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Archive for July, 2006

The Good Bacteria by Sharon Thesen


Title: The Good Bacteria
Author: Sharon Thesen
Publisher: House of Anansi
Year: 2006
Pages: 96

Review by Shane Neilson.

Often when reading poetry books, I’m moved. Moved to say, this is brilliant, or more often, moved to note, somewhat wraithlike, that this is atrocious. But then there are the flawed books, the ones ambitious in their conception but problematic in their execution, and Sharon Thesen’s The Good Bacteria emphatically falls into this middle category. Sometimes it’s these books which provoke the strongest reaction, the greatest disillusionment. So it is here.

The part of this book that deserves the most commentary is the eponymous first sequence, “The Good Bacteria.” It’s a kind of catch-all compendium that’s capricious in terms of its switches in subject matter. For example, I provide the following as a taste of its manic naming:

[The antibiotic] killed all the bacteria, good and bad, like death or God.
Though death, being a matter of bacteria, is also life.
It was easier to walk to Kamloops. (“1.” 11)

So, in three lines, we’ve played connect the dots (and that’s really all it is; there is no higher intelligence linking these disparate concepts) with bacteria, death, God, life, and of course, that humourous one about Kamloops, the place with the funny name. I keep asking myself: Why is this sequence necessary, why is it integral to the poem? The answer: It isn’t; it’s just another component amongst components.

Downright millennial in its anxieties, this sequence is a catalogue of menace and doom, albeit a rather superficial one. There’s not much narrative to hang one’s hat on, just a series of images and riffs that, for the most part, fail to accrue, for in the end I think Thesen is mainly out to strike a mood, seed an atmosphere, not really to write a coherent poem. The book’s back cover gives the game away, calling its contents a “layered meditation. ” In current parlance, this is basically an excuse that one needn’t write poems anymore; one need merely string a few highfalutin concepts together and have it suffice as a “meditation,” which, paradoxically, is code for meaninglessness. (There are themes, duly signified that one can pull out of the morass, sure, but a theme or themes do not make for meaning or meanings.)

What this meditation consists of – and I’m speaking here of “The Good Bacteria” the sequence — is empty constructs of vapid language. So much is trying to be said, so little memorably. Reading and rereading the sequence, scouring it for purpose, has left me in a bad mood. I look for “high talk,” I get cute pronouncement, sly smarty-pantsness. You can get an inkling of the profundity of the book from this excerpt, an extension from the previous quotation:

He lugged his own laptop; it was easier that way.
On his lap sat the known universe.
When he sat down, the known universe sat on his lap.
He could see anything that way on the way to Kamloops. (“1.” 11)

It’s saying nothing, really; it’s a misguided attempt at aphorism; it’s superficial cleverness. And the technique recalls automatic writing:

Perched on a pearl
leaf leaning out to see
insect heraldry. And to call
for a change in government. (“2.” 12)

Change in government? Where did that one come from? These random bits, haphazardly sewn together, belie technique; it is as if Thesen is splicing her poems together. And in case you’re wondering, I’m not quoting out of context; with Thesen, that’s precisely the problem: There is no context. Nothing in the poem suggests a government needed to be changed before the excerpt, and nothing after. It merely is.

On the brighter side, there is an attractive Delphic quality to her poems, an inscrutability borne of constitutive randomness (which may be me making a good thing out of a bad.) In the middle of a myth about the poet’s sister marrying a duck and living in an underwater house – Thesen is strongest at myth — an “electricity inspector/ peers at a gauge on the house wall and writes/ in his book” (“3.” 13). What does it mean? Hard to say, other than to intimate that, even in myth, the tentacles of the mundane can intrude. Or that, in Thesen’s world, there are ominous forces that are relentlessly counting, counting.

