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Archive for March, 2006

Puti/White by Patria Rivera


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.

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.

“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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Add comment March 13th, 2006

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Between the Silences by Diane Buchanan


Title: Between the Silences
Author: Diane Buchanan
Publisher: Frontenac House
Year: 2005
Pages: 75

Reviewed by Helen Zisimatos

Between the Silences (Frontenac House 2005), by Diane Buchanan, is devoted to courts and the legal system. With an echo of Foucault’s relations of power in the background, the book alerts us to the many different relationships between society and its members. The book, as a whole, is a sharp portrayal of various court cases, ranging from youth trials to family trials to murder trials to mental health cases.

Between the Silences, by Diane Buchanan, is a book devoted to courts and the legal system. With an echo of Foucault’s relations of power in the background, the book alerts us to the many different relationships between society and its members. The book, as a whole, is a sharp portrayal of various court cases, ranging from youth trials, family trials, murder trials and mental health cases.

Between the Silences begins with a representation of the courthouse as a kind of living entity with two mouths, two heads and three arteries. This “living” aspect of the courtroom suggests that, although it is an institution of law and order, it is “where the heart sits” (11), at the centre of society. But as a cold institution, one tends to find little heart in the court system. Things are not familiar, and those accused become “nobod[ies]” (17). The cold legality of the legal system is only surpassed by the cold violence of the different crimes.

Buchanan writes, “I cannot breathe. The courtroom is so full of pain” (29), in reference to incest in the poem “Prognosis.” In a poem regarding divorce, she says, “Death doesn’t always do the parting” (61). With such lines, the book encourages us to look inward to a deeper meaning, and asks us to question why the youths are so defiant, or why there is so much suffering. “There seems to be no common denominator for young offenders” (28), she writes, and, by extension, no common denominator, in general, for all the pain and abuse that occurs in society.

In the poem “Little Girl Lost,” Buchanan captures some of this injustice:

The little girl crawls out
from under the tables,
takes Daddy’s hand
then reaches across
that hostile space
to grab Mommy’s hand
and hangs there lost
in the uncertainty
of the in-between.

This uncertainty “between” father and mother speaks of the larger uncertainty between good and bad, or even life and death. It suggests that the space between is the unspoken silence of not knowing where one belongs. The book is aptly titled and reflects the theme of human versus society, and society’s endless tribulations and inability of its members to “speak.”

In the last section, entitled “With Due Care and Attention,” Buchanan presents us with the excellent poem, “The Judge’s Robe,” wherein she says, “It is from that robe that we seek direction” (69). She admits that “there’s power in a judge’s robe” (69), but that this power is not omnipotent. Although the judge has the power to convict, or to liberate, he is still, underneath the robe, just an ordinary person. Buchanan makes the strong statement, by quoting Shakespeare, that mercy is at the heart of the judge’s role in the legal system. And this ties the book back to the beginning where the courtroom is seen as possessing a heart. It may not always protect the members of society, but it should be merciful in the light of so much social chaos and injustice.

Buchanan offers good insights into the mechanics of the courthouse by presenting us poems on various cases, and writes poems in different forms so that the reader is not bored, but interested. Although one can make the claim that this book objectifies the people who suffer, it, nevertheless, gives a good, inside perspective on legal relations.

Helen Zisimatos has published poetry in journals across Canada and the US. Her poetry received honourable mention in The National Magazine Awards. She is editor of the poetry journal Vallum, and lives in Montreal.

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Add comment March 8th, 2006

Undone by Sue Goyette

goyette Undone

Title: Undone
Author: Sue Goyette
Publisher: Brick Books
Year: 2004
Pages: 155

On the surface, Sue Goyette’s Undone (Brick 2004) shares certain characteristics with Shawna Lemay’s Blue Feast (reviewed here): Both are intensely personal books; both deal in the currency of sadness and are affluent; both can be self-reflexive, referring to writing, and poetry, and writers; both are long books, as far as poetry collections are concerned. Where Undone separates itself, however, is in its conveyance of the emotions felt by the speaker. An evocative poem can make you shiver in your seat, and many of the poems in this collection do just that.

I saw Sue Goyette read from her first poetry collection, The True Names of Birds, in Fredericton in around 1999/2000. What I remember most about her reading is how honest she seemed, how real. What I mean is that she wasn’t a performer; she just seemed authentic. (She was also very funny, as I recall.) This is how I remember her poems, too – as having this same authenticity. In this regard, Undone does not disappoint; these are heartfelt, heartbreaking poems dealing with the aftereffects of a broken marriage:

Heartbreak is a geological occurrence. It takes years. Seams, faults
have slowly broken our days apart, their history dates all the way back
to the ocean floor.
(“A Version of Courage” 43)

What I notice most about these poems is how they make it so we cannot be indifferent to the loss the speaker describes; that is, despite the cultural ubiquity of divorce, of separation, of those who leave and are left, these poems still make us experience the related grief and emptiness and regret as fully as possible. A remarkable feat, I think.

