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.”