Phoebe Wang’s Admission Requirements is, from the title itself, a collection inflected with tender irony. Admission, here, appears in all its meanings: the act of letting in; the privilege of being allowed, and the price paid for it; the acceptance of difficult truths. Variations of the word “settler” appear throughout, in double entendres. One could think of Wang’s poetry as an introspective land acknowledgement.
Michael Fraser’s latest collection, To Greet Yourself Arriving, is the only book of poetry I’ve ever read with a glossary. That Fraser felt he needed one in a collection whose central theme is famous Black men and women could be said to be, in part, an excellent reason for writing such a book. With a rare sort of graceful simplicity, the poet takes readers boldly by the wrist and thrusts them into a room full of voices―a party where inventor Elijah McCoy is having a cocktail with astronomer Neil de Grasse Tyson, ex-president Barack Obama listens to boxing heavyweight champion Jack Johnson recount a famous bout and Howlin’ Wolf smokes a spliff while Maya Angelou reads aloud to entertain the crowd.
Tomorrow’s Bright White Light, Jan Conn’s ninth book of poetry, is a slender volume, but its poems offer the same detail density and associative leaps of reason as her previous work. Conn’s title suggests a future-oriented, even hopeful poetics, and though in the opening poem the speaker says, “I am all pause, all / hesitation” (the line pausing along with her), there is little hesitation in the inquiring mind of these poems, a mind willing to enter into the world’s physical and theoretical detritus. But the inquisitive futurity of these poems does rub up against stasis, physical inability, and the inescapable present: more than once Conn traces “our inability to place one foot / in front of the other.” Near the end of the book the speaker tells us: “The continual present is all that is allowed.” The present encroaches on the future so that warnings turn into irrevocable facts: in “Lac-Megantic” Conn’s speaker tells us, “Human community as we know it / already unrecoverable.”
Lori Cayer’s smart new book, Dopamine Blunder, jumps and skitters across a cornucopia of poems in order to chase down, capture, and interrogate the one elusive rascal of the North American capitalist dream: happiness. Touching on the fruits of research from quantum mechanics to sociology and everything between, she begins in “Page Not Found” with “how do you know if you’re happy / if you’re not,” and continues her quest through found and erasure poems, lyrical poems, anagrams, and poems that play and sing with syntax and punctuation. Interspersed throughout Dopamine Blunder, Cayer’s third book of poetry, are indexes and formulae of happiness and wellbeing, reminiscent of Nikki Reimer’s lists of household expenses in DOWNVERSE.
Subtitled “a poetry of witness,” Emily Pohl-Weary’s second poetry collection, Ghost Sick, reacts to a Christmas Eve shooting in her Toronto neighbourhood. As she describes in the opening poem, “Ghost Days”: “After the shooting / I floated through life / ephemeral, near invisible [.]” The poems in Ghost Sick attempt to articulate the way violence intrinsically changes a space, and the people within that space, even those who aren’t immediately affected by that violence. Even as Pohl-Weary composes her narrative quilt, attempting individual poems-as-poems around a single, explosive event, the distance between narrator and event occasionally feels too far.
Stripped down to only its domestic battle scenes, life is bloodier, more depraved and more terrifying than it is in real time. The violence and trauma of rape, child abuse, battery and addiction relentlessly advance through Roxanna Bennett’s The Uncertainty Principle without pause or breath or respite. The first half of the book is particularly harrowing as poems about sexual exploitation (“I’m everything you’ve wished for. You’re everything I suffer”) are followed by poems about vicious patriarchs (one “bounced the baby until his neck felt soft”), which are followed by poems about mental illness and hospitalization (“This one (symptom) naked in snow, / points the pistol of his fingers to his temple / blows out the hidden sickness”).