Month: February 2013

REVIEW: Woods Wolf Girl

Woods Wolf Girl
By Cornelia Hoogland
Wolsak and Wynn (2011)

Read by David Barrick

Myths and fairy tales are incredibly durable stories. Their iconic imagery and archetypal narratives allow them to be constantly retold, revised, and adapted for new audiences and fresh thematic purposes. In Woods Wolf Girl, poet Cornelia Hoogland takes the basic material of Little Red Riding Hood and creates her own vision of a young woman named Red who “walks into the woods” and enters the world of adults. What makes Hoogland’s retelling noteworthy is her multifaceted treatment of the subject matter: magical landscapes mix with vividly real descriptions of nature (“Wind frisks the trees, / the whole forest its plaything”); fantastical allegory mixes with detailed confessional poetry and family history; and, thematically, Red’s anxiety over her first sexual experience finds a fitting counterpoint in her need to forge an identity distinct from her mother’s.
Woods Wolf Girl is structured as a sequence of lyric poems, each of which is ascribed to the perspectives of Red, Mother, or Woodsman. The pivotal moment is not the girl’s arrival at her grandma’s house, but rather her encounter in the forest with the Woodsman, whom Red says “looked at me in a way that made me feel the look” for the first time. Hoogland deftly navigates the territory between fear and desire (which Red experiences as “pulsing, [in] my wrist or maybe / my heart”), and aptly describes the often-lopsided power dynamics in a romantic liaison between an older man and a younger woman. The Woodsman is the not-so-hidden wolf here, a smooth-talker who uses his knowledge of flora and fauna to impress Red; later, he morphs into the more literal figure of a predatory poetry professor, who dazzles and seduces Red with beautiful language. This layering of identities makes the Woodsman more than just a repugnant symbol of manipulative masculinity – his human frailty emerges as the book progresses, particularly when an older Red bumps into “the wolf in the grocery store,” now transformed into a pathetic middle-aged bachelor.
Indeed, the characters in Woods Wolf Girl have complex identities, and perhaps the most compelling of these is Mother. After Red leaves on her journey, Mother frets endlessly and loses her sense of purpose: “I walk around like a zombie. / When I wake, my hands are gone.” Accustomed to micromanaging her daughter, Mother finds that their separation only emphasizes that Red is “bone deep inside me.” She worries about the temptations Red will face in the woods, which in turn causes her to reflect on her own strict Evangelical Christian upbringing. Since childhood, Mother felt frustrated and limited by being “in charge of cheerfulness” (50) – obligatory happiness in the face of hardship – and now feels slightly jealous of Red’s liberties, as well as resentful of her own mother’s soft and lenient treatment of Red. Hoogland captures the distinct struggles experienced by women of different generations, especially Mother’s difficulty in acknowledging “my daughter as she was / or as I wanted her to be.”
Ultimately, Red’s experience in the forest is what allows her to individuate herself from Mother (here in the words of the Woodsman):

[it] is the vice that broke the grip, that enticed
the girl out of the tower.
The mother’s tower, the mother’s grip.

The girl who speechlessly “walks into the woods” emerges with a language which allows her to describe and interpret her own life, apart from either her lover or mother. By the end of the book, Red also identifies with the figure of the wolf, transforming it into a symbol of freedom: “I was born for meat. / To live under the sky. / Mornings to howl up the sun.” Hoogland’s complex handling of metaphor and her ability to spin myth in surprising directions is what makes Woods Wolf Girl a rewarding read.

REVIEW: Wedding in Fire Country

Wedding in Fire Country
By Darren Bifford
Nightwood Editions (2012)

