Winner of the 2009 Governor General’s Award for Poetry
David Zieroth is a pretty typical Canadian career poet. He regularly puts out collections, he taught English at the post secondary level, and he adheres to a fairly traditional lyrical style. As a side note, a former English professor and thesis advisor of mine, Richard Lemm another typical Canadian career poet, is mentioned in the acknowledgements of this book. In 2009, this career poet published his masterpiece and was awarded the top prize in Canadian Poetry, the Governor General’s Award. The Fly in Autumn is a good example of a satisfying poetry collection accessible, tight in terms of metaphor and symbol, not afraid of humour, and the author doesn’t go out of his way to reinvent the wheel in regards to style.
Now, I have to be honest, this isn’t going to be the most insightful review ever written. I read this book one night in bed when I was very tired, not feeling well and half tripping out on cold and sinus medication.
The strength of this book is the absurdest twist Zieroth takes with a lot of his poems, particularly the closing, and title, sequence, “The Fly in Autumn.” Like in “Insurance”:
Insurance offices are full of fat men
(cramped behind small desks stacked
with forms and notes) willing to act
as agents while chewing on a time when
they were blessed with a full head of hair.
This one’s thinking of lunch, the eclair
As you can see from this stanza as well, Zieroth isn’t afraid to throw a rhyme into the mix here and there. The pattern above, ABBACC, or close enough, is the one which the author continually returns. Zieroth uses this scheme in about a third of the poems but manages to avoid the sing-song feeling that sometimes roars its head with rhyming in contemporary poetry.
I’ve ranted on this blog about how much I am annoyed by collections of poetry that try to find something sublime or transcendent in the minutiae of everyday existence. This book had the potential to go in that direction, but fortunately for all involved, Zieroth took simple subjects and treated them to a quirky re-imagining.
Winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Poetry
Katherena Vermette pulled off an impressive accomplishment, winning a Governor General’s award with her first book. North End Love Songs is an incredible collection. I’ve been lucky lately; my last few reading picks have been fantastic. Vermette is Métis and this identity permeates every line of her writing. This is autobiographical poetry of the highest degree, but it takes on a variety of topics. The author blends humour, sadness, hope, hopelessness, and coming-of-age using a style that is a throwback to Modernist American poets like ee cummings.
The most moving part of the collection is the author’s recounting of the disappearance of her brother. I enjoyed these poems for several reasons, mainly though because it addresses so many themes. Vermette tackles the personal sadness that comes with a situation like this; the stereotyping that comes with being aboriginal, including from the police – such as assuming since he’s young and Native he must just be on a bender; and on being Native in general – the good, the bad, and, of course, the ugly.
The structure of poetry is magnificent and, as I mentioned before, is a throwback to Modernist poets. There is no punctuation and the author doesn’t stick to any stylistic constant – be it enjambment, stanza structure, etc. This is free verse in its most pure form. Lines contain as few as a single word and individual poems can range from a few lines to extended sequences over 10 pages. This use of free verse and colloquial north end Winnipeg language really takes you inside the poet’s thoughts. One could even argue that Vermette is using a poetic stream-of-consciousness style in her writing. Finally, my last thought on structure, the poet ties her sequences together with highly intertwined themes, images, and symbolism – be it birds, seasons, holidays, or music.
One more thing I have to throw out there is Vermette’s use of music as metaphor and “image.” I am a huge 80s music fan, specifically, hair metal (Poison, Skid Row, Guns N Roses… I’m actually listening to Great White as I write this). If you are a serious fan of this musical genre, I really think you will get much more out of this book. The sequence “November” is really the thematic climax of the collection, and so much of this section relies on these musical references to help illustrate the speaker’s state-of-mind. The poem “mixed tape” goes as far to use individual songs (I’ve actually created a playlist on Google Play of the songs in this poem if you’d care to listen).
