Monday, December 28, 2015

Favourite Poetry of 2015

Gore Park, 6am. #hamont

Here are the ten best books I read this year, selected from 2014-2015 releases and organized alphabetically by author. For each book or chapbook I’ve included either a micro-review, a blurb or, in rare cases, an excuse about why I did not write more. Read on!

You’ll notice several of these selections hail from Ottawa, and all of them are Canadian. (The roots of my literary gaze on full display.) A big thank you to the authors and publishers responsible. 

All the best in 2016!

1) Small Waterways - Nelson Ball (Fave Poetry of 2015)

Small Waterways (Apt. 9 Press, 2015)

Is it possible that Nelson Ball hadn’t written a poem called “Fall” until now? Hard to believe, given the author’s knack for seasonal changes and brevity. But knowing what to expect from a new Nelson Ball collection doesn’t dull its anticipation. With each recent title from the prolific, Paris, Ontario based author, we’ve been gifted stunningly clairvoyant poems in Ball’s minimal style. And Small Waterways is perhaps the sharpest, accenting stark vistas with almost imperceptible, existential flourishes that balance his explicit sadness with a renewed acceptance. 

Beyond the smidgeon of verve added to these immaculate lines, Apt. 9 Press delivers something really unexpected: an addendum of notes in which Ball discusses the background of several poems, his relationship with Catherine Stevenson and her resulting film, Nelson Ball & Barbara Caruso | Home Project | A photo documentary. Rarely do we get to read so much from this author’s pen in one sitting — and all in a chapbook, no less.

2) Wool Water - JC Bouchard (Fave Poetry of 2015)

Wool Water (words(on)pages, 2015)

I began the year reading The Grey Islands by John Steffler. It’s a remarkable book that, released in 1985, falls outside the consideration pool of even a slow reader like myself. Alas, poetry about isolated men coming to terms with nature became a recurring theme throughout my reading this year and oftentimes serendipitously. Wool Water is my favourite of the bunch, in part because it’s the first extended stay I’ve had in JC Bouchard’s work — all else being one-off poems — but also because this sturdy chapbook has no one-off poems. Roman numerals are on hand to punctuate Bouchard’s timeline but they act more like transition wipes in the mies-en-scene of an adventure in Iceland.

It’s a solitary excursion, ostensibly shared with other tourists but gleaming nothing from their presence. Just as well, the distance from home and relative isolation are not framed as excuses to probe some unresolved event that jettisoned him north. No, Wool Water records how humans grapple with landscapes either inconvenient or inhospitable, and in a way that makes readers — visually cut-off from his experiences — marvel from their armchairs. Interaction with nature in its primary language — the physiological properties of water, earth and air — keeps Bouchard in the present, his language alert to each moment. Almost like a survival instinct, Wool Water abandons the commentary that would result from processing these experiences, giving us an unblemished meditation on environment and quietude.

3) Invasive Species - Claire Caldwell (Fave Poetry of 2015)

Invasive Species (Wolsak & Wynn, 2014)

Due to haphazard, holiday packing, I’m faced with writing a micro-review of Claire Caldwell’s Invasive Species while my copy is 800 kilometres away. This is a particular shame because the debut contains several of my favourite poems of 2015 (such as “The House with Snakes in its Walls”). Having sat here for a moment, weighing options, I’ve decided not to piece together an impression of Invasive Species (which I read several months ago) via the help of online mentions and excerpts. Instead I simply recommend checking it out.

4) The Charm - Jason Christie (Fave Poetry of 2015)

The Charm (above/ground press, 2015)

Jason Christie’s third above/ground chapbook in three years foregoes the overarching themes of Government (2013) and Cursed Objects (2014), opting instead for small, conversational indulges. Not to say that these are one-off poems, nor that they bask in niceties. The accessibility that renders “i don’t understand how the internet works” and “i’m putting all of the punctuation back into this poem” as both poem titles and first lines therein cannot take credit for the heft these admissions carry. 

