Monday 31 December 2012

Sunday Poem

Holes in the Snow

In Montreal storms alter the lives
of people we love. I think of shoppers
who no longer walk the streets buying
capicolla, hot baguettes, the freshest
Chinese greens. A man’s heart
attacks him on the way to his front door;
another dies, monoxide in a drifted
car, blinded by what continues to fall.
A woman fishes in trash
for the butt of a cigarette
discarded yesterday. Pubgoers sneak
their dogs into cold stone corners,
give them ashtrays puddled with beer.
In Montreal living is cheap.
The flower shops fold into
themselves, and fists of daffodils
and agapanthus haunt the tiny caves.
A woman in Montreal smokes
over her words. In the top
of a house where windows have frozen shut
and snow festoons the exits,
she addresses ‘Archangel.’
She wears black, she attempts
to scratch through the blackness.
I attempt to clean the woodstove glass
with fire, to burn through creosote,
the grimy vision. Are we outside
or inside? Here or Montreal?
                                               In Montreal
the horses that work the old streets
are barricaded in barns, blanketed,
alfalfa piled within reach and
the man who grooms them wrapped
in the warmth of their breath,
unable to cross town.
A woman in Montreal paints
houses in Westmount, inside and
out, conservatories, sunrooms,
while snow piles up outside
the glass, and the begonias
grow long-stemmed and confused.
Montreal is a Disney city, glowing
at night with a blue fairy light.
Some of us are outside it: a place
we can’t enter. Out steps would burn
holes in the snow; lilies
would turn their heads to us
and shrivel; the horses would snort
at our heat, terrified, refuse
to leave the burning barn.
                                          I begin this
conflagration with a finger on the map.
A woman in Montreal doesn’t flinch.
Her second-storey room is full
of snowlight. She presses
her forehead into the palm of one hand
and thinks about the Atlantic, about
the language contrived
by rocks and the sea, the wearing
of words into pebbles of meaning,
how the death of a dog in the snow means
no words at all in either language.
                                                       She burns
her way into permafrost, buries
the dog wrapped in her red sweatshirt.
In Montreal planes stop flying.
No one arrives or leaves. The spirit
burns or succumbs. The dog
returns in a dream, licking
its way from her toes to the inside
of her thigh. ‘Who are you?’ she
asks, pulling herself up into
the dark room, the words
pins and needles in her mouth.
In Montreal the snow creates another
element to swim in, the ghosts’ own
medium; the dead communicate. They
bloom in our brains like astonishing
hyacinths, waxy, essential—
and vanish, leaving us
sick with their absence.
stirs the balsam poplar. I translate
its breath into something suggestive of
speech: branches in a terra cotta wine
cooler. In Montreal the endless snow.
When I exhale, leafbuds withdraw
into their apple-seed sheaths. Hearts
encased, hatboxes of Barbie-doll
outfits for every occasion except
the onslaught of white, grain upon grain,
petals unending, ludicrous abundance.
The mobile possibility of each
crystal before it finally lands,
ash of the dead, egg timer upturned.
                                                          At last
in Montreal the trains begin to move.
‘No, not yet:’ this, desire that speaks.
The blue is dimmed by astonishing sparks,
the drifts near houses pocked with yellow.
The boys have written their names in pee.
The hydro reconnects in Montreal.
In Montreal the groom breaks ice
in all the water buckets and climbs

through the window into the light.
From Double Somersaults (2005) by Marlene Cookshaw

Saturday 29 December 2012

Elizabeth Brewster 1922-2012

Where I Come From  
People are made of places. They carry with them
hints of jungles or mountains, a tropic grace
or the cool eyes of sea gazers. Atmosphere of cities
how different drops from them, like the smell of smog
or the almost-not-smell of tulips in the spring,
nature tidily plotted with a guidebook;
or the smell of work, glue factories maybe,
chromium-plated offices; smell of subways
crowded at rush hours. 
Where I come from, people
carry woods in their minds, acres of pine woods;
blueberry patches in the burned-out bush;
wooden farmhouses, old, in need of paint,
with yards where hens and chickens circle about,
clucking aimlessly; battered schoolhouses
behind which violets grow. Spring and winter
are the mind's chief seasons: ice and the breaking of ice. 
A door in the mind blows open, and there blows
a frosty wind from fields of snow.

