Poetry and Time

April 27, 2017 § Leave a comment

by John Oughton


I’m listening to 50 years ago, and my hand holds 200 million years ago. The half-a-century-old artifact is Love’s great album Forever Changes, recorded around the time of the Summer of Love on analogue tape, transferred to vinyl, and now blasting from a disk whose tiny pits respond to the probing of an invisible laser. Two hundred million years is the approximate age of a fossil on my shelf: a hand-sized hunk of ancient horsetail, which back then grew to the size of a tree. What is now Prince Edward Island detached from a part of Africa with the same iron-reddened earth and gradually moved west, and it brought this trace of the ancient plant. That giant horsetail was alive long before humans were a probability.

The giant horsetail is considered an example of devolution—the tendency of long-surviving species to gradually downsize. Consider that birds, warm-blooded beings who lay eggs, may be the last descendants of flying dinosaurs. That wren out your window? A long-lost cousin of a pterodactyl. Maybe.

Do I have a point about poetry and time? I hope so. Humans deal with the here and now, always keeping a weather eye for chances of danger or advantage. We can change the here, travelling around the world, and for a very few, to the moon. But how do we change the when, other than journeying back through the hallways of our own memories? Was the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus right to say “You could not step twice into the same river”? If we understand time to be a relentless onward flow, yes.

This thought, I noticed earlier today, is echoed by an inscription on the Queen Street bridge over the Don River, installed as part of a renovation completed in 1996: “This river I step in is not the river I stand in”. Part of Eldon Garnet’s public art piece for the bridge, the text is accompanied by a nice irony: the clock beside it stopped working, and the face and hands were removed in 2010. Certainly we can bond with things from the past, or recreations of them in movies, but we cannot easily move back to fully experience it – although quantum physicists say this may be possible. I wrote a long poem, “Time Slip”, which explores this possibility that the past can suddenly recur in the midst of the present. This suggests more the clock without hands than that with; time is more variable than it seems to our everyday perceptions. Science, whose vision continues to extend with new technologies, tells us that our experience of existence is a point in a vast sea of space and time. The universe, as far as we can tell, is larger than we can understand. More precisely, according to relativity, the universe is finite but curved. The further we can see, with radio telescopes and equations, the further there is to see. After all, if the universe ended at a wall somewhere, what would be behind the wall? I hope not President Trump.

Time, it appears, is a little more finite. Our earth is thought to be about 4.5 billion years old, the universe somewhere around 13.8 billion. These expanses of time are impossible to wrap our heads around. Presented with the discoveries of cosmologists, many of us would rather contemplate grocery shopping, or whether Kanye and Kim will stay together. We read the words and numbers of astrophysicists describing space and time, but cannot experience them in our bodies or memories. By comparison, a human life span is a flicker in endless darkness. This can be depressing, just as contemplating the billions of galaxies (and, possibly, universes) can be depressing. We feel infinitesimal. But we do feel.

One of the values of poetry is that it allows us to navigate, at least emotionally and in images, these long expanses. It is a way to commune, through intuition and imagination, with forces much larger than we are. Other galaxies don’t notice you or me, but we can speak to them. By connecting big thoughts with the details in everyday consciousness, poetry jumps the gaps. Poetry also can leapfrog us across time, into the head and life of someone who is long dead. Because of its emotive and musical power, it is “news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound said of literature. Long after the battles and scandals of the day are relegated to the dustbins of history, a good poem is still working, opening a window into another’s feelings, perceptions, and intuitions. This is true whether we are reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer, Sappho, or Keats and Emily Dickinson. Sometimes, when I have tried to teach others the value of poetry, I ask them to do a little exercise: go silent for a couple of minutes, and try to monitor everything that fleets through their mind: physical sensations, memories, bits of music, fantasies, hopes, fears. What do they smell? What do they hear? What would they rather be doing right now? Often, what a poet does is sample some of that flow, and craft it into a text that is worth reading and reciting long after the poet has gone the way of all flesh.

