Northern Poetry Review: Archived

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Review: Sister Prometheus

Sister Prometheus: Discovering Marie Curie, by Douglas Burnet Smith

Reviewed by John Herbert Cunningham


Douglas Burnet Smith was born in 1949 in Winnipeg. Author of twelve volumes of poetry of which Voices from a Farther Room was nominated for the Governor General’s Award, he currently divides his time between Paris, France and Antigonish, Nova Scotia. He teaches English literature and creative writing at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.

This collection reminds one of Richard Parry’s Imperfect Penance in which Parry explores the life of Georg Trakl. Here, Smith engages in a poetical exploration of the life of Marie Curie. Is this a new direction in poetry? One perhaps derived from David Solway but substituting real, although fictionalized, characters in the stead of the ones Solway invents.

The introductory poem to Sister Prometheus is titled ‘Le Panthéon, I: Installation, 21 April 1995. A bit of background is needed to understand this poem. The Panthéon is located in Paris, France. In 1744, King Louis XIV vowed “if he recovered from an illness he would replace the ruined church of Sainte-Geneviève with an edifice worthy of the patron saint of Paris.”(Wikipedia) Although construction began immediately, innumerable delays prevented the completion until 1789. By that time, the French Revolution had begun “the new Revolutionary government ordered it to be changed from a church to a mausoleum for the interment of great Frenchmen.” Such literary luminaries as Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Émile Zola are buried there. In 1995, Marie Curie became the first woman to be interred there which leads us to the latter part of the poem:

They’re fond of quoting themselves, especially on the subject of female intelligence, how it contaminates their world: “First it was the respectability of the Sorbonne, the good name of Science. And now, on all occasions, France.” And so, Pierre & I dance, & share the last, eternal laugh, since it turns out that my demure but irrefutable presence here, & not the clever equations of Foucault, makes the great men rotate in their marble graves.

The Foucault referred to is not Michel but the one whose pendulum rotates in the entrance.

In ‘Warsaw, 7 November 1867, we are introduced to Marie and the times into which she was born:

The rest are whipped stumbling in chains to Siberia & the luckiest are the hundreds who will become meals of thawed flesh next spring for the hundreds who will follow, & unfortunately live. In the midst of this official ‘Russification,’ under the sign of the horseshoe, the arrow, the cross, on Freta Street, the fifth of five, I was born & named immediately after the Black Virgin of Chzestochowa: MARIA SALOMEA SKLODOWSKA.

A pattern emerges, a pattern of prose poetry, and the question is raised: why is this not prose? — a question which has been asked since Baudelaire. The only answer is the elevated language in which it is written and the compression of images which state without stating. We can see the fictionalized account of this biography by which it vaults into the world of poetry in ’On the Way to School, Gymnasium No. 3, 1879’:

A bomb in St. Petersburg had delivered Czar Alexander II to his examination by the angels. Knowing he’d fail, Kazia & I danced gleeful in an empty classroom. Mademoiselle yanked us by the braids to the office of the Superintendent. But he already knew I’d win the gold medal, & merely sent us home with stern letters of instruction on how to properly mourn the nation’s loss. So we did, in secret, with lemonade & chocolate ices.

The style is interesting. There is one problem though. Unless the reader is interested in the life of Marie Curie, the prose becomes quite ponderous. Devoid, for the most part, of any poetic devices such as metaphor, rhyme, meter, interesting endstops or caesuras, there is not much to hold ones attention. Certainly, prose poetry can be entertaining, even delightful. And certainly, Burnet Smith has taken the risk of extending the prose poem to comprise an entire book. For the fact that he has taken that risk, he can be thanked and appreciated. Unfortunately, at least for this reviewer, interest stops midway through.


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Interview: Matthew Tierney (2010)

Matthew Tierney’s second Tierneybook, The Hayflick Limit, came out with Coach House Books in spring 2009. He is a recipient of the K.M. Hunter Award for Literature, and won 1st and 2nd place in This Magazine’s 2005 Great Canadian Literary Hunt. His poems have appeared in journals and magazines across Canada, including Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead and Eye Weekly, among others. He lives in Toronto.

Alex Boyd interviewed Matthew Tierney in early 2010.

I love lines like “life forms engulfed in never enough.” Can you elaborate on your interest in science, and including elements of it in your poems?

Science is a way of knowing the world. Einstein said something like “What’s most incomprehensible about the universe is its comprehensibility.” It blows my mind that I can pick up a book and within hours get a rough-and-ready outline from the big bang on. If you actually read the book, you learn even more.

I could be a pedant and say that we all include elements of science in our poems. It’s the awareness of laws of nature that I’m after, awareness or awe-ness, and juggling that information while doing what we poets do –observe.

However, the intersection of science and poetry is fraught with laddered steps and potential hairline fractures. It’s tempting to slap some jargon onto the exterior and expect to get away with it because, let’s face it, the typical poetry reader looks back on science class with a fondness reserved for embarrassing sexual encounters.

