It's September, perhaps you should enjoy these Snapshots with a hot chocolate!
Gruber’s playful visions of marine life lovers, and disastrous dives are kept afloat by a spunky buoyancy of vocabulary and, in spite of the speaker’s assertion in the first “Prologue” that they “can’t hold onto anything,” thematic control. The embodied and the erotic encounter nature again and again with gorgeous tactility. In the madcap car journeys recounted in “Hanged Woman,” “A sticky ball of baby / spiders nests against your corduroy purse. / They spill onto your lap and spring into the world / writhe against your thighs.” “Flash Flood” sees lovers eating pizza, “sprawl[ing] the bed in holey underwear,” “nabashedly human,” “[c]ourse ringlets wash[ing] up against inlet groin.” The collection concludes with a series of poems considering the pros and cons of choosing various underwater animals as your lover (the reasons not to choose the “blue dragon” are stated simply as “You are the real live Pokemon. Pocket monster.” Buoyancy Control is an aquatic caper, a poetic sea change, a colourful expedition into intimacy and language. Dive in.
Slow States of Collapse
Culled from an impressive list of journal and anthology publications, Ashley-Elizabeth Best’s debut collection, Slow States of Collapse, is preoccupied with conflict: the poems' speakers grapple with the complexities of family, ponder romantic relationships, and discover the politics of hospitalization. A speaker’s “carrion heart is stabled / beside deposits of nostalgia” while “[h]is empty flattery mumbled / into rogue word drifts.” Mothers say “be good or be gone,” and doctors “want to know / what my body has been up / to lately.” It is the most diverse of the collections in terms of subject matter, but the loosely collected suites of poems that conclude Slow States of Collapse hint that Best’s future books might take any of the numerous themes she explores with her debut and explore them in a more sustained way than she does here. An intriguing arrival on the Canadian literary landscape and, perhaps, a sort of overture of things to come.
Under the Stone
An unnamed child lives in cell #804 on level 5969 of the Tower. A murderous father kills the child’s siblings and the Tower’s sanitary staff clear the bodies without question. The outside world exists only as a horrific televised wasteland, a fabled void of terror. And everywhere, there is concrete. A prose poem of brutal, even brutalist proportions, Under the Stone is a fascinating monotony, a tower of words split into discrete parenthetical blocks, a dystopian monument to oppressive systems of knowledge. By far the most serious and stylistically restrained of these collections, Under the Stone exists on the fault line between novel and poem, exploring a monochromatic world haunted by the ghost of self-conscience. Dark but deeply engaging.
Another full round of Snapshot reviews by Davis Plett!
Seasoned poet Monty Reid’s Meditatio Placentae is a well-seasoned (not too salty, none too sweet) romp through suites of verses describing: ordinary kitchen objects invested with a weight that feels like consciousness; a pop-up book disheveled by the ravages of infant teeth; objects from a construction site deconstructed and then reconstructed by language; a woman lost in the woods who nevertheless is enchanted by the light; an actor who is told by the director of a production of The Vagina Monologues that she needs to get a “moan coach”; and, at the book’s conclusion, an amusingly self-referential series on Reid’s relationship with the contributors’ notes. Nestled in the center of the volume is the titular suite, a surreal series of poems written from the perspective of a retained placenta. The poems in Meditatio Placentae achieve a certain quirk and whimsy, less through turns of phrase than turns of imagery; Reid is a master of suite, of sustaining and transforming an image or idea through sequence of poetic Mr. Potato Head interventions.
Mother Tongue Publishing
Kerry Gilbert’s collection of prose poems is as taught as its title. An exquisite ode to the poetics of structure, Tight Wire is organized into a series of ten groups of four prose poems (although the final sample is a single poem). Each group begins with a portrait of a female circus performer—the tightrope walker whose “sweat cuts a new river through her clay makeup, but [it] too goes unnoticed,” the contortionist who makes the audience gasp at “the beautiful, beautiful pain,” the burlesque performer whose dance ends when “the cage covers her once again and the stage goes black, black”—and then presents three portraits of contemporary women, women in surgery, women swimming to save drowning children, women wandering the halls of memory. Where Reid’s poems take ideas out on relatively brief excursions, Gilbert’s collection manages to sustain its theme for an entire book. Slowly, the dichotomy between the two worlds of the poems—the circus and the modern world—disappears, revealing the circus’s unacknowledged performers, women trapped in a hall of mirrors that distort language and visage, voice and face. And yet, these mirrors are shattered, the tight wire is snapped, along with the structure of the book itself. “For now,” the final poem soberly concludes, “it is over.” A catalogue of patriarchal systems that encompasses the past and gestures melancholically towards the future, Gilbert’s poems share some of the same whimsicality and rich imagery as Reid, but her poems walk a bolder poetic and political line. The sound of the circus has faded; Gilbert’s poems invite us to consider how they will manifest next.