That is news that stays news, a bridge, however slender, across time. We are beside Odysseus as he surveys the wine-dark sea, walking with Emily when Death kindly stops for her. Ever notice, when you’re doing a crossword puzzle, how the puzzle creator often labels bygone words and expressions like “the gloaming” as “poetic”? It suggests poets often archaic words. In fact, at the time of writing, the poet who included this term was simply reflecting a usage of his or her time. Language evolves, and words atrophy. But the power of the poem means that the language attracts us strongly enough to do a little research, or read the notes, to find out what the no-longer-current term means. When Hamlet fantasized committing suicide with a bare bodkin, it was a commonplace word for a small dagger. Now, like my long-dead horsetail, it is preserved by the energy field of poetry. Poetry is also inherently relational. It makes metaphors and similes, works with echoes, allusions, and juxtapositions. By bumping together previously unconnected parts of our experience, it creates a new whole. We are used to understanding velocity as relational… one thing moves faster than another. But we are not so used to seeing time the same way. According to relativity and quantum physics, space and time are no longer separate.

It’s nice to think that by moving downhill we might actually age a little more slowly. In Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, Carlo Rovelli tells us: “Place a watch on the floor and another on the table: the one on the floor registers less passing of time than the one on the table. Why? Because time is not universal and fixed: it is something that expands and shrinks, according to the vicinity of masses. Earth, like all masses, distorts spacetime, slowing down time in its vicinity.” Another sense in which poetry and time are intertwined is that of music. Many poetic forms have a rhyme scheme and a metrical (time-keeping) scheme. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, are written in iambic pentameter, a fancy name for five units each consisting of a weak beat followed by a strong one – an iamb. To BE or NOT to BE – that IS the QUESTion.

But wait, I hear the accountants and musicians among you saying. He cheated on that that line; there’s an extra weak stress at the end! True. A metrical scheme, like a musical rhythm, loses something if it is followed too slavishly, and Shakespeare often varied the iambs in lines. Consider the difference in music between hearing a good human drummer, who subtly shifts the beats and stresses to support the lyrics and the other players, and a drum machine, mindlessly cranking out accurate and cost-effective but lifeless booms and clicks. Most contemporary poets no longer observe fixed metre in their writing, preferring the flexibility and conversational effect of free verse. But sounds, and music, are still part of the craft. You just have to listen a little harder.

Consider these lines from the American poet Lew Welch: “My finger on the throttle and my foot upon the pedal of the clutch”. That is a very rhythmical sequence of sounds, even though it’s not in a rhyming poem. Other sound effects like alliteration, rhyme, half- or slant-rhyme, onomatopoeia, and assonance still play a major role in poetry. A poem is a text that modulates meaning, but is also a construct of sounds set in the time it takes for it to be read or spoken. Its music makes it stick in our memories too, which is why many of us can recall poems we memorized for school. I can still recite most of Jabberwocky: “Twas brillig, and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe… All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.”

That verse, incidentally, was written a century and a half ago by a mathematician and photographer. Photographers also are students of time, as they confront the paradox of choosing and manipulating an image of something that may last less than a second, but will endure long after the people in it. Despite Lewis Carroll’s wild imagination, he probably didn’t imagine that another poet in Canada would be quoting his lines to throw light on how poetry and time interweave. As Love’s main man Arthur Lee wrote in “You Set the Scene” from that album Forever Changes I mentioned so long ago at the start of this:

“This is the time and life that I am living

and I’ll face each day with a smile

for the time I’ve been given’s such a little while…”

86443_Rhino 19.tif


Biography via Poetry

January 14, 2017 § Leave a comment


A CanLit Sub-genre

Lying here, I decide that now
the world can have me any way it pleases.
I will celebrate my perfect death here…

“Notes from the Dead Land”, Gwendolyn MacEwen

If you’re a graduate student looking for a research/thesis topic in Canadian literature, here’s a suggestion: the canon contains a small but intriguing set of works in which poets attempt biography of a historical person.  Unlike conventional life studies, which focus on the factual and evidence-supported aspects, poetic ones try to imagine their way inside the consciousness of the character, conveying dreams, fears and sensations. The image above shows the covers of two such works, Michael Ondaatje’s early classic, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Anansi, 1970), and much more recent, Kath MacLean’s Kat Among the Tigers (University of Alberta Press, 2011), a verbal seance with Katharine Mansfield.

