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Archive for March, 2006

From The Lunar Plexus: A Sound Opera by Penn Kemp

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Title: From The Lunar Plexus: A Sound Opera
Author: Penn Kemp. Music by Bill Gilliam. Performed by Anne Anglin, Penn Kemp, John Magyar, Susan McMaster et al.
Publisher: CD co-produced by Pendas Productions and PsychoSpace Sound Studios
Year: 2002
Pages: n/a

Review by Lynda Curnoe.

How does poetry happen? Penn Kemp’s From the Lunar Plexus: A Sound Opera is a series of poems that addresses this question, documenting a mental journey which begins with preparations for sleep. A narrator leads the listener underneath and behind everyday life and concerns into a landscape of dreams, images, and sounds, and then back out again.

Canadian content, humour and the Beaches in east end Toronto add familiarity to the CD’s elusive, esoteric subject: the fountainhead of poetry. Beautiful, ingenious phrases and images are speckled throughout: “all puns are planted,” “the ineffable fabric of love,” “trailing a slip of sultry across thought.” A second female voice, piano, guitar, percussion and other-worldly sound effects enhance the words and add colour, rhythm and depth to this remarkable journey.

Kemp’s seductive, whispery voice begins by chanting “cogito ergo sum,” as though she is preparing for bed. But it isn’t just sleep she is seeking; it’s a deliberately and, at the same time, spontaneously sought layer of awareness that anyone who meditates, writes, paints or composes instinctively knows how to find. This place is personal, requiring a quiet, physically comforting atmosphere most artists do not attempt to describe because concern is usually focused on output, not origin. Indeed, some creative people refuse to seek their source of inspiration, thinking that with scrutiny, it might disappear forever. Fearlessly and wide awake, Kemp descends into the rabbit hole.

Just as we prepare and struggle to sleep, the poet-narrator spars with her unconscious — a poem, naturally, that lives and laughs inside her head. As a piano chimes chords echoing the narrator’s voice, the poem declares: “You are writing right now … so shut the duck up.” The personal ‘I’ is being displaced by the poetic ‘I,’ and Kemp’s poetic ‘I’ is witty, funny and ruthless, forcing the dreamer to examine every conjured image, from the mundane to the violent. Humourously, it even acknowledges the Canada Council in one exchange, something all writers must do at one time or another.

Concentrating on the sounds around her in “Night Orchestra,” the narrator, trying to cross over from wakefulness to sleep, hears an air conditioner, a “relentless fridge and clock” and the waves of Lake Ontario in the distance. Chanting and echoing the word “deep,” she enters the first stage of sleep, accompanied by sounds of rhythmic waves on the shore. She begins with nonsense nursery rhymes, words and syllables turned backwards and around. Finally, entering the place of dreaming, her first stop is a tinkling-bells visit to her grandmother’s “yellow brick house in the past,” a common and soothing dream beyond which most sleepers would never go. But the narrator’s Powerbook sleeps “like a lapdog” at her feet and she is determined to record the dream-poems as they emerge.

The poem, however, has greater demands of the dreamer than simple nostalgia. It asks her to inhabit another body and to find a new suit to wear. She “awkwardly” chooses Robert De Niro’s body and a blue suit that she has dream-stalked in her friend’s closet. Now she is ready to begin. Complete poems emerge. “Dreaming the End of March” opens with a vision of a flooded laundry room and leads to scenes of crows and then people being shot by Nazis. The dreamer, accompanied by staccato piano chords, has entered “another dimension of pure sensory awareness.”

In “Two Lips” the narrator is joined by a classical guitar and another voice that mockingly repeats words and sings longingly in the background, as the purpose of art is discussed in a roomful of poets. This other voice surfaces here and there in the later tracks, as well, and the recording might have been more effective with the use of even more voices. Such a variety would have provided a more dramatic, operatic effect.

Some of the poems tackle more threatening subjects. In “After Image,” the narrator voices over her own words so key words are repeated, creating a continuous flow of forceful, sometimes violent images. The poem confronts a moment that “looks like love” when a lion first tastes the blood of a zebra. The lion image continues in “Berlin, 1945,” as Mrs Goebels prepares her children for death by administering “spoonfuls that will lay them all down to sleep forever.”

In “Through the 49th Door” the sleeper awakens “sequestered in a pink room” on the eve of her lover’s fiftieth birthday. At peace, in familiar surroundings, she realizes “home is the answer to your question.” The poetic ‘I’ has expanded, becoming “a floating centre of perception” including everyone else in a “larger simpler system.” But it is time for poetic ‘I’ to retire as personal ‘I’ begins the day.

The final poem, “Lunar Plexus,” presents the reader/listener with a word-clear synopsis of the source of poetry, the place visited in this wondrous night journey. The dreamer has had time to type but little time to edit, she explains. Her last defining act is to send her words back, as in a tennis volley, to the poet who has led all of us towards

that royal knowing
we aspire to by drowning
self-consciousness in a whole blue
that is sea, that is sky, one and the same.

Lynda Curnoe has been published by Ergo Books, Lyricalmyrical Press, Open Letter, The Literary Review of Canada, Psychic Rotunda and The London Reader.

