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Archive for July, 2007

Pearl by Nancy Jo Cullen


Title: Pearl
Author: Nancy Jo Cullen
Publisher: Frontenac House
Year: 2006
Pages: 62

Review by M. Maylor.

In this tale told in poems, a mug shot, a preamble, and a Calgary address introduce Pearl Miller, a notorious early twentieth century madam. She’s set up shop west of the famous King Edward hotel and is doing a swinging business. The chronological tale follows Pearl on her move from B. C. and explores her quest for survival in her new line of work. Pearl’s character is revealed through detail, imagistic lines and short narratives as the story proceeds towards her inevitable downfall at the hands of ‘Those young men, / Constables Ritchie and Timms.’ Following her arrest, during a quick stint in Fort Saskatchewan jail, Pearl finds The Man and salvation.

Pearl was nominated for a City of Calgary W. O. Mitchell award but lost out to a short fiction collection. Why was Pearl the bridesmaid rather than the bride? A story told in poetry can easily lose detail in the narrative and characterisation; this is not the case here. Cullen is generous with particulars. Pearl details time, place, and specifics of her profession while revealing herself. Consider her prose poem “Why”:

Because you are hungry
And because everybody loves a good time and definitely because
you were drunk and you were drunk because whatever brought
you to this God-forsaken, wind blown, rank cow town bursting
at the seams with possibility and no real work for a woman
except maybe unpaid schoolteacher which (just shoot you now)
you are the furthest thing from though you never really thought
of hussy as your first career choice.

The best parts of the collection are robust with historical details and Pearl’s convincing voice. The details manifest in scene, character, and variety (counting six different poetic forms). Cullen is adept at forming these snapshots while engaging the reader and the girls are as different from one another as the poetic forms.

Charity has the eye of a doctor, with her shorn flapper hair and
a young boy’s chest. The good doctor had been on a ship in the
Dardenelles during the war where he developed a number of
addictions not the least of which was a pleasure in young girls.
Charity was seventeen but could pass for younger and
found the doctor more than willing to write prescriptions of
whiskey for the prevention of chills and relief from being too

Eventually Charity is consumed by fever and dies. Cullen’s profile of Hannah shows a different fate:

Hannah went crazy then she turned to the Lord
He took her in as is
Left her on the corner of Stephen Avenue confessing her sins
Calling out to the hopeless

This example from “Sweet Alice Speaks” shows that some girls were grateful for the opportunity provided at Pearl Miller’s place.

Last thing I felt was his hard fist in my face
He filled my mother’s sitting room with blood
He had the hands of a stonemason
Turned my sweet little nose into a mushroom
Seems he saw some girl walking along the tracks and it sparked
an idea.

I brought my bastard here. Mrs. Miller was setting up her big
house. It seemed as good a job as any. In the end I thought it
fitting I should make my daddy’s dreams come true.

Considering these portraits, I found it disappointing that there weren’t more of these character and historic sketches. Space could have been made for them with the removal of weak clichéd poems such as “To Whom It May Concern:” or when the narrative drifts off into jargony commentary. That sort of drift happens in “Concatenation” and “Too Far from the Ground and Not Quite Near Enough to Heaven”. These poems seemed to be trying desperately to pull away from the narrative and join the theoretical bandwagon. The effect is troublesome. Consider these lines from “Too Far from the Ground and Not Quite Near Enough to Heaven” crafted into the ghazal form:

What is it about her? She must be getting her bio-text.
What is it about her? Undoubtedly it’s her bio-text.

If it’s dog eat dog then she gets her blood from the bone.
“She’s impossible to love” allegedly states her bio-text.

Clichéd phrases such as “dog eat dog” and editorial phrases such as “She’s impossible to love” combined with something as remote as “bio-text” create a distraction from the better writing in the book. Cullen seems to become enamoured with something that is not authentic in the way that her characters are.

