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Topic: Zachariah Wells

Pressures that Refine: Zachariah Wells’ Sum

In Zachariah Wells’ third book, Sum, nearly half of the poems are written, perhaps paradoxically, with reference to the life and work of others. Included in this select brotherhood are labourers and mathematicians, poets and economists, scientists, theists, atheists. The constraint opens up a range of subjects and perspectives through which Wells explores questions relating to states of being and how language can respond to these states. What pressures are put on in alternative psychological or neurological states? What is it to be a deep-sea creature, still trying to breathe, on the deck of a boat? What does living mean after the life you’ve known has been stripped from you?

Showing Us the Rings: Elena Johnson's Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra

High on the slopes of the Yukon’s Ruby Range, beyond the Arctic Circle, “a kilometre above sea level,” little can grow in the talus and scree, and that which does manage to root itself attains no great height. “[W]e are the tallest objects,” writes Elena Johnson, “bent by wind.” The poems in Johnson’s debut collection were initially composed during a stint in the Kluane Alpine Ecosystem Project field camp in the summer of 2008, a residency she herself—an experienced park naturalist and field ecology researcher—proposed.

Flux and Circadian Renewal: Carmelita McGrath’s Escape Velocity

Since 1997, there have been well over 2000 poetry collections published in Canada—counting only the books produced by accredited presses. If, like Carmelita McGrath, you released your last book in 1997 with a small press in Newfoundland, you should perhaps forgive the poetry-reading public if you’re not on its radar. In the interval between To […]

The Long Game: David O’Meara’s A Pretty Sight

After my first read of David O’Meara’s new book—his fourth—I was vaguely disappointed. By the time I finished reading it for the second time, I had been quietly blown away. There could be many explanations for the discrepancy between my two reactions, but I think the crucial factor is the subtle, nuanced ways that O’Meara […]

On Alfred G. Bailey's "Elm"

In one of the most famous pieces of poetic shlock ever penned, Joyce Kilmer muses that he “shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.” “Tree” is not merely the first syllable of treacle, however, and trees–despite poets’ best efforts to abet deforestation through publication–are almost always positive emblems when they appear in a poem–even while forests are often dark and terrible zones.
A.G. Bailey seems to suggest that if all Kilmer and others can see is arboreal loveliness, then they probably can’t see the forest for the trees. “Look well,” this poet says, and he means it. Bailey inverts the old chestnut about the innocent beauty of trees by the bold device of comparing the elm’s “wittol” (witless; also, a knowing but tolerant cuckold) root to a rat–a neat consonantal rhyme–a trick which has the dual effect of making us question our usual assumptions about trees and of exonerating, or at least complicating, the voracious lusts and appetites of the oft-benighted rodent.

Lost and Found Poet #11: Kenneth Leslie

Kenneth Leslie: GG Winner, East Coaster and Extraordinary Sonneteer
Rediscovered by Zachariah Wells, poet, critic and editor of the upcoming anthology _Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets_.
He was a farmer, a teacher, a preacher, a political activist, a journalist, a broadcaster, a composer, a restaurateur and a cab-driver. He was blacklisted by _Life_ magazine as one of fifty prominent “dupes and fellow travelers” of communism during the McCarthy era. On top of all this, Kenneth Leslie was one of the most gifted poets of his day, and won the Governor General’s Award in 1938 for his collection, _By Stubborn Stars_. Although he travelled widely and lived in New York, Boston and Paris, Leslie’s poetry was stubbornly rooted in the culture and landscape of Nova Scotia’s north shore.

On Richard Outram’s "Barbed Wire"

Richard Outram is known to be a difficult poet. His poems are often philosophical and densely allusive, to the point sometimes of near opacity. This not entirely unearned reputation has made him something of a poet’s poet, very highly esteemed by a small number of dedicated readers. But, as Carmine Starnino has argued in his recent book [_A Lover’s Quarrel_], there is “another Outram” out there, one who does not need in-depth decoding by experts to be appreciated. Starnino singles out “Barbed Wire” as one of the finest products of that other Outram, and justly so. This profoundly moving occasional poem–one of very few overtly autobiographical pieces in Outram’s oeuvre–can be apprehended after a single reading by a non-specialist reader. This doesn’t mean that the poem yields its secrets easily; after reading this poem several dozen times, I still uncover previously unnoticed nuances in its lines.

On Peter Van Toorn's "Mountain Leaf"

Peter Van Toorn is one of Canada’s most inventive and irreverent poets. The sonnet is one of the oldest and most venerable of poetry’s set forms, dating back to fourteenth century Italy. Put the two together and you get a unique sort of magic—and a poem that defies just about anyone’s idea of what should “work” in poetry.
At a time when most writers aspiring to compose poetry were scorning the sonnet as a fusty relic of antiquity and British colonialism (Mountain Tea was first published in 1984), Peter Van Toorn was playfully toiling to make the form new. In “Mountain Leaf” Van Toorn, far from finding the form constricting, seems to regard the strictures of a straightforward Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet as too easy. The stereotype of formal verse is that it involves conservative, conformist rule-following. Van Toorn, who is also a jazz musician and understands that genuine improvisation is impossible without strict discipline, will have none of that. Instead, he invents for himself a fresh batch of constraints against which to pit his free-wheeling imagination.

On James McIntyre's "Ode On The Mammoth Cheese"

There are two ways for a poet to achieve immortality: 1) Write at least one, but preferably several, indisputably great poems; or 2) Write at least one, but preferably several, indisputably atrocious poems. The latter might seem easier to do, but to write verse that isn’t just slight, mediocre, disposable, dull–to write truly awful poetry–requires a kind of “inverse talent,” as Kathryn and Ross Petras put it in the introduction to their anthology Very Bad Poetry:
“It also helps to have a wooden ear for words, a penchant for sinking into a mire of sentimentality, a bullheaded inclination to stuff too many syllables or words into a line or a phrase, and an enviable confidence that allows one to write despite absolutely appalling incompetence.”
Only three poets in the Petras anthology are allotted more poems than James McIntyre (1827-1906). Thus, although it remains true that Canada has not produced a Yeats, we can say without hyperbole that we have our very own “McGonagall”: …

Quasi-sonnets: Harold Rhenisch's Free Will

It’s a truism that books come from other books. Shakespeare, for instance, borrowed storylines from classical antecedents. In the hands of a good writer, such appropriations become original works in their own right. I’m thinking here not only of Shakespeare’s plays, but of such brilliant latter-day adaptations of them as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Aimé Césaire’s post-colonial version of The Tempest. Sometimes, however, adaptation takes on a parasitic tinge, either trivializing or leaning too heavily on the source material. Harold Rhenisch’s Free Will belongs, unfortunately, to this latter class…