The voices of Patrick Lane “fugitive, celebrant, anguished witness,” heard loud and clear in his 1978 Poems: New and Selected have not diminished. The Lane I first knew tough and tender, a maverick poet bruised by grief, softened by compassion for life in every form, elegiac for creatures and cultures lost can still be found in this posthumous collection. Through his own magic realism Lane transforms rugged specifics into parallel worlds. “Road Crew August 1956” takes us back to youthful swagger: “lounging in the machine’s shade…lank penis in his hand,/ pissing by the ditch where the grasses lie flattened and black,” aiming at a stag beetle under sun and sky. “It’s Finally Friday” loads giant firs into a boxcar, “belling” against the steel wall. The poem bristles with work, crew hijinks and masculine swagger. A grin from “Jimmy’s sister” touches ecstasy, the whole poem exploding in the exclamation, “Christ, I was young then.”
Betsy Warland’s Lost Lagoon/lost in thought is an elegant and bittersweet entry in the renowned Canadian feminist writer’s body of work. Warland refers to the book as “an elegy” (“#51/August 2018: Once again, ‘Very High Health Risk’ air”) for a lagoon that was not really “lost,” but “destroyed” (“#50/It is human nature to walk in circles when”).
Tackling systemic issues of racism through a language of powerful imagery, metaphor and dynamic use of the page, Ian Williams’ Word Problems is a game changer to the Canadian poetry scene. Breaking the linear convention of free form-atting, many of Williams’ poems wrap or bend around the page. In “I will never leave thee or forsake thee” the poem is two interlocking circles of text. Like a literary ouroboros, the poem loops in on itself. More than just a pleasant visual, the cyclical nature transforms the lines into a mantra of “I am alone whether I feel I am or not.” Williams uses this tool again with greater complexity in “Where are you,” where three circles interlock with horizontal lines in the stanza, creating poems within the poem and mantras that repeat in your head as the poem flows on, taking the reader with it. Shifting from circular shapes, poems with horizontal and vertical lines, digital messaging boxes, sheet music bars, a fingerprint, and a grid of the word “white” amid a few appearances of the letter “I,” you are kept on your toes as you turn the page, not only to read but to visually navigate the collection.
M. C. Warrior’s Disappearing Minglewood Blues documents his life working on the BC coast, as a logger, a fisherman (herring gillnet and salmon seine), and as a union activist. The poems are organized thematically and by work history; section titles signal each theme, such as “Bushed,” “At Sea,” and a section with union poems entitled “Revolutions are Festivals of the Repressed.” As a whole, this collection gives you the sense of a man with a notebook and a pencil in his pocket, recording field notes over the course of a working life, scribbling down impressions after a long day’s work, or during a break or shut down. He captures beautifully the rhythm and seasons of a working man, as well as the dark watchful atmosphere of the coastal rainforest.
Witty and wise, Tamar Rubin’s debut collection, Tablet Fragments, fuses elements of her life as a doctor, mother, daughter, and Jew whose lineage is as varied as her verse. Her lyrics are pared down toward minimalism that nevertheless radiates outward, as her lines and margins leave room for breathing and meaning. From the opening poem, “Home Archeology,” to her concluding “Wedding Ceremony for Body Parts,” synecdoche recurs as a major stylistic component of her medical career and domestic conflicts. Hebrew fonts and backgrounds add resonance to these parts and create a wholeness from the fragments of tables and tableaux.
This is Essential Anthology Series 12 from Guernica. I applaud Dane Swan’s bracing, celebratory forward to focus the reader on diversity, inclusion, and active listening as they read a wide array of narratives. It is a reminder to stay alert and keep pushing for change. Here, the focus is on the poetry, spoken word, and fiction of 30 writers from across the landscape of the nation that calls itself Canada. There are no formal sections, but the works move the reader forward in a sine wave of images and powerful feelings. The range of emotions is vast: fury in the face of lifetimes of systemic racism and exclusion; despair and trauma; profound mistrust of institutions; and a lack of respect and dignity that can sear the pages. At times there is strangeness, and other times wry wit; every voice has an essential story to tell.
As the title suggests, poet-painter Jennifer Hosein’s A Map of Rain Days conjures loss and despair. Her paintings and sketches at the start of each section portray a woman turned inward, her back to the world. Her collection is an unflinching evocation of the physical and emotional violence men can do to women under the pretext of love. Her poems, that describe the wounds inflicted by racism, are also visceral and visual. However, Hosein’s love for her mother and daughter shines through even the bleakest of her poems.
In the past ten years (post-Kildeer, pre-Covid), I’ve been lucky to have more than a few chances to hear Phil Hall read in the bars, cafes, lecture halls and ballrooms of the Ottawa and Gatineau valleys. His poetry—his voice—is a marvel. He would put it differently. In Niagara & Government, Hall’s 17th collection, it’s “a discordance / that cherishes & defies.” It’s also a “miserable rant voice,” “honesty’s long squeak,” “unboiled calligraphy,” an “unlikely tongue / I am not ashamed of anymore.” With it, he is “curating strident toward a fable / of leaky worth.”
In her debut collection, Sarah Ens pulls the reader into a very contemporary world grounded in the natural but wonderfully tuned to the metaphysical. The book’s first section evokes a prairie girlhood of fields and silos, and games that signal dawning awareness of both intimacy and mortality: “we tore mittens thundering / up icy bark” (“Always Trees with the Almighty”). Through the eyes of Ens’ speaker, abuses come to light, and we begin to feel the pressures young women face: “desperately wanting to dig it even deeper” (“Straddled”).
Greg Santos’s third volume of poetry, Ghost Face, marks a unique entry in Canadian literature. He is one of few contemporary writers in the country whose breviloquent words paint a big picture.