Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Poetry: Sound play, imagery clash in fearless collection

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In an age of assured debuts, Brecken Hancock's Broom Broom (Coach House, 72 pages, $18) might be the most bold. Reading like a visceral assault on now-clichés of feminist poetry, Hancock's lines tilt domestic stereotypes into nightmare.

A long prose poem about the art of plumbing spans 6,600 years and transforms a simple household fixture (the bathtub) into something resembling a sarcophagus for humanity. Another poem offers "Evil Brecken," her "Lover, lecher, what beckons -- your bestie."

The subtlety of the sound play in that line contrasts with the bombastic imagery elsewhere, in poems replete with "Castles of albino crows" and "Snow madonnas maquillaged in ash." Inventive and fearless, Hancock sweeps the mild under her rug.


Reading Catherine Owen's Designated Mourner (ECW, 112 pages, $19) is uncomfortable and feels wrong. Owen's elegies for a deceased spouse, are discomforting in the truest sense.

This raw emotion is doubly impressive due to the actual polish of the poems. Owen oscillates between simple, stark expressiveness ("We were so perfect / at the Safeway") and ornate imagery ("the dead have entered me and suddenly I am many crows / in one crow, feasting on the beautiful dropped prey of this hawk-life").

"I want to stop writing poems for you now," writes Owen, and the collection thus comes to operate like the designated mourner of its title, continuing to cry after it closes.


Nikki Reimer's Downverse (Talonbooks, 118 pages, $17), by comparison, has lost its faith in the power of poetry to express any emotion without commodifying it. One of Reimer's most affecting poems is, oddly, a list of "insurance outcomes:" "Life / The Principal Sum / Both Hands / The Principal Sum / ... / Entire Sight of One Eye / Two-Thirds of the Principal Sum."

In this way, life and limb are literally valued. Another poem sees Reimer expressing herself as we all do, through her monthly budget (she spends four per cent of her income on books and 0.3 per cent on the aforementioned life insurance policy). However cold such "expressions" feel, they are in fact as raw (in their way) as any properly "poetic" emotion, more indicative of the poet's real concerns.

Reimer crashes different registers of found text against one another for startling, humorous effects. One poem juxtaposes that "perhaps what al-Qaida really needed was a fresh start under a new name" with "no matter what his name, or whether he is a stray, the street-savvy dog has captured the public's imagination."

Soon the poem announces that "we are focusing more on education when responding to chicken complaints" -- whether silly, wry, or deadpan, Reimer plays black comedy off against an anguished frustration.


"I understand what this sentence is trying to say / I empathize with each of its letters" writes Gary Barwin in Moon Baboon Canoe (Mansfield, 88 pages, $17). In contrast to the skepticism of post-avant poets like Reimer, Barwin's poetry expresses a near-religious faith in poetry's transcendence, its ability to forge meaning rather than simply convert meaning into money.

Barwin is one of Canada's best talents when it comes to soft, dense, delightful imagery. Not content to merely craft spry, inventive lines, he also takes time to untangle Canadian politics: "inside Stephen Harper / there's a little dog // inside the dog / another dog // inside this dog / it's Stephen Harper."

The image gets twist-ier, but rest assured that "it's Stephen Harper / all the way down."


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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, June 28, 2014 at 8:17 AM CDT: Formatting, adds book jacket.

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