Adèle Barclay’s If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You (Nightwood Editions, 96 pages, $19) brims with crackling imagery and whip-smart delivery: "Fear is a magenta horse / on a carousel — don’t get me started / about the Ferris wheel."
These lines present a beautiful, strange metaphor and then back off of developing it, to instead roll eyes at the poetic impulse to produce a metaphor in the first place.
Barclay’s poems waffle between these positions, while at times (as above) combining the impulses. One poem ends with, "My tongue knots into a thousand- / petal lily to sink a beige boat / the melon sky forgets" — a dense, delicate image.
A later poem ends with "what if the last episode / of Mad Men was Jon Hamm / self-cannibalizing / I thought maybe if I gave / my desires better words / they’d make sense." The startling, surreal, and comical image of Hamm eating his own flesh (Hamm ham?) twists against the confessional tone of the next lines, the desperation and melancholy of trying and failing to accomplish what one wants to achieve in life through poems.
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Jacqueline Valencia’s There Is No Escape Out of Time (Insomniac Press, 100 pages, $17) offers a great deal of tossed-off food for thought: "Nobody likes to think of the girl with headphones as a cyborg, / But there she is."
Another poem re-imagines the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver with a female protagonist. Gender often hovers in the background of Valencia’s poems. Why don’t we want to think of that girl as a cyborg? Why can’t Taxi Driver star "Tracy"?
Valencia’s poems mix dense, syrup-thick imagery ("Neural highways great passing contrary. / Lopez Katie sunshine blue curl augment") and stark, sad statements ("we are nothing like many nothings in the world").
Her sly, snarky humour helps to balance it all — one of the poems is called Every Day a New Cure for Senility and All We Still Have Are These Stupid Shirts.
Another poem excitedly lists a nightmare concoction, exclamation mark summing it up: "Smooth peach, crushing oppression, / speckled leopard, spiritual evangelist, / grinning fiend, systematic protocol, / ruling coterie, crippling wound!" A raucous yet restrained and wide-ranging collection.
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Sandra Ridley’s Silvija (BookThug, 92 pages, $18) offers a series of elegies: poems that lament the dead and, in a broader sense, our own impending deaths. "Our after-dream terrors / of a slaughterhouse— / or a labyrinth / akin / to a slaughterhouse."
It’s easy to see life itself as the labyrinth, in which we wander until slaughtered somehow, but this might also serve as a metaphor for an unfathomable, disturbing afterlife (life itself being the dream).
"Eyes lowering / descent of the casket / no axis spinning / Stars dying / no / they are already gone" — Ridley achieves a remarkable feat by revitalizing the overused and bland imagery of death.
Her best moments achieve an understated grace: "Found the rain barrel with our long-drowned dove."
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Kilby Smith-McGregor’s Kids in Triage (Buckrider, 72 pages, $18) is an outstanding debut (there seem to be so many these days!) that spans a wealth of subjects, from the magician’s trick of sawing a woman in half to spontaneous human combustion.
"I try to write myself toward the light switch," proclaims one poem, and while the poems relish their dark corners they still grope for some solace. "Once your mother dressed you. Not like this. She dressed me too. / And I can red my frost-cut tongue electric like a fire engine / because I have been a child and know how to hope."
Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) lives online at www.JonathanBall.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.