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January Books

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Issue: 57 Section: Literature & Ideas

January 26, 2009

January Books

New works by Gander, Dodds, Cole

by Robert Kotyk, Shane Patrick Murphy

As a Friend
Forrest Gander
New Directions, 2008

When a successful poet sets out to write a novel, the results can often be mixed. From E.E. Cummings to Al Purdy, major poets often see their ventures into prose go long forgotten while their poetry remains revered. By the time a poet has become established – which often takes far longer than a single lifetime – it may be in the best interest of both writer and reader to stay within the bounds of pre-established technique. Forrest Gander, a leading American poet and translator, has carefully taken this plunge into the world of prose with his recent novel, As a Friend. However, Gander’s work remains immensely successful by making only the slightest concessions to the novel as an established form. At only 106 pages, As a Friend consists of four distinct sections that cover an admirable amount of stylistic and thematic territory. Gander’s greatest accomplishment is that he consistently knows when to inject his poetic observations and when to sit back and allow the story to unfold.

The novel opens with a mother in a hospital watching her teenage daughter struggle through a difficult birth. Gander’s depiction – interspersing poignant asides throughout a clear and neutral narration – becomes so palpable and gripping it feels as though he has gone through labour himself. From that loosely connected introduction, Gander explores the unintended consequences that extend from individual choices. The central figure of the novel is a poet and part-time labourer committed to exploring the multiple and often contradictory opportunities that life offers. He marries one woman, lives with another, sleeps with a revolving cast of extras. His goal is to find a “different way to be in the world,” but through love and friendship his iconoclasm leads a path of failure and pain, death and grief. It’s a stark and somewhat dreary tale, but Gander’s instincts as a poet allow him to build a mass of emotional insight without sentimentality, clichés, or wasted words.

—Shane Patrick Murphy

Crabwise to the Hounds
Jeramy Dodds
Coach House, 2008

The title of Jeramy Dodds’s Crabwise to the Hounds suggests a connection to circuitousness (crabwise) and surrealism (ditto), but the result is an unambiguously confident debut collection from a rich new Canadian poet. If one of the creatures from a Marcel Dzama watercolour got its paws on some John Ashbery, the result might sound like Dodds, whose voice is unmistakably local though far from provincial. Running through the collection, in other words, is a rigorous sense of taste, as several of the poems’ first stanzas open with a provocative declaration (“In his stovepipe hat, he hunted / to extinction the animals that brought / us déjà vu.”), that beckon the reader towards the subsequent lines packed with the most lushly rendered imagery.

Dodds’s spectacular diction and the wide range of his subjects reveal an unconventionally educated imagination and spirit of inquiry aimed at the natural world. Strange, pseudo-Canadian landscapes appear in “Crown Land,” ("Some warped beasts pinched off / the rag-and-bone rack, ones that / bit by barbed bit were forced to / fisticuffs in the scrub slump of hills"), while the breathless showstopper, “Glenn Gould Negotiates the Danube in the Company of a Raven,” provides the capstone for this dazzling book by a young talent already refined.

—Robert Kotyk

Things on Which I’ve Stumbled
Peter Cole
New Directions, 2008

Peter Cole is a major American poet and translator based in Israel who brings Hebrew and Arabic poetry to the English-speaking world. In the title poem of this collection, Cole attempts to make a new and original work out of fragments of medieval Hebrew texts he discovered in the archives of Cambridge University. The Cambridge collection contains what was found in an uncovered geniza in Cairo – a storeroom of abandoned Hebrew texts. The fragments are not always poems; they include legal contracts, commercial correspondence, and brief personal letters. As Cole weaves these texts into his own poetry, the result is a strange amalgamation of the sacred and the profane in writing that ranges from highly lyrical to purely pragmatic. In less capable hands, the results might have been a mess, lacking in either historical insight or poetic expression. However, Cole’s multifaceted talent allows the poetry to thrive, turning these obscure fragments into a unique work all its own.

—Shane Patrick Murphy

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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