Sunday, June 12, 2016

Four New Reviews: Lamont, Edwards, Roy, Calder

“Lost + Found: Signposts for Steering Through the World”
Written by Laura Lamont, Designed by Jess Dixon
Published by Jackpine Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
ISBN 978-1-927035-18-4

     In 2015, Saskatoon’s Jackpine Press published Lost + Found: Signposts for Steering Through the World, and the good news for the press and the book’s creators is bad news for you, readers: each of the 75 copies of this limited-edition, hardcover (millboard wrapped in craft paper, bound with fabric tape and snapped together with Chicago bolts) has already found a home. Usually one reviews books that are new and available, but it’s also worthwhile to examine a success story, and introduce readers to the writer so they can watch for future works.   
     Let’s begin with this book’s eclectic design. If it were a painting, I’d suggest it’s closet to collage. If it were music, it would be jazz. Inset location diagrams represent individual poems and appear as background to each poem’s text. Imprinted cotton paper; cascading, torn vellum; a post-it-style note (that protrudes outside the book’s neat and expected rectangle); apparent “scrap paper;” and pages that are coffee-cup ringed and wrinkled are all fair game for hosting poems in this little marvel of a book.
    Most of us probably read a back cover before we start a book proper. There’s no blurb here, nor an author bio, which can be either disconcerting for a reader or allow her the freedom to experience the work completely without context. And what is one to make of the disparate materials, fonts (ie: “radio silence” is printed in a typewriter font), and images? Usually a book’s title offers at least a small clue, so before I discuss the content, let’s examine that title: Lost + Found: Signposts for Steering Through the World. It suggests that the world requires maps\directions\signposts (perhaps because it’s physically\emotionally convoluted), that one can easily get lost, but just as easily, found. The poems, then, would be the “signposts”.
        The first piece (a few lines on each of four pages, printed on onionskin) is called “Cromniomancy,” and that title had me scrambling for a dictionary: “Divination by onions or onionsprouts.” Wow, didn’t expect that. This initial poem-and those that follow-trace a first-person narrator’s journey away from a troubled past, where “skin keeps a record, every\cut and bruise archived on vellum,” and through the tremulous territory that is a new relationship.
     Melancholy is clearly present in these poems. In “radio silence,” a poem first published in the esteemed journal Contemporary Verse 2, we read “No more lying\in bed, loneliness bleeding out\in silent waves beside someone\whose face was closed to me.” An inability to read others’ “signposts” is also present. The poet writes of “guessing at\other people’s ciphers and codes” (from “Diversions”), and says “can’t pin your face\on a wall, fit you to a scale\or give you a legend” (from “Mapping Your Body”).
     Though the terrain is rocky, ultimately the subjects in this gorgeous collection “fuse in heat and\flicker as one flame”. The poems and the story they collectively tell have me wondering: do we ever really know another person? Or even ourselves? Lamont’s poetry is a looking glass.  

 “The Sky Was 1950 Blue”
Written by Katherin Edwards, Design by Melissa Haney
Published by Jackpine Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$30.00  ISBN 978-1-927035-22-1

     Jackpine Press recently released The Sky Was 1950 Blue-a collaborative chapbook written by Katherin Edwards and designed by Melissa Haney-and I received #51 of a limited edition of 75 copies for review. Limited edition, handmade books are Jackpine’s foray, and each time I receive one I’m excited to see how the author and designer-often one and the same-have reconciled content and construct: concepts are such interesting animals.
     Edwards’ colourful title comes from an Ian Tyson lyric, and the 1950s are represented here not only in the saddle-stitched book’s hue and interior drawings, but also in the fact that each poem includes a year (between 1950 and 1959) in its title. I opened the chapbook to discover that it also possesses a subtitle, “Poems from the Clothesline,” and indeed a continuous drawn clothesline acts like a border, stretching across the top of each page and supporting simple drawings of the clothing and linens referenced in each of the thirteen poems. The books were printed via a three hundred year-old process called cyanotype, which involves both “sunning” a negative image and later hanging it to dry (like laundry) in the dark. It’s also notable that the covers sport a scalloped “lace” flap; fitting, as the poems reveal that the narrator exhibits a romantic image of her future.
     The opening piece, “1950, January Cotton,” introduces us to a girl as she removes clothes from her mother’s clothesline. This girl “fails to recognize in the bed sheets\a stiff-winged trapped angel, frozen\from the brittle night” and dreams of “striding\from this trapline of life,” as “Life’s picnic waits just\around the corner.” 
Just two poems–and two years later, symbolic birds (romance, freedom, liveliness) appear on marriage cards and linens. They “soared into the threads\and with embroidery promises\and French-knotted eyes” these birds observed the newlyweds.
    The chronological progression of these poems is interesting. Turn the page, add another year, and the tone takes a twist: “How to Hang Your Gabardine Husbands, 1953.” This poem, with its instructions for “good husband keeping,” actually reads like a found poem, ie: “Start with a clean taut line.\All pegs should be new and dry,” and then comes the darkly comic flip to “Be aware of what your neighbours may think.”          
      Poetry is subjective, but as I read it this collection represents a gradual disillusionment with marriage and 1950s gender roles (“Men stir martinis\ladies knit blankets”), and a quiet longing for the carefree days of childhood, with its “sheets snapping on clotheslines\sweet picnics and lemonade.” The finest poem is the subtle and lyrical “Chiffon Belief, 1957 ½ , which begins “All this falling.\Each year we greeted the autumn,\in love with leaves.”   
         “Simplicity Ball Gown Pattern, 1955” presents the promise of waltzes, the reality of “a greying housedress” and “Bare feet\ [shuffling] across the faded lino floor.” What we sign up for is often not the reality of our experience. This smartly-conceived little book hangs out the dirty laundry, including “the costumes we wear” as our lives blow and fade in the wind.    