Here [time] works its quietest skill of undoing,

of slowly sorting what to keep
and who to let go.
(“Patience” 141)

The whole book is a single story with many tangents, a life-narrative that moves from separation and loss to hope and the faint notion of recovery. Where the first section, “Forgotten,” sets the tone and begins the story, the next, “Kindred,” leaves the story and searches for companions (misery loves company?), real and imagined. Rich with allusions to writers and artists, the poems in this part of the book call on Shakespeare, Elizabeth Bishop, Margaret Laurence, Georgia O’Keefe, Mahler, Charlie Parker, Leo Tolstoy, and Snoopy:

It was a dark and stormy night. Every one
of his novels started with that line. He knew

how to live, dancing, abandoned,
head back, his feet a blur, a whirr of joy. He knew
we all have our own beginnings and they’re all the same.
(“Kindred” 61)

Snoopy aside, I prefer the narrative poems in the collection to the tangential ones. Perhaps I take a kind of voyeuristic pleasure from the narrative poems, but to me, they seem more honest, down to earth. The tangents can get philosophical, weighty, and too “poetic”; I have a hard time delighting in poems about poetry, or in allegory, or in characters who come across as falsely literary:

The woman, who as a child shared her cup

of water with the tree that gave her shade, will sing a soothing song
to the boy who ran in fright from the butterflies.
(“Wind Chill and the Absence of Trees in Mexico” 120)

The only other critique (if you want to call it that) I can really make about Undone is its lack of tonal variety. As the back of the books says, “These are sad poems, to be sure.” This isn’t a light collection you can breeze through in a single sitting; rather, you have to be patient, listen, and let the book’s grief work itself out in its own time.

There you go, he tells me,

there goes the ghost of you. Leaving has left.
(“Demystified” 147)

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.

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Add comment March 6th, 2006

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Continue Add comment March 2nd, 2006

[Retro Review] The Wireless Room by Shane Rhodes


Title: The Wireless Room
Author: Shane Rhodes
Publisher: NeWest Press
Year: 2000
Pages: 96

Shane Rhodes takes a lot of poetic risks in The Wireless Room (NeWest 2000). Rhodes is not governed by any one style, form, language, or theme; he is about variation, innovation, intelligence, and electricity.

In terms of metaphor, Rhodes’ writing is rich and evocative. His metaphors and similes can be brief and vivid (”a jet splits the sky, a scalpel in a Caesarian” [”Home Roads” 8]) or long and drawn out, as in “Twilight, Watervalley Hills” (11-12) in which, for the entirety of the poem, the hills are compared to the dialogue of a drunken uncle. These metaphors can also contain a lot of emotional intensity, as when the speaker of “Claims” says of his alcoholic father, “My father swallowed the 30 years before him / and everything after // in one big drink” (35). This is also true for the poem “Claim” in which the father figure is given several different identities throughout the course of the poem, the images piling one on top of the other at a rapid pace. In general, the metaphors and similes of Rhodes’ work are almost always “new,” not previously encountered in any other context. He compares very disparate things, a trait not uncommon in the work of poets like John Ashbery.

In terms of form, there seems to be no pattern to the poems, their structure relying possibly on subject matter and/or the poet’s whim. For example, “Clytaemnestra” (25-28) consists of two long stanzas, both of which are pressed to the left margin. Yet, in the poem sequence entitled “The Unified Field” (82-95), some of the pieces spread all across the page, barely contained. Rhodes is very good at both styles and seems to justify the use of both — which is to say, one does not question his tidy stanzas, nor the ones with words that drift across the page. In some of the poems, he also plays with line-breaks, not merely ending on a suggestive word, but sometimes breaking in the middle of the word without using a hyphen to warn the reader.

Rhodes really distinguishes himself from other poets in his use of grammar and syntax. Again, variation is key when considering the poems of this collection, for Rhodes doesn’t stick to a specific grammatical/syntactical style; i.e., in one poem, he may use full sentences with full punctuation, while in another he’ll use full sentences with no punctuation, while in yet another he’ll use incomplete sentences with (in)complete punctuation. As well, within any given poem, he’ll vary the length of his sentences between short, long, and medium lengths. He may also use a non-standard diction in his poetry and will play with language, depending on the given situation: the phrase “unbickerable exactitudes” and the word “Thrasonicle” in “Clytaemnestra,” or the entire poem “Meditation on the Electron” (46).

Perhaps it would be erroneous to say that this book contains only one voice, but that is how it seems. Other characters speak in this collection, but for the most part, they are filtered through the voice of the poet. However, there is a tremendous tonal range here, stretching from a kind of quiet seriousness (”The Unified Field” and “Claims”) to a more buoyant humour (the garden poems) and including everything in between. All in all, this is an excellent collection of poems.

Eric Barstad is the editor of PoetryReviews.ca. He’s posting a retro review because he hasn’t had time to write a new one.

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Add comment March 1st, 2006

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