READING BERT ALMON'S SEVENTH BOOK of poems, Earth Prime (Brick, 95 pages, $11.95 paper), is a little like twisting a shape-shifting prism in your hands: we get odd glimpses of an even odder world, but in the strange pictures that result the poet always reveals some essential pattern of being human. From a moth flying down Kathleen Battle's dress to a woman seen cleaning her ears with a knitting needle in a parking lot, Almon takes us to unexpected places, combining wit, self-awareness, and an encyclopaedic flair for details.
Take "Think and Grow Rich," which begins with Almon deciding to invigilate the chiropractic board exams because "I liked the sexy British sound of 'invigilator'/ though it's just a grown-up version of class monitor," and goes on to tell the story of Walter, the old German chiropractor. Along the way we get hilarious cameos of the candidates, a peek at the Reformation, an account of a chilling wartime escape made unforgettable by the inclusion of a single detail: a toothbrush. This is pure Almon: an eclectic poetic intelligence dipping and dabbling, finding curious similarities, leaving us to muse on the crazy quilt of his uncoverings. In one of my favourite poems, Almon conjures up an incredible tapestry of the moon, of our tenuous hold on "dubious oracles," of psychics "who managed to lock their own keys in the car," of the tidal bore on the Bay of Fundy, and closes with these marvellous lines: "good skeptics believing and not believing / that the lines of the hand run into nothing" ("Under the Paschal Moon").
Restoring the power of amazement to reality, Almon wanders from "Love's Synecdoche," where love emerges as "a blackened thumbnail / wrapped in a handkerchief," to his "altered tomcat" who "discovered sex on the sofa/ with the mohair throws," ("Senescent Sex"), to "For Dark Eyes," which expresses temptation in the accumulation of precise and sensuous images: a hot wire in a rainstorm, a dropped scarf, an apple on a grey wool skirt. There's even a clever send-up of deconstructionism, built into the author's sneaking off for a talk on growing clematis. Read, marvel, and enjoy.
Gathered from 1965 to 1994, Douglas Fetherling's Selected Poems (Arsenal Pulp, 141 pages, $12.95 paper), reveal a poet whose rhythms are unfailing, whose language is spare, and who moves with ease and grace through his obsessions:
there are too many hours
but not enough time
to do anything that would matter
one used to be a better liar
Fetherling's images are biting, reflective, instantly seen: "two skeletons with maps in an old Chevrolet" ("Western Manitoba"). Although the subject matter of these poems is often dark, the unavoidable humanity of their being observed makes even the most melancholy observation seem oddly welcome, a kind of relief. In a distinctly urban world of bars, alleys, subways, parking lots, and hotel rooms, Fetherling weaves the dramatic in and out of the everyday, so that the two often become indistinguishable. An old drunk in "Teratology" pisses on an audience of cats and hears "applause played backwards in a tape recorder." Then Fetherling calls up Blake, De Quincey, Apollinaire: we are all outlaws, all kin.
Fetherling is preoccupied with the nature of reality, with whether or not the truth can be believed, even if you find it. Yet he unearths his paradoxes in a highly tangible world, and his aphoristic style is both accessible and captivating: "living downstream is always / an act of faith" ("Moving Towards the Vertical Horizon"); "A map is no journey after all /but a drawing..." ("Cartography"); "Master does well to emulate dog / stop breathing every few seconds / listen hard for enemies" ("Rites of Alienation").
This is a superb book, pithy, wise, and well worth the read. Rhonda Batchelor's second book of poetry, Interpreting
Silence (Beach Holme, 82 pages, $11.95 paper), is subtle and understated but, like delicate steam rising from a kettle, bums with an intense heat. Batchelor charts private, ephemeral, sometimes uncomfortable realizations with a fearless heart and language as clear as glass. See how she moves from "Something shifts in the night, wakes you ." has you
follow her to the kitchen, check on the cats and the children, and finally "...You listen but/the soundless house offers no rationale, whatever/ shifted has settled for now" through memory, trying to fuse the past ("Shifts"). She makes it look so easy, honest self-disclosure is never that simple:
I drink this pinescented wine
because my dog is old
my parents are old
my worries are old and
because I like this wine
And who hasn't been with Batchelor as she roots through her closet for the impossible:
... The perfect
ensemble, exact size, the
right colours, to carry me
through the day (hell,
through life) with ease.