Thursday 27 December 2012

Monkey Ranch

Julie Bruck's GG-winning Monkey Ranch was, for some, one of the best poetry books of the year—a return to form after a 13-year interruption. Stewart Cole, however, lay outs some of his concerns with the book:
"When thinking of traditions or poets to which I might ally Bruck’s work (besides the lineated near-prose that characterized much of the dominant mode of Canadian poetry from the 1960s to at least the 1990s), I settle on Elizabeth Bishop, who serves as the subject of a poem in both The End of Travel and Monkey Ranch. Indeed, Bruck's prosy free verse stands above so much similar work because of her Bishopesque powers of observation and phrasal care. On the other hand, however, Bruck is like Bishop purged of not just her formal virtuosity—Bishop excelled at even the most difficult fixed forms, while Bruck doesn’t attempt them—but her eccentricity: nothing in Bruck's body of work is as unabashedly strange as 'The Man-Moth,' for instance, nor does she favour the sort of daring rhetorical leaps that lift 'The Fish,' for example, into its 'rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!' moment of transcendence. Instead, whether formally, rhetorically, emotionally, or politically, Bruck's work tends toward the safe route, rarely off-putting readers with any outlandishness, but lacking the sense of hazard that marks the artform at its best. To use a sports analogy: Bruck’s poetry often reads like it's playing not to lose."

Dennis O'Driscoll 1954-2012

Sunday 23 December 2012

Ideal Forms

Sonnet L'Abbé addresses the topic of beauty:
"Beauty was politicized for me long before I had the sense that through the art of writing, I might address that politicization. I spent my young years in prairie provinces, and after ten grew up in Kitchener, Ontario. Until I hit high school was the only non-white child in every one of my classes. We were all about seven years old, in Calgary, when my classmates began informing me that I was ugly. The message intensified when we moved to Manitoba. A change was occurring in us: we were beginning to see the world the way those around us saw it. Boy and girl were suddenly categories to be rigidly policed; so were pretty and ugly. 'Beautiful,' like pretty, went with a certain kind of girl, and in the late ’70s, early ’80s, that girl, for my school 'friends,' was white."

Sunday Poem

Shark Chaser 
For my father, shark repellent was power. He flew
bombing runs over the pacific, confident in the lie
that if he crashed, the canister would protect him. 
For our foreman, power was salmon: endless aisles of tins
stocked beneath the surface. When that promise
went to sea the last time, the lights in the cannery
flickered. Gathered on the floor, we expected each word,
yet could not contain our astonishment
as they splashed from his brackish mouth. 
For us power was paycheques. We stood dazed
in the parking lot, pink slips floundering in our palms.
Our wives wouldn't expect us for hours.
One of the guys decided to change
his oil and we circled around,
a gesture akin to friendship. 
He tipped the can up, but nothing came.
He shook it and banged it frantically,
then tossed it aside and laughed
three sharp busts
which cut at the air like propellers blades—
the laugh you make but once in your life.
From The Other Side of Ourselves (2011) by Rob Taylor.
(Illustration by Michael Glenwood )

Friday 21 December 2012

Little Animals

An unexpected find in a library leads Anita Lahey to rediscover Bruce Taylor's “Little Animals," a poem inspired by the microscopic explorations of 17th century Dutch scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek:
In “Little Animals,” Taylor’s narrator doesn’t just take van Leeuwenhoek’s word for it. He collects pondwater himself, with “a long-handled spoon” through a hole in the ice, brings it home and studies the creatures living within. “I have stared at them all week / in my Chinese miscroscope and have tried / to absorb what I saw.” He neglects his life, he confesses, to “spy” on theirs. He is hooked. Obsessed. Lost, yet found....Reading Taylor’s poem is as if, with him as guide, you are uncovering some of the most beguiling secrets of the universe. He is writing about discovery itself, and how it can be repeated, and maybe even how it must be.