Perhaps this is unfair, but it’d be nice to know just what Thesen is for or against, yet on the evidence of this book, showing her cards is probably too old-fashioned for her as a meditative artist. “The Good Bacteria” is the poetry of attitude, or perhaps more precisely, of an oracular pose. But it’s a pose that can go on autopilot, when the clever thing is usurped by the banal thing:

                                             All the crying
and the carrying on, agencies like you wouldn’t
believe, all helpless. Infinite worlds. (“6.” 16)

This is all in soft focus. “Infinite worlds”? Isn’t it the job of the poet to convey infinite worlds, not just to refer to them? And the cliché of “like you wouldn’t/ believe” is enough to ruin a poem all by itself. Come to think of it, I haven’t found a single memorable utterance in this entire book; all there is to be found is a bloated free-float from topic to topic. Reading the sequences, rereading the sequences, I was hard-pressed to account for passages like this:

An orange popsicle was softening
in the grocery bag. While he sat in the café
among other songless birds
it melted, then liquefied, then vanished. (“8.” 18)

Just what is trying to be articulated here in this Ode to Popsicles? I’d venture: nothing much.

If I’m being hard on Thesen – and I guess I am — it’s because there are things to like in the book, and it makes me think that she can do much better. She has her own internally consistent language; only on occasion am I caught up short on her prosody, second-guessing her word-choice. Though I’ve questioned her direction, her subjects, I don’t think the craft’s to blame here. Nothing memorable is said because Thesen doesn’t allow herself to say anything memorable; it’s definitely not because she doesn’t have the capacity –the words, the order- to do so. There’s tons of potential in the following bit:

Small round islands crammed with tall trees,
toupees of underwater giants. On balder crowns
eagles rest hooded and quiet, hangmen
at lunchtime. (“6.” 16)

The images here — eagles as hangmen, trees as toupees — are fresh, their expression economical. In fact, I’d say that Thesen doesn’t ever take too long to express herself; there is little verbiage in a Thesen poem. Thesen is good with essence, again harkening back to my point that the poet is skilled with mood. But mood can only produce vague feeling in a reader; there needs to be something more to make it poetry, that art of charged cadence. It’s here — on the meaning side of the equation — that Thesen must linger in the future. Thesen has so much to comment on, or better yet invoke, but really so little to say.

That holds true for “A Holy Experiment,” the second sequence of the book and, on the whole, a much creakier performance. This is definitely a poetry of diminished expectations; what can one derive from breathless enjambment like the following:

We said goodbye beside the rental car in the rain. Along the path,
fierce little mottled apples strewn by the wind at the cemetery
the ashes of Frances beneath a fresh pile of dirt in the family
plot, a dozen granite headstones all saying MOTZ. (“1.” 25)

Careless in terms of line breaks, random even, one gets the sense they could have fallen anywhere, and did; heavy on the conveying of information – a woman died — without really evoking a feeling of sadness, which would be the expected thing to do; and abdicating any responsibility towards the sounds of poetry, lacking any inner music, all of these offend the sensibilities. But mostly, it’s that familiar failure to feel that really shipwrecks the sequence.

The third section of the book, containing individual poems, is titled “Relative to History” and it’s here that I hoped, on the smaller scale, that Thesen would shine; instead, all of the annoying traits already articulated kept appearing. “Hey I Think That’s Me” is descriptive domestic reportage; “Happy Hour” has a “whatever” in it and no, it’s not ironic, and in my book this constitutes a failure to create. If I had to use a single word to characterize these singles, it would be irrelevant. They’re glancing blows at life — a rather boring life at that.

I could go on and indict this book further, but really the flaws that are seeded in the first three sections fully flower in the later two. This irks me as a critic because I know, on the evidence of the poems themselves, that Thesen is capable of so much more; it’s as if she chose prattle over poetry. The only ambition of this book was to be inarticulate, and that ambition has been achieved. Next time out, would that Thesen acquire a subject that she cares about, that means something to her, that is emphatically not a “mediation” – a canard with currency in current Canadian Poetry — but rather necessitates a group of poems that cannot help but be kindled by her love. Take Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian’s advice: “An aesthetic intricately related to the human emotions is the only indispensible criteron for literary works.”

Shane Neilson is a writer from New Brunswick.

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Add comment July 25th, 2006

Jaguar Rain: The Margaret Mee Poems by Jan Conn


Title: Jaguar Rain: The Margaret Mee Poems
Author: Jan Conn
Publisher: Brick
Year: 2006
Pages: 112

Review by Jenna Butler.