Despite these obvious distractions Pearl is an enjoyable read for its historic and scandalous appeal. Cullen has mastered a human portrayal of a challenging woman and difficult subject. Pearl’s complexity is revealed through internal dialogue rather than through commentary.

Well, I catered to men with ample financial means and all sorts
of things were discussed in those small rooms. We celebrated
the birth of children not our own, planned investments,
commiserated about the weather.

This glimpse into the world of the madam goes beyond the sexual and into the larger community of hope, anxiety, and compassion. This shows, too, in Pearl’s reaction to Hannah.

And I laughed with the rest
At the crazy girl bearing witness to all that Jesus might cure
I failed that girl

I failed that girl

Despite my displeasure with some of the poems, the book was enjoyable and enriching. From now on, I won’t be able to drive that stretch of Ninth Avenue without thinking of Pearl Miller and the fallen girls of Calgary.

M. Maylor lives and writes in Calgary.

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Add comment July 27th, 2007

BooksPrice.com: Online Book Price Comparison


For those of you (us) that buy books online, there’s a new, free online tool for comparing prices between online shops: BooksPrice.com. The site also works for DVDs, music, and video games.

When you choose the book for which you want to compare prices, you’re shown either a table or a chart, listing stores and prices from lowest to most expensive, including the cost of shipping. You can choose your currency and general shipping info (i.e., your country) in order to filter your results. Amazon.ca seems to be the only “Canadian” store listed (as far as I’ve seen).

(Via Duct Tape Marketing)

2 comments July 21st, 2007

Bibliochaise: What’s on your bookshelf?


From Italian design company nobody & co, an armchair library for small spaces:

La Bibliochaise Home is water varnished in white, black or aubergine, also available in others colors upon request. Cotton cushions with removable covers in a wide range of colours. Contains 5 metres of books.

(via Digg)

3 comments July 20th, 2007

Every Inadequate Name by Nick Thran

Every Inadequate Name

Title: Every Inadequate Name
Author: Nick Thran
Publisher: Insomniac Press
Year: 2006
Pages: 72

Review by Alessandro Porco.

In his debut collection of poetry, Every Inadequate Name, Nick Thran’s is at its best when his poem’s speaker’s emotional transparency is honest enough to admit complicity; he’s flawed and guilty, young and frivolous — that is to say, too human for living yet just perfect for poetry. Conversely, the collection is at its worst when the poem’s speaker participates only in his capacity as a moralizing spectator, resulting in off-putting poems quietly dictated from the sidelines. Perhaps these are the inevitable two faces of a romantic like Thran. Where one goes, the other follows. Surely, there are other poems that fall somewhere in between, but they are for some other review to take up and defend.

In the case of the former, that is, emotional transparency, there are startling admissions of solipsism, as in “That Lobster Has Been There Forever,” the collection’s opening poem; the speaker states, “I’ve never wept in a twentieth-century / building for anything other / than my own lost loves and friends” (13). The speaker recognizes, with some embarrassment and fear, how the sort of self-involvement that leads to such an admission is the very sort of self-involvement that led to the atrocities of the twentieth-century that deserve to be “wept” for. Accordingly, in the poem’s proceeding line, he begs: “Please, don’t tell the architects” (13). The four succinct lines quoted would have themselves make a powerful poem. (Their potency is, unfortunately, diluted by what follows in the poem.) Other effective examples of this tenor of honesty and complicity abound. In “How Pop Sounds,” a very touching ode to pop music’s ability to permeate our lives, the speaker writes of “how your first time lasted exactly / two minutes and thirteen seconds — the perfect length, you thought” (14). So, the speaker knows he was once an inconsiderate lover. Of course, implied, also, is that the speaker’s only understanding of what would make the sexual experience “perfect” is entirely dependent upon a pop music epistemology. (The perfect pop song is “two-minutes and thirteen seconds.”) This is an important point: the speaker is willing to allow into his nostalgia (”This is about falling in love / with something dated” [14]) one of two things, or perhaps both: one, a defect of that which he so much wishes to defend (Pop’s “sugar”-coated representations of the world-at-large); two, his own prejudice as a listener, desperate to extract practical value from a genre that may be anything but practical and, thus, to confer upon it the aura of Art or artfulness. (Also of interest, “How Pop Sounds” ends with a subtle and effective allusion to Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.”)

