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Archive for November, 2007

10 Best Books of 2007

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The New York Times has posted its list of the 10 best books of 2007 (fiction and non-fiction). Here’s the list.

Fiction

MAN GONE DOWN
By Michael Thomas.

OUT STEALING HORSES
By Per Petterson. Translated by Anne Born.

THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES
By Roberto Bolaño. Translated by Natasha Wimmer.

THEN WE CAME TO THE END
By Joshua Ferris.

TREE OF SMOKE
By Denis Johnson.

Non-Fiction

IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

LITTLE HEATHENS: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression.
By Mildred Armstrong Kalish.

THE NINE: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court.
By Jeffrey Toobin.

THE ORDEAL OF ELIZABETH MARSH: A Woman in World History.
By Linda Colley.

THE REST IS NOISE: Listening to the Twentieth Century.
By Alex Ross.

If you’ve read any of these, share your opinions in the comments.

Add comment November 30th, 2007

We Are Here by Niels Hav

We Are Here

Title: We Are Here
Author: Niels Hav / Trans. Patrick Friesen and P.K. Brask
Publisher: Bookthug
Year: 2006
Pages: 60

Review by Vivian Hansen.

Canadian poets Patrick Friesen and P.K.Brask have translated of Niels Hav’s poetry for the long haul – fifteen years. As Hav notes in his acknowledgements, “Danish is a small language spoken by only 5-6 million people. To gain contact with the rest of the world translation is necessary. The careful and inspired translations made by Patrick Friesen and P.K. Brask … has made it possible for my poems to travel around the Globe and across the Atlantic; now We Are Here.” (59)

I share Hav’s appreciation for translators who take on the task of rendering Danish poetry into English. The energy involved in trading the subtleties of Danish for a distinct voice in English is daunting. Hav’s poetry in English holds some power, embracing the Nowness of Things. He also applies a close reading of his world, which amplifies the unbearable silliness of being. In the book’s title poem “We Are Here”, Hav recreates a scene on a Danish street:

Where are we?
I asked with a finger on the map.
They looked at me and as a chorus repeated my question.
Then they all broke into hearty laughter,
I laughed too, we were witnessing high
Comedy. – Here, said one of them and pointed
to the ground where we stood. – We are here! (17)

Some of this comedy is very likely lost to the English reader, who cannot perceive the amusement of such a scene, but this is a Danish culture entrenched in comedy.

One aspect of Hav’s poetry is his utilization of the imperative voice that characterizes the Danish language. “In Defense of Poets”, he commands:

Oh please, take pity on the poets
they are deaf and blind
help them through traffic where they stagger about
with their invisible handicap
remembering all sorts of stuff. Now and then one of them stops
to listen for a distant siren.
Show consideration for them. (13)

The work yields a tapestry of tongue-in-cheek commentary on human nature, presenting the poet as someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously. In “Bitterness”, Hav takes full advantage of personification:

When bitterness is fully grown
it demands to be aired. Some
take it along to the pub on the weekend,
that works. Monday they show up at work
and begin again. Bitterness longs
for 5 p.m.; it speaks loudly to itself
in traffic and may hawk a gob. (18)

Small humours dot the landscape of this book, relieving much of the more heavily molded introspection. In “Lodge Brothers”, Hav notes “… they squeeze out/dry little turds at jubilees.”(20) Occasionally, he hints at a greater capacity for soul-searching than the heavy universality of being that marks much of this collection. In “What She has Two of”, he reveals a densely creative, inquiring sensibility. As a reader, I want to know more about these feelings:

Your eyes are two huge
	bonfires at the edge of the woods
where my stone age fears
set up camp, summer
	and winter  (34)

The poem that most intrigues me is “Nonsense Detector”, where Hav speaks of dialect:

Of course even in dialect
it is possible to call a shovel
a spade or a spade a shovel.
But it wouldn’t work for long,
Most people who speak a dialect
have held one in their hands. (24)

