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Lean Days by Steve McOrmond


Title: Lean Days
Author: Steve McOrmond
Publisher: Wolsak and Wynn
Year: 2004
Pages: 88

Steve McOrmond’s first poetry collection, Lean Days (Wolsak and Wynn 2004), is an engrossing read and one I enjoyed very much. McOrmond’s poetry is familiar, lyrical, and extremely visual; the imagery draws the reader in and captivates the imagination. From dealing with one’s past and escaping one’s hometown to love and separation to meditations on the life of Glenn Gould, Lean Days surprises and delights.

“Loyalist Burial Ground,” the book’s first section, looks back on the speaker’s hometown, dealing with themes of identity, growing up, and loss: “You try on adulthood / to see how it fits, practise saying I love you and goodbye” (“Loyalist Burial Ground” 13). McOrmond knows how to end poems with the most impact, with final lines that resonate with the reader. And because his poems are so full of imagery, so visual, he often creates metaphors that catch the reader off guard. For example, he compares an old Sears catalogue to a family bible, describing the catalogue as thicker “and more thumbed over” (“The burn barrel” 25), or: “The girl checks her watch, takes a last drag of her cigarette / and tosses the butt. Seen from a distance, she might be blowing a kiss” (“Loyalist Burial Ground V” 28).

Where this first section sometimes falters is in the occasional slip into the sentimental, melodramatic, or cliché:

The tall skinny boy with the shaved head
is so in love with the dark-haired girl he can’t
hide it, her distant smile keeps him up at night.
Your one wish is that they love each other simply
and fiercely for as long as it lasts. (“Loyalist Burial Ground IV” 23)

The two repetition poems of the collection – “Field guide” (39) and “Scherzo” (77) – also seem more like poetic exercises than finished, publishable poems, but these are minor quibbles, especially considering this is a first book.

The book’s second section, “So Long,” is concerned with the world outside of the speaker’s hometown. Consisting primarily of love poems, the section examines a new relationship and focusses on the subject of the speaker’s affection. “Blue Hills,” the third section, then deals with separation, nostalgia, and regret when the relationship ends:

And as if this wasn’t enough,
the terror I keep waking from: your voice
calls across the ocean between us.
I walk on water, I stumble
over the blue hills
endlessly towards you. (“Almost” 51)

“The Discography of Silence” is a fascinating poeti-biographical look at Glenn Gould, from 1955 to the early 80s. McOrmond creates a brilliant, eccentric, tangible character, and I immediately wanted to know more about Gould and his life: his genius, his neuroses, his struggles and triumphs.

Platform Antics

They expected him to sit up straight
like an operator at a switchboard

but it wasn’t in the job description
to deny what the music wanted –

either to lift him up to heaven
or throw him broken to the floor.

They mistook him for a clown
in his rumpled suit and gloves with no fingers.

Later, for a vulture hunched over
the keyboard, disfigured by the thing he loved.

Nothing was for show: the gloves he wore
year round kept his hands at a constant temperature.

The folding chair, though it squeaked,
allowed him to sit low and strike the keys

flat-fingered. And when he hummed,
it was wishful thinking. (75)

If this section carries less power than the other three, it is only because it relies on at least some knowledge of Gould’s life (of which I have none). Having said that, the poems do stand on their own, and Gould, in the end, is merely a vehicle for McOrmond’s own poetic designs.

Lean Days is a book without pretense. What faults there are, are minor and certainly don’t detract from the rest of the collection. I look forward to seeing what McOrmond has in store for us next time.

Eric Barstad is the editor of PoetryReviews.ca, and he currently lives with his partner Erin and their three cats — Finnegan, Pickles, and Claude — in Gleichen, Alberta, a small farming community an hour east of Calgary.

