January 13, 2021

RECEIVED: CHANGING THE FACE OF CANLIT

Dane Swan's hefty new anthology of prose and poetry, Changing the Face of Canadian Literature (Guernica), has been at my elbow for a few weeks now. Thirty contributors (and an A-to-Z of recommended reading that will take you through a year if you read one a week) activate the title.

A few highlights:

  • Sennah Yee's graceful turns: ask me where I'm from / and I'll just say the same thing / o, Canada, duh and  you're frightened that I've / flourished right in the hyphen / that you've slapped on me ("5 Haiku for/from Canada")
  • Doretta Lau's nimble leaps among time, place and memory: I had early acceptance and a full scholarship to the university I'd gone to for free dental care as a child. ("At Core We Think They Will Kill Us")
  • Mary Pinkowski's ghosts and echoes: I do not know if / I am more in love with the moon or the tide / With the return or with the escape ("Let the Ghosts Out: A suite of poems")
  • Ian Keteku's powerful compressions: And once I checked out the story of my life. And returned it, the next day. ("And...")
  • Klara du Plessis's verbal layers and excavations: The verbose darkness of metropolitan / public gardens, punished by tiny welts // leaves leave on wet sidewalks. ("Essay dwellers")

Dane Swan's foreword draws some lines between multiculturalism in Canada's national identity and diversity (or, until recently, lack of) in its literary identity. He positions this anthology as a celebration:  "Congratulations, Canada," Swan writes in closing, "you finally have a literature that looks like the people who inhabit you."

Available from the press. Read Quill & Quire's starred review.

December 22, 2020

UPWELLING WITH SWEET EELS



This poem by Susan Buis from Gatecrasher might be more explicitly a praise poem than some others in this striking collection (Invisible Publishing, 2019). Its active soundscape makes it, for me, one of the most pleasurable.
 
Susan Buis
OSPREY
 
For the dive, for the strike and clutch
muscles shiver in communion
to hold a hover through gusts 
bending air to arc, wavering
a spread fan, wings tensile
as spring branches. In the gap
before the articulate plunge
all trembles but the eye 
fixed on a brackish creek upwelling
with sweet eels that thrive
in briny confluence and streaks
of red weed swaying in the gullet -- 
weed that's weft for a scavenged
wood warp, mass of nest
to weave another stick through.


From its first line, this swift-moving poem makes the osprey visible. Precise verbs and the repeated word "for" signal a praise poem in the tradition of Hopkins; a poem dedicated to the osprey's majesty and power. By line two, "for" shifts reference to what's purposeful: the "communion" of shivering muscles in service to those actions and "to hold a hover."

At the midpoint, there's another deft shift, this one of focus: from the osprey to its target; and the "trembles" move from air to ground. Everything the bird needs -- food, nest materials -- is provided there in the "brackish creek upwelling." We see everything but the plunge itself; that action happens in a "gap."
 
The closing image shifts from the present moment to a more general observation about osprey-style nest-building, and for me at least takes some careful (and slow) untangling. What guides me through that is the way Buis's word choices and sonic effects intensify and then in that last line fall away, in the clipped sound of the word "stick" and almost-not-there "through." 
 
Yet that "through" is fully realized; the osprey's dive is not the end of the osprey's story, in any sense of finality (though it is an end in the sense of purpose). The poem closes with a gesture that moves through the present moment to the nest-building that's happening offstage, as surely as the "spring branches" the birds' wings are likened to are leafing out.
 



December 1, 2020

CONCRETE LIKE FIRE: MARY SODERSTROM IN CONVERSATION


Storage pyramids at McInnis Cement. Mary Soderstrom photo 

In this post, Concrete & River makes a brief departure from poetry to chat with Mary Soderstrom about her most recent book, CONCRETE: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2020).

SUSAN GILLIS: Thanks, Mary, for talking about your book Concrete in this slightly unconventional context, a poetry blog. When I saw the advance notices, I couldn't resist following up with you, and I'm glad I did. 

In the book's first chapter, you recount thinking and writing about roads, both literal and metaphorical, and “as one thing leads to another,” you began to consider concrete as a material. Can you pinpoint a moment you knew you were going to take concrete as the subject for a book?

MARY SODERSTROM: I came up with the idea in the fall of 2016 when I was finishing up Road through Time: The Story of Humanity on the Move. I like to have a project on the go always, and concrete seemed to be the logical next step, pun intended. It seems to me that the working title occurred to me at the same time: "Rock of Ages: How Concrete Built the World As We Know It." I really liked the word play in the title, and so did the main editor. But when the book was done, others at the publishing house argued that a different title would work better. I think you have to be a Protestant to get the semi-pun of Rock of Ages, and obviously there are a lot of potential readers out there who wouldn't have the cultural baggage to get the joke.  