1 comment March 28th, 2006

northern wild roses/deth interrupts th dansing by bill bissett


Title: northern wild roses/deth interrupts th dansing
Author: bill bissett
Publisher: Talon Books
Year: 2005
Pages: 160

Review by Jesse Ferguson.

A beautifully produced collection, bill bissett’s northern wild roses/deth interrupts th dansing contains 160 pages of visual, sound, and lyric poetry, and it constitutes the most recent instalment from this prolific artist.

bissett is well-known for his unconventional phonetic spellings and punctuation evasion, and in this collection his technique makes for some interesting rhythms. Because the reader is largely unfamiliar with bissett’s spellings, which are not always consistent for the same word, he or she is forced to slow down the reading process. This creates a stop-and-go rhythm, which in some ways recalls Buddhist or Native American chant. When read aloud, some of the poems, such as “we dansd sew goldn,” create an incantatory effect that is quite enjoyable. This effect is often most pronounced in the longer poems, like “reinkarnaysun urgensee hello,” in which the denotations of the words are largely subordinate to the richness of sound.

Overall, this collection is affirmative. Though bissett is working out his own theory of mortality and the meaning of life, he never allows himself to fall into self-pity or bitterness. He creates a loose mythology by blending various Buddhist, Shamanistic and poetic elements and never lets the jargon of any of these bog down his poems. Many of the most potent and memorable pieces in the collection propose a simple vitality as the way to create meaning in human life. For instance, the poem “dansing can stall deth,” as the title suggests, delights in images of dancing, and the lines’ rhythms echo their content:

in the moon rooms snow n blizzard winds howling
out ther dansing interrupts deth yes the beet keeps
on rockin hands keep on klapping yr bodee feels
all th work wev askd it 2 dew releeses its joy its
ardour not dour fidduls cats in th moon howling
moord dansing in infinit erth rooms
(“dansing can stall deth” 10)

bissett’s message is that we need to give up our pretensions of control over ourselves and others, that only by allowing ourselves to be swept up by the rhythm of life can we be truly happy.

As might be expected, however, this hippie-esque message sometimes crosses the line into the maudlin. In some poems—often ones that are fantastic except for one or two lines—bissett couches his loving message in too plain or clichéd terms. Poems like “sumtimes th feeling” contain unfortunate lines like “dew yu want 2 / hold my heart / in yrs 4 a whil” (15). Again, in his piece “th kalendar is turning,” bissett is too direct in writing “we our speces dew all thees cruel cut throat / things th angels ar crying agen” (70). At times, bissett is also too direct in writing out his messages about political justice. Such poems as “war sucks” have worthwhile content, but not the sophisticated delivery that today’s reader demands.

These few lapses, however, are the result of too much honesty (if that is even possible). bissett as a poet is remarkably unpretentious; he does insert the odd polysyllabic word and makes the odd topical allusion to contemporary science, but he always integrates these elements in a way that makes their significance clear through context.

northern wild roses/deth interrupts th dansing is an enjoyable collection, and unlike the drab and self-absorbed poetry so prevalent today, it actually affirms the value of life while not ignoring the perils therein.

Jesse Ferguson was raised in Cornwall, Ontario, and is a member of The League of Canadian Poets. His poems have been published in eight countries, in both print and online formats. Recently, his work has appeared in: Ygdrasil, Matrix Magazine, Hammered Out, West 47, Word Riot, Spire, Jones Av., The Prairie Journal, Carillon Magazine, QWERTY, Aesthetica, Ottawater and some poems are slated to appear in the upcoming issues of The Nashwaak Review and dANDelion. He has two poetry collections forthcoming — one from Friday Circle and the other from Pooka Press. He is on the editorial board of the Ottawa literary journals Bywords and Yawp, and is a consulting editor for Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine.

Add comment March 26th, 2006

Change in a Razor-backed Season by Michael deBeyer


Title: Change in a Razor-backed Season
Author: Michael deBeyer
Publisher: Gaspereau Press
Year: 2005
Pages: 96

Review by Jon Sookocheff.

Michael deBeyer’s second book of poetry, Change in a Razor-backed Season (Gaspereau Press 2005), is a sustained and contemplative look at the moment between knowing and not knowing. “The book is open to doubt,” says deBeyer, “and I felt that if I could write through doubt there would be poetic possibilities beyond.” The result is a taught, muscular second collection well worth an amble through.

The opening sequence of the book uses water as a focal point. The limestone of the city, overheard arguments, and a beached whale are imbued with the qualities of water: muffled by silence, enveloped by shadow and light, awarded rebirth. Strongest of this first sequence is “Coastal Marquee.” In essence a political poem, “Coastal Marquee” describes an oceanfront property, what it might be like for those who live in and on such a prime piece of real estate:

They are building a causeway that they will also flood.
They build an amphitheatre on the soft lap of the beach

that succumbs beneath the tin ice floes. The hawing
and yawning resounds. Houses that line the cliff face

are perilous: lunch box designs of the currently sleeping.

Such are the poems throughout this collection: DeBeyer has an ear for the natural order of things and for what is natural. Throughout he insists that what is going on in the cities is not necessarily what should be going on. For him, such developments are transitory, filled with doubt and un-knowing.

