Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Poet pens formula to quantify grief

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The title of M x T (Coach House, 96 pages, $18), by Montreal's Sina Queyras, proposes a formula to quantify grief: Feeling Memory x Time.

Like this proposed formula, which seems sincere as much as it seems to be a joke, Queyras remains deadpan throughout (aside from a few moments: "If you did not arrive to this city by canoe you can f--k off").

Where other poets bleed the dead for as many elegies as they might drain, Queyras wonders how to balance honest, heartfelt grief against the artificial, often-empty impulse to write about this grief.

"We are bent with emotion. We are uneven in our ability to move forward, we say, Beware of the empty boat, but we are often, ourselves, the empty boat." Although here she echoes Lisa Robertson, and elsewhere echoes Emily Dickinson ("Death, I want to drag you right into the mall, the earth, which is made of death"), Queyras remains resolutely herself, crashing her voice against attempts to escape it in her most affecting, accomplished book.


The Unknown University (New Directions, 836 pages, $42) collects the poetry of Chile's Roberto Bolaño, best known for his novels 2666 and The Savage Detectives.

Bolaño combines raw, emotive brutality with affected self-parody: "I grew up alongside puritan revolutionaries... What I'm trying to say is my lyricism is DIFFERENT / (that's all there is to it, but let me / add one thing more)."

Bolaño at his best is hilarious, poking fun at his own pretensions: "I remember Plato told me / and I didn't pay attention. / Now I'm in death's nightclub."

The collection is a bilingual edition, and includes the full text of the experimental novel Antwerp (under the title People Walking Away), one of Bolaño's most underrated books. Outstanding and often outrageous, though sometimes simple and sad, Bolaño's poetry shimmers.


"When was Detroit?" asks Vancouver's Jeff Derksen in The Vestiges (Talonbooks, 134 pages, $17). A "remake" combining the form of late-modernist long poems with the style and political concerns of Derksen's peers from the Kootenay School of Writing, The Vestiges wonders what remains of the world, or what will remain, after the ravages of neoliberal capitalism.

Derksen tempers his political critique through an elliptical approach. "When was Detroit?" works by humorously implying rather than dryly explaining complex socio-political issues that other poets might thrash to a death by a thousand clichés.

We spend our days "managing language / and management language," but it takes a poet like Derksen to show us that we do. The Vestiges is Derksen's most elegant work, with a grace to match its bite.


Phil Hall, who lives near Perth, Ont., follows the Governor General's Award-winning Killdeer with The Small Nouns Crying Faith (BookThug, 90 pages, $20). Hall's poems strike a fine balance, halfway between a raw outpouring and a poised restraint. Hall oscillates between tragedy, atrocity and silliness in a way that shouldn't work, moving from sexual abuse to satire without undermining either.

"I will write a poem again today / it will make no sense" begins one poem, ending with "Under Truth liked this / The Loom's Shadow liked this / Vestigial Tail liked this." Sandwiched in between the self-deprecation and the ironic, overwrought Facebooking is a poem that doesn't wink, at least not in the way we might expect. Fearless, Hall jostles and jitters in protean, exhilarating lines.


Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball's latest book is John Paizs's "Crime Wave" (University of Toronto Press), about the Winnipeg-made cult film classic.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 8:19 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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