SG: The central chapters are titled Earth, Fire, Water, and Air. How did you decide to shape the book around the classical four elements?

MS: This was one of the things that took the longest to arrive at. As it turns out, not only does each of these things go into making concrete, concrete is essential to their modern use. 

Take water for example: concrete is composed of up of about 30 per cent water, while the material is essential for producing the pipes, canals, dams that make water available for our use. Try to imagine a world without hydroelectricity, or drinking water piped long distances, or crops irrigated by water flowing hundreds of kilometres through concrete canals, and you get the connection.

November 24, 2020

SARA VILLA & THE BEAUTIFUL LANES

 
 
For many, if not most, people, the pandemic has changed how we engage with work, ideas and creative practice. Sara Villa writes from Montreal:
This week I experimented with centos and collages and it felt liberating. This is a cento I wrote accompanied by a collage created using a film still from a movie by Man Ray, the picture of a sky from a magazine and an old map of NYC. 



The beautiful lanes of sleep

I dreamed again you were alive, and woke. 

I figured you'd hear me sooner or later. 

It's 12:10 in New York and I am wondering 

what now? 

I'm tired of these big things happening

on faded maps of America. 


Line sources:

1) Alun Lewis, "The Sentry" 

2) Anne Michaels, "I Dreamed Again" 

3) Diane Di Prima, "Conversations" 

4) Frank O'Hara, "Adieu to Norman" 

5) ruth weiss, "Single Out" 

6) Joanne Kyger, "As Ever" 

7) Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "The Jack of Hearts" 


Collage image sources: Man Ray, film still from “L’étoile de mer,” 1928; old map of NYC; sky from an unknown magazine picture.


Sara Villa works and writes in the fields of jazz, 20th-century poetics, and film. Her monograph on the film adaptation of Woolf's Orlando (I due Orlando: Le poetiche androgine del romanzo woolfiano e dell’adattamento cinematografico) is published by CUEM, Milan. Sara is based in Montreal.






 

October 20, 2020

SARAH VENART: I AM THE BIG HEART


I'm thrilled to find Sarah Venart's fine new book, I AM THE BIG HEART, in the mailbox. I walk back to the house so absorbed in it I forget to check the pines that line the lane for the owl that sometimes waits there, watching.

Thrilled because it was fourteen years in the making, Sarah says, at times with much uncertainty over whether it would get made at all. Thrilled because I got to watch some of the poems taking shape (see Sarah's revision worksheets for four poems, from draft to publication, here).

The cover is unsettling and beautiful, and the book is thicker than I'd imagined - partly that luxurious paper all Brick's books are printed on, partly the hospitable distillation of a whole lot of thoughtful and passionate and sometimes resistant living.

Hospitality, especially when it feels like invitation, is one of the best things to find in a poem. When the poem goes "here's what this is like for me; how is it for you?" I feel a little more alive. Sarah's poems do this over and over.

       In earth years, my heart is ridiculously young.
       It blinks closed, it glistens open to herd the blood.
               ("Darling Citizen")

They risk and play and dare me to go in close.

       When she loved me, she got on with it
       in silence: she punched down the bread and salvaged
       the cold oatmeal on the stove.
 
       It wasn't what I asked for.
               ("Dénouement) 

They're not afraid - or, when they are, they face it.

       At night I close my eyes and let my thoughts
       become my feelings, let my feelings point their corners
 
       into dark corners
               ("Origami")

They're faceted: tender, comedic, unflinching, bare. Some hold injury and manipulation up to the light for scrutiny (The Widening; How It Worked; Stun Guns). Some hold their own trembling, their own joy (Dénouement; Lambing Season), grief and love. 

       To go rogue, stop holding onto
       what hurts, indulge in this minute, make
       room for what's good.
               ("The Midwife Advises Me")
 
Poems and fragments found in her poet-mother's journals are folded in; family life and the individual life in all their bewildering complexity are folded in. 
 
And the poems are masterful constructions of pattern and variation, sometimes gathered in formation, sometimes roaming the page
 
       ...flowing
       from domestic into feral

       just like that.
               ("The Chauffeur")

I look up: it's late afternoon. The owl is calling. 


October 1, 2020

CONCLUSIONS THAT NEVER CONCLUDE


"If you don't like what you wrote, don't think about the words, just remember it better."

I'm paraphrasing Robert Hass's advice on revision in a dimly-recalled Vimeo of a talk given in Rotterdam, a paraphrase itself of something Jack Kerouac once said.

The context was a discussion of the sources of poetry according to Rilke (memory, dream, art) and its subjects (joy, longing, grief). Hass had set up a quick exercise in noting a location for each of those emotions.

