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This article was published 23/3/2012 (2822 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Franzlations: the imaginary Kafka parables (New Star, 104 pages, $19), co-written by Gary Barwin, Craig Conley, and Hugh Thomas, imagines new parables in the style of those crafted by Franz Kafka. Often reworking Kafka's own prose poems, or incorporating biographical information (e.g., how Kafka is credited with inventing the safety helmet), these "Franzlations" attempt to imagine "The set of all possible Kafkas."
Some pieces reward mainly those versed in Kafka's work. "What would make a crow into a Castle?" assumes the reader's knowledge of both his unfinished novel The Castle and his parable about how crows might destroy heaven. However, the book should still delight those unfamiliar with Kafka. Anyone can enjoy the comic beauty and bitter irony on offer in this exceptional, imaginative book: "Do not despair. There are red party balloons everywhere, especially in the future."
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Dennis Lee's previous books, Un and Yesno, are combined and revised in Testament (Anansi, 136 pages, $20). Toronto's Lee offers a dark, disturbing series of poems mediating on ecological disaster. Splicing together words in the manner of poet Paul Celan, Lee enacts language's failure to grasp the world, even as he celebrates its beautiful potential. Lines like "I want verbs of a slagscape thrombosis. / Syntax of chromosome pileups" gesture towards just such a syntax, even as its banal verb "want" displays the failure to fully achieve this mad dream.
At its heart an elegy for a disappearing planet, lamenting that "So much is gone, so much is / set to go," the poems also stand as a testament to ingenuity, thus offering possible hope. "Godloss once was a time, but now the / times devolve in the timeless mind of Mickey"—such lines have many possible, potential meanings, from more obvious critiques of the political landscape as a corporatized Disneyland to a mixed response (regret or elation?) in the face of the death of God. The only certainty, perhaps, is the power of this stellar achievement.
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Gerald Beirne, formerly of Winnipeg, combines his interests in science and art to produce Games of Chance: A Gambler's Manual (Oberon, 110 pages, $19). The poems resemble, at times, mathematical proofs: if "the poet x is a harbinger of the truth / the poet y is nothing but a brute" then imagine the permutations. At other times, Beirne plays with the sound and sense of mathematic or scientific language: "simple sounds / intricate with meaning // tangent, locus, vertex, / asymptote, focus, directrix / eccentricity."
In one poem, Lot's wife describes her transformation into a pillar of salt with scientific detachment: "Think of it in this light / a live bare cable clicking for attention. // The parched creacking of rock-salt / in the sun-scorched air / like an electric fault." Beirne writes for those who despair at how disengaged from other realms of knowledge poetry can sometimes seem.
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A Woman Clothed in Words collects previously unpublished work by the late Anne Szumigalski, selected and edited by Mark Abley (Coteau, 164 pages, $17). Szumigalski lived in Saskatoon, and remains a major figure in prairie poetry. An untitled poem here serves as something of a defiant, posthumous prayer: "I will cheat you rock and inside / skeleton of earth / with potent berries and mushrooms / my bones will melt / and when at last / I go down into the dirt / I shall be crumbled loam / and a mulch of skin / and leafy hair."
This collection will best serve those already familiar with Szumigalski's work, who want a greater sense of the scope of her literary engagements. Fragments from a Beckettian play "to be performed in water—somehow" and her drafts towards an unrealized novel, A State of Grace, display incredible promise. That incomplete novel contains many stunning, poetic turns of phrase, and reads well even in this rough form: "Suppose that a wind sprung up and blew his words back into his mouth? But there is no wind and he must go until the end."
Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball's most recent book is Clockfire, poems about plays that are impossible to produce.