Nobody wants to go back to high school, of course. But who has time to get a B.Sc.? At some point I have to make a call whether or not I’m confident in my comprehension of a concept. Niels Bohr once remarked that if you’re not dizzied by quantum mechanics, then you haven’t understood it. I take this as a point of reference for all my research. Once I’m sufficiently dizzy, I go with it.

You write about both chess and hockey, one a very mental and the other a very physical activity. What compels you to write these, and where are you exactly, on the scale between an interior mental life and a more outward physical one?

As I age, I’m discovering a rich interior life where I imagine in great detail all the physical things I was once capable of.

Chess and hockey are both big parts of my life. There’s an intuition to both that emerges with years of play: a gut feeling for the right move at time t based on similarly experienced scenarios buried in neural paths. So there’s that.

Another thing: it’s similar to what the writer brings to bear on the poem: this shortcut to brainpower, taking full advantage of an emotional IQ Vulcans seems to regard as superfluous. Coupled with higher cortical reasoning, it’s a full-court press on existence.

We consider our brains our defining feature, even endowing us with grace, or at least significance. But then in 1997, about 100,000 years into full-fledged modern specieshood and feeling pretty good about ourselves, along comes Deep Blue to hand Gary Kasparov his knickers on the battlefield. What is intelligence? It’s a question that intrigues me.

One thing I can say with certainty: A.I. may best us at chess and even write more poems, but it’ll never produce a better hockey player.

“Sedna with the Long Black Hair” is a poem about science class when you were a kid, combining lines about telescopes and microwaves with lines as organic-sounding as “Back then, new discoveries were apples in the orchard.” What’s your feeling about our relationship to technology these days?


Technology is understood by only a few, and that includes really old technology, like agriculture, and really old people, like Larry King. As for modern hi-tech, we’re most of us end-users of heavily marketed electronic devices, med-sci formulations, large-scale machinery, nuclear anything.

This makes it a very lopsided proposition. Technology helps us gain incredible insights into the universe, but because it mediates just about every facet of our lives, as individuals we relinquish some control. As a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer (I’m not really, just hypothesizing), I might be clueless about the big picture, but I’d have a firmer grasp on my day-to-day.

Technological change is exponential. Stone tools survived for hundreds of generations without much variation. Today nanotech bends light waves around invisibility cloaks and tomorrow it’ll turn us all into grey goo.

“A Flash of Merriment” is interesting for having no central image. Is it fair to say your poems want to capture activity that’s more peripheral than central?

I love the energy of language, how it bounces around your head like a superball. Love too the singular image that makes your backbone slide. If “Flash” seesaws one way more than the other, it’s an accident of birth not intelligent design.

It might be fair to say this poem mildly resists the imagist’s “economy of language,” which tends to go glove / hand with a sharp focus on things. It’s arguable whether in such a short poem that’s a good, er, thing; but it may manifest as “peripheral activity,” which is certainly a trend in my new work. I’m pushing away from “less is more” because it doesn’t approximate my interaction with a universe that delivers such varied, mind-shuddering kicks; to pretend otherwise is to idealize my experience in a way that I find specious.

Maybe I’m just in an impatient, cranky phase. But I’m coming to love a tense, maximalist line where accidents of process are made conspicuous.

There’s an impressive video for your poem “Parelasiphobia: Fear of Parades.” What do you think of this trend, does it enhance poetry or is it an absurd but necessary promotional device?

Somewhat absurd though I’m keen on absurdity, and surely not necessary. Poems exist unreliant on anything outside the poem, unlike a script or song lyric, and thus they take on other elements, like music or image, reluctantly. Which makes the good trailer’s existence alone rare and wonderful — the platypus of the poetry phylum. (Thanks to Evan Munday, Coach House publicist extraordinaire, for “Parades.”)

“Standard & Poor’s” is a remarkable prose poem. What do you think makes a poet choose that particular format?

Ha, you might have me there. I should probably say that the poem’s content demands its form, but I’m not sure how to articulate the thought process that goes into the choosing.

Certainly a prose poem triggers different expectations in the reader. There’s illusion involved with those unaltered margins, and (I’m spitballing here) maybe the challenge and compulsion of the prose poem is in part misdirection, a sleight-of-hand. Bunny meet hat. But then you have to get the poetry to come out on cue.

If someone accused me of writing extremely short stories, I wouldn’t be too bothered. I’ve always believed the extremely short story to operate as poetry.

Have I sufficiently dodged the question?

Your poem “Optic Nerve” ends “Topside, empty coffee cups / in fists, like white-lipped howls. / The lightless figures behind them.” Do you see people as a trifle helpless? Do you need a hug?

Free will is an illusion, so yes, we’re helpless. God, do I need a hug.

What’s next for you?

You mean I have to wait for that hug?

