A plas­tic fan­tas­tic col­lec­tion of po­ems

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

ST. Catharines, Ont., poet Adam Dick­in­son was short­listed for a Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s award for The Poly­mers (Anansi, 114 pages, $20), which ex­plores imag­ined con­nec­tions be­tween po­etry and plas­tics. The first page lit­er­al­izes this con­nec­tion — two po­ems printed on trans­par­ent plas­tic — and func­tions as an artis­tic state­ment: “plas­tic marks both the pres­ence and the ab­sence of nat­u­ral ob­jects, em­body­ing ten­sion be­tween the lit­eral and the metaphor­i­cal.” “I hate my gen­i­tals. / They re­mind me of com­mu­nism,” Dick­in­son writes in a fun­nier, more oblique mo­ment. The re­peat­ing struc­tures of plas­tic mol­e­cules serve as in­spi­ra­tion for Dick­in­son’s po­etic forms, and the range of ap­proaches in such a co­he­sive, co­her­ent book is stun­ning. “In­stinct is the in­sect in cir­cum­lo­cu­tion / peek­ing and boo­ing / in the ex­tended an­ten­nae / of how long it takes a grown man / on his hands and knees to re­trieve / what is thrown behind him, / his plea­sures and prin­ci­ples / held to­gether / by death­drives of search­lit drool.” In nine lines, Dick­in­son packs at least four ref­er­ences to Freud, builds a com­plex, de­vel­op­ing im­age and snow­balls to a vis­ceral, star­tling con­clu­sion. Put The Poly­mers on your plas­tic. “Stay skinny to avoid be­ing eaten / by your king,” coun­sels Toronto’s Robin Richard­son in Knife Throw­ing Through Self-Hyp­no­sis (ECW, 80 pages, $19). Things get bleaker from there — Richard­son has a tal­ent for dis­qui­et­ing im­ages that amuse and dis­turb in equal mea­sure. Another poem de­scribes a (sup­posed) Jerry Springer episode: “A man hides Smar­ties in his pocket. / They melt in the heat of the spot­light. / When he takes his hand out to flash the mid­dle fin­ger there’s a rain­bow.” Another poem is ti­tled Princess Leia to a Lovesick Stormtrooper. When Richard­son latches onto pop cul­ture in this way, she strad­dles a line be­tween tak­ing things se­ri­ously and wink­ing at ab­sur­dity, through a flat, plain-spo­ken style. A pre­cise, pris­tine poet, Richard­son al­ways de­lights. In Timely Ir­rev­er­ence (Night­wood, 96 pages, $19), Toronto’s Jay Mil­lar dreams of “a cul­ture in which / Peo­ple just sit around and drink beer” and “talk about stuff, like / About the things that we learn about / While we are sit­ting around watch­ing / Television, or sit­ting around surf­ing / The in­ter­net.” It’s a lofty dream — what el­e­vates the poem are two lines book­end­ing it, each of which prof­fers an im­age of in­sects, in a neu­tral tone. A sug­ges­tion of de­cay, of this “dreamed” cul­ture’s deca­dence? Or, rather, of hid­den life be­neath the sur­face of things? The po­ems in Timely Ir­rev­er­ence of­ten read like satires of po­ems or oth­er­wise sub­vert their conventions upon closer in­spec­tion. Calgary’s Robert Ma­jzels and Mon­treal’s Erin Moure trans­late Mon­treal’s Ni­cole Brossard in White Pi­ano (Coach House, 112 pages, $18). Brossard’s lines flow in a head­long rush, while her po­ems are spare and re­strained: “lan­guage I’ll say yes / from the top of my rib cage / lan­guage will you come / out and un­earth the salt the cer­ti­tude.” As deftly as she of­fers such ex­u­ber­ance, Brossard builds stark, fright­en­ing im­ages: “she holds her hand up like some dis­tant ma­chine / that might nour­ish her, re­flect her story / she holds it out in front, hand mask wolf / hav­ing seen all the hanged fig­ures / of Goya.” Dense, but im­me­di­ate in their im­pact, Brossard’s lines crackle. Al­ready a gi­ant of Que­bec let­ters, and gifted with the coun­try’s best trans­la­tors, Brossard keeps get­ting bet­ter with age. 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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