Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Poetic ravages of consumption, from TB to consumerism

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"EVERYBODY'S consumptive, poets especially," writes Erin Knight of St. Catharines, Ont., in Chaser (Anansi, 92 pages, $20). She should know -- Knight's latest collection concerns the ravages of consumption, from tuberculosis to consumerism.

Knight strikes a strong balance between the intellectual and the imagistic. One speaker notes that "Like all spenders I am ill, I philosophize / out of my attachment to everything" -- a sentiment that would fit cleanly into a (well-written) essay.

Other poems startle with sudden, unexpected visuals. In a scientifically minded poem titled The Experimental Method, the speaker concludes with "I have fifty guinea pigs dressed / and waiting on the marble stair."

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Toronto's Marcus McCann offers odes to everything from medical devices to chicken wings in The Hard Return (Insomniac, 78 pages, $17). Song for the Song of Britney Spears showcases McCann's facility for succinct description: "Lullaby sung through a microchip kazoo" encapsulates the singer's entire oeuvre in less than a line.

McCann uses repetition and line breaks to great effect: "We are all the same is the moral of the story. / All men are the same is the moral of the story, / but it is not good news." His more disjunctive lines possess great energy: "Cosmic spirals of communication, / retuning, junk talk, yammer, here is a voice / and we are using it." A fast and fierce collection, which at its best seems "Dracular, shiny."

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Former Winnipegger Patrick Friesen, now of Vancouver Island, shows the influence of Spanish and Portuguese song in A Dark Boat (Anvil, 120 pages, $16). As always, Friesen's lines also sparkle with biblical tones: "the alley is long as anyone's life / it bends like anyone's life / you sit on a cold stoop in the dark / waiting for the song you've waited for."

Friesen's trademark long lines are absent here. On one hand, this makes the poems seem more generic, while on the other hand they seem more exploratory. The best moments are those when the lines crackle with quick, smooth shifts, which paint small worlds: "the arsonist loves / his room torching it / time and again."

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In Grid (Hagios, 80 pages, $18), Creighton's Brenda Schmidt turns a colder eye to the landscape than most other Canadian poets. Writing about a spider, Schmidt writes of "her silver / path scarce visible, quivering / like a lip." A fairly typical moment of lyricism. But watch how it turns, with the next words: "I hate you. / Hate just slipped."

Schmidt's best poems have this sense of things "just slipping" out, even as they show clear evidence of careful craft. The blooms of flowers are "the faces of tiny dolls / weeping" and "Willows wig the slough."

She doesn't over-describe (the boring tendency of most poets) but makes each word count while building then releasing striking images: "The birch in the backyard / snapped last night in the storm, / the top ten feet now borne / by the willow like a coffin."

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball's next book, The Politics of Knives (Coach House Books), will launch at McNally Robinson on Sept. 11. (What could go wrong?)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 J9

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