I’m writing poems for the next manuscript; they deal with time, specifically the physics of time and time travel.

Time travel (just mistyped a groaningly apposite “tome travel”) is a recognizable fault line in contemporary pop culture, sectioning off entire provinces of movies and literature, a prefab plot device that everyone indulges in, on a personal level, each Monday a.m. I hope to exploit this popularity in some as-yet unvisited future.

I wonder (out loud) if the flow of time impels the lyric poem, and if said poem attempts to apply friction against it. A friend of mine suggested there’s an innate mournfulness to the lyric; maybe it’s so because the poem is fighting an unwinnable battle. Only a pedant would say its failure is unqualified.

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Review: I Can Still Draw

I can still draw, by Heather Spears

Reviewed by Ingrid Ruthig


With the release of her twelfth collection, I can still draw, award-winning expat poet and visual artist Heather Spears continues to render an unsettling world. Her poems exhibit qualities similar to those of her drawings (four of which adorn this book); they are at once ordinary, urgent, deliberate, yet often remain ambiguous. At their best, lines encapsulate a moment, mood, or sensibility, then proceed to reveal a deeper reality, often through a single detail that contrasts sharply with its less-defined setting.

Spears’ skill at pinning down the essence of her subjects is apparent from the first poem: “‘The vagina,’ says Jack // in his loud lecturer’s voice / this time at the restaurant, leaning back, replete, / ‘has never been properly shown / in the medical books ….’” Like the narrator (one of Jack’s “listeners”), the reader is elbowed into paying attention, to “feel this touch / silk and continuous skin to inner skin / in darkness, the closeness the firm fold / as of two hands in celebration, / or smoothed linen, or a book, its pages / closed over silence.”

From there, a gallery of disparate studies shapes this collection, beginning with: museum photos of young pre-Raphaelite suffragettes; the long-neglected Sheffield knives of a Scottish ancestor; a slow, hot border crossing at Niagara Falls; cell phone towers disguised as trees; the West Coast’s ’quake-prone landscape; and even a glimpse at allergies, in the poem “Expecting hay fever at the Scottish border” which concludes with a startling, marvelous visual:

“Yellow broom among pines, and the brain

quickens to it, anticipates — […]

Countable now, the days

of my health […]

Hardly worth a complaint

much less a poem this is not serious

or permanent or even catching

yet it’s as maddening and unreasonable

as for the blind to have sore eyes

or the deaf between whose dull appendages

the sea sings and roars across immense synaptic gulfs

and gives them no peace —

or the numbed man, rising

who goes to stand on his foot, surprised

and falls through its absence

the whole height of himself.”

Another example of spellbinding imagery can be found in the poem “Synchronized swimming”, in which the swimmer surfaces “with water dripping off the rivets of her teeth.”

Elsewhere the language’s sonic insistence draws the reader deeper. In “Ghost crabs, Kihei”, a walk on the beach leads the narrator to ponder mysterious marks in the sand: “The beach is still in shadow / but it’s changed — scratched, textured, / something frantic happened here….” The word “frantic” immediately launches the poem to a higher realm, that of the contemplation of war and its insidious roots:

“Or it’s the aftermath

of warfare — tank tracks, bomb

craters and spewed sand, Desert Storm

on a tiny scale and only just surrendered.


[…]       There’d have been,

with anyone there to listen, a fierce whisper

almost sub-aural, all those armoured tips

manipulating, eyes on stalks

gunmetal backs gone haywire, mass and mess

and movement at ground level.


Whatever it was, it’s all stitched up.

The surf wipes the lower shore

and soon the towels and feet

of tourists will smooth away

whatever was done or undone,


While underground

in tunnels, in their solitary cells

the ghost crabs kneel on their many knees.”

Keen images and aural echoes blend to resonate with even greater impact. In “Spring tide, Active Pass, Quake poem 4”, lines such as “Lowest tide of the year and the pass / full of ravelled patterns […] Patches like rain squalls or the mess of false wind / under a helicopter” provide a dynamic sketch. Similarly, “On the bus through Tsawwassen” unleashes a fun rant on language’s contemporary mishandling with

Deafness Awareness Week

Disaster Response Route

I’m getting sick of these stupid

strings of nouns

Thing, thing, thing

as if you could nail down the world

Customer Satisfaction

what happened to verbs?”


But the rant ventures further, to elicit what is possible:


“[…] they overwhelm us, these names

for nothing, they are weighted and thick

they clog the beautiful empty space

between the shimmering touchable world

prevent its melting and inconstancies”

The blunt and the lovely coexist, sharper for their proximity, and heightened with deft aural fine-tuning. In “Tofino”, the crisp beauty of a shore landscape, “Away off, people eaten by the light / threadlike, gaunt as Giacomettis / against the enormous horizontal […] Call the dog to me […] her reflection a grid of pixels shaking / on the light-blasted slick” counterpoints the uncomfortably intimate “Ward 5033 room 15” in which a bereft new mother “heaves to greet me — large wet / in a gown half stuck to her, the thick / of her hug, heavy with heat / and milk and leaking grief”, as well as the unexpected reality of a post-accident Christopher Reeves in “Superman”, who “wakes to yet / another muted day, / the locomotive of his death / imperceptibly / accelerates”.

