FIRST, A CONFESSION: I can be a crabapple of a reviewer, sour and hard (to please). But that's because I think poetry deserves to be taken seriously - even in a column such as this, where nine collections are "cornered" in a small space, and thus must be dealt with briefly.
Ken Norris's work is generally pleasant, if not exactly memorable -something like the poetic equivalent of easy-listening music. Alphabet of Desire (ECW, 70 pages, $12 paper), his 16th book, consists of two sequences: "The Ascent of Spring" uses the cycle of the seasons to chart the poet's movement through a winter of creative sterility and self-questioning to the spring's rebirth of imagination; the section "Alphabet of Desire" offers prose poems of philosophical musings on various formidable - and not so formidable - topics, including "The Passage of Time," "The Impermanence of the World," and "The Blue Hairbrush."
Norris is skilled at evoking the delicate spell of a reverie, and in several poems, notably "Baseball," he goes beyond atmospheric description and makes a point without straining. With humour, even! But too often, especially in the second section, the poems sound embarrassingly guru-like: "Start by only dreaming your / own dreams; they will carry you like a kite up into your own / altitudes, the marvellous Himalayas of seeing things clear" ("The Tools of Ignorance"). Or they are slack and banal, as in the title poem: "Phone rings; it's you, suddenly in town. Query: was I asleep? / Response: no, up late and reading a book. Should you come over? There is little hesitation in my answer."
No hesitation is necessary before recommending Jesus Lopez -Pacheco's Asylum (Brick, 79 pages, $9.95 paper), a collection of poems written between 1968 and 1990 and translated from Spanish by the author's son, Fabio Lopez Lazaro. Lopez-Pacheco came here as a refugee from Franco's Spain, and much of the book centres on the poet's transition to Canada's "page of snow." He's precociously at ease with unconventional forms, such as a "do-it-yourself 'poem and "EXIT," a piece that includes instructions for audiovisual accompaniments. But he also excels at whimsical epigrams:
Autumn has left me a golden ticket
on the windshield.
'Unlawful parking under my trees.
Sadness not allowed.
Golden carpet under construction'
Read this book for its witty resistance of authority, be it that of a repressive government, spiritually numbing consumerism, or literary culture, which is satirized in "The Hoop." Or read it for its versatility and playfulness. Or - hell, just read it. Jesus Lopez-Pacheco offers his readers the rare gift of surprise, and in abundance.
The experience of exile is also the focus of Guerra Prolongada/Protracted War (Women's Press, I I I pages, $11.95 paper), by Carmen Rodriguez, who came to Canada from Chile when that South American country was under military rule. It is a much more sober and painful (though politically impassioned) book than Poetic Asylum, and its style -simple words inch down the page in short, halting lines - reflects the sense of fragmentation and precarious identity that is often the subject of the poems:
I've created a world for myself
some old clothes
a few books
a place occupied by order
The collection's virtues are its directness and clarity; its faults a certain predictability and flatness of language. (I should add that the poems are somewhat more effective in their native Spanish because although the English translations -by Heidi Neufeld Raine with the author- preserve meaning, the rhythmic cadences are almost always lost.) I wanted to like Richard Stevenson's Learning to Breathe (Cacanadadada, 101 pages, $10.95 paper): it plunges fearlessly into the deep end of the pool - the personal and social costs of our culture's macho values - equipped with only the waterwings of good (if frequently transparent) intention and figurative panache. The book is an alternative coming-of-age story that begins with a re-examination of the rites of masculinity passed through in adolescence, widens the focus to include the geopolitical system, and closes with a series of poems on fatherhood. It's ambitious in scope and bravely buoyed up by conviction. But the poems often founder under the weight of too many metaphors and similes:
Lies preserve the candied legs of words
like insects in amber
while silence rests
its wet burlap over desiccated vegetables
Learning to Breathe also puffs a bit heavily in some of its more didactic exertions; a series of dramatic monologues based on the notorious killer Clifford Olson, for example, seems forced and platitudinous. However, when Stevenson relaxes into a talkative, comic style not so encumbered by self-conscious artifice, he can be very engaging. And subtly instructive, too.
