Saturday 31 December 2011

My Top Ten of 2011

I didn't read everything, but here, in no special order, is what I liked from the dozens of Canadian titles that crossed my path this year. Not included—but highly recommended— are the books I published (The Id Kid by Linda Besner, Skullduggery by Asa Boxer, Gift Horse by Mark Callanan and Spinning Side Kick by Anita Lahey) and the books I edited (Carapace by Laura Lush).

Earworm by Nick Thran (Nightwood)
As promised by its excellent title, Thran’s second book offers arrestingly memorable poems. His phrase-making is idiosyncratic, often unpredictable, enticing us with a left-handed mind adept at fresh, newly angled speculations about contemporary life.

Lil’ Bastard by David McGimpsey (Coach House)
A great deal of the myth that McGimpsey’s poems live in a hostile environment can be traced to an early review collected in my critical book, A Lover’s Quarrel. I’m happy to serve as the villain in this morality play, if only because it helps make my moments of praise more noteworthy. McGimpsey’s new book of “chubby sonnets” underscores the fact that when his high risk, high-caloric poetry works—as it did in Sitcom, and does again here—the results are marvellous, provocative and original.

A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno by Matt Rader (Anansi)
One of the most formally exciting books of the year. Sometimes, alas, the craft is most of what we get (like his editor, Ken Babstock, Rader is a poet who is good at being good). But when craft yields to feeling, Rader can train tremendous, nearly Lowellian rhetorical power onto his subjects.

Methodist Hatchet by Ken Babstock (Anansi)
Complaints that his poems traffic in “nothing” have provoked a response from this immensely gifted poet. If you share those complaints, this book won’t do much to correct that impression—his subjects still sometimes disappear inside wordplay at once fast, flittering and opulent. But there’s an emotional streak in Babstock’s new poems I don’t recall seeing before: the vision is broader, bolder, more generous. The best pieces feel lived in, peopled, emotion-rich, packed with narratives-within-narratives.

A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth by Stephanie Bolster (Brick)
This book, which represents a further key-change for Bolster, beguiled me with its exquisite, pinpoint play with syntax. I didn’t like everything. More than a third of the poems were too brittle, too cut-short and barely did the job. Yet her minimalist accounts of animals and (and in) zoos have a sly way of disclosing in extremis psychological states.

A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People by Gabe Forman (Coach House)
I was utterly defeated by parts of this book. But in my bafflement, there was always something—a funny bit, a crisp image, an apt metaphor—I could pocket. Forman’s absurdist, anti-prose-sense "personality profiles" are events in themselves, and I found myself gladly tacking to all the linguistic shifts in his shaggy-dog-storytelling.

Open Air Bindery by David Hickey (Biblioasis)
Hickey’s second book is a model of transparency, lightness and simplicity. What I admire most, even envy, is his tonal clarity: a spectrum of experiences come alive in crystalline speech that shuns inflation.

Hypotheticals by Leigh Kotsilidis (Coach House)
A promising debut. Unquenchably attracted to the sound of scientific sense, Kotsilidis is wickedly good at using line-breaks and stanza shapes—often short, tense couplets—to locate unexpected pressure-points in her well-timed sentences. The collection is studded with terrific turns of phrase.

No End in Strangeness by Bruce Taylor (Cormorant)
This collection, which brings together highlights from Taylor’s previous two titles with magnificent new work, is the best book—in any genre—I read this year. In Taylor’s hands, domestic details become the crucible for elegant, textured, virtuosic observations on fate (“Kafka with kids” is how someone once described Taylor to me). He is a master at combining heart-breaking self-portraiture with ironic self-counselling (like a witty therapist giving himself a talking cure while staring in the mirror) and has a superb ear for description: his visual close-work is full of sonic surprises. I don’t think there’s a stronger English poet in Canada.

All This Could Be Yours by Joshua Trotter (Biblioasis)
Only his first book, but Trotter has already forged an unmistakable style: dream-like without being esoteric, ludic and lucid, deadpan and insinuating. Under formal pressure, ordinary experiences become delivery-systems for very odd, and oddly moving, ideas. And as verbal objects, the poems are ravishing.

Honourable mentions: Groundwork by Amanda Jernigan, Folk by Jacob McArthur Mooney, Guesswork by Jeffery Donaldson, Lines of Flight by Catherine Chandler,

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