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June Books

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Issue: 37 Section: Literature & Ideas Geography: Canada Topics: poetry

May 24, 2006

June Books

watermelon_web.jpgThe Watermelon Social:
Stories by Elaine McCluskey
Gaspereau Press: Kentville, NS, 2006

Don't mistake Elaine McCluskey's title for preciousness. "It used to be an ice cream social," a stout volunteer named Sally explains, "but we switched to watermelon." "Uh huh?" "Lactose intolerance." The events of this school fundraiser exemplify darker social nuances and characters' uneasy relationship to changed circumstance. Tough farm-raised children like the Strongest Woman in the World have acquiesced to strip malls and flat suburban marriage. Physicality is only strength or weakness, and literal strength has been replaced by material competition in a world of real and symbolic competitions where there's never a fair start. Here childhood longing gives way to rage, and when that exhausts itself, to despairing consent: "Georgie didn't mind not having money; he simply couldn't bear the sadness of being poor, the way it wore you down like shingles." McCluskey's beguiling, frequently comic descriptors allow bitter nuance to seep in slowly, and the accomplished structure evades false nostalgia. Each story is an isolated segment of memory, association, or perspective, and each reminds us that a moment can be experienced from any number of mental directions.
--Jane Henderson

Aiken Drum
Peter Sanger
Gaspereau Press: Kentville, NS, 2006

There is no question that the poems in this collection are of the highest calibre; they're skillful and deftly wrought, with a plethora of expertly executed poetic devices. Sanger is a poet's poet, prey to both the advantages and dangers that the term suggests. Read about a "jay clack, heron screik, creak of crow wings/ oaring air, a whistle/ of black duck circling the old green skiff/ which puddered slicked Acheron" (from "After Monteverdi"), and take from it what you will, enjoying the language-play. Or else read Aiken Drum at a desk with an open dictionary, encyclopedia, and one finger stuck in the back of the book to refer to the pages of bibliographical references and notes. Or try "Reed Weaver", a beautiful portrait of a rural craftsman with a terminal illness completing his last two chairs: "… a smell of freshly/ baled hay in the mow and the sun at work,/ greening, still growing/ it seemed. Grains of green light inflected/ the cords as if ancient/ faith, present courage, continued. That autumn/ he died." For my money, Sanger is at his best when drawing inspiration from the world around him without allusion or influence.
--Matthew J. Trafford

airstream_web.jpgAirstream Land Yacht
Ken Babstock
Anansi: Toronto, 2006

This third book is noticeably tougher than Babstock's others; something has changed. Hallmarks of earlier work—a preponderance of tough-guy subject matter (head injuries, bicycle theft, hockey), unabashedly playful "thing-poems," and the tendency to sling slang like a dockworker—are mostly absent here. What remains is the skill that makes Babstock one of today's most exciting poets, in Canada or elsewhere. His verbal acrobatics are in fine form, and that's all that matters. There's a new thoughtfulness here—Babstock has been reading American philosopher Daniel Dennett, whose "philosophy of mind" has obviously influenced pieces like "Materialist" and the book's heart-wrenching finale "Compatabilist" (about keeping tabs on a disaster-prone brother). Equally cerebral are several poems all titled "Explanatory Gap," and they're the best of the bunch, if the most impenetrable. These cover every quirk of human communication, from the perverse joy of being misunderstood to the impossibility of expressing love. And Babstock hasn't lost his sense of fun. Among other improbable twists, "Tarantella," a Valley-Girl monologue, successfully rhymes "l'angoscia del hora della" and "Danny Aiello." The effect is sharply observant, silly, and breathtaking.
--Regan Taylor

canon_web.jpgThe New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry
Carmine Starnino, Ed
Signal: Montreal, 2006

Starnino's introduction identifies The New Canon as "a justification of prejudice, an attempt to isolate a tendency in Canadian poetry and make a boast for it." It has a fairly fine-edged axe to grind, i.e., a defence of formal devices like rhyme and metre, and a privileging of energetic sound-play over calmer cadences. It has its failings: notably, out of fifty poets, only ten live west of Ontario, a fact which highlights the accidents of proximity and publicity that make poets known. These may have favoured some poets undeservedly (Geoffrey Cook, of whose selected poems only "The Seals at Green Rock" measures up, Pino Collucio whose contributions are patchy). Most poets showcased here, however, are undeniably rightly championed. Having such a highly specific slice of "good writing" on hand is of inestimable value both for singling out the principles that make it tick (compression, verbal snap and crackle), and for warning of possible pitfalls (a degree of preciousness, too-cute construction). Karen Solie, Todd Swift, Barbara Nickel, Mark Sinnett, Tim Bowling, Iain Higgins; emerging and established writers whose work sets the reader's mind alight.
--Linda Besner

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