Jaguar Rain: The Margaret Mee Poems is a sensual feast for the image-starved reader. Poet Jan Conn realizes the lush landscape of Brazil in vivid detail through the eyes of artist Margaret Mee, imbuing the poems with a vivid tapestry of scent, sound and colour. At the same time, Conn’s work is subtly underwritten by an awareness of the volatile nature of the landscape and of the painter/poet’s place in it.

Conn gives the reader no preamble; the leap into the Brazilian landscape is immediate and alienating, much as Mee found her initial forays into the forest to be. Not only are the surroundings quite different from anything the speaker in the poems has encountered before, but the contrast between alien and naturalized is suddenly reversed. Within a few short pages, the speaker comes to recognize that she has entered another culture expecting to find it alien to her, when she, in fact, is the stranger. Conn’s masterful hand at creating tone and subtly shading imagery allows her to reveal this dilemma early on in the book. This is reflected in the poem “The House of the Tapir,” where the forbidding description of the house itself reflects upon the dangers of entering a foreign landscape:

Into the House of the Tapir no one goes. Woven into its walls,
nightblack and amber motifs become anaconda gliding along a
branch of water, jaguar loping across the savannah. The shaman
waits at the entrance, in a dream or trance.

It is not merely the danger of entering such a landscape that Conn, through Mee, considers; rather, it is the heightened danger of being absorbed into the surroundings and being unable to leave intact.

Conn is very aware that, even as the landscape is utterly different from what Mee knows, it is also undergoing self-alienating changes in the form of contact with outsiders. This is evident in the poem “First Contact: Scissors” (23), wherein a Brazilian tribe gives up one of its traditions and much of its land in exchange for three pairs of scissors. This consciousness of the changes taking place within the landscape and the indigenous people themselves is evident throughout the book; the concept that alienation is internally as well as externally imposed.

It is the description and imagery, however, that truly set Jaguar Rain apart. Aided by Mee’s sketches of a number of the orchids she encountered in Brazil, Conn’s language possesses a richness and texture intensely suited to her subject matter:

In a small room with flint-blue walls, a woman
studies a rare orchid, its Nile-green leaves
propped open, lustrous. Smelling of damp,
her sketchbook opens beside her.
(“The Rain Holds Its Breath” 27)

There is a magic inherent in Conn’s words and in Mee’s illustrations; intimations of the otherworldly in a landscape redolent with the unfamiliar. Conn, through Mee, hints that there is a fine dividing line that holds one back from acknowledging the mysterious nature of a place populated by reclusive tribespeople, exotic plant life, and dangerous, vibrant animals. Stepping back from this dividing line is what keeps foreigners foreign; yet stepping over this line demands facing the very real possibility that one will become too much a part of this beautiful, violent landscape and become indistinguishable from it.

The form of a number of the poems in the collection reflects the lush, unbridled nature of Conn’s language and Mee’s artwork. Poems such as “For the Giant Anteater” (28) and, later, “Small Pink Nebulae” (38) and “Fish Leap toward the Moon” (58) take on almost a ghazal form; each line is able to stand alone, saturated with imagery and meaning. Taken together, the lines paint an exquisite picture of place.

Conn’s choice of imagery, too, is carefully calculated to reveal Mee’s journey to find a locus for herself in such a foreign landscape:

Days I watch wasps
construct paper nests like miniature pots,

the hinged lids ingenious. When the jaguar appears
I am nearly fearless: on the river bank I have discovered

the rare lemon-yellow beauty, Oncidium cebolleta. My terror now
is leaf-cutting ants. If they find the wooden racks I’ve built

for my orchids and bromeliads, they’ll devour my life.
(“Aripuana” 34)

Flawlessly, Conn reveals the way in which major concerns for safety and familiarity all but vanish in the face of day-to-day living in such a vast landscape. Conn leaves the reader with the sense that this is a survival tactic: in the face of a vast wilderness where death is an ever-present threat, to dwell on mortality is to attempt to remove oneself from reality. The only way in which one can go on, and, indeed, the only way in which an outsider can hope to truly experience the culture and surroundings of the Brazilian forests, is to simply contend with the daily concerns of living. Death, when and how it arrives, is beyond any one person’s hands in this landscape. Mee’s acceptance of this reality quickly becomes evident:

In the dark hollows at the base of the tree
the bushmaster, sleek and cool

glides through the undergrowth,
King of the Amazon.
His bite is fatal. What I want is nothing to him.
(“King of the Amazon” 40)

There is exceptional beauty in the Brazilian landscape, but negotiating it has an accepted price. Conn returns to this reality throughout the collection: incredible beauty superimposed upon intense hardship.

