Showing posts from 2017


The waking, the being awakened/ the being asked, the replying/ the dutifully waiting, the inwardly leaping in Sue Goyette's Penelope . Cathedralings of what I know and don't know about Plath, and the deep well beneath that more explicit source, in Sina Queyras's My Ariel . Lives lived and lived again in Mary di Michele's Bicycle Thieves . Swords of light in Sue Sinclair's Heaven's Thieves . Being right there - in the rooms, under the desk, at the hospital, on fresh grass - in Susan Elmslie's Museum of Kindness . Tracings of earth and root in Phoebe Wang's Admission Requirements . Funhouse mirror effects (and that title!) in Linda Besner's Feel Happier in 9 Seconds . Intimacy and elegy in Roo Borson's Cardinal in the Eastern White Cedar . The thrill of the tremble in Erin Robinsong's Rag Cosmology . Triage and welcome in Ronna Bloom's The More . Seeds and branches in Gillian Sze's Panicle . Still in its wra

I COME TO POETRY WITH CUPPED HANDS: In Conversation with Phoebe Wang

Every few minutes a drone over my left shoulder causes me to look up from the hammock, where I've received multiple mosquito bites while immersed in Phoebe Wang's lyric poems. The drone is bigger than a mosquito: a hummingbird, perhaps attracted by the red strings slung between trees, or the open throats of daylilies. It hovers as though still, as though watching; maybe I've set myself up in a nest zone. The physical world grounds this poet's work; details are precisely observed and energy-of-being lands on the page in orderly, measured language. We spoke during the summer about foundations, stillness and movement, and what comes next. SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry -- or it to you? PHOEBE WANG: I come to poetry with cupped hands. I also come to poetry with certain habits of mind and routines, in that I have come to rely on poetry as a means to achieve, not an epiphany or even clarity, but a way through a moment of bewilderment or doubt. It&

Phoebe Wang: A Poem

Phoebe Wang THE CHILD-BRIDE: A LETTER after Li Po I saw no changes in my life those first years of marriage, negotiated like a trade alliance. A child in a collar of point coupé , I shivered beside you, smelling of stale bread, already greying from years of tribal wars. In three months you were back at sea sowing my dowry like a new kind of tree. For two years there was little news. I slept in my usual bed. I was fifteen when you washed up. I masqueraded in breeches, roamed Paris for days, watching fine ladies descending from crested carriages. Had I no thought, my family chorused, of their honour? At twenty I at last agreed to sail from Honfleur. What can I say about the crossing? The sea couldn't bear us. So this was a new world: the raw smell of lumber, of pig manure in straw... At Québec the mud lay thick, the roofs leaked, you were mortified. I watched you kneeling in the rows of peas, seeing what you planted. I spoke Algonquin almost as well a


S. E. Venart THE FALLING ACTION She was sixty-nine or was she seventy?  Some people said a ripe old age.         It’s said that if the young learn that they are dying, they become holy.     I suppose it’s their face.  It is said, anyway.     Above the barn sink, the glass held the reflection of a barn cat leaping for a barn swallow. I saw it go down, slapping my wet hands and seething: Shit ! W ell, that’s over.       I looked everywhere for meaning: in her soft-tissued pyjamas, in her perhaps-holy face. I read poems to her that were little stories: man walks into autumn beach town, is a skunk, finds a skunk, the end.       I made lemon custard. I set spoons on the two-by-four table. This is my gold-packed love.   I pushed in her puritan bench. The other side of the window bloomed lilac— I can’t say what I want that to mean— she was already above me, outside me, beyond me? Still I brought a bowl to her table.   Each spoonful she spat into the napkin, her f

A Convergence of Gazes: Gjertrud Schnackenberg on "Afghan Girl"

I was enjoying my second coffee on a quiet morning some time ago when this message from Gjertrud Schnackenberg arrived in my inbox.  Dear Susan, At last I’ve finished the poem I’ve been working on day and night since October, 2012.  When I began the poem I was overjoyed because I thought it would be a short poem, and I always want and hope to write short poems — but as weeks turned into months and years, the writing began to feel like a dream in which I was using magic scissors to cut into it and cut into it,  and with every cut, the poem grew longer and longer.  She had attached a file. I put down what I was doing and opened it, and began reading. And re-reading. It was, to put it simply, astonishing.  “Afghan Girl” ( New England Review , June 2017) pays tribute to Steve McCurry's iconic photograph of a young woman, later identified as Sharbat Gula, in an Afghan refugee camp. Her arresting gaze is the starting point for Schnackenberg’s interrogation of conflict,

