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This article was published 24/9/2016 (184 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Moez Surani’s Operations (BookThug, 180 pages, $18) presents the code names of military operations conducted by United Nations member states between 1945 and 2006. Surani’s conceptual poem — a simple list, 135 pages long — offers these names as a neglected poetic sub-genre, one with its own themes and tropes.
As Surani writes in the introduction, "no word is exempt from connoting violence." Here’s a random sampling: "Doughnut / Farmer / Boar / Cave Dweller / Kickoff / Cow Puncher / Slam / Punchbowl." Some operations seem poignant, like Piano Solo (later renamed Alone), while others are bizarrely disrespectful. Imagine somebody having to say their child died in Operation Hotpants.
Stripping the language of military operations from the reality of their violence is both absurdly funny and darkly unsettling. Beneath it all hovers the nightmare of real violence, which these too-often-banal names try so hard to mask (such as the euphemism "Clean House"), but sometimes admit (the most honest title here might be the simple Killer).
Operations is an excellent addition to the conceptual poetry canon.
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Hera Lindsay Bird’s self-titled debut, Hera Lindsay Bird (Victoria University Press, 112 pages, $25), is crammed with shocking and often hilarious imagery, nestled against bare sentiments: "I am falling in love and I don’t know what to do about it / Throw me in a haunted wheelbarrow and set me on fire."
Bird’s introductory poem captures the book’s tone: "I wrote this book, and it is sentimental / Because I don’t have a right-sized reaction to the world / To write a book is not a right-sized reaction / To put all your bad thoughts on paper / And make someone else pay for them."
Bird excels at this play between dark, ironic humour and bare, unironic distress. "Life! / I should never have thought I could do it." Elsewhere, she writes, "The mother joke is here, and there is no punchline / this is a poem, not a joke, and the only way out is death / You stare and stare at your vast superfluity of life / it stretches out beyond itself, like too many razors on a kite tail."
Bird delivers a truly gripping and startling debut that promises great things.
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Adrienne Gruber’s Buoyancy Control (BookThug, 84 pages, $18) offers often-erotic poems nestled in water-related imagery that focus for the most part on loneliness and loss.
"A bathtub made of marble, legs stretched / in lukewarm, the girl sprawled against your solid frame. It is this / and every image like it that prevents you from moving forward."
An irony runs through Gruber’s collection, revealed in that passage: the act of transforming experience into poetry also transforms the speaker, preventing a move beyond the trauma of the sexual relationship even as poetry serves to contain this trauma.
"Under our smiles, fear. / If only water didn’t equal loss" sums up the book’s core theme neatly. Drown your sorrows in Gruber’s soggy sorrow.
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Phil Hall’s Conjugation (BookThug, 108 pages, $20) offers fragmentary phrases swirling in a maelstrom to present a stark world where "escape is a joke / my escape-songs are a joke." The poems accrue strange half-sense and startling contrasts, filled with sudden shocks: "the Prime Minister rings the President what should I do with all this blood."
Hall’s poems often dive deep into themselves, and even begin to display his apparent anxieties about the poems themselves. "I wanted to be Hemingway I am Elmer Fudd," is as funny and true a summary of what it feels like to be a writer most days.
Conjugation is another strong and engaging collection from the award-winning Hall.
Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) lives online at www.JonathanBall.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.