Read by Katie Sehl

Darren Bifford’s debut collection of poetry, Wedding in Fire Country, is hard not to notice. The punchy-yellow of the book’s cover and the bold black typeface of the title grabs at you in an urgent way. It is bright like the allure of a warning road-sign as you enter a wooded road at night.
Its brightness is not misleading. Although many of Bifford’s poems seem to revel in the fleetingness of the aesthetic experience, his poems are hardly a run of the hand. Bifford’s poetic voice is constantly engaged by a daunting community of male writers including Robert Lowell, Czeslaw Milosz, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, Charles Simic, and Robert Kroetsch. Woven with intertexts and shifting in and out of a range of forms and traditions, Bifford’s sense of ephemerality is more conscientiously crafted than one might initially glean. Poems like “Nightmare” are made all the more sinister for a careful reader who is familiar with the call-and-response poetic tradition that the poem is working within.
Wedding in Fire Country is imbued with a suspiciousness of supposedly comforting things. The hatchet axe on the book’s cover loses its safeguarding image as a Can-Lit survival tool and instead hovers menacingly and uselessly while the speaker in “How I Lived Briefly Among the Wolves” realizes that the pack of wolves surrounding him “knitted closer & did not care about Farley Mowat or any compassionate man” (58-9).
The first poem of the collection “Possibilities of Prometheus” reconsiders mythological gift of fire to humans as less of a sacrifice and more of an accident. Thus, the romantic image of rosy mountains on the dawn of the bridegroom’s wedding day in the titular poem “Wedding in Fire Country” is undercut by the fact that the nearby forest fire draws closer and “leapt the highway last night as we slept” (43), as are the wispy white clouds that are actually not clouds but smoke being issued from the fires. In “No Hurry” fire destructively liberates Bifford’s old friend as he prepares to burn “most of the junk from 10 years that hadn’t been taken for debt” (54). The image of a burning building amidst the wails of traffic and sirens in the city is disturbingly beautiful as the speaker witnesses it from the top of a roof in “Listen.”
In some ways the collection is a bit of a conglomeration of disparities. The book travels from urban to natural setting and from present to ancient time without warning. The speaker hotly apostrophizes Milosz in “Letters to Milosz,” ventriloquizes Faulkner’s Dewey Dell in a re-imagined fiction involving the biblical apostle Paul during a series of poems, and then seems to self-consciously recall a semi-biographical memory in “No Hurry” and elsewhere. Although it becomes somewhat difficult at times to differentiate voice, Bifford fluently draws affinities between these otherwise disparate aspects of his collection.
The terseness of his more compact poems such as the epistolary sonnet-like series “Letters to Milosz” reveals the sardonic wit of his language and most deftly exhibits the sharpness of his turns; but Bifford is at his best in his longer-lined poems like “Near Coral I Listen for Trains” or “Wedding in Fire Country,” which seem to unfold with their own brisk momentum.

REVIEW: The Captain Poetry Poems Complete

The Captain Poetry Poems Complete
By bpNichol
BookThug (2011)

Read by David Barrick

By its very nature, bpNichol’s massive and self-reflexive poetic oeuvre demands an immersive approach: the more you read of it, the more you understand it, and the more you enjoy it. Over the years, Coach House Books has done an admirable job of keeping readers immersed in Nichol’s work by consistently reprinting all six volumes of his lifelong poem, The Martyrology, and more recently, by publishing the anthology The Alphabet Game: A bpNichol Reader (2007). Nevertheless, many of Nichol’s books remain difficult to access because of their limited print runs and ephemeral/unconventional formats. It comes as a welcome surprise that another small press, BookThug, has released The Captain Poetry Poems Complete – a carefully edited and expanded reissue of this landmark collection, which was originally published by bill bissett’s blewointment press in 1971.
As one of Nichol’s signature characters, Captain Poetry often acts as a vehicle for exploring the tensions between tradition and innovation in poetry: the Captain fancies himself a literary superhero and seeks a distinct poetic voice, yet repeatedly succumbs to the worn-out conventions of lyric love poetry. In the opening section, “The Origins of Captain Poetry,” our hero plays the role of a Petrarchan lover who idolizes a distant, unattainable woman named madame X. Ironically, Nichol often shapes the Captain’s most banal romantic thoughts into the most formally interesting passages:

on der

Here, using only the word “considering,” Nichol mimics the chiming, chattering sound of a dropped ring, which in turn reflects the obsessive cycling of the Captain’s contemplations – a prime example of Nichol’s ability to achieve thematic depth using the surface of language. Elsewhere, Nichol crafts the Captain’s failed literary attempts to greatly humorous effect, particularly in the sonnet scolding madame X’s insensitivity (“You who should have tiptoed thru my halls / Have slammed my doors & smashed me into walls”) and in the address to the moon (“fat goddess / i’m / sick of you. / come down to earth”).
In his interrogation of genre, Nichol also explores the stereotypical gender roles that men and women often receive in verse. He explicitly satirizes sexist male poets in “The New New Captain Poetry Blues,” a narrative which finds Captain Poetry competing with Saint Ump for the ‘affections’ (read: body) of a lady named Blossom Tight. Once again, the Captain ends up as an emasculated outcast and a failed versifier, but this time he gains the sympathy of the poet-narrator, who declares “all your attempts to make it / never succeed / & god! their greed! / we’ve tried to make them see / just you cap / just me.” With a sudden twist, Nichol exposes Captain Poetry as a mere costume – literally, a ‘cap’ that poets can choose to wear or discard. This notion is emphatically echoed in the book’s ink drawings. While Captain Poetry usually appears as a buff, rooster-headed superhero, several illustrations depict him simply as a mask worn by Milt the Morph – the ghostly cartoon character who Nichol often uses to symbolize the inscrutable, shape-shifting essence of poetry.
It is also worth mentioning how BookThug’s new additions help contextualize the figure of Captain Poetry. In a freshly unearthed essay (courtesy of jwcurry), Nichol comments on “the macho male bullshit tradition in canadian poetry” which first inspired his satire, and contemplates how “at certain points [Captain Poetry’s] idiocies became my own.” Furthermore, ten pages of previously uncollected poems establish a link between Captain Poetry and the figure of Billy the Kid, in both Nichol’s work and that of Michael Ondaatje (“the two characters rhyme”). These appendices, along with an insightful afterward from bill bissett, make The Captain Poetry Poems Complete a key acquisition for Nichol enthusiasts – even the ones who are lucky enough to already own a copy of the hand-printed blewointment edition.