The most diverse collection of this Snapshots edition, poemw is a playful and sometimes poignant take on gender, nature, and history. In “Why The World Would Be Better Off Without People,” a nervous speaker notes that pigeons’ breasts are “the exact / right size and shape to take an arrow // a delicate arrow from a child’s bow,” then asks the reader to affirm their desire to paint the dying bird: “Don’t you want to paint that? […] // Don’t you?” In “Hair,” a speaker recounts growing up in rural Ontario, where their hair became a contested site of gender, cultural values, and identity: “To me [my mother] said: “Why do you want to look / like a boy?” A series entitled “Questions for Isabella Gunn” speculates on the history of its eponymous subject, a woman who joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1806 under the name John Fubister, rewriting a story catalogued only by men: “You died alone, four men’s entries marking your life, / captain, trader, schoolteacher, inspector of the poor.” The book concludes with a cheeky homage to Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” entitled “Thirteen ways of looking at a pair of underpants.” Where Meditatio Placentae takes the reader on crazy journeys fueled by an imagination asking, “what if?”, and demands a sustained attention to the beauty and horror of its images and form, poemw offers warm, quirky poems that readily stand on their own, inviting the reader into a gallery of poetic games and intimate portraits.
Cheers to another great month of Snapshots! Davis Plett will be running the Snapshots blog from now on. He's a charming little reviewer, isn't he?
Davis Plett is a Winnipeg-based poet, musician, and theatre artist. Catch him attempting to do all three at once in his upcoming Winnipeg Fringe play, Infidelity.
The World Afloat
The World Afloat is comprised of madcap miniatures, helium-filled vignettes that untether the ordinary from itself and use the mundane as a launch pad for a series bizarre, hilarious, surrealist prose-poem adventures. A large raven spends the night roosting between a wife and her sleepless husband, a distraught speaker who has misplaced their mind “want[s] it back for sentimental reasons,” and posters on telephone poles “are meant to show what [Jesus would] look like if he were alive today and sixty-nine years old and lost. Like practically everyone we know.” Somewhere between a Bradbury-ian infatuation with the fantastical “what if?” and a sonneteer’s commitment to brevity, The World Afloat is a wild hot-air balloon ride drifting over patchwork fields, hovering over each just long enough for some odd detail to reveal itself before floating on.
If The World Afloat took the mundane as its starting place and used it as an imaginative springboard into the fantastical, Tim Lilburn’s 2016 collection The Names approaches a world already in chaos, a universe where Regina is a mystical city inhabited by “Richard-Grendl” and in communication with fourteenth century Paris, where Sara Riel can “see the skeleton of language / inside deer’s bodies and inside pike’s / swim paths,” where a distant relative’s car is mired in “sullen-to-be-matter fixity.” As with most of Lilburn’s work, The Names makes the claim that the world is already haunted by a sense of the fantastical, the eerie, the other-worldly. For Lilburn, it is through desiring to know the source and character of this strange, abiding Other within the ordinary through poetry, through language itself, that the world with all its ecological, ethical, and deeply personal disasters can be made remotely habitable. For Lilburn, the world is always already afloat; poetry is a way to forget our too-easy claims to know it.
All the Gold Hurts My Mouth
Goose Lane Editions
Earnest, direct, sarcastic—Katherine Leyton’s collection is perhaps the most “down to earth” of these three books. That is not to say that it lacks in poetic qualities or depth, but that its feminist politics require a different language than the speculative Farrant or the metaphysical Lilburn. The female body is continually mediated, by photographers (“The woman you’re watching— / What does she look like / […] You like her, I know. / You’ll develop her: / a bit of generosity”), by selfie culture (“I need rousing abstractions of myself”), and by pornography (“Type in girls / and Google pulls up its skirt: // thumbnail upon thumbnail of cunt”). Female representation is problematized and poeticized: “The girl in the paining— / and the one in the magazine— / are, in a way, fucking us, filling us.” And yet, against this tidal force of the male gaze, that fills being, that dictates identity, there stands a bastion of reclaimed words, of self-represented sorrowful, joyful, complex experiences, of parents, families, and lovers. The Mary MacLane epigraph reads, in part, “But before she dies she awakes. There is a pain that goes with it.” To speak, then, to form golden words out of patriarchy, to take this burnished gold into one’s mouth, is to feel a new pain, the pain of an awakening political conscious.