Beyond tinkering to get his language simple to the point of profundity, Christie’s charm is the razor sharp way he exposes nature in artifice, and vice versa. (This uncovered theme distinguishes subconscious gestures from verbal communication in “we’re no longer speaking” and parses mission statements out of covert poetics in “this poem was once in a section called customer service”.) It isn’t so much about what Christie takes from these small discoveries, but how he guides us to reflect on them in our own lives. Getting into the reader’s headspace is a difficult task made all the more impressive when it looks this effortless. As a result, the metaphor-free “i am not a young man” is my favourite love poem in a long, long time. 

5) Kiki - Amanda Earl (Fave Poetry of 2015)

Kiki (Chaudiere Books, 2014)

Having already written a full-length review of Amanda Earl’s druggy work of empowerment (which currently languishes in literary journal limbo), I’d rather not compress its thoughts into a bite-sized blurb just yet. Hopefully said review will see the light of day shortly; until then, the presence of Kiki on this year-end list should serve as a reasonable spoiler that it’s quite wonderful.  

6) the blue, blue there - Marilyn Irwin (Fave Poetry of 2015)

the blue, blue there (Apt. 9 Press, 2015)

The title of Marilyn Irwin’s latest chapbook calls to mind a horizon line. We aren’t near enough to see it yet, and maybe that’s the allure: we know that it isn’t here. Many poems in the blue, blue there play with proximities, whether they’re measuring small units like “the 14 gasps up Gladstone” (“creature, comforts”), impassible miles from one’s love (“went”) or even the thoughtful steps to befriending a turtle (“for when you make friends with a turtle”). 

Spats of humour and sentiment sit comfortably together, with precise diction taking the occasional leap. Whether her knots of relationships are fastened or slipping loose, Irwin expresses their raw state, adding dashes of surrounding (household or Ottawa-bound) imagery to invigorate a poem’s breathing space. If the first stanza of “tail-spin” makes for clear, confessional poetry (with “i always knew you were wrong / for me”, the second cuts into a collage of visuals branching from that root of separation. By the third and final stanza (“the back of your head / frozen / to the Ottawa river”), Irwin’s resoluteness, while still unwavering, creates friction with the reader’s growing intrigue. Is this a relationship or a life she’s mourning? 

That imaginary horizon also casts a hazy lens over what’s concrete and what’s abstract. Grounded and gut-punching poems like “murder, old ottawa south” and the stratosphere-ricocheting “transmigration of the soul and other no-no’s” stake opposite ends of Irwin’s yardstick, respectively. But the vast middle tackles the likes of Kim Jong Un, a dead deer in the woods and the FLNJ (le Front pour le Liberation des Nains de Jardin) with a flexible curiosity that accepts the chaos of life, and demands revisiting.

7) Understander - N.W. Lea (Fave Poetry of 2015)

Understander (Chaudiere Books, 2015)

Understander is so small, I spent half of a Sunday afternoon just looking for it. The emotions within are just as covert, and organized in sparse, lyrical vignettes. Some entries crystallize transient fears and expectations through potent imagery (“A Visit”), others come to life through half-rhymes and onomatopoeia (“Improviser”, “You”). And some are near perfect in their unadorned simplicity:

A Morning

where you just sit
and listen
to Nick Drake, sick —

watching the gorgeous crow
eat rain. 

Despite its miniature scale, N.W. Lea carves out sections for poems to cluster like lonesome anxieties. Housed like strands of surrealism — the work in “Autumn Dog” assuming traditional albeit skeletal forms next to the flowing, minimal sequence of “Present!” — these sections do not represent a key to easier comprehension so much as new shades of Understander’s fragile psyche. In search of solace, N.W. Lea communicates a complex ennui without leaning on any obvious pathos. 

