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Archive for March 13th, 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.

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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!

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Puti/White by Patria Rivera

coverPutiWhite

Title: Puti/White
Author: Patria Rivera
Publisher: Frontenac House
Year: 2005
Pages: 86

Reviewed by Robert Price.

We live in a world of surplus. The problem with surplus is one of displacement: too much of one thing excludes another. Eat too much and you’ll lose your swiftness. Listen to too much heavy metal and you’ll lose your sense of silence (unless you lose your hearing first). The same is true with poetry. Publish too many books and you’ll lose sight of the good stuff.

This is a problem for readers. Given a choice between a new book by a new poet, or a “classic” book by an established poet, I think most readers would choose safely and buy an established poet’s book.

The problem for readers is a problem for poets. How do poets make their work relevant to contemporary readers? With so many books to choose from, what can poets do to make readers care about their work?

I’m sure some people will argue that this is a problem with the readership. Surely, they may argue, readers must “work” to find value in what they choose to read. Not so. As I see it, there’s plenty in the world we could find meaningful, if we chose to. Like the tree outside my window. There’s lots of meaning in that tree if I chose to make the effort. But a tree isn’t a book of poetry; there’s supposed to be a reason for the book to exist. That’s the poet’s job to the reader.

This is a problem Patria Rivera seems to struggle with in Puti/White (Frontenac House 2005). Rivera’s best poems in Puti/White deliver a clear message in a clear form, yet allow the reader space to consider the questions she poses. A poem like “Suspicious Cargo” captures this balance of mood, meaning, form and thought. This poem collects the emotions of those involved in human smuggling rings. We hear from the captain of the ship who finds the suspicious cargo and we hear from the wife of a man who tried to smuggle himself out of China. This poem communicates a sense regret and injustice with strong images and poetic language. It’s a poem with something to say. It’s a poem that’s built in a way that allows the reader to consider larger questions.

Another fine poem is “1945.” While some of the prose poems in this collection come across as clumsy and unfinished, lyric poems like “1945” stand out as some of the better pieces. Take the cadence in the final stanza of “1945”:

Oh, how you loved to sleep in stairwells,
even after falling many times,
always dreaming of cowboys,
the gut of ropes and guns,
what the sun holds up close,
the thump of drums and horses.
(14)

Or examine the opening stanza of “G.E. Radio”:

This is the house Father built
On the edge of our small town.
A wooden house with a thatched roof
And nipa shingles all around.
(15)

“G.E. Radio” provides a glimpse into the thoughts of a child who wonders how a radio makes music. Are there people inside the radio? When the child removes the back from the radio she finds tubes and wires. It’s a poem with a sentiment most people can recognize, yet its form and simplicity give it a resonance.

These are just a few examples of good poems from a competent if plain spoken poet. Where this collection suffers is in the question I raised earlier: How does a book of poetry communicate its meaning to readers who have innumerable reasons not to care?

I think Rivera tries too hard to provide answers to rushed and inconsiderate readers. The first page of the book contains a preface that attempts to explain the purpose of the collection. I won’t repeat it here, but it seems to me to be unnecessary. It’s obvious from reading the poems that cultural identity is a major theme. Same with the glossary – the meanings of many of the foreign words are unnecessary to appreciating most of the poems in this book. Same with the prefatory remarks and epigraphs that explain (and clutter) many of the poems. All this hints at a hesitancy that undermines the efforts of the poet’s work. There are many good poems in Puti/White that can stand on their own. I wonder why Rivera isn’t more confident in this fact.

Perhaps this awkwardness comes from the autobiographical quality of Rivera’s poems. Clearly these poems are statements of her beliefs and snapshots of her experiences. It makes sense that Rivera would want to explain to the reader what’s happening so there’s no confusion about what she’s trying to tell us. But I don’t think the people who may get the most enjoyment from these poems – Filipino-Canadians who share many experiences with Rivera – need the long-winded explanations. They’ll get these poems. As individual poems, each serves as a meditation on what it means to belong to two cultures. Taken as a whole, this book of poems offers Rivera’s statement on what it means to come from another place and another time and to live with only memories of that other place.

Considerate readers will enjoy many of the poems included in Puti/White. Inconsiderate readers – those who would be turned off by the cover, for instance – will consider Puti/White surplus. That’s a shame because this book certainly has some poems that are worth reading.

Robert Price lives in Toronto.

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