Though not a ‘selected’, this is a lengthy, undivided collection that could have benefitted from some pruning. Hiccups of style, form, and placement occur. Guiding punctuation often disappears, and a nebulous form tends to be used; in combination, they sometimes hinder an immediate clear perspective. Anomalous poems also appear, veering in odd directions without bearing their weight: “The Kibbles equivalent”, “A prayer for grandmothers with swimming pools”, and “The listserve sequence”, which set aside a more poetic esthetic to chattily lambaste a do-gooder of dogs, to air suburban worries, and with an undefined mood to pick up stray threads of electronic discussions. Yet, despite these weaknesses, there is much to recommend the book, and it will reward repeat readings.

When a writer has accomplished so much, one has to wonder if any unexplored territory remains. The reader who approaches I can still draw seeking the challenging, skewed jolt of Spears’ 1958 collection Asylum Poems won’t find it. Perhaps that is as it should be. Still, this book proves that it is never too late for the eye to discover and for the pen to startle.

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Review: Surviving the Censor: The Unspoken Words of Osip Mandelstam

Surviving the Censor: The Unspoken Words of Osip Mandelstam, by Rafi Aaron

Reviewed by Shane Neilsen


Initially, I was wary of this book. The title was a red flag; Who dares put words in Osip’s mouth? I thought. It is my own practise to write, on Christmas Eve, a poem to the dead Mandelstam, a practise I’ve made for the past five years. Never in one of those years did I think to be so bold as to put words in his mouth. I may have used his patronymic, I might have imagined an anecdote or two, but never did I actually presume to speak for Mandelstam. I would have felt it wrong on two counts: the dead don’t talk, unless a hidden letter or manuscript becomes available, and secondly I would have been digging myself a hole. After all, who can sing like Mandelstam, who can carry it off?

Mostly, though, I imagine Nadezdha Mandelstam, author of the memoirs Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, clucking her possessive tongue at the very idea. I don’t want to make the same Aaronian mistake and presume to know what she would say, but I can’t help but imagine Nadezdha, who to some extent did survive the censor with two anti-totalitarian books, urging Aaron to develop his own voice as opposed to an attempt at ventriloquism.

But then I thought of Nadezdha’s beloved M. and his own practise of ventriloquism. For example, Mandelstam wrote “The Finder of a Horseshoe (A Pindaric fragment),” and it is no secret that Mandelstam’s guiding poetic influence was Dante. So, let Mandelstam be Aaron’s Dante, I say, and as a reviewer allow it to go no further than that.

Aaron’s first poem, “Let Us Begin at the End”, makes an interesting beginning of itself: it can be contrasted greatly with Mandelstam’s technique, which was densely lyrical, symbol-rich, stanzaic, and in the early going, allusive. Aaron’s poem is, by contrast, rather dream-like, typographical, and visual:

his words fall

silently like rain in the middle of the night, the world is asleep

or not listening


the words tap on the dark glass or the dream and are heard

in the memory of a previous storm

they drop into tiny pools

Now, I think it is fair to ask the question: Is this indeed what Mandelstam would say, or rather is it how he would say it? The answer is obvious: No. Mandelstam’s lyrics were blessed and free from sentiment; you’d never catch Mandelstam ending a poem like this

singing and dancing

and as long as his lips move

and he can feel the words, the sharp words

the soft words and the words he will never use

then he is alive

Of course this is elegy, using the device of a dead poet pronouncing on his own death, and much in Mandelstam is elegiac (life and work), but this poem just serves as preliminary: here, Aaron says, are the soft words and words he will never use, I will give them to you. As a reviewer, I object to this appropriation on the grounds that the poem is not very good; it is another argument to say if poets should write poems like this, but when they do, they had better do it well. Where is the majesty of Mandelstam? The mysteriousness of his images? It seems to me that “soft words and words he will never use” are not unspeaking softly in this clunker poem, and it’s those “soft” words Aaron himself needs to pull the collection off, and so I read this poem more as an elegy to Aaron’s powers as a poet. Mandelstam, after all, was a master.