Since Danish is comprised of approximately one hundred and forty-four dialects, I am curious as to which one, where, and who are the speakers? One might like to know more about a cultural class system that underscores ‘dialect’ in such poetic terms. I would like Hav to venture further to depict the characters. I want him to quit invading the narrative floor and let the characters move into the dance on their own terms. Perhaps it is a problem of translation, although he seems perfectly capable of managing this skill in other poems. In “November Visit”, Hav tells the story of his father’s dying, although even within these lines, the simplicity of the text is insufficient to portray the full impact of the scene:

He had begun to die.
I visited my father in the hospital,
he lay in a white bed which was clean and sinister,
	But he didn’t want
to lie there, he wanted to get up again,
	get out of there. …. (26)

Two nurses laid his arms
across their shoulders to help him up.
Their knees trembled beneath the burden.
	Pain screamed through my father’s
bones, he grew white around his mouth,
like a corpse.  He wanted to get up.
	Stand.

Later, in bed, he breathed in pain.
I had to catch the train around midnight –
	walking about, smoking.
We could say anything
to each other now, but all words
were crippled.  Goodbye he said.
	His eyes
said something more. (27)

Although Hav’s collection holds a powerful note throughout, he could do more to utilize
poetic sensuality by opening up his similes and metaphors, and incising the text with variations on verb conjugations. I concede that these issues may be quibbles of translation more than the original cast of words, but the description patterns are not as strong as they could be.

He is, however, humbly self-reflective before the sanctity of words: In “Epigram”, he observes:

You can spend an entire life
in the company of words
not ever finding
the right one.

Just like a wretched fish
wrapped in Hungarian
newspapers.
For one thing it is dead
for another it doesn’t understand
Hungarian. (57)

This is an exquisite analogy that I wish had appeared more frequently in this book. That said, I applaud the efforts of the translators to move the tiny Danish language into the realm of gargantuan English poetry, and Hav for his stoic commitment to the art form.

Vivian Hansen\’s poetry \”Leylines of My Flesh\” chronicles the voices of Danish immigrants to Western Canada. She won the First Annual Poetry Contest with Legacy Magazine in 2007. She also reviews for the Canadian Journal of Ethnic Studies.

Add comment November 22nd, 2007

Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets Edited by John Barton and Billeh Nickerson

Seminal

Title: Seminal: The Anthology of Canada�s Gay Male Poets
Author: Edited by John Barton and Billeh Nickerson
Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press
Year: 2007
Pages: 368

Review by M. Maylor.

As a heterosexual female and poetry fanatic, I love men and I love poetry as much as the next guy and was curious about this anthology. Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets is a terrific read. It showcases a wide array of talented works and an illuminating introduction. John Barton’s preface is a mini-thesis of Canadian poetic history blended with enlightening facts about being gay in Canada. It is comprehensive, educational and filled with interesting details. For example, it has been less than 40 years since homosexual acts were decriminalised by the Trudeau government. That’s a long time after “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and Oscar Wilde oakum picking his fingers to bloody pulp. And, there were only 17 years between the decriminalisation of homosexual acts and the start of the AIDS era.

Barton introduces the reader to the authors in the context of Canadian poetic history. These interesting facts do much to explain mood and trajectory of the timeline, and, for example, include tensions brought forth by John Southerland’s 1940’s reviews of Patrick Anderson and Robert Finch. These tensions were erupting at the same time that Robert Duncan outed himself and referred to “the crime of his own feelings.” Yet, it wasn’t until 1963 that the first book of openly gay poetry was published by Edward Lacey and financed by Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee. Though there is some speculation as to why such an anthology hasn’t been published before now, Barton’s preface creates a full picture of the obstacles overcome to attain the material required to amass such an anthology.

The stunning range of poetic style and voice is a result of calculated forethought by the editors. Had I skipped the preface and dived into poetry, I’d have been impressed by the latitude of inclusion. The preface added dimension to the choices. Poetic form spans from formal villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets to fractal and visual forms. Topic, tone, and voice, span a wide range also. Douglas LePan and Michael V. Smith illustrate such contrast.

Douglas LePan conjures mystic imagery with “The Green Man.” (p.58)

Leaves twist out of his mouth, of his eyes, of his ears,
twine down over his thighs, spring out of his heels,
as he runs through the woods as a deer or an outlaw, or curled
up in moss and bracken, light speckling him feckless,
he watches the other animals, himself hidden
like an animal, although so strangely human
that if you surprise him you might think yourself looking
into the eyes of the mad but all-wise Merlin.

