Saturday, August 30, 2014

A quintet of book reviews.

“The Trouble with Beauty”
by Bruce Rice
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$16.95  ISBN 978-1-55050-572-6

      After completing poet Bruce Rice’s exquisite collection The Trouble with Beauty, the following question resounds: how can anyone not just appreciate poetry, but also help from falling deeply down the well in love with it? I consumed the bulk of the work in a coffee shop with an espresso machine, the conversation of strangers, and speakered-jazz trying their best to divert my attention, but Rice held me fast with his deeply-affective poems that explore landscape, the passing of time, the Self, and-as the title suggests-the beauty of it all.     
     Disclaimer: I know Rice, a seasoned Regina poet and editor, but when I read his work I completely disassociate the poems from the person. Great poetry enables this. Some poets manage a few good lines in a book. Some a few good poems. Rice hits the emotional jackpot line after line, transporting readers into a higher-planed world of light, passing clouds, and “the shallow brown river\that seems not to move, all the while cutting away the time we have left.”
     The Contents page itself reads like a poem as you scroll down the list of titles:

          Glossary of Hills 
          along some rivers
          Deer Dream
          Rodeo Rain
          On the road watched by horses

     Coincidental poetry, or intentional? I expect that all is intended by this poet who looks (“remains of the roses the wind took apart”) and listens (“branches click as if they were talking to horses”) so closely one might consider super-powers are involved.
     Rice credits photographers (and other poets) in his Acknowledgements. I argue that many of his images deliver almost photographic clarity themselves. In “Rodeo Rain” he shows “horse trailers\scattered like pieces of jigsaw puzzle\that just won’t fit.” In “Bicycle Notes” he describes a stone barn’s roof as “a well of timbers,\shingles draped like chain mail over a body\that has somehow forgotten to fall.” In this thick-for-poetry book that succeeds page upon page, one of my favourite images is “Last year’s round bales fall apart, become the shoulders\of an animal of hay.”
     Rice speaks of the truths no one addresses: “graveyards have things to say, and  say them gently.” Reading “Community Cemetery”-the poem this quote is lifted from-makes me want to dash to the nearest graveyard with paper and pen. That’s the power of inspired writing. It moves us, even physically.
     In a piece that honours his province, “Saskatchewan,” Rice imagines God walking on the prairie, coming to a three-stranded barbed-wire fence, and pushing the wires together “so He could get over-\the first time anyone had done that, getting the knack,\the beginning of something one does that everyone does.”
     The careful, accomplished poet eloquently addresses aging as “backing into a sunset.” Gorgeous.
     The Trouble with Beauty satisfied a place in my being that needed filling. Praise to the publisher, Coteau Books. I will keep this sublime volume within reach. 



“In the Tiger Park”
by Alison Calder
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$16.95  ISBN 9-781550-505764

     Sometimes one reads a book and, upon completion, thinks: Hmm, I bet I could be friends with this writer. This was my sentiment after completing In the Tiger Park by Winnipeg writer and university professor Alison Calder. What I most appreciated was Calder’s original and clear-eyed view on a variety of interesting subjects, including a dead poet’s clothes; impressions of Scottsdale AZ; witnessing a bride and groom having their wedding photos taken in a cold September lake; elephants; China; the moon; the experience of blind children; and football (Calder hales from a Saskatchewan Roughrider-loving clan).

     We sense the poet’s perceptiveness in her very first (and second longest) poem, “Blind children at the Natural History Museum, 1913,” in which she credibly describes how the various animals and objects might feel beneath the fingers of these children.

     The poem “On finding P.K. Page’s old clothes” is just three stanzas long-but they contain so much! We are treated to the wonderful world “selvedges” and to the ear-pleasing “They turn to metaphor\and mites.” We see “Their pearls glimmer\in cardboard darkness,” and when the dresses tear, we hear the sound as “a match striking.” It’s apparent that Calder understands the virtue of appealing to multiple senses.

     In another short and gentle poem, “The Tea Bowl,” the first line reads like Haiku: “At the temple gate, a tea bowl sits in the grass like a stone from a wall.” (For those counting, the sentence contains eighteen syllables, rather than the traditional seventeen, and that’s just fine.)

     Calder also demonstrates a good dose of humour in this collection, as when she dons the persona of a football referee: “I rule the coin toss. Sometimes I want to lie down\in the end zone and count: too many clouds\in the sky.” She also takes a stab at her own poetry, complaining about the preponderance of the moon and elephants in her work: “It’s getting so I can’t hit a key\without tripping over a moon or an elephant.”