8) Loitersack - Donato Mancini (Fave Poetry of 2015)

Loitersack (New Star Books, 2014)

“The Young Hates Us” operates as poetry, criticism, philosophy and social protest, a collage-like rebuke of capitalist passiveness and how it weakens our own ideological potential. And that’s just the first section. Unlike other selections on this Fave Poetry of 2015 list — much of which I consider “comfort poetry” in the way it nourishes and mystifies, evokes and withholds — Loitersack demands analysis and disbelief, number-crunching and humility. Peering beyond the systematic ways we compartmentalize and see language, Donato Mancini probes conventional thinking until it’s yet another false idol polluting true expression. So while this isn’t the most comfortable read, Loitersack is the most original work I read all year. 

9) Reviews of Non-existent Titles - Pearl Pirie (Fave Poetry of 2015)

Reviews of Non-existent Titles (shreeking violet press, 2015)

Practicing criticism in Canadian literature is commonly described as “thankless” and, though sometimes true, that gripe supports a rather dire depiction of the lonesome critic struggling for some altruistic good. Yes, reviewing can often feel like a long and arduous conversation with oneself, but those of us who scour over books and chapbooks aren’t immune to small pleasures in the process. Reviews of Non-existent Titles pokes fun at such notions of self-seriousness, while also targeting some quirky cliches among writers and wannabes. 

It’s an enticing premise that Pearl Pirie explores, rendering what might’ve been a fun, conceptual exercise into a meta-mirror on the creative domain of poets and critics. There is some risk of pissing in one’s own pool, to that end, though I’d be lying if I said that didn’t give the chapbook some added intrigue. Luckily Reviews of Non-existent Titles errs on the side of irreverence and — much like the spirit of the popular NewsforPoets Twitter account — prefers sharp tongued satire to gatekeeper-ish policing. And like all good satire, it begs an honest glance: are Pirie’s made-up reviews really exaggerated or rooted more in reality than we’d care to admit? 

10) This Orchard Sound - John Terpstra (Fave Poetry of 2015)

This Orchard Sound (Wolsak & Wynn, 2014)

This Orchard Sound comprises a suite of poems pulled from 1997’s The Church Not Made With Hands (Wolsak & Wynn) and rehoused as its own chapbook. Why bother? Well, seeing is believing; featuring photography from the scene of the crime (an orchard that once sat near Guelph Line in Burlington, Ontario) and binding reminiscent of Gaspereau Press, This Orchard Sound is an enviable marriage of presentation and material. 

Of course, none of that luxuriousness would matter if John Terpstra’s message didn’t hold true almost twenty years on. Carefully maneuvering natural landscape and faith, an intersection that has become something of a signature for the recent Hamilton Literary Award winner, This Orchard Sound attempts to come to terms with the loss of innocence — for those trees in front of the bulldozers as well as those of us behind the wheel. 

“Come, see the place. 
                                  Roll away
the parking lot. Uncover earth
beneath the asphalt, and below its surface
find the dried tendrils of uprooted
Bartlett. Bosk. Kiefer. Friends.
It’s finished.

                   And into whose hand
surrenders the spirit of the place? 
For as often as not we eat the foreign fruit
and drink the foreign wine, eating and drinking
the awful irony, that a ripe grove grew
where the car now leaks water from its rad.” 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Meet the Presses 2015; a recap

2015’s Meet the Presses was just the right calibration of different and yet familiar. There were a few new presses on hand, including the sparsely designed, women’s-only Canthius Journal and the eye-catching work of Desert Pets Press. But otherwise, a lot of stellar presses from last year were back with new wares: Mansfield Press, Anstruthers Press, BookThug, Coach House Books, Little Brother and Puddles of Sky Press, among others. I arrived a bit later this year and missed the announcement that Lissa Wolsak won the bpNichol Chapbook Award. Congrats!