Another poem of the first-type I am describing is “The Bear Claw Tub.” “Old fashioned, dragging its bloat porcelain / across the linoleum floor,” begins the poem (25). From there on in, from sentence to sentence, the short-poem’s speaker attempts to figure and re-figure the title tub in his and our imaginations, respectively. The tub is, among other things, “a mythological creature” and “the sort of place suicides happen / in movies, or where murder victims are found” (25). Yet balancing these more public figurations are the private or personalized ones: “it was where I entered to let off steam” and “[it was] best on nights / I’d return home stinking, sweating, having / hurt who I loved most” (25). By accumulating various versions of the tub, associative connections are allowed to be made from sentence to sentence. How has the speaker “hurt” his lover? Is he no different than a murderer? Has he inspired a suicide? Such questions are suggestive and cast a rather stirring pall over the poem. One final example: in “Seriously, It Was the Biggest Cricket,” the speaker critiques, with comic irony, his younger-self’s rather Olympian-like ability to be shallow (”seriously, she / was the hottest” [32]) and equally Olympiam-like inability to be discerning: “seriously, it [love] felt like the real thing” (33) — not coincidentally, said feeling is inspired by a “gorgeous backpacker / who speaks fluent Italian, [and ] recites whole blocks / of the Inferno aloud” (32-33).

On the other hand, there are those speaker-as-spectator poems I mentioned at the start — “Azucar” and “Monday in the World of Beauty” — that, as suggested, tend towards an off-putting moralizing. In “Azucar,” the speaker tells the story of his mother’s timely intervention into a domestic-abuse situation in a nearby apartment:

Neither of us really knew what was up
until an open-palm blow
broke the language barrier, and Mother,
who tries hard to do good in this world,
marched upstairs,
banged on their door till it opened
enough for her to ask
in a friendly, foreign voice
for azucar,
the Spanish word for sugar
she’d made a point to learn before bastard,
prison, abuse,
and asshole, leave her alone.

It’s those last lines, in particular, that offend my sensibility. The speaker and his mother (the former a ventriloquist for the latter) are, metaphorically speaking, tourists, merely visiting the language (”It has been a struggle, Mother meant trying / to learn Spanish”) and, correspondingly, the poem’s apartment of violence. It’s a convenient, bourgeois position for the speaker to occupy. There is no real investment; no involvement; no immersion — that is, there is no getting to know the asshole in question. Instead, the asshole functions as a flat, two-dimensional character that enables the speaker to reify, in the form of the poem, his own as well as his mother’s righteousness. I’m just not convinced — and never have been — that poetry is the place of such righteousness, especially considering it’s of the sort one is likely to find more well-done in a W-Network Movie-of-the-Week. The poem “Monday in the World of Beauty” includes a similarly distasteful moralizing: the speaker, speculating as to the “whereabouts” of an abused hair-stylist’s “significant [other],” suggests

he's probably hovering
	like thick cloud
over a cocktail umbrella
	inside some peeler
where even flesh can't light the room.


Allow me to parse the logic here: Strip-clubs are venues empty of significant meaning (”even flesh can’t light the room”) ergo the moral darkness of such places engender the stylist’s “black eye” (a symbol of moral darkness i.e. the absence of light) ergo bad, abusive men frequent strip-clubs ergo strip-clubs are bad ergo aren’t I a good poet for pointing this out. The articulation of such a position may be correct — who knows! — but it doesn’t make for interesting poetry.

