Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fiorentino blends oblique with direct

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A former Winnipegger and current Montrealer, Jon Paul Fiorentino presents his best book as his worst, with the title Needs Improvement (Coach House Books, 88 pages, $18).

Fiorentino, who has also published prose, blends oblique statements with direct ones, to draw attention to the material qualities of language and how it shapes communicative expression, while still speaking straight: "Common paraplectic sorry / ruin and rune comma apology // I'm too old it happens / it happens."

The education industry's insistence on compliance and conformity, and how students who avoid bullying are bullied by the schools, find a foe in Fiorentino. One highlight of the book is a series of instructions for invigilating exams: "Existential angst should be instilled in students AT ALL TIMES. Meaninglessness MUST be insisted upon."

Often funny and always irreverent, the writing makes sudden turns to sideswipe the reader. The poems in Needs Improvement don't.

-- -- --

Seven American Deaths and Disasters (powerHouse, 176 pages, $24), by New York's Kenneth Goldsmith, consists of transcribed reports of events ranging in scope from the death of John Lennon to the World Trade Center attacks.

Goldsmith plagiarizes and reframes language, and owes more to visual artists like Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp than other poets. By writing about these deaths and disasters, many oft-treated in literature, through quoting the words of those reporting the original event, Goldsmith highlights the vampirism of artistic gesture while outstripping the realism that "more creative" authors seek.

Reframed poetically, as if chapters in an experimental novel, these transcripts overwhelm and devastate, a tidy counter-argument to those critical of conceptual poetry for its seeming inability to rouse or convey deep emotion.

Discussing the space shuttle Challenger disaster, a reporter notes that a young boy called the studio and "asked if the apple had anything to do with it."

Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher who would have been the first American civilian in space, had been "handed an apple for the teacher" just before she boarded the shuttle. "This young listener said -- did anyone check the apples?" A novelistic moment, absurd and crushing, that Goldsmith manages without writing one word.

-- -- --

Vancouver's Dina Del Bucchia parodies the self-help genre in Coping with Emotions and Otters (Talonbooks, 116 pages, $17), by presenting her poems as advice on how to use and improve mostly negative emotions.

"If you still question your commitment to shame or are unsure if you have enough built up inside you, don't be discouraged," writes Del Bucchia to preface a series of "Shame Affirmations." Shame not your thing? Maybe try this exercise in jealousy: "Betray a dolphin."

"Feel songs as though they were hands / set to make you remember / what it's like to be comforted" -- a sure-fire way to feel sad. Both mocking and revitalizing the poetic desire to invoke emotion, this whip-smart debut crackles with manic energy.

-- -- --

Danish poet Morten Sndergaard prescribes his Wordpharmacy (BookThug/Broken Dimanche/Danish Arts Agency, 10 boxes, $65) -- a batch of medicine boxes containing the 10 word groups in the language, alongside instructions to guide your use of the words.

Translated by Barbara J. Haveland and designed by Christian Rams, Sndergaard's faux medical prescriptions equate the mind-altering effects of language with those of drugs. "Use of NounsÆ can cause you to doubt language's ability to cover the world. Please note, therefore, that there is a big difference between words and things. You cannot, for example, knock in nails with the word 'hammer.' "

Why use "NounsÆ"? Well, they "counteract namelessness and forgetfulness and are prescribed for depression at the unbelievable number of things in the world." Fair warning, though: "NounsÆ should be used only as prescribed by your poet." What a wonderful vision, that people might consult poets the way they consult doctors.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 A1

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