In contrast is Michael V. Smith’s gritty physical descriptive in “The Sad Truth.” (p. 307)

You aren’t at home. You are in the park
with your hands parting the cheeks
of an ass spreading disease
while two feet away another man
pulls at himself just out
of reach with a look that says
he costs more than you’re worth.

Narrative moves from looking into the eyes of mad Merlin to being inside the eyes of the drunk-mad. Range in poetic form is equally met and matched by the range of emotion. These emotions move from the comfortable and relatable, such as love, heartbreak and anger, to that of disgust and pain, which can challenge a reader’s boundaries in terms of subject. See the rest of “The Sad Truth” and read http://thetyee.ca/Books/Interview/2007/05/09/Seminal/ for more commentary. Additionally, look at “Wounds: Valentine’s Day” by Ian Stephens (p. 228) which is a journey through pain, or “from Blue Ashes” by Jean-Paul Daoust (p. 181) about the seduction of a six and a half year old boy, as examples of how subject can challenge mores.

There are the usual suspects, too, in terms of subject. There are cowboys, priests, and Ganymede’s. These poems balance out some of the more startling inclusions and there is a good dose of tenderness, too. Ian Young’s 1969 offering “(Poem)” (p. 170) captures a mood.

		On rainy afternoons when we would share cool music
			in this little room
I’ve thought of that blonde boy you liked
and asked myself if you could ever lean against me
	and be still
or draw down sleep to keep us from our rainy grieving.
And yet I’ve wished that he could take my place
	beside you here –
For him you had hands and yearning
and your heart’s warmth hurt in its cool centre.

Billeh Nickerson’s “Why I Love Wayne Gretzky – An Erotic Fantasy” (p. 311) stands out for its humour and honesty.

Because sometimes my dyslexia makes me see
a giant 69 on his back.

Norm Sacuta’s “Alberta Pick-Ups” (p. 267) has insight and feeling.

There’ve been two surprises – once after passion,
the boy from Wapiti said
Wanna see my Hummer? And he showed me.
We barely fit the McDonald’s drive-through
and drove around sipping shakes,
everyone staring, wanting, needing
his massive truck. I felt important.
His date to the prom.

Sky Gilbert’s “Assfucking and June Allyson” (p. 220) stands out, partly for the unforgettable title, and partly for the description.

which is, as I said
sometimes painful
but more often than not, incredibly, incredibly wonderful.

Edward A. Lacey’s “Eggplant” (p. 124) is a journey into play with language that is commendable and delightful.

Eggplant, berenjena, beringela, aubergine, melongene,
boulanger,
   babaganush,
		          Baigan,
juicy names, full of labials and lingual, luscious voiced
vibrating
   consonants
- what is it that they remind you of?

This anthology is educational, diverse, feeling, startling, erotic, and skilled. In the preface, John Barton points out the arrogance of labelling the book The Anthology of Gay Male Poets while simultaneously posing the question, “Who is Canada’s great gay male poet?”

I surmise the answer is not one name but several and this anthology is just The place to form an opinion.

M. Maylor lives and writes in Calgary.

Other Online Reviews

Add comment November 19th, 2007

One Muddy Hand: Selected Poems by Earle Birney

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Title: One Muddy Hand
Author: Earle Birney
Publisher: Harbour
Year: 2006
Pages: 204

Review by Rob Taylor.

“People who just want to enjoy what follows should skip this preface,” opened Earle Birney in the introduction to his 1977 Ghost in the Wheels: Selected Poems. It is a preface reused in his newest, posthumous Selected, One Muddy Hand: Selected Poems, and it seems, likewise, an appropriate opening to any review of that book. If you have read a good deal of Birney’s work in the past, this new offering will provide you with little more (the vast majority of the collection being a reprinting of Birney’s 1977 Selected). If you have not read much Birney, for goodness sake, you had better be getting on with it, and One Muddy Hand, being the only Birney collection in print, seems like a good place to start.

