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POETRY: Bold meditation on murder mixes banal, bizarre

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TORONTO'S Kathryn Mockler begins The Saddest Place on Earth (DC, 70 pages, $18) with some sage advice: "It is not a good idea to be in the same room as / someone who is just about to murder you."

Thus begins a meditation on murder that oscillates between thoughts banal and bizarre. Mockler tends towards the sardonic.

Many poems read like micro-fictions or dialogues: "This weekend I'm going to rock out, he said. / Good for you, I said. I'm planning to kill myself."

The collection's highlight, Serial Killers, presents a science-fictional, Hollywood high-concept premise as its kick-off: "Humanity is stopped in its tracks when / everyone is sterilized to eliminate the human / race. Basically it's mass suicide."

"Wow that's a good idea," says Mockler's speaker, surprising both herself and us. "So in this scenario getting pregnant is the / worst thing you could do for mankind. // Yes, it's worse than serial killers." Mockler's bold, brilliant poems brim with shock and surprise.

-- -- --

Vancouver's Elizabeth Bachinsky strikes a casual, chatty tone in The Hottest Summer in Recorded History (Nightwood, 80 pages, $19), at various points reproducing an instant messenger chat as an episodic long poem. As "Elizabeth" sits by the ocean in bored celebration of finishing The Hottest Summer in Recorded History, her friend "David" (McGimpsey?) is "in the hizzy" and excited about the prospect of "Alice Munro porn."

Bachinsky has a way of inviting the reader into the poem, and talking as if off the cuff in a coffee shop, while remaining a strong artisan with careful attention to craft. The best illustration is the poem Somewhere There Is Someone Waiting, which begins by completing the title's sentence: "To dislike this poem, to dislike me."

"There are so many reasons to dislike me / and this poem," writes Bachinsky, but I can't think of one.

-- -- --

Toronto's Sarah Pinder debuts strongly in Cutting Room (Coach House, 88 pages, $18), invoking both the violence of the title image (a room where you cut yourself, or torture another) and how it suggests a place where fragments cohere (in this book and these poems, which "cut" images together like a film editor).

Pinder imagines "every eye a question, a pan, an establishing shot." The reader's eye might be said to work this way. When a "prison clicks / into place," the poem reports that a "crane lifts each little geometry, / nests it with like parts," but the poet and the reader both work similarly to construct that prison.

The most haunting poem imagines that "a string of ghosts appears in your inbox, / and this is how you answer each of them, // always, little sails." Behind each possible interpretation the reader, a spectre of sorts, flags as special every missive, each line.

-- -- --

Calgary's Derek Beaulieu and Colorado's Lori Emerson have selected a variety of experimental fictions by John Riddell (that most resemble visual poems) in the collection Writing Surfaces (Wilfrid Laurier, 158 pages, $20).

The title is best reading as if "surfaces" were a verb, so that the book presents an implicit argument that writing "surfaces" despite the sense that Riddell is attempting to destroy the possibility of writing. One sequence literally finds Riddell feeding poems he has written into a shredder and presenting images of the unreadable, shredded text.

Riddell's experiments remain radical, whereas much similar work from the period seems dated. Writing Surfaces thus recovers Riddell's reputation while reframing his oeuvre in a contemporary context.


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 May 25, 2013 J9

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