Reworking Old English poem makes moving debut
GUELPH’S Shannon Maguire debuts with the wry fur(l) parachute (BookThug, 112 pages, $18), which subjects the Old English poem Wulf and Eadwacer to bizarre permutations through experimental translation. Maguire transmutes the 19-line fragment by breaking its back across a variety of contemporary references, ranging from fly fishing to the Muppets. “Mister Wulf, send your crows / let them carry away my undigested books, the years / with my entrails.” Maguire’s “translations” work best when they hew close to the tone of the poem, while stretching its meaning across a cultural gap. An impressive range of approaches and techniques is on display in Maguire’s collection, despite its narrow focus, to suggest the multiplicity at the heart of human identity and endeavour. The changing ways we break and rebuild ourselves, through our language and its encounters with the world, sets the stage for the strange theatre of Maguire’s book. Montreal’s Joséphine Bacon, a documentary filmmaker and a songwriter for Chloé Sainte-Marie, published her first poetry collection in a bilingual edition of French and Innu-aimun. Now translated into a bilingual English/Innu-aimun edition by Phyllis Aronoff, Message Sticks/ Tshissinuatshitakana (TSAR, 134 pages, $22) condenses spare, powerful insights about traditional Innu culture with Bacon’s laments about environmental and cultural despoilment. “Where have the trees gone / that were growing when / I was growing up?” asks Bacon in one poem. Earlier, she provides one kind of answer: “Papakassiku [the caribou Master] is angry, / his bones are scattered, / he no longer answers / dreams.” Pennsylvania’s Ron Silliman, late in an influential career, has embarked on an ambitious project: to write a 360-book poem called Universe that will take him at least 300 years to complete. Revelator (BookThug, 78 pages, $20) is a strong start, and plays with the epic qualities of Silliman’s absurd project. Despite its grandiose concept, the procedure of Revelator is simple: Silliman wrote lines of five words each, free-associating from line to line and compositional moment to moment, until he filled a notebook. Revelator returns obsessively to a few images and ideas, including poetic standards, and often seems as much a meditation on conventional poetic imagery as on capitalism and death: “in a town so small / Safeway has the lone Starbucks / Eventually books oxidize, words themselves / learn to resist, clouds drift.” Revelator confirms Silliman’s continued relevance while providing a good entry point to his body of work. Another debut collection, Winnipeg’s Melanie Dennis Unrau’s Happiness Threads: The Unborn Poems (The Muses’ Company, 96 pages, $16), explores the struggle of a new mother to preserve a sense of identity and individuality, rather than blandly assume a conventional social role. The speaker moves between expressing the sincere love mothers are supposed to express, to using poetry to subvert normal engagements in online discussion groups, to refuting post-structuralist theorists (those pesky Lacanians!) and their attacks on perceived essentialism. The opening poems are the most affecting. The careless ease with which many discuss children, the thoughtless assumption that anyone can have children without difficulty, and how this produces feelings of inadequacy and failure all underwrite these early poems, making the joy in later sections more poignant. The most heartbreaking poem here, flatly titled miscarriage, displays Unrau at her best: “you remember the time / the boys down the street used hockey sticks / to knock a robin’s nest to the ground / & you cupped that little bird in your hands.” Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball will launch his new book, John Paizs’s “Crime Wave” (University of Toronto Press), at the Cinematheque on Feb. 28, featuring a
film screening and free admission.