written in the first person, his debut collection, Short Histories of Light, is almost claustrophobically personal, employing tender descriptions of the external world to render the profound interiority of an individual life.

The book opens with poems about childhood, Catholicism, and a family legacy of mental illness. Those in the section “Psych Ward Hymnal” explore how depression echoes through generations of a family. “Nature’s Ward” pathologizes a night-time landscape:

Fields have seasonal
mood disorders.

Forests are
post-traumatic.

All the while
beyond a window

a white coat moon
keeps busy,

diagnosing
in the dark.

Short Histories of Light
Aidan Chafe

McGill-Queen's University Press
$16.95
paper
112pp
9780773552760

Mixing the language of the pastoral with that of diagnosis lends the poem a depressive’s gaze, flat and slightly foggy. In this fog, Chafe searches for the border between self and other, where the outside world ends and the individual begins, which poses interesting questions about intimacy, masculinity, and self-determination. If madness runs in your family, the question of free will can be an especially thorny one, as the poet hints in “Portrait of a Boy as Mist”:

They told me a man does not become a hurricane overnight,
so I watched the weather network,
waited for the incoming forecast of my life.

As the collection progresses, the poems move farther away from confession, drifting out into the wider world. But they still perform a kind of self-revelation-by-proxy, self-portraits of the artist through his representations of the world, like someone who appears to be looking out the window but is really studying their own reflection
in the glass. (AP)

***

While Mark Lavorato’s poems are observational and at times even confessional, they focus outward more often than inward, written in a register that connotes certainty rather than search. Lavorato is the author of three novels, and his background in fiction can be felt in Blowing Grass Empire, his second collection of poems. These poems feel more refined than those of his previous collection, and operate like brief and concentrated bursts of narrative, with a palpable sense of direction, decisive structure, and, for the most part, tidy conclusions.

Blowing Grass Empire
Mark Lavorato

Palimpsest Press
$18.95
paper
80pp
9781926794532

Lavorato’s poems play with scale, capturing what Jane Kenyon called “the luminous particular” of human experience and then zooming out – sometimes way out – to demonstrate how small and insignificant those particularities can be in the grander scheme. The opening poem establishes the book’s tone and sets a high bar for the poems that follow. A child is led to a high point of land, from which “every blade of blowing grass / that fans this empire” can be seen, and then is cautioned:

None of this is yours. And what is more, you
are incapable of possession. Instead, you will live
a brief and futile span, and when you die, only
a small hewn stone will mark your passing, whose

engraving the wind will soon wear away.

The poem’s diction is as high-flung as an anthem, but its message is one of humility. Lavorato has a talent for evoking a powerful emotion and then cutting it off at its knees to bring the poem back down to earth. This grounding might be poetry’s purpose, he suggests in “Literature”: to cut us open just enough to remind us how fallibility tastes. Rooted in the minutiae of human experience, these poems are able to evoke big emotions, demonstrating that minutiae is all it takes to build a satisfying narrative and that, indeed, minutiae is all we are. (AP) mRb

Marcela Huerta is the author of Tropico, a collection of poetry and creative nonfiction published by Metatron Press in 2017. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in vallum, Leste, Bad Nudes, Montreal Review of Books, spy kids magazine, and Lemon Hound.

Tess Liem’s debut poetry collection is Obits (Fall 2018). She is also the author of the chapbook Tell everybody I say hi, available from Anstruther.

Abby Paige is a writer and performer, currently living in New Brunswick.

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