May 7, 2021


Resistance: Righteous Rage in the Age of #MeToo, edited by Sue Goyette. University of Regina Press, 2021

Sue Goyette's sensitive and uncompromising foreword is a necessary guide through this anthology of poems that take on, and take up, the subject of sexual assault and abuse. The presence of care and commitment, Goyette's and all the participants', is felt on every page.

Four sections track increasing intensity: Innocence/Exposure; Endurance/Persistence; Rage/Resistance; and arrive at an unsettled rest: Survival/Recovery. Variations of Renée Munn's arresting cover image, "Ophelia," make striking section markers.

Poems that open a world to me include Catherine Greenwood's "Black Plums," a chilling revision of the nursery rhyme about Little Jack Horner; Eleonore Schönmaier’s "Sixteen," in which two voices meet "on the narrow rocky trail;" Byrna Barclay's clear-eyed "Birdman," which watches an exterminator rid a balcony of pigeons and considers implications in his words; Cornelia Hoogland's astonishing "Woods Wolf Girl," from her collection of the same name, that rescues a mythic girl from symbol and restores her to painful actuality; Katherine Lawrence's shaping of words for no in "The No Variations;" Leah MacLean-Evans's unwavering "Name Me After a Fish;" Judith Krause's searing "Once."

Between the lists of acknowledgements and contributors is a list of national, provincial, and territorial resources for survivors.

I'm grateful for these voices and this activism.


March 23, 2021


Lindsay B-e, "carbon cleaning columns". By permission

Lindsay B-e’s debut collection The Cyborg Anthology (Brick Books, 2020) is a book that imagines itself into a post-future future, a time after robots and cyborgs, who had thrived alongside humans, have been largely wiped out by the Great Solar Flare of 2202. The anthology’s aim is “to preserve and remember the Cyborg poets.”

B-e’s invented poets tell of being and suffering, while B-e’s poems examine being and the elements that compose it. They shift and open the question of what it is to be human. The playfulness of language delights me: titles like Hazel Hush’s “Relate Real Late” and “Topic Top Pick”, and the shaped poems of Patterson Armitage--The DictaScrivener, poems that curl and unfurl and clot over the page. The invented eras and schools make fond mockery of poetics and theory. And I’m moved by the expressions of desire, anguish, love and loss in these voices, how though some of them may deny it, they speak truths about feelings anyone might recognize.

Here’s a personal favorite, “Death Fable,” by an anonymous poet of the Sydney School of Robotics (active c 2085), a group of Cyborg poet-activists dedicated to rewriting, perhaps to (re)claim, famous Human poems. This section of the anthology offers poems responding to Tranströmer, Glück, Dickinson, and others. What I like about “Death Fable” is the way it invites us to look at an almost unbearable image of eternity, one that even “priests” and “purists” don’t want to contend with. It’s as though eternity is fine as a concept, as long as we don’t have to live with it in real time. “Look, look,” the poem insists, splicing the appeals between segments where the body is an object of desire, vulnerable; words breaking into the story with stuttering rhythms and echoed hard clicks it’s hard not to hear as a machine. The voice asserts proudly that the Cyborg can’t die, rising above the “crowd of the pious” who attack it, violate it with every part of their beings, turn it into sacrifice. And because I’ve entered the fiction Lindsay B-e has built for us, it’s hard for me not to hear real human anguish inside that empowered stance. Look how I can’t die, no matter how you try to break me lives side by side with Look how I can’t die, condemned to this soul-struggle forever.

Death Fable 
(after “Night Fable” by Óscar Hahn)


Look how I can’t die, look,

walking down street after street, look,

I tripped on the sidewalk, look,

when I crossed a black cat, look.


They write stories in the news about me, look,

with my smooth silicone bodice, look,

with my lush fleshly lips, look,

and metal-formed limbs, look.


Afterwards priests came

and wanted to kill me,

the purists came next,

and wanted to kill me.

the priests want my soul,

the purists want my body.


Look how I can’t die, look,

my soul has a back-up, look,

they can’t bury information, look,

There’s no coffin for it, look.


Then those priests returned

with a crowd of the pious and purists

and shoved the whole of me down,

with their bodies, their mouths, and their souls:

the body of a Cyborg, broken for all,

communion in my body once broken.


Look how they found, look,

a coffin for the night, look:

but they can’t kill my soul, look.

Look how I can’t die, look,

though they killed me - look! - at my soul.


January 13, 2021


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


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
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


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


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.