Within this landscape of contrasts, Mee faces a dilemma of her own. The landscape has a reductive ability to break people down into their component desires and fears:

I thought I resembled a flower,
silk, raw silk, but unraveling, petal
after petal. Down to the core.
(“Mountain of Mist and Cloud” 45)

Mee begins to question her presence in the forest, and to wonder whether she is truly in search of exotic orchids or something deeper, something internal.

At the same time, the people around Mee are facing identity issues of their own. In “Pico da Neblina” (46), Rafael, a young man, renounces the new Christian God after the death of his father. Because the new God could not save Rafael’s father, the young man is unable to reconcile himself to the worship of this deity. Instead, grieving, he returns to the spirits and tribal deities he grew up with. He becomes haunted, not only by the ghost of his father, but by the burden of tribal history he carries in the face of the new religion being transmitted into the Brazilian forests by foreigners. Conn, like Mee, is extremely cognizant of the inroads made by the religion of foreign explorers and missionaries into the traditional life and history of the forest tribes.

Indeed, while the book is partly a celebration of the beauty and richness of the Brazilian forests, it is also a way of grieving for that which has been taken or has faded. In “The Santa Casa” (48), Conn explores, through imagery, a variety of types of mourning: a room redolent of the suffering of an epidemic, the panic of wild animals trapped by foreign visitors, a subtle loss of history as old ways of life are overtaken by new, and death itself. Just as individual people die during the course of the book, so do traditional methods of living; just as mourning fails to retrieve lost loved ones, no amount of invocation will bring the old ways back.

What can one do, then, Conn (and Mee) seem to suggest, but go on? It is the struggle that holds the value, in the face of everything that opposes it. If one sees only dark and decay, then that is the way the future will turn. Survival in the Brazilian forests is in the minutiae; in the beauty of the plant and animal life, in the security of simple routines. After all, death is omnipresent in this landscape.

Instead of fostering a sense of dismay in the reader because of the death and destruction inherent in so much of the book, Conn skillfully manages to unseat despair with the creation of a strong sense of hope. The poems in this collection are underwritten with a wry sense of humour, a mixture of Conn’s and Mee’s observations. Yes, the poems possess an intense consciousness of mortality and transience, the awareness of cycles in nature. Above all, though, this collection possesses an incredible sense of the possibility of renewal:

Here, the spirits live close to the ground, in the coati
with his marvelous silver-and-black-striped tail, in the curious

waistcoat of the armadillo. And at the end of every day,
the wind and the roar of the rapids carry everything away.
(“The Curious Waistcoat of the Armadillo” 50)

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.

Add comment July 19th, 2006

Worthy of His Fall by Richard Harrison


Title: Worthy of His Fall
Author: Richard Harrison
Publisher: Wolsak & Wynn
Year: 2005
Pages: 78

Review by Liam Ford.

Like the kukri knife that adorns its cover, the poems of Worthy of His Fall by Richard Harrison are keen, precise, and dangerous. His political poems are not meant to be, nor are they, beautiful: “This is a political poem, so / don’t expect beauty” (”Warnography” 1-2). Unfortunately, the political poems make unwieldy weapons. They entrench themselves in the language of the war on terror, name-dropping Bush and Rumsfeld, bin Laden and Hussein. The language, to use Di Brandt’s words (from the back cover) to refute her own comments, is “militant patriarchal monotheism.”