Perhaps the most egregious intrusion on Mandelstam’s memory is the idea of a prose poem. All of Mandelstam is antithetical to the idea, and Aaron’s standard use of the prose poem suggests a kind of game: here is an updated, modernized Mandelstam. Aaron’s prose bits (one can’t even call them Mandelstam lite, so utterly are they unlike the presiding poet) are atmospheric, but they are unburdened of image. It’s hard for me to sit through snippets like the following:

His voice rose from somewhere, from a gorge or a

canyon, a lost year or a forgotten photograph. So soft, so

powerful, a whisper commanded me to follow him. And

so I travelled close to his words wearing the white sea

on my tongue. I reached the mountains or the coastal

plains, it made no difference, the night curled its lips

and spoke of darkness, and still waters dreamt of waves.

unless I’m sitting on my hands, wondering about the botching of a reputation. This is portentous and vague; Mandelstam faced down the century with lyric, and here he is served up gooey and prosy. And it’s not a case of like attracting unlike; I wouldn’t forgive this poem in a different collection under different pretences. “And so” in a poem? There is the occasional sop to poetry “white sea on my tongue,” but it’s abandoned later — indeed makes “no difference”– when we conjure up the dark speaking of darkness, the still water, etc. There are many prose poems like this, lyrically lax with overdone foreboding. Consider the similarly lighting-obsessed “What Mandelstam Meant To Russians During the Stalin Years”:

Now imagine during this period the smallest of

flames is somehow flickering outside your window. It

has the strength of the morning sun breaking through

your shutters, It is all that separates you from the

darkness of the day and the darkness of the night. You

spend your life by this flame and melt into its glow. After

many hours or days or months you believe you can train

the flame to leap higher on the walls…

I get it, I get it: it was a dark time, and Mandelstam offers a light. What Mandelstam never offered was a sledgehammer, his Acmeist “nostalgia for word culture” a subtle, omnivorous, syncretist thing that wouldn’t have suffered either “the” or the dreading hanging “it” as line breaks. It would be safe to say that this book is utterly without fidelity, an odd thing for the claim laid out in the title. One might have, in speaking for Mandelstam, appropriated his voice as a means of establishing credibility, and then ventured something new. This just reads like a young poet jazzed on the legend of Mandelstam and using him for his own purposes.

But my “How dare he” radar really trips when Aaron manipulates Mandelstam into pronouncing on the regime. Well, Mandelstam already did that better in “We live without feeling beneath us firm ground,” a poem on Stalin, with lines like

We live without feeling beneath us firm ground,

Ten feet away you can’t hear the sound


Of any words but “the wild man in the Kremlin,

Slayer of peasants and soul-strangling gremlin…”


But with Aaron all we get in “A Moment’s Rest from My Life” is


Understand this. I did not chart this course nor did I

abandon it once it became clear. What happened

happened quickly. After the revolution many things would

be lost forever. I feared for the life of a single word:

poisoned by the regime, I discovered it listless on the page.

Which is livelier, which is indeed even alive? I’m not contrasting the rebelliousness of Mandelstam’s poem (which had lethal consequences) to Aaron’s (which was presumably composed in relative tranquility); it’s true that Mandelstam had a five-year period where he wrote no poetry, so Aaron’s poem is historically valid. What I’m contrasting is the devastating line, alternately translated, of “ten feet away you can’t hear the sound / of our speeches” with “What happened / happened quickly.” In Aaron, it’s all about what’s not happening; the presiding genius-poet just isn’t coming through. I’m going to call this prose, for that’s what it is, and I’m going to call it “listless on the page,” because it is.

All of this is not to say that Aaron is thoroughly dubious as a poet; he has redeeming moments. When he actually tried to write poetry, and not prosy poems, he does quite well. “Lubyanka”, a poem written to the secret police prison, is very successful:

Lubyanka the century is shaking, every stone is

a tear, admit what you are: the half-sister of truth,

the commissar of fear, the poison the hungry

were fed.

Whoa. The image of that fear-inducing building being constructed by individual tears, so that it is the edifice itself of fear, the officialdom of fear, that the starved, terrorized populace were fed its meat (Nadezdha Mandelstam said: “It was the height of satanic refinement to give the victims of terror every opportunity, before their arrest, to dishonour themselves by extolling it.”) this is where Mandelstam can be found. Let it be said that Aaron found Mandelstam in this book, just not as much, nor in the places he expected.

For there are just too many moments where Aaron makes vague pontifications that serve to indict his art: usually about light and silence. In “The Years of Silence” he concludes, in a form that might as well be laid down as prose, that

When the

flashes of light died darkness inherited our words,


and what could never be

written or spoken

weaved its way

into the mind

and echoed in the ear.

A little of this is fine; it’s clear Aaron has made light and silence his dominant themes, but as they accumulate they seem to be saying: I can do nothing else, all I can do is name these words vaguely and hope for the best.

There are a handful of good poems here, poems like “Lubyanka” but also “Listening to the Elevator” and “Natasha Shtempel and the Evacuation of Voronezh,” poems that fulfill Jospeh Brodsky’s formulation of Mandelstam’s genius: “[W]hat matters in art is precisely the unique, unrepeatable, unressurectible mixture of flesh and spirit…” Notice the words unique, unrepeatable, unressurectible… but this collection is all about resurrection at length, and it seems as if this collection were made to fit, and brought out to length with filler. Nadezdha has written on the long poem sequence, saying that “Long poetic works of the kind we are speaking [Akhmatova’s “Poem Without a Hero”] always have a special momentum of their own which carries the reader along — as it has previously carried along the author — in an irresistible poetic surge, snatching him up like a wave, and setting him down again only at the end, at the final pause.” Aaron’s urge was best resisted; the poems feel like notes to future poems, and there is no momentum in the book.

