September 19, 2016
Need Machine by Andrew Faulkner is compulsive reading. “This is about what just happened. / This is about what’s next.” (from ‘Incidental’) These are poems you want to carry with you on the subway and read between stations. The uproar of city life is a good context for a poem like ‘Chorus’. Not ancient Greek tragedians speaking to the citizens of Toronto but Faulkner’s readily familiar voice taking us through “this little city from block to block, from hour to hour.” The Octavio Paz epigram that begins the poem opens up into a fevered hour, an hour made and unmade, a cadaverous hour, and is found again in Faulkner’s own words as ‘the hour’s mirrored eye’. He questions his own attempts to find Toronto by writing “As if by naming we could make a thing…”
His other acerbic and often funny poems hold the kind of tensions that keep a reader on the edge of their subway seat. Faulkner’s direct approach keeps you attentive even though you don’t always know what’s going on. The edgy language serves the humour and vice versa (“traffic limping like a waitress working a double in a cast”). He moves agilely through quick cuts and a range of references.
There are teasing echoes of conventional poetic structure, pace and specific allusions (“At our feet the evening gathers like litter”). These create an expectation of the inevitable explanation that doesn’t, and will not, come. “With apologies for those of you / waiting for a payoff, I guess this is it.” (from ‘Like Lions’) His distinct authorial voice is built on accumulation, not predictable closure. Anyone who ends their book with “Hello, caller, and welcome / to the show.” (from ‘Walk Home, Early Morning’) is not tuning in to yesterday’s radio. There is no table of contents so enjoy losing yourself in back alleys, Rorschachs, ‘a hot little mess,’ pinball and other need machines.
September 12, 2016
Julie Marie Wade has written one of those poems where the set-up, the tone and the language-play give the poet a unique poetic freedom.
Beginning with the title, ‘Psalm in the Spirit of Dragnet’ – a spiritual form and a classic TV show’s style – she signals that tonight she’s got a hold of some ‘celestial swag’. Midway through the poem the ghost of Jack Webb (Sergeant Joe Friday in Dragnet) asks for “Just the facts.” The ghost of Harry Morgan (his partner, Officer Bill Gannon) “is laughing his ethereal ass off.” The poet’s ‘Axiom’ here is: “No facts, ma’am, only interpretations.”
The poet admits to being “good / at Magic 8-ball but bad at bicycle-built-for-two.” She wants all dogs to “ride starboard, at least once, on a flaming-red fire engine.” Wade’s poetic truth is like Jackie Chan’s drunken fighting style: everything is a bit off kilter but not so much that you can’t hold onto the wry notion that the artist will connect.
The poem is wonderfully inclusive in what it connects: a yo-yo and the moon, Hungryman dinners and the heart, and thunder that sounds like an old Zamboni driving “across a starlit, skating rink floor.”
Julie Marie Wade associates freely through her poem with the greatest of ease. The full moon that likely precipitated these moves “is never going to nail that triple Salchow”; but the poet is going to stick the landing.
‘Psalm in the Spirit of Dragnet’ is archived at:
September 6, 2016
In John Steffler’s ‘Dividing Island’, from his collection Lookout, the poem is capable of looking inside a growing family and outside at their borrowed ‘home’ of Newfoundland in 51 cumulatively powerful lines. The feeling, as one reads, is that each line is inevitable, necessary; what is being said must be said. And it must be said in this way.
John Steffler’s ability to write such convincing lines is rooted in his attention to specific details and an empathetic awareness of the human condition. This began with his first book An Explanation of Yellow. But he is also willing to go to “some blunt place I can’t go beyond.” In his book-length journal/poem The Grey Islands, which documents his solitary stay on islands off the north coast of Newfoundland, he wrote “I am not a man anymore. I am an island.” In The Night We Were Ravenous, the title poem is so uniquely characteristic that it lives larger than the one writing it.
In ‘Dividing Island’ a man and his wife come to Newfoundland. He “had bargained to keep her / with his work, left his boy self / back in Toronto.” They have two children there and attempt to identify themselves with the ache of the landscape. Painfully the people from there must go ‘outside’ to get work, dividing themselves from each other and their home. The island itself takes on an identity in the poem from both of these struggles, “growing this / history of loss like its low trees.”
In speaking the place, the poet also unmistakably speaks our own ‘dislocated selves’.
August 31, 2016
Reworking lines from Pablo Neruda’s elegy for Alberto Rojas Jiménez – “you come flying / over cities with roofs under water” – Elizabeth Bishop poetically invited Marianne Moore to ‘please come flying’ over a Manhattan ‘awash with morals’ where ‘waves are running in verses.’
In her poem, ‘Please (after Elizabeth)’, Lise Downe uses that same three-word invitation and we lift off but into a much different flight. We immediately fly “out of our old arrangements”; ones that might include poetic form as well as whatever personal arrangements we might free associate.
The road sign on the cover of Lise’s book, which is inscribed with the title This Way, points in two directions at the same time. Her writing in previous books – A Velvet Increase of Curiosity, the soft signature, and Disturbances of Progress ─ has the same elusive and delightful quality of creating familiarity and disorientation at the same time. In this poem we can’t measure our flight as the crow flies; rather, we’re invited to ‘Swivel as the flow cries’, to go forth ‘unprotected’ and ‘witness the stirring of things.’