Just before this, someone in the audience asked about revision, to which Hass responded with an anecdote (about Robert Duncan and his poem "My Mother Would Be a Falconress") that suggested a poem only acquires the name 'poem' when all the writing is done, essentially another way of saying writing is rewriting is writing.

I recall, as a young person just beginning to find my own poems, asking a friend about her process and how she knew when a poem was finished. The question felt a little like the one my younger self asked my mother: how do you know when it's love? 

My poet friend answered that she played the poem in her mind's eye like a little movie, following it to its conclusion.

My mother answered that it's when you can't not be there, or, there's no conclusion.

          mid-day at my desk
          tea going cold
          milk going warm
          I've been listening to poetry

July 8, 2020

WATER


Concrete & River will be on hiatus for a season while I tune up my writing practice and give needed attention to my personal page where I share some of my work as poet, editor, and guide.

Thank you for your check-ins and shares, your reading and responses. It's been exhilarating. And, this is not the end--just a pause.

Today's Poem-A-Day pick from poets.org jumped into my heart and stayed with me this morning. I hope they won't mind me sharing it here.

Danielle Legros Georges
WHAT IS WATER?
What is water but rain but cloud but river but ocean
but ice but tear.
What is tear but torn what is worn as skin as in as out
as out.
Exodus. I am trying to tell a tale that shifts like a gale
that hurricanes and casts a line
that buckles in wind that is reborn a kite a wing.
I am far
from the passage far from the plane of descending
them,
suitcases passports degrees of mobility like heat
like heat on their backs. 
This cluster of fine grapes Haitian purple beige
black brown.

June 11, 2020

YUSUF SAADI AT THE POETRY PARTY

Yusuf Saadi writes: I had just finished reading One Thousand and One Nights, where, famously, Shahrazad must narrate a story to the king in order to entertain him all night so he doesn’t kill her. I was thinking about the interaction of language and sensuality, the kinds of sensuality on the surfaces of language and beyond language, and how the body incites language and vice versa.


Pleasuring Shahrazad

In rosewater I rinse
my final words, dip
them into your body.
Your slow, saline drip
on my tongue. You eclipse
Medinan dates soaked
in honey, saffron rice
with diced pistachios,
a single pomegranate—
surah carved in Kufic
on each ruby seed.
Camphor recites its being
inside a kerosene lamp.

Don’t plead, simply ask
for pleasure pleated
upon pleasure past
tongue-winding rinds
around words.
Damascus musk settles
on damask pillows.
Iced watermelon wine
gushes in crystal glass.
Hebron peaches blush;
sea-coast lemons
            cleave in halves.
My nails moonrake
damp thighs;
again, I dine on
webbed-wet fingers.

Lips graze lashes, kohl.
On each closed eyelid
my tongue practises
its patient whorl
before I cherish
your perfect pearl.
I gave my day
dreaming of your
myrrh’s mystique.
Now my tongue
is to caress—
not to speak.


Pluviophile, Yusuf Saadi’s first collection, was published by Nightwood Editions in April, 2020 and is available through Harbour Publishing, Nightwood Editions, independent bookstores, and at https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/pluviophile/9780889713741-item.html. "Pleasuring Shahrazad" first appeared in The Malahat Review and in Pluviophile

June 2, 2020

MY NAME, BUT NOT MY PAPERS: SADIQA DE MEIJER


Sadiqa de Maijer photo by Cat London
Sadiqa de Meijer writes: This is the title poem from my new collection. I've always liked the riddle of how to get the fox, goose and grain across the river, when some will eat the other if left alone. Older versions of that quandary sometimes feature a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage. I wanted to ask, particularly from a multi-ethnic and diasporic perspective, what if we look at that cargo, and even the landscape of the river itself, as internal to the speaker?

Sadiqa de Meijer
THE OUTER WARDS

I saw that I would have to cross the river,
and that it was the Rijn.
I had a fox, a goose, a sack of grain.

I said, I love the gay men in kufiyas on the Rembrandtplein,
and the muted half of me, from a land of five converging waters,
with an upstream alphabet—
so what makes me yours
every night, slow current, floodplain
of drowning grass?

Then the goose was in the reeds. It had an egg.
Twigs and quills, the ruckus of two pulses.
The grain had blown into my field. Someone was claiming it.
And the fox was a vanishing streak.

I could take my name, but not my papers.
I could take the swept air, but not my breath,
or not in one load. My promises, but not the child
I’d made them to, unless I could bring something back—
but the weather, the barges, the clouds turning orange and rose.


 The Outer Wards, Sadiqa de Meijer's second collection, was published in April 2020 by Vehicule Press.