Stylistically, Thran’s strong point is the construction of the prosaic vignette. It’s enviable. Therein, you will find a functional simile or two. Beyond that, he doesn’t seem overly concerned with formal innovation; there is no linguistic panache — I don’t say this as a critique (in the negative) but rather as a point of fact. (The sole exception is the poem “Bloor Street,” which plays with the morphemic construction of the word.) His rhythms are unassuming, doing nothing to carry the meaning of a poem. His descriptions tend towards a hokey romanticism. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Thran’s collection isn’t exactly what I would refer to as “literate” or, more accurately, explicitly steeped in Tradition — it’s presentation is disarmingly naive and, at times, even simple. A welcome change of pace. Perhaps this is indicative of that aforementioned pop sensibility. (Though, of that very generic classification, I would say that no poem in the collection has that timeless “pop” quality Thran so admires.)

Alessandro Porco\’s first collection of poetry, The Jill Kelly Poems, is published by ECW Press (2005). Currently, Porco attends the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he is completing a doctorate on Hip-Hop Poetics. A second collection of poetry, titled Augustine in Carthage, is forthcoming from ECW Press in the spring of 2008.

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7 comments July 15th, 2007

Rhyming Wranglers: Cowboy Poets of the Canadian West Selected by Ken Mitchell

RhymeWranglersCoverLOW thumb

Title: Rhyming Wranglers: Cowboy Poets of the Canadian West
Author: Ken Mitchell
Publisher: Frontenac House
Year: 2007
Pages: 112

Review by Richard Stevenson.

First a confession: I’m not a huge fan of cowboy poetry. My academic training in literature and creative writing has made me that city slicker cowboy poets like to make fun of: the guy who barely knows one end of the horse from the other, let alone how to saddle a horse or wrangle anything. My attempts at herding amount to letting the cats and dogs in and out of the house to do their business, letting them out in the morning, callin’ my “dogies” home at night from the front porch. I’ve ridden horses a handful of times, and once hard-reigned my hoss left and flew right – right into the trunk of a very large, very unforgiving Douglas fir tree. Ah yes, I know the flora of which I speak: I wore a bruise from hip to thigh for at least a week afterward and hobbled around the Flying U Guest Ranch like Festus Hagen. Only horse lineament, in fact, broke up the pooled blood and gave me any free range of movement. My tastes, not surprisingly, tend to lean toward the academic stuff you tend to find in literary magazines and on literary web sites: free verse, long on schemes and tropes, indirection; short on linear narrative expression.

It’s not that I’m averse to the charms of metric verse or a good yarn or ballad though. Indeed, I often write “form poetry” – mostly light verse for young adults, but occasionally for adults too. And, of course, like most practicing poets of my generation, I wrote doggerel in my teens modeled after bad teen angst tunes or terribly portentous, tragic, or angry and pretentious rock lyrics.

The more I’ve learned, the more I realize I do not know, and the less dogmatic I get about what I do know. The crafte so long to learne … and all that.

Most of the cowboy poetry I’ve seen has been no better than the doggerel I wrote in my teens. The rhymes were forced, or predictable; the lines didn’t scan, or did, with the regular pedantic iambic cadences of a Hallmark gift card; the syntax was tortured, if not contorted or awkwardly reversed in true nineteenth century style; the diction a bad approximation of nineteenth century rural folk speech or fifties duster movie dialogue and country and western lyrics. But why should I be surprised? Most rap lyrics suck. Most contemporary free verse blows chunks. Most of what aspires to art isn’t.

The best cowboy poetry I’ve read has aspired to but seldom equaled the witty whimsy and wonderful accentual-syllabic balladry of Robert Service, in his “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” or “The Cremation Of Sam McGee” (included with another of his lesser known poems here). It scans, it’s clever, and, better yet, speaks poignantly – if with the delightful country corniness, and insouciant joy and humour – of a justly celebrated but vanishing ranching way of life.

Like much contemporary free verse, the vast majority of it is cliché-ridden and corny.