The second sequence of poems develops the idea that there exists a moment between perception and trust and what follows is often failure. The focus is on fallen buildings, ghost towns and the coming of autumn. Idea-wise, this is where deBeyer comes into his own. From “Home, the West Wall”:

Constructing walls to break them, to inhale
the sedimentary plaster cuff, tearing the lath

which seems the final means of support, yet
through the west scaffold: an apple tree in bloom.

In the third sequence of poems, deBeyer loses his hold somewhat. He stops observing and begins commenting, commanding even. The effect on the reader is jarring and not exactly welcome. To take just one example, from the poem “To Draw Blood From Stone”:

To make life, put together
all-love, and swing
near the hurt of the earth.
To make bloodstone, follow.

The entire sequence is in a similar vein, calling on the reader to physically participate in a manner which is not physical. This book is not a manual on how to meditate; had the other poems in the book been similar, it may have worked. Here, it does not.

The fourth and final sequence of the collection witnesses a return to form. DeBeyer comes full circle to considerations of environment and season, making complete the development of the ideas and images created earlier on. Especially striking is the oddness of the final image in the colour-washed poem “Epiphany”:

Though no music filters through
late evening in the parking lot,

and though the orange-dipped sun
descends above the darkening

dairy bar, in a warm and urban-beautiful
summer way, the waitress in the brown sedan

rubs the vinyl seat against her legs,
leans her forehead to the steering wheel

and cries. The world turns
the colour of mint.

This is a sad, playful poem that highlights to where deBeyer is moving: acceptance of both knowing and not-knowing. There is something of dreams in this final section, a hopefulness toward which we might all move.

Change in a Razor-backed Season is an enjoyable collection of poems from a poet who is clearly coming into his own. Read it and look forward to deBeyer’s next outing.

Jon Sookocheff is a traveler and writer based in Saskatoon.

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Add comment March 23rd, 2006

Vancouver Walking by Meredith Quartermain


Title: Vancouver Walking
Author: Meredith Quartermain
Publisher: NeWest Press
Year: 2005
Pages: 96

Review by Jenna Butler.

Meredith Quartermain’s Vancouver Walking is a sensory and historical exploration into what creates a sense of place; specifically, how identity becomes layered onto a place by the different groups of people who live there.

It’s the title series of poems in this collection that lend Vancouver Walking its immediate appeal. Eye-catching on the page and thick with snippets of history dredged up from Vancouver’s archives, the “Vancouver Walking” poems serve to instantly drop the reader into Quartermain’s recreated landscape. She doesn’t pepper her work with overriding statements or emotional judgments; rather, the arrangement of the text on the page and the inclusion of certain historical statements allows the reader to develop his/her own emotional reaction to the work:

Lord Lucan, Lord Cardigan: look, I don’t know what this means

     twenty minutes
     250 men
     500 horses
but ten mounted men mustered at evening parade.
(“Frances Street” 34)

Psychogeography is, I think, the word that best describes Quartermain’s explorations in this collection. She is concerned with the relationship of different groups of people to the land, how each group carries a unique perception of its relationship to its surroundings. Her meticulously subtle descriptions of the ignorance, racism, and injustice that characterize so much of the history of the west coast of Canada draw the reader in, for instance. In this way, the poems are more than simple snapshots of little-known Vancouver history; they are intelligently constructed pieces of social commentary in which the reader, as much as the author, makes the connections between bits of historical data and everyday events.

Aside from this carefully-developed layering of place, the “Vancouver Walking” series quietly reveals humanity giving way beneath a new age of industry. Just as the coastal First Nations communities faced tremendous hardship at the hands of the European colonists, so did the colonists themselves begin to find their own needs falling prey to the development of mining and the railroad:

the miners were allowed to elect the gas committee
well Mottishaw and his partner found gas in some place
the company didn’t like and it fired them

they had to flood the mine to get the bodies
every man was killed.

(“Frances Street” 47)

Whereas the historical texts themselves, read alone, would no doubt constitute fairly dry reading, they take on a new interpretive life of their own when integrated into the series of poems. Read together, the historical segments and Quartermain’s own observations create a larger, workable text endowed with a lively and uniquely human sense of history. It is a history on the cusp of the industrial age, when life was still lived at a non-mechanized pace. Thus, the title of the sequence is particularly apt; walking not only as a sign of the age, but as a means of more closely examining history as an overlooked aspect of society. Vancouver’s history is wherever one goes in the city – not immediately visible from behind the wheel of a car, but just beneath the surface whenever one takes the time to slow down and search for its traces.

The second portion of the book, “International Rooms,” is an equally strong set of poems placed in a more contemporary time period. Here Quartermain is at it again, although her poems at this juncture are more personal, experiential. The discrepancies and inequalities in everyday life draw her attention: the “squeegee kid on his haunches” (“First Night” 60), the men “trad[ing] hits or cigarettes” (“Cathedral” 62) when the government has promised to help them find some sort of gainful employment. She is pulled by the subtext of the city and writes toward the hypocrisy of the government’s attempt to airbrush away that subtext.

There is hope in this segment of the book, too. Poems like “Record” function not only as a written representation of urban life in this century, but serve to contrast a fast-paced, industrial society with the small examples of humanity within it:

that a red truck stood tipped on a hill of dirt in the park –
     dinky-toy yellow earthmover
     caterpillar climbing the fresh soil – scoop hooked up
     under its snout.
that we still believe in building parks.