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Add comment February 21st, 2006

Elegy by E. D. Blodgett


Title: Elegy
Author: E.D. Blodgett
Publisher: U of A Press
Year: 2005
Pages: 85

In the winter of 2004, E.D. Blodgett was approached by Yukiko Onley to write a poem for her late husband, landscape watercolourist Toni Onley. Unsure of whether he was up to the task, Blodgett agreed to write a small series. Soon, however, one poem led to another and another, and Blodgett knew “that after the first few poems this was not going to be a little series” (82). Instead, the sequence became Elegy (U of A Press, 2005), a collection exploring grief and loss.

Elegy is a book in memoriam, a kind of tribute. It is, however, misleading to think of this book as a collection of poems; to do so would be a disappointment, for the pieces themselves, taken individually as works of art, are neither striking nor memorable. Instead, the collection must be read as a book of prayers, apostrophes and laments to an “absent soul.” We are meant to feel the solitude that accompanies loss, the amplitude of grief:

prayers are only us
and in them we become

someone else who
fills a larger space
with more uncertainty (31).

At the back of the book, Blodgett explains that Elegy explores the movement from personal to universal sadness: “If I know Yukiko’s sorrow in any way, I know it as the sorrow of loss that everyone knows. And knowing it, I know it as elegy, in which sorrow is transmuted. Once transmuted, it is hers and mine and everyone’s” (83). We follow the speaker throughout this exploration, trapped inside our shared grief. It is a place devoid of other living beings, devoid of colour – a grey, monotone inner-universe. All throughout the book we see the same repeated images, symbols, and themes: the sea, rivers, tears, rain, flowers, trees, leaves, ghosts, fog, darkness, the moon and stars, autumn, absence, silence, the soul, flesh, and bones.

My hand has ghosted into
the sea followed by
the flower that had sprung

unbidden on its flesh
the gift that I must give
and as they disappear

I know that you have come
into my soul where you

take up a residence
beneath the stars that fill
its distant firmament

no gift given without
a giving up to that
dwelling of death we are (68).

One thing I’ve always struggled with as a reader and writer is the legitimacy of grief expressed as art, as poetry. How do you stay true to sorrow while making sure each line on a page has six syllables and each stanza contains three lines? In this way, the emotions expressed in the book can sometimes feel adorned, somewhat false. But Blodgett is aware of this and acknowledges poetry’s shortcomings:

why is sorrow just
what poets say when grief
cuts deeper than the words

so finely crafted that
grief becomes but
music charm and sighs (22).

Yukiko Onley’s black and white photographs that accompany the poems, however, are not falsely adorned; they are unsentimental and presented without explication. Like the poems, the photographs present a world of grey, and there are some very striking images. It’s too bad, though, that the quality of the reproduction isn’t a bit higher; the photos can often seem grainy and they lack the “pop” and contrast that would be afforded by a higher gloss paper. As such, the photos are almost too grey, bleed grey, when they might have provided some solace from the colourless world of the poems.

In the end, Blodgett has crafted Elegy with a compassionate and meditative hand, but I would not recommend this book as a collection of poems. Instead, this is a shared lament, a prayerful journey through loss, and a reader must approach it accordingly, as a whole; that’s the only way to make it through, out of the grey and the dark and back into the light:

music of light has no
melody known but when
its presence is announced

nothing remains untouched
turning to light within
the dark that silently

withdraws (79).

Eric Barstad is the editor of PoetryReviews.ca, and he currently lives with his partner Erin and their three cats — Finnegan, Pickles, and Claude — in Gleichen, Alberta, a small farming community an hour east of Calgary.

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Add comment February 16th, 2006

Blue Feast by Shawna Lemay


Title: Blue Feast
Author: Shawna Lemay
Publisher: NeWest Press
Year: 2005
Pages: 128

Shawna Lemay’s Blue Feast (NeWest 2005) is an intensely personal book. In the poem “Unfinished Letter,” Lemay writes:

I don’t mind.
Having someone else’s poetry course through me
leaving me scraped out and raw. (83)

And this is, essentially, how we’re supposed to come away from these poems, with a feeling of catharsis, of having been emotionally emptied. We’re supposed to share in the experiences and emotions of these poems alongside the author. As she writes in the book’s preface:

These poems were written toward the core of sadness as a way of navigating the multiple registers that we dwell in at all times. The reader who wants these poems is the reader who understands the complicated joy that is entwined with sadness.

