Vivid verse from trio of Manitoba poets
I Nthe Tiger Park (Coteau, 72 pages, $17) is Winnipeg’s Alison Calder’s followup to her debut Wolf Tree, which won two Manitoba Book Awards. Calder’s poems are spare and stark, taking an unsentimental approach to a natural world that, historically, is socially constructed, poetically romanticized and brutally undone. Calder worries over this poetic obsession, and how to tackle the subject without stepping into the common traps. One poem begins with “F--k off, moon! Get out of my poems,” while another, about the polar bear cub Knut, starts off: “He’s a psychopath, like Britney Spears.” In a different poem, about the frustrations of writing itself, Calder uses animals as metaphors for the failure of her metaphors. Subtle, wry and self-conscious in the best sense, the poems wrestle with themselves as they struggle towards the sublime. Ariel Gordon is another Winnipeg author and Manitoba Book Award winner avoiding the sophomore slump with Stowaways (Palimpsest, 96 pages, $19). Gordon, like Calder, oscillates rapidly between light-heartedness and melancholy, although Gordon has almost baked irony into these poems by structuring many as dubious instructions for potentially useful skills. “When the zombie apocalypse comes, your tippity-tap skills will be on par with those who can kill remorselessly,” notes Gordon in How to Learn Morse Code. In How to Soften Facial Scars, by comparison, Gordon abandons any jokiness to describe a woman whose “face [is] an abused envelope, / herself a scented page / you will never put down.” “You will never see her again, but you will be Facebook™ friends forever,” writes Gordon in How to Tell if Someone is Dead, a poem that basks in both registers. Adept and assured, Stowaways swaggers. Steinbach’s Luann Hiebert debuts with What Lies Behind (Turnstone, 94 pages, $17). Brimming with wordplay reminiscent of her editor, Dennis Cooley, Hiebert’s lines are similarly exuberant. She delights in crashing words and images against one another, to observe how they break. This becomes poignant in poems where the technique mirrors the theme, as in a poem about ecological devastation where waste piles of “discarded newspapers / diluted headlines declaim // resources city wastes / city wastes resources…” Hiebert then recycles the phrase into new variations. As these newpapers recycle their outrage, while the recyclable materials rot, Hiebert renews the language in poems full of energy and verve. Hamilton’s Marc di Saverio offers one of the strongest debuts of late in Sanitorium Songs (Palimpsest, 72 pages, $19). Primarily collecting sonnets, villanelles, haiku and translations, di Saverio shows a stunning command of these forms and a talent for startling imagery. His translations (of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and others) are masterful, while his original poems show a clear symbolist influence and a sharp, severe musicality. “Wasped in spite you whip your arm and the wind / you break waves a moment’s light of your halo-sheer care.” The verb “wasped” is especially harrowing here, while elsewhere “dew-dropped ox-eye daisies glower.” There’s something alien and forbidding in the dense landscape of these poems, which cut like stone knives. Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) lives online at www.jonathanball.com, where he writes
about writing the wrong way.