REVIEW: You Exist. Details Follow.

You Exist. Details Follow.
By Stuart Ross
Anvil Press (2012)

Reviewed by Lise Gaston

In Stuart Ross’s seventh book of poetry, You Exist. Details Follow., details are the signifiers of existence—an existence made strange. Ross’s absurdism doesn’t rely on unconnected sentences, abstract thought, or an unusual, elevated vocabulary: rather, his poetry delights in the silliness of concrete mundanity. These poems inhabit the clean lawns and cul-de-sacs of suburbia, but squints at them askew, listens to the birds chirping in a minor key: “A dog barked at me. / Who is that dog? / What is telling me something / from inside a badly sewn dog suit?” The poems nestle in the wider concerns that envelop suburbia: economics, politics (“It is two thousand ten. / I look around for something / to prorogue”), and the looming worry that existence itself could be wiped clean in a second, some imaginable disaster purring in the corners. Sometimes humour bounces off the profound; sometimes it slides into the intimate, such as in “6:31 a.m.:” “Rain pelts the tent. / Spider silhouettes overhead. / My feet are tangled / in sleeping bag. / I can’t recall / your smell.”
Ross wields the line to effect the precise tone that he wants: in the book’s first, eponymous poem, short enjambed lines of simple diction are interrupted and slowed with Latinate language and caesuras: “You are your / far-off limbs, wandering / amid the sequined detritus, / the indignant, toxic beach. / It is true: I have changed.” The collection thus begins by launching us into a happily disjointed mind, into images connected as though by sparking, duct-taped wires, buzzing weird electrical fires of thought. Ross creates his greatest absurdities through unexpected pairings of nouns and adjectives, sometimes to react against more traditional poetic themes—such as a Canadian pastoral: “I am / a pointy landscape, / a waterfall of quivering farms.” Despite a predominantly first person speaker and a fairly consistent voice, we cannot latch on to a permanent speaker: only appropriate for this unbalanced world. Forms vary from prose poem to loose sonnet, with all sorts of free verse in between. Ross is at ease with line breaks: he usually breaks them at logical pauses, but sometimes leaves us tilting into the short enjambed lines that rush us down a slender poem.
Alongside the incongruous images, there are threads of thematic continuity that ground the reading in collective experience and emotion. A major thread is child-parent relationships, which carries easily into the surreal. Through the child’s eyes, the parent can be larger-than-life: in “Fathers Shave,” the razor blade “rips the welcome / mat off our porch, the / grass off our lawn.” Alternately, a lost parent is either touchingly grieved for or slowly forgotten as life’s details pile up with their distractions and demands, outrageous but also mundane: “His mother’s fall got farther away. Hardwood floors / replaced the carpet. At his cousin’s bar mitzvah, / his father danced with a woman he’d never seen.”

REVIEW: Flowers of Spit

Flowers of Spit
By Catherine Mavrikakis
Translated by Nathanäel
BookThug (2011)

