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March Books

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Issue: 43 Section: Literature & Ideas Topics: poetry

February 23, 2007

March Books

A Ragged Pen: Essays on Poetry & Memory
R. Finley, P. Friesen, A. Hunter, A. Simpson, J. Zwicky
Gasperau Press: Kentville, NS, 2006.

At the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, in the spring of 2005 in Vancouver, Aislinn Hunter moderated a panel called “Constructs of Memory,” asking this question: “What are the poet’s responsibilities to the past, to the dead, to truth and to history?” Understandably, a variety of approaches and interpretations coloured the responses. According to the introduction of A Ragged Pen, the “session finished with a sense – on the part of panelists and audience members – that the papers had read especially well together, and that they should be collected and published side by side.” And so they have been, with the added bonus of some creative and supposedly illustrative material from each writer – all but one using their own work to incarnate the spirit of their essay. After accepting the book for what it is, and understanding its history, the reader is free to enjoy five fantastic essays on poetry and memory. Anyone who has ever pondered the problems of consciousness and memory, the unceasing passage of time, or the complexities of rendering experience into poetic form will benefit from reading A Ragged Pen.
--Matthew J. Trafford

Hello . . . Hello
Karen Hines
Coach House Books: 2006.


Karen Hines is a much-nominated dramatist and director, but those loyal to the CBC will more readily recognize her as rosebud-lipped bullshit-detector Karen from Ken Finkleman's brilliantly biting The Newsroom. Tonally, Hello . . . Hello, a dark musical comedy, isn't far from Hines' sweet-and-sour shtick on the show. Billed as a “romantic satire,” it's equal parts frothy love story and sharp denunciation of contemporary consumerist society. Ad-exec Ben and retail-princess Cassandra fall in love against the backdrop of beautifully polluted skies and glass towers. Meanwhile, a manic two-person chorus describes the scene in intentionally overblown language and ricochets through dozens of roles, often switching personae within the space of a few lines. Throughout, Hines peppers acidic observations on the regrettable status of art in contemporary society. Cassandra mourns a dead lover, an artist who commits suicide because “'there's no money in poetry.' Or was it 'there's no poetry in money?' I can't remember.” While Hello . . . Hellooccasionally falls victim to the commonest of theatrical crimes—namely, that it's art about art—its wit, playfulness, and hyperactive energy prevail.
--Regan Taylor

Ghost Country
Steve Noyes
Brick Books: Toronto, 2006.


The cover of Ghost Country, Noyes’ third poetry collection, depicts a present-day female nude facing a classical painting of goateed intellectuals. This excellently appropriate image introduces the work’s preoccupation with the tensions between the individual and history. Noyes’ poems render the relationships of a white male English teacher in contemporary China, an outsider both desired and despised. The tone is one of frank, retrospective disclosure; the language is emotionally and visually vivid. Ghost Country’s speakers are awkward, their moments of shame raw and of grace unglamorous, as in the tender humour of “English as a Second Language”: “Pen-guin.” / “Yes, a penguin.” / “Pen-guin.” She waddles the length / of the bed to confirm.” Noyes consistently explores the vast cultural backdrop to such tiny moments, drawing imagistic conclusions like: “money-- / a wand, directing humans casually, irrevocably, like a flood...floods can be dealt with, can in fact be planned and produced, on the largest scale. ... scale is meaningless.” Though Noyes’ more abstract constructions are occasionally syntactically confusing, on the whole Ghost Country’s contradictions are deliberate and satisfying.
--Jane Henderson

Every Inadequate Name
Nick Thran
Insomniac: Toronto, 2006.

The stand-out poem in this collection is “Seriously, It Was the Biggest Cricket,” a contemplation of hyperbole. “Later,” Thran writes, “actual/ clothing would melt off actual flesh; yes, melt,/ not just fall to the floor, because, seriously, she/ was the hottest.” As with many of these piecees, it's the earnestness that grabs you; Thran's speakers always sound a little lost, held only by the fragile structures of a conversational diction. Occasionally, Thran surprises with a more linguistically aware piece like “Bloor Street,” which sneaks the street name into a domestic setting: a child playing video game leaves “bodies/ Bloored to bits”, to play Scrabble with the family, and “Bloors his parents/ with what they thought he never knew.” This is Thran's first collection, and admittedly, it feels a little unsteady on its pegs. “The Impossible Omelette” is memorable but ruined by its too tidy ending, and Thran's conversational tone occasionally lets his poems down; I would have liked to see “Gurdeep's Brain,” which puzzles over the final resting place of a biology class brain, work harder to live up to its arresting concept.
--Linda Besner

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