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Norse tales crackle with vitality and energy

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/1/2015 (1850 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Poetic Edda (Coach House, 280 pages, $24), translated by Jeramy Dodds, is a major achievement.

Dodds, an award-winning poet and editor, holds a master's degree in medieval Icelandic studies. His translation of these tales of Norse gods and heroes crackles with energy and vitality, avoiding the formal tone that plagues similar projects in favour of bawdy, lively lines.

The poems of the Edda drift from raucous insult-contests to sage (yet often hilarious) advice, from tales of heroes slaying and slain to sombre meditations on death and war: "Cattle die, kinsmen die, / you yourself will die. / Yet I know what never dies: / the judgement given to the dead."

In one poem a disguised Odin engages in a knowledge game, pulling prophecy from Vafthrudnir by pretending to know it already. He reveals himself through his final challenge: "what did Odin whisper in Baldr's ear / before he was laid on his pyre?"

Vafthrudnir's reply: "No one know what you whispered / into your son's ear in those days long gone." The revelation's melancholy surprise is what gives poems like these their power.

Janey's Arcadia (Coach House, 136 pages, $18) by Rachel Zolf, focuses on Manitoba (where her family settled) and the troubled historical relationships between its aboriginal and settler populations. Many of Zolf's poems result from blending ignorant comments from both modern and historical source texts, garbled by OCR technology, to produce brutal, violent metaphors for cultural misreading.

"With a minimum of means we / get a maximum of expression." These lines encapsulate Zolf's technique, but also pinpoint the problem itself. The settler population makes minimal effort to commune with the aboriginal population it has displaced, producing maximal harm.

Zolf's inclusion of the handwritten names of many missing and murdered aboriginal women that have received a great deal of attention of late similarly displays the horrific outcome of continuing in our current trajectory, of these cultures misreading each other.

The title of Ken Babstock's On Malice (Coach House, 96 pages, $18) places the book in a tradition of philosophical investigation, and the poetic sequences seem more fragmentary and aphoristic than Babstock's earlier, Griffin Prize-winning work.

"I am practising dead songs and / then they will be printed and / we'll get Heaven — get money." The poems circle death, language, commerce and transcendence as if all were manifestations of malice, our constructed world a trap designed to kill our souls.

"Please come here. Please. I played with a dream / in a mirror and many many thousands / of birds // which are not real. Are not here. / I don't like it here anymore." Babstock has taken on a series of substantial poetic challenges, moving some distance from the place of the poems he had mastered and emerging victorious.

Shane Book's Congotronic (Anansi, 70 pages, $20) borrows a variety of techniques from sound and cinema art. Take Mack Daddy Manifesto, which remixes Marx and Engels's The Communist Manifesto and Freud's The Ego and the Id with more modern fare: "Baby got back!"

He blends slave narratives, plantation diaries and rap lyrics. His collages display the chaotic interconnectedness of it all: "Afrogothic. Out / from a giant growth comes a noise. Out from / a pustular growth come a hanging." Out of the compost of the nightmare of history comes Congotronic.


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


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Updated on Saturday, January 24, 2015 at 8:14 AM CST: Formatting, adds book jacket.

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