Thursday 20 December 2012


"They didn’t play the Rachmaninoff. They played the notes that did not even reminded me of Rachmaninoff. It was playing at the level of sick chickens, incubator imitating nightingales."

Andrei Gavrilov on why he fled the concert hall in the middle of playing the Rachmaninov D minor.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Dark Horse

I've put together a small selection of Canadian poets for the Autumn/Winter 2012 number of the excellent Scottish-American literary magazine The Dark Horse. I first heard of The Dark Horse in 1999 when, during a fellowship at the Hawthornden Castle, I paid Stewart Conn an afternoon visit at his home in Edinburgh. Just as I was about to leave, Stewart pressed a copy of the journal into my hands, and encouraged me to send them poems. I never did, but I finally meet the editor, Gerry Cambridge, at the West Chester Poetry Conference in 2010. I was there with Robyn Sarah, Bruce Taylor and Molly Peacock for a panel on Canadian poetry.  At one point during the conference, Gerry began distributing recent issues of the magazine, which, in the intervening years, had clearly taken a quantum leap in terms of design and direction. We struck up a series of conversations which continued into an email correspondance (I soon became a subscriber). I know Gerry would love to see more submissions—and subscribers!—from this side of the pond. A long review of Todd Swift and Evan Jones' anthology Modern Canadian Poets appeared in issue 26.

Tuesday 4 December 2012


"The joy for me is to be in the middle of writing a poem, which is a strange sort of joy, I know. There is no relief at the end—only the knowledge that I’ve got to start thinking about a new poem and all the worries that brings with it. When will it come? How will I recognise it? What if there isn’t another poem? But then time passes and there is. Sometimes it’s weeks, sometimes years. I’m not in a hurry. “Poetry isn’t a horserace,” Daryl Hine used to say to me."

Evan Jones describes his feelings after finishing his new book of poems.

Who Do You Think You Are?

James Pollock interviews himself on the nature of literary criticism:
Does the critic have an ethical responsibility?
The critic must be honest. He must say what he thinks. He must ignore the poet’s reputation, her relationship to himself or his friends, the prizes and honours she has won, her status in the literary establishment, not to mention his own career advancement, and anything else that threatens to dissuade him, and tell the truth about the poems. He has a responsibility to his readers, to the poet, to his self-respect, to the field of criticism and the art of poetry, to be an honest judge. Otherwise, he deceives his readers and the poet both, corrupts himself, and damages criticism and poetry within publishing range of his words. It is no trivial transgression. If he hasn’t the courage to be honest he should give up now before anyone else gets hurt.
(Illustration 'Two Heads" by Pierre Piech.)

Sunday 2 December 2012

Nunchuck Poetics

Bruce Biespel divines some literary lessons from the martial art master's spectacular feats:
Poetry must exude the impossible and reveal the practice that achieved it. Poetry must understate and overwhelm. Poetry must flash and entertain and, at the same time, defy your own eyes in the effort to reveal utter insight. In the effort to be, simply, utterance. The mind and music of the voice. The body and the nunchucks, one. The poet and the poem, one.

Sunday Poem

No children;
Cold uncoils in the blood;
Science, true, not good
For you. So old,
Suddenly, or so young.
Lyric inside not to be sung.
Plug pulled, screen gone.
Sun out; mind
Bountiful, playing pain.
These are my children
In my head. Unbegotten.
This is to self-forget,
To have the future
Born forgotten.
From When All My Disappointments Came at Once (2012) by Todd Swift.

(Painting "Father and Child" by Georgianne Fastaia.)