Overall, a great read. This collection is funny in places and gut wrenchingly difficult in places. Vermette pulls no punches and uses her old-school writing style to connect you with the depths of her own soul. Childhood memories, personal pain, music, and North End Winnipeg all shaped this collection of poems in a highly coheasive collection even though the poems are more lyrical than they are narrative. I think that North End Love Songs is a triumphant announcement proclaiming that Katherena Vermette is an important new voice in Native Canadian literature.
Winner of the 1975 Governor General’s Award for Poetry or Drama
When someone thinks of PEI literature, the first image to pop into their mind would be that of Lucy Maud Montgomery and her little redhead Anne. I’ve written on this blog many times before about the development and current state of PEI literature and how the last 25 years has really been a high point for writing in the province. There was very little early (pre-1950s) PEI literature worth discussing. Lucy Maud really was the grandmother of PEI writing and her contemporary Sir Andrew Macphail was the grandfather with his masterpiece The Master’s Wife. But, PEI lit as we know it now was really founded in earnest with Milton Acorn’s 1956 self-published mimeographed chapbook In Love and Anger. Acorn was a very different voice from his contemporaries; he was a working man’s poet. A World War II veteran with little formal education, The People’s Poet spent most of his life living off a Veteran’s Affairs pension due to war injuries. Some of his titles were best-sellers in Canada and he was a superstar in the world of poetry – even marrying Gwendolyn MacEwen for a short time. The 1975 collection The Island Means Minago, his only collection to win the Governor General’s Award, is Acorn’s most ambitions treatise on his home province and contains many of his signature poems.
The Island Means Minago is a very cohesive volume, both in terms of narrative and themes. It mixes narrative poems, lyrics, prose pieces, dramatic scenes, and photos to tell the story of his people. Right in the opening poem, Acorn’s love of his island is evident:
In the fanged jaws of the Gulf,
a red tongue.
Indians say a musical God
took up his brush and painted it,
named it in His own language
In terms of narrative, Acorn takes on a number of issues prominent in Island history (honestly, if you’re familiar with these items it makes this a much more enjoyable book): the absentee landlord problem from the 19th century and Island Development Plan that began in the 1960s that would be top of mind in 1975. Acorn uses these narratives to tie together the thematic concept of this book. It is no secret that he was a far-left socialist, and that is the lens through which the author writes. He lambastes capitalism, roasts the ineffective administration of the government for not representing the people, and takes up the cause of the proletariat.
As I mentioned, Acorn was the working man’s poet. He was a big personality and it is easy to envision him reciting these poems in a pub throwing back beers and shots of whiskey. His language is accessible and free of those 20-dollar-words too often used by MFA graduates. But, that is not to say that these poems are “simple,” quite the opposite. Acorn manipulates genre and form in fascinating ways, he often uses an isolated rhyme as a narrative turning point, he creates intriguing imagery while using down-home dialect, and he is very cognizant of the sound, the music so to speak, of his poetry by doing interesting things with repetition, dialogue, and syllable structure.
An element of this book that was interesting was the collection of prose pieces. Each of the three sections has one prose piece, with each being about 10 pages in length. It is hard to classify these parts – as I said, he does interesting things with genre. These three pieces are not prose poems, but they’re not exactly stories either. They’re something of a blend of history, storytelling, social commentary, and political treatise. These prose pieces were excellent additions to the poems because they provide some historical and socio-economic context and further entrench Acorn’s socialist themes.
Finally, the actual physical volume itself is an interesting specimen. It was published by NC Press, who according to the ads in the back of the book, published the paper New Canada, that reported “on the struggles being waged across the country for independence and socialism” and was also the leading publisher of books and documents from the People’s Republic of China. So, the strong leftist overtones shouldn’t be surprising.
I’ve said before that PEI has the most nationalistic literature and sense of identity in general in English Canada. This collection was one the flashpoints for this Island literary tradition. The Island Means Minago is a great example of Maritime and PEI poetry, an excellent collection of historical poetry, an interesting political exposition, and just an overall engaging read.
