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Undark collection gives forgotten women their due

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Undark: An Oratorio (Blewointment, 96 pages, $19), by Calgary's Sandy Pool, concerns the thousands of women (aged 11-45) employed in the early 1900s in factories that exposed them daily to radium-based paint.

These women suffered horrific ailments, were often misdiagnosed and uncompensated, and have almost been forgotten. Pool combines their silenced voices with that of Marie Curie, who discovered radium, Sabin von Sochocky, the inventor of the radium-based paint named Undark, the Greek poet Sappho, and others.

When Sabin notes that "You / women are waiting to become what you already / are, what you already have been," the line serves as an elegy -- they are the dead, waiting to die -- but also has other, varied possible meanings.

They are the dead, revived and given a proper burial of sorts in Pool's poem -- and also women who have been forced to wait, by the historical circumstance of their birth before women gained greater social freedoms, for their proper due.

Despite the darkness of her subject, or perhaps because of it, Pool's language bursts forth brightly, indelible, refusing night.

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Vancouver's Catherine Owen, author and heavy metal musician, pays homage to her musical genre and its historical roots in Trobairitz (Anvil, 156 pages, $18).

Owen begins with a series of poems drawing on the traditions and themes of 12th-century songwriters, before delving into the modern metal scene. In both contexts, women have been marginalized despite their contributions.

Owen's best poems match metal's intensity, detailing desires to "mount one's own tall / throne of hate and spit on the minion throngs whose lusts / and loathings sound the same from such perfect distances."

Describing metal fans as "raw birds, eyes banged out of their heads," Owen's loving scorn allows her to walk a fine line between paying homage to the subculture and dissecting its darkness.

-- -- --

North Vancouver's Michael Hetherington has produced The Archive Carpet (Passfield, 144 pages, $20) from fragments of fiction. These fragments resembles prose poems more than fast fictions, but are sometimes just odd advice: "Don't ever criticize a mermaid."

Hetherington's best fragments suggest grand, complex worlds. "Elsbeth was not enjoying the story. But she had no choice, because it was the only story. After a year with no change, she insisted on another story, but the committee denied her request."

In other fragments, the suggestiveness is more realistic, and sinister: "I felt her fingers. They were warm and she didn't wake up. I felt her throat."

-- -- --

New York's Frederick Seidel is one of the U.S.'s most strange and troubling poets, and Nice Weather (Anansi, 104 pages, $20) finds him in top form. Which is sometimes terrible form, since Seidel has an odd penchant for writing badly on purpose, using excessive and awkward rhymes, provoking with sexist or racist statements, and being banal. He does it all with forethought: "You know the poems. It's an experience. / The way Shylock is a Shakespearience."

Seidel has forged a mystifying and unique style that can be loved or loathed from page to page. "I ride the cosmos on my poetry Ducati," he announces one moment, in another praying "Bring back the Hindenberg please God to transport us all." It's hard to get a fix on Seidel, and he knows it: his "are crocodile tears, and completely insincere. / The poem you're reading now will eventually appear."

Whether writing strikingly well or purposely poorly, Seidel is Seidel, when other poets often seem someone else, or simply no one.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J9

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