Shane Neilson, a much-lauded poet, was shortlisted for the Raymond Souster Award for New Brunswick, a technically adept homage to his home province, as well as a symphonic work that is part elegy, part meditation. Dedicated to his deceased parents, his book begins with a poem by John Donne and “Pass By,” a song by Neilson that received Honourable Mention in a regional contest. The combination is instructive, their themes of pain and loss the very ones Neilson has explored in other works. The song foreshadows the poet’s abiding love of place, a fact established not just by the content of other poems but by Neilson’s framing of the collection, where the first specimen is a prose poem incorporated within a historical timeline of New Brunswick history, and where the final poem is the conclusion of a corona sonnet sequence about forms of loss.
Poets routinely mine childhood for their books―especially debut poets. Kevin Spenst’s first book, Jabbering With Bing Bong (Anvil Press, 2015), contained some of that kind of material without being a full-scale operation. Yet Jabbering was the second book Spenst wrote that was lucky enough to find publication first. I know this because I read a chapbook-sized version of Ignite many years ago and rejected it for publication at Frog Hollow Press because I did not think it worked hard enough as a poetic (as opposed to biographical) text.
Dysphoria, the concluding installment to Shane Neilson’s trilogy on affect is itself a work in three parts. Neilson roots and uproots the reader; switches timelines on a dime; and juggles pop culture, science fiction, and nursery rhyme – often, to the point of vertigo.
The winter 2016 issue of Arc Poetry Magazine lightens the darkest season with Canada’s brightest poets.
There is an apocalyptic streak in the poetry of A.F. Moritz, one composed of moments when he adopts the raiment of a prophet and comments upon our course in the world. This habit is welcome, as one of the functions of the poet is to interrogate our personal and collective means of being. But in this case, Moritz writes an interlocking poem that asks “What way should we proceed?” and, here, answers in terms of the cyclical.
This is a poem of opposites, of counterings, and it begins with an opposite: the table, where people eat and talk and enjoy their lives, and the grave, where people do their grieving. Moritz commingles the two words: the “they” of the poem do not know “whether to grieve or celebrate”, suggesting that both practices happen in both locales, table and grave, borrowing a trick of the elegy to mix the potent ingredients and create an effect that is complicated catharsis. The next pairing comes with “noon” and “dusk”; again, Moritz says that the two are sequential, or cyclical. The worth of either option is not rated; like seasons, these opposites turn into one another. Moritz then comments literally upon our century’s militarism and industrialism with the vowel-rich “locked stockade of heavy machines” but contrasts this dull and “heavy” line with an airborne blue heron–the poet, perhaps, surveying all?–which finds its own way and goes “farther on.” Thus the dead, deadening, grounded aspects of our society are contrasted to a coloured, living, aloft being. At this point, there are two things that are finding their way: the pronoun “they”, which the poem suggests is “us”, and the heron. But where are they headed?
During medical school, I had Nowlan, a New Brunswick poet who developed thyroid cancer at the age of thirty-three, as my major tutor in pain. Before he was diagnosed and eventually underwent three major surgeries, he wrote a poetry of fine lyric, a mainly descriptive poetry that stuck to stanza. But after his cancer, his style exploded: he started to write about himself, about his own impressions and feelings, about his own frailties and how they manifested themselves in others and, most importantly, about his own life-threatening illness.
“The Boil” is typical of the kind of poem Nowlan wrote in what I call his middle period; perhaps enamoured of William Carlos Williams’ variable foot, with great attention paid to breath. There is great attention paid to typography, meant to simulate the rolling of a boil–“prying it”–between one’s fingers, and the gasps as one does so. The words “master” and “servant”, though, have pride of place, occupying a line each. Nowlan’s poem provides a benign optimism: that the patient can understand her illness for what it is, and thereby steal its mastery. Nowlan’s poem describes how one can literally take a problem between one’s fingers and exchange servitude for perhaps not mastery (for the boil, though pierced, may form again, and it always levies pain), but at least a measure of control. And good poems are controlled performances…
I really wanted to like this book. Love it, in fact. I wanted to love it like I fell in love with Mean Babstock’s first book. Mean was glorious, it was the way and the light, and as I read it years ago I kept thinking, this is poetry one could emulate, this is poetry worthy of putting forward on the world stage, this is the best book of Canadian poetry I’ve read in years. Mean stuck with me, and it’s stuck with others: it’s the yardstick for a certain generation of poets. I know of what I speak: I’ve asked dozens of poets, in the midst of flagging polite conversation, “But what do you think about Babstock’s Mean?” And the reaction is often one I myself can identify with: unadulterated awe.
(How Poems Work, May 2004)
The late Alden Nowlan was a cancer survivor who wrote a significant body
of work devoted to his illness and treatment. “In The Operating Room”
is such a poem. It begins strongly, starting off with a man’s voice. The opening
song is appropriate to the occasion, for the autobiographical “I”
of this poem is about to be shunted off by the ritualistic acts of the anesthetist
(positioning the patient on the OR table, starting intravenous medication,
etc.) into the nether-realm of the general anesthetic. These first few lines
are packed further with meaning: “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”
is an old slave song that used to be sung by American blacks rowing their
masters’ goods across Virginia’s rivers. The song form–a hymn–is
apropos to the poet’s funereal circumstance of general anesthesia, a state
one remove from death. The occasion of the song is also apt in that the anesthetist
will be ferrying the poet from the waking world into unconsciousness.