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Heather Simeney MacLeod on Karen Solie's "In Praise of Grief"

(How Poems Work, July 2005)
In the first stanza of Karen Solie’s poem “In Praise of Grief”, the second person narration does what few second person narration pieces of writing are able to accomplish. It literally refers to you and is not an “I”. Solie is successful at this, in the first stanza, because her poem is tightly woven, the images are sparse and exact, for some people certainly do live their whole lives (yes, their whole lives) coddled as eggs. Though the images are sparse, exact, and tightly woven, they are also universal. They are applicable to most readers. Solie offers us comfort with the realization that, of course, like the speaker of the poem, we feel alone at times….

Heather Simeney MacLeod on Brad Cran's "On Childhood"

(How Poems Work, June 2005)
Brad Cran’s poem “On Childhood” works on several levels, as most evocative and strong pieces of writing do. It is fundamentally a lamentation of childhood, of loss, imbued with particulars. The poem suggests a strange almost melancholic longing for what most thirty-somethings have in common: the sophisticated childhood gleaned from growing up in the aftermath of free-love. It speaks to the children moving out from the communes filled with doodleart and ponchos, finding Clifford Olsen (for those of us from BC) calling us at dusk from our cul-de-sacs : “We dreamt of bloodied hammers,/ a bad man and a rusty van hunched down/ in the parking lot of Safeway.” However–and this not an easy task to undertake, let alone to succeed at in such a small, contained piece of writing–the loss of childhood is made tactile. It becomes real, remembered, the loss irrevocable: “This tree I passed every night without interest/ until the potential of slick rubber tires,/ the sparkling handlebars that I gripped/ as my imagination pedaled off into the night, / where what exists around the corner is left/ out of the lens.” Cran has the ability to articulate the universal grief of growing up, and leaving behind the child we once were….

Alessandro Porco on Michael Holmes' "You Can't See Me"

(How Poems Work, May 2005)
Hip-hop has not, as of yet, extended its influence to the ring of Canadian poetry in the same way it has, to varying degrees, fashion, cinema, and dance, all active participants in the macro social-space of youth culture. Perhaps this is because Canadian poetry–its citizenry and institutions–has consciously endeavored to position itself culturally as mature, if for no other reason than to counter Northrop Frye’s claim of ours as “a literature that has not quite done it.” The end result has been a continued passive-aggressive articulation of youth culture as anathema to the nation’s more “serious” poetic project–whatever that may be….

Alessandro Porco on David McGimpsey's "KoKo"

(How Poems Work, April 2005)
Each of David McGimpsey’s first three collections of poetry–Lardcake, dogboy, and Hamburger Valley, California–includes installments in what are commonly referred to as his “chubby sonnets.” Sixteen-lines in length; dividing equally into four four-line stanzas; picaresque in tone–the poems carefully locate and straddle pathos and bathos, sentimentality and irony. Part character, part caricature, the speaker is, to borrow from “KoKo,” “one of the great defectives,” a resident of Loserville, described by McGimpsey elsewhere as the “demented but proud and gated community / that will not let the winners in.” He is perhaps most-aptly described as a warm-hearted Travis Bickle, or, inversely, a cold-hearted Quixote….

Alessandro Porco on Carolyn Smart's "Frangipani"

(How Poems Work, March 2005)
Carolyn Smart’s “Frangipani” is as close to a perfect poem as I can imagine. The poem is firmly situated in the imagist tradition, yet distinguished by how it subverts such a tradition–historically, a tradition overly concerned with the beautiful–by inscribing its central image, that of the frangipani in all its various conditions, with a subtle but unsettling touch of the macabre. The macabre recalibrates notions of beauty, while also intimating an underlying humor.
The opening stanza’s function is two-fold. First, it is expository: the speaker is paying her respects at a wake. The speaker’s experience is entirely sensory, as she immediately recognizes the “odour.” Second, it establishes a governing poetic style, one in accordance with Pound’s oft-cited direct treatment of the thing. Also noteworthy in the first stanza is its detached tone, which suggests the speaker’s disassociation from a pained reality; perhaps this is a defense mechanism….

Yvonne Blomer on Elizabeth Bishop's "12 O'Clock News"

(How Poems Work, February 2005)
… In the poem, “12 O’Clock News”, Bishop looks at our ability to feel alienated from the world around us, even when that world is occupied by familiar objects.
Each object on the left and each description on the right works in interplay between object and image to create metaphor. The objects from her desk are metaphors for the descriptions that go with them, but the descriptions are also metaphors for the objects, for the wider world, the mass media and the writer herself. Bishop builds from the light (i.e. her gooseneck lamp) and works outward to show all the objects that are illuminated and what they are capable of being.
The poem can be read as a commentary on the mass media and how it portrays foreign landscapes. During the early part of the Iraqi war the grey-green surveillance footage depicted an alien world in a way that could only heighten the viewer’s sense that Iraq is different and its people “in the dark”….