MacLean’s book, in particular, reminds us that even a poetic biography must be grounded in research about not only the subject but also the cultural and historical context in which she/he lived.  Few readers would be interested in a wildly inaccurate imagining of a historical figure that purports to be connected to reality — that’s fiction, not biography.

The fact that there is a coherent group of works like this struck me as I was planning the launch for the second edition of my Mata Hari’s Lost Words (first published by Ragweed Press in 1988).  This book really stretched me, making me extend beyond my usual interests and pre-conceptions and try, among other things, to find a voice that seemed fitting for a character from 100 years ago; to shift my viewpoint from wholly masculine; and to understand what life was like for someone with a past as varied as Mata Hari’s — growing up in Holland, marrying a career military office and moving to Java; giving birth, losing a child; and then becoming a character entirely of her own invention, and one of the most notorious women ever.

What I’m considering are poetic works that try to get inside the character, writing in the first person, and not merely describing but sensing, and recreating, a possible person.The same year that Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid appeared, Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susannah Moodie  (Oxford University Press) was published, which many critics call her best and most focused poetry collection. Another influential and highly successful effort came from Gwendolyn MacEwen: The T. E. Lawrence Poems (Mosaic Press, 1982, 2001). When a reviewer of my original Mata Hari book suggested that it could reasonably be compared to MacEwen’s Lawrence poems, I was overjoyed. That’s high enough praise for one lifetime.

Less well-known, but also worthy of critical attention, are two works by Stephen Scobie: McAlmon’s Chinese Opera (Quadrant Editions, 1980), an evocation of the American lost Generation writer; and Ballad of Isabel Gunn (Quarry Press, 1987). Isabel Gunn is a fascinating figure, a woman from Orkney who disguised herself as a man, “John Fubbiston,” and took part in exploratory voyages to Canada’s north before 1800.

Another poetic targeting of  a famous Western figure is The Slow Reign of Calamity Jane by Gillian Robinson (Quarry Press, 1994). It has been described as celebrating “Calamity Jane, renowned for her strange beauty and notorious for her hard drinking lifestyle – saint and sinner, lover and killer, her courage is still legendary.” Conflict of interest report: Gillian is my niece.


Then there’s Clearing the Track: The Subconscious Poetics of Eddie Shack… OK, I made that up.  But wouldn’t it be fun? On the other hand, and far more likely to be a real book —  Kath MacLean is working on a collection about imagist poet HD.  If this matches the quality of Kat Among the Tigers, it will be well worth reading.

There are some good critical articles available online on the works I’ve mentioned above, and some broader essays on the use of history and a documentary approach generally in Canadian poetry. All I want to do here is point out that someone — more focused and scholarly than myself — could till some fertile ground analyzing and comparing works like these, and discerning what they might suggest about the limits and possibilities of poetry, biography, and writing about identity. Also, I’m sure I have left out some other worthwhile titles that deserve to  be included in this list.  If you know of one, please add it in a comment below.

The Poison Colour by Maureen Hynes. Guest review by Sharon Berg

December 20, 2016 § 1 Comment




The Poison Colour. Maureen Hynes. (poetry) Pedlar Press. 95 pages.

The mind is like a richly woven tapestry in which the colors

are distilled from the experiences of the senses, and the

design drawn from the convolutions of the intellect.

Carson McCullers

I used to run a reading series in Sarnia, Ontario, and I invited Maureen Hynes to be a reader in October 2016. During that visit, she told me a story about the way this book was titled, saying her manuscript had suggested something else but the press editor chose this one. I only wish the editor had suggested a shift in order for the poems, as well, placing The Poison Colour closer to the beginning of the book. I believe this title poem sets the tone for reading the book, giving the reader a clue for the context of most of these pieces.

As a person, Maureen Hynes is a kind and astute woman, who is generous with her knowledge, as all of her poems attest. Reading her book is like taking a journey around the globe with her, seeing exotic and humble places through her eyes (Plaza de Puerto de Moros, Kindly Stops, Quipu). Yet, the idea that the use of a certain colour in Mexican or French tapestries…

makes the rest of the group brighten[.]

