August 15, 2020

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Boyer ponders poetry's relevance

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/4/2016 (1575 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women (Ahsahta, 94 pages, $18) proffers prose poems that blend memoir, social criticism, and thoughtful anxiety to wonder whether writing poetry is worth it, worth anything.

"I have thought the way to live was not writing […] writing is like literature is like the world of monsters is the production of culture is I hate culture it is the world of wealthy women and of men." Boyer’s subtle touches here — the word "is" before "I hate culture" (to transform this into another thing writing "is") and the absence of the a second "wealthy" (are these men also wealthy, or must a woman be wealthy to enjoy the same social status as any man?) — display her deftness throughout the book.

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When she wants, Boyer can drop subtlety and produce laugh-out-loud lines: "#motto YSRWTLO ("you shouldn’t really / want to live once")." Packed with thoughtful, complex poems, and yet breezy for all that, Boyer’s book smoulders with brilliance.

• • •

Katherine Leyton’s All the Gold Hurts My Mouth (Icehouse, 64 pages, $20) is an outstanding debut, filled with complicated yet still vivid imagery: "The trees and sky can be ripped away. / Behind them you’ll find a peacock. / When his tail opens flames eat / what is left of the picture, // including the peacock, / whose feathers are made of a lace / my grandmother gave me / on my twenty-first birthday."

A poem titled Instagram perfectly captures the social media experience: "Shame springs from nice, / a prickly beast. So you heart everything, / like a dumb bitch. And you wonder / if real ever was."

Other poems serve up more sinuous, dark imagery: "the figure of a woman, // not me exactly, / but a version, // the me that dies in the nightmare."

Leyton’s lines lift off the page to throttle you.

• • •

Vivek Shraya’s even this page is white (Arsenal Pulp, 72 pages, $13) explores and unpacks how racial identities are imposed and felt, alongside anxieties about the ability (or inability) of poetry to express this experience: "blue ink blank paper knelt over / wept over now i grasp why thirty-four / years of praying through writing / awoke no god."

Shraya’s poems continually explore a paradox, in that language operates to construct and enforce strict social categories, and so any attempts to alter those social constructs begin as a language game that one seems to lose the moment the playing begins. The poems sometimes mine and list words and phrases, or repeat lines (as scrawl on a blackboard), and otherwise meditate on how to handle language as one might handle a live grenade.

• • •

Tim Lilburn’s The Names (McClelland & Stewart, 70 pages, $19) continues the poet’s mystic engagement with the natural world through dense, allusive poems that combine biography, history, and theology.

"Everyone who thinks must shake," writes Lilburn, and The Names trembles under the weight of its ideas.

Lilburn excels at startling natural imagery, as in one poem where crows are, alternately, "bunches of sunk quills" and "dark rivets on a slow arcing bridge."

Another poem notes that a man has "a splashy / Knifeness about him" — at their best, Lilburn’s poems mix vibrant, dancing imagery with calm, cool meditativeness.

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) lives online at www.JonathanBall.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.

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