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We don identities like masks

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Calgary's Jason Christie probes what it means to "act" in Unknown Actor (Insomniac, 122 pages, $17). As in his previous book, a series of science-fictional prose poems about a future world of hyper-intelligent machines, the structuring or limiting force here is capital-C capitalism.

The notion our identities are to some degree products we are sold, which we don the same way an actor dons a mask, lies at the heart of Christie's book. Alongside this lies the question of whether meaningful action, personal or political, is even possible anymore.

Poetry

Christie has a surprising amount of fun with these ideas. "A spectre is haunting Whatever -- the whatever of communism," begins one poem, nicely capturing a contemporary malaise, our apathetic half-hug of revolution.

In another poem, structured like a play, the character "Control" offers the ultimate corporate attitude: "We buy you -- we sell you -- we lose you--we can even shoot you! Not a bird would stir in the trees outside."

Many of Christie's poems meditate upon the ways social media mediates (say that three times fast). At least one line deserves immortality: "Hell is like all my online friends."

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Red Deer's Kimmy Beach offers her best book yet in The Last Temptation of Bond (University of Alberta Press, 114 pages, $20). In something resembling an experimental thriller/romance novel, Beach's long poem satirizes the pop-culture figure of James Bond.

Beach's Bond is a seemingly immortal figure aware of his status as a fictional creation, who practically steps off-screen to seduce women watchers of his films. Things are going well for Bond until the woman he thought was his biggest fan, "ONE," plots a feminist revenge.

"You can't kill James Bond," says James Bond. Well, Beach has given Bond her best shot. The Last Temptation of Bond is smarter, funnier, sexier and perhaps even more plausible than any Bond film.

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New York's Nico Vassilakis brings digital design to bear on visual poetry in Moments Notice (Luna Bisonte Prods, 75 pages, $30). Vassilakis's full-colour poems expand and deepen engagement with his core text, a long poem whose primary passages are repeated and developed using computer-generated imagery.

"Letter salad Letter science Letters from space" writes Vassilakis, and the line neatly summarizes the look of Moments Notice, which engrosses and fascinates. Much of Vassilakis's poem-designs have a hypnotic quality.

The downside of the book is its imagery already feels dated and even outdated, although it presents itself as cutting-edge. Nevertheless, the best poems here could be framed and hung.

-- -- --

"Can language / resurrect, / even though / they won't?" asks Toronto's Deena Kara Shaffer in The Grey Tote (Signal, 64 pages, $16). Primarily concerning the deaths of Shaffer's parents, the elegies often focus on the roles objects and language take in the grieving process.

In one poem, Shaffer considers the paperwork bequeathed: "One letter after another addressed to the dead. Each needing identity cancellation. Ten times the hours on paperwork than by graveside. ...Ongoing minimum payments for a mahogany casket."

The ways grief has been mechanized, industrialized, commercialized and bureaucratized call into question just how internal such emotions are, and how regulated they are by external forces. Shaffer balances carefully between engagement and detachment in these thoughts on the nature of grief.

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 July 27, 2013 A1

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