Ken Mitchell’s accomplishment here then is considerable. He has doubtless winnowed his way through a pile of dreck to select the best verse lyric and narrative pieces he could find. He’s given us a chronology of the cowboy poetry sub-genre, reaching back to nineteenth and early twentieth century archival cowboy verse, and placed it where it belongs in the tradition of light verse narrative, ballad, tall tale, shaggy dog story, folk yarn; even gone so far as to show a continuum between what we would recognize as folk art – comparable say to old painted milk pails and weathered door mirrors and wagon wheel driveway markers or chandeliers – and verse satire or truly western rural free verse.

Several of the poets represented are seasoned veterans of the cowboy poetry festival circuit – Elko, Pincher Creek, Maple Creek, etc. – and evince considerable skill with accentual syllabics, wit, timing, and delivery. What we don’t get in indirection and metaphor we get in spades in hyperbole, ironic leg-pulls, wry (rye?) wit and humour. You’ll smile a lot reading this book, and, occasionally, break out into lusty guffaws. Several of the forty or so poets give Robert Service a run for his money, and are as gifted at oral storytelling and verse craft. Among these poets, fans will recognize pioneers Kate Simpson Hayes, Robert Stead, and Paul Hiebert – to name but a few – and contemporaries Doris Bircham, Neil Meili, and Mike Puhallo from their self-published and trade published books, chapbooks, CDs and circuit performances.

Then there are the contemporaries who are better known for their work in the academic mainstream grove of contemporary letters – Sid Marty, Thelma Poirier, Andrew Suknaski, the editor himself and spoken word diva Sheri-D Wilson – poets I wouldn’t have expected to find here, but who offer good cowboy poetry, free verse “takes” or song lyrics on western ranch life, or satiric take-offs that work well with the versifiers and show extended possibilities within the sub-genre.

Even Corb Lund is included with an alt country lyric. I would have hoped that John Wort Hannam, who writes better roots music lyrics – some of the best songs in the country, in fact, could have been included, and, of course, I was surprised not to find Susan Vogelaar and others of my acquaintance from southern Alberta, but this, of course, is the necessary evil of anthologies: they generally exclude as many good poets as they include because of restrictions of length, focus and whatnot.

Is this anthology as good as the ones we’ve had so far – Riding the Northern Range (Red Deer Press), Bards in the Saddle (Hancock House), others published stateside? I think so. Is it a worthy successor? Yes, and even necessary for the detective work that’s gone into the discovery and unearthing of historical precursors represented. Is it entertaining, and will regular readers of contemporary poetry enjoy it? That depends on one’s taste, of course, but I certainly wouldn’t write the book off if you’re one of those who has yet to have the experience.

My friend, poet/physician Robbie Newton Drummond and I recently attended the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Pincher Creek. I had my misgivings, but was pleasantly surprised and delighted. The size of the very appreciative audience was ten to a hundred times what I’ve learned to expect at a regular poetry reading in any city in Canada. Not surprisingly: the roots are as much in stand-up comedy as they are in verse. Got a grumpy uncle on your Christmas list? Buy him a copy. It may be the first time he’s enjoyed poetry since he was a kid potting gophers on the bald prairie.

Richard Stevenson lives and teaches in Lethbridge, Alberta. Recent publications — not cowboy poetry — include Parrot With Tourette’s (Black Moss Press, Palm Poets Series, 2006) and Bye Bye Blackbird: An Elegiac Sequence for Miles Davis (Ekstasis Editions, 2006).

13 comments July 10th, 2007

Unsettled by Zachariah Wells


Title: Unsettled
Author: Zachariah Wells
Publisher: Insomniac Press
Year: 2004
Pages: 112

Review by Rob Taylor.

“Not since Al Purdy’s North of Summer has a Canadian poet written so compellingly about life in the frozen arctic,” opens the back-cover blurb of Vancouver-via-Baffin Island-via-PEI poet Zachariah Wells’ first collection, Unsettled. The similarities between Purdy’s book and Wells’ — a collection of poems written during Wells’ time working as an airline freight handler on Baffin and Cornwallis Islands — are found both in their subject matter and styles. The poems in the two collections explore the authors’ sense of self as grounded in (and out of) place – writers utilizing a foreign land to unlock once-foreign parts of themselves. Likewise, stylistically, it would not take much to convince me that lines such as “Tirelessness, sleeplessness, endless darkness, endless / light, boxes, boxes, boxes” (“A Cargo Handler Howls on His Fifteen Minute Lunch Break” 19) were pulled directly from North of Summer, not Unsettled.

