Swimming Out of History

by Florence McNeil,
ISBN: 0889821135


by Anne Marriott,
88 pages,
ISBN: 0919897266

Body Rites

by A. Itwaru,
ISBN: 0920661173

Dark Diaspora

by Andri Zhina Mandiela,
ISBN: 0920813798

Blue Light Bay & College

by K. McCracken,
ISBN: 092125427X

Little Bird

by D. Coles,
ISBN: 1550650211

Mortal Remains

by P. Lane,
ISBN: 1550960105

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Brief Reviews - Poetry
by Rita Donovan

UPON LEARNING that I would be writing this review, a friend remarked that she'd never heard of a "Poets' Coroner" but that somehow it made sense to her. My friend's faulty hearing aside, I am happy to say that this issue brings no inquests; the poetry in these volumes is definitely alive. Arid some of it is thriving.

There is a curious blend here of mature and youthful voices, of the highly visual and the strongly aural. It would be useless to belabour connections that are the result of a chance sampling of books. Suffice it to say that these titles collectively represent much of what is happening in Canadian poetry at the moment.

To begin with, a book that has already received much attention, including a Governor General's Award nomination Patrick Lane's Mortal Remains (Exile Editions, 90 pages, $14.95 paper). This is a fully realized, at times riveting performance that displays Lane's characteristic unflinching vision, as well as near note-perfect control of tone. It is indeed a blessed curse to be able to see the joy in the middle of a shudder, to remember the pain at the centre of a young boy's fleeting happiness: "He does not know his desire / to never be alone again I is the beginning of loneliness ("Dominion Day Dance").

Yet Lane expects this hill response to the world. Not surprisingly, then, the book also attempts to come to terms with elements of the poet's own past involving family, and, as in the poem 'Tathers and Sons," we see examples of tenderness and control at their best:

Wait for me. I am coming across the grass

and through the stones. The eyes

of the animals and birds are upon me.

I am walking with my strength.

See, I am almost there.

The line "I am walking with my strength" is absolutely right. Any adjectival embellishment would only have ruined it. It is precision and spare elegance that characterize this fine collection of poetry.

In Don Coles's Little Bird (Vehicule/Signal Editions, 79 pages, $9.95 paper) we have a stepping-out from the predominantly visual "classical" poetry that Coles is noted for into the realm of the extremely personal, the almost-confessional. Written as one long poem, and described as a love letter to his father, this book also presents a live poet speaking to a dead person, and it is in this echo chamber of absence that the poet's voice, his speaking voice, is heard. One does not feet as though one is reading a private letter, but rather listening in on a very private conversation.

This is not an easy accomplishment, considering the strict four-line stanzas and the utilization of rhyme. Yet, remarkably, the cadence is there, and, as in conversation, it is modulated as the voice shifts from the vernacular to the elegiac. The father, who is described as "never using two / words when one would do," the father who was "so sharp-kneed near the end," is necessarily silent. The son must therefore search for:

a kind of

binding of


& language

This binding exists both in the "conversation" with the father and in the larger statement of poetics. It is at once an admission of the separate limitations of silence and language, and a consolation in that, however incomplete, the "conversation" has at last occurred. By recognizing temporality, Coles finds the words to address time. This is a richly haunting, haunted book.

Another writer who displays integrity in this area is Anne Marriott. In Aqua (Wolsak and Wynn, 88 pages, $ 10 paper), she explores the changing world from a mature yet still questing point of view. The best poems marry the alive, observant voice with its awareness of its own mortality. The persona knows that death will win in the end, and yet "I'll work to learn your stifling ways / outwit you any way I can" ("Invader"). The "black pincered ants" of the infirmities of age are felt and documented in the meantime. The fact that Marriott keeps this meantime in sight lifts her work above the documentary. (The "meantime" is all any of us have, and it is this universal that is available to her readers.) In "The Lake," she knows the truth even as she tries to outwit it:

I keep well back

but this dark morning see

all at once around the edge

the water's rising.

Though poems such as "A Grim Tale" lack bite, and segments from the long poem of voices, "The Rose and the Dagger," are somewhat diffuse, Marriott handles her serious subject matter eloquently.