Lemay, I think, is acknowledging here that it can be very difficult for some readers to connect with such personal poems. In a way, they are too personal, only concerned with themselves, not written for an audience:

My stated goal
is to write the poem
that desires not to be read. (“In Readiness” 21)

Certainly many of the poems from “A Kind of Gray Dream,” the book’s first and longest section, share a kind of “self-centredness” (for lack of a better term), and the section reads a bit like a diary: self-reflexive (a writer and poems that are all too aware of themselves); abstract statements of emotion; life-in-a-nutshell summations. When Lemay breaks out of the diary, when she stops writing about writing, the poems take on a new and wonderful life of their own, wholly engaging the reader:

How is it that every animal
that has entered my heart
has always had a small white diamond on its chest –
Arabian horse, black lab, blue tabby.

Our honeymoon on Sardegna.
The blonde lab that followed us for a week
so that she seemed to own us.
Up the long paved road from the grocery store
to the villa with the red tiles
and the rosebush by the stone bench
where I read Italo Calvino while
the ants crossed my feet. (“The Blue Feast” 58)


My blackened fingertips
drop the empty matchbooks to the floor
with ever more faith.
One day I’ll be in flames. (“Waiting” 20)

One craves this kind of detail (the kind that evokes rather than tells emotion) throughout the section – and indeed throughout the entire book. In this regard, “The Clearing,” the book’s second section, becomes more grounded. The themes it takes on are still weighty – death, sorrow, love, joy, motherhood, friendship – but they begin to manifest themselves in more tangible ways:


Yes. That you are shattered
when you have a child.
And every birthday each
shattered piece of you
shatters again.

When she comes running
every step.
When we are apart, with every fathom.
When she gets out a bowl,
some cereal, milk.

The light enters sharp
through so many angles
when you have a child.
It is as though
you are constantly raised
above ground and let go.
The hard earth you begin to know intimately.
Such exhaustion and joy. (64)

The final section, “Daring Instruction,” deals primarily with marriage and love:

Marriage is a book and you discover
you’d earlier on underlined the wrong passages
written silly things in the margins. (“Unromantic Aspects” 94)

The poems here still move between the same self-reflective, abstract, and summative shortcomings as the earlier pieces, but perhaps this is part of the underlying struggle of getting to know – and coming to terms with – oneself. As Lemay writes:

A river, in the end
you’re known by streams
in ways you can’t know yourself.

I can’t work myself out to myself. (“How To” 101)

In workshops and writing groups, the adage “Show, don’t tell” is constantly pounded into writers, and I wonder if it is possible to graduate beyond this as a writer. If so, Blue Feast would be the exemplar. However, I haven’t managed to get beyond the show-don’t-tell principle as a reader: I want the imagery, the narrative. Instead of listening to someone describe beautiful music, I’d rather hear the music itself. And so it is with Blue Feast: Don’t tell me how you feel; show me.

Eric Barstad is the editor of PoetryReviews.ca, and he currently lives with his partner Erin and their three cats — Finnegan, Pickles, and Claude — in Gleichen, Alberta, a small farming community an hour east of Calgary.

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Add comment February 11th, 2006

Were the Bees by Andy Weaver

were the bees

Title: were the bees
Author: Andy Weaver
Publisher: NeWest Press
Year: 2005
Pages: 128

Review by rob mclennan.

Some of us have been waiting years for a first collection from Edmonton poet Andy Weaver to appear, and finally it has, published by Edmonton’s NeWest Press in spring 2005 as the collection Were the Bees. Weaver’s poems are almost a bridge between the prairie lines of Robert Kroetsch, the current trends of more traditional Canadian lyric modes and the considerations of the Canadian avant-garde. An admirer of the work of Don McKay and Jan Zwicky, for example, Weaver holds as much appreciation for the work of, say, derek beaulieu and Louis Cabri, all of which he has brought to Edmonton as part of his former involvement (as founder/organizer) in the monthly Olive reading and chapbook series.

