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Gillian Sze casts melancholic eye

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WINNIPEG expatriate Gillian Sze's The Anatomy of Clay (ECW, 102 pages, $19) divides itself between outward-looking, slice-of-life observations and inward-turned, introspective offerings. Although she invokes influences as diverse as Virgil, Ondaatje and the surrealists, Sze's poems seem marble-hewn, rather than messy.

Sze casts a melancholic eye on her surroundings, reporting that "Each dash of straw in the fields / is lying to somebody." Sze also praises the small moments that go unnoticed: as a woman gathers her hair into a bun, we are lucky (through Sze) "to witness / her miss the last tendril, / the one that sticks to her neck, / curled like a crescent moon."

Sze's language is sometimes more ornate -- "Now we must rave the somatic reaping" -- but for the most part her words are soft, gathered in their own tight buns, with few strays.

-- -- --

Cornelia Hoogland's Crow (Black Moss, 84 pages, $17) is a messier affair, more plainspoken. Her speakers hope for small things, "to get through Naomi Klein's newest fat book."

Crow gathers around a series of poems regarding crows, including a lengthy suite about a crow attacking its own reflection. Hoogland's poems do not engage much with the wealth of scientific knowledge regarding crows, but instead circle and swoop in standard patterns.

Nevertheless, the poems are enjoyable and accomplished, with some wonderful and surprising passages: "Travis puts down his seminar paper. He's talking / about birds in literature -- paper swallow, paper swift-- / when he stops speaking and makes the sound // that the white-throated sparrow makes."

-- -- --

Calvin Wharton's The Song Collides (Anvil, 80 pages, $16) mines the standard Canadian quarry with poems about the natural world and daily minutiae, but does so with a jaunty grace. Now and again, Wharton ranges further afield, with extended joke collages ("Have you heard the one about the travelling St. Peter / who put velcro tape on a rooster's ass...") and jazzy rhythms ("He fling monkey talk. Banana talk. Brother walk").

Some of Wharton's most affecting poems, like Sze's, are simple slice-of-life narratives. One poem concerns a SkyTrain delay that may have resulted from an accidental or intentional death along the line.

Another catalogues various gifts offered by the poet's young son. A song "breathes / all the oxygen in the room." Wharton has a fine ear for such phrases, which raise up the ordinary.

-- -- --

Stephanie Bolster, winner of a Governor General's Award for poetry, offers a more complex and nuanced approach to the things of the world in A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth (Brick, 80 pages, $19). To some degree a poetic catalogue of wonder and horror, but without much overt sentiment, Bolster's poems are best when the images ring strange but true: "There is beauty everywhere in this city, history everywhere, a pit that / held a bear before the war."

Bolster focuses more on images than emotions, leaving the reader to interpret and react. She notes, "The arcades sell postcards of old photographs of the arcades," but allows us to make the connection to our media-saturated, reality-television culture. Elsewhere, she's more playful and musical, at the expense of clear sense: "What lacks a wick? / Match-flash against the black / rough strip of a packet; / eye-flash."

As good poets do, Bolster trusts the reader to pick up her dropped threads.


Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball is the author of the poetry books Ex Machina and Clockfire.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 24, 2011 J9

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