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September Books

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Issue: 39 Section: Literature & Ideas Geography: Canada Topics: poetry

August 15, 2006

September Books

Ink Monkey
Diana Hartog
Brick Books, Toronto, 2006

If there is such a thing as trendy poetry—and I believe there is—this is a fine example. Diana Hartog has joined the ranks and produced a book heavily influenced by Asian culture. Hartog's fascination with the East manifests itself as a section of twenty poems inspired by 19th century Japanese prints. Throughout, the speaker describes the represented landscapes, relates travel anecdotes, or imagines herself in the various woodblock scenes. The poems are spare, brief, and—to their credit—mostly unsentimental. There are moments of surprising perspicacity, as in "Driving Rain at Shono," which details the differences in the artist's rendering of rain, dependent on the season. But the set of poems as a whole doesn't quite add up. Ultimately, it feels flimsy and forgettable, too focussed on pretty images and altogether too eager to find profundity in the quotidian. Another false note occurs in "The Couple in Room 12," which imagines Leda and Zeus shacked up in a trashy motel, and is too cute by far. However, nearly everything else in Ink Monkey is a pleasure. "Jellyfish Suite," a set of poems on or around the amorphous sea creatures, is like the best of nature programs—at turns edifying, playful, and startling. The bio-luminescent Pleurobrachia is "small as the bulb of a penlight travelling / in the dark of a woman's purse" while in "Little Jerks" baby jellyfish "contract in sneezes." Elsewhere, hauntingly, jellies floating to the ocean's surface are likened to stray ghosts. Hartog seems to be at her best here, her gaze at its most powerful when trained on an unusual subject.
--Regan Taylor

Social Acupuncture
by Darren O'Donnell
Coach House, Toronto, 2006

I saw Darren O'Donnell on the street recently, but I didn't say hello. After reading his book, I'm asking myself why not. There are two sections: the essay Social Acupuncture, and the play A Suicide-Site Guide to the City. I knew that I'd seen the play when it was performed at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto, but I'd forgotten that I was also in it – I was the audience volunteer who went on stage to make out with O'Donnell, the writer and performer of the piece. It's right there on page 147: "If there's a taker, we kiss, kiss, kiss." That's the kind of thing he's into, and that's what this book is about: "an aesthetic of civic engagement," ways of challenging traditional theatrical and artistic forms along with the capitalist conventions of social interaction. It's complicated, and that's why the essay is the real jewel, a manifesto of sorts about the work he and his company, Mammalian Diving Reflex, have done and will continue to do. I can't say I agree with every tenet and assumption O'Donnell makes, or that the argument doesn't at times wax superficial or egotistical. What surprises me, though, is that he consistently recognizes and flags these moments himself. I can say this is a book that anyone involved with theatre or activism should read, maybe even anyone who identifies as left of centre. He's asking the right questions, and positing interesting answers. Does it make sense to buy a book meant to be a guide to undercutting capitalism? If you see Darren on the street, ask him.
--Matthew J. Trafford

Miss Lamp
Chris Ewart
Coach House Books, Toronto, 2006

Miss Lamp, Chris Ewart's first novel, presents an oddly rollicking little universe where the eponymous protagonist sits in a hotel room eating grilled cheese sandwiches. Our sojourn with Miss Lamp carries us through a quest for justice against a demented dentist, the romance of Banana Tray Hair and Room Service Boy, and Paper Boy's fight for dignity. Throughout, Ewart's meticulous and economical prose relates the quotidian quirks of sometimes vivid, sometimes bewildering characters. The characterization is by turns pithy ("Grandma drank vinegar") and elusive, as with Room Service Boy who defines himself solely by his tasks. He even tries "not to smell the food too much, as it would diminish its value" when served. By shuffling the chronology of events and shifting attention from character to character, Ewart creates an echoey, associative state for the reader, which is furthered by the reinvented slogans, lyrics, and wordplay of the vignette titles: "Give Trees a Chance," "Pika Boo," "Banana Splints." In contrast, the extensive sensory detail (particularly of physical pain or impairment, a repeated trope) becomes hyperreal. Miss Lamp's mother killed and gutted a magpie in search of her diamond ring, but discovered no prize. The skewed world of Miss Lamp similarly eludes such simple rewards, and here "normalcy" is impossible to calibrate. It's a compelling magpie's nest, with an eye-catching collection of moments, some glittering, some shining dully, in the crisscrossed lives of its characters.
--Jane Henderson

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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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