Stark realities

Poetry collections offer insight into winter's long, dark days

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As December’s dark days dwindle, end your year wrong and start next year right with this slate of depressing (but dazzling!) poetry books. Only Charlie Brown says “Good grief!” better than poetry. What better place to put your pain than in a poem?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/12/2017 (1738 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As December’s dark days dwindle, end your year wrong and start next year right with this slate of depressing (but dazzling!) poetry books. Only Charlie Brown says “Good grief!” better than poetry. What better place to put your pain than in a poem?

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“The Internet can f—k off,” writes Tara-Michelle Ziniuk in Whatever, Iceberg (Mansfield, 86 pages, $17), which nicely captures how most people feel about the internet as 2017 draws to its close.

Holly McEwan photo St. Catharines, Ont., poet Andrew McEwan’s latest collection cycles around meanings of pressure and depression.

“I don’t want to be Alice, any more than I want to be alive. Thanks again, Autocorrect.” Ziniuk walks a thin, dark line in these prose poems, which detail a relationship’s deterioration with painful precision.

“You’re over-thinking it. / A thing I’ve always wanted to say to someone else.”

These poems are in many ways a record of over-thinking, poetry itself being a strange sort of over-thinking, while also being (like today’s phones) ways to both draw oneself close to another person and reveal who you are while holding the world at bay, apart from you.

“Even though I don’t want it, / I want it in a poem,” Ziniuk writes. Elegant, funny, startling, and raw, the poems in Whatever, Iceberg are as revealing and as forbiddingly fascinating as your lover’s unlocked phone.

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Andrew McEwan’s If Pressed(BookThug, 134 pages, $18) cycles around the various meanings of pressures/depressions, from psychology to geography to meteorology.

“Self-help // is just how capitalism feels.” How, then, to know when we are helping ourselves or helping the machine? “Of the animals seen today, only the crows’ daily migration strikes the eye as symbolic. A rezoning in progress. Everything is on sale except for waterproof outerwear” — taken together with the former statements, the otherwise bland note about the lack of a sale on floodwear seems apocalyptic.

McEwan’s poems operate best when they lean towards inventory: the brilliant final poem, Review, gathers found statements about books that readers found depressing, and offers McEwan’s own best review: “Yes, this book is depressing, but in that rare beautiful way some things can be.”

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Angela Hibbs’ Control Suppress Delete (Palimpsest, 80 pages, $19) is often dark and hilarious: “You really can’t call yourself a procrastinator until you’ve left a dead body in the basement for a couple weeks.”

Just as often, it’s irreverent and stark: “On the seventh day / God worked on his Pinterest.” Note how “his” lacks a capital, but “Pinterest” doesn’t — so many of the poems here share a sense of how the social activities people engage in have more meaning than the people themselves, even as they lack capital-M Meaning in the first place.

“I become a member of a club. / Will I become a member of another club?” The question seems rhetorical; what we do now is join clubs, whose meetings we never attend.

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Rob Taylor’s “Oh Not So Great”: Poems from the Depression Project (Leaf, 80 pages, $17) was created in collaboration with two doctors and five patients diagnosed with depression, as a part of an art-science project with the aim of enhancing people’s empathy for those struggling with depression.

The poems take a clinical diagnostic tool, and the nine major symptoms of depression that it identifies, and respond to this clinical language using poetic language inspired by or drawn from the experiences (and discussions) of the five focus-group patients.

Taylor’s most affecting and adept poems remix actual quotations from the project participants inside of poetic structures and techniques. The saddest poem, perhaps, is the one that gives the book its title: “When people say, ‘So how are you?’ / really they want you to say, ‘Oh I’m great.’ / I’m sure there’s something chemical to it, but // when you say, ‘Oh not so great’ / people go, ‘I didn’t want to hear that.’ / I have been trained since I was a very young child.”

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) lives online at jonathanball.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.

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Supplied Poet Tara-Michelle Ziniuk
Whatever, Iceberg By Tara-Michelle Ziniuk Mansfield, 86 pages, $17
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