By George Murray

An aphorism is a condensed bit of wisdom or insight that aspires to the burr-like mental stickiness and staying power of poetry and proverb. Poet George Murray brings together 409 such nuggets in Glimpse, sometimes to great effect but too often with uneven results.

The form is the problem, since it sets the bar so high. In writing that is this pared-down we expect nothing but zingers, pure gold, pensées that will have the sudden impact of Zen koans. There is simply no excuse for the odd dud, as we would forgive an occasional bad line in a long poem. This emphasis on pruning and discrimination is heightened by the subtitle, which tells us that these are “selected” aphorisms. Selected from what? Just how many aphorisms has Murray written? An introduction setting out his approach and goals would have helped.

The aphorisms, usually only a sentence in length, appear five to a page. They are numbered, but otherwise there doesn’t seem to be any method to their arrangement. The typical form they take is that of a definition: “X is . . .” The X is usually an abstract noun like beauty or truth, allowing for an imaginative gloss that can go in almost any direction. It all sounds like this: 129: Death is a relinquishing of the prerogative to object. 130: Time is a tea through which your life’s water is only run once. 131: Embarrassment is regret in its youth.

Lightning does strike. Murray is capable of lines that tease the reader out of thought, like “Lies are not the opposite of truth; ideas are.” And there are also arresting moments that scratch at imagistic expressiveness: “To the wind, an open window is a drain,” “Mist is a rain that can’t agree with itself.”

But then there are the throwaways, the glib, banal, and cutesy singles that should not have made the cut. Aphorisms often strike us with the force of truth, or at least an arresting aptness, but they shouldn’t come as obvious as “The first choice is not the choice, but the choice to choose,” or “Sleep is the rough draft of death.” And for some reason vulgarity brings out the worst in Murray: “DNA rhymes with T and A,” “On the highway of life each tongue is an on-ramp, each asshole an exit,” “Those who cannot hear Nature’s call end up pissed.” Brevity, yes. Wit? That’s stretching things.

In other words, as with most poetry collections, there are at least as many misses as hits. Given the nature of the exercise, however, one might have expected a better ratio, strained through a more discerning process of selection.

Review first published August 13, 2010.

Open Air Bindery

By David Hickey

I’m always interested to see particular images recurring in a poet’s work. Not in a signature, grand thematic flourish, like with Yeats’s gyres, but in subtle, leitmotif fashion, in ways that the author may not even be conscious of. In a novel such repeatedly struck notes are easier to spot, and usually they appear for a more obvious purpose – often, for example, being used as shorthand to represent a character’s habit of mind. But in a collection of poems, especially of the contemporary, confessional lyric sort, one can’t help feeling a bit like a Freudian analyst, taking notes on a symbolism that the poet chatters at his fingertips.

I don’t want to throw David Hickey on the couch, and in any event his new book, Open Air Bindery, doesn’t have a hidden agenda. The title itself alerts us to what will be the dominant pattern of imagery: one associated with inner and outer states, the open and the bound. The first poem, “Open Voyage,” is one of the most inviting introductions to a book of poetry you’ll read and immediately establishes the ruling conceit of systole and diastole, with a painting of a boat on the Nile magically expanding outward – “the figure living within its framed wooden borders” pushing herself beyond the picture frame and cruising around the poet’s room – and then receding inward (“her small ship gliding into the painting’s / canvas, into its beginnings”).

We might flag those two words “living within.” The next poem sets before us another picture, an x-ray, which reveals the author’s inner being or “essential self” nestled within “the wetsuit of my body.” The poem after that, “The Garden Shed,” begins with the poet asking of the title structure “Could I live in this / thing?” But while both of these poems evoke the notion of containment, neither expresses feelings of confinement. Indeed quite the opposite; the effect is expansive. Every work of art is concerned with getting things in – not just employing techniques and devices, but putting the universal in the particular, somehow containing life itself. There is the canvas, the unexposed film, the blank, white page. Now: how do I live, put life, in this thing?

And so all art is a sort of life within, one that, like the boat on the Nile, takes on a life of its own. The concluding series of poems, “Snowflake Photography,” plays with the question of what the world looks like inside of a snowflake: a “short lifetime / framed in a frozen / ecology.” Within that single crystalline particular may in fact reside a world, “the universe’s tidy / store of time tucked inside”:

it’s without
pictures or words; just pages


and pages of white,
which is what the world


looks like where
you’re sitting: pages


pages and pages of white,
the work of some careful


pressman minding
his craft


as he lays
out the fields below.

This Unwritten Book of Snowflakes is a fascinating meditation on art. Of course it is written, snowflakes are something made, but like the book of moonlight (subject of another poem), whose pressman also works in “an open air bindery,” the life within has no fixed meaning and no frame. No two editions of it are alike.

All of this could get to be a bit metaphysical if it weren’t grounded in Hickey’s grasp of the particular, the feel of kitchen tiles under bare feet and the familiar squeak of floorboards. Expanding that notion of domestic ground just a bit one might even see in the leitmotif I’ve been focusing on an island aesthetic. Hickey is a native of Prince Edward Island, and when he writes about how “blue edges a map of land” he we see him imagining another fluid frame around a life within. Those blue edges are like the incongruously watery shores of suburbia in another poem, or even the “rivered grain” and “wooden channels” of a tabletop that the poet’s books seem to float upon. This is the poetry of endlessly rocking tides: lapping up the land, and then retreating to borderless geographies.

Review first published online July 25, 2011.

Pure Product

By Jason Guriel

Take, for example, the poem “E.g.”:

The first principium tends to bore us.

Which it does. The stuffy “principium” usually having the connotation of a first or essential principle, a “first principium” adds to our sense that the line is meant to be a mouthful. But by breaking the ice in such a self-conscious way – it is the first line of the poem – it works as intended. This is a poem that announces itself as being aware of matters having to do with order and form. That it is also a sonnet, that most readily identifiable and familiar of all poetic forms, also helps. Sonnets, as I had occasion to remark in a review of the Jailbreaks anthology, make the perfect vehicle for meta-poetic musings. You can never not be aware that what you’re reading has been built to a set of established specifications which, in turn, become part of the poem’s subject matter. And so this is the first principium: the general form of the sonnet that precedes the existence of this particular instance.

As form alone, however, it bores us (with the “tends” adding a nice touch of the blasé). In several other poems in Pure Product Guriel closely associates the idea of form – or more properly its absence – with boredom. “When Walking Next to Chain Link Fences” is a jaunty formalist manifesto: the strictly ordered wires and posts of “these braided harps” are the source of the poet’s music, clattered out with a broken branch. Absent form/fence, there is only the boredom of Frost’s tennis court stripped of its net:

But when these fences give
way to boundless lawns
my hand becomes the sieve
that can’t contain my yawns.

More akin to the first principium is the “Shopping Cart, Abandoned on Front Lawn.” The cart here is abandoned form, a structure “out of its element” and unable to perform any worthwhile function. Even the local kids grow “bored” with it as a plaything, abandoning it to rust. And yet even so it has a kind of poetic value to it, as form alone. It “stupidly sifts” the sunlight, creating a shadowy grid of subdivision beneath it. And

Still, it’s sturdy enough. Sound.
If only some Duchamp would rope it off
and declare a readymade Found.

The final rhyme insists on the value of the shopping cart’s embodiment of order, of Sound. Form cannot be abandoned. It is a first principle.

If we squint, force1 flies like an arrow . . .

Of course we have to do some work when reading poetry. But the form is always there. As noted, with a sonnet it is pretty obvious. Sonnets can be diagrammed through their rhyme scheme, in the case of “E.g.” a standard Elizabethan: ababcdcdefefgg. This is one way of representing, schematically, formal elements, just like the “force1” and “fig.1” in “E.g.”. The arrow is also a nod to time’s arrow, at least as understood in terms of cause-and-effect. And time’s arrow is a metaphor for temporal asymmetry, the fact that time (like language) only goes one way. This is traditionally understood as a function of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us that the universe is not only expanding but losing cohesion. Increasing in entropy. Losing form.

. . . and dots in fig.1 flame into Taurus.

The reason form cannot be abandoned is that it is inherent to thought. The mind is not just a blank slate recording a chaos of sensation, but is preloaded with the Kantian categories of time and space that is uses to order and give form to experience. But while the form is there, it takes the imagination to generate something from it. Time and space exist, like the fence and the shopping cart, but we have to strike a music from them (“Taurus” boldly rings in the poem’s first rhyme). We have to make form fly and flame. Otherwise time is only entropy and space a scattering of stars.

Still, we crave the fleshed-out example.

“Still” being used here not to introduce a qualification (“But still . . . “), but rather, I think, with the meaning of “as always.” A sonnet need only be ababcdcdefefgg – after all, it rhymes – but this is only a schematic skeleton, an abstraction. It needs to be fleshed out with “thinginess.” Pure form is without thinginess – the boring shopping cart abandoned on the lawn, the fence without the stick to play on it. Thinginess is measure, “the width / times length / times height,” pure product, something made. And in the poem “E.g.” the generation is explicitly sexual, a craving for the flesh. Taurus is, after all, a bull. And when the poem flows on with

gross of apples less twelve for Tom;

we get the first of two boy-girl pairings, their shopping carts filled with concupiscent fruit: the gross of apples with its connotations of vulgarity and Original Sin, and the fuzzy, vulvic peach of juicy chins, uneaten by Eliot’s repressed Prufrock (a figure directly invoked in the next poem, which is a companion piece). After all, what are Dick and Jane doing taking

two trains
departing Duluth at noon, and in each
dining car, each storybook plate, plain Jane
and her Dick, longdividing the one peach.

The fleshed-out example of romantic assignation isn’t just imagery, it’s narrative. Which is another kind of engine driving language forward, the trains departing Duluth being an industrial version of time’s arrow. This is a train heavy with thinginess. Only compare the feline that follows:

But only a cat pads through our primers,
neutered by cold clip of that article.

The primer takes us back to the first principium, a Platonic form of cat that is to the flaming bull of Taurus what Leonardo’s Man (“like Man in vintage medical posters / in wait rooms”) is to Dick, separating his peach in a railway dining car. Indeed, we don’t even know if it (the cat) is a Tom. Where is his thinginess? Where is his thing?

What Guriel is getting at here is something that a lot of recent formalist poetry tries to deal with. What is the relationship between form and thing? What is the status of the image? In a review I wrote a few years ago of The New Canon, an anthology of new Canadian poetry edited by Carmine Starnino, I ended by questioning Starnino’s notion that poetry be “first and foremost a form” insofar as it had the effect of pushing other concerns too far into the background. A fixation on form becomes self-regarding, a way of turning inward and away the world. Now I want to emphasize this isn’t the case with all formalist poetry, especially historically – and I won’t even try to nail down the label – but I think it is an occupational hazard today. The subject of such poetry increasingly becomes poetry itself. In Pure Product this is obvious in the many self-referential asides as well as the lightly concealed essays on poetics (some of which I’ve already mentioned). “Less,” to take another example, is an exquisitely crafted poem that threads together a chain of images illustrating what appear to be nothing more than platitudes: that less is more, that mountains can be made out of molehills, that a little goes a long way. Read literally, the poem seems to be saying nothing at all. And so we are invited to interpret it as another poem about poetry – taking “less is more” as a minimalist aesthetic. The images are mere figures, illustrations, of no importance in themselves.

Guriel can be quite self-conscious about this. In one poem, “Empty Nests in Leafless Trees” he even turns on his own wonderful imagery

especially at sunset
when leafless trees become
their silhouettes
and empty nests
tend to stand out
like mashed clots
in a fine nest of capillaries
or ink blots
in failed calligraphy –

denying in the final part of the poem that the empty nests are either similes or metaphors “or, for that matter, / even matter.” They are only black holes, a sort of anti-image image that denies nature and the world entirely. Leaving us with the poem finally pointing to nothing outside itself. It is similar to what happens at the end of “E.g.”, with the neutered Man

proof of the universal,
genitals a generalization,
airbrushed, buffed to the point of abstraction.

A disappearing act that brings the poem full circle, back to the dull first principle. Universal Man is a vanishing “point”: a mere location or set of coordinates on a diagram. With the airbrushing and buffing of Cat and Man, the poem dissolves like the shrinking dot on an old-style television set. But then, how “real” were Dick and Jane?

Pure Product is an excellent book. In particular Guriel demonstrates a real mastery of the short line. As a statement of poetic principle, however, it doesn’t quite resolve what it wants to do with things. More generally the question might be asked: What, from the formalist perspective, is the world for? Less than essential, but more than mere decoration, does its invocation signify anything more than an endearing human weakness for things of the flesh?

Review first published online September 28, 2009.


Ed. by Zachariah Wells

Why sonnets, anyway? The origins of the form – now essentially any fourteen-line poem – go back to the Middle Ages, but that was in another country and another tongue. Indeed, culturally speaking another world altogether. How is it that they are still being written and indeed are still widely recognized even by the unliterary, when the villanelle, sestina, rondeau and rondel exist only in specialist vocabularies?

Tradition is obviously a big part of it. And in this case tradition is something more than the example of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the rest of the sonnet canon. It also refers to the place sonnets continue to hold in the teaching of literature, especially at the public and high school level (likely because they’re easy to memorize and because the formal elements give teachers something to hang on to). Early exposure and memorization are key, providing a model that mature poets carry within them and are able to work with and hear in their heads before putting pen to page. And by “work with” I mean what editor Zachariah Wells refers to as the sonnet’s refusal to be contained:

Far more than other forms, it has been defined by its adaptability, flexibility, plasticity. Its deceptively ample cargo space can accommodate – and has done so – pithy wit and irony, intellectual investigations and expressions of sincere feeling. A good poet can take liberties – often outrageous ones – with a sonnet’s structure without destroying the sonnet’s essence.

Which is one way of looking at it – what might be called the “jailbreak” perspective. But in addition to this centrifugal force there is an inward-looking attitude that doesn’t fret at the sonnet’s narrow room but rather celebrates its restrictions – within its scanty plot of ground finding relief from the weight of too much liberty. Inward-looking also in taking as its subject, as in Wordsworth’s poem, the very business of writing poetry. This centripetal force of self-referencing is obvious in poems here like Steven Heighton’s “Missing Fact,” Walid Bitar’s “Tarzan,” Phyllis Webb’s “Poetics Against the Angel of Death,” and George Whipple’s “Poetry,” but can also be only slightly or indirectly registered, as in Leonard Cohen’s “You Have No Form.” And what of the collection’s final poem, John Smith’s “There Is One”? A somewhat loose sonnet about metaphor, the tenth line, which re-introduces the poem’s theme, ends with the evocative word “turn.” A delayed volta? One always has such possibilities in the back of one’s head. Given the sonnet’s status as our most readily identified poetic form, it makes the perfect vehicle for such meta-poetic musings. You can never not be aware that what you’re reading has been built to a set of established specifications. And so to some degree those specifications become part of the poem’s subject matter.

Another thing “There Is One” shares with several of the other poems in this book is its nautical imagery. The one metaphor for everything may be “that single nonsense syllable sung by the indefatigable / oarsman . . . groaning out the strokes of his trade.” Something of that sound, the rhythms of tide and rowing, seems to strike a chord with Wells (who was born and raised on Prince Edward Island). But another, more striking, characteristic of most of the poems selected is their newness. The Introduction tells us that this anthology is “the first of its kind to appear in Canada since Lawrence Burpee’s A Century of Canadian Sonnets in 1910.” That said, don’t expect these 99 poems to represent the past century. Over half were published after 2000. Aside from nods to the usual round-up of big names from the past (Pratt, Layton, Klein, Cohen), this is mainly a selection of new poems, albeit some of them written by today’s established veterans. A young man himself, one senses a not unwelcome bias in Wells toward the contemporary scene. The selection has no end of variety though, fulfilling his mission to emphasize invention and innovation within the (broadly construed) sonnet form. And the arrangement is also well-handled, for example playfully juxtaposing Raymond Souster’s “Young Girls” with Elizabeth Bachinsky’s “How to Bag Your Small Town Girl,” and grouping a sextet of boat poems together.

Also worth attention are the endnotes, which provide quick, enthusiastic and sometimes idiosyncratic and personal readings of each of the poems along with making the case for their inclusion. And Wells’s fondness for “jailbreak” sonneteering, which takes liberties (“often outrageous ones”) with the sonnet form, does require him to provide some explanation for poems that are, for example, a line or two long or short. In the case of P. K. Page’s “Water and Marble” he even questions whether a fourteen-line poem qualifies – deciding, after admitting to some doubts, that on the basis of its structure it probably does.

It’s refreshing to see an editor so engaged with his material. And while there are omissions and inclusions individual readers may disagree with, the result is a collection that successfully showcases remarkable variety within its narrow room.

Review first published online June 8, 2008.

What If Red Ran Out

By Katia Grubisic

A poet’s medium is language and it goes without saying that they should use words carefully and with precision. That said, language is always pulling in connotative and denotative directions, stretched by centripetal and centrifugal forces that condense and expand meaning. The latter case is what usually attracts the most notice, it being where a poet is said to be most “playful” (an overworked expression that I think has had its day). Punning is an obvious example of this, but any metaphor involves the same technique. Somewhere between pun and metaphor lies ambiguity: when words are not quite one thing or the other, but a bit of both. Ambiguity cuts both ways.

The second section of the long poem “Preemptive Fieldnotes” in Katia Grubisic’s debut collection What if red ran out begins with a pregnant example: “For good, winter has receded, drooled / the other seasons in its wake.” Does “for good” mean that winter isn’t coming back (ever)? Or does it mean that getting rid of winter is for the best? What makes the point resonate is the way it relates to the question the poem begins (and ends) by addressing: “What if the world is a slide?” The answer to which can only be “What exactly do you mean by a slide?” The poem unpacks this ambiguity. The slide is, first of all, the fall of man, beginning with our picking dream fruit in the garden. It is Larkin’s “long slide” into adulthood, sexuality, and beyond. It is civilization’s progress – in the sense, I think, of Ronald Wright’s “progress trap” – and the wake of flotsam and jetsam it shits out behind us, piling up and threatening to bite us in the ass (“Everything / we have ever swallowed cavalcades”). It is the rhetorical slippery slope of argument, leaving us to consider with Aeneas that “Ascension / is more complex than it seems.” The imagery tips from the innocuous (the slide as “playground apparatus”) to the cartoonishly sinister (the collapsing Scooby-Doo staircase activated by a “secret-agent button”), but it doesn’t tell us whether the world is in fact a slide and whether or not that’s a good thing, whether winter will return or whether it’s gone for good. Or rather it answers these questions with an ambiguous yes and no.

Part of the difficulty in formulating answers is that the language is metaphorical. The title, for example, is part of the poem “Baffled King Collage” and it’s unclear from the context what sort of a value we are to place on red. Do the lines refer to things that are red, or redness as a quality of things? A part of the spectrum of light? A state of mind or feeling – violent, passionate, a sanguinary humour? Ambiguity suggests all of the above. Grubisic likes to suspend any final, authoritative meaning in these poems. “Barometer” is a clever instance, prolonging the moment of not-quite-kissing through a single rambling sentence. The kiss itself (almost) takes place in the imagined geography of a canyon that appears out of nowhere

The trouble with deciding to kiss someone,
anyone, anywhere at all – the hand, or at the foot


of a canyon –

We naturally assume the “anywhere” is going to refer to a place on the body, and so we are not surprised by the reference to the hand. But then comes the foot which trips us stumbling over the stanza break onto the ambiguity that inheres in anywhere: both a place on someone’s body where we kiss them and the place we are when we kiss. That surprise returns, along with the tripping feet, in the poem’s fluid climax as the rising waters of the canyon sweep the would-be lovers “off their feet, to somewhere or / else.” Coitus interruptus, or the consummation devoutly to be wished? There is no conjunction of identity, as with metaphor. The two don’t become one. The beloved only “aspires / to be wholly other.” We never make it to the bottom of the slide.

This resolute indeterminacy might have been coy in a poet less sure of what she was about, but Grubisic makes it work with a careful blend of drearily local and visionary imagery and a calculated snap in her lines. If “somewhere or / else” isn’t identified, we still feel that it’s a place. The quality throughout is also remarkably consistent, with few poems failing to fire on at least some cylinders. If not for the fact that there have been a number of really good first books of poetry in recent years – a testimony to the job small press publishers are doing in this country, by the way – a book like this would stand out even more. As it is, it takes a place among distinguished company.

Review first published online June 1, 2009.

Where We Might Have Been

By Don Coles

On the subject of memory, and the poetry of Don Coles is rooted in memory, this is interesting (maybe even “blown-away interesting,” you decide):

Psychiatrists are currently saying that we take
near-permanent note of every sight and sound
our lives offer us, filing away not only casual
scenes and events (and lately, from abandoned
hangars and unsupervised outbuildings,
the shredded, corridor-strewn contents of
once-cloistered, now Googleable, libraries both
ancient and modern), but also fierce angers,
immense joys, summer TV re-runs and NFL
hi-lites, in short whatever’s now going or once went.
All this stacks up in our head-mass,
most of it seemingly lost in there but all,
apparently, retrievable if we can catch even fleeting
glimpses of it. Glimpses from which may come
limitless things.

One such limitless thing being the oceanic mind itself. This is your brain on Google, one’s “head mass” as a networked synaptic soup retrieving files by glimpses that may as well be clicks. Here they are again leading off another poem:

The body presses forward on its narrowing journey
but the mind, musing on loss, pauses, looks
back, among the queues of years glimpses, like campfires,
its secret scenes.

The glimpse isn’t just a metaphor for retrieving the past. It’s a kind of movement, a bit of mental indirection that doesn’t press grimly forward but strolls about like a flâneur, pauses, looks back, gets drawn off track, and constantly re-evaluates. The poems in Where We Might Have Been resist all sense of linear progress, tending to end up back where they started after wandering about through fields of memory. The lines are long, the language informal, the content anecdotal, the rhythm conversational and the voice direct (“Think about it!”, “You see?”). The tone is set in the first lines of the first poem:

I was eating my supper in a booth in the Copenhagen
Student Union’s café and reading Art Buchwald’s
column in the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune when . . .

The moment is Coles’ version of a spot of time, a campfire that lights up with its specificity canyons of the past. He was eating supper, we soon learn, “fifty-plus years ago.” That indistinct quality time has – evoked throughout the book in phrases like “a few years ago,” “six or seven years,” “I think it was about eight years ago,” and “ca. seventy years” – plays off against the exactness of a remembered moment, which in turn expands into the poem. Of course Marcel and his biscuit is the great literary archetype here, and Proust even makes an appearance in a poem whose title exemplifies the book’s digressive nature: “Proust and My Grandfather (and Eaton’s, God Rot Them).” In another poem that expands upon “a random but vivid memory” of a French author, “Memory, Camus, Beaches,” the same shuffling movement among glimpses is even more pronounced, the structure “a re-start and circling-back” that starts off with Camus, then inserts those thoughts on the head mass quoted earlier, then returns to Camus (“We left him a while ago but now we’re / back”), then slips into another pair of digressions (“Which reminds me . . .”), then comes back to something else about Camus (“just one more thing while we’re here . . .”), and finally concludes with an anecdote recalled when out “walking in my usual meaningless way.”

Though all of his poetry is of a piece, one never has the feeling that Coles is repeating himself. Memory, whatever its initial impulse, opens onto a limitless range. Certain techniques do recur, like the use of an aide-mémoire to make memory speak (“Here’s a WWII photo . . .”, “Here’s a green-jacketed hardback . . .”), or the worrying of individual words (“The word ‘plangency’ has tempted me / more than once but I’ve resisted it”, “I wanted to have ‘despairingly’ there, a deeper and / darker adverb for sure”, “Funny about that word ‘surprised’.”). But what ties everything together isn’t so much the voice, which is more expansive than usual, as the personality it reveals. Coles places his poetic line within the Hardy-Larkin tradition, but his tone is very different. Hardy and Larkin are bitter men, their grumpy reflections suggesting a disillusionment and even at times a disgust with life. Coles seems cheery and blessed in comparison.

Coles came to publishing poetry late, a fact that has probably contributed something to his abiding interest in the backward glimpse and his mining of “secret fastnesses” snagged from the “coasting-pass of time.” The result has been a body of poetry that is highly personal but that also keeps a distance from the self. Memory is a way of both preserving and observing one’s own life. And it is in fragments and glimpses, including those preserved in texts or files, that the past is contained and set free. As Coles has said elsewhere: “an hour’s immortal even if a life isn’t.”

Review first published online January 3, 2010.

For as Far as the Eye Can See

By Robert Melançon

Poetry evokes, through the music of its language or through imagery. Its particulars are like small stones dropped in large ponds of consciousness, the ripples spreading out as echoes of other things we’ve heard, or seen, or read.

A couple of poems in to Robert Melançon’s For as Far as the Eye Can See I found myself imagining the cityscapes of the American painter Edward Hopper in the stark linearity of those “mounting tiers of brick houses” and telephone lines, with the “sky ruled off in glass and metal squares.” In Melançon’s lines we observe a “hardened” urban space, almost static, posed. A not-quite blank canvas, a “theatre reduced to almost nothing.” Cars inch ahead, and people trudge past the sightless gaze of shop window mannequins – in appearance, figures nearly as human as the ones outside the glass.

Or was I first aware not of Hopper’s art but of Robert Hughes’s response to it? “A great Hopper,” Hughes wrote, “always emits one moment of frozen time, literally a tableau, as though the curtain had just gone up but the narrative begun. It gives images of quite ordinary things – and everything, in Hopper, is on the face of it ordinary – their mystery and power.”

It is that sense of quiet anticipation within a “theatrically deserted” space that infuses these poems as much as it does Hopper’s paintings. We seem to be looking at an emptiness. Two words are repeated again and again: silence and nothing. Words that, in turn, only increase our feeling of anticipation, of what brushstrokes will fall upon this canvas, or what performance will take the stage.

suddenly this commonplace street resembles
a setting from Italian theatre, like


an infinite perspective in front of which
might be played out, in the failing light,
some tragedy in alexandrines.


All seems to be waiting, motionless –
the houses, people in the street, traffic –
all displays itself, even the shadows.

Shadows. We know what Hopper could do with shadows. And for Melançon too they have a special, almost spiritual significance. In one poem he explicitly likens the world of appearances that Plato held to be delusive shadow play to paradise. His moments of vision (and they are always ephemeral moments, witnessed in a blink and then gone forever) may not be “real” in a Platonic sense, but the real as Plato imagined it is only “a stale whiteness.” The shadows, on the other hand, though perhaps derivative, are magic. (The original French title of the book establishes this theme more directly: Le Paradis des apparences. Essai de poemes réalistes.)

What makes this particular, perhaps only personal, echo so remarkable is that Hopper is one of the few painters Melançon doesn’t include in his eclectic catalogue. The colours, forms, and textures of Friedrich, Breughel, Poussin, Seurat, Hals, O’Keefe, Caravaggio, Claude, Turner, and Mirò are invoked, but Hopper remains a spiritual shadow, his presence unattributed.

Of course the conceit of a poem, and especially a sonnet (the poems here are all twelve lines, “a lesser sonnet”), being a painting or objet d’art, is an old one. Painting, like language, is experienced through time. A canvas has an overall effect, but soon the eye has to start wandering over its surface, picking up details and engaging in interpretation. We can’t see a painting whole, at once, any more than we can experience a poem or a piece of music instantaneously. Melançon plays with this conceit throughout, tracking the movement of the eye as it moves from roofs to branches to telephone wires to snow.

We see chimneys outlined against


a pale sun and spills of undecided
shadow. We see the air’s transparency,
and the hazy dusting of light.

Or watch the eye fall from the sky, and down the page, with “nothing” (note the repetition) to hold on to until it comes to rest on the frame of buildings, and the end of the poem, in the following:

Nothing is happening in the expanse
of blue, so perfectly blue, that has
stretched its canvas above the streets,


nothing but the event of the light as it
fades toward the horizon, diffusing
into a hemisphere without contours,


built up out of nothing. No sooner does one try
to focus on one point than the eye, lacking
an object, seeking in vain for something


to fix on, at once shifts back down
towards the broken line of buildings,
as if to rest against a parapet.

Then remember – the realization comes as a surprise – that what’s being described isn’t a “canvas” at all, but a vision of the street. Such a vision of the street, to borrow a line, that the street itself can never understand, since it can’t perceive itself. It is the eye that transforms reality into vision, into art, into shadow. But only for a moment. Not because the moment itself is fleeting, but because our gaze is. Poetry, in Melançon’s hands, is a way of seeing.

Review first published online June 24, 2013.


By Amanda Jernigan

The word “groundwork” usually refers to a preliminary task, as in “laying the groundwork” for some further endeavour. It’s a good title then for Amanda Jernigan’s first book, as well as a signal of that book’s thematic concerns. In three sections dealing respectively with an archaeological dig in Tunisia, the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, and Homer’s Odyssey, Jernigan grounds her own work in classical beginnings while provocatively flipping traditional myths of origins on their head.

Taking a step back (and I apologize for how abstract this paragraph is going to sound), we can think of any myth of beginnings as having two axes: left-right temporal (something comes first and then something else happens later), and up-down hierarchical (something more advanced is built on a previous established foundation). In addition, myths come in two dimensions: personal and social. So, for example, Rousseau has man born free in a state of nature only to fall into chains, which describes both what happens to the individual and to civilizations. That the movement up the mythic ladder is experienced as a fall was the essence of the Romantic revolution in thought, which associated “lower” levels of nature and the unsocialized mind (Blake’s Orc, and later Freud’s Id) with creative genius while the upper reaches of the tower represented unnecessary and oppressive accretions.

Whether you want to privilege nature or culture, the Id or the Superego, the basic picture of the former being prior to the latter is pretty straightforward. Also obvious is the notion that, no matter how empty a tower may be at the top, it has to be built on something. The foul rag-and-bone shop is where the ladder starts, not where it ends up.

This is, however, exactly the mythic map that Groundwork undermines. The opening poem, “The Night Guard,” introduces us to the new terms of reference. An excavation of ancient ruins becomes a metaphor: nature is no longer the groundwork but rather the overgrowth. Cattle are cleared away and topsoil removed from the site in order to lay bare (moving from the social to the individual dimension) “the structure of your thinking.” In turn, what we find underneath is not some wild and uncultivated Eden, or the roiling lava of subconscious thought, but the detritus of earlier civilizations and the fragments of myth that nature itself has made a palimpsest of.

I find this a very contemporary way of thinking. Nature (at least as writers in the Romantic tradition like Rousseau or Wordsworth would have understood and experienced it) has largely disappeared from modern life on both the public and the personal level. How many of us have memories – memories that would have been shared by most of us just a couple of generations ago – of growing up on a farm? Such a prehistory is no longer part of our personal or collective unconscious. Instead, nature (in the form of “the environment”) is something to be reclaimed – more a vision of a sustainable green future than a past state of innocence we are trying to “get back” to. This is the sort of thing Jernigan finds among the ancient walls of Carthage, where the “living have quarried the bricks of the dead,” leaving bare-armed men planting tomatoes in the ruins. “Any why not?” one poem asks. “One can’t eat art,” another answers.

I wouldn’t want to lean on this reading too heavily, but it’s consistent with the imagery employed throughout much of the book. In the second and third sections we move from tesserae to more familiar cultural fragments, but the same language of a reverse movement from cultural base to natural overgrowth is used. After the dismissal of Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden is scarcely recognizable as a garden, the vineyards and orchards untended, the rivers left to pursue a natural course. In “The Birds of Paradise,” “the water in which we bathe / is less than pure” because it has been poisoned by a factory upstream, where Yeats’s singing bird is now being manufactured out of polyvinyl chloride. From a whale’s perspective, “fifty fathoms deep,” icebergs are “upside-down basilicas.” When Odysseus finds his men transformed into pigs he thinks them none the worse for that. Art isn’t about progress.

In his early novels Don DeLillo liked to make the point that the subconscious mind, the inner reptile brain, isn’t a natural structure any more but one colonized by advertising jingles and other ephemeral bits and pieces of pop culture. Jernigan’s fragments are more elevated – she’s deeply (at times almost too deeply) allusive, even within individual poems – but I think she’s making a similar point about our collective mental groundwork. The structure of our thinking has nothing left in it of nature.

All of this might make Groundwork sound like a bit too much of an intellectual exercise, but I’ve only offered one reading and in any event it doesn’t play as dry as I’ve made it sound. Jernigan is more into rhyme than rhetoric, and handles form skillfully and with a light touch throughout. The poem “Islands” is a good example, with stanzas that spread out as aural rings of puns and homophones. On such a foundation a rich “overground” is built, an airy garden over the horizon line waiting to be mined.

Review first published online May 14, 2012.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

By David Rakoff

There are a number of noteworthy things about Montreal-born David Rakoff’s debut novel Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. It is, for starters, both Rakoff’s first novel (he had written three previous volumes of essays) and his last book, as he died of cancer just after completing it. It is also illustrated by Guelph artist Seth, and his full-page portraits of the main characters, profiles in gray that makes them seem like so many carved busts in a gallery of antiquities as much as snapshots from a photo album, nicely complement Rakoff’s generation-spanning chronicle of twentieth-century America. Seth is a master of revealing depth of character through just the set of a mouth or an eyebrow. Even a baby seems both innocent of and alarmed at the trials she will have to face as an adult.

