British Columbian’s stellar collection is the Riel thing

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Gregory Scofield lives in Maple Ridge, B.C., but his maternal ancestors hail from the Métis community of Kinosota here in Manitoba. Scofield reflects on this heritage in Louis: The Heretic Poems (Nightwood, 94 pages, $19), poems written mostly from the perspective of Louis Riel.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/12/2011 (3994 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Gregory Scofield lives in Maple Ridge, B.C., but his maternal ancestors hail from the Métis community of Kinosota here in Manitoba. Scofield reflects on this heritage in Louis: The Heretic Poems (Nightwood, 94 pages, $19), poems written mostly from the perspective of Louis Riel.

Scofield marries political wordplay (“give to the poor, namely to those / who are prone to drafting up / a weakened constitution”) with elegant imagery (“the rifles will be raised and / he will disappear like oranges / on Christmas morning”). Scofield’s Riel views “the prairie as a sonnet” and seems aware of how despite attempts to write his own destiny, his fate will be written by others: “I am a poet / With auburn-brown hair, // An ember of curls / The newspapers will one day // Catch.”

The Dress stands out, in which Riel reflects on his own execution: “This is my dress, / A tomb-skin of crows. / I am wearing a collar // The dead weight of rope.” A stellar collection, hypnotic and incantatory.

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Toronto native Robin Richardson’s debut collection, Grunt of the Minotaur (Insomniac, 80 pages, $17) offers lush imagery: “As if grass were wool, crickets / the cross-stitch of this kitchen window view” and one might be “Charged in the arrest // of being stone.”

The tone of the poems is mythic. A visit of condolence becomes a social battle, where “To courteously desire the deceased, / one should be dressed in silk, / be slight of word, coo, pretend to give a kiss / when sniffing the seasoned marrow.” Mythic figures such as the muses “hit the ground imploding.” Sharp words scar the pages of a bone-hewn book, where “all fall soft against the gun.”

— — —

Okanagan poet Jake Kennedy has produced a strong second collection with Apollinaire’s Speech to the War Medic (BookThug, 96 pages, $18), although it lacks the humour of his debut, The Lateral. Some exceptions occur, including the clever “Bushestina”: “Spotty and Barney are my dogs. / They like barbecues. / Once I won second place / in a grill-off. Are dogs safe? / I think so. Dogs are good. / Almost as good as golf // I said almost!”

Kennedy’s style is stark, but suggests much. “Every day they have an object, buy an object, // or have an object delivered”: deceptive in their clarity, these lines imply much about our culture’s compulsive consumerism. Kennedy can summon strong imagery when it’s warranted: “one day the bullet will grow its own skull / and reside inside it // then it will have no need for us.”

Kennedy deserves praise for writing perhaps the only good poem about American filmmaker David Lynch: “I am afraid of your sound. / I am afraid of your stains…. I am afraid of your curtains. / I am afraid of your highway.”

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Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst, a Canadian visual artist living in Australia and Sierra Leone, brings a visual eye to her debut collection, Apologetic for Joy (Goose Lane, 118 pages, $18). Unsurprisingly, her strength lies in imagery. A book becomes “a cupboard of bones,” “homesickness” becomes “a small brown bat / in my chest writing lists, tied to a taut cord,” and “Instinct / is our ancestors coughing in the room of our bodies.”

Such details are wonderful, but can lack depth. She’s better when less showy: “Faith moves mountains, I have no doubt, / but only if mountains exist.” Beginning with a cliché about faith, ending with “doubt” (which emphasizes “doubt” over “faith,” despite the statement of faith), and continuing with a fact not requiring faith adds a bizarre sense of philosophical weight and displays the speaker’s crisis.

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball’s most recent book is Clockfire, poems about plays that are impossible to produce.

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