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POETRY: McGimpsey riffs on Canadian clichés

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/5/2015 (1902 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

David McGimpsey's Asbestos Heights (Coach House, 96 pages, $18) tackles the canonical clichés of Canadian poetry. Packed with wisdom, the poems note that "Life in Canada is just bear attack / after bear attack" and wonder "Why even live in Canada if moose / never destroy the tasteful apartments / of hipsters playing the accordion?"

At his best, McGimpsey distracts with a joke, then breaks the reader's legs. "I cry when I listen to those country songs / written at the height of the Iraq War:" at a glance, this seems like a snide disparagement.

However, he clarifies: "I mean, those are the only things that ever / move me to tears now that my friends are gone." While it's possible to take that ironically, it's better to take it straight, as a retort to classist critiques of those same country songs. A taking-seriously that might have driven away his snobbish friends.

McGimpsey writes perfect poems that manage irony and sincerity in the same breath.

Marilyn Dumont's The Pemmican Eaters (ECW, 70 pages, $19) takes its title from John A. Macdonald's name for the Métis, and ranges from taking on historical figures like Macdonald (one of many "settlers who wouldn't settle") to modern conflicts between the nation and First Nations.

Dumont's topics range from traditional beadwork to historical figures like (her blood relation) Gabriel Dumont, who was Louis Riel's general in the 1885 rebellion. At the same time, Dumont writes of her modern-day struggle to grasp these very things through her research and writing, drawing a host of connections between the struggles of the early Métis and the continuing struggles of Canada's aboriginal communities.

Dumont wants to know "where did this taste for counting begin ... / long conjuring 'empty' land into property / the long root of capitalism?" The answer to such questions lies as much in the present as the past, and Dumont's poems range throughout history rather than working to recapture some moment.

Rita Wong's undercurrent (Nightwood, 96 pages, $19) contemplates the ecological disasters now "scarring the earth / scaring the unborn who hover, wondering what meets them." Wong's poems focus on the ongoing devastation in "a haunted house called canada" but consider the environmental impact of water pollution worldwide.

"Water gives us life. What do we give back to water?" writes Wong, blending poems with diaristic entries and circling this question. The hope, if there is hope, is that some strategy "might avert our own disposal."

For Wong, any such strategy must begin with poetic attention, a re-seeing of the world.

Pearl Pirie's the pet radish, shrunken (BookThug, 96 pages, $18) insists, at one point, "before you write your next poem, ask yourself / can you distinguish // between a poem & a complaint? you call this / a poem but it is a complaint."

Pirie's poems are protean that way, shifting and blurring. These are poems for an age of media that compete with poems, where "the serenading tv & computer screens sing / bombs, toss some open threats & insomnia aids." They flit to express flickering identities, flail to capture relationships.

"I opened the trunk & saw / that against my wishes you are / again keeping river trout / in the basement of our car." Sounds like marriage to me. Pirie's produced a poetry of pixels, of images that flash once then are gone.


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


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