George Sipos on Donna Kane's "Surrender"

(How Poems Work, January 2005)
… All these senses now come together and charge almost every word of the last stanza. What are the “thrills” referred to in the first line? They are the induced thrills which spiked drinks are intended for at parties; they are the thrill of being born into the world; they are the thrills of contemplating surrender to love and death. The weak knees of the next lines again harken both to the spiked drink of the first stanza and also to the organic physicality of the second and to the spiritual surrender of the third. “The elegant pause/ in which we drop” similarly brings the sense of all three stanzas together, dropping being appropriate to the effects of the drink, to the act of being born and to the surrender to life’s big

Barbara Myers on Gwendolyn MacEwen's "Dark Pines Under Water"

(How Poems Work, December 2004)
“Dark Pines Under Water” is a celebrated poem, one rich in symbolism and metaphor, often anthologized and justly so. What is this land that’s “like a mirror?” Is it Canada? It could be the earth itself–or a symbol for earthly life, the depths of human consciousness. A search on the Internet finds the poem claimed equally on a site about the boreal forest and one celebrating “Dreams, Wonders and Adventures Phantasmagorical.” …
MacEwen wrote these lines and published them in her award-winning collection, The Shadow-Maker in 1969, around the same time other Canadian writers (notably Margaret Atwood in Survival) were delving into Canadian consciousness and a national cultural identity. It’s possible that “this land” stands as much for Canada as for an individual persona….

Barbara Myers on Gwendolyn MacEwen's "The Mirage"

(How Poems Work, November 2004)
Gwendolyn MacEwen was one of the most remarkable Canadian poets of her generation. Never associated with any particular school of writing, she arrived upon the poetry scene in Toronto in the early 1960s, reading her uniquely original work in the coffee houses of the day, such as The Bohemian Embassy. Throughout her writing life of approximately 25 years she published seven collections of poetry, two novels, plays, and stories for children, and won the Governor General’s award for poetry twice: first for _The Shadow Maker_ in 1969 and (posthumously) for _Afterworlds_, in 1988. She died in 1987.
MacEwen published her collection _The T. E. Lawrence Poems_ in 1982, attributing her first fascination with Lawrence to “sepiatone photographs … of blurred riders on camels riding to the left into some uncharted desert just beyond the door” pointed out to her in a hotel in Tiberias, Israel, in 1962. Some say she felt herself to be a twin in spirit to Lawrence. “The Mirage” is from this volume. Although all these poems are written in Lawrence’s voice, and this one–with its opening line: “This is the desert, as I promised you”–at first appears to be as well, the voice seems to waver as we read on … like a mirage. The desert may stand for existence, the mirage for–what? Our attempts to assign meaning on behalf of the “marvelous vessels”? The easy conversational tone rests securely on a well-honed framework: five quatrains, each stanza’s first and third lines in iambic pentameter, shorter lines woven around them….

rob mclennan on John Newlove's "The Death of the Hired Man"

(How Poems Work, October 2004)
This small piece, originally published as a broadsheet by above/ground press, was the last new poem of John Newlove´┐Żs to appear in print before his death on December 23, 2003.
At the Ottawa memorial reading for John Newlove in January 2004, I read the poem, causing his wife Susan to later comment on the piece, saying, oh, I remember when that happened.
In a subsequent email about the poem, Susan writes her account: “[W]e were at Deep Springs College, California, for a summer semester and the students and staff had gone off on one of their adventures in the Mojave Desert, or something like that, leaving the Dean, Barney Childs, wives and kids, John and ranch staff to look after things for a few days.
“It was a hot day, and the hired hand who did all the mechanical and such practical work around the ranch and college work was digging a ditch, to lay pipes I think, and he dropped dead of a heart attack–he was an older man, but we were all pretty young then. There were dogs around, and I remember John took charge of it all… It seems to me that he was particularly concerned about the heat, and its effect on the corpse, and the dogs, and whether he could keep them off the corpse; and the length of time it had to stay in situ until the officials had finished their work. Of course, all of this may have nothing to do with the poem.”
Newlove, who grew up in small towns in Saskatchewan, probably knew all too well about hired men, and manual labour, and the foolishness of working in such heat. There are some things a body doesn’t forget….