The speaker attempts to reconcile modern ideas of fatherhood with what he learned from his own father. In “Song for the Lesser Giant,” he quotes his daughter singing “a song of all things / missing their essential parts” (2-3). At the end, he chooses to italicize “a father without the yell” (33) as if to emphasize that he cannot conceive of being a father without raising his voice. The voice of the speaker’s father also appears in other poems, at one point informing the reader that “Anyone who marches is an army.” In the poem of the same title, the speaker describes a “father on TV pointing / towards his bombed-out house” who, despite

all the terms
this man could choose to send his message
to what remains of the world as he passes
before its bottled eye, he chooses the political.
(29-30, 32-35)

The speaker seems to criticize the father on TV for choosing the political, but is guilty of the same sin, adopting the language of conflict, opposition and war from his own father. The “militant patriarchalism” of the political poems is the downfall of this volume.

It is in the non-political poems, those about fatherhood, love, and spirituality, where the book, like the knife — “Notched at the hilt / where the priest had let the sacred in” (”On My Father’s Hands” 24-25) — is to be seen as something unique and extraordinary, to be exalted. As much as the speaker, in various poems, wrangles over the role of the father, the meaning of faith, the inability of words to truly capture what they describe, he finds certainty in the indestructible elements of life — birth, love, death. In “Heaven,” the speaker imagines his father in the bath, “alone and naked / in the water, ready for his heaven” (9-11). Whether heaven exists or not, whether his father lived rightly or not, is unimportant. The poet boldly creates heaven with his hand, and into it he allows his father to slip.

Harrison reveals beauty in death and we understand there are some things that can only be captured in words, and in times of war it is in the sanctuary of these words — love, faith, heaven — that we find whatever solace we can.

Liam Ford lives in Coquitlam, BC. Hi Mom & Dad!

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Add comment July 15th, 2006

Two Chapbooks from Leaf Press

leaf press

Review by Richard Stevenson.

Sometimes good things come in small packages. Sometimes that small package means a small print run poetry chapbook of a hundred copies, of which fifty are signed by the author. Sometimes that small package comes hand-stitched, with lovely gift-like end wrappers, a fancy font on the cover, highly readable and serviceable text font inside, gorgeous cover illustration and spot colophons. Sometimes it arrives as a handy 4 ¼-inch by 5 ½-inch pocket size edition in a glassine envelope.

I often find myself cringing at a poetry reading when someone comes up to the merch table afterwards to inquire about the price of my latest full-length book, and I have to say $15 or, increasingly, $20. Among poets, I know I’m not alone. Occasional poetry readers don’t really get the pricing logistics of small print runs or trade editions of skinny books as opposed to the cost of mega-run paperbacks either, though they’ll concede that better quality paper ought to cost a little more than pulp. Sometimes that twenty bucks is just too rich for the poetry-loving patron of the arts. Poetry readers, by and large, don’t come from the upper echelons of corporate capitalist society, after all, and aren’t particularly flush. At ten bucks a pop, then, Leaf Editions’ chapbook series offers good value for the impoverished wannabe poet or student intent on keeping up with the Canadian poetry scene.

The arty chapbook makes a nice souvenir to take away from a reading, and a nice entry point for younger poets intent on making their mark as well. Poets can hone their craft and offer the quintessence of their work on the way up the slippery slope of Parnassus, and have several chapbooks to offer at a reading before they get to the way station of that all-important (prize-winning) first full-length book. More and more often, that contest-winning ms is the only entry-point left for fledgling poets wanting a full-length collection too, unless they submit to the e-book, vanity, or print-on-demand options, or start their own press and publish their books themselves. Stalwarts like Margaret Atwood and Al Purdy paid for their own first books, after all, so it’s a legitimate avenue. Besides, how are you supposed to get anyone to sit up and take notice when the audience is so small to begin with, and hundreds, if not thousands, of good poets are swimming the various channels among handsome journals, print and e-zines, among schools of bigger fish. The micro- and small presses eventually establish a stable of poets they feel they should support, and first-book slots are going the way of the dodo. Most small presses have to diversify their lists to stay afloat, and, even then, the Mandarin hand of the Canada Council is fickle come feeding time. I know: it’s just happened to me after having a first novel accepted by a new small press not yet on the block grant program, after having published twenty other books!

So chapbooks make sense. They may even make better sense than poetry books, but for the awkward fact that Unesco only recognizes 48 pages as a book, and only serious literary bookstores stock them, mostly on consignment. So they’re better than vanity press books, but appear fitfully at the lower end of the feeding chain, and chapbook poets have to swim very hard and fast and hang near spiny urchins and coral reefs to avoid being swallowed whole by the yawning groupers among us.