The colour so drab it intensifies

the merriment in all the others,

their alacrity and charm.

…is spelled out in the title poem to reveal Hynes as a poet who is so intense and so vulnerable that she feels compelled to ask:


Is it me?

Take five pretty colours,

like five slender sisters, and add a sixth,

the less prickly one who makes the others

sweet and tractable,

who forces their brilliance and grace.

(The Poison Colour)

This poem explains the poison colour is one that strikes up high contrasts because it is not harmonious with the others.

In this way, Hynes parallels her personal vulnerabilities, and her persistent self-reflection, to the role of the poison colour in those tapestries. This poem highlights a collection that offers strong insights into the human efforts, globally, to find purpose and meaning, as Hynes also looks for deeper meaning in the artifacts she observes, the paintings and museum objects she sees, and the relationship they have to their makers.

Hynes is both a traveller and an author who likes to write about the various places she has visited (Cueva De Pileta, Prey). Her poems are often like a portal to a different time and place.

Many chambers, steep passageways, drapes of calcium carbonate dyed


with copper, purple with magnesium oxide, five storeys high. Chimineas,

hearths with ventilation upward to the open air, black with

millennial fires.

Everywhere, drip of stalactites, slow accretion of stalagmites, some

broken by terremotos.

Five thousand bats: the single ring of a cell phone will wing them outside.

Their guano drew the olive farmer inside – his grandson guides us.

(Cueva de Pileta)

She is also someone who delights in visiting art galleries and museums, frequently sharing her reflections about what she has witnessed (Jewel Beetle Dress, Redhead, Tarpaulin, Scorched Dress). In fact, she often examines the oddity of what is preserved in museums or in books that the original owners would (or did) put in the trash.

Like X-ray prints of bodies on pavement,

the charred silhouettes on the gallery wall.

A Veronica’s veil lifted away, portrait

of clothes’ endurance, the lightness of all.

The white glove ceremony – unwrapping

and rewrapping in acid-free paper,

immaculate boxes.

(Scorched Dress)

More unusual for a book of poems, perhaps, she also records a response to the work of other authors she has read (Poem Called ‘Grateful’, après vous, On Reading Lorca’s ‘Poet in New York’, Rain-Soaked Poem). The result is that one gains a clear idea of Hynes the poet thinking, responding, and loving.

Hynes is a highly relatable poet and she knows just what to say to introduce each poem at a live reading, as if she is cracking a nut and offering it to her audience. She uses language beautifully and portrays what I can only call her reverie for nature (Listening to the Grass, Rattle, Silver Leaf).

Now you hear the argument

among water, soil, chepica grass:

commotion of pale shoots as they dip

their new quills into Neruda’s green ink,

deepen their hue and swarm ahead

(Listening to the Grass)

Yet, while she is drawn to old architecture, she suggests the renaming and repurposing of buildings and places where one has been is like memory’s intrusion on the present or the past’s insertion into us (These Persons, Stone Sonnet).

Broad boulevards now tawdry and commercial

stretch back two hundred years,

homes to doctors and merchants

and clergymen. The same cathedral bells

chime the hours, quarter, half and full.

How long does it take a city

to form us, fill us

with longings shaped before we were born?

(Small Containers)

Indeed, she connects so deeply with the inner being of her readers that she seems to have a psychic ability to portray the past.

… when I pass the

Church whose Depression era faithful occupied

homes in defence of those evicted, when I search

for old names carved into stonework

or when the peepshow of the past reveals a woman

in high heels dashing into a bank that was once

the Victory Burlesque, all these sites

the city has buried or bricked over or overlooked,

then I am thinking Olsen’s thought,

My problem is to make you believe these persons existed

(These Persons)

For the most part, the entities in her poems live where we can see them, or imagine them, yet, for myself several poems were too privately referenced and, despite the power in her imagery, her message was lost. This should not keep anyone from enjoying the richness in this book, however.