Since much of my experience last year can be reapplied here, I'll save you the atmospherics and get right to the spoils. I picked up Catherine Owen’s The Other 23 & a Half Hours... and had Wolsak & Wynn publisher Noelle Allen fill me in on some of the great readings I missed during Owen’s recent tour. I eagerly collected Nelson Ball’s new chapbook Small Waterways from Cameron Anstee and his Apt. 9 Press. I chatted with Will Kemp and Nicole Brewer about the hard work (and subsequent good fortune) that has transformed the words(on)pages table over the past twelve months. 

rob mclennan was on hand, representing both above/ground press (which received its second consecutive bpNichol Award nomination in collaboration with poet Jason Christie) and Chaudiere Books. Within a minute I was given three new Chaudiere titles: Tatterdemalion by Jennifer Londry, continua by Chris Turnbull and this by Andy Weaver. Many thanks! (Note: all three authors will be reading at the Toronto launch on Wednesday, December 2nd. You should go.) 

Less predictable than the presses in attendance were which writers I’d see roaming vendor tables. I was pleased to cross paths with Phoebe Wang almost immediately. After running into some lovely people I typically only correspond with via Twitter and seeing other familiar faces I hadn't the excuse to approach and make introductions with, I circled back for JC Bouchard’s Wool Water and then journeyed home. Now I'm ready to hibernate.

Monday, October 12, 2015

review: Five by smith, Blackman, Anstee, Million and Simpson

Five by jesslyn delia smith, Jeff Blackman, Cameron Anstee, Justin Million and Rachel Simpson (Apt. 9 Press, 2014)

When I chose to pair Five with my morning tea last Saturday, I didn’t intend to re-read all 60 pages, front to back. The collection, featuring work by Ottawa-related poets jesslyn delia smith, Jeff Blackman, Cameron Anstee, Justin Million and Rachael Simpson, seems like an ideal candidate for drop-in, drop-out reading, since each poet offers a small, chapbook sized taste of their best, recent work. Alas the convenience of navigating Five is almost too encouraging, as the spoils of one poet’s selections snowball into anticipation for what comes next.

All contributors pull their own weight, although the gravity naturally varies with each voice. jesslyn delia smith’s poems reach for equilibrium, cautiously outlining the stakes of intimacy. Her meditations are grounded by the dynamics of environment — the house she’s learning to share with someone — and orbit in tight proximity. Plainspoken and thoughtful, the bed-making ritual of “wait” captures her tone best:

the longing is fresh with the laundry
on clothespins, waiting to dry

i fold sheets alone
at the end of the day

each layer of cover from
rainfalls seeps into the next

each flight leaves the comfort of earth
without you in the plane,

But the heart of Five rests in its interstices, the contrasts between authors that keep each page fresh. Jeff Blackman’s eclectic manifestos “Whales In Popular Culture #2: Prove Me Wrong” and “The One World Government’s Behalf” present one such seismic shift, framing slivers of zeitgeist within our canted, collective dysfunction. Blackman’s exuberance leaves an indelible imprint on Five, in part because it’s a trait his colleagues don’t trade in (much, here, at least) but also he wields it in ways that are alternately funny and reflective. Both results apply to “Year of Well,” a freeform collage of impulses targeting the paralysis of working-class life: 

Hey CAPSLOCKER, hey faithful, hey newspaperman; tell me: what’s the 
command for love? Now it is time for someone to almost — BEHOLD THIS

Fierce workday of breath, I’m begging: what do I do now I’m in?

We look so poor arguing our ways towards the beer store. 7:28 another wet-
mare worke me: Omen. “Omen!” my mind gaped.

Me? I’m as I was as the day before: broke, though admittedly sheltered, clothed 
and fed, something else deficient I’m sure. 

We? We were targets once.    Now      hands hold &     the rest fray.

Calling out staples of North American culture, this poem relates feelings of inertia and restlessness almost subliminally, without dwelling in either. On the other hand, his “untitled bird poem for Kate” is tender and un-excerptible and you really need to read it.