Winner of the 1991 Archibald Lampman Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2002
I’ve written on this site before about my love of George Elliott Clarke. He is a master writer, a brilliant public reader and speaker, a top notch literary scholar, a genuine nice guy, and Toronto’s Poet Laureate. His writing is a mix of down-home Nova Scotia charm and rich African-Canadian historicism – which he dubbed “Africadian”. Whylah Falls is Clarke’s second book and one of signature works. This volume is the narrative of the residents of the fictional Nova Scotia black village of Whylah Falls, focusing primarily a young lady named Shelley and her immediate family. This book has the notable distinction of being selected for the first edition of Canada Reads held back in 2002 (defended by sci-fi author Nalo Hopkinson, finishing second only to the winning title In the Skin of a Lion) and still remains one of only two books of poetry to be featured on the competition.
Whylah Falls is a book of poetry but it is a mixed-genre book; it uses traditional narrative poems, prose poems, sermons, dramatic monologues, theatrical scenes, newspaper-style articles, letters, and photography. This collection is often referred to as a novel told through poetry, but I think a better description is a cycle of stories told through poetic forms as each section focuses on different groups of characters in the village.
This has become an important and landmark book in Canadian literature and is now solidly in the canon of Black Canadian writing. I read a selection of these poems in a Canadian Lit course at Saint Mary’s University in 2003 but I had never read the whole volume from start to finish despite the fact I’ve had a first edition sitting on my shelf for years (oddly enough the first edition cover is really terrible and both the 10th and 20th anniversary editions are much nicer). I really really wanted to love this book. I recently re-listened to Canada Reads 2002 and Hopkinson’s impassioned defense ignited a desire to immerse myself into Clarke’s best known world. But. But, in the end, I wasn’t blown away like I was hoping I would be. To this reader, Whylah Falls was just ok. And here’s why.
Firstly, I absolutely adored the love poetry in the two sections titled “The Adoration of Shelley” and I loved the whole section “The Martyrdom of Othello Clemence.” The imagery in the love poems was beautiful, sensual, and tastefully erotic and the narrative in “The Martyrdom” was powerful and vivid. Overall though, I was a little underwhelmed by a lot of the book. I think the primary problem was the huge cast of characters; I was continually lost and had to keep referring back to the Dramatis Personae. Unlike a novel or a play where there is ample narrative introduction and development of primary characters, this format didn’t really allow for that, so you are simply thrown into the middle of this dynamic little town (almost the identical problem I had with Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town).
I want to be clear that my rating of “just ok” doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the book. The quality of writing was very high and the innovative nature of the volume was superb. Ultimately though, Whylah Falls didn’t grab me the way Execution Poems did. Maybe I was just the wrong audience or I read the book at the wrong time. All that being said though, this is still one of the most important books in contemporary Canadian literature and maintains an important place in African Canadian culture.
Leonard Cohen recently released his 13th studio album, Popular Problems, his best release since Various Positions in my humble opinion. So, needless to say, I have been listening to lots of Cohen’s music lately, reconnecting with old favorites and grooving to his hearty baritone rhythms. Obviously I decided it was a good time to read some Cohen. His bibliography is quite extensive, likely more so than most CanLit fans realize: eight original books of poetry, two novels, one collection of selected poems (for which he won, and subsequently refused, the 1968 Governor-General’s Award for Poetry), and one anthology of selected poetry, songs and prose. I haven’t actually read a lot of Cohen’s works; other than a few selected poems in Canadian literature classes, I’ve only read two of his books – his debut collection Let Us Compare Mythologies and, about 10 years, his infamous novel Beautiful Losers. I was up for a challenge this week, so I chose the 1984 book Book of Mercy.
Book of Mercy is collection of prose poems that take the form of devotional “contemporary psalms.” I have always struggled with prose poems and even more so with deeply religious writing, so I knew going into this collection that it would be a tough read. This collection, while frustratingly difficult, was an enjoyable and interesting read. If you’re familiar with either Cohen’s writing or music, you will recognize many of the themes and motifs present in almost all of the poems, especially if you imagine Cohen himself reciting them to you with his haunting deep voice.
