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Imagine if Whitman knew about Facebook

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Near the end of Multitudes (Coach House, 128 pages, $18), Toronto's Margaret Christakos gives voice to the modern poet's lament: "i took one sentence and threaded it through another and / all i got was this lousy t-shirt." Elsewhere, Christakos is more succinct: "po v etry."

But all isn't doom and gloom: on the plus side, the seeming enemy of the productive poet, Facebook, is, in Christakos's hands, the stuff of poetry. The title alludes to Walt Whitman's famous Song of Myself and its line "I am large, I contain multitudes."

Christakos connects this insight to the multitudinous nature of the virtual self. Her most ambitious poem, Play, seems pulled directly from her Facebook feed, complete with timestamps and a discussion with online friends, within the poem, about the poem being constructed.

"see there's nowhere inperson speech you can walk up to / somebody and say excess x s. s'why I love the internet."

The tension between the new forms of expression that technology allows, and how an increasingly technological culture bleeds from these expressions their political force, enervates her poems.

-- -- --

"Perhaps and very likely / there'll be pain," writes Ottawa's Sandra Ridley in The Counting House (BookThug, 80 pages, $20).

This excessive uncertainty about what seems inevitable strikes a discordant chord. That chord echoes throughout as Ridley suggests a sadomasochistic relation to the muse, one of continual imbalance due in part, historically, to gender politics.

"Your Darling is vulgar in all of her violet forms," writes Ridley, and it's easy to misread "violet" as "violent."

Elsewhere, "THE END is a wretched death" -- the final accounting, in the metaphorical "counting house" of the book. At other times, Ridley's lines have a double-edge, of humour: "apparently / only / two readers recount / what you've done."

The ambiguity of the word "recount" plays to her darker themes while keeping her tongue in cheek. An assured, gripping and startling book.

-- -- --

Oregon's Ian Doescher brings the Bard of Avon together with the Lucas of film in the literary mash-up William Shakespeare's Star Wars (Quirk/Lucas, 176 pages, $16). Retelling the story of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in the style of a Shakespeare play, Doescher raises a silly gimmick to surprising heights.

At times, the parody is pitch-perfect. When Luke Skywalker tries to convince Han Solo to help save Princess Leia, the Bard-like barbs fly: "LUKE: Hast thou no heart? She sentenc'd is to die! / HAN: My sentence is: 'tis better she than I."

The throwaway allusions to well-known Shakespearean lines are clever enough, but what makes the mash-up work is that Doescher doesn't lean upon these lines. Instead, he takes his absurd conceit seriously. Shakespeare has even more cultural presence than Lucas -- Doescher knows this, and serves both masters well.

-- -- --

"Poetry means loser wins," writes Victoria's Stephen Scobie in At the Limit of Breath: Poems on the Films of Jean-Luc Godard (University of Alberta Press, 88 pages, $20). In the poem on one of Godard's masterpieces, Weekend, Scobie writes: "What a rotten film / All we meet are crazy people / eating each other." A funny barb, with a hallucinatory development in the image, that works against expectation by insulting Godard's film, the stanza stands on its own.

At the same time, the "insult" contains a quotation from the film, thus replicating Godard's own method of incessant quotation -- deepening the poem for those who know the film.

Scobie's encounters with Godard work best when they crystallize as such paradoxes, and when they repeat Godard's repetitions. Though lacking the shock, violence and formalism we might expect, Scobie's poems intelligently engage Godard's films.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 A1

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