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Readers invited to text author in rumination on loneliness

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In The Loneliness Machine (Insomniac, 94 pages, $17), Calgary's Aaron Giovannone both plays and parodies the detached, suffering artist. "I am part of the problem / because I love my new cell phone. / If you send me a text message, / my face will light up" -- Giovannone then includes his real phone number. You can really text it, but if you do, have you two truly connected?

The phone in Giovannone's poems operates as a metaphor for poetry itself -- a thing that stands between him and his readers that makes possible and mediates their connection, but around which exists an economy that structures these connections so they don't satisfy. Elsewhere, Giovannone dispenses with the metaphor: "What's your plan tonight, guys? / Loneliness? / Poetry and loneliness?" Reading the book in the evening confirms that this is indeed your plan. A playful, mournful, fun and intelligent debut.

***

Toronto's Glen Downie, a former Winnipegger, sculpts found text into the poems of Monkey Soap (Mansfield, 80 pages, $17). In one section, Downie unearths gems of dialogue from film noir movies: "The next person that says Merry Christmas to me / I'll kill them." Elsewhere, sources are stranger and sentiments less silly: "All men are hungry / They always have been."

Downie has an unfortunate tendency to flatten his poems through titles that emphasize one meaning over another in a way that often limits the poem's depth. Mostly, though, Downie twists lines well through careful choices and contrasts: "It will be more agreeable [...] / to have a cat named Blackberry / now that men have decided / to live by the sword again." Since the word Blackberry now alludes to a technology product, Downie folds a number of complex possible meanings into what might otherwise seem a simplistic contrast. At his best, Downie thrills with unexpected turns.

***

In Tether (Seraphim, 90 pages, $17), Minnedosa's Laurelyn Whitt sets a careful pace through elegant structures while feeling casual and conversational. Poems often end by returning to a previous image, with a sudden, newfound clarity, and easy-to-miss tangles in their construction.

Describing an empty, "child-abandoned" playground, Whitt writes: "A blue swing yaws in the breeze; / no one sees this. It is emptier now. / Frost seals every surface. A dog / runs by, as though someone calls." It's easy to miss "no one sees this." What about the speaker? Has the empty swing become "emptier" by becoming a poetic object? Aside from some prose inclusions, which are weak but few, Tether displays Whitt's stunning talent for images that possess both clarity and depth.

***

Cambridge's Frank Bidart focuses on the poetic standards of sex, art, and death in Metaphysical Dog (Anansi, 114 pages, $20), but with a verve that belies their overuse. Bidart accomplishes this through sheer ruthlessness. "Your body will be added to the bodies that piled up make the structures of the world" -- is there a poetic truth more blunt and brutal than this?

Once Bidart drops a concrete, clear statement into a poem, you can be sure it will blossom into an abstract, metaphysical concept -- yet knowing this can't prepare you for what comes. Bidart has something to teach us through this powerful and resplendent collection: you must go to the end of the idea. You can't shy away from the nightmare the poem wants to be.


Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball will launch his new book, John Paizs's Crime Wave (University of Toronto Press), at Cinematheque on Feb. 28, featuring a film screening and free admission.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 G6

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Updated on Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 8:34 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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