Sharon H. Nelson's The Work of Our Hands (Muses' Co., 115 pages, $12 paper) also comes to grips with cultural conditioning and its effect on gender roles, though she writes from a woman's point of view and much more plainly. For the most part, Nelson employs blunt statement, shrewd observation, and sardonic humour to get at (as in the title poem)
the real part to every story,
the part we don't talk about,
the part we gloss over,
the real work, the heavy work
I like the fact that many of these poems were written out of a spirit of community and connection with other "transgressive" women, he they contemporaries or predecessors, writers or medieval healers. I also like their concern with the madeness of language and of attitudes toward women's traditional roles. My quibble with The Work of Our Hands is that its feminist insights are by now familiar enough that it seems somewhat dated; the poems tend to reiterate, without pushing toward discovery.
From work to the play of signifiers: in Adeena Karasick's first book, The Empress Has No Closure (Talonbooks, 96 pages, $11.95 paper), "language is liberated from canonical construction, linguistical social habits, empirical syntactical engagements" (as she puts it in the acknowledgements). There are heavy bouts of theorizing and quotations as well as wordplay that includes the requisite puns and neologisms in this "endless play of substitutions and identifications" in Derridean 3D (difference, deferral, desire). All of it hums with intellectual energy, much of it is even funny - I particularly liked "In the Beginning ( ) The Post," in which the post (office) stands in for history and the social order - though it can also be exasperating. Reading poetry that is informed by deconstructionist theory is like learning a new dance step: sometimes you just don't follow. Morever, the way in which The Empress Has No Closure explores identity and its (unstable) construction in language seems as formulaic as the convention of a fixed, unitary self that it rebels against. Or maybe I'm just not sufficiently in tune with the postmordern times.
To step back in time: the British poet Stevie Smith once commented that she wished "there was some litmus paper test you could have for your poems, blue for bad and pink for good." If tested, Nadine McInnis's The Litmus Body Quarry, 86 pages, $11.95 paper) would be predominantly pink, though the poems aren't the "acid ones" that Smith preferred. Anecdotal in style, reflective in mood, this collection is deeply rooted in the commonplaces of motherhood and family ties. McInnis has a knack for vivid, offbeat images - though not so offbeat that they clang. If a number of poems seem slight or too deliberate in their purpose, it's because they pale in comparison with the rest of this strong collection, which includes the remarkable birth poem "incantations/crossing over" and "Cry," in which a mother addresses her young son:
have already given you a taste for power,
but it is their emptiness
forcing itself out in cries for mercy;...
the air you squeeze out through tiny holes
smells stale as the air that circles
endlessly in a parking garage
where someone has been loitering
waiting for a woman to happen by
Robyn Sarah's Touchstone: Poems New & Selected (Anansi, 141 pages, $16.95 paper) comes tucked in a marbled blue cover that resembles a chequebook wallet; it's a dignified, fairly conservative design for a collection whose hallmarks are smoothness, nuance, and tasteful melancholy. When Sarah writes, in "Anyone Skating on that Middle Ground," "Distance is a word that you like, another is suggestion, / and you are fond also of contour and surface," she could well be describing her own poetic preferences. Likewise in "March, Last Quarter":
Liveliness has made itself small,
has gone into tiny things
and waits there, wise, against
ice and thaw and ice
I've always liked Sarah's work and am surprised that she hasn't received more recognition in her 14 years of publishing. Maybe it's her low-key, elliptical style. Or her subject matter: domestic life and, particularly, the failure of love (the general blueness of tone here can get a bit wearying). At any rate, it's nice to have Sarah's quietly accomplished craft celebrated in a substantial collection. Kevin Roberts's Red Centre Journal (Eletheria, 56 pages, $8.95 paper) is physically slight, but it tries to cover a lot of territory: the Australian Outback, which is the setting for two linked ruminations on industrial society ("the sad sprawl of man"), the "red lore" of wilderness, aboriginal culture, and the legacy of colonialism. In attitude it's kin to the Romantics (along the lines of Shelley's "the wilderness has a mysterious tongue / which teaches awful doubt"), though Roberts's language isn't quite so elevated. I found that many passages flitted by in a blur, like undistinguished landscape seen from a moving car:
... these scrub gums
line up like men
who have corm through
squat heavy limbed
by the reeds...
Over all, The Red Centre Journal isn't bad poetry, but it's not compelling either; maybe it will have more resonance for readers familiar with that area of Australia.