Gary Barwin’s No TV for Woodpeckers (Buckrider/Wolsak and Wynn, 96 pages, $18) offers more of his trademark exuberance, in poems where strange, surreal imagery develops startling, affecting scenes. "I tried to board with a suitcase of blackbirds. I had forgotten the blackbirds. They scanned me, patted me down. Confiscated my blackbirds, my beaks, my wings."
Barwin’s poems are struck through with a wide-eyed wonder, and when they aren’t revelling in the sound of language or crafting crazed imaginings, they work to dig out the strangeness of the everyday: "here are a thousand photos / remember them / a universe in a jacket pocket."
"I planned to park in my usual place / but a whale became available / convenient and close," begins one poem, while another questions: "Is this poetry? Maybe. / Let me tell you how terrible the world is. / Also how beautiful. / I have longings." In four lines, Barwin manages to summarize the main themes of all poetry with a wry smile. Another fun, exciting collection from one of Canada’s most enjoyable poets.
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Allison LaSorda’s Stray (Icehouse, 62 pages, $20) offers dense, sometimes-musical lines that pack their images tightly: "Once dead we all disappoint someone. / On the highway’s gravel shoulder, / life dribbles out of bottlenecks / like a slo-mo New Year’s Eve."
LaSorda’s musicality is often evident in her sparing but strong use of rhyme: "One time, his double swayed me / south of where I’m supposed to be: / stirred into a mind’s eye levity. / I want a love that flows preternaturally." Sometimes wry and near-snark ("I want every song sung by Springsteen. / I need a boss for my home life") and at other times sad and meditative, LaSorda’s poems gleam like fine china, pristinely beautiful and stronger than they first seem.
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Douglas Barbour’s Listen. If (U of Alberta, 140 pages, $20) offers a sad statement on literature: "the way I feel now a / poet is a sad thing indeed he / has nothing to show for his efforts & / none will pay him / attention." That gap before "attention" lets you read "none will pay him" alone, and it works just as well — Barbour has a deft hand and a strong sense of how a small move like adding a few spaces, adding a line break, adding or taking a word away, can open up the poem in myriad ways.
Fractured, fragmentary lines twist and sparkle throughout the collection, with Barbour experimenting with rhythms and seeming to freeze thought in flux: "is the world still with us / at all the planet turns / beneath us impersonal."
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Michael V. Smith’s Bad Ideas (Nightwood, 96 pages, $19) presents itself as "a book of anxieties" and includes an outstanding sequence of poems concerning dreams: in which babies are blended into milkshakes for meal-burials, sex takes place in a church on the Titanic, and white terrorists trundle toward a queer couple in suburbia.
Smith’s surrealistic images often work to cover or convey a sharp sadness. In a poem about "whining" on social media, he admits: "It’s a wonder we aren’t shouting / all the time. We should be amazed / our women friends aren’t / shouting all the time. Hashtag / grateful."
These are poems brimming with pained laughs, with echoing sorrows, that hold "silence in this loneliness // loneliness / in some muscle / God’s hand / that holds everything // and lets go."
Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) lives online at JonathanBall.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.