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Archive for April, 2007

Three Books from Inkling Press

three covers

Title: Hitchhiking in the Hospital (2005)
Drops From Her Umbrella (2006)
Speaking Flowers (2005)
Author: Shirley A. Serviss
Laura Maffei
E.D. Blodgett
Publisher: Inkling Press

Review by Richard Stevenson.

Inkling Press is one of those wonderful micro presses that arise from time to time out of a perceived need among the local literati for a creative non-profit publishing company that specializes in books which have a limited market. In this instance, editor E.D. Blodgett, Professor Emeritus of The University of Alberta, has convened an able Board of Directors that looks at the work of poets ready to publish their second or third book. Moreover, Inkling always works with a sponsor/author with whom the financial responsibility is, more or less, equally shared.

That doesn’t make Inkling a vanity house. In fact, the opposite is true: as both authors and editors have a vested interest in the product, great care is taken in both the editing and production. Indeed, in some instances, Inkling operates in conjunction with its affiliate, Magpie Productions, to produce high quality ancillary CDs. Indeed, it was the excellent anthology and CD package, Countless Leaves, a collection of award-winning and commended poems from the North American Tanka contest conducted in 2001 that first drew my attention to this press.

Before my readers and fellow poets get too excited about a new press that somehow escaped their radar, however, let me hasten to add the notion that unsolicited submissions are not encouraged. Queries, yes; full-length mss no.

But on to the poets!

Hitchhiking in the Hospital by Shirley A. Serviss

Shirley A. Serviss is a writer, editor, writing instructor and Artist-on-the-Wards at the University of Alberta Hospital. Her first poetry collection, Model Families (Rowan Books, 1992) was short-listed for Alberta Book of the Year. Her second collection, Reading Between the Lines (Rowan Books, 2000), was nominated for the City of Edmonton Book Prize and was awarded the Canadian Authors Association’s Exporting Alberta Award. This, her third full-length collection, focuses on her search for meaning and the healing capacity of poetry in an acute-care hospital.

Serviceable is the first word that comes to mind, if you’ll pardon the terrible pun, for the poems here are, for the most part, no-nonsense anecdotal realist pieces that “score” their effects with a well-timed ironic parting shot or image; they don’t get bogged down in the materiality of language or indulge in metaphor or indirection for their own sake. I get the impression that Ms Serviss would make a great nurse because the added value of good listening skills and empathy run throughout the text. Ms. Serviss is a poet you can trust, just as I assume her patients trust her with their sad tales and confessions, or her direct observations.

The art here is in the concision and timing. The lines are terse, the few metaphors and similes carefully chosen to undergird the narrative or close the focal distance on a telling and apt detail. Here’s “Magician’s assistant” in its entirety:

She could have become a magician’s assistant,
parading lovely long limbs across
the stage, slipping nimbly into boxes
to be sawed in half, merging intact to the
applause and amazement of audiences
all over America.

So where is the magician now, when
even the surgeon can’t cut her apart
and make her whole. What kind of trick is this
to operate for gall bladder and discover
tumor after tumor like an endless
string of scarves.
(p. 9)

The assonance of those soft i sounds in the first stanza, combined with the gazelle-like gait of alliteration afforded by the l sounds in lovely long limbs is mellifluous and beautiful – and sets us up nicely for the horror of the metastases image in the closing stanza.

Nonce form free verse, shape poems, prose snippets, triplets, distiches, numbered imagist sequences, even an open form (multiple margin) free verse poem that echoes the shape and subtle dance of patient and IV pole walking down the hospital corridor: the poet ably experiments with a number of different forms and stanza patterns that hold the reader’s interest throughout. This is no-nonsense poetry, supple and pleasing to the eye and ear. A sustained performance and rewarding read. Most of the poems don’t run to a full page, yet almost every poem delivers a sudden sharp close-up or ironic understatement. This is a book full of compassion and wisdom.