A Birney Selected has one clear advantage over the collections of many of his peers and students (Birney being the founder of the University of British Columbia’s Department of Creative Writing): it never gets boring. Or at least, if it does fall into a rut, it climbs its way back out of it fairly quickly. While most poets seem to find a style and pocketful of themes that become their canon, Birney’s work is always discovering and rediscovering itself. This is because Birney, who declared “Living art, like anything else, stays alive only by changing,” (198) was open to influences from the “cutting edge” poetry of the day. In One Muddy Hand, more formal lyrics give way to sprawling satire, which in turn lead into visual poetry. Some of Birney’s “makings” (a word he preferred to “poems,” in order to avoid pretentiousness), especially those from early in his career, seem archaic, while others, such as “Billboards Build Freedom of Choice” (96-7) could receive top votes at a poetry slam (and maybe even the third place consolation prize of ten bucks and a free drink).

In fact, it is the attempted simplification of Birney’s varied writing in One Muddy Hand that is my one concern with the book. Editor Sam Solecki has produced a strong and considered collection, in which selected notes and essays of Birney’s help the reader garner a better sense both of his poetics and his life. Solecki, though, admits that he has removed from the collection a pair of visual poems that had been included in the 1977 Selected, without including any new visual poetry to take its place. This certainly leaves a rather meager number of visual poems in the collection, weakening its diversity. Likewise, Solecki’s strong emphasis on the poem “David,” “one of our few undoubted classics” (Editor’s Foreword, 10), seems to overshadow the diverse nature of Birney’s work. Referred to twice on the back page blurb, multiple times in the Editor’s introduction and returned to in a four page essay on the poem by Birney himself, the collection might well be better titled, as was his first book in 1942, David and Other Poems. This is unfortunate, but is truly only a minor concern in regards to what is generally an excellently compiled and edited text.

What One Muddy Hand does best is let the poems breathe freely. Where Birney speaks of particular “makings” in his preface and other writings, he does so carefully, supporting, while not dissecting the pieces. The poems, then, are allowed to take center stage, and many shine in that spotlight. Perhaps strongest of all are Birney’s many travel poems (in his life, he circumnavigated the world three times). “The bear on the Delhi road” and “A walk in Kyoto” probably stand out first and foremost in most readers’ minds, but many others make a great impact as well, collectively constructing the image of a man struggling to connect, and connect with, a disconnected world. This is well exemplified by the lines in “Cartagena De Indias, 1962” where the speaker laments,

Somewhere there must be another bridge
from my stupid wish
to their human acceptance
but what can I offer –
my tongue half-locked in the cell
of its language – other than pesos
(121)

As Birney’s poems move over space to the other side of the globe and back again, so to do they move over time. While historical stories and artifacts are explored in many poems, such as “Mappemounde” and “Charité, Espérance et Foi,” Birney really earns his credit as a historian when his narratives wind the past and present together in an ever-connected patchwork:

canoe route the Hurons found
& showed the whites –
the way to the west     silks     buffalo
vietnam     the moon
shines over the middle of nowhere –
dumb as the trees

(“Way to the west” 129)

With his wide array of artistic volleys, it’s doubtful anyone but the most devout of Birney loyalists will find themselves fully satisfied with One Muddy Hand. Likewise, though, I would be quite surprised if anyone was not charmed or challenged by Birney’s diverse helping of “makings.” Enough with the preface, though. Find the book, and enjoy.

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.

Other Online Reviews

Add comment November 16th, 2007

Keep PoetryReviews.ca Alive

For Sale

Ok, it’s been almost a month since the last review, and that’s way too long. It’s certainly not for a lack of reviews to post or books to review: I’ve got about 20 reviews that need positing and at least 80 books that could be sent out for review. The problem is time. I’m a one-person operation, and my business and family take precedence over this site. Having said that, I don’t just want to let PoetryReviews.ca fade away into nothing. It’s become an excellent resource and remains the only site dedicated solely to Canadian poetry reviews. So, it’s probably time for me to either give the site up or look for a partner who’d be willing to take on some of the workload. If you’re interested in taking over the site or would like help me revive PoetryReviews.ca, email me [ebarstad{at}gmail{dot}com] so we can discuss some of the possible options.

6 comments November 13th, 2007

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