Donato Mancini’s Same Diff (Talonbooks, 142 pages, $17), recently shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, consists "more or less more less or / more less or more less or more or less" of language variations. Words cycle through various combinations or poems collect certain types of phrase, or particular quotations around a precise theme.
One affecting poem consists of "answers to the question ‘Where in your body do you feel grief, anxiety, and/or depression?’" Responses range from "in my feet, they become cold" to "in my muscles, something like worms living in my body, crawling at times to different parts of my body."
Another poem collects quotations from prison and poverty memoirs, which describe attempts to have one’s soup ration scooped from the "bottom of the pot" where it’s thickest.
Another compiles translations of a single line of poetry asking "where is the last year’s snow?"
While experimental poetry is often derided for seeming obscure and emotionless, Mancini proves that this straw-man caricature of experimental work needs to be overthrown. Nothing could be clearer, more easy to understand or more affecting than these simple, procedural poems. An outstanding collection.
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Robin Richardson’s Sit How You Want (Signal, 78 pages, $18) centres on the intermixes of power and sex that play out in toxic relationships, whether on their surfaces or in their depths.
"He gave me / everything I thought I needed. Everything, he said, so long / as I stay faithful. I will stay faithful. Meant it too but wolves / one feeds are still wolves and his beard keeps getting bluer." Bluebeard, we must remember, murdered his wives.
The phrase "Meant it too" has a wonderful ambiguity: does "He" mean to fulfil his promise to provide, or does the speaker mean to stay faithful? Both?
"Meant it" implies a promise broken, in either case — and a violence following, as well as the violence inherent in the promise itself.
Richardson excels at these subtle, sharp moments that cut two ways. Essential reading in our world where "wars / are so damn civilized these days."
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Patrick Friesen’s Songen (Mother Tongue, 98 pages, $20) contains one-sentence poems in which commas offer pauses and lifts inside the lines.
Friesen has long been known for his long, breathy lines; and like his early books, there is a musicality and a rhythm to the language that makes them either casual, commanding or cinematic.
At times, Friesen manages all three: "oh gleno … / … that moment in a cinema, / the lights dimming, when you turned and / thanked me for your grandkids, for keeping / them in touch with you, and you not much / short of death, then we watched that movie / of betrayal."
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Cameron Anstee’s Book of Annotations (Invisible, 86 pages, $17) collects haiku-like short poems that manage to be painterly despite (or perhaps because of) their minimalism: "now here light leafs small small lines."
"in the room // sound // from outside the room" lacks so much information that it’s somehow deafening — there’s a sense of threat here, of impending terror, even though everything’s stripped down to less than the basics.
Anstee’s poems work best when they isolate something that might otherwise pass unnoticed, as in a poem that offers as a song’s "First Movement" that moment when "in (near) unison / the choir turns / to page one."
Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball
(@jonathanballcom) lives online at jonathanball.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.