That’s why it’s so important that wannabe poets support such valiant enterprises as Leaf Press from the tiny hamlet of Lantzville, just outside of Nanaimo, and why the serious poetry addicts and publishers among us are looking at different distribution schemes like web site sales and subscription publishing.

A few words about Leaf Press then, before I get to the two sample chapbooks the editor was kind enough to send me for review.

Clearly Leaf Press is a labour of love. Equally clearly, publisher/editor Ursula Vaira is on a mission – to “publish chapbooks by new and established poets,” according to the web site “about us” page. I want to add, “in lovely, limited, and lovingly-produced editions.”

The web site – www.leafpress.ca — offers a weekly Monday poem slot and a substantial back list of titles. The site is handsome, expertly designed too: a model, in fact, of how a chapbook press ought to be run. Pay them a visit and consider making a serious donation or placing an online order then: plenty of excellent poetry can be had there, and you’ll be keeping the trigger fish, who specialize in pulling the spines from those protective urchins, at bay.

So much for the long preamble and diatribe about the rigours of small press publishing. What about the work of the poets at hand? Does the poetry warrant the loving care and attention?

Letter From India CoverWell, yes and no. Poet Candice May wrote A Letter From India, her one-poem work, while living in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains when she was twenty years old. It is typical of a lot of apprentice work by younger poets: urgent, unabashed, full of lovely images and metaphors; and, yes, it makes a strong poetic statement about local, civil war: that once one has lived in a so-called Third World country and has had to cope with bad water, parasites, has seen extreme poverty up close and personal, and learned to appreciate the extremely complicated politics and religious ambiguities associated with internecine conflicts, it is obscene to talk about their war or our war, or to talk in terms of avoiding trouble spots, and confining one’s tourist adventures to “safe” terrain. The war is as much an ongoing, mobile conflict concerned with class struggle and the inequities of global capitalism/consumerism, as it is local, and, therefore, unavoidable. We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us, to paraphrase a line from the Pogo comic strip.

The poet uses the ragged free verse strophe Purdy made popular and relies on the rhetorical question and anaphora to structure her lines and strophes. It works well, and the poet’s lines are generally rhythmic and melodic, but a kind of sentimental tendentiousness of preaching to the converted creeps in too.

Shadow Cranes CoverPoet Svetlana Ischenko immigrated to Canada in 2001 from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, and had published two books in Ukraine, Chorales of Heaven and Earth (Vyr Publishing House, Kyiv, 1995) and B-Sharp (Mozhlivosti of Kimmeria Publishers, Mykolaiv, 1998), and had been anthologized in a volume of young Ukranian poets in 2000. In addition, her English language poems had begun to appear in some of Canada’s best literary magazines and a couple of micro press anthologies, including one from Leaf Editions, before appearing here.

According to the cover note, in Ukrainian culture, the crane represents freedom, purity of heart, peace. A pair of mated cranes symbolizes a loving couple that is free to fly but comes back to its home every spring, no matter how far it has travelled. The reader will see immediately where this is going, metaphorically speaking.

Most of the poems are untitled and form a loose sequence separated by three-asterisk breaks; the last two are titled. Again, we’re dealing with open form strophes held together with anaphora, metaphor and symbolism.

Ms Ischenko is a romantic poet. Often the metaphors work and draw us deeper into the poet’s conflicted émigré world; we hear her yearning for a genus loci, a great love to sustain her – not just the passion for a life-long mate and attentive lover, but for a “nest,” a second home she understands in her bones, one she can orbit around or stray great distances from as she returns to visit the old world:

The rain creeps out of the ocean
like a lover in the night.
The river allows the lover
into her fresh mouth
and touching him with her tongue
shapes him in her bosom into flint
that sparks coldly their words of love
in the language of the trees, …

Occasionally, second-language problems rear up: “the sound of a wind edged and flecked… .” The synaesthesia of a colour-flecked wind is a bit of a stretch. Over all, though, the language is fresh and invigorating and the poet’s control of the ebb and flow – the cadence — of her lines sure-footed and true.