The strongest section of the collection has to be the thirty-part “Were the Bees,” a sequence reworked from an interview George Bowering and Robert Hogg did with American poet Robert Duncan in the late 1960s. Weaver is very aware of form and tradition, and has been slowly learning to manipulate forms to suit his own ends. As he writes in the “notes” at the back of the collection:

“Were the Bees” is a cut-up sequence based on George Bowering and Robert Hogg’s 1969 interview of Robert Duncan (Beaver Kosmos, 1971). A base text was formed by taking the corresponding line from each page of the interview (for example, the base text for the first piece contained the first line from each page, the second base text contained all the second lines, etc.). I then removed words from the base text until the piece voiced its own concerns.

Robert Duncan has become more of a topic again lately, what with the conference on Duncan in Vancouver through the Kootenay School of Writing that happened at the beginning of April 2005, tracing and exploring his influence through the Vancouver poetry scene from the late 1950s onward, as well as New York poet Lisa Jarnot’s forthcoming biography of Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus. Considered one of the three main components of the San Francisco renaissance of the 1950s, usually the attention has focused on Jack Spicer, or Vancouver resident (since the 1960s, when he moved north to teach at Simon Fraser University) Robin Blaser.


tradition is clear enough, especially when you
print at my expense. in
increasing part, the autobiography composes
me. summers when I was perhaps.
The idea of individuality
concentrates much on the ritual, the dance. I had
the field, I
measured space all the time.
Great messages
always get sent by
Study language or general principles,
I must be viewed as
the concert’s apprehension of
sleep not discovered. Being a poem, I
asked him to explain a poem. What
alternates between things that are not enigmatic.
I don’t think a third alternative
was observed as late as our time–the sun goes
in arms along with sky.

Before hearing him read from his “Were the Bees” sequence in Edmonton in spring 2004, I had considered his poem “Three Ghazals to the constellation Corvus (The Crow)” to be his strongest published work. Since east coast resident John Thompson’s posthumous collection Stilt Jack (House of Anansi, 1978) appeared, bringing the ghazal, an ancient Persian form, into Canadian poetry, the prominence of the form was increased, through the publication of Phyllis Webb’s Sunday Water: Thirteen Anti Ghazals (1982), Douglas Barbour’s more recent Breath Takes (2001), and younger poets, such as Eric Folsom, Catherine Owen and Weaver, working with the form.

The ghazal, according to Thompson’s Stilt Jack preface, was “the most popular of all the classical forms of Urdu poetry,” and is built of five couplets that have no re-occurring connection, whether narrative or lyrical, distinguishing itself from the English classical form, the sonnet. It seems interesting that Thompson would have made a point of mentioning the five-couplet structure and then not kept to it, whereas Barbour and Webb stuck close, and called theirs “anti ghazals.” In Weaver’s poem “Three Ghazals to the constellation Corvus (The Crow),” every couplet is punctuated, clipped with a wry ironic sense, tongue planted firmly in cheek, as he references Crow, a trickster creation god along the lines of Coyote, or Raven.

Every line evokes more than it has space to tell, but tells enough, from youth writing, bad luck and injury to drunken hope and hopelessness, turning the poem in on itself by the very end, a mixture of wit and education, and the kinds of learning that only the bars of Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue can provide.

Three Ghazals to the constellation Corvus (The Crow)


The woman was my gateway drug to bad poetry,
she sits in these words like a wound.

Snow petals back from the rocks,
a thousand dead nests on the ground.

Ravens sing their Spring love song,
crack the notes open to hear them bleed.

She is gone and I am healing:
always healing, never healed.

O Crow, life ain’t about winning,
just losing as slowly as you can.


Birdshit hits rock, throws
open its loving arms.

Asshole, she called me, in her stetson hat. Cowgirl,
I loved you and the horse you rode in on.

History is a predator,
the past is its prey.

Bird-thought, the stutter-step
into flying illumination.

O Crow, these women sit sober in the bar
and refuse to find me charming.


