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February Books

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Issue: 50 Section: Literature & Ideas Geography: Canada Topics: poetry

February 24, 2008

February Books

New works by MacArthur, Armstrong, McPherson and Glenn

by Jane Henderson, Linda Besner, Matthew J. Trafford, Saleema Nawaz


Take Us Quietly
Tammy Armstrong
Goose Lane Editions,
Fredericton, 2006.

The poems in this book meander: geographically they cover Canada from coast to coast, as well as foreign locales like Spain, Guatemala, and Indonesia. While the range of content may be admirable, there’s a sense of something missing in this collection, and in the individual poems themselves—a lack of common purpose and cohesion. Take these two stanzas from “Mathematics:” “A cigarette mark/ burnt through a twenty-dollar bill/ into your forearm/ is my logarithmic reminder./ I’ve memorized them all./ When my sight is faulty tungsten,/ my fingers will read polysyllabic.// This rock and scald of absence blisters/ into Saturday morning:/ coffee, samosas, Globe and Mail,/ my feet tucked beneath the angles of your leg.” While the thread connecting mathematics, the number twenty, and logarithms is clear, the movement to chemistry (tungsten) and literature (polysyllabic) feels strange, not to mention the tangle of other images and allusions which are in no way accessible to the reader. Throughout the collection the poems seem to skim the surface of something beautiful, but never take the plunge into real depth or meaning. Take Us Quietly leaves the reader wanting more matter and more art.

--Matthew J. Trafford

Six Ways to Sunday
Christian McPherson
Nightwood, Gibsons, BC, 2007.

In his debut collection, McPherson conjures a gritty and colourful Ottawa, populated by addicts and losers, obsessives and gawky teens. In “The Plastic Garden,” the first and best story of the collection, a retired model-maker named Rumford feuds with skateboarders menacing a little girl’s garden. Rumford’s rage after the first failed confrontation is touching in its excess, and McPherson's other hapless characters are equally sympathetic: jazz-playing Two Seconds and Elvis-haired Squid seem to scrape by mostly on luck and pure gall. Occasionally, the plots beggar belief, or coast along the edge of an easy pathos. The intentionally silly “Chilidog Love” is playful enough to escape standards of believability, but it feels out of place among the darker stories. Where the collection falters is in the saggy dialogue, and also where the writing dips into weak similes, like Johnny’s father in “Autograph,” “scribbling away with the intensity of an accountant.” But McPherson’s endings, like the pool hustles, drug deals and long afternoon shags of these stories, have a nice way of leaving things open to the unexpected.

--Saleema Nawaz

Combustion
Lorri Neilsen Glenn
Brick Books: Toronto, 2007.

Glenn's second poetry collection considers the big abstractions of connection, cyclicity, and death. Glenn's background is in ethnography, and her removed evenness of tone, which could have seemed clinical, here reassures the reader with its empathic solidity. Her first and second person narration feel both intimate and cautious, considering some of her explosive subject matter, like the true story of FBI investigators severing the hands of murdered M'ikm'aq woman Anna Mae Pictou Aquash. Glenn shifts lightly and cleanly from physical and emotional detail to broader images and ideas. Addressing the title object in "Smooth Rock on Laurencetown Beach," she muses "memory / like you, is shucked from mystery, / rests snug in my hand." The changing moon is one of Glenn's recurrent images, her nod to a vaster perspective of time. Glenn's own perspective occasionally takes a wry turn into gallows humour, as in "Birthday in Middle Age," where she harrumphs, "So, each lacy card a shovel." Combustion is a surprising title for so steady and compassionate an exploration of what it means to watch and be watched. "The heart is a hymnal," writes Glenn, and indeed her collection is also something brave, to be read and sung.

--Jane Henderson

Isolated: Two Plays
Greg MacArthur
Coach House: Toronto, 2007.

Get Away and Recovery, the two plays contained in this collection, have a lot in common. Both storylines feature a nebulous epidemic—in Get Away, it's apathy and discontentment, in Recovery it's a vague, nameless drug— that engulfs society and leaves MacArthur's characters huddled on the outskirts, in outposts they like to imagine they've chosen themselves. Macarthur's characters, despite their slightly surreal surroundings, feel real, as do their interactions with each other. Garbo and Henry are a pair of teenage vagabonds; Leroy is a snotty Dutch teenager; David is a hopeful middle-aged man whose loneliness leads him to desperate acts. “What do they say?” is a recurrent line in both plays, an appeal to old adages and folk wisdom, neither of which can be marshaled to offer the characters much more than temporary comfort. Both stories play with the idea of numbness, and while both storylines unspool towards events that should provoke an emotional reaction, these stories occur in a kind of frozenness that makes them difficult to connect to. It's hard for readers to feel invested in characters who don't seem invested in themselves.

--Linda Besner

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