     Does trivia interest you? You’ll find some in this collection. In “pigs” we learn that “science says pigs don’t need to turn around,” and in “Don’t think of an elephant” we read that “the first bomb dropped on Berlin in World War II\killed the only elephant in the Berlin Zoo.”

     It is entirely easy to praise this book, with its sensitive insights and superb images. Consider this scene, observed while passing through Quill Lake: “the town was burning its elevator\bonfire huge and pagan,\small figures illuminated briefly as we passed.” In another poem, “The space between,” Calder writes that a bird’s nest is “made of air organized by twigs.” This is brilliance.
     In my book variety is indeed the spice of life. In this book the poet cleverly delivers, offering sheer delight on every page.  


“Emily via the Greyhound Bus”
by Allison Kydd
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$9.95  ISBN 978-1-927068-09-0
     Saskatoon publisher Thistledown Press has long been a friend to first-time poets and prose writers via its New Leaf Edition Series, giving many writers (including yours truly) the generous break that launches a writing career.  
     Thistledown’s eleventh release of New Leaf titles puts writer Allison Kydd in the spotlight, and if you have a road trip or flight forthcoming, Kydd’s Emily via the Greyhound Bus could be your ideal companion. The 64-page story takes readers on a winter bus trip from Toronto to Saskatchewan and delves inside the private thoughts of its title character, a woman who-like many-“always rushed in before she knew where she was going.”
     On page one we learn that Emily, a First Nations’ woman, has left her longterm relationship and is now at an emotional crossroads. What should she do with her life? How might she begin again? Would a return to her reserve be a wise idea? Her crisis is heightened by the fact that her nausea on the bus may signal more than travel sickness: could she be pregnant again?
     Emily has much to contemplate. Her first two children have grown up with other families, and her personal history has been coloured by abuse, poverty, and bad choices, like leaving the convent school at seventeen “just to keep up with her reputation.” The confused protagonist considers her experiences with men-including college-boy Marty, who “was fascinated by some idea of going Native;” a first-cousin who raped her when she was thirteen; and her present partner, Jeremy.
     As the bus travels west she also has hours to think about the service industry work she’s done-cocktail waitress, short-order cook, desk clerk at a small hotel, and a gas jockey-and her relationships with family members. At one point she considers her mother’s appearance to be that of “a dumpy Fortrel pigeon,” and she muses that the sisters at the convent were not cruel, “rather, they seemed afraid to touch.”
     The story presents a kind of retrospective as the bus rolls through the night-“only the dim glow of a few reading lights held back the dark,”-and we discover that stereotypes continue to affect Emily, even as she sits in her seat minding her own business. This grim reality is believably portrayed, as both a fellow passenger and a bus driver believe they can easily possess her.
     In Moosomin the driver stops for a “ten-minute smoke break.” Emily, still feeling nauseous, steps off and is inadvertently left behind. “Alone, broke, and empty, she wished she were dead.” It is a triumph how Kydd moves Emily forward from this low point to a place of redemption at the end of the story.
     This insightful book would easily fit into your travel bag and shorten the journey. 


“man from elsewhere”
by Lorna Crozier
Published by JackPine Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$30.00  ISBN 978-1-927035-09-2

     Swift Current-born Lorna Crozier is one of the brightest lights in Canadian poetry. If you read poetry-and no, it is definitely not a genre to be afraid of-you’ll know that her name is a household word among poetry readers. She’s published numerous critically-acclaimed books, has won the Governor General’s Award for poetry, presents internationally, and is one of Canada’s most read and appreciated poets.

      It’s difficult to know for certain why some poets succeed and others burn quietly or flash out immediately. Certainly for “staying power” one must possess talent and its sisters: originality, skilled craftsmanship, and intelligence. One must have interesting things to say, and express these things in masterful and memorable ways. It also helps to be entertaining. Crozier possesses all of these attributes. She’s made her readers laugh and cry, and one might argue she’s even shocked us over the years.

     Why then, would a big name poet publish a hand-bound, limited edition chapbook with Saskatchewan publisher JackPine Press? Perhaps because some work, like the fervent love poems found in man from elsewhere (co-created with Saskatonians Lisa Johnson and Stephen Rutherford), require a more personal and beautiful format than one normally finds in trade publishing. Maybe the chapbook is also an homage to Crozier’s birth-province. It could be that she recognizes and celebrates that JackPine Press is publishing not just poetry, but also physical works of art (one of the collective’s titles was printed on tear-out drink coasters, another was packaged in a powder-puff box).