Hynes poetic reflections on eras gone past sparks them to life for moments, within the shelter of her poems, making them seem a portal to distant times and places (These Persons, Valparaiso, Stone Sonnet). She can paint an eerie and suggestive word picture of a cormorant nesting in the hallway disguised as a telephone (Cormorant Elegy) or create a “basket of sound” using words to illustrate the sound of a Redhead Duck (Redhead). She can draw you close enough to sense the power of the drug used during her recovery from surgery:

The middle of the night.

I can bear it, you tell the nurse.

but I just can’t stop crying. Push


The pain pump’s middle button.

The apparatus clicks and clacks –

someone inside, very old and expert, is preparing

your dose, cutting slivers from a ball

of black opium. The sound of his scalpel

slicing against a porcelain plate.

In the middle of the night

you count: 66 slices.

(Surgery Suite)

Always, Hynes touches on the colour of things as if the emotions were a box of watercolours, one colour for humour, another for vulnerabilities, another for the test of patience as she deals with her mother’s decline.

My mother had waded well out into dementia,

let’s say up to her hips, maybe even to her waist.

her sister similarly afflicted, though maybe just

ankle deep. They were both heading for the island

(Further and Further West)

Hynes comments – over and over again, on her trips to museums and artist exhibitions and the homes where famous people once lived – that she wishes she could touch what she sees but it is not allowed. Ironically, in the beautiful lines of her poetry, Hynes makes you feel that you are almost present with her at those sites, that you could also touch what she is referencing – if you were allowed.


Sharon Berg writes poetry, story, reviews, and non-fiction that relates to Indigenous history and education in Canada. Her work has been published in periodicals across Canada, in the USA, the UK, The Netherlands, and Australia. She is the editor for Big Pond Rumours International Literary E-Zine http://www.big-pond-rumours.com/ and her blog collects links to her book reviews: https://sharonbergblog.wordpress.com/


Catherine Owen: The Day of the Dead: review by John Oughton

December 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Day of the Dead: Sliver Fictions, Short Stories & an Homage. Caitlin Press: 160 pages. Paperback. $20, ISBN 978-1987915204.

The subtitle of this collection is “Sliver Fictions, Short Stories & an Homage”. “Sliver fiction” is a term invented by the author, for a mini-story fitting somewhere between postcard fiction and flash fiction, but with  a sharper point or edge. It also serves a metaphorical role, because many of these pieces about the relationships between men and women concern experiences and emotions — grief, lust, loss, confusion, obsession — that work their way under the skin and produce a certain pleasure/pain when you worry at them.

Owen will be familiar to most who follow Canadian literature.  She’s been, for someone around 40, prolific as a poet — her ten volumes doubling the output of yr humble scribe, much her senior.  But she also’s produced Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse, a book of memoirs and essays; and 23 1/2 Hours, a study of of how Canadian poets combine their lyrical habits with actually making a living. If that weren’t enough, given her full-time job as a TV production props mistress, she writes an active review blog — I’m exchanging this review for one she did of my last poetry collection —  is an occasional photographer’s model, plays bass and writes songs in the death-metal fashion. I’m tired already…

This book takes a shot-gun approach to fiction, blasting out everything from one-page stories to those of more conventional length, and an ambitious suite: A Girl, a Guy, a Ghost: An Homage to Marie Claire Blais’s Three Travellers, structured in three sections titled “Moments” which are also musical “Movements” in a larger work. Typically, with this many choices, most readers are going to like some more than others, whether because of their length, subject matter, or tone. And that’s fine — it’s no different than reading a collection of poems, in which I rarely feel drawn to all of them, but usually find some I want to re-read and savour.

What sets Owen’s fiction apart?  Her prose is serviceable when dealing with the nuts and bolts of fiction — where characters are going, what they’re doing — and lyrical, almost prose-poetry when conveying atmosphere, emotion and obsession.  At times, even though Owen’s fixations are different, it reminded me of Kenneth Patchen’s classic (probably unfamiliar to most readers) poetic novel The Journal of Albion Moonlight. But some of Owen’s scenes and imagery are more reminiscent of Kathy Acker or maybe Hubert Selby Jr. From “Hole”:

“Seeing Johnny bleed was about the hottest thing Megan had ever watched.  The gang in the living room playing Rock Band till 4 am, noodling for  bright plastic fame  — “Hella hell hella. Fuck!” all juiced up on Jager and popsicles and he suddenly wanting another hole…”

In particular, Owen is unusually frank about sexual desire and activity for a woman writer, which I find refreshing.  It’s a double standard to assume that only men can write prose about horniness and orgasms.  Owen’s dark sense of humour, and command of style, keep these passages from venturing into the fearful literary desert of 50 Shades of Gaahh.