Florence McNeil and Kathleen McCracken have each written books in which the image is paramount. McNeil is well established as a visual poet, and her Swimming Out of History: New and Selected Poems (Oolichan, 198 pages, $12.95 paper) allows the reader to trace this fascination with the image, and particularly the photograph, throughout her work. Selections are taken from five previous books, and a section of new poems completes the offering. As always, the poems are visually seductive (images of Queen Victoria in "Old Movies: Queen Victoria's Funeral," of the Queen as "stamping girl" and later as "lacy dark burden," as well as countless other examples). The photograph (or newsreel or painting), too, has its limitations, as the poet notes when looking at a family photo in "Eight Millimeter Photography": "This is the only way that I / can see them all / today."

One of the other limitations of the photograph is silence, and there is a vaguely disturbing silence that accompanies the reading of a collection of poems that relies almost exclusively on only one of the senses. Not that the poetry doesn't read well but it reads silently. The argument here would surely be that this method suits the material, especially when one considers the many "Portraits" and "sittings" in the poems concerning the elderly and the isolated. But it is a most curious effect that leaves the reader hungering for a speaking voice, and grateful for a bit of vernacular in a poem near the end of the book:

I have sinned

I repent

I am more worthless

Than a worm

("Springtime on Death Row")

The use of "more worthless" is a refreshing cry of human imprecision. McNeil has written many strikingly beautiful poems. Perhaps future "selections" will select more judiciously to avoid the inclusion of too many poems that focus on the same central image.

Kathleen McCracken's Blue Light, Bay and College (Penumbra, 71 pages, $9.95 paper) is also a visually rich collection. McCracken's is a younger voice, and one that is occasionally caught in an experiment gone awry. ("The Chameleon in the Clothes Box" seems unfinished; the juxtapositions in "Heron" feel strained; "The Titanium Bride" comes across as weak.) Yet, despite the unevenness, there are many lovely moments to be enjoyed, in lines like these, from "Distance is an Antidote":

Five hours into the past

they are making prayers in Dundalk.

Lace and satin under the maple trees,

a blue dress I remember

from birthdays in the snow.

McCracken possesses a keen sense of place and is developing her own unique way of describing it.

From the visual to the aural - two recent books that rely on "voice" are Body Rites: Beyond the Darkening (TSAR, 96 pages, $9.95 paper) and Dark Diaspora ... in DUB (Sister Vision, 53 pages, $9.95 paper). Arnold H. Itwaru's Body Rites should be read aloud; this voice will not stay on the page. In weaving, chant-like descriptions, or in short, clipped phrases, the voice speaks of "there" and "here," and challenges the distinction, the safe distance, between the two. In the first poem, "where do you go," the poet asks: "who goes there dreaming my dream." This simple question is central to Itwarus sense of outrage and anguish. However, many poems also document, and celebrate, survival:

we are the surviving whose survival we seek beyond the mined

corridors broken streets and homes

worn smiles' necroptic masks

death at the ports and terminals of hope

factories of casual assassinations beyond

beyond beyond

beyond where silence ends the rush that breaks the night in eyes

in mouth in hands in loins in rock in sky

in water of us watered of our watering

where silence ends where we celebrate

("we who have survived birth")

Other poems speak of the power and difficulty of "return," spiritual and otherwise: "by the brick of bombed out roadways have i come" ("sacred presence"). The intense, sensual poems of the section "Body Rites" complete the collection. Arnold Itwaru's poetry is "engaged" - the product of an active, passionate intellect.

Ahdri Zhina Mandiela's Dark Diaspora ... in DUB is, literally, a performance piece. Theatrical productions of this work (dub theatre) have been presented. Without the benefit of the theatrical experience it is advisable to read the work in its entirety in order to avoid reading out of context and preserve the force of the organic whole. There is wonderful aural pull in the poems; one follows the cadence and is drawn into the dense mesh of language:

My mother's hollowed womb

sighed, i began to cry: the rhythm

missed beat

as a chantrel voice took height

in the drum chamber,

a steady breath

raised/in praise: repeat

come come come come: dance


("mandiela [sacred dancing]")

There is much anger and frustration in this book as it touches on the experience of "immigration" as a wrenching from, as a shoving into, in poems such as "in the canefields" and "ice culture." At times the anger seems to border on racism ("snow white morning"), but, again, in context the statements are psychologically and -aesthetically appropriate.

The emergence of dub poetry offers poets another form of expression. Dark Diaspora ... in DUB is a fine example of the potential and range that is possible. As always, new voices are welcome.


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