Instead I find the same old
shirt (button missing ...
There's a lyric quality to these poems too, as in the final stanza of "Night Bloom":
Summer begins at midnight; silently
the tide turns on an empty beach,
gulls tuck in their wings like
folded umbrellas and chairs
awaiting the sun. I turn off the light,
complete in the dark.
When this poignant lyricism is melded with a wise-cracking self-awareness, we get Batchelor's muse, who pops up throughout the book. The titles alone are worth reading: "The Muse Has Never Had Children"; "The Muse Is Bisexual"; "The Muse on a Monday."
Erotic, unflinching, refusing emotional self-indulgence, Interpreting Silence is a book of poems that merits rereading.
In Naming (Penumbra, 95 pages, $10.95 paper), her first book, Elizabeth Kouhi takes us on an extended journey through memory, trying to fuse the past seamlessly with the present:
I need strong lines
to force together these energies,
to close cracks and breaks
to make the moment hold
in a Modem Gallery")
With a robust and sometimes jarring simplicity, Kouhi avoids sentimentality, writing about women who cook in bush camps and shoot at bears, of men and women whose potential has been marred by the exhaustion of physical work.
In the middle section, Kouhi examines other art forms. When she allows herself to enter the scene, the poems are fine indeed:
The Emperor is dust
in his mausoleum...
the sculptor's hand
crawls along my skin
However, when she simply describes the art, I found the poems slight. Kouhi then moves on to world travel, and while the individual poems are often good, the glimpses are too fleeting. (It made me think of one of those bus tours where you see 23 cities in two weeks.) By the final section Kouhi is home, fully at ease with the natural world, and risking the exposure of her own fragility: "This land / impales my heart / by birthright." ("Returning Home"). Shedding the occasionally safe and at times didactic observations of the middle section, Kouhi unveils her finest poems here.
The novelist Keith Maillard's first book of poetry, Dementia Americana (Ronsdale, 105 pages, $10.95 paper), opens with a series entitled: "The Intervention of the Duke: Poems Written in a Time of War." Although vernacular language lends snap to his observations -- "Remember, kid, how the light pauses" -- and the incidents themselves are finely traced, these poems often culminate in disappointing or cliched lines: "...Mary, my wife, dreamed / that I reclaimed an antique dress for her -- it's the colour / of rust and past. Her wearing makes it new." Somehow this section lacks sufficient imagistic power to hold my attention. Perhaps it's simply too personal to make much of an impact on a reader.
I much preferred the middle poems, where, hauntingly, "your hopes hang around like remnants" ("The Melodrama in the Next Yard"), and the narrator is preoccupied with time and: "The compulsive need to catalogue the light that's bled / Away ... " (" 1946: This Is as Good as It Gets"). Here Maillard lets poetry happen, as single, well-chosen images replace excessive verbiage: "Set free from someone's line, a sheet blows past, / tall as a man and empty as a ghost." ("The Author Recalls His Adolescence").
The final title section is a narrative sequence based on a 1906 murder trial. Although Maillard documents his sources and indicates what he has fictionalized, I'm not sure what his linear account actually adds to the interest of the case itself. The facts about Harry Thaw, Evelyn Nesbit, and Stanford White seemed more intriguing to me than the poet's fictions. Throughout Dementia Americana and especially in this final section I was dogged by a question that I must leave for the reader to consider, since pulling one or two lines from a poem of this length would be misleading: is this really poetry? Despite the curiously self-conscious explanations of the poetic forms used, something is missing. Perhaps Maillard's experience as a fiction writer allowed the facts to interfere with the organic process necessary to poetry: the raw, subconscious bubbling up of images, textures, and unexpected connections.