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Slave poems keep their horrors in plain sight

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"Let us drink to the rot, and the rotting souls of men" — this line pops up about halfway through Cottonopolis (Pedlar, 120 pages, $20) by Halifax's Rachel Lebowitz, and serves as a fitting toast for a suite of (mostly) prose poems about the intertwined cotton and slave trades of the 19th century.

"When I became a man, they took away my childish things. The commons, the green grass, the blue sky, the pure white of winter snow." Now, married to the slave trade, the cotton trade bloodies the grass, blackens the snow. Lebowitz's poems are, at turns, chilling and more chilling. Then, near the end: "We are sorry to inform you there is no end."

Unrelenting, but necessary, Cottonpolis keeps its horrors always in plain sight. In doing so, it suggests and serves to counterpoint the invisible processes of modern, global economies, often predicated on keeping these same things hidden.

In this way, Cottonopolis manages to develop metaphorical resonance without reducing its historical subjects or forcing them into poetic servitude.


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The Family China (Brick, 78 pages, $20), by Toronto's Ann Shin, has already won the Anne Green Award (a prize for artistic works that explore and challenge traditional forms of story and narrative): the stories challenged here are those of Shin's family.

"Old wounds die half-lives, their / poison efflorescing radiological forests / splayed from the brachia of his mind" -- Shin balances dense imagery like this against straightforward lines like "a decision can / take years to sprout / repercussions and / you find yourself in / the wrong job, the / wrong skin." Dense, but not difficult, Shin's poems deftly navigate the dark waters of history, a river you never step into twice.


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"When she is fifteen / she finds beers like / shiny treasures," writes Winnipeg's Katherena Vermette in North End Love Songs (Muses' Company, 108 pages, $15). Vermette's poems are spare affairs, quiet and cinematic. She has a knack for turning an image in a new direction, as when a child happily picking dandelions all of a sudden notices that "they stay so yellow / even when / they are dead."

In another poem, a mother clips out a newspaper article about her son, with the headline "Native Man Missing After Binge." Instead of the expected meditation on how the media constructs and supports stereotypes, Vermette notes that "she thinks he would like / that they called him / a Man."

It's a powerful, affecting twist, and a good example of how Vermette, at her best, plays with and refuses what her audience might expect.


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The title of Toronto's Tanis Rideout's Arguments with the Lake (Wolsak & Wynn, 70 pages, $17) is a metaphor for swimming as a species of struggle. The poems concern an imagined relationship between Marilyn Bell, the first person to swim across Lake Ontario, and Shirley Campbell, who also swam competitively in Lake Ontario in the 1950s, but twice failed to cross.

Rideout earned acclaim for her 2012 novel Above All Things, a historical reimagining of Everest climber George Mallory and his wife.

The relationship in Arguments with the Lake, which Rideout imagines as another sort of struggle, avoids most of the obvious tangles. She also manages to pervade the collection with water imagery without drowning the reader with clich©s. After Bell's triumph, the "bouquets come in waves to her door" but Rideout avoids the expected shift into sentimental, nationalistic applause to focus on the frustrations of Campbell instead.

The poems often work in this way, avoiding the too-familiar to focus on the oddity of the "lost things" in the lake: "a favourite sweater, that heavy-headed clown / doll, who whispers secret names and swims away."


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 September 28, 2013 A1


Updated on Sunday, September 29, 2013 at 4:21 PM CDT: adds missing first paragraph

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