Yet there is tragedy inherent in the hope: at the same time that we are building parks, our children are growing up in them, playing at industry in miniature. In this segment of the book, more so than any other, Quartermain reveals how industry and mechanization have become accepted undercurrents of our everyday lives, to the point where even our children unconsciously emulate them.

“Coast Starlight,” the final section of the book, takes the reader on a broader tour of North America; yet here, as well, is the same underwriting of place that is present in all the Vancouver poems. Everywhere, too, is evidence of consumerism and hard industry: the sawmill “vomiting brown sludge / from a long arm” and “Home Depot     Wal-Mart / their empty black-top roads” (“Pacific Northwest” 82). Even the fields have been transformed from agricultural to bases for mechanization, and human beings to mere commodities:

Then a field of small planes, snubnosed
yellow – where do they take off,
and fly. Sound Meat Distributors.
New world. Landscape.
(“Pacific Northwest” 83)

The book as a whole examines different types of understanding: that which is general or societal versus understanding specific to a certain place or a group of people who inhabit that place. Nowhere in the book is this more clear than in the “Coast Starlight” section. Here, Quartermain brings to life a number of towns and cities across North America. In each place, the overriding language and understanding is industrial in nature, even though the underlying cultural understanding is often something quite different. This is especially evident in poems such as “Tacoma Bay,” wherein the lush scenery is imbued with great history, and yet the girls’ gym class that plays there comprehends nothing of the nature of the place nor its significance to the First Nations people from whose language its name was derived.

What emerges in this final section of the book is a hunger, a vast need for a means of naming one’s surroundings. Quartermain is not speaking of specific words for objects, per se, but rather a greater way of relating to a world and a landscape that we are so isolated from in a predominantly mass-produced, anonymous age. What is real, she wonders, and what is constructed? Are the trappings of society what ought to concern us, or are they simply shielding what is real from our sight? As she says, “Without guns, / how do you talk about the real?” (“Waiting for Coast Starlight” 107).

We are missing what lies beneath, she concludes: the simple meal behind the fancy name, the land secreted away beneath the tarmac, the beliefs and understandings of the cultures who called this land their home far before any colonists arrived. This is the message that animates Vancouver Walking – that we must learn to see beyond our own constructs, our obsessions with tags and labels, to life as it truly is. Without this way of seeing, we risk living on the skin of things, naming, but never knowing.

Jenna Butler is an educator and poet who makes her home in Edmonton. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including CBC’s Alberta Anthology, and has been widely published in journals, anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the founding editor of Rubicon Press.

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Add comment March 21st, 2006

The Memory Orchard by Tim Bowling

Bowling MemOrchard

Title: The Memory Orchard
Author: Tim Bowling
Publisher: Brick Books
Year: 2004
Pages: 96

Review by matt robinson.

To crack the stark, near black-and-white sparseness of wintering tree limbs that is the cover of Tim Bowling’s The Memory Orchard (Brick Books, 2004), to turn the pages and read through the poems that comprise the collection, is to act much as the speaker in the poem “Mannequins” does. As readers, we’ll find ourselves stepping “lightly / through the long-smashed panes / of streetfront glass” into an “eternal dusk, the ring / of a mortal register echoing / like a stone dropped / farther and farther down / a well” until all we can hear “is what memory hears,” as it’s “measured out” in “supple, cadenced tones” (“Mannequins” 22).

All this is to say, essentially (as has always been the case), that Bowling does memory well here throughout; the man is a master of what might be best characterized as an elegiac tone.

So fans and admirers of Bowling’s earlier poetry will not be disappointed with this book. Its movement through and around the subject matter – in this case, primarily memory and a kind of nostalgia for an adolescent past – is measured and elegant. Bowling’s near–signature elevated tone and precisely engineered diction, employed throughout these free verse pieces in the relation of lush rustic, domestic, and coming of age imagery, are also here in spades. And the slight tension created between subject matter and execution is what helps to move these poems forward. It’s what completes their complex architecture.

Seemingly small, but powerful, decisions about vocabulary as well as the overall scansion and sweep of a line are evident throughout the book. So in describing some typically destructive teenaged hi-jinx we’re presented not simply with a harsh prosaic look at the moment, but instead with the following, near-baroque evocation of the contradictions of adolescent life, replete with an attendant sense of foreboding:

Sated with garbage and guts
the gulls on the roof-peak
saw me lick the scent of black-
berry from her bronzing shoulder
and gawked as, storm-browed,
I pelted stray cats with rocks.
When weren’t they there,
those brine-eyed judges
in their robes of ash, turning
into the wind to watch me puke
my first cheap bottle, stretching
their necks toward the time
I helped the mind-blank
and shivering old neighbour home.

And how many pitiable bullheads
gaped in terror at my intention
to destroy, or dew-fleshed salmon
saw my hand-tombs scrape across
their vision of the infinite and clear?
(“Does the World Remember Us?” 29)

Indeed, what further energizes the poems that work best here is that very injection of what we might discern is a sense of impending doom. There is something dark lingering just beyond the edge of these recollections Bowling is presenting us with, something that shades what initially seems a straightforward sketch of nostalgia for a time long-since passed. It’s as if, just like the children in “Grade One,” we can feel that over the course of our reading “Something was ticking down all around us / but it couldn’t be the hour. We didn’t know hours” (69).