All 50 of these prose poems are steeped in Judeo-Christian imagery and Biblical references – to the extent that someone unfamiliar with the basics of the Old Testament would likely be lost. Frankly, if you were to present these to a quality 4th year literature major, they would likely think these are translated 14th century Middle English devotions, not poems from a Jewish Canadian written in 1984. Overall, I would use one word to describe Book of Mercy: sad. The speaker is writing from a place of pain, spiritual torture, and religious uncertainty. At various points, the writing is desperate, angry, dark, but it is always gripping and, above all, sincere. Leonard Cohen is an extreme example of poetry being inseparable from the poet and this particular collection is case-in-point why.
Book of Mercy is not for the casual reader of poetry. It is difficult, confusing, and filled with obscure references. I read more poetry than most, I have a degree in literature and I have studied English at the graduate level, and still, I struggled greatly with this book. But, that is not to say this is a title to be avoided. If you’re a fan of Leonard Cohen, it is a fantastic example of what makes him tick. Just know that you’re not alone when you shake your head and mutter “huh?”
A Quill and Quire Book of Year – 2013
Sara Peters and I were both born in 1982 in Canada’s greatest province, Nova Scotia, but alas since we were born hundreds of kilometers apart, we never met. She went on to earn an MFA from Boston University and hold a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, whereas I did not. 1996 is the debut collection from this exciting new voice in Canadian poetry. The description on the back of the book describes this collection using words like desire, violence, sex, beauty, and cruelty; this, along with the endorsement of Robert Pinksy (impressive for a debut collection from a Maritime poet), immediately grabbed my attention and commanded me to buy this book. It was a good decision.
I read a lot of poetry – at least half of the reviews on this blog are of poetry collections, but it is undeniable that, for the most part, volumes of poetry as a whole are less memorable than say a novel or a memoir. For myself, and many people with whom I discuss poetry, it is usually individual poems or smaller sequences that stick with me after I’ve finished a book. There are exceptions to this rule, Let Us Compare Mythologies by Leonard Cohen,The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje and The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood are a few personal exceptions. 1996 is now also one of those exceptions.
I would use one word to describe this collection: dark. Sara Peters has a real knack for crafting short, punchy, macabre lines that just send shivers down your spine as a reader. From the Poem “Cruelty”:
When I was eleven, I watched my cousin cut open a gopher
with the serrated top of a tin can.
From “Camden 14”
He’d been kept awake all night
by snowflakes, so Camden
set himself on fire.
From “Bionic”, discussing the speaker’s mother and brother:
She’s senile and probably dying.
He’s cruel but his cruelty’s probably temporary.
He’s dressed her in a T-shirt that says
I kill everything I fuck // I fuck everything I kill.
And one more example, from “The Last Time I Slept in this Bed”:
I was involved in the serious business
of ripping apart my own body.
Most of these examples are from the opening few lines of their respective poems. Throughout the collection, the author uses these sharp and attention grabbing opening lines to set the mood, so to speak, and then further explore whatever theme or topic it is she’s writing about.
1996 is a very quick read. Most of the poems are in the 2 page range and Peters uses short, staccato-esque, rhythmic verses, with stanzas typically in the 2 to 3 line range. While it is a quick read, it is not an easy read. Peters’ poems are incredibly complex, hardly narrative, and so rife with metaphor, symbolism, and abstract associational imagery, that the very casual or non-reader of poetry may be slightly intimidated or even lost.
Harold Bloom once said something to the effect of “great poetry should make your head hurt.” 1996 certainly does that, and it is a wonderful thing. It pushes the reader’s boundaries of understanding and demands he or she dig deep to soak up every syllable. These poems demand slow reading and re-reading. But, even if you just read from start to finish without digging too deep, you’ll still be pulled into the absorbing dark language and the beautiful sound of the poetry.
1996 isn’t simply read, it’s remembered.