And what the hell is this,
fict or faction?

Her touch on my chest, simplicity–
the bend in the Raven’s wing in flight.

Old scars bloom on my tongue.
I will not whisper her name.

Down the darkened alley, the streetlight
burns out as I walk by.

O Crow, up there silent in the sky, why
are you smiling?

Built out of three numbered sections, the first part of were the bees contains a mass of shorter pieces, with the second as the thirty-part “were the bees” poem, and the final a collection of linked ghazals, “Small Moons: Ghazals.” It’s in the first section that the reader finds Weaver’s interest in the non-linear as well as the romantic lyric, and poems written on visual art, other writers and philosophy, and interested not only in the process and the movement of a poem, but the painstaking craft, as in this fragment from the poem “My ignorance of Mina Loy,” that reads:

amative coquette kohls her eyes
the aniline in the air enervates our breviaries

in the vestry, sarsenet mitre is postulated
with avidity, infructuous agamogenesis
almost carnose in the cyclamen

the antipodean question silences the loquent

In 2001, Weaver and I drove down from Edmonton, Alberta, to Vernon, British Columbia, to read at the greenboathouse books reading series run there by Jason Dewinetz. From that, Weaver wrote a version of the events, in the third section, “Small Moons: Ghazals,” as the first half of the poem “(2 for the greenboathouse)” writes:

a washroom and a          gift shop
where they drove in          the last spike

outside the city          the stars know you
as well as          heraclitus

the late          night collectcall
is the drunkards         sonnet sequence

what wooden          train tunnel
will save you          from this          avalanche

who looked at the stars
and felt          the need          for narrative

here i am too          drunk to see the forest
fire for all          the trees

a baccus          youd think id notice          the embers
burning two holes          in the crotch          of my pants

the morning after          waking up in a little slice of bc paradise
jasons asleep     robs still drunk          mike searches the firepit for his glasses

the quail and the ducks make short work
of our leftovers     regrets and promises

a couple gaze          at the mountains          for a photo
touched          by the moments          aweinspiring          cliché

like i told rob          if you ever         see me jogging          start running yourself
theres something          really bad          behind me

driving through the mountains          the big horns     are only an     obstacle
proof          that even lovers     must have moments           of reason

no one knows          what             theyll be doing          in ten years but
the lucky ones     have a good idea     who

For me at least, the amusing part is being able to see the other side of the same situation, from a poem I wrote on the same experience, very shortly after it happened.


cold lake & the threat
of an empty dress

1950s dream
& wwI bombers
stalk the shore

a towel
that doesnt cover everything

to be made of stone
& endure forever

burning a hole in
bare pant legs

vernon, bc

In a brief introduction to his section in the anthology evergreen: six new poets (Black Moss Press, 2002), Weaver wrote:

I’m not even certain that I write anymore. It feels more like I just cobble together lines that I’ve put down in the little book that I keep in my right pocket. Which feels better, in a weird way, than when I was naive enough to believe all that crap about inspiration and genius and whatnot. To misquote Frost, which is fine ‘cause he’s dead, one could do worse than be a cobbler of words.

This is a sentiment shared by the late John Newlove, who kept found lines on organized stacks of blue file cards, for him to later include in his own poems, even going so far as to write about that theft between stolen lines in the poem “White Philharmonic Novels” from his collection The Night the Dog Smiled (ECW Press, 1986):

Look, nobody gets wise writing
Now I must be making
pretty manners
at you
It’s necessary to realize that all these phrases
are stolen. The arrangement is all.

rob mclennan lives in Ottawa, even though he was born there. the author of twelve trade collections of poetry, most recently name, an errant (Stride, 2006) & aubade (Broken Jaw Press, 2006), he is currently working on a number of projects including a non-fiction book for Arsenal Pulp Press, Ottawa: The Unknown City (2007), a poetry collection, The Ottawa City Project, & finishing a novel, Missing Persons. He often writes, reviews & rants on his clever blog — robmclennan.blogspot.com. This review will also appear in filling station.

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Add comment February 9th, 2006

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