Poets in fine form despite a tough year


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As 2020 burns to ash (and not a moment too soon), let us celebrate the painstaking craft marshalled to create 10 of the best books of poetry published this year.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/12/2020 (815 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As 2020 burns to ash (and not a moment too soon), let us celebrate the painstaking craft marshalled to create 10 of the best books of poetry published this year.

Anthony Etherin’s Stray Arts (Penteract, 148 pages, $20) remains my top poetry pick of 2020, and as a result is featured elsewhere in these pages and missing from this list, which is presented alphabetically by title.

Top 10 Poetry Picks of 2020

● Canisia Lubrin’s The Dyzgraphxst (McClelland & Stewart, 168 pages, $21) presents a figure named Jejune (playing off a French word that could translate as “artless”) while examining the nature of having trying to navigate the complexities of modern political and social life in a crumbling environment.

● Gary Barwin’s For It Is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe (Wolsak & Wynn, 256 pages, $25) hosts a stunning array of some of the best poems of the wide-ranging, playful, and sometimes somber author.

● Cassandra Blanchard’s Fresh Pack of Smokes (Nightwood, 96 pages, $19) barrels immediately into breathless rushes about her time as a drug addict. A well-wrought, vicious, stark book that is precisely what Canadian poetry needs — visceral, gripping, forward-hurtling image floods.

● “Serene pinkness, no taint!” promises Louis Cabri’s Hungry Slingshots (New Star, 122 pages, $18). The collection opens with a sound poem translating “ra-vi-o-li” and various commercial objects, products, and other capitalist noise into birdsong. Throughout, Cabri runs typical Canadian poetry content through a fruit juicer for a strange slop of fun, frantic phonemes.

● 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. 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.

● 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. 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.

● Ever wonder what’s the best part about being a writer? “Being hated is just part of the job.” Amber Dawn’s My Art Is Killing Me (Arsenal Pulp, 144 pages, $18) turns offensively low offers to do writing-related work into the stuff of poetry, along with anecdotes from her past as a sex worker. Dawn’s anger flashes lightning-fast as her quick wit.

● Dennis Cooley’s The Muse Sings (At Bay Press, 154 pages, $25) takes the ancient Greek concept of the muse, a goddess who inspired poets and other artists, and filters it through a million metaphors in order to examine the nature of creativity.

● Paul Vermeersch’s Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995–2020 (ECW Press, 230 pages, $30) reimagines the “Selected” in a bold manner. Instead of arranging groups of poems chronologically, according to the collection from which they are pulled, they are instead arranging according to how they might have appeared in imaginary alternate-universe books.

● Angela Carr’s Without Ceremony (Book*hug, 90 pages, $18) offers mostly poetic series that combine powerful imagery with essayistic philosophy and memoir-like storytelling. Carr combines all these differing modes and disparate topics with ease and glamour.

Jonathan Ball’s newest book is the story collection The Lightning of Possible Storms (PossibleStorms.com).

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