From the Eye to the Alphabet: Victor Coleman’s ivH: An Alphamath Serial

One of Canada’s consistently interesting and innovative poets, Victor Coleman is undervalued, which is especially frustrating when one considers that he has been producing and publishing work for more than fifty years. Victor Coleman has long been engaging deeply with poetic experiment and exploration and rarely held to a particular form. Over the past two decades, Coleman has been shifting slowly into the Oulipian, composing works structured out of procedural “baffles” (as George Bowering calls them), with an increasing number of them focusing on variations on the alphabet. Coleman’s latest trade poetry collection, ivH: An Alphamath Serial, is self-described as “a faux transtranslation of Raymond Queneau’s 1939 novel Un rude hiver!” A sequence of binary poems, ivH reworks the Oulipo co-founder’s work into a collection of sixty-two numbered poems. The binary structure of the poems is compelling, but the liveliness prevalent in so many of Coleman’s other works feels muted, even stripped-down here, replaced instead with a series of lyric meditations—as he writes in “ivH 15”: “If you refuse / to look at the / truth in the face, / your day will be – / let’s not think – un- / necessary / after coffee / to astonish.” Coleman’s spare style here renders the source text undetectable. But, does the source text matter? Probably not, and transtranslation has become a veritable habit of experimental poets over the past few years, from George Bowering to Erin Mouré to Gregory Betts to Amanda Earl. What does Coleman’s translation add to this conversation? The meditative aspects of the poems are far quieter than what he has done in some time, allowing so much silence to permeate between the lines. If the liveliness of other works might be missing, it is replaced instead with a compelling sense of calm wisdom, exploring a language somewhere between mathematics and Queneau himself. What remains interesting in Coleman’s work is the shift in his decades of writing, from the eye to the alphabet, and an 8-year publishing silence broken in 2002 with the help of Toronto’s BookThug, bringing about a second, significant act to his writing and publishing career. Along with this new work, some of Coleman’s BookThug chapbooks and books include: Moon Over Viagra (2002); Mi Sing: A Second Alphabet of Lipograms (2004); ICON TACT : Poems 1984-2001(2006); Mal Arme: Letter Drop 3 (with illustrations by Paul Collins) (2008); and The Occasional Trubadour (2010). ivH: An Alphamath Serial reads very much as its title indicates: a single moment in an ongoing sequence/serial of works by one of Canada’s most underappreciated poets. To understand this work more deeply, you have to begin to enter into everything else.


rob mclen­nan is author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fic­tion and non-fiction. The most recent is Songs for lit­tle sleep, (obvi­ous epi­phanies press, 2012). He blogs at


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