     The eleven thematic poems in man from elsewhere are printed on lightly-patterned paper (Japanese Kozo and textured Strathmore), and there are only 75 copies of the saddle-stitched text in existence. Each poem is dedicated to a “man” from a different place, ie” “Man From Hades,” “Man From the Rainforest,” and “Main From Eden.” A consummate poet, Crozier knows how to work line-breaks to create layers, as we see in these lines about “three hounds the colour of snow” from her poem “Man From Hades 2”: 

          Their noses led them through the dark
          And I didn’t allow myself to wonder
          What they fed on.

     Crozier demonstrates an affinity for including animals in her work. Here examples include “the throat of a bird,” “the secrets of the hare, the spider’s rasp,” “hawk on the updraft,” and a “spider spinning\Her hunger across my belly”. In “Man From The Cariboo,” the narrator professes “I wanted\A horse more than a man”.

     My favourite in this lovely collection is “Man From Nunavut,” which brilliantly begins: “He came out of the snow,\Bones over his eyes\So he wouldn’t go blind.” The poet juxtaposes the frozen landscape against “flames\From the frozen fire.” 

      The reasons why Crozier and JackPine Press have collaborated really don’t matter. What does matter is that they have, and we should rejoice and be glad in it.



by Laurie D Graham
Published by Hagios Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95  ISBN 978-192671023-5
     I usually open a poetry collection expecting that the first few pages will provide a reasonably good sense of the author’s style and subject matter. In the opening pages of Rove, by London ON poet Laurie D Graham, I correctly gleaned that this writer would address a veritable smorgasbord of issues: political, environmental, First Peoples’, agricultural, poverty, health, and urban vs. rural. I also learned that this rapid-fire poet writes mostly in couplets, she often begins her lines with imperatives (“Say fluorescent lightbulbs will save\the earth, say there’s a heart” and “See the branches of the suburbs blossom wild with bungalows”), and that hers is indeed a distinct new voice on the CanLit scene. 
     Further into the book I realized that she also weaves in personal family history, and that I was often surprised and delighted by the myriad twists and turns this daring writer takes.

     Rove is a long poem that reads partly like a rant,

     “say the numbers, tell the Wheat Board where to go,

     say it fast like an auction and move to the city,
     say minimum wage and grunt while you work,”

partly like a prayer, and partly like memoir. (The poet’s ancestors are Ukrainian, and the Notes in the back decipher Ukrainian, Cree, Michif, and French words.) Graham, however, does not sacrifice the lyricism poetry is known for in her compelling poetic narrative. Just try saying this line aloud: “Now, in citied sleep, the sweepers sluicing the avenue\after the music’s turned off,” and you’ll understand.

     This engaging social commentary realistically surveys the prairie-Graham grew up in Sherwood Park AB and has paternal ties to SK-and its people. The poet writes of working dogs “Punch” and “Bullet” and how “one was shot, mistaken by the neighbour for a coyote”. There is also hockey here, a curling rink, “yarn and roses, crab apples, zucchini\old grass clippings in a garbage bag.” These are sweet remembrances, but by contrast there is also nostalgia for a way of life that’s been lost:

     “and the Pontiac dealership that sits there now, streetlit so bright

     the whole hamlet can’t see the stars it used to.”

     Occasionally the poet’s memory fragments even begin with the word “Remembering.” She remembers “geese moving, lake to park,\swaying the air between eavestroughs”. She recalls the hummingbird that accompanied her mother “as she walked back to the house with her hands full\of every colour of sweet pea imaginable.” I found numerous memorable “mother” images, including: “Your mother’s lips red like a brake light.”

     Rove reads like a river, sweeping the sediment of cultural and personal history together as it sweeps readers up with it, “Dizzy from the journeys we’ve made.” It’s both forceful and dreamy, critical and congratulatory. It is a book of place: a story of oil and Edmonton; of immigrants managing in the new world; of how disconnected our cities make us, and the reasons why we flock to them. It is a lament for “Home calling like a horn through fog.” It is a life.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Ten short stories about light: more reasons not to speak

Light story 1

Light story 2

Light story 3

Light story 4

Light story 5

Light story 6

Light story 7

Light story 8

Light story 9

Light story 10

This photo essay on "light" was undertaken with my friend John Barron while hiking Mount Tzouhaleum near Duncan, BC. The crows had us entranced.

It was a day like that. Crows, light, then silence, and the darkening. I felt connected to something that mattered; my petty problems disappeared for hours.