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HILARIOUS and brilliant, Montreal-based David McGimpsey's Li'l Bastard (Coach House, 152 pages, $18) collects 128 "chubby sonnets" (16 lines rather than 14). McGimpsey scavenges through cultural junk for rusted wisdom: "If you're offered the choice of McNuggets / with a wish-granting genie and McNuggets / without a wish-granting genie, please / take the ones with the wish-granting genie."
Though silly, the line contains an odd pathos, as if the speaker once made the wrong choice. Other poems offer more pointed satire: "I'm not a stylist but I did discover one phrase / that could make anything seem insignificant — / and that phrase was 'Made in Canada.' " Although supposedly "not a stylist," McGimpsey's lines contain uncommon vigour.
At other moments, McGimpsey does not shy from buffing his poems with more classical polish: "The fire never left me, it still burns unwise." These chubby sonnets spill ingenuity over their waistbands. Like Gertrude Stein before him (or so reports McGimpsey), he "did not / just wake up knowing how to punch a zebra."
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Two stunning new translations of French-Canadian poetry, Louise Dupré's Just Like Her (Wolsak and Wynn, 96 pages, $17), translated by Erín Moure, and Louise Cotnoir's The Islands (Wolsak and Wynn, 96 pages, $17), translated by Oana Avasilichioaei, offer startling writing with vibrant ferocity.
Accomplished poets themselves, Moure and Avasilichioaei pitch themselves into the aggressive texts with confident grace.
Just Like Her offers a series of prose poems meant to serve as a playscript — by describing the emotional core of some encounter between mother and daughter, Dupré provides a psychic foundation for an imagined theatre of small gestures and words withheld. "An untapped violence lies between" the players, who "have learned our roles of loving mother and loving daughter, by rote."
So theatrical a love is fragile and fraught. By the play's end, "She will have simply brushed past us, her daughters, well hidden behind her mother mask, and we will never have seen her other face."
The Islands brims with ornate, visceral imagery: "Sandbanks emerge / With the Manes of the dead / Their memories clog / The decaying muzzles of dogs / Their ashes / Leave an earthy taste / On the lips." The poems seem to posit that, if "no man is an island" as Donne wrote, then perhaps women are the islands. "Beyond the fires' blaze, the women roam. Masked show of barbarity" — these poems offer vicious worlds, inhabitable only by these fierce women, where "carnivorous gods grow remote."
"There is in these expanses / An atavistic sorcery": these translations possess a vitality few modern collections manage.
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Kevin McPherson Eckhoff's Easy Peasy (Snare, 64 pages, $12) offers lighter fare. A B.C.-based literary mixmaster, Eckhoff combines puns, surveys, charts, X-rays, and lists. The poems of the book's first half twist instructive language into unhelpful treatises on such topics as "Installing Laminate Flooring," "How to Build a Bomb Shelter," and "Planning for the Weekend" — each set of poetic "instructions" more useless than the last.
In Your Complete and Legal Canadian Immigration Kit, Eckhoff counsels that "Our Canadian Immigration kits are the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to grzebyk your legal Canadian Visa." Such poems become meditations on how language breaks down, ends up on blocks, and accrues patinas of poetic rust.
The latter half of Easy Peasy juxtaposes odd visuals with "captions" that explain nothing. As in his previous collection, Rhapsodomancy, Eckhoff finds poetry in language's failures. He cheekily shows that poets can be experimental, intelligent, and entertaining all at once.
Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball is the author of the poetry books Ex Machina and Clockfire.