I look forward to reading more work by both poets here. Moreover, I’m happy to say Leaf Press is in excellent hands. Anyone looking for a lovely gift for a friend, or, indeed, just wishing to drop in to scope out what some of our better established poets – John B. Lee, Allan Brown, April Bulmer, Winona Baker, John Pass, etc. — and interesting newcomers, are up to in the moment, need look no further than Lantzville and Leaf Press for poetic inspiration.

Richard Stevenson lives, teaches, and writes in Lethbridge, Alberta. Recent publications — full-length and chapbook works — include A Charm of Finches: Haiku, Senryu, and Tanka ( Ekstasis Editions, 2004), Parrot With Tourette’s (Black Moss Palm Poets Series, 2004), Flicker At The Fascia (Serengeti Press, 2005), and Tempus Fugit: Improvisations for Miles Davis (Laurel Reed Books, 2005). He has another collection of haiku and a memoir forthcoming in 2006.

Add comment July 12th, 2006

Creamsicle Stick Shivs by John Stiles


Title: Creamsicle Stick Shivs
Author: John Stiles
Publisher: Insomniac Press
Year: 2006
Pages: 72

Review by Greg Santos

John Stiles’ second collection of poetry, Creamsicle Stick Shivs, is an enjoyable read particularly due to Stiles’ delight in language, humour, and unique observations. Split up into three sections, the book chronicles the poet’s movements from Canada’s east coast to Toronto and finally England.

The first section is the most linguistically interesting of the book. Stiles uses colloquial dialect from Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley to great effect, bringing characters to life in brief pieces that sparkle with energy. Take for instance these lines from “Halifax Snowstorm”:

Well, it’s true: I do stand like a soldier in the parking lot
with yer grocery bags. But Jesus girl, wouldja take off
yer goddamned top en let that stunning church of a tit
fall out your blouse, so we can turn our heads en waltz
like two goddamned lovestruck swans cross the rooftop
in this glorious Halifax Snowstorm?

Also included is “New Pile for Road” which includes this strong opening stanza:

Down the dykes the Caterpillar and Mac truck
are in union: sand and muck slung down
a wave from a bored man in cab to a quarry.
          Dig. Dug. Done.

The words “sand”, “muck”, “slung”, “dig”, “dug”, and so on, are terse and mimic the rhythms of digging. The musicality and theatrical nature of these poems make it is easy to see why many of them have been performed by Stiles in clubs, bars, and cafés; one can imagine them being instant crowd pleasers.

Taken out of Nova Scotia and into the urban core of Toronto, the middle section however, is not as linguistically daring or playful as the first. This is not to say that the poems are not interesting; there are some quality pieces, such as “Poplars”:

Even when I was young I was caught staring at the girls.
I used to show off on the teeder-todder in the schoolyard
near the wood of poplars. Love hearts etched into the
black ridges of smoke, skinny trees that crowned the

soccer pitch like wild hair…

In this piece, the speaker is reminiscing about the past while trying to gain footing in a new environment. It feels as if he is struggling to find himself in Toronto’s vast urban landscape but is unable to do so and this uncertainty is reflected in these poems. There weren’t many that stuck with me this time around.

The last section, “Meritimer in England,” may not have the same linguistic sparkle as the first but it is still mature and satisfying.

About the money, things are tense,
so the dishes are done very slowly,
so beautiful and savage in a vest.

My dark-haired wife, tears in the sink,
someone is waiting to crack,
which one might that be?

I can tell you I feel like I’m sandwiched
between a miserable person
and a happy-go-lucky layabout.
(“Oh, About the money” 43)

In poems like “Oh, About the Money” and “Happy Till Your Wife Gets a Job in a Bar,” the speaker is dealing with a new marriage in a foreign country and it is here where Stiles shines with his quirky observations on people, places, and relationships.

Now that I’ve read Creamsicle Stick Shivs, I hope to one day get a chance to fly to England so I can catch one of his spirited readings at a pub and wish him a boisterous, “how yah doon?”

Greg Santos is a Montreal based poet/writer/artist. Read his blog at http://moondoggy.blogspot.com.

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1 comment July 4th, 2006

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