Occasionally Aaron gives the stage over to an unnamed “researcher” and to Nadezdha. His style does not change — he steamrolls over them the same way he steamrolls over Osip. But let’s give the last word — the real last word — one of the real ventriloquized, to Nadezdha, who might have been warning Aaron when she said: “I was upset that M. did not sleep at night, indulging in these feats of poetry instead. But he calmed me by saying that the more difficulties you had to contend with, the better it was for your poetry — you would write nothing superfluous. I believe he was right.” Perhaps, in the end, it’s best to leave Mandelstam alone.

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Interview: Jim Johnstone (2009)

Jim Johnstone obtained jim johnstonehis MSc in Reproductive Physiology from the University of Toronto, where he is currently a doctoral candidate. He is a two-time winner of the E. J. Pratt Medal and Prize in Poetry, the recipient of a 2008 CBC Literary Award and his work has been broadcast on CBC Radio’s Between the Covers and published in Canadian periodicals such as The Fiddlehead, Grain and PRISM International. Guernica Editions published his first book of poetry, The Velocity of Escape, in 2008. Currently he edits Misunderstandings Magazine, a literary journal he co-founded with Ian Williams and Vicki Sloot. 

Alex Boyd interviewed Jim Johnstone in summer, 2009. 

Your poem “Lines of Communication” would seem to suggest a mistrust of technology (a “dialtone snakes out”), or am I reading that the right way?

Mistrust of technology is certainly an interpretation of “Lines of Communication.” More specifically I’m interested in how technology has altered communication, and by proxy social constructs. My trust issues are deeply routed; one of the unifying themes in The Velocity of Escape is the unreliability of language, regardless of how it’s relayed.

The poem “Conjoined Dreams,” is a strangely beautiful one, but also appears to be proof poetry doesn’t need to be based on personal experience. How do these kinds of poems come about for you?

“Conjoined Dreams” isn’t autobiographical, but it does contain elements of personal experience. The Siamese poems in The Velocity of Escape are an extended metaphor for my relationship with my brother, and how time and space pull family apart. Despite the fact that my brother and I were never physically attached, we were rarely separate as children.

There’s a great deal of physicality in your poems — references to skin, or lips, or white blood cells. Can you elaborate on what compels you to include these details?

I feel a strong sense of ownership over my own physicality. One of the reasons I chose to become a Physiologist was my inability to focus outside of my own corporeal environment. After a while I thought of my body as an advantage; I would use it as an aid during exams. Understanding what I could see directly came easily. From a creative standpoint my views are similar: the tangibility of the human body is universal.

Your line that a puncture “hemorrhages / rough ink,” suggests writing as a difficult, physical process. Am I right, or should I go back and take English class all over again?

Good writing should be challenging for both reader and writer alike. I struggle to reinvent myself from poem to poem, often taking a scientific approach to change; I don’t enjoy staying in a comfort zone for long.

You’ve edited Misunderstandings Magazine for at least a few years now — has it had an influence on your work?

I don’t know if MM has influenced my work as much as it’s influenced my sense of Toronto’s literary community. The primary goal of the magazine is to provide opportunities for young writers, and over 12 issues (and counting) I feel confidant that we’ve been able to do that. MM has led to my involvement with a group of contributors in a more hands-on sense, editing chapbooks for Cactus Press. This past year we published poetry by Mark Laliberte (It looks like rain), Edward Nixon (Free Translation) and Josh Stewart (Invention of the Curveball). A new chapbook by Matt Rader is forthcoming this fall.

Name three poets that have had a strong influence on you.

Earle Birney was a strong formative influence. I attended elementary school in Uxbridge, where Birney spent his final years, and his presence loomed large in the community. Since it’s difficult to limit my influences to three, I’ll choose one classic and one contemporary poet to round out my choices. Classic = John Milton. A better pure poet than Shakespeare. Contemporary = Ken Babstock. Every time I pick up Airstream Land Yacht it ruins me.

What’s next for you?

Other (and sometimes rather) than completing my PhD thesis, I’m working on two books: the follow up to The Velocity of Escape (which contains a suite of poems that won a 2008 CBC Literary Award) and a booklength poem titled Sunday, the locusts (which was recently shortlisted for the Matrix Lit-Pop Award). Sunday, the locusts has been especially challenging, and is a collaborative project with an artist/friend, Julienne Lottering, who has pushed me to expand my poetic voice. It’ll be a few years, however I’m excited for both projects to see the light of day.

