Trav­esty the muse of prison po­ems

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

FRANK Smith’s Guan­tanamo (Les Figues, 158 pages, $17) is com­posed of ap­pro­pri­ated lan­guage from the prison camp’s ver­bal tri­als, re­leased by the U.S. Depart­ment of De­fense in 2006. Smith shapes selections into a poetic novel, an epic poem for our era, de­press­ing in its power. This edi­tion is trans­lated by Vanessa Place, a re­mark­able con­cep­tual poet whose in­ter­ven­tions here pro­duce startling, var­ied ef­fects. The text dis­plays its own ob­ses­sion with trans­la­tion and writ­ing: “the other day, sol­diers con­fis­cated / our pen. / Yet we had per­mis­sion to have / this pen / in the room,” a pris­oner com­plains. Else­where, we learn that “We are the in­ter­roga­tor, we are the in­ter­ro­gated. / We ask a ques­tion, we an­swer the ques­tion asked.” The war on ter­ror pro­duces ter­ror as its mir­ror. The po­ems here pro­duce a trav­esty as their muse. In Down (Coach House, 88 pages, $18), Sarah Dowling com­bines the repet­i­tive na­ture of pop-song lyrics and the repet­i­tive hor­ror of what takes place in il­licit pub­lic spa­ces. Dowling mines and re­com­bines the junk lan­guage that sur­rounds the lan­guage of popular cul­ture, up­set­ting the hi­er­ar­chy. As an ex­am­ple, Dowling cor­rupts and re­com­bines the lyrics to The Temp­ta­tions’ My Girl: “What can make this mat­ter. What can make me feel us. Make me feel this method.” Dowling con­tin­u­ally turns cold con­cep­tual ex­er­cises into emotionally crush­ing po­ems: “Tell me // are you empty I’m not just Say // yes.” Here, Dowling ap­pears to use era­sure and cut­ting to trans­form some source text into a strange, des­per­ate bid to deny one’s own empti­ness while de­mand­ing the ex­po­sure of another’s. Startling and pow­er­ful, Down’s in­sis­tent rep­e­ti­tions pile upon one another to dizzy­ing heights. Gil­lian Sze’s Peel­ing Rambu­tan (Gasperau, 80 pages, $20) presents a poetic trav­el­ogue, as the Cana­dian Sze ex­plores her Asian roots. Although by now a Cana­dian cliché, Sze’s ap­proach el­e­vates the project. “There are nights when the toma­toes grow­ing be­low my win­dow / freeze to death and no morn­ing is enough to save them.” A lesser poet would gloss this im­age with some ex­pla­na­tion of how toma­toes op­er­ate metaphor­i­cally to ex­press the oc­ca­sional im­pos­si­bil­ity of im­mi­grant trans­plan­ta­tion, a fail­ure to thrive. Sze al­lows room for that read­ing but skips on. The re­sult­ing col­lec­tion com­bines beau­ti­ful, calm med­i­ta­tions with a breath­less urge to move on to the next ex­pe­ri­ence. Sze cap­tures what al­ways eludes au­thors of the poetic trav­el­ogue: a sense of the ephemeral na­ture of ca­sual epipha­nies along the jour­ney. Beau­ti­ful and melan­choly, the po­ems ap­pear like “gar­dens... strummed to sob.” In Blind Items (In­som­niac, 88 pages, $17), Dina Del Buc­chia imag­ines celebrity en­coun­ters as a forge for the self. In this way, the tra­di­tional speaker of the lyri­cal poem be­comes a fan­tasy pro­jec­tion of the poet. At the same time, the poet’s pub­lic self is con­structed as lack­ing the ac­tual “celebrity” and cul­tural in­flu­ence as­pired to by the poet and pos­sessed by the ac­tors, mod­els, and mu­si­cians Del Buc­chia writes about. There’s a de­sire, of­ten sex­ual, to com­mune with and be­come lost in th­ese stars. Del Buc­chia makes it all seem sim­ple, sexy and fun when it’s re­ally com­pli­cated, dark and sad. Her tone of­fers both: “My boyfriend is ig­nor­ing me. He’s busy bon­ing Pamela An­der­son on the throw rug.” Blind Items cov­ers a cam­era in teeth. Win­nipeg English pro­fes­sor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanball­com) lives on­line at, where he writes

about writ­ing the wrong way.

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