Deirdre Kessler is very well known as a children’s author. Her Brupp books and the picture book Lobster in my Pocket are quite well known. She has been a fixture at UPEI for many years, teaching creative writing, an unbelievably popular course on children’s literature (there are usually huge wait lists), and a course unique to our island – a course on Lucy Maud Montgomery. In my recent PEI literature seminar, I had the pleasure of spending an evening with Deirdre; she has many interesting insights into Maritime literature and, as a person, is a very fascinating character. After the class, she was kind enough to give all 10 of us in the class a personally inscribed copy of her poetry collection. Afternoon Horses is Kessler’s only poetry book. It is a very personal mix of the lyrical and narrative and is, above all, incredibly intimate and personal.
The collection is broken down into four sections, but the poems really fall into two categories: poems about family and poems about travelling. Deirdre’s poems about her family are some of my favorite of recent PEI literature. The second section, “Blueberries in a green bowl,” is the strongest part of the book – with the first poem, “The names of things,” being my favorite of the whole collection. I think this section was so strong because of the author’s experience as a children’s writer. Writing for children requires getting into the heads of those little people; understanding children is the essential to producing good writing for or about children. In the poems of “Blueberries in a green bowl,” the children, especially a nephew of the author, are the star.
The collection takes the reader through the landscapes of PEI, Tasmania, and various remote areas of the Western US and then you’re invited into the kitchen of the Kessler family. In recent years, PEI poets have mastered what I call “the local narrative.” Poets like Kessler, Brinklow, Ledwell, and Morrow have published books (all from Acorn Press) of personal and accessible, yet literary, narrative poetry. The poems are not simply stories “chopped” into verse; they have a distinct poetic rhythm and flow. All-in-all, Afternoon Horses is an attractive, fun, and satisfying volume of poetry. I hope that another volume of poems from Deirdre Kessler appears in the near future.
The Ledwell Family is an artistic juggernaut on Prince Edward Island. Jane Ledwell wrote an excellent collection of poems, Last Tomato, and is known as one of the Island’s finest poetry editors. Patrick Ledwell is a very talented comedian, a playwright (Come All Ye), and now a respected writer (I Am an Islander). Danny Ledwell is a painter whose work is gaining popularity (the cover of this book is one of his paintings). The patriarch of this brood is Frank Ledwell, PEI’s second Poet Laureate, beloved story teller, and legendary English and creative writing professor at UPEI. The bulk of Frank Ledwell’s collection of writing is very PEI centric; Crowbush, The North Shore of Home, and Island Sketchbook all explore life on the Island, especially rural PEI, while Dip & Veer is a lyrical collection that reflects on Alex Colville’s art. The Taste of Water is a diverse mix of poems that is completely steeped in “islandness.”
The poems in this collection are a mix of the narrative, pastoral, and lyrical. Reading Frank Ledwell properly requires an understanding of his style of writing. Many of his PEI contemporaries, like John Smith and Brent MacLaine are masters of technical subtlety and eclectic metaphors; Ledwell is not. His poetry is like Bon Jovi, whereas John Smith is like Rush. Rush’s music is esoteric, difficult, and almost distant in its complexity. Bon Jovi, while not the most “artistic,” is still fun to listen to and highly entertaining. If you are looking for a demonstration of technical prowess, Frank Ledwell is not going to deliver. If you want to read poems that are written in “down-home” language that are accessible, fun, and convey clear and unambiguous stories and feelings, then The Taste of Water is your book.
The poems in this book are largely selections from poems Ledwell publicly read during his time as Poet Laureate. Poems like “The Sweater,” “Jean Finding Things,” and “Lasagna, April ‘06” tell tales of what life is like on this little island. Family ties, communal dinners, and the comfort of Condon’s Woollen Mills’ sweaters are among the topics of Ledwell’s writing. These poems, as well as the rest of the 71 page collection, wrap themselves in the red soil of PEI. And, whether some think of this as a positive or a negative, the poems are written in a straight-forward way that anyone can enjoy.