Drops From Her Umbrella by Laura Maffei

Laura Maffei’s first collection of tanka is also excellent. A long-time editor of one of the best tanka journals in North America, American Tanka, Ms Maffei holds a B.A. from SUNY-Binghamton and M.A. and MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. She has worked as a technical writer, a corporate “communications specialist,” and a teacher of literature and writing at various US colleges and universities. No denizen of the musty stacks, however, Ms. Maffei is a poet of the quotidian, the domestic; a poet of nature and relationships. Her mastery of the form allows her to pare the traditional 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern down to an even more abbreviated poem, and she likes to experiment with the distribution of stress and placement of long and short lines. Likewise, she often abandons the bipartite construction familiar to readers of haiku and senryu, in favor of continuous syntax. In each poem, however, she delivers an extreme close-up or bon mot or subtle surprise that makes us smile in recognition:

my neighbour
plays his guitar
through the wall
and I am three chords
less lonely
(p. 84)


how much laundry
is too much?
the dark tangle
of many sleeves
inside the machine
(p. 46)

That second tanka could almost be an ars poetica: the movement from literal image to metaphor is subtle and arresting, invites many interpretations. Vive the extra two lines on the haiku, I say. Sometimes it allows the poet that little extra breathing space and those precious extra words, so that she’s not forced to squeeze an epiphany out of the juxtaposition of meagre phrase and fragment; sometimes, however, she achieves the concision of haiku regardless:

in a new cemetery
how deeply
each letter of each name
is cut
(p. 89)

The poet’s line breaks, rhythmic control, and timing are impeccable.

The book is divided into five sections: “Office Job,” “Infant Batman,” “One Leg Unshaved,” “Chalk Dust,” and “Summer of Nipples.” Together, as one critic has pointed out, they comprise a memoir of sorts. Nice trick that. I suspect the poet has done a lot of winnowing to come up with such a gallery of telling portraits.

Speaking Flowers by E.D. Blodgett

Finally, we come to series editor E.D. Blogett’s “nontraduction” of the book Ce que dissent les fleurs by Quebecois poet Jacques Brault, Speaking Flowers.

What’s a non-traduction, you ask, and why would the poet leave the term untranslated?

A non-translation, except that the book is a translation of sorts, the poet explains in his afterword; left as is in homage to the poet. The process, near as I can gather from the poet’s fascinating explanation, is rather like Robert Lowell’s transliteration: that is to say, the object is not so much to render the most precise trot one can muster, but to incorporate elements of homolinguistic translation and come up with original poetry that is faithful to the spirit of the original, not just in the denotative and connotative aspects of the target tongue, but also to body forth the same, or proximate rhythm, melody, and metaphoric reach. The process is all about reaching beyond the quotidian; to widen the area of reference and make the new poem work on its own terms in its own language.

One begins in precision, but one doesn’t stop there. Better to seek cognate sounds than bog down in prosaic trots: the poetry must be at least as interesting and suggestive as the original. To give an example, one could translate the words arachnéenne chimère (spidery chimaera) as spidery shimmer. (I’m working from the author’s epilogue here; my own French is restricted to what I remember from high school – not much!)

But what of Blodgett’s poetry then? Gnomic is the first word I’d reach for here. That is to say, the poetry is more metaphoric and suggestive, less descriptive of externals than the work of the previous two poets under discussion. While drawing from the same deep well of imagistic, haikai technique – that is from concrete perception, tight phrasing, image juxtaposition — we’re not restricted to perception or verisimilitude. Each page after the initial single distich epigraph features two distiches that leap playfully between literal context and metaphysical image:

spidery shimmer the dandelion
frees into the air its spore

clouds over a world carrying before
more clearly the fire haunting the cold

The lack of traditional punctuation allows for lexical and syntactic ambiguities to occur, while maximizing the suggestive capacity of the imagery. This requires more work of the reader, of course, but the generous spacing of two distiches a page, coupled with the Chinese ideogram at the foot of the page representing, but not directly portraying, a particular flower, allows the imagination more free reign.

The individual pages work like little symbolist poems, but the whole can also be read rather in the manner of a Persian ghazal – as discontinuous distiches held together by tone rather than narrative continuity. In short, this is a small book – less than sixty pages, counting the six-page afterword/epilogue and French original which comes after it rather than enface, but not a slight book. The reader will find him- or herself returning to ponder each distich carefully again and again, without exhausting the penumbra of reference.

