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Dreams And Contrasts
by Barbara Carey

WHEN a number of poetry books are read together, they begin to sort themselves out, in my mind at least, not in terms of good or bad, but according to sensibility - which is revealed through style, tone, and focus. Some stand out in any company; others, appealing on their own, may fade somewhat when in a crowd. John Thompson was a man who shunned crowds. A Britishborn poet who settled in the Tantramar Marsh area of New Brunswick, Thompson had his demons, but he wrote two fiercely affecting collections of poetry - now republished together in I Dream Myself into Being: Collected Poems (Anansi, 120 pages, $16.95 paper) - before his death in 1976. His early poems are terse but rich in physical detail, as likely to celebrate hearth and home as fasten on the predatory in nature, or humankind. His later work, originally published as Stilt Jack, consists of a sequence of 38 untitled poems based on the ghazal, a Persian verse form written in couplets. It allowed, in Thompson`s words, "contrasts, dreams, astonishing leaps." The poet`s "leaps;" which advance the poems in non-linear fashion, intensify the sense of brokenness and grinding despair: Dark April, black water, cold wind cold blood on a hook. I wont scream when 1 die: I`ve burned everything; words swarm on the back of my hand ("XXII") I Dream Myself into Being is a remarkable book, though often harsh in its beauty. As Thompson writes in "Moving Out, Moving In": This is our misfortune and maybe our small grace: we throw words at the dark and the dark comes back to us Many of the poems in Diana Brebner`s debut collection, Radiant Life Forms (Netherlandic, 91 pages, $9.95 paper), are also in couplets; but here there is a solemn, somewhat processional feeling to the way they unfold. The poems are very orchestrated, though they can also be dazzling, in an austere way. "Your warm feet touch a cold / floor. Now, you are awake;" Brebner writes in "Sleeper, Awake." Throughout this book, the poet seeks awakenings of consciousness: she contemplates the nature of suffering, the horrors of humankind`s "ritual pathway / to annihilation;" and the conflicts and congruences of romantic love (in this last, much of her work is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood`s Power Politics and You Are Happy): ...Not one of us walks without fear. The children run ahead. Children will. And we are left behind, older and heavier, carrying all the baggage. I give you my heart, because that is all there is left. And even then I am not sure who is doing the giving. ("Pauper Sum Ego") The touch of awakening in these poems is cool, the emotion kept rigorously under wraps; in poems such as "Watching a Child Find Her Death" and "When I Hear That You Beat Your Children;` so extreme is the distance of contemplation that there seems a kind of serenity totally at odds with the material. On the other hand, "The Sparrow Drawer" is a moving poem about loss and the role of language in our lives; while studied in its construction, it seems less remote than much of Radiant Life Forms. I`m not a fan of much of the poetry published in the New Yorker, which may account for my less than enthusiastic response to Bavarian Shrine and Other Poems (ECW, 64 pages, $12 paper), by Eric Ormsby. Though this is Ormsby`s first collection, his publishing credits include the aforementioned magazine, so he is hardly a beginner. His work is polished and ornate, and flows as sparklingly as Perrier (definitely not tapwater), though he is capable, in his baroque exuberance, of delivering clunkers like "barnacle-manacled bottles" or the mystifying "sinister as a samba." But generally, Ormsby has a naturalist`s precision - in fact many of the poems are closely observed portraits of sea creatures, insect life, and plants, everything from starfish to skunk cabbage to "Wood Fungus;" which juts in grey hemispheres like a horse`s lip from treetrunks. The outer edge is crimped in sandy ripples and resembles surf. The upper plane of the fungus does not shine but is studious beige and dun, the hue of shoesoles or the undersides of pipes. Many of these poems make oblique comments on human attitudes, and thus go beyond mere clever description. But, as the mother figure in "My Mother in Old Age" remonstrates: "`Don`t lie! / Don`t make old age seem so ornamental."