“He seemed to derive the most pleasure from this tiny act of vengeance and lust, stroking her hair with a sweeping hand, saying he loved her as she opened her mouth over and over gain to his frighteningly tumescent cock.  After he came however, he would retract everything he’d said to her, tossing the transfer back as he tucked himself into his jeans, laughing, “Just said I loved you then.  You know that’s not true, right?”

My favourites are this excerpt’s story, “Bite,” the quirky and playful “Breeders,” the set-in-Turkey “Sips,” the experimental “Food I Ate with Frank,” and “The Resurrection.”  Some of the short pieces are rather slight: “Fruits” with its overdone running metaphor, and “The Mouth” which begins with a promising image, kissing an inflatable man on the lawn, but doesn’t go much further with it. Although the book is generally well-edited, there is the odd surface-level error — like the missing comma after “however” in the passage quoted above.  While I like the cover image, a pile of candy skulls from Mexico’s The Day of the Dead, there’s too much text layered on top of it.  I might have put the subtitle only on the inside page, but then I’m not a designer.

This is a promising collection for someone not known for fiction, and one that’s sure to elicit a response from most readers.  I suspect if it is sometimes horror or omigod-how-could-she-do-that?, Owen would be happy with the effect.

A Poetry Lecture Review

October 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

by John Oughton

I went to University College at the University  of Toronto  on Thursday, October 27, 2016  with a friend who suggested we hear The S.J. Stubbs Lecture in English Literature by Professor Paul B. Muldoon, Founding Chair of the Peter B. Lewis Centre for the Arts, Howard G. B. Clark ’21 Professor, Princeton University.

Old Father, Old Artificer: Reading Yeats and Joyce

muldoonMuldoon is an  Irish poet who has published over thirty complex and playful collections, won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the T. S. Eliot Prize, been an opera librettist, rock music lyricist, and The New Yorker’s poetry editor —  one of those rare people who actually succeed in making a successful career out of a  poetry habit. His lecture was loose, rambling, and larded with frequent and sometimes long quotations from the writing and letters of Yeats and Joyce, although I can hardly complain about that since they’re two of my favourite writers.  Part of his thesis is that Joyce and Yeats not only had a good deal of common experience, as they died within a few years of each other, but that they celebrated the ordinary Irish person as well as the “greats,” and influenced each other’s writing, although they were not close friends.  Two of his perceptions of similar phrases/leitmotifs in their writing — that of “indifference” on the part of the writer, and of a hawk-headed man– stuck with me.

It awakened a part of my literary brain that’s been dormant for a while — the speculative part between the fertile literary mode and the analytical academic one. I enjoyed exploring it when I was an English student and then when I wrote a lot of reviews . This morning I started to read Tuco, a memoir by Brian Brett, and I ran across: “I dwelt in the cave behind my eyes, watching the miracle of the world unfold — a cold-eyed hawk.” It united  threads in Muldoon’s lecture — that of “indifference” and the “hawkman.” 
It seems to me that in Yeats’ and Joyce’s work, as well as the passion for life and language, there’s often a certain reserve, coldness towards others, or human life itself.  I asked Muldoon if this “indifference” might underlie the  lines from “Under Ben Bulben,” that appear on  Yeats’  tombstone: “Cast a cold eye. On life, on death. Horseman, pass by.” Muldoon theorized that Yeats, being from a well-to-do family, imagined himself patrolling his estate on a horse, with  that view of  others from above. I thought of the hawk circling on gyres of air, looking down with its cold raptor’s eye on  people and animals far below. And then the writer adopting that same perspective.
I think that indifference (not lack of interest, exactly) is in my own creative writing sometimes, and my photography. Is it it necessary for some artists to step back from, or float above, the human fray, observing and selecting but not being totally involved?
This is where the hawk and the “indifferent” creator come together for me.
It also connects with Muldoon’s comment about Yeats’ and Joyce’s shared enthusiasm for a cyclic sense of history: to take the long view,  see individuals embodying myths or processes that extend back over time, requires a certain remove — a shift in perspective.
It felt like Muldoon was groping towards that unity in his lecture and didn’t get there, entirely…of course,  I would have felt very pretentious saying so to him, and didn’t complete that realization until I read Brett’s sentence this morning. The mind is a peculiar thing, isn’t it?