A Most Anticipated Kindness

Another most anticipated 2017 collection: Susan Elmslie's Museum of Kindness , Fall 2017 from Brick Books. Why are there so many museums devoted to acts of war, instruments of torture, all manner of atrocity, but not to acts of kindness? This is essentially how Susan Elmslie explained her new collection to me when we chatted one day last fall. It's wonderfully affirming, the thought of honouring kindness this way. It also sparks something slightly chilling: is kindness so strange to us that it needs to be set in a museum? But museums are not the only places the things in them inhabit.... Museum of Kindness , cover image by RenéBolduc As the publisher's website says, in this book Susan Elmslie's is "a sober and unflinching gaze that meets us where we really live and does not look away." Read "In Praise of Hospital Cafeterias" here and more from Museum of Kindness at Numero Cinq


SUSAN ELMSLIE In Praise of Hospital Cafeterias Water, is taught by thirst. — Emily Dickinson Not exactly an oasis in the desert, but as you bide time before the biopsy or loosen your watch to let the news sink in, good to avail yourself of the $2.22 coffee & muffin combo or Fairlee pulp-free OJ and bagel, benign beige plastic chair, dusty plant languishing on a ledge: a single bloom, reaching toward the window’s frosted glass. On another day this plant would be giving God the finger.   The food service worker’s skirt argues with her butt.   Luck sounds like a word a baby might say, trying out her tongue.   So what if you have forgotten the common names of trees, the taste of a carrot with the dirt just rubbed off, which bird says, youcheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburg . There is ordinary comfort in wrapped straws. A lady is scraping a muffin paper with her teeth, so beautiful.   For now there is no

SQ's Ariel

Among my most anticipated this year is Sina Queyras's My Ariel, from Coach House Books (September 2017). Sina Queyras' My Ariel, from Coach House Books If you've been watching these poems hatch over the last few years, you're probably like me: eager for the book, to hold, browse, watch, read and hear. Meanwhile, fortunately, this poem, Tulips . And this and this from the Awl And this and this from Poetry

Sina Queyras: Tulips

SINA QUEYRAS Tulips The tulips are not lovely, they make me cry, they are Excitable, willing, complicit: they will never fly. They begin so prim, they turn and stare, then settle In and suck my good air. I think they slipped in Between the nurses sailing by my bouquet-bright harem Festooned room and now wild tulips from Syria And Persia swoon. They are servants of mood, descendants of the fifty Thousand sent as a gift to Turkey where a Sultan tamed The small explosions so central to the pleasure gardens. The tulips swan my fears, they mock my tears, giggle And preen across the sheers where the variegated Parrot reigns over lesser varieties whose sculpt and sheen Are nonetheless honeyed bright apples I cannot bite. I hear the Sultan crammed his pipe—a stem of some long Tulip—full of fat red bores—the kind that drove you Out of London, though not the ambition out of you—not even Death could achieve that. Listen, these sheets cocoon me Hour after hour, the su


Image by Mirja Paljakka/Red Edge Images, used by permission S. E. Venart CHANCE HARBOUR Some things cannot be faced head on. Inside the bay, men in boots come with shovels, open our washed ocean floor. The thoughts I can never lose or use spout from the sanded throats of clams beneath what the tide exposes. Two years after your death, you’re back visiting my sister’s yard, admiring the lilacs. Some things cannot be faced head on. When the men climb in a dinghy, they accept a black mask and plunge for whores’ eggs: prickled delicacies to be eaten, peeled, by eastern men. These thoughts I will never lose lie beneath our bay’s smooth skin, it’s coming in, low tide holds its copper strength for only sixty seconds. I have no time to fix you in place before you’re gone. Some things cannot be faced head on. This visit, you stood by tiny lilac flowered flutes, unruffled bay behind you. All pettiness aside, I can’t be the daughter pulling something


It might have been the Athens Restaurant in Halifax where I first met Darren Bifford, deep in conversation with a friend I'd gone over to greet. Or it might have been in Montreal, at The Word Bookstore (for everyone eventually turns up at The Word). Or maybe some other realm entirely. SUSAN GILLIS: What first brought you to poetry? DARREN BIFFORD: It’s surprising to me that I became interested in poetry at all. I grew up in a small town in Western Canada where there wasn’t much by way of culture. I have a memory of my ninth grade English teacher laboriously attempting to explain the difference between a metaphor and a simile. Still, some cultural scraps ended up within reach. My grandmother ordered this four cassette series of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Haydn which I do not recall anyone ever listening to. I was interested in this music in part because it seemed so out of place.           The same, I think, happened with poetry. We had a teacher of English Lit