Written by Zondra M. Roy
Published by Jackpine Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$30    ISBN 978-1-927035-20-7

     Sometimes the lines between genres blur. As I began reading Zondra M. Roy’s chapbook, homecoming, I thought: looks like poetry, feels like a first-person essay. This isn’t poetry filled with similes, metaphors, alliteration, and finely-crafted images, this is a straight-up story (with line breaks) that shouts This is how it’s been, I’ve made mistakes, and I’m grateful for the people and activities (like performing hip-hop) that’ve helped me along the way.
     The Dené/Cree/Métis writer left home at thirteen and she doesn’t hold back on her life’s gritty details as she writes of bouncing between various homes in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick (“for a few months”), and British Columbia. Actually, the word home is a misnomer here–no warm connotations of homemade bread and a family sitting around a fireplace exist when one’s stays include a juvenile detention centre in Saskatoon; jail; and that hardest of beds–the street.                                                         
     Roy begins her story with family history: “My parents were born into a society that was built to facilitate their failures.\well, fuck\they were native people in the northern prairies.” Strong language and a strong voice, legitimized by the vernacular, ie: “It wasn’t until I moved to Saskatoon that I seen Native MCs” and, ironically, by the lack of memory, ie: “I tried to get through grade eight\but I don’t think I got through grade eight.” After she “got jacked” on the street, she moved in with her seventeen-year-old sister, a single mother doing all she could to rise up from an abusive relationship, including “trying to push a 4x4 stroller across the\street in the snow.”
     The sheer honesty in this writing is impressive. “I never hurt anyone\until I did” Roy writes. On the streets “It was easier to give up,\to be a statistic,\to align with society’s desire for me”. Imagine a teenaged girl trying to straighten out her life: she returns to school on Saskatoon’s west side, and gets a job at a sandwich shop. “I remember chopping tomatoes,\And the guy next to me was weighing cocaine.”
     This is not usually the stuff of poetry. Again, the honesty-and the humility-to write about dyeing hair “with a red bingo dabber” and “learning to count with burnt streetlights on \15th Avenue East in Prince Albert” is admirable. This is a poetry of stealing clothes from apartment dryers and off clotheslines; of Christmas in jail; of being stabbed, and finding the hospital queue too long, so she “put a Kleenex on it, and taped it together.”
     Eventually the writer found hip-hop culture, and began seeking knowledge and setting both broad goals, ie: “At the very least I wanted to work with people” and some specific ones: “get to know Saskatchewan,\get to know Canada, different places around the world\get to know my community.
     The long poem\memoir spreads across most of this chapbook, but it concludes with four poems I can clearly hear delivered in a hip-hop beat.
      Does the speaker ever truly find home? Eventually, yes. “Home becomes where [her] heart is safe.”   



Written by Alison Calder
Published by Jackpine Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$30    ISBN 978-1-927035-21-4

     Into the laboratory we go: the fourteen poems in established writer and Winnipeger Alison Calder’s Connectomics are like little scientific explosions of light: things you didn’t know you’d want to know but are glad you know now. In her words, “The idea is\to render the brain\transparent enough to read through.” That’s heady stuff, but Calder takes this concept and renders it into thought-provoking poems that show she’s a master of metaphor, and prove that her literary experiments work.
     The brain as poetic fodder makes good sense. It’s complex, essential. Nerve central. And Calder, who teaches Canadian literature and creative writing at the University of Manitoba, explores it from interesting angles. In “Clarity2 she imagines the mind of a mouse that’s had firefly genes spliced into for Alzheimer’s research. “Inside his skull\the past incinerates” she writes, “fragments\of a film that’s not replayed.” On the page opposite this short poem there’s a white image (on black) of a brain: it looks like a medical image and it resembles art.
     The subject of the next poem, “C Elegans3,” is “a small, soil-dwelling nematode.” (The accompanying drawing reminds me of paramecium from high school biology class). “I’m useful because I die quickly:\your funding agencies approve.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Calder may be the only poet in history to appropriate the voice of C Elegans3. The barn owl-“a spirit with a heart-shaped face”-is also used in connectomics research.
     It’s the metaphors that really stand out in this smart chapbook. In the poem “Science6,” we read that consciousness is a “cable, a cord tying things down in a truck box\so they don’t fly out,” and the skull is “a box of books you move\from house to house to house.” In another poem, the brain is described as “a dense constellation\of carefully mapped drawers.” How original. I applaud and appreciate this use of everyday objects: it balances the potentially difficult-to- grasp scientific matter and brings it right down to earth where we can see and understand it.
     Not all of the poems are as cerebral as the opening pieces. Memories also worm their way into this collection, and here the poet fires up our senses with specific details on a prairie night when “the whole sky’s a theatre”: “rough boards scratch your sunburned legs\and catch the seat of your bathing suit” (“Functional Specialization7”). I feel that.
     The explanations at the bottom of each page are quite fascinating on their own, ie: in their controlled conditions’ studies of fear memories, “scientists subject patients to electric shocks while introducing unique scents like lemon or mint.” Then they see how their subjects react to these scents during sleep. Who knew? And have you heard of optogenetics? This is the use of “a burst of light to affect genetically sensitized neurons in the brain” so “researchers can manipulate a subject’s moods or behaviours.” Crikey.       
     Oh, the many things we humans don’t know. And the growing number of things we do. Connectomics is mind-opening.