` Much of Bavarian Shrine seems to strain for effect and can be, well, stuffy. Ricardo Sternberg has also published in some of the more prestigious literary magazines (Poetry and the Paris Review,among others), but his debut collection, The Invention of Honey (Signal Editions, 90 pages, $8.95 paper), could hardly be more different. In poems that range from narratives of family members to whimsical speculations on angels, Sternberg displays an artlessness that isn`t, really. Perhaps the most appealing feature of his poetry is its tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating wit (though it`s the self-deprecation born of self-confidence); while the poet gently spoofs systems of belief - scientific, religious, and romantic - he places himself within the bounds of those systems. Many poets have difficulty trying to bring humour into their work; Sternberg doesn`t ever seem to be serious: I have wrestled a buffalo into this poem the least I could do for an endangered species. A hulk of night stranded on my gold-green pasture he shakes stars from his fur, paws thunder into the ground. The reader is to blame who brings red into the poem ("The Buffalo") I sometimes felt that Sternberg was squandering his cleverness on slight subjects, and several of his love poems, light of touch as they are, seem self-indulgent. But, over all, The Invention of Honey is entertaining and personable. The first poem in Charlotte Hussey`s Rue Sainte Famille (Signal Editions, 79 pages, $8.95 paper), "The Kick," likens writing to marksmanship -not only in the need for a precise aim but, by implication, control over something powerful and potentially destructive. The poem also sets up a division between male and female that persists throughout the book: Mother kneels in the garden "feeding the roses;" while Father is teaching his daughter to blast clay pigeons into smithereens. Hussey pays her respects to female figures, both in her own family and by reaching back into Greek and Roman mythology and even fairy tales. But she seems most powerfully drawn to - though troubled by - the masculine energy that she identifies with action and physical force. Hussey is an elegant, somewhat cool writer whose work often draws on images from other cultures. Her poems are vivid, both visually and aurally: Limping step, sliding step. PIm-pim, pushing hips to beat like mating birds dragging their wings in dust, we glide, rippling shoulder blades and spines, as drums chafe and fret, sticks strike casings, bells clang ("Danse Haitienne") Rue Sainte Famille is an assured first book from a writer who displays range and finesse. Karen Connelly`s The Small Words in My Body (Kalamalka Press, 77 pages, $9.95 paper) has its weaknesses, but is an impressive beginning for a 21-year-old poet. It is divided into three parts; the first, which consists of four sections, focuses on relationships with family and lovers, and accounts for more than half of the book. A caged anger smoulders in many poems centred on a father figure; there is a preoccupation with images of decay, violence, and vulnerability. In one poem, love is depicted as a kind of dissection; in another, as dismemberment. The final two sections of The Small Words move from a claustrophobically personal - and generally despairing - focus to encounters with other cultures, specifically Thai and Spanish, in which "she cannot wake without some new knowledge" ("Learning Colours and Demons, Northern Thailand"). Although a few of these poems verge on the touristy, this is otherwise the strongest part of the book. The emotional range is greater, and many poems allow other voices to interact with, and even interrogate, the speaker: We are bitter and small. Almost all of us have soured hearts, little sucked lemons left on the cutting stone. No, you fool, snuff your poor metaphors, don`t write it like that. Say, hearts like lemons, fresh, brighter than the purest gold, and better smelling ("She Arrives in a Loose Blue Skirt") After the orderliness of the preceding books, Peggy Kelley`s Evagination (Tantrum Press, 64 pages, $10 paper) comes as something of a shock. "Evagination" is defined as "the action or result of turning inside out"; and trying to follow - or create some path of meaning in this book can turn the reader inside out. Kelley`s work is unruly, jarring, and weirdly appealing as it throws together snippets of songs, poems, adages, conversations, and descriptions: -I`m a little red rooster and you`re so down home, girl and BOOMBOOMBOOM we got a good thing goin` handspunhandwovenliving veil over the light breathing with us, speaking for us full moon flooding the backyard, spilling Yeats` perfect beauty, streaming precious liquid everywhere - holyholyholy so slowly do coastal mountains appear ("Piercing the Corporate Veil, or Sex at Any Age") Freudian psychology; consumer culture, religion, the myth of romantic love - all of these icons of the social order are turned inside out and upside down in poems full of cacaphonic energy. One quibble: the reproduction of a poem originally printed on a broadsheet, "High T The Goddess the Letter," is attractive as an illustration, but trying to read it will cause headaches. Otherwise, Evagination is the perfect book to pick up after dealing with some ultra-structured government bureaucracy.

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