As the flurry of press made clear surrounding this book and last fall’s An Accord of Poets multi-city reading tour, these five writers are also friends. It makes sense that similar themes will pop up but less expected that they prove advantageous, helping to distinguish these voices as they deal with rites of domestic passage. Cameron Anstee’s approach to sharing a home is less specific than smith’s but more cerebral, his stanzas whittled down to essential imagery around the existential question: what effect will our experiences leave on the tangible place?

the house advances and remains, extends
the casual arrangement of what we bring and find

the house is limited only by our capacity to imagine it differently

the house is telling and re-telling

the house suddenly has been years

In “The House”, excerpted above, Anstee translates the weight of brick and mortar permanence against his perspective as a transient resident, passing from one margin to another. “Late January” is another poem that should stop readers in their tracks, a sort-of hymnal to Ottawa winters I remember vividly from its appearance in a Peter F.  Yacht Club issue. But just as Five contracts around Anstee’s quiet awareness, it’s about to push outwards again — this time into Justin Million’s acreage of freeform exorcisms. His poems are the most free-wheeling and volatile of the bunch; yet unlike many who take on Al Purdy’s beat-slash-confessional tone, Million’s excesses never spill into self indulgence. 

turn 30

have the balls to be 
presumptuous about 60

or trumpet what’s happening to you

your own decade long god,
that toughest first two thirds
of the nail 

hammered and ten years broke and its failure of women and I feel two
decades ambered. Oh beauty, don’t move —

It’s hard to cut Million off when he’s on a tear and each of his four poems peddle that go-for-broke energy. “60/30”, partially excerpted above, barrels toward self-loathing at a clip most readers might find clumsy, if not for the precision with which Million inserts external narrative to alleviate bouts of self-analysis. “Simple Villain’s Hero” and “a bird or what’s worse in the house” are likewise populated with gazes beyond that of our inebriated protagonist, either sympathizing or enabling the many ‘brown lights in gut’. He skims from one tarnished insight to another, often disassociating from a subject altogether before running into a parallel, complimentary tangent, but his style is realized, unique. 

Five closes with Rachael Simpson and, perhaps unintentionally, fulfills the collection’s fluctuating pulse from resting heart rate (of composed, traditional verse) to palpitations (of excited freeform) and back again. Simpson writes after the rustic, inspired by wild tansy, carved up sheds and skillets hung from nails. The imagery is tightly framed and borderless, either captured in the city or perhaps one of Ottawa’s vista-rich, outer townships. But when such visual textures get strung up in her knack for rhythm, stationary poems like “Skillet” and “Pitch” take on a robust and auditory life. From the former:

How gratefully you receive them, 
reach for what you’re given:

eggs broken gently whole,
the last sprouted onion. 

There’s an ease about your hands
as you have for any tool. 

Better yet is “Corrode”, where the organic rephrasing of grass “creeping up and through the half-rolled window” carries a stark but kinaesthetic effect on an abandoned scene. “Wild, domestic” ends this collection with a memorable gut-punch, and is one of my favourite poems of last year.

As with any multi-authored work, Five teases and pulls the reader’s attention around sections that become intimately dog-eared. But that unevenness is tempered by a keen understanding of how each writer differs and thusly, how best to sequence their work. Thematically Five captures the unevenness of approaching thirty, the critical age these writers all hover around. Decisions become deliberations, relationships carry sharper wreckage and passions struggle to align with some semblance of a career. Well after Simpson's last poem, I find myself anticipating what comes next. 

Serendipitous post-script: This review coincides with the anniversary of Five's release and Apt. 9 Press is selling copies for 50% off! That's crazy. Pick one up here.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A night at The Factory Reading Series

Well I'm back home after an extended weekend in Ottawa and man, that city. The past few days have been so fluid in travel and tranquility, I've barely had a chance to reflect on Friday night's Factory Reading Series.