Inkling Press then: a noble experiment that is exploring some of the back tributaries of mainstream Canadian poetry, and doing it well. Would that more literary presses in Canada would explore the possibilities of the haikai tradition, or take the time to produce books whose design so nicely compliments the contents. Inkling doesn’t yet have a substantial backlist of titles, but nor is it hidebound by a particular poetic. I’ve liked everything I’ve seen, including the three titles here.

Richard Stevenson lives in Lethbridge, Alberta, and teaches Canadian Literature, Creative Writing, Composition, and Business Communication at Lethbridge College. His most recent books include a memoir, Riding on a Magpie Riff ( Black Moss Press, Settlements Series, 2006), and two books of lyric/narrative poems, Parrot With Tourette’s ( Black Moss Press, Palm Poets Series, 2006) and Bye Bye Blackbird: An Elegiac Sequence for Miles Davis (Ekstasis Editions, 2007). He has a couple of books of haiku, senryu, and tanka scheduled to appear later this year.

Add comment April 24th, 2007

Near Cooper Marsh by Jesse Ferguson

Near Cooper Marsh Cover  April 16  2007

Title: Near Cooper Marsh
Author: Jesse Ferguson
Publisher: Friday Circle (U of O)
Year: 2006
Pages: 15

Review by Rob Taylor

The simple fact that this review is written for an online audience greatly increases the chances that you will have already heard of Fredericton (formerly Ottawa)-based poet Jesse Ferguson. Amongst the plethora of poets whose work has found a strong footing in online and small-press publications, Ferguson is near the top of the list in both quantity and quality. To attest to this one need look no further than the acknowledgements page of his chapbook Near Cooper Marsh, which notes that the fifteen poems in the collection have been published in no fewer than ten small-press magazines.

It is therefore in keeping that Near Cooper Marsh itself has been published online (http://www.fridaycircle.uottawa.ca/ferguson/ii-6-main.html) as part of the Friday Circle Chapbook Series out of the University of Ottawa’s Creative Writing Program. I encourage you to follow the link and read the poems yourself. If you do, you will find a collection of work that deals with ‘nature’ in the truest sense of the word - not a pristine, untouched wilderness, but a muddy place of intersect between humans and the environment.

The title and cover photo (a boardwalk slicing through the middle of a marsh) of Near Cooper Marsh set the stage, as all good titles and covers should, for the themes of the poems themselves - wildness, civility, and a proximity to things both beautiful and unsettling. The poems then expand upon these ideas, as in “Beer and Rock Bass”:

once, I wormed my finger
into the peapod rib cage
of a rock bass, so deep
that when I retrieved it
autumn had come

and “The Creek Behind My House”:

clay holds on
          to your boots
and as you squirm free
          smacks its chops
like a smiling boy
          hungry for hotdogs
picking souvenir leeches
          from his winter-white legs


At their best, the poems in Near Cooper’s Marsh capture the essence of the in-between world of ‘nature’ with an understated care. While some of the poems lack the subtle edge that gives the collection its charm, most get it right, and when they do, as in “Goldfinches Near Cooper Marsh,” they exude a particular sense of magic that, like nature itself, is both complicated and pure:

Goldfinches Near Cooper Marsh

dozens of saffron
                    sky bound bubbles

bursting above
                    a sunflower field

	       flight paths

	       a champagne sky

Near Cooper Marsh is a chapbook that deserves to be read far more widely than the average chapbook can ever hope to be, and thankfully, as with much of Ferguson’s work in small-press magazines, its online component makes this possible. But don’t take my word for it, click on the link and see for yourself.

Rob Taylor lives in Port Moody, BC and recently released his first chapbook splattered earth. He just learned how this blog thing worked and is giving it a shot: rollofnickels.blogspot.com.

Add comment April 16th, 2007

This Way the Road by Nina Berkhout


Title: This Way the Road
Author: Nina Berkhout
Publisher: NeWest Press
Year: 2005
Pages: 85

Review by Jenna Butler.

Nina Berkhout’s This Way the Road is a perceptive, beautifully-written collection concerning love, tragedy (both historical and personal), and humankind’s ability to inhabit the past. Focusing specifically on the worlds of art and museums, the collection explores one couple’s love relationship and the ways in which the past may continue to be an occupied space long after actual historical events are over.

