Terror, humour vivid in verses verses

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Nancy Lee’s What Hurts Going Down (McClelland & Stewart, 84 pages, $20) explores how deeply into the fabric of social reality the threat of violence against women is woven, and how tightly this fabric wraps around their throats.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/05/2020 (867 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Nancy Lee’s What Hurts Going Down (McClelland & Stewart, 84 pages, $20) explores how deeply into the fabric of social reality the threat of violence against women is woven, and how tightly this fabric wraps around their throats.

Talking to her friend, the speaker of the first poem is asked, “Why aren’t there more girls / like us in movies?” Her response is that “there are plenty, floating / in rivers, folded in dumpsters, / naked, nameless.”

“Start a fire with women’s bodies; stack them deep for heat,” begins another poem. Lee often mines her material to excavate coal-black humour: “In this story the radioactive dinosaur / is the man, the city of Tokyo my body, / and the metro tunnel, well, you know.”

Lee’s debut poetry collection is her third book, following one of the country’s finest-ever short-story collections, Dead Girls, and her celebrated novel The Age. Lee is often described as a fearless writer, but that’s a marketing cliché. This is a fearful book, filled with clear-eyed terror.

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John Elizabeth Stintzi’s Junebat (Anansi, 88 pages, $20) tracks the book’s speaker, who emerges from a chrysalis of depression to be reborn as Junebat, a creature of unstable identity whose vulnerability and power both stem from its lack of coherent definition.

“The best way to look at a Junebat / is to look away,” offers Stintzi in an early poem. A later one states that “there’s always / a way out / of the body / who swallowed you.” The ambivalence of these statements — how they don’t settle cleanly into offering either defiance or solace — keeps poems like these lively and electric.

Ultimately, the book itself also offers its body (pages sprawling from their spine) as another Junebat of sorts, a shapeshifting creature that seems something new with each read.

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Paul Legault’s The Tower (Coach House, 96 pages, $22), rewrites and queers William Butler Yeats’s classic poetry collection of the same title, taking Yeats’s “timeless” allusions and making them timely for our pop-culture-addled age, where art acknowledges its own disposability in order to reflect on the ageless horror of mortality itself.

“Old people are like Pokémon,” offers Legault in his rewriting of Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium (the one that begins, “That is no country for old men”). “They were free once before the civil wars / they waged inside Time, which is an imaginary country / of which they’re refugees.”

“If Homer had a watch, he couldn’t look at it. / … Homer’s watch is his blind face.” Legault’s best poems seems shattered, with images that break and reform as if in a hall of cracked mirrors.

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Mary Barnes’s What Fox Knew (At Bay, 124 pages, $20) explores both past and present, meditating on how her Ojibwa ancestry informs her present-day relations to the land, the social world and her daily rituals.

Many of her most dense lines come off effortlessly: “What Fox knew / was that the people / living at the house were temporary.” Other images are more obviously crafted, but flow just as well: “My father sat on the cool veranda, / robins silenced by the noon sun, / rattler languid under the lilac.”

A beautifully designed book housing a strong set of sometimes-furious, sometimes-shy poems, What Fox Knew is a well-rounded debut collection.

Jonathan Ball’s first book, Ex Machina, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary and to celebrate it is free at www.jonathanball.com/freebook.

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