Be it an homage or plagiarism, the connection between the two texts is at times striking. For example, Wells picks up upon Purdy’s notion of the “ivory thought” in his poem “Sauniq.” In Purdy’s “Lament for the Dorsets” he describes the hunter

bearing down and transmitting
his body’s weight
from brain to arm and right hand
and one of his thoughts
turns to ivory

And after 600 years
the ivory thought
is still warm
(Al Purdy, The More Easily Kept Illusions: The Poetry of Al Purdy, 30-1)

while in “Sauniq” Wells writes:

She pecks the lichen-haired innunguaq’s
Head, as though to pick its stony
Brain for a thought still warm from the hand of the hunter,
Who stacked his stand-in under an indulgent sky,

That being said, it would be an injustice to the original work in Unsettled to summarize it as a simple revisiting of the themes, style and imagery of North of Summer, for the poems in Unsettled stand on their own. They are thick and purposeful – they exist to tell a story, to convey a common narrative. Often they, like the land, are stripped bare, perhaps in part because, as the speaker in “Qausuittuq” notes, they have “burned all [their] metaphors, to keep warm” (98). When the poems fail, as they often do in any debut collection, they fail towards clarity, not convolution. The author’s primary goal, here, seems not to be to display his technical dexterity, but to communicate directly with the reader, and with a minimum of hesitation. For me, after slogging through the majority of contemporary Canadian poetry, this made for a refreshing read.

The story Wells lays out for his readers is one of life on the edge; a world which balances precariously between tranquility and chaos, between boredom and incredible speed. The world of Unsettled is slow moving, but has monstrous gears. It is a world with a “hunger for pleasure and love, / for spicy grub” (“Jake” 36) where “Cruelty is rarely intentional, / It has beer on its breath” (“A Mouthful of Stones” 65). Conversely, it is also a world where the sky is “an inverted robin’s-egg shell” (“Small Song of Wonders” 30).

His is a story of a man driven by economic necessity to a land far from his own – to the tarmacs of Frobisher Bay, the “freight-/Handler to a lipservice nation” (“Frobisher’s Bay” 46). He is anxious for home, as when he catches the familiar PEI smell of mussel mud and comments on how

a familiar smell
in a strange place
makes everything

(“A Whiff of Mussel Mud” 21)

However, perhaps only as a survival instinct, he also finds himself strangely drawn to the world around him. His poems convey an attraction to that which is at work under the bleak exterior, a theme he touches upon in describing the freight-handlers he knew

who thought strength their province

and muscles what make the man –
when it’s nerves and tendons that do it.
(“McAtasney” 26)

This “deep” appreciation, then, is a hint towards the greatest point of separation between Unsettled and North of Summer: the sheer amount of time the authors spent engaging with the land and its people. Where Purdy spent only weeks in the Arctic, Wells spent years (seven, to be exact), and the length of his “visit” enriches Wells’ writing in a way simply not possible for Purdy’s. Here we see a man who had the time to be lost and found and lost again many times over, to struggle and to accept, to find both incredible beauty and ugliness, and to take it all in slowly, as it came to him. Purdy’s writing always had a sense of the author’s impermanence in his setting, whereas Wells’ compellingly moves back and forth between permanence and impermanence.

Perhaps it is this struggle between place, time and self that makes Well’s final poem in the collection, “Reflections in a Broken Mirror,” ache, both on the page and in the mind of the reader:

O land, I have not wandered,
But squandered my time on your knee

O land, you have severed me
From myself
And never more can I know
What it is I was born to

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 July 3rd, 2007

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