Theory of Sediment

by Steve McCaffery,
160 pages,
ISBN: 0889222991

Chateau Puits 1981

by Mia Anderson,
ISBN: 088982116X

Alley Alley Home Free

by Fred Wah,
96 pages,
ISBN: 0889950881

Blue Mind's Flower

by Janet Read,
96 pages,
ISBN: 0920259413

How Do You Feel?

by K. Emmott,
ISBN: 1550390279

Fortress of Chairs

by E. Harvor,
ISBN: 1550650246

Month's Mind

by John V. Hicks,
80 pages,
ISBN: 1895449014

Post Your Opinion
Brief Reviews - Poetry
by Charlene Diehl-Jones

A BOOK OF poetry is the perfect cafe companion: engaging, provocative, available wherever you are. So here's some of the company I've enjoyed with my cafe au lait in Montreal cafes these past months: I'd recommend them.

Elisabeth Harvor's Fortress of Chairs (Vehicule, 87 pages, $9.95 paper) takes full advantage of the necessary blur between prose and poetry. Her poems are stories, and depend on the sentence as a working unit, but her acute sense of poetic line keeps unsettling the progressive surge of syntax:

you will

turn your face into a face

that is all profile,

you will

force your eyes to fall

into instant love with a sad and invented

high-class horizon

("Do You Live Alone?")

Harvor is alert to detail, to nuance, to the way stories interpellate one another, the way an image can "leapfrog / over itself to more and more / meanings" ("Afterbirth"). She tells a life - remembered childhood, the loves and losses that mark one's move through marriage and motherhood - with sensitivity, intelligence, humour. Along the way, she manages to pull memory and mourning and conjecture and delight into an emotionally intense fabric that never becomes sentimental. The long poem "Afterbirth," which opens the collection, is the strongest, I think, partly because it avoids the trap of chronology that threatens to swallow the book. At its most layered, Fortress of Chairs is freewheeling and very fine. The title of Janet Read's book, Blue Mind's Flower (Moonstone, 96 pages, $12.95 paper), is a clue to the poetry you will find here, familiar words startled into new vitality by unforeseen configurations:

he wears the death's head

lightly, I imagine it a mask,

a thin disguise of every face

that stalks the mind.

("Eurydice Speaks")

Read is also a visual artist, and these poems bear the marks of sustained attention: vivid images, descriptive clarity. The writing is sharp-edged, precise, carefully pruned. But a book is a long time to sustain that styling, and the individual poems and passions collected here never quite become a community.

The epigraph to Month's Mind (Thistledown, 80 pages, $11 paper), John Hicks's newest collection of poems, situates this project on the sliding scale between grief and desire. These poems have the tang of mortality about them, investigations of a man who lives the joy and uncertainty of age:

I hear the beast without,

pawing my lawn, trampling

my flower beds, assessing windows.

Which one it will shatter,

leaping through, is the tension

I live with.

("Beast Without'')

Hicks's writing is formal, elegant, poetic in the old-fashioned sense of that word; in Month's Mind you will find words like "desist" and "malediction." Still, there is honesty, and often a charming playfulness. "Our conversation," lie writes,

should be

semi-articulate, riotous,

unscreened, running

like prairie fire

from an innocent spark

("Prairie Interview")

Kirsten Emmott is a Vancouver doctor with a special interest in obstetrics, and How Do You Feel? (Sono Nis, 104 pages, $9.95 paper) takes us into the gritty world of blood and miracles. Emmott writes with a directness shadowed by good humour: "you have to be careful about suede or canvas shoes, for once you get blood on them it's hard to get it out" ("No Fear of Blood") -Although it seems sometimes shy of reflexive muscle, this slightly distanced tone can work to her advantage. It is particularly potent in the section "The Women," where it captures both the indifference that accompanies the medical transfiguration of person to patient, and the outrage at that indifference:

again and again he inserted his hand and toothed forceps,

but the head kept escaping his grasp.

After an hour or two

he succeeded in crushing and extracting the head also.

It is not recorded

whether the woman lived or died.

Her name has not come down to us.

("A Woman with a Deformed Spine")

Mia Anderson has assembled wry meditations in her second collection of poems, Chateau Puits '81 (Oolichan, 108 pages, $10.95 paper), whose title invokes a heady mix of time and place and play. Anderson leans heavily on description in her work - a tiny lizard is expertly sketched as "the jack who beanstalked up the drain / into our porcelain hemisphere" ("A Game of Lizards") - but her attention is drawn incessantly to relationships; between people, with nature, between perception and possible futures. The breezy vernacular diction, spiced with French phrases, keeps her philosophizing from the stale weightiness that too often invades poetic discourse:

In fact,

think "spirit level" at least once a day,

with your orange juice. Give it 5 minutes.

It will take.

("Spirit Level")

Although I like the scatter of her poems on the page, I'm not sure that line breaks are always motivated, and several pieces feel cluttered and overlong. This, I think, is the great challenge of an autobiographical positioning: how to make it compelling for those who were not present?

Steve McCaffery borrows an old Yorkshire proverb - "A culture is a lexicon" - to title a poem in his new book, Theory of Sediment (Talonbooks, 214 pages, $15.95 paper): the proverb encapsulates the provocation and the playfulness that characterize this writing. Theory of Sediment continues McCaffery's exploration of the wild and wilful ways language writes the self. The several parts of this book tackle slightly different angles of word/world collision in writing. The final section, "Lastworda," for instance, regresses linguistically through the contemporary language of each decade; it begins resolutely in the 1990s - "an intervention buffer friendly to diskette" - and ends several pages later with words that are not even recognizable to the present-day reader; the last word of the section is the title, an Old English term for "memorial." "Lastworda" is perhaps the most concrete exploration of language as sediment, as both vessel and marker of our personal and collective histories.

Theory of Sediment ranges across both prose and poetic terrain, but unfailingly interrogates language's encrusted layers of meaning.

These are pages opening a door. There are some steps they

take exclusive of their movement. Into the verb going.

Half opening the opening and passing through. Head pushed back.

Nightingales. Wind and black.

("Counting Bees")

For McCaffery, "The ground you stand on is a picture of this page" ("Codicil"). A simple languaged world, one of our most treasured fictions, has never existed. The back cover reads, "no life jackets supplied": this book is a lively romp, but certainly not light reading.

Fred Wah launches Alley Alley Home Free (Red Deer College Press, 96 pages, $8.95 paper), the continuation of his "Music at the Heart of Thinking" series, with a kind of reader's guide to the complex, knotted texts that follow. "A text is a place where a labyrinth of continually revealing meanings are available" ("One Makes (the) Difference"), he writes, and certainly the texts we find here bear this out:

... believe me I'd like to

find a new word-track for feeling but language and

moment work out simply as simultaneous occurrences so

I don't think you should blame words for time-lapse

tropism eg ethics is probably something that surrounds

you like your house it's where you live.

("Music at the Heart of Thinking, Ninety")

The music at the heart of Wah's thinking has a flex that is improvisational, but it is always intellectually engaged and demanding. His writing is a response - to other books, to theoretical constructions, and, in the "Artknots" series in this collection, to visual art as well. Wah's work, like McCaffery's, seeks to unsettle our implicit assumptions about language and self by forging new relations between reader and text. "Reading into meaning starts with a questioning glance" ("One Makes (the) Difference"): Alley Alley Home Free will both provoke and reward the questioning glance.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us