This small, beautifully designed collection is a must have. It is the kind of book that every Islander should proudly display on their coffee table. This was Ledwell’s last book before his 2008 death. Acorn Press did a fantastic job designing this book – with the exception of a weird font that does something strange with lower-case t’s. The Taste of Water, combined with Jane Ledwell’s Last Tomato, and Patrick Ledwell’s I Am an Islander would make an excellent gift to anyone that wanted a taste of Island literature.
Winner of the 2012 PEI Book Award for Poetry
I was initially introduced to this book in my Contemporary PEI Literature course when we read a selection of five poems. What Really Happened is This is the award winning poetry memoir, and second collection of poems, by PEI writer Dianne Hicks Morrow. I was greatly intrigued by the idea of a poetry memoir and didn’t know what to expect. These poems were, for the most part, very sad; but, I do not mean that in a negative way. Instead, I mean that Morrow has opened herself up in an incredibly close and intimate way and is bearing her soul to the world during a very personal and traumatic part of life. Being a “memoir”, one cannot separate “poet” and “speaker” – the result was a heightened emotional connection with the writing.
The poems “Belonging” and “What Really Happened Is This” get to the core of what Morrow is trying to do. Both poems are very personal and easily to take to heart. “Belonging,” a look back at Morrow’s feeling of fitting in and the difficulties that that can entail in Prince Edward Island, is very reflective and introspective. She looks back the little things that helped shape her, contemplates being an “Islander,” reflecting on the minutiae of human existence. And ultimately, as I’m sure happens with most people, trying to figure out where one “belongs” simply leaves more questions.
The title poem, “What Really Happened Is This,” is a longer multipart poem and it is by far the highpoint of Morrow’s collection. It is absolutely heart-wrenching and will leave you pondering long after you’ve finished the book. It juxtaposes two powerful images that most people with severely ill loved ones probably go through: the person that you grew up with and love and the person who is connected to machines, surrounded by doctors, and away from home praying that they can return to who they used to be. The whole collection, but this poem in particular, really draws the line from personal tragedy to memory to reality and back again.
I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with Mrs. Morrow and discuss her writing. She is very passionate about poetry and PEI writing. Her reading from this book really added a depth to the personal character of the poems. Every poem in this 73 page collection is a work of art – with the two I discussed above being the highlights. They physical book itself, published by PEI’s Acorn Press, is quite attractive and would look great on any bookshelf. What Really Happened is This is a quick, touching, accessible, and memorable read.
One thing that Canadian writers certainly do well is prose poetry, that contradictory hybrid of the poem and the very short-story. Glen Downie’s 2011 collection Local News is a collection of prose poems that explores the everyday world all of us. I was attracted to this volume because of my interest in the genre, not necessarily the subject matter. The book is divided into four sections, each with its own focus. While I did find one particular section interesting, the one where the speaker is essentially pontificating on the decline of the small town, overall this book was a bit of a letdown.
Over the last number of years, I have read a lot of poetry that explores mystic properties of the old sofa in the living-room or the metaphysical character of a kitchen sink, etc; I think this trend of finding the magical in the meaningless has run its course and should be placed on the trash heap of English literature. The sequences “Home”, “Garage”, and “Mall” were filled with this kind of writing and it left a very forced and cold feeling. The poem “Pitch Fork” was a great example of this. Downie muses on the symbolic power that this simple garden tool radiates, invoking images of Satan and Poseidon. As the Freudian maxim goes, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Downie and other authors who are writing this kind of material need to realize that they are not Robert Browning and that picture hanging in the hallway is not their “last Duchess painted on the wall,/ Looking as if she were alive.”
The one redeeming section of the book was his look at the various small shops one would find in any generic dying small town in Canada. The characters that inhabit the shops and town, their ambiance, and how they are a throwback to a simpler time permeate this short sequence. This was the only part of the book that felt fresh, original, and passionate.
I get what Glen Downie was going for with Local News, his words simply fell on deaf and unsympathetic ears that were tired of hearing about how supernatural a mattress is. A for effort, C for execution.