Toronto's Andrew McEwan presents an accomplished and original debut in Repeater (BookThug, 96 pages, $18). Drawing on the language of computer programming, McEwan translates each letter of the alphabet into the ones and zeroes of binary code, using the number strings as a formal constraint. McEwan also produces poetic appendices to this 26-page poem.
The resulting lines provide a philosophical take on poetry in the digital age. This "poem with computer's rhyme etched as palimpsest" admits that "we shall not succeed in encoding the world" and yet notices deep correlations: "when children create is it through removal or affixation," the poem asks.
Lines like "to build a computer of poems, lied the computer" speak to the uncertainty of our relationships to code, and its generative potential for self-organized permutations. The title poem, "repeater," reads like two entwined poems, gene-spliced to produce strange new monsters.
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Manitoba's Sarah Klassen returns with Monstrance (Turnstone, 118 pages, $17). "The poem is this moment," writes Klassen, and these poems constitute, often explicitly, minor meditations or prayers on topics from faith to nature to art.
Klassen has the ability to move from a simple observation ("Our neighbours have painted their front door / deeply purple") to wide-ranging considerations (tracing "purple" itself, from flowers to the flogging of Jesus to television reports on Rwanda) without appearing overwrought — although at times, as with that word "deeply," she overstretches.
In other poems, Klassen's emotions might range — "this dear dear planet our only / earthly home so beautiful so utterly unsafe" — but condense powerfully in a clear image: "a bedraggled sparrow / twitters in the lilac bush ... / cold winds are blowing / blowing / who / will shelter us."
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Toronto's Lise Downe twists lines expertly in This Way (BookThug, 84 pages, $18). When she writes, "Unsure whether the receding waves," the line seems incomplete (whether the waves what?) but the careful reader will notice that "the receding" could function as the phrase's actor, as if personified and (possibly) waving.
Elsewhere, Downe's syntax is more conventional but the imagery exceptional: "Folded arms on the balcony of shivers" has an almost mythic power. Downe's best poems produce enough shivers to have been written on that balcony.
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Toronto's Moez Surani returns with Floating Life (Wolsak and Wynn, 96 pages, $17). Surani's work has a sense of intimacy, as if he truly is "Trying to write out this life / pushing for clarity." However, he is at his best when making blank observations that produce more emotion than they should.
When reading, life feels outside, writes the poet, but Surani refuses to fall back on that cliché, reversing with the sense that when "outside" life also eludes, as if truly in books. The conclusion, "I can never / find life," is both cold logic and crushing lament.
Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball's new book, The Politics of Knives (Coach House Books), launches at McNally Robinson on Sept. 11.