This tension and the way in which it energizes and enflames the best of these poems more than makes up for the few ways in which the collection comes up short. So while the repeated references to specific images (blackberries and salmon come to mind) might have been more carefully held in check — as they become intrusive at a certain point and a reader starts to wonder if they have a more powerful symbolic role in the overall construction of the collection — the rest of the language more than makes up for this minor complaint.

This collection is, at its core, a leisurely journey through and around the disparate elements of memory, of its relationships with people and place and time, albeit one with an edge. There is, at the core of these poems, a very real concern with a winding exploration of the potential pitfalls that can scatter themselves across the seemingly benign territory of nostalgia.

And having traveled our way through each of these poems, having toured each of the sections the book has to offer, having visited the language and image that Bowling has skillfully guided us through, as readers we’re left feeling and thinking, as we set the collection down on the side table and reach for a warm sip of coffee or tea, as if we’ve been transported somewhere by Bowling, as if we’ve “boarded a train / that would take us to knowledge of the clock-face / looming over our clasped hands and clear brows” (“Grade One” 69).

matt robinson works in Residential Life at UNB. A Poetry Editor at The Fiddlehead, his poetry has received numerous awards. His most recent collection is no cage contains a stare that well (ECW, 2005) a volume of hockey poems. Previous collections include tracery & interplay (Frog Hollow, 2004), how we play at it: a list (ECW, 2002), and A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking (Insomniac, 2000).

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Add comment March 20th, 2006


Such a simple, cool idea…

What is LibraryThing?

LibraryThing is an online service to help people catalog their books easily. Because everyone catalogs together, you can also use LibraryThing to find people with similar libraries, get suggestions from people with your tastes and so forth.

What software does it require?

None. If you can read this, you can use LibraryThing.

What does it cost?

At present, a free account allows you to catalog up to 200 books. A paid account allows you to catalog any number of books. Paid accounts cost $10 for a year or $25 for a lifetime. I conservatively predict the revenue will enable me to recline all day on an enormous pile of gold.

What else does LibraryThing do?

In addition to cataloging your own library, LibraryThing allows you to “tag” your books (see below), check out other people’s libraries, tells you who has similar tastes, etc.

What information do I need to give up?

None. Setting up an account requires only a user name and a password. You can edit your profile to make yours a “private” account. With a private account, nobody else can see what books you have.

Check it out.

2 comments March 19th, 2006

Anything but the Moon by George Sipos

Anything but the moon

Title: Anything but the Moon
Author: George Sipos
Publisher: Goose Lane Editions
Year: 2005
Pages: 102

Admittedly, I picked up George Sipos’ debut collection, Anything but the Moon, because of the cover. Something about the duotone blue grove of trees in mist caught my attention. The simplicity of it, I think; or, the solitude. And while the poems certainly are not simple, there is an overwhelming sense of solitude within these pages.

The poems in this collection are like moments of amber, perfectly caught; they are self-contained lyrics, with little to no narrative overlap, and many of them, as if to highlight their own independence, are only a page long. Sipos’ tonal range is subtle, typically contemplative as he looks for meaning in the natural or the quotidian world:

The stories of summer must be true –
the way the sun
rises already hot at 6:00 a.m.,
how its light is filtered green along the fenceline,
how kernels swell in seedheads,
timothy and fescue bending
to the recursive
     of the nameable world.
(“The Syntax of Summer” 16)

I enjoyed the poems early in the book the most; they are casual and meditative (like most of the poems in the collection), but there is an element of novelty, of fun, that eschews the seriousness of the later pieces:

[The chickens] cluck a little, shit, refuse to dream.

In the morning you find them jostling
by the gate. Rickshaw drivers
desperate to take you anywhere, they invent
frantic itineraries in the dirt
(beak, pinfeathers, claw, whatever you want),
make you feel rich
as you scatter the small change
of an indifferent husbandry.
(“Henhouse” 13)

As you progress through the book, however, you’ll find that Sipos is a nature poet writing poems I would describe as “contemporary pastoral.” Focusing on the natural world and the seasons, these poems (like the book’s cover) are typically unpopulated by other people. Even when other characters do enter the picture, the relationships are often described in terms of the natural world:

All winter we dream of spring:
what I’ll say
what you’ll reply
how it will be –
     a warm wind, water
glistening at eaves, daylight on the brink
once again, of fragrance.
(“Stella” 25)

This is the major fault of the book, however: too much of the same. The individual poems lose their distinctiveness among so many trees and fields, grasses and lakes. The book is awash in the verdancy of British Columbia wilderness, and it suffers for it. Certainly, the poems are well-written. Many are subtle, sophisticated, and enjoyable, but they aren’t often memorable because of the way the landscape of one poem bleeds into the next. However, when Sipos does deviate from the pastoral, he gives us something more powerful and unique, as in his anti-violence poem “Laundry Day”:

…reload the bombers with nuns,
send them wimpling over the suburbs to fall
like black-and-white blessings, their
beads clinking benediction,

In the end, Anything but the Moon covers familiar ground. Its descriptions, when precise, are vivid and true to life, and Sipos’ lyric style can be quite enjoyable. Readers looking for raw, gritty, urban poetry won’t find it here. Rather, this is a long hike through the woods, and is meant for nature lovers. Wear your proper shoes; pack a lunch.

