Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A plastic fantastic collection of poems

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St. Catharines, Ont., poet Adam Dickinson was shortlisted for a Governor General's award for The Polymers (Anansi, 114 pages, $20), which explores imagined connections between poetry and plastics.

The first page literalizes this connection -- two poems printed on transparent plastic -- and functions as an artistic statement: "plastic marks both the presence and the absence of natural objects, embodying tension between the literal and the metaphorical."

"I hate my genitals. / They remind me of communism," Dickinson writes in a funnier, more oblique moment. The repeating structures of plastic molecules serve as inspiration for Dickinson's poetic forms, and the range of approaches in such a cohesive, coherent book is stunning.

"Instinct is the insect in circumlocution / peeking and booing / in the extended antennae / of how long it takes a grown man / on his hands and knees to retrieve / what is thrown behind him, / his pleasures and principles / held together / by deathdrives of searchlit drool."

In nine lines, Dickinson packs at least four references to Freud, builds a complex, developing image and snowballs to a visceral, startling conclusion. Put The Polymers on your plastic.

-- -- --

"Stay skinny to avoid being eaten / by your king," counsels Toronto's Robin Richardson in Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis (ECW, 80 pages, $19). Things get bleaker from there -- Richardson has a talent for disquieting images that amuse and disturb in equal measure.

Another poem describes a (supposed) Jerry Springer episode: "A man hides Smarties in his pocket. / They melt in the heat of the spotlight. / When he takes his hand out to flash the middle finger there's a rainbow."

Another poem is titled Princess Leia to a Lovesick Stormtrooper. When Richardson latches onto pop culture in this way, she straddles a line between taking things seriously and winking at absurdity, through a flat, plain-spoken style. A precise, pristine poet, Richardson always delights.

-- -- --

In Timely Irreverence (Nightwood, 96 pages, $19), Toronto's Jay Millar dreams of "a culture in which / People just sit around and drink beer" and "talk about stuff, like / About the things that we learn about / While we are sitting around watching / Television, or sitting around surfing / The internet."

It's a lofty dream -- what elevates the poem are two lines bookending it, each of which proffers an image of insects, in a neutral tone. A suggestion of decay, of this "dreamed" culture's decadence? Or, rather, of hidden life beneath the surface of things?

The poems in Timely Irreverence often read like satires of poems or otherwise subvert their conventions upon closer inspection.

-- -- --

Calgary's Robert Majzels and Montreal's Erin Moure translate Montreal's Nicole Brossard in White Piano (Coach House, 112 pages, $18). Brossard's lines flow in a headlong rush, while her poems are spare and restrained: "language I'll say yes / from the top of my rib cage / language will you come / out and unearth the salt the certitude."

As deftly as she offers such exuberance, Brossard builds stark, frightening images: "she holds her hand up like some distant machine / that might nourish her, reflect her story / she holds it out in front, hand mask wolf / having seen all the hanged figures / of Goya."

Dense, but immediate in their impact, Brossard's lines crackle. Already a giant of Quebec letters, and gifted with the country's best translators, Brossard keeps getting better with age.

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) recently published The Politics of Knives (Coach House Books), which won a Manitoba Book Award.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2013 A1

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