Read by Alexander R. St-Laurent

I can see why Nathanäel would want to translate Flowers of Spit since Catherine Mavrikakis’s novel broaches themes that the poet has explored in her own work (see either Touch to Affliction or The Sorrow and the Fast of It) themes of the intersections between sign and signifier, sex and death, and direct and indirect attachments to the physical body. Theirs is a natural literary union and Nathanäel does a wonderful job of capturing some of the poetic beauty and angst in her interpretation of Mavrikakis’s work, the negotiation between highly stylized prose and a use of rhythm and vocabulary of vulgar speech with sentences such as “We’ll fertilize the soil of tomorrow with our pathetic existences” (174) or “Today the church is jacking off. Tossing frenetically” (237). But perhaps some context is due.
Mavrikakis’s protagonist, Flore Forget, is an overworked surgeon who has recently lost her mother to cancer, which prompts her to confront not only the return of her long lost war veteran brother, but an existential crisis as well. Flore’s story is ultimately one of struggle: with the death of her mother; with her brother’s poisonous presence; with the complicated dynamics and history of her family; with her role as a mother herself; with identity; and with the meaning of life and death. Yet, while each of these concerns is rich with dramatic possibility, they do little to push the story forward: everything has already happened. What remains is Flore’s struggle to accept the events of her life through ten chapters of tempestuous and nihilistic soliloquies. Now don’t get me wrong, I love nihilistic prose as much as the next student of Beckett or Bernhard, but Flore’s grievance lacks two important ingredients: insight, and more importantly humour. Of course, the character’s lack of insight may be excused seeing as this seems to be the crux of the novel: Flore’s inability to move on from her plight, whether or not she accepts it or understands it. Flore does little more than wail into the void, offering fleeting thought after fleeting thought of vitriol and decadent anger, and one is ultimately left wondering not only if anyone is listening, but if she is even listening to herself. After nearly two hundred pages of references to Freud, Saussure, Céline, and Sophocles, she admits to a figurative inability to read:
Hervé tells me I should put myself to literature more than I do. How much better it would be than meds! That’s where he finds consolation. But I don’t know how to read. I only know how to spit. I’m like a dragon. I vomit words of fire. Literature is another story! I don’t know it. (182)
Perhaps the point is that there is no escape despite one’s attempt to accept the inevitable. While Flore is laughable, and I say this not as a criticism of the construction of the character but as an interpretation of the character herself, there is little humour to her brand of nihilism which leads this reader to question the integrity of her philosophical plight. Flore only superficially grasps the weight of her contemplative ramblings as she lacks any of Vladimir or Estragon’s, for instance, conviction or confusion. That is not to say that Flore is not confused, for she is. But my estimation is that she is confused about what it is she wants out of life, and not so much about the metaphysical musings of life and death. Yet, again, this may very well be the point: one can contemplate the meaning of life and come to terms with her death all she wants, but ultimately it does not matter.
Am I alive? Deceased? Flowering? Wilted? Blossoming? Withered? I’m but a flower, a perennial, not an annual. I flower, I flower again and I don’t know how. (239)

REVIEW: Bent at the Spine

Bent at the Spine
by Nicole Markotić
BookThug (2012)

Reviewed by Lise Gaston

Bent at the Spine simultaneously invites us in and holds us back. BookThug’s design exemplifies this duality: on turning over the alluring paper-spined cover, the wider format allows the book to flop open perfectly in the hand. Its generous margins, coupled with the sheer energy of Markotić’s writing, invite annotation, response, exclamation points, while the beautiful design warns of preservation. I compromise by writing neatly.
Markotić’s text rushes headlong into questions of modernity, feminism, and poetics—then halts, giggles a bit, and skips in a circle around them. The whole book performs: all poems “Link the vast grammar quirk” with which Markotić challenges both the patriarchal narrative and the expectations we place on a sentence: “dire sentences sometimes end way before the period and sometimes well after. rubbing shoulders with that perfect dot can be a tricky landing.” For Markotić, the two are linked; in an essay called “Narrotics: New Narrative and the Prose Poem,” she writes: “for me, the prose poem is a poetic strategy embedded with the structure of narrative, and a feminist response to patriarchal language and forms.” Most pieces here comment on writing—“Our bi-centennial ballads propose dried maples and Swiss long-division”—and its gender politics. The third section, “Widows and Orphans,” constructed in segmented prose poems, is where Markotić’s feminist poetics really come to the forefront: it is crammed with quotable lines, delivered with a laughing energy that bites just enough at politics, gender norms (“11 men invent the possibility that women do not require an orgasm to achieve pregnancy. yeast infections either”), and poetry: “slip in a line break when the reader’s not trying.”
“Big Vocabulary,” a poem in four parts, begins the book, and lives up to its promise; this extravagant English luxuriates in song and allusion, only to snap back for the quick retort: “Honey, want some loss with your hot sauce—mind the rhyme schemes.” The second section, “Couples,” is written primarily in couplets, though no rules in this book are too strictly adhered to: “a hidden, a spoken, a folded, a fly / try olden, try coping, try knitting high / …er.” In this section, language trips over its own weird familiarity and the eye flies: “succumb to Winnipeg / suck on combs pegged to winter.”
Each of the book’s five sections is stylistically distinct, though familiar phrases are constantly tucked in the ebullient unfamiliar, and Markotić’s quirky voice carries throughout. The final section, “Guests,” addresses other writers, invites them in, and lets the reader sit and watch. These pieces are more lyrical, while still not forgetting to comment on their form, on “wind speeds as enjambment, cirrus as infernal semi-colon.” Appropriately for such an exuberant book, a book that continuously gives and then pulls away with a chuckle, it ends by saying everything and nothing at all—not even a period, just a one-word line: “etcetera.”