The History of Water by Denis Robillard

October 28, 2016 § 2 Comments


Cranberry Tree Press (Windsor, 2015) 44 pages.SBN:978-1-894668-67-5

We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.     — Jacques Yves Cousteau

Denis Robillard’s chapbook is guided by the conceptual theme that water penetrates all parts of our lives, that the presence or absence of water is what ties all of our life events together. Robillard illustrates this point in the interpretation of events in his own life, deftly proclaiming from the moment of conception onward, whether male or female, that human life is made-up of, joined, and delivered through water. Water is the medium of the human journey. He begins with his own birth and echoes this theme through poems that illustrate classic mythical tales and indigenous teachings, personifying the human connection to ancient history through water while defining our human limitations.

I emerged with an outdated map sent from the Incas
no bearings for a tiny body
swimming in so much apprehension.

(Birthbug I)

It is easy to understand how this book garnered first place in the 2015 Cranberry Tree Press Contest. The turns of phrase Robillard uses are often a unique and highly skilled use of language, for instance when he speaks of “water-silked pebbles” (First water), or a “uterine ballet” (Octopus Micronaut), or “the amnesia of rootless miles” (Silk Island Envoy). He also captures chimerical images in full stanzas that resonate deeply with the inner self of a reader:

As a child I once watched
A plastic bag billowing on a neighbour’s fence.
Susurrating like a trapped animal,
An inverted ghost with tiny lungs breathing in the sky.

Yet, this chapbook is an uneven accomplishment. There are instances in the first half of this book when he could deliver his message in far fewer words. For instance, it is wordy and awkward when he says:

My vision has finally hit rock bottom.
In the basement midnight black
Of ocean’s floor is where I find myself.
(Asleep at Ocean’s End).

The poem reads more directly  if he trims, reorders, and recalculates his line breaks.

Vision at rock bottom,
the midnight basement
a black ocean floor
is where I find myself.

The Press is responsible for any lapses in editing. There are times when he simply missteps, using a weak phrase verging on cliché, that almost ruins the poem due to its placement in the climax of its story (‘innocent eyes’ in Silk Island Envoy). In fact, his experiments with word spacing, line break, punctuation, and even the number of lines in a poem sometimes overwhelm the concept (By the River), while his word-spin and name-dropping interrupt the flow of the poem’s message (Sea’s cloudy water pail). Often, I thought he comes close but simply tries too hard to succeed.

When you left us
a giant steel door
was shut closed
in the house
of forever.
(House Hunting)


His intentional use of words uncommon to either daily conversation or most professional fields means that readers are often subjected to a dictionary-word-soup. Reading must be interrupted to look-up and think about the meaning of difficult phrases such as “piscatroid pop tarts” (Late Night Boat Ride), which means he falters simply by requiring so much effort from the reader.

Yet this chapbook holds great promise. It cannot be determined the order that poems were written in, but his delivery in the latter half of the book is stronger because it is more direct. In many of those pieces, Robillard seems to deliver a more self-assured idea, reaching far past the poems, or the person who wrote them, to commune with the common consciousness in us all. He uses less word-soup, requiring only that you let him bring you inside the poetic spaces that he creates.


