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POETRY: Repurposed verse both original, apocalyptic

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/2/2015 (1991 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Don't Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something (ECW, 120 pages, $19) by Paul Vermeersch collects poems forged from foraged text or in response to other artworks. Vermeersch takes an apocalyptic tone, where "in the tangle of truth, out of the song / and empire, we sit down as if our lives were real."

At times, Vermeersch's doomed tone nears a Lovecraftian tenor: "We fear the old ones / will never return, renewed, from their hidey-holes / beyond the asteroids [...] / Relieved of ourselves, we wait for our collectors." Supernatural, science-fictional terror sparks in the poems without feeling overwrought.

The true test of poems like these, many of which are composed by erasing or composting other poems, is whether or not the trace of the originals is lost and their text reclaimed in some way that feels both original and inevitable. At their best, Vermeersch's lines reach out like a reckoning storm.

"I have to report something physically uncomfortable. / I have to compose a list," writes Aisha Sasha John in Thou (BookThug, 176 pages, $20), and the book operates like that list, a catalogue of sensation and thought. John sometimes seems to be parodying Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, with its hyperbolic bravura: "I / can do everything today. / If I wear the loveliest tights from Winