Le­gris prefers tweet­ing of birds

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - By Jonathan Ball

IN Pneu­matic An­tiphonal (New Di­rec­tions, 48 pages, $12), for­mer Win­nipeg­ger Sylvia Le­gris crafts po­ems around the sounds of sci­en­tific lan­guage for a hu­man ap­prox­i­ma­tion of bird­song. Le­gris, who now lives in Saskatoon, won the 2006 Grif­fin Prize for her col­lec­tion Nerve Squall. In her new out­ing, she chal­lenges the con­ven­tions of the na­ture poem, when she takes on con­ven­tional po­etic sub­jects (like the beauty of song­birds), from “neck to di­aphragm the phrenic nerve is a Strat string wait­ing to sing.” A wel­come relief from, and coun­ter­point to, the bor­ing bland­ness of most na­ture poetry, Le­gris’s po­ems star­tle the senses to at­ten­tion (es­pe­cially that sense too-dor­mant in many po­ets, the sense for lan­guage play). “Flip the epiglot­tal emer­gency flap” and give Le­gris a try. Winnipeg’s Den­nis Coo­ley is also at­ten­tive to and will­ing to play with lan­guage. From gran­ite slab to curl­ing rock, Coo­ley sounds The Stones (Turn­stone, 132 pages, $17) for po­etic res­o­nance. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the book be­comes (to some de­gree) ele­giac, Coo­ley rap­ping knuck­les on tomb­stones. Yet de­spite the oc­ca­sional sad med­i­ta­tion (“peo­ple are porce­lain / bones you say have / grown old and half / crazed with time”), Coo­ley laughs jovial in the pres­ence of death (one poem de­lights in list­ing var­i­ous metaphors for get­ting drunk). “Why do we write of the dead to the dead,” asks Coo­ley, and a lit­tle fur­ther on seems to an­swer his ques­tion with “in some way i have / done this for the liv­ing.” Coo­ley here re­flects on his ear­lier books for and about his fa­ther and mother, but the sen­ti­ment nicely cap­tures the life-lov­ing exuberance, edged with melan­choly re­flec­tion, that stands as the sig­na­ture of his style. Anne Michaels, best known for the in­ter­na­tional best­selling novel Fugi­tive Pieces, has teamed up with writer and artist Ber­nice Eisen­stein (both of Toronto) for the hy­brid poetry/art­work Cor­re­spon­dences (McClel­land & Stewart, 128 pages, $35). Be­tween the front and back cov­ers, an ac­cor­dion-style sheet folds to en­fold, on one side, a long poem by Michaels that serves as an el­egy for writ­ers and thinkers rang­ing from Al­bert Einstein to Paul Ce­lan to her fa­ther Isa­iah Michaels. On the other side, portraits of th­ese fig­ures by Eisen­stein stand along­side quo­ta­tions from their work. Michaels has a ten­dency to favour overly ab­stract lan­guage and melo­drama: “there are eyes that never change, / no mat­ter the age, / never stop see­ing / the same mo­ment.” The last line some­what re­cu­per­ates the im­age, but mainly Michaels presents the cliché of an old per­son’s youth­ful gaze. Else­where, “the pre­cise wak­ing that is born / from the night­mare” has a hal­lu­cino­genic force, and “a line break for­ever chang­ing the word above / and the word be­low” nicely med­i­tates on po­etic form while sug­gest­ing the way that the col­lab­o­ra­tion with Eisen­stein might have al­tered how we re­ceive her poem. Though not al­ways suc­cess­ful, Cor­re­spon­dences re­mains an in­ter­est­ing ex­per­i­ment and a phys­i­cally beau­ti­ful book. Ottawa’s Chris­tine McNair ends Con­flict (BookThug, 130 pages, $18) by tak­ing “it all back” and ask­ing us to pre­tend she “never wrote” th­ese po­ems. “A snowflake loses co­her­ence in a snow­storm. […] What does one page, one poem, one poet mat­ter when there are many?” In a cun­ning an­swer, McNair has struc­tured a book around her dis­taste for co­her­ence. Prose po­ems seem­ingly self-pla­gia­rized from Face­book up­dates (”Chris­tine […] can’t find her iPod sad face ex­tra sad face”) snug­gle against med­i­ta­tions on the by­gone Phoeni­cian civ­i­liza­tion and remixes of fa­mous po­ems. One poem is com­pletely ex­cised: “[ex­cised] [ex­cised]” it trum­pets. Another lists likes and dis­likes in a rush­ing breath: “phosouptick­les­the­word­kid­car­wash­es1940s­newspeak.” McNair’s de­but has a se­ri­ous side (those things no longer give her plea­sure) but also brims with quirky fun. Winnipeg English pro­fes­sor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanball­com) re­cently pub­lished The Pol­i­tics of Knives (Coach House Books), which

won a Manitoba Book Award.

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