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Review: The Bentleys and Types of Canadian Women: Volume Two

The Bentleys by Dennis Cooley

Types of Canadian Women: Volume Two by K.I. Press.

Reviewed by Carmelo Militano.


Both Dennis Cooley and K.I. Press are local Winnipeg poets. Cooley, the grandfather of the ongoing vibrant poetry scene here, published his first book of poems “Bloody Jack” back in the late seventies (reissued by the University of Alberta Press in 2002) and since has gone on to publish some ten books of poetry, edit an early anthology of prairie poetry called “Draft,” and publish a collection of essays — “The Vernacular Muse” — on poetry. As well, he has also been teaching Canadian Lit at the University of Manitoba for the past twenty-five years.

K.I. Press is a much younger poet and previous to this collection has published two collections: “Spine” and “Pale Red Footprints.” Cooley’s new poetry is a return to a familiar conception he explored in “Bloody Jack,” that is, he enters a world already created (in this case the novel “As for me and My House” by Sinclair Ross) and tries to recover and fill in / out the emotionally charged lives of the central characters with poetry. “The Bentleys” is a complicated love story full of desire, heartache, betrayal, and longing set during the 30s depression on the prairies. But the passion does not exist only in the characters. This is also a collection of poetry passionately engaged with language and landscape. Cooley’s playfulness with language, his stretching of words like rubber bands to test their bounce, and the clever irreverent tone he takes when he is literally messing around with poetic forms is vintage Cooley. This is a poet who again and again says “Writing is serious stuff but that does not mean we can’t have fun, and by the way I want you to watch me having fun and I want to tell you how much fun I am having too.” See, for example, the mock poster on page 90 or the send up of a playbill called “Wind and Horses” in the opening pages of the book.

There is also a love here, for the local rural prairie language and behind this love is the simple notion that plain language can be used poetically to great effect. This view of poetic language can be traced back to poets like William Carlos William who sought to write and to find the extraordinary through ordinary language.

And there’s the beautiful mingling of passion and the empty ache of a blank prairie:

…. The window a great emptiness

blind as a mirror

when no one is there…


there should be a sign

what we want

are signs


our bent &



what can we say

to one another

we all hear the flutterings

in wind.

The poems successfully weld together the impact of the prairie landscape on the main characters, their own erotic yearnings, brief fulfillment followed by grief, desire, the relentless prairie sun, dust, and the impossibly vast sky. In short, the poems express a kind of prairie existentialism that’s linked to the vast empty spaces and the vagaries of love. Like the people who work the land, love is “obdurate & implausible in waiting / in love as unyielding,” like a stone. It is not necessary for you to have read Ross’s book to enjoy and understand this collection. Cooley effectively renders the ebb and flow of the sad tender love story as well as being a broad punster / trickster and uses many voices, tones, and forms to retell their story.

The collection “Types of Canadian Women,” on the other hand, is a quirky book although like Cooley, K.I. Press enters a fictional world already created, or at least refers to one, and then proceeds to explore it with subtle irony and mordant droll humor. The premise of the collection is that the author (who has a fussy, overly refined, old-fashioned voice that reminds one of a female version of the voice in Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) has supposedly written the long awaited second volume of portraits about Canadian women and their character. The layered tropes here are like those from a Jorge Louis Borges story where we read a story based on a fictional book; in the K.I.Press collection we’re reading fictional poems based on imaginary women from the late nineteenth and early twentieth -century. In short, fiction based on another fiction.

To create her “types” K.I.Press (a name I first thought was part of the ongoing joke about layers of fiction) writes sometimes what I call prose poem portraits. The poem portraits are structured like prose but the individual sentences and the closure of each piece works like a good poem, setting up expectation and then surprising us. The endings of each piece are often sharp and wickedly funny and work sometimes against the quiet tone of genteel breeding.

Here is an example taken from the beginning of one:

“I do not eat. I have no unmentionables not to mention. I do nothing I could not do in public. (Except sometimes with the gardener, in the willow trees.) ”

Press writes about thirty of these short, three or four paragraphs vignettes that show mostly educated women from the middle or upper class of the late 19th century in a series of situations ranging from the problems of courtship and marriage to the taming and hiding of erotic desire (a favorite late 19th century preoccupation) to the problems of the domestics arts such as cooking, horses, servants, and looking after the home. Press, however, is also capable of using conventional free verse. Here is an example of Press using familiar poetic form to convey some stilted erotic desire and its angry vengeful aftermath:

Beneath giant parasols, courtside,

we barely spoke above our cream

and wild strawberries…


On his white trousers

I smeared the berries, a pink explosion

For jealous laundry girls to find.

For his wife, and for my grey, mossy husband,

just this: a little knob inside me.

For him, to be haunted

by my mouth,

a pink explosion.