I walked into The Carleton Tavern acutely aware that I was by myself and left with the warm buzz of feeling connected (if only peripherally) to one of Canada's great poetry scenes. There are a handful of factors that help Factory Reading Series stand out and many of them can be broadly categorized under the heading group dynamics. rob mclennan's style as host could best be described as organized troublemaker, poking holes in writers' bios and calling out members of the audience. His casual approach was mirrored by a crowd at ease in each others' company and aware of each others' work. At other reading series I've frequented, tables become islands where people cling to their seats. But here the crowd spread out during intermission and after readings, catching up with colleagues and ordering drinks. I spent the majority of my evening at a table cluster with Amanda Earl, her husband Charles, Monty Reid, Roland Prevost and Janice Tokar, although almost every time I met someone new...:

"Hi Chris... Oh, you're Chris Johnson!"

"Nice to meet you, Janice... Wait, you're Janice Tokar!"

It went on like this, as though I was living that dream where your Twitter followers throw you either a party or intervention. I was also lucky to meet poets Jason Christie, Marilyn Irwin and Jeff Blackman; all of whom could've said it's Friday night, it's been a long week, I'm staying in but didn't. And they were treated to a reading that had its own rapport, one chiefly of transition. Cameron Anstee delved into forthcoming Baseline Press chapbook Consider Each Possibility and some William Hawkins erasures; Monty Reid offered a portion of his unfinished but allegedly mammoth manuscript Intelligence; and Roland Prevost read from his brand new above/ground press chapbook Culls, as well as some older work. Sensory impressions I recall in the following order: awareness, wit and warmth. For my part I jumped from Impermanence, Ontario poems to Cannot transform myth material and back. People responded kindly and/or cordially. I have little to no photographic evidence of the evening. Anyone? 

rob was kind enough to give me an envelope full of the latest above/ground chapbooks, including his own recent work, The Rose Concordance. I also picked up Marilyn Irwin's Apt. 9 Press chapbook the blue, blue thereOver many conversations, the internal mantra it will not be another two years before I revisit Ottawa shaped like a compulsive tic in my mind. Thanks to all of you for imbedding it.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Cannot transform myth #8" in The Steel Chisel

Poet and publisher David Emery has included "Cannot transform myth #8" in September's edition of The Steel Chisel. Much appreciated! Have a read here and also check out poetry by Jamie Bradley, Rob Thomas, Robin McLachlen and Elisha May Rubacha. 

It's the second such piece to see light from this manuscript-in-process and not to be confused with "Cannot transform myth #12", which will be in text Magazine's forthcoming issue

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Heading to Ottawa, Factory Reading Series

How about another late night talk, Oscar?

This month I travel to Ottawa, the land of my rebirth, and take part in rob mclennan's Factory Reading Series. The bill also features Roland Prevost, Cameron Anstee and Monty Reid. Full details are available on the above/ground press blog but I've lifted the crucial where-&-when for your perusal here:

Friday, September 25 (doors at 7pm, reading at 7:30pm)
The Carleton Tavern (223 Armstrong Street, at Parkdale, upstairs)

I hope to see some familiar faces! 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A visit to The River Trading Company

In June The River Trading Company moved from its Parkdale, Toronto location to settle in Hamilton’s Gibson area. On Sunday, I finally visited both bookstore and neighbourhood. 

It isn't often that "Poetry" gets top billing on an outdoor A-frame sign but its placement, much to my relief, was not false advertising. A glass-cased display shelf at the very left of the doorway displayed early chapbooks by the likes of Stephen Cain and Gregory Betts, while the bookshelf to my right was dedicated, ceiling to floor, with poetry. I was barely two feet inside the store! Mary, one of The River Trading Company’s co-owners, kindly offered me a tour while Thor, her canine clerk, checked me out. There was a full wall of bookshelves for History (though carefully separated by periods, conflicts and geography), another full stretch for General Fiction, plus inner aisles classified according to Science Fiction, Mystery Thrillers, Speculative Fiction, Food & Drink, Classic Literature, Plays, and even a tribute shelf for Cold War era literature. 

