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Legris prefers tweeting of birds

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In Pneumatic Antiphonal (New Directions, 48 pages, $12), former Winnipegger Sylvia Legris crafts poems around the sounds of scientific language for a human approximation of birdsong.

Legris, who now lives in Saskatoon, won the 2006 Griffin Prize for her collection Nerve Squall.

In her new outing, she challenges the conventions of the nature poem, when she takes on conventional poetic subjects (like the beauty of songbirds), from "neck to diaphragm the phrenic nerve is a Strat string waiting to sing."

A welcome relief from, and counterpoint to, the boring blandness of most nature poetry, Legris's poems startle the senses to attention (especially that sense too-dormant in many poets, the sense for language play). "Flip the epiglottal emergency flap" and give Legris a try.

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Winnipeg's Dennis Cooley is also attentive to and willing to play with language. From granite slab to curling rock, Cooley sounds The Stones (Turnstone, 132 pages, $17) for poetic resonance. Unsurprisingly, the book becomes (to some degree) elegiac, Cooley rapping knuckles on tombstones.

Yet despite the occasional sad meditation ("people are porcelain / bones you say have / grown old and half / crazed with time"), Cooley laughs jovial in the presence of death (one poem delights in listing various metaphors for getting drunk).

"Why do we write of the dead to the dead," asks Cooley, and a little further on seems to answer his question with "in some way i have / done this for the living."

Cooley here reflects on his earlier books for and about his father and mother, but the sentiment nicely captures the life-loving exuberance, edged with melancholy reflection, that stands as the signature of his style.

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Ottawa's Christine McNair ends Conflict (BookThug, 130 pages, $18) by taking "it all back" and asking us to pretend she "never wrote" these poems. "A snowflake loses coherence in a snowstorm. [...] What does one page, one poem, one poet matter when there are many?"

In a cunning answer, McNair has structured a book around her distaste for coherence. Prose poems seemingly self-plagiarized from Facebook updates ("Christine [...] can't find her iPod sad face extra sad face") snuggle against meditations on the bygone Phoenician civilization and remixes of famous poems.

One poem is completely excised: "[excised] [excised]" it trumpets. Another lists likes and dislikes in a rushing breath: "phosoupticklesthewordkidcarwashes1940snewspeak."

McNair's debut has a serious side (those things no longer give her pleasure) but also brims with quirky fun.

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Anne Michaels, best known for the international bestselling novel Fugitive Pieces, has teamed up with writer and artist Bernice Eisenstein (both of Toronto) for the hybrid poetry/artwork Correspondences (McClelland & Stewart, 128 pages, $35).

Between the front and back covers, an accordion-style sheet folds to enfold, on one side, a long poem by Michaels that serves as an elegy for writers and thinkers ranging from Albert Einstein to Paul Celan to her father Isaiah Michaels. On the other side, portraits of these figures by Eisenstein stand alongside quotations from their work.

Michaels has a tendency to favour overly abstract language and melodrama: "there are eyes that never change, / no matter the age, / never stop seeing / the same moment."

The last line somewhat recuperates the image, but mainly Michaels presents the cliché of an old person's youthful gaze. Elsewhere, "the precise waking that is born / from the nightmare" has a hallucinogenic force, and "a line break forever changing the word above / and the word below" nicely meditates on poetic form while suggesting the way that the collaboration with Eisenstein might have altered how we receive her poem.

Though not always successful, Correspondences remains an interesting experiment and a physically beautiful book.

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 November 23, 2013 A1

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