Nature poetry ponders atomic age

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/06/2020 (783 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of atomic bombs being dropped on Japan, and Ken Hunt’s The Manhattan Project (University of Calgary Press, 122 pages, $19) explores what critic Joyelle McSweeney calls the “necropastoral.” Hunt connects to a tradition of nature poetry while envisioning the end of all life in the nuclear age.

“Beyond the fields, and beyond / the meadows and the tree line, in the heart // of the Red Forest, a troupe of hairless faeries / guard a hidden glade. They […] protect the tree of death, whose / twisting branches sag with tumorous fruits, their // skins encrusted with heavy metals, their seeds / aglow and showing through.”

Hunt has quietly offered three of Canada’s best poetry books in the past three years, and The Manhattan Project combines a rigorous style with a dark, serpentine subject.

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Angeline Schellenberg’s Fields of Light and Stone (University of Alberta Press, 94 pages, $20) sifts through love letters, sermon notes, material and memories inherited from the poet’s Mennonite grandparents.

“Grandpa’s spirit came to me at night / and took me to Burger King. // He said, I have to go into the ground / but I’ve found // God’s house has many rooms / warm as a husk.” The final word, husk, is a brilliant choice here and offers a strange and hard-to-read set of possibilities.

Is its warmth fading, having been left over from whatever this husk housed? Or is the husk itself something that has life left in it, contrary to how we usually use the word? Schellenberg’s best poems don’t offer easy answers, and do a good job of letting the question lie.

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Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry (Arsenal Pulp, 204 pages, $20), edited by Amber Dawn and Justin Ducharme, collects poems that range from conventional confessions to experimental scripts.

Co-editor Ducharme writes, “sex fills me up & love reminds me / it’s okay to be empty.” This tension between connection and disconnection threads throughout the poems, sometimes when a poem’s speaker is considering their own dis/connection from the wider social world that stigmatizes sex work, sometimes when thinking through one’s own bodily dis/connection.

Whether raging against unjust oppression or simply trying to heal, the poems work best when they hold onto that sort of tension without resolving it. Melodie Nelson’s poem offers an example of how two extremes can sit oddly in the space of the same poem: “A man raped me because I was not his doll. […] Fireman are called when I make cookies and it’s fine.”

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Claire Caldwell’s Gold Rush (Invisible Publishing, 72 pages, $18) “explores what it means to be a settler woman in the wilderness.” Caldwell attacks the thorny subject from odd angles with surreal imagery: “I contain a canyon / of roaring horses / and a small tent / for rest.”

Late in the book, Caldwell manages a feat many poets attempt and few achieve: making pop culture imagery actually work to emotional affect. “Except through infrared, / infants went unseen for eighteen months. / Geese flew in HTML formation, / … / The sky was a scarlet podcast.”

Caldwell’s always adept at fun but exact imagery: “Sometimes the day / is a dead trout / and night slams over it / like a cooler’s lid.” Who hasn’t had one of those days?

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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