The best parts of Nicole Markotic's minotaurs & other alphabets (Wolsak & Wynn, 85 pages, $12 paper) are where she allows her labyrinthine and playful language to be expansive while keeping the concrete and the abstract in balance.
In the first poem, the language veritably vibrates: "then I'm singular, and there isn't time to discard tin bracelets, inside each cheap locket, shivers your name(s)". In the next poem, the vibration is made explicit: "after plurality, the first person pronoun": "attached to the literal, [he] wanted reverberations".
Markotic runs into trouble when she foregrounds concrete detail, as in "hoodoo wanderings". The first section of "liquid diet" tells of a hunt for a souvlaki place in Vancouver-convincing, but ultimately uninteresting. In the second section, the poem pulls back into a more abstract presentation of a relationship, and unexpectedly and refreshingly correlates socks and the essence of a lover:
you believe in making endings. you believe there's room for
your socks on the floor that first night: a youness.
Where her language fails her is where Markotic pushes too hard at its edges, most often where she is too self-conscious, where she tries too hard to refract words outwards. For instance, "clinical-clitical?" is heavy-handed, as is "in heaven we don't recognize the Heave, the even. the he that pronounces meaning". "Inseyed" and "playsure" are just too clever and grating.
In poems where she reconfigures language but still keeps it grounded, Markotic's words are spellbinding. Lines like "a houseshape, like a paragraph", "a wander and a tangent. why rain doesn't sag my skirt hems", and "who knows the correct grammar for a point of transition?...punctuation longs to be invisible" are linguistically compelling and emotionally moving at the same time.
Both collections contain some excellent poems, and some that could stand a sharper edit. Markotic and McNeill are talented writers who merit attention. It is a shame however that they are packaged as they are. Markotic's book in particular boasts an uninspired cover and a font that is headache-inducing and bordering on illegible. Design should showcase the author's work, not impede it.