POETRY: Poems fuelled by historical documents

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Calgary's Paul Zits debuts powerfully with Massacre Street (University of Alberta Press, 128 pages, $20), which re-tells the story of the 1885 Frog Lake Massacre though poems primarily constructed using historical documents.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/06/2013 (3453 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Calgary’s Paul Zits debuts powerfully with Massacre Street (University of Alberta Press, 128 pages, $20), which re-tells the story of the 1885 Frog Lake Massacre though poems primarily constructed using historical documents.

Zits marries poetic witness to literary montage, suggesting that we have a responsibility, even when historically removed from tragedy, to reconstruct and face its horror.

Zits also draws attention to how governments react by de-politicizing protest, in order to craft historical records that legitimate punishment. One poem reports that Mis-ta-ha-mis-qua/Big Bear “complained that the young men had been / trying to take his name from him and that they / had succeeded at last.”

The very embedding of this sentiment into a poem by the “young man” Zits suggests dark parallels between the poetic process and the bureaucratic process, and the way both have operated historically in Canada.

— — —

St. John’s author Mary Dalton offers a collection of centos in Hooking (Signal, 96 pages, $18). A cento is a poem composed by stitching together lines from other poems, and Dalton’s particular variant involves using lines taken from the same spot in the structure of the poems she plunders. Dalton thus combines the second lines from poems by Leonard Cohen, Anne Wilkinson, and P.K. Page to write that “The management / one by one stumble from their cages, / but without sound.”

Dalton “hooks” these lines into her own patterns with true craft, to form powerful, evocative sentiments: “I am like a bird that / drowned in arrows.” The notion that the words of others can express our emotions better than our own words, but best when these words become ours, lies implicitly opposed to the image of “A hand that draws nothing” from elsewhere, and thus draws nothing.

— — —

Like Zits and Dalton in his methods, but less conventional in his style, Armstrong’s Kevin McPherson Eckhoff offers Forge (Invisible, 96 pages, $15) as a crash course in experimental composition. Eckhoff’s title sequence was forged by pressing Ctrl-V on 100 public computers, crafting poems from the most recent text copied by previous users.

The resulting texts are fractured and self-reflexive: “when the soul departs from the body / self is dismantled into remnants / also called ‘sentence fragments.'”

Eckhoff’s strongest poem is the lengthy Game Show Reversed, which transcribes every sentence spoken in an early episode of Wheel of Fortune in reverse order. A silly game show based on luck more than skill thus becomes a gripping meditation on fate.

We know, as the wheel spins and contestants hope, what future awaits. Eckhoff’s best work, intelligent yet fun, produces these sorts of melancholy effects from absurd material through clever premises.

— — —

Winnipeg’s Per Brask recently published two collections, Above Palm Canyon (Fictive, 54 pages, $9) and A Spectator (Fictive, 68 pages, $13). “Ekphrasis” is the term for literary description of or commentary on a work of art, and A Spectator finds Brask a spectator of, primarily, the theatre, while the poems in Above Palm Canyon (though not technically ekphrastic) might be considered responses to the artistry of nature.

Brask is aware of how emotion and poetry are “webbed in language, in biology, and the rest / but” remains convinced that “we can stand against, we can say enough, we can say remember” in spite of this.

Brask suggests that once “we try to affix something to forever / it dies and we die (more quickly) with it,” and his best poems grapple with this problem, inherent to ekphrasis, through language play.

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) recently published The Politics of Knives (Coach House Books), which won a Manitoba Book Award.

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