But what makes the book most remarkable is the fact that it is a novel in verse. The long poem has been on the endangered species list for decades now, and its close cousin the narrative poem is an even rarer bird. But Rakoff tells the entire story here in rambling, often run-on, couplets. The metrical flow is such that if you read it aloud (which is worth trying just for a page or two) you don’t get the sense of a rocking rhyme scheme at all. There is a frequent use of enjambment and feminine line endings, making the rhymes almost invisible on occasion. In fact, the times when you notice the couplets the most tend to be when Rakoff stretches for a particularly risky or striking combination, like matching “pubic lice” with “paradise,” or in scenes like the one describing an abortion: “She lay back and placed her feet in the cold stirrups / And faced toward the window, all birdsong and chirrups.”

Despite the lighthearted tone of the verse, Rakoff’s representative and loosely linked American lives make for a pretty grim, unhappy bunch. Victims and outsiders, they are swept along toward inevitable illness and death. The faces become ghost-like and haunted as they confront harder facts and a colder reality, their best days all behind them, like spots of time now existing only in memories and boxes of old photos. Optimism is exposed as a delusion, albeit a necessary one. In the end it’s best to live in the now, and understand that life is only passing through various stages, a journey and not a destination.

Review first published August 10, 2013.

Sub Divo

By Norm Sibum

You don’t have to be a student of Northrop Frye’s historical system of mythic modes to be aware that we live in an ironic age, one that invokes past glories mainly as a way of commenting on a degraded present. This has been the default setting for our literature at least since Joyce and Eliot sent Odysseus and Agamemnon on brothel crawls. By now we’ve come to expect such inversions, and so when Norm Sibum opens Sub Divo with Odysseus on Circe’s island, the wandering hero’s resistance to the witch’s temptation involves a familiar undercutting of the epic. Instead of enjoying a “pretty beastliness” on the enchanted island Odysseus would rather be home doing doggy things:

My pleasures? They are a swallow of my own vintage,
My cheese, the goodly scent of my wife’s armpit.
The sight of my old father, my hunting dog –
Yes, come to think of it, my hunting dog –

For the goodly scent of an armpit I think we might read snuffling his wife’s crotch, but really it comes to the same thing. Circe counts such a life mere “wretchedness,” but Odysseus is off with a wagging tail after a quick sniff and kiss of the witch’s cheek. We won’t find any scent here of Tennyson’s Ulysses launching himself into the great unknown, or Spenser’s disdain for Grille and his hoggish mind. Better to leave the realm of gods and heroes alone and revel in earthy humanity.

That earthy humanity is, as the Latin tag has it, sub divo, under the heavens or the sky. And there’s nothing to be ashamed of about it. “Let me say it again,” Sibum says (again):

either pitch your verse at the highest
Pitch, or, chaste as a child playing at jacks,
get down and dirty . . .

Either stay with Circe (and Tennyson, and Spenser, and Homer) or get down in the muck. And though Sibum has an eye for the female form, it is a chaste dirtiness: one that can be likened to a child playing but which is closer to the memories of a veteran re-living past loves, the women won and the women lost. You can hear Roth’s Zuckerman in some of these monologues, with Sibum as the professor of desire. It’s not as big a stretch as that may seem, as Roth’s art is grounded in voice and the poems in Sub Divo are conversation pieces both in style (recall that “Yes, come to think of it . . .”) and form.

The conversations orbit around passions recollected in tranquility. Recollections of lust are made in chaste detachment, and that detachment is also the dominant tone in the collection’s political musings. Here the nod to Horace takes on further relevance, as Sibum dives into the increasingly popular question “Are We Rome?” The analogy is inevitable, arriving “as if preordained.” The torch of empire has been passed and America is “the thing once again made new.” And yet America the New is looking old and worn, “down in the mouth, / Snake-bit, war-maddened, its parts / But jailbait for the banks, morally, spiritually, intellectually spent,”

Fortress America an open-air crypt
of crumbling infrastructure
and advanced weapons systems.

Sibum is censorious, but gives the impression that he is past anger. Again there is a feeling of tranquility, with the model here being Tacitus in his garden, “taking the shade” while chronicling the empire’s corruption, decline and fall. Or, closer yet, Horace, who in his Epistles and Satires provided the model for the later English “conversation poem.” That same model and the consistency of mood is what here holds the personal and political together, private words addressed in public. This glue is necessary as the conversation, especially when our poet is in his cups, is often chatty and indirect, making Sibum’s muse seem “addled”:

war, love, lust, Caesar,
the shenanigans of the financial sector.
Why, they’re all over the place – these verses,
As if I were some shorebird, long-legged bundle of nerves
and aversions
Who finds the shore unstable, the tide treacherous, too many
gawking tourists about
looking for spirituality in the flaming sunset
and I can’t settle anywhere on the beach.

Sub Divo is a book that’s set on that beach. The flaming sunset – of years, of empire – is a retirement destination for some, a violent spectacle for others (I think of a synthesis, the apocalyptic end of West’s Day of the Locust, as I read the lines). And while one appreciates Sibum’s nervous uneasiness, it’s hard not to picture him sitting at a bar and enjoying the show while offering his commentary on time’s treacherous tides.

Review first published online February 18, 2013.