Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Musings on Mennonites a welcome return

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Former Winnipegger Nathan Dueck finally follows his outstanding 2004 debut, king's(mère), with he'll (Pedlar, 96 pages, $20), which explores a fragmentary narrative set in Rat River while playing with Plaut'dietsch.

Dueck explores the sonic qualities of this obscure dialect in a meditation on Mennonites that drags religion, region and reading across a landscape of lines. Dueck's density is as remarkable as his range. Whether plundering the canon for the lines in classic novels that might employ a contraction if written today, transposing songs for musical translations, or simply joking ("'You haven't had a night' / '... 'til you've had a Mennonite'"), Dueck pushes his language play to the furthest possible extremes.

At the heart of the collections is the apostrophe, both as a punctuation mark and in its literary sense (as an address to an absent abstraction). That's less alliteration than Dueck would have managed -- it's been a long wait, but he'll is worth it.

***

Local legend Dennis Cooley, long known for fracturing language, manages to outdo himself with abecedarium (U of Alberta, 150 pages, $20), in the intensity and frequency of his wordplay.

A highlight of the collection finds Cooley roasting Bill Gates. His Microsoft Word remains ubiquitous in publishing despite being prone to crashing: "Chairman Bill has promised / has given us The Word / the final ill / uminated MS. / Word that shall determine / our every rumination / ... / this document / cannot be saved / before conversion / please save."

The seven scruples of [Robert] Kroetsch discovers a sort of literary criticism immanent in a Wikipedia summary of "the seven principles of sleight of hand." Cooley still can't be beat when it comes to the sheer poundage of puns.

***

Larissa Lai and Rita Wong combine forces for Sybil Unrest (New Star, 128 pages, $18), a republication of their 2008 book, composed collaboratively over email. A biting critique of how we find ourselves composed of the detritus of a corporatized culture, the poems unsettle the language of Western capitalism.

Though that might sound overly serious, the book is filled to the brim with black comedy: "i slept with my lycanthropic boyfriend's teenage feral son / in a high security nuclear facility / while high on crystal meth / accompanied by a sixteen piece brass band / in hopes of winning a million dollars / while other contestants waited in a sweatshop in shenzhen." The image snowballs from Jerry Springer-esque silliness into Amazing Race-styled cultural tourism.

At the same time, the poem works to uncover the global networks that enable our enjoyment of "harmless" entertainment. Lai and Wong twist breathtaking, whip-smart turns of phrase into a collection that can't be missed.

***

Ottawa author and publisher Rob Mclennan combines genres in The Uncertainty Principle (Chaudiere, 100 pages, $15), a series of fragments that read alternately like prose poems, micro-fictions, or mini-essays. Also, tweets, complete with hashtags: "Vanilla Ice refers to his children as 'snow cones.' #IDontHaveFactsToBackThisUp."

At one point Mclennan wonders "if animated cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants [is] a product of 1950s nuclear testing." The brief explanation that follows makes too much sense for comfort, while remaining a parody of pop-cultural criticism.

Another highlight presents a character sketch in which a man scans "faces in crowds for recognition, for porn stars, both amateur and professional, he has seen on the Internet. He says it's a matter of population." Wry and winking, The Uncertainty Principle works as a pocket guide for Mclennan's mind.

 

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) lives online at www.JonathanBall.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 G6

History

Updated on Saturday, July 26, 2014 at 8:21 AM CDT: Formatting, book jacket.

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