Some of these poems also explore the issue of what to do with spare time, if you’re a woman of the upper class, or the struggle for women to create an identity opposite to the restrictive roles and conventions imposed in nineteenth society. The issue of identity, role, and the psychic and emotional wounds has an unmistakably modern sound and it’s a collection that explores ideas with wit, insight, thoughtful reflection, striking imagery and language. So there you have it: two books by two Winnipeg poets who enter different imagery worlds and return to tell us who we are, and where we were.

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Review: Meniscus

Meniscus, by Shane Neilson

Reviewed by Monique Mathew


The hard work of unearthing, examining, and then finally, cataloguing a lifetime’s hurts is the task of Meniscus (Biblioasis, 2009), Shane Neilson’s first tradebook of poetry. Meniscus contains both new work and writing previously published in his chapbooks The Beaten-Down Elegies (2004) and Exterminate My Heart (2008). Divided into four sections, Meniscus starts with “The Beaten Down Elegies”, a collection of poems which recount memories of Neilson’s childhood and adolescence. Set against the stark backdrop of rural New Brunswick, the poems restage the fear and alcohol-fueled violence of his family life. Episodes of abuse at the hands of his father are conveyed like sharp and unwanted flashbacks, as seen in the poem “The Beaten Down Elegy”: “His slurred breath heavy/ a pant as blood flows/ From my mouth, the sawdust/ dreams of a kid thrown/ from a rafter to land/ in copper straw. The dread/ of Dad, down the ladder and looming, steel toes/inches from a broken/ boy. He’s on me now, blows/ of closed hands, cries smothered / in the collapsed bellows / of my chest. His curses/nothing next to his bawling.” Neilson describes his stomping grounds of fallow farm fields and dilapidated vegetable stands with the same breathtaking detail, with his family home and the surrounding landscape competing in their inhospitableness. The poems demonstrate that thriving is not always possible, as even survival under such conditions is precarious.

The second section of Meniscus is “Manic Statement,” a tunneling exploration of mental illness. The poems examine states of depression, mania and paranoia, with the swings of mood between the poems exemplifying the instability of the subject matter. In “Christmas Morning,” Neilson recalls the childish joy of opening presents with his wife and young daughter: “Joy amidst festive wreckage. / My girl laughs in an ornament jungle.” This moment of pleasure is quickly followed by the poem “Method” which meditates on ways of committing suicide with an unsettling quietude: “To jump— / in this, real freedom. / No swallowing of gunmetal, / no deliberation of knots, // Only the urge of footsteps. / Then air. /”

“Seized,” the third section of Meniscus, plumbs the strange territory of sustaining a head injury—with a faint narrative that begins with an accident, followed by a dizzying ambulance ride and estranged states of awareness. The poems in “Seized” bear titles like “Seizure en Route,” “Second Seizure en Route” and “To the O.R.” The graphic and literal nature of these poems begs deeper interpretation, leading one to consider head wounds, seizures and delirium as metaphor. While “Manic Statement” explores the impact of trauma on the psyche, Neilson uses “Seized” to tell the same story of pain, using blows to the physical body to dizzying effect.

Neilson concludes Meniscus with “Love Life”, a dark portrayal of love as the primary source of emotional pain, a fitting follow up to the book’s earlier explorations of psychological and physical suffering. The” poems consider love from many angles—from the perspectives of an impassioned lover, a husband in a fading marriage and a new father regarding his child. The poem “Rebound” describes a love relationship: “Love was forgotten / and bastardized and / flecked and fucked, we / woke and fell and fell / again, knees skinned / then cracked and I / buckled, I swore / you off like a lifestyle / drug, and it’s lifeless, / lifeless I took you, / and take you, and like / the brittle brown / of a dead diseased leaf, / ”.

There are several poignant moments in “Love Life,” such as when Neilson recalls his daughter’s early years, using allusions to fairytales and fantasy to recapture the wonder of childhood. This paternal joy becomes eclipsed by a pervasive fear that his daughter will one day suffer and perhaps become the victim of abuse herself, as seen in “On Realizing his Toddler Will Become a Woman”: “That one day, the tally of wonders / commonplace, your body marked / by routine violence, you will return / here and seek to retreat / from the marksman. / That I could offer / protection, that I could draw you / close and, as now, hum / you a lullaby—one from your childhood, / the words forgotten.”

The ability to observe emotions from a place of detachment can often be an after-effect of trauma, characterized by numbness and cognitive distortions toward feelings. This detachment seems present throughout Meniscus– the varietals of pain described in the work are described with a consistent coolness and emotional disconnect. Given the topics of child abuse, mental illness and marital discord, this impassivity in the poetic voice is somewhat unsettling and at times, works to diminish the emotional impact of the poems. Neilson’s use of language is stark, but this off-kilter beauty is arresting. On the whole, Meniscus chronicles an individual’s trajectory from childhood to parenthood, with keener attention paid to the millstones than the milestones. Although the territory Neilson covers in his debut tradebook is undoubtedly dark, there are still many worthwhile moments to be forged in its depths.