Unlike the poem after which she is writing, Bishop’s ‘Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore’, Downe has no specific reference ─ no city or river or public library. We’re flying above the uncertain ground of metaphor ─ or should we take the ‘echo of sleeves’ literally? The “small but important signs / become the most pressing.” As she says in the subsequent poem ‘Telltale Signs’, for her that happens “if / otherness is filtering through.”
In the midst of the pleasures of language, Lise Downe’s constructions of the words themselves question the usual way we use words. As she says in her epigram to the soft signature:
“All of these words have appeared elsewhere.
Only their order has been changed
to maintain their innocence.”
August 22, 2016
If a modest intention of poetry is to stop time, then Don Domanski succeeds masterfully in Fetishes of the Floating World. This numbered series of eighteen reflective poems, published by espresso (an imprint of paperplates books) in a beautifully crafted chapbook, is in lockstep with eternity.
Each poem is aware of the energy of the sonnet form; the series averages fourteen lines a poem but each one varies from nine to twenty-two. Like those of us who know city streets but prefer to wander, Domanski likes “to make/ a sacred moment somewhere off the grid”. These lyrical poems don’t drift into solipsism or sentimentality. His use of spaces instead of punctuation emphasizes his pauses, moderating the speaking voice with unhurried human breath. The clear syntax moves with subtle grace.
Domanski, like his description of a dragonfly focusing in on a midge, gathers in his cadences and tightens the present tense. In addition to the apt word choices, juxtapositions and phrasing there is cumulative beauty in a series where this poet calls back earlier images and concepts. An aquatic bug paddling along the pond’s surface with oarlike hind legs is scientifically ‘a water boatman’; but because in an earlier poem we were on the ‘Charon blue’ that “you cross / to get to the other side” that echo helps us “know its dark grace could carry the world”. In poem 1 “green eyes of the grass blink / and adjust their vision” along with the poet and the reader; in poem 14 we are beside the poet and with “the ocean with its ear to the shore listening for / blades of grass”.
Though they are gleaned from the “Gnostic text / hidden in plain sight” that Don Domanski finds in the natural world; these transparent poems are a pleasure to read. Nevertheless, be aware that in these contemplative lines we aren’t simply at ease in nature, we are invited into darkness and silence.
August 15, 2016
What makes a poem jump? In Joy Harjo’s poem ‘We Were There When Jazz Was Invented’ (from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings) the poem jumps along with her saxophonist friend Jim Pepper at the stomp. It also jumps like “a woman who’s given up everything for the forbidden leap / To your arms as you lean over the railing to hear the music hopping at the jump / Pull of the line.”
Her poem jumps at least three times in those two and a half lines. The woman jumps, the music jumps, and the poem itself makes a ‘leap’ from the end of one line to the beginning of the next then makes a ‘jump’ again at the end of the second line on to the next. Line length – from a constant minimum of ten words to one line of twenty-five – is important. Harjo’s line breaks are indicative. As a result, three short lines stand out: “Up into the sky, holy.” “Take me back.” And the last line of the poem “How holy.” She earns her repeated use of that last word by making the poem an “exact …science of the holy.”
Poetry, like life, is also, in her words, “a holy / leap between forgetting and jazz”, “a bear” (a real salmon-catching ‘bear’, ‘a bear of a horn player’, the colloquial ‘hard to bear’, ‘bearing little resemblance’ and ‘the bare/ Perfect neck of a woman’), and “a holy mess”.
In this 38-line poem Harjo gets married to the music, gives birth to the blues, incubates broken dreams, and reconstructs songs ‘buried in the muscle of urgency’.
Her close attention to her craft and her open embrace of ‘the tangle of human failures’ (as she says in another poem – ‘Talking with the Sun’) make this poem worth reading and rereading. Her leaps, which have the joy of improvised jazz, come with the resonance of a prophetic voice.
August 8, 2016
There is a quality of music in the balanced rhythms of Julie Roorda’s poetry. Except for the 17- part sequence The Altruist, her poems in Courage Underground (Guernica 2006) rarely go beyond a page. She hardly needs that to find her way into the quality of darkness in what she is nominally writing about. Her titles say Earwig or June Bugs but the quiet voice burrowing into your head is saying ‘harmonic convergence’ or ‘gelatinous transformation’ or ‘intimacy with compulsion’.
In a later section, after titles like ‘Everything I regret persists in the form of a small animal’ and ‘Broken-Hearted Looks on Love’, Roorda has a poem called ‘The Quality of Darkness’. In 27 lines in 5 verses her attentive listening to a Radio One show on light pollution brings her to a realization:
My eyes are as my skin, sensitive
As the pervious covering of amphibians,
Feeling the press of darkness, being
More than just the absence of light…
In her interior darkness, she and the frog are one and are singing “the same old song: Save me, save me.” By the end of the poem it is the darkness that is speaking and no one who reads it will sleep through it.
For Julie Roorda, and the disembodied aliens she imagines observing us at night, we can shuck off our sarchophagal casings and are “closest to real, / when we are dreaming.”
Become, like her, the subjects of the poems she is writing and have the courage to join in on these underground transformations.