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POETRY: Stellar collection of stage and page work

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The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry (Frontenac House, 272 pages, $22), edited by Valerie Mason-John (a.k.a. Queenie) and Kevan Anthony Cameron (a.k.a. Scruffmouth), focuses on new and unpublished work by over 90 authors, divided into groups of "page" and "stage" poets (works composed for print alongside dub, spoken word and slam poetry).

A preface by George Elliott Clarke provides a smattering of historical context. The focus on new work makes the anthology a good snapshot of the current moment in African-Canadian poetry and its recent trends.

The inclusion of the "stage" section is inspired, since even "page" poets like Clarke draw heavily on the sonorous qualities of spoken language ("To scoop up gold, troops must set blood a-flood").

It's often said that poems written for performance translate poorly to the page, but this has always been a myth, as authors like Oni the Haitian Sensation and Wakefield Brewster deftly show. (Oni's wonderful Botanical Latin is a highlight of the collection: "They [the monks] are not in heaven because they f**ked with the Haitian wives of Hochelaga.") The poems that don't translate well are simply lousy poems, like Marlon Wilson's bland and cliché-ridden defence of hip-hop. Aside from a few such missteps, The Great Black North proves a stellar collection.

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Vancouver's Elizabeth Bachinsky offers a strange glimpse into a poetic cross-section of her notebooks in I Don't Feel So Good (BookThug, 60 pages, $16).

Composed of material selected by chance, rolling die to determine the book's content and order, Bachinsky combines the confessional mode with experimental procedures. The result is a revealing yet hilarious portraiture in words: "Your search 'BARF-ER-AMA' did not match any products."

"What is a 'poetic' response anyway?" asks Bachinsky in one moment, providing the answer in another: "A book called I don't feel so good." Later, Bachinsky notes that poets should "just write something down. Eventually things will distill themselves into something that behaves like poetry."

Elsewhere, a plaintive cry -- "I wish I had some $$" -- nicely captures those moments in a writer's life where existential despair and flippant silliness hold hands to cross the street.

-- -- --

Whitehorse's Jamie Sharpe makes a cheeky debut with Animal Husbandry Today (ECW, 106 pages, $19). Sharpe's best poems are like "chaste revolvers filled / with explosive chorus girls," balancing inventive imagery against dense bitterness.

"In the friscalating dusk we walk / in the shadow of our nation's parks, / in the shadow of one-hundred-year / evergreens, back to tomorrow's life," writes Sharpe in a classically mournful moment. "The $1.19 nacho cheese chalupas / were also excellent," he concludes, in a wonderful deflation of that high seriousness, which nevertheless leaves its mournfulness intact.

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James Arthur, who grew up in Toronto but now lives in Princeton, N.J., delivers many exhilarating moments in Charms Against Lightning (Copper Canyon, 64 pages, $16). The "treetops are raucous clown wigs" in Arthur's eye, and "a star is a star is a hydrogen bomb."

"The kitchen weeps onion / because the cook is dead," writes Arthur in one poem, a strong example of the simple reversals and revitalizations of worn imagery that he is able to manage. Although without Sharpe's skill for tonal juxtapositions, Arthur's debut also charms.

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) just published The Politics of Knives with Coach House Books of Toronto.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 J9

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