The collection centers around one event in particular: the explosion of the Hindenburg airship. As the surface narrative of the love relationship between Helen, a caption-writer for museum displays, and Jules, an artist, is developed, the story of the Hindenburg flavors everything with a distinct air of tragedy:

A glass artifact falls from scaffolding.

Crashing onto the floor
like a thousand windchimes cracking,

tumbling a nightingale at my feet.
(“Down comes what went up” 2)

Helen, ensconced by day in the world of the past, is entranced and saddened by the way history is selectively celebrated, displayed, and then returned to cold storage after its moment of fame has passed. During the preparation of an exhibition about the Hindenburg, she meets and falls in love with Jules, an artist of dubious temperament and undeniable appeal. His work centers upon coating found objects, generally from the past, with layer upon layer, until the original objects become quite obscured. Helen and Jules’ shared fondness for the past, and their desire that it not be forgotten, forms an instant bond. Their love is a thing of brightness and beauty tinged with unavoidable melancholy – the impossible flight of the behemoth Hindenburg like an improbable metal bumblebee; the comet-like fall of Phaeton as he streaks across the heavens to his doom.

Didn’t take long he was no common bird
no one night stand no jet of exhaust rapidly evaporating

Jules Murano was no paper cut healing within the hour

couldn’t drift away like a bored balloon
as I did with other lovers, he embedded himself

in my veins like a sand spec landing in molten glass
before it solidifies.
(“Pulling on my tendons as if cables of a hot air balloon” 12)

There is a curious sense throughout the collection of Helen and Jules’ relationship gaining a sepia tint over time, bleaching out, until their life together is as colorless and bland as the layered white objets d’art that Jules creates:

He only paints white

until the object beneath solidifies into a ghostly (ghastly
says Anna, why not just papier mâché) form
(“Preparing another still life” 13)

Whereas Helen is fascinated by the process of bringing static history to life again through her displays, Jules is actively engaged in creating the past. His art is completely focused on the preservation of objects, whether antiques or items of everyday use, and all preserved in blinding white. His belief is that white, like cold, like the north, can preserve objects and history from decay and from being forgotten:

— Jules I hate the cold, bad circulation you know that,
why this obsession with all things north?
— cold preserves, time won’t pass we won’t –
(“Don’t tell me you were layering” 21)

Just as being with Jules requires Helen to bleach the color out of her life, even to the point where Jules controls what she wears in an attempt to preserve his sterile working environment and Spartan mindset, Jules himself is fragile and suffering:

[…] You know,
Helen, a free-floating iceberg isn’t stable. Fact is, bergs flip
without warning. Saw it on National Geographic.
(“Anna in her studio, blowing technicolor bulbs” 24)

It’s part of the irresistible beauty of this book that the reader knows from the start what will happen to Helen and Jules; the underlying narrative of the Hindenburg tragedy is too strong for the reader to remain unaware. It is, however, a testament to Berkhout’s rare skill as a poet that she creates in her audience a sense of mourning and loss in spite of our knowing from the start the outcome of the story:

[…] we know

what happens to Jules and to Helen, see
the featherlamp blazing, Jules crouching in a corner
drinking something clear as hydrogen,
howling at the reddening sun like a loup garou.

So hang on to your skyhorse.
(“Ghost time our time to burn” 38)

History is something tangible, Berkhout implies, something that exists in far more than relics of clothing, china, faded photographs. It is a space that can be occupied through imagination and memory; that must be occupied, so that its mistakes are not repeated. Far too often, however, it is simpler to just box its fragments away and attempt to ignore their voices:

Like the albatross, a bird that once dominated the sky,
these giant airships could no longer reign except as ghosts
in dim museums and between the dusty pages of old books.
(“Opening night sponsored by LORD cultural resources” 66)

The reader leaves this collection with a strong sense that museums are places to be inhabited, and that it is the responsibility of art to evoke. Unlike Jules’ pieces, which in the end turn out to be empty – the original objects gone and only layers upon layers left – the past is more than a shell. It is a place in which one can walk, because what ties us to the past is not the events themselves, or the objects that remain, but the inescapable fact that human emotion is global and stands outside time.

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 April 10th, 2007

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