But back to poetry for a minute. Selection ranged from hardcover Irving Layton and Earle Birney to recent releases by BookThug and Nightwood Editions. There were many interesting, unfamiliar titles that I didn’t even explore because my stack of must-buys grew so quickly. Top picks included Between Tears and Laughter by Alden Nowlan, bury me deep in the green wood by rob mclennan, Sylvia Plath, Her Life and Work by Eileen Aird and Concrete and Wild Carrot by Margaret Avison. (That last title was especially pleasing to find as it’s the book Avison was touring behind when I scrambled through a campus downpour to hear her read at Western University. It was my first poetry reading.)

At one point I must’ve stumbled from Biography into the Well-Being section because my eyes landed upon two Alan Watts books, Meditation and The Wisdom of Insecurity. I snagged them both. The general condition of books I handled was impressive and their prices considerably lower than Toronto competitors like Balfour Books. (I haven't read a critical study of Sylvia Plath in almost ten years but, at $1.99, why not get a refresher course?)

The mighty Thor
At check-out, Mary spoke of Barton Street’s potential — the architectural remnants of Hamilton’s once glamorous main street and the positive ways it's slowly turning around. (Exhibit A is next door at 541 Eatery & Exchange.) I was sure to tell Mary about grit LIT, Lit Live and a few other literary gems around town.

In spite of Gibson's mostly shuttered storefronts, The River Trading Company singlehandedly rewarded my bus ride to the city’s North end. As well as selling antique art prints, figurines, CDs, records, old magazines, scores of literary journals and other oddities, they're sure to spice up Hamilton's used book hunt, a sport that totally exists (if only in my mind). I've included a few additional shots below:
A wall of history
Red squares
Reading corner
In case you wanted one...

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Two poems in text Magazine

In late July I got my act together and sent poems to a handful of journals. I’m happy to report that two of said poems will be included in text's upcoming issue. “Cannot transform myth #12” will be the first piece published from a manuscript I started in October, while “Bluesfest, 2010”, as you might guess from its title, is an older one (although not quite that old) written in 2012. 

I’ve been smitten with Nanaimo, BC based text Magazine for awhile and am excited to share the new issue once it drops — in print and online — come September (Update 10/05/15: October, actually! Here's Issue Five. Enjoy!)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

micro-review: doing & undoing by Avonlea Fotheringham

doing & undoing by avonlea fotheringham (phafours press, 2014)

What better way to kick off my inaugural micro-review than by featuring a true micro-chapbook? Of all the small pleasures a new phafours press release brings, the obvious has to be its good company. Publisher Pearl Pirie gives customers the option of buying titles individually or bundled alongside others of a given launch. (It's a handsome package and, um, $5; need I say more?) In my case, having picked up the Fall 2014 series, that meant getting tiny texts by Sanita Fejzic, Phil Hall and Pirie herself, each contrasted by how they choose to inhabit their six-page confines. 

Avonlea Fotheringham’s doing & undoing stands out from the pack as a new voice, one I enjoyed in this spring’s (parenthetical) zine. There’s a directness in her work that embraces possibility instead of limiting it, making the phafours constraints an opportunity to further hone. 

in a bedroom

the books will settle
down to rest, complacent and
content, the record
skips and blushes at the note;
the walls weep, they are so touched

At first reading, the poem doesn’t have the right to resonate as it does; its five lines of seemingly pedestrian description seek no entrance or exit. But that’s enough to entice, floating without the pressure of strict punctuation or mediating gaze. If the first two poems represent establishing shots, rooted in the sounds and objects of concrete space, the following four increasingly flit the psychological transit-ways of a relationship. Fotheringham sparks these poems with proofs, either via blunt assertions or “if”s and “as long as”s that begin as if midpoint in a conversation. But no sooner has she made a case, her careful logic and subtle use of consonance building steam, when the whole thought process breaks off. Much like the title poem, which finds “algorithms” in communication that enable patterns of conflict or peace, Fotheringham draws out pensive ideas by resolving at the start and then deliberating. As a result of that process, doing & undoing elucidates without wasting a word.