Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Kristian Enright debuts with story of 'sigh-borg'
WINNIPEG'S Kristian Enright debuts with Sonar (Turnstone, 148 pages, $17), the story of a "'sigh-borg' able to produce oxygen and / appreciate poetry in the same breath."
Jokiness persists alongside distress, since Enright's narrator is institutionalized following a suicide attempt: "[I] conceived of my death by eraser / ... I would erase my wrists." A metafictive flourish, since the narrator is a character in the poem, who could meaningfully be put to death through the use of an eraser -- yet neither intellectualism nor silliness neutralize the despair.
Bureaucracy Poem, one of the collection's highlights, notes that "Recent negative emotions have made contact / with the infrastructure" -- a perfect parody of the bland confessional poem, a critique of attitudes in the psychiatric field, and a hilarious subversion of conventions of poetry.
Enright spins many plates without dropping a one, and the show's so much fun you don't notice he's crying.
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Another Winnipegger, Katherine Bitney, offers Firewalk (Turnstone, 80 pages, $17), chock-full of shamanistic energy. Bitney's lines crackle, largely due to her well-handled repetitions, which mimic the style and sound of ancient poetry. "This is an old trade. Voices / of a million poets singing down time, / across tribes and nations," Bitney writes, inserting herself into that tradition.
"The gods / are clear as stars," Bitney writes elsewhere, and the power of her language comes both from its rhythms and the clarity of such images. "I want to take to my bed and dream. / Like the dead girl, dream."
Such lines suggest a manifesto for poetry that reaches beyond the mundane of daily experience, the common realm of sense, although Bitney counterbalances this thrust in another poem with "What is next to you, write that." This tension produces the notion that the immediate partakes of the eternal, which stands as Bitney's primal, running theme.
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Toronto's Mark Goldstein, in Form of Forms (BookThug, 112 pages, $25), details the emotional and bureaucratic fallout of an adoption, as identity comes under scrutiny when attempting to uncover a birth mother.
Goldstein moves from crushing emotional statements -- "he wonders / does she think of / my birthday" -- to legal statements.
"NOTE: we are unable to search for birth relatives who do not fit the categories outlined above," states one poem, but exactly this problem of how to categorize, how to see and sort others and one's self, and what to do when the categories seem non-standard or on the verge of breaking down, compels the emotional distress.
Although "we are made / to hold / blood," why else we have been made, given birth or given up, seems far less certain.
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The Swiss author Robert Walser (1878-1956) has undergone a quiet revival recently, and Thirty Poems (New Directions, 62 pages, $23), selected and translated by Christopher Middleton, helps to offset the recent emphasis on Walser's prose by offering a dollop of his poetry.
Walser had a strange, exciting talent, and his best work displays an earnest, energetic silliness shot-through with stricken melancholy.
"A woman's awe-inspiring blouse / is hanging on a wall inside a house. / What splendid lines to start some poetry" begins one poem, in fanciful fashion.
Another poem takes a similar approach with almost the opposite tone: "Must a man always be seeking experience, / writing about it?" Walser laments.
Walser's most inventive moments blend these seemingly irreconcilable approaches with energetic language: "so we walk on and our hurts frisk / like puppydoggies at our side."
Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) has just published The Politics of Knives with Coach House Books in Toronto.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J9
(1 of 23 articles for this week)