Like a stone carver we work in miniature.
One continuous frequency
Able to hear the tongue stones speak.
(The tale of two swimmers)


That moment
You released millions of wet birds
Into the clear skyway of my mother’s belly

From this spurt of god clouds came me,
A warm sea of sea being.
(Birthburg II)

To reiterate, Robillard’s theme relates to an idea Leonard Cohen once referred to in an interview during the mid-1980s. In response to a question about the biblical Great Flood, Cohen said there is flood water covering the earth at any moment, as we are all made from water. In fact, water makes up 60% of the average human body and it covers 75% of the Earth’s surface. Robillard takes that idea and introduces it through twists and turns of phrase in his poems, explaining his perception of the role water has played in the events of his own life. I look forward to reading his first full-fledged book.


Sharon Berg

Sharon Berg ‘s books have been published by Borealis Press, Coach House Press and Big Pond Rumour Press. She is a scholar and author of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and reviews. Her creative work has appeared in periodicals across Canada, the UK, The Netherlands, the USA and Australia. She lives in Sarnia, Ontario and is host/organizer for CADENCE, a Reading series, and s the founding editor of Big Pond Rumours Literary E-Zine and Micro-Press. She is currently working on a third manuscript of poetry and a book-length history of Wandering Spirit Survival School,  founded in Toronto in 1976.

Foreign Skin: “find the distance I’ve learned to need”

October 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

Foreign Skin  by Kate Rogers.  Aeolus House, 84 pages, paperback, $20.00.  ISBN 978-1-987872-01-9


This is Kate Rogers’ third book, preceded by City of Stairs and Painting the Borrowed House. In this collection, her double(d) identity as a Canadian teaching at a community college in Hong Kong informs the writing.  In a hectic, entrepreneurial metropolis  — a “high wire act. / In four inch heels” — she questions how one can be of two cultures, and possibly of neither. A familiar stranger,   local exotic, simultaneously a flaneuse and a spectacle. In the poem “Tripping in TST”,she describes falling on a people mover “I was gaping too — in this new element –/ not knowing if I’d ever breathe again.”

Many of the poems navigate a moment of suspension like this, although perhaps less painful ones.  They show her love for the culture and landscape of Hong Kong,  framed by her self-portrait as an outsider.  Sometimes the persona can relax, and just be there: “I shed my foreign skin.” She memorably imagines this cross-cultural double consciousness as a war of food in “At the Daipaidong”.  “Noodles bite me back/ with garlic and chili,/ singe my palate” and then “At night I dream of pinching shut/ the gaping mouths of per0gies”.

There’s also the evolving double nature of Hong Kong to fuel poetry.  Under the British, it became a free-wheeling capital of business development, shopping and food, drawing many tourists.  But the Chinese government is ambivalent about Hong Kong’s tendencies for freedom of expression and individual choice. “Who cares for the police officer/ who runs screaming into the crowd/ because of what he was asked to do…”

Rogers’ poems are generally tightly written and economical.  One of the qualities that make them shine is her ability to convey a mix of emotions, a kind of affective stew :

Rage sits by pool too long,
staring at the sky
until she is nearly blind.

Her skin is so red
when you put gel on her back
she shouts,
Don’t touch me!
Rage will want a hug later. (“Portrait of Rage”)

This gift is particularly evident in the touching Ah Ku Poems, the book’s  final section.  These are tender,  wistful evocations of the lives of Chinese and Japanese concubines from a century ago, of young women who still have romantic dreams of their own, but have been sold or abandoned by their families, and must live somehow: “Enough to eat will do / a bowl of rice and I will/let you slide your hand up my skirt…” Delicate as a sepia photo, this series shows the poet’s compassion and ability to imagine lives beyond her own.

The one piece of constructive criticism I would offer is to relax out of not only the foreign skin, but also the prose skin, from time to time.  The poems are carefully constructed and punctuated series of phrases and clauses, often reading as a grammatical whole.  This may be a side effect of teaching English, something I’ve experienced in my own verse when I taught writing courses more often.

But in poetry, form should be the servant of feeling.  If one feels displaced, experiencing chaotic impressions, let the syntax and imagery do the same.  They will strengthen the effect.  That said, I do recommend this collection, both for the quality of writing and for its unique perspective on a vibrant city struggling with an authoritarian regime that loves its profits ,but hates its citizens’ desire for independence and self-determination. — John Oughton








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