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 March 18th, 2006

Pendas Productions


Review by Richard Stevenson.

Does contemporary poetry and prose often leave you cold? Do you find that a lot of contemporary poets seem to write for the page and not the stage? Are you tired of going to public readings only to discover that your favourite published poet or novelist is a bad actor and mumbles through the microphone in a barely audible monotone, or, conversely, engages in strange acts of feedback fellatio as s/he screams, declaims, yelps, and yawps his/ her way through incomprehensible free verse lines of self-flagellating psychobabble? Are you tired of being embarrassed every time that touted poet mumbles greeting card verse that doesn’t scan, and you can’t make your way to the door without all the eyes turning in unison and slamming against your ass like a turnstile bar? Maybe you were so desperate you grabbed for the first door handle you could find and found yourself holed up in a broom closet for the duration of the reading. I know at least one person to whom that has happened.

You may be interested to know then that there are poets out there engaged in diy (do-it-yourself) publishing who aren’t rank amateurs and aren’t engaged in exclusively solipsistic navel excavation or primal scream therapy – folks who have something to say, who have found innovative ways of combining new and old technologies to deliver their work.

You’ve no doubt heard Sheri-D Wilson, “the mama of dada,” or Robert Priest, or the Dub poets, or Andrea Thompson, Michael St. George, or bill bissett, or heard (of) the fabled sound poetry troupes, The Four Horsemen, Owen Sound, or, more recently, Christian Bök. All of these poets draw from rich oral traditions extending all the way from aboriginal chanting to Cabaret Voltaire and the origins of dada, to beat, dub, slam, and contemporary spoken word. Some combine the best of theatre and spoken dramatic monologue, or deconstruct syntax down to the interstitial or pre-language vocalizations of phoneme and sub-vocal groans and grunts. Some are content to add performance to narrative; others push the envelope in the direction of pure voice collage, or use the distorting devices of midi, vocodor, and tape manipulation in the manner of the music avant garde of Stockhausen, Cage, Jon Hassell and others.

Few run the gambit of contemporary sound practices or collaborate with other sound poets and musicians the way poet Penn Kemp does, and even fewer have set out on a course of action that has resulted in the sustained production of tapes, chapbooks, magazines, full-length books, CDs, and CD ROMs the way Pendas Productions, and PsychoSpace Sound Studios in Toronto have managed.

I remember Penn Kemp when she was Penny Chalmers, publishing an early book with Robert Sward’s Soft Press back in the early 70’s in Victoria, and starting her on-again, off again little magazine, Twelfth Key; I’m pleased to say that through several changes of nom de plume and residence, now Ontario poet, novelist, publisher, performer extraordinaire Penn Kemp has kept up an active career in education, performance, and publication for decades now; and with the evolution in what she calls “sounding,” has created a unique and powerful library of much of this material under the auspices of her own multimedia consortium Pendas Productions. Pendas produces CDs, CD ROMs, and lovely hand-made desktop books (Pendas Poets Series), anthologies, chapbooks and broadsides in collaboration with Gavin Stairs Fine Editions. Sometimes these projects are underwritten with Canada Council support through their recent Spoken Word program and sometimes not. Either way, the production values have not been sacrificed or compromised along the way, and the risk-taking editorial stance has allowed the various principals and musical/literary collaborators involved to push the envelope and provide an exciting alternative to the literary mainstream and small press publishing.

Unlike most small or micro press publishers as well, Pendas is not driven by a single aesthetic. Both avant garde sound texts and mainstream confessionalist/feminist texts have found a home here.

While much of the writing comes out of the objectivist/projectivist tradition of Olson, Creeley et al, and utilizes drop lines, open field, phonological phrasing and so on, the most predominate feature of the poetry is its rhythmic and melodic verve. On her disk of performance pieces, On Our Own Spoke, Penn Kemp explains the logic of this direction as a natural outgrowth of the childhood desire to sing and having no sense of pitch; to wit, the adult poet moved toward the expressive bits of soundscape and language without the straightjacket of a home key or straight chord progressions and pop song structure. Like the musical avant garde and evolution of free jazz, the poetry has moved along a trajectory from single voice projection to braidings of stanza, sentence, phoneme and phrase. Aleatory and fourth world musicians like Jon Hassell, electronic dancehall groups like Orbital, even the so-called Kraut rock electronic bands from the seventies that spawned Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Popul Vuh, Gong, Brian Eno, and, eventually, the whole contemporary electronica scene of trance tech, trip hop, break beat, ambient house, dark ambient, acid jazz, etc. have, of course, experimented with the mobius strip approach of breaking down musical phrases and coming at them from different directions in a row-row-row-your-boat, polyphonic round, 12-tone music approach of break beat/re-assembly, and like the mobius strip approach, Penn Kemp typically starts out with a single phoneme or noise particle from either end of criss-crossing phrases and repeats the unit particles in chants that eventually make up words, phrases, and complete sentences, allowing the puns that develop and the interstices between words and meaningful, more deliberate utterance to create an analogue performance poetry that is fun, witty, even suspenseful.

Best of all, the Wiccan, chthonic, feminist imagery is woven into lovely, Celtic knots and braids of accessible sound and image too, so nothing seems precious or purely mechanical, but, rather, the poetry returns the reader/listener to the era of pre-writing oral/aural ritual.

If the reader is looking for a way to extend a poetry unit in the direction of sound poetry and performance, the first, live, track, in which all of this is explained to a participant school audience, is indispensable and is as good a place to start as any I know. The audience interaction and charms of the performers come through loud and clear.

When the Heart Parts.package face.200When The Heart Parts: A Sound Opera, as the name implies, offers full-length treatment of spliced sound and dialogue and works like a combination of radio drama – with its strong narrative through-line involving a bedside hospital vigil with the poet’s ailing father – and an avant garde choral work, or voice, instrumental piece like Threnody. It succeeds in wedding the sound poetry and dramatic poetry traditions in a totally contemporary performance piece for multiple voice/personae.

Until the Light Bends.CD mockup.200Until the Light Bends offers poet Susan McMaster and her sound troupe Geode in studio performance of pieces mostly taken from her Palm Poets series book of the same name (Black Moss Press, 2004). Other pieces from Uncommon Prayer (Quarry Press), and Dark Galaxies (Ouroboros, out-of-print) are also performed. The music ranges from avant classicism to blues, folk, and free jazz and primarily provides rhythm, tone colour, and mood backdrop to the straightforward lyric/narrative recitation. Instrumentalists include David Broscoe on clarinet, bassoon, effects; Jennifer Giles on piano; Jamie Gullikson on percussion; John Higney on lap steel guitar; Alrick Huebener on acoustic bass and guitar; and Mark Molner on cello and violin. Voice and instrumental production values are exemplary. Best of all, the music and the poetry both stand close scrutiny and invite multiple listening.

fTLP.CD package face.200From The Lunar Plexus: A Sound Opera is more avant garde: prepared piano and electronic sounds accompanied by several voices in a weave of sound and lyric poetry. Definitely chthonic, dark ambient: human voice imitating night sounds of bats, insects, unconscious moans, snores, yawns, and animal-like growls and slurs, and rain fall, along with sing-songy child-like skipping song lyric, dreamscape/landscape imagery, etc. The poetry embraces childhood memories and fantastic flights of fancy, moving in and out of conscious memory. Symbolist poetry of the dark other received through the subconscious as well as lyric reminiscence: a heady mix wherein the human voice and piano engage in real dialogue. So much tighter and fully realized than the sort of thing you usually hear on the spoken word stage, where a sax player and bass wail and thump away, oblivious to the tones, moods, and themes of the poetry being presented; both this and the previous disk are thoroughly integrated and effective works of art.

Vocal Braidings.hmtb.front cover.200Ah, but the books listed here are no less powerful for the lack of musical accompaniment, and also feature dialogue in varying forms. Both Vocal Braiding and Gathering Voice employ a weave of voice, two poets reading each others’ and their own work in concert with one another, braiding the lyric voice, as the title of the one volume overtly indicates, stanza by stanza, rather than, or in addition to, poem by poem. I’m struck by the evenness of talent and combined power of the voices here: it’s certainly not a unique idea – Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier in No Longer Two People, for instance, have successfully wed co-written texts before — but the weave of voices in performance here works like a good baroque chamber piece and adds another dimension to the telling, or story aspect of the writing, and is consistently engaging.

Shaking Hands with the Night.200w72dpiShaking Hands With the Night is, on the surface, more straightforward: a confessionalist poetic engaging in the thorny prospect of hagiography – in this case, the poet dealing with childhood memories of an alcoholic home, her own alcoholism, and painful road to sobriety. The voice of the other this time is supplied by abstract expressionist ink jet paintings of star nebulae, galaxies, and gelid, frog-spawn-like forms of macrocosmic forces in equipoise or pending birth.

The new technologies of ink jet printing and hand book-binding make the print a little less sharp than laser might have allowed, but the paintings have the look and feel of good water colour originals and add a lot to the pacing and scope of the work.

Katerina Fretwell’s poetry stands comparison with the work of Plath and Sexton too, though she has a more anecdotal and has a more restrained style and voice. I did not find her strident or sentimental in the least and would heartily recommend this book to anyone willing to stray off the commercial path.

Indeed, all of the work under review argues for a greater embrace of diy technologies and distribution in these troubled publishing times. But why take my word for it: why not visit Penn’s various websites at http://pennkemp.ca/, or the earlier, active site at http://www.mytown.ca/pennkemp and explore from there. You may wish also to check out PsychoSpace Sound at http://www.psychospace.com/ for a closer look at some of the collaborative poetry/performance production values possible out there in cyberland. Navigation is simple and there are lots of lively links worth exploring.

Pendas Productions/Gavin Stairs Fine Editions and PsychoSpace Sound are producing marvelous work you may not be able to find or order through your local bookstore or Chapters megalodont. Check them out.

Richard Stevenson lives and teaches in Lethbridge, AB. The most recent of his twenty works of poetry, jazz poetry performance, and creative non-fiction include a memoir, Riding On a Magpie Riff (forthcoming from Black Moss Press this fall), a children’s picture book in rhyming verse, Alex Anklebone & Andy The Dog (Bayeux Arts, 2005), a book of lyric/narrative poetry, Parrot With Tourette’s (Black Moss Palm Poets Series, 2004) and several collections of haiku, senryu, and tanka.

5 comments March 15th, 2006

Lunar Drift by Marlene Cookshaw

cookshaw lunar drift

Title: Lunar Drift
Author: Marlene Cookshaw
Publisher: Brick Books
Year: 2005
Pages: 75

Review by Richard Stevenson.

Let’s cut to the chase: Brick has been producing some of the best books of poetry in the country for a while now, and they do a fabulous job of presenting, distributing, and marketing them. Lunar Drift (2005) is a beautiful book, inside and out. The blue crosscut image of an aged tree, with its dark cracks running from pith to new growth timber – whether petrified or merely transformed by lunar light into a cement urban moon dial – is stark and powerful. The black end wrappers, fine paper stock, Sabon and Rotis fonts dignify, and grace the contents. Best of all: the contents deserve it.

Indeed, Lunar Drift is one of the finest books of poetry I’ve read this year. The poetry is extremely well crafted: mellifluous, rhythmic, and rich. Ms. Cookshaw sculpts her vernacular without making it a showy set of academic boilerplate, even when she takes on difficult set forms such as the sonnet or glosa. We buy the voice and careful observation of everyday incident; enjoy the rueful meditations, without having to stretch to accommodate the syntax or diction. So the seams are taken care of: we don’t have someone showing off or placing her ego and technique center stage. We can relax and warm to the poems as we contemplate our own middle age. It’s a small, good thing, poet Raymond Carver might have said; not easy, but smooth, and as reliable as a good single malt scotch.

Meditations on the history and methodology of measuring, maintaining, and managing time; it doesn’t sound like a prime time ticket item, I thought, initially, but Ms. Cookshaw manages more than her iambs and syntax; she explores the paths by which we’ve turned environment into real estate, segmented and parceled out our days, and she teaches us how to slow down and immerse ourselves in the rhythm of our natures and place in nature as well.

The evanescence and attempt to capture and account for time is clearly a time-honoured theme, but these poems are deft and reach beyond mere melancholy; they achieve a kind of zen-like grace of acquiescence and acceptance of the mortal grin and revel in life’s little pleasures while we’re noshing at Yorick’s.

Many of the poems begin in consideration of the historical inventions of various timepieces and from the earliest moments of recorded history – from 4241 BC, the first numbered date, through the river reed, waterwheel, and bronze dragon to the Great Astronomical clock of Strasbourg, from Sultan al-Rashid to Ptolemy climbing with his brass instrument into the dark. Yet these historical pieces surprise and delight in the way they wrest compound and extended metaphors from description and turn clever conceits into revelatory epiphanies, without ever becoming precious or self-consciously contrived:

… The further we withdraw from flux
the closer we clutch its measure, investing the intricate
works with sapphires, rubies, buying time, coining
privacy, inventing dislocation.
(“Pocketwatch” 26)


Then industry struck a deal with metal
and forged a mechanism strong enough
to ring the tower bells unaided. And so
the jacquemart, representing human interest,

re-membered us, our sounding of the gateway
in the analemmic loop – that twisted orbit – between
the guiding palm of the sun’s arc and
the seductive compensation of the moon’s.

We gave up attending to the pulse of time,
turnstiled it, focused on our labour. We left
unnoted the disturbance of the spirits of the air.
We left time to its own devices.
(“Stand In” 21)

Ms. Cookshaw’s collection is an ambitious work, succeeding in no less an enterprise than tracking the emergence of city states from clockwork mechanical and digital fragmentation of western consciousness, all the while that it seeks sanctuary in the rural, the langorous, the evanescent fragility of nature’s continuous refreshing aquifer and pulse beneath the concrete and steel. Indeed, it is the closely observed poems of the natural world that delight the most, and the fact that the poet lives close to nature on the relatively unspoiled Pender Island supplies plenty of poignant moments.

I like the way this poet can jump from 46 BC, the Year of Confusion, when the calendar makers added days to the year in an attempt to make the signs of the seasons and agricultural almanacs synch up with the newly invented concept of time to the organic but mathematically precise pleasures of a solo piano improvisation of Keith Jarrett without missing a beat. In strophe and distich, free verse quatrain and triplet; from nonce form to glosa, Cookshaw plays in the spaces between the grace notes like Jack DeJohnette plays the traps: no mere timekeeper, but a master musician and poet extraordinaire. With this book, she tells our best bards to shove over and assumes the space of a consummate lover between the sheets.

Richard Stevenson lives and teaches in Lethbridge, AB. His most recent collections are A Charm of Finches, Parrot With Tourette’s and Flicker in the Fascia.

Add comment March 13th, 2006

New Forums

Based on Alex’s recent comment, I thought it would be a good idea to set up a forum/bulletin board on the site where writers/readers can post upcoming readings and releases and share recommended readings with other users of the site.

The forums are hot out of the pan, so let me know if you experience any problems while using them. Also, if you have suggestions for forum categories, let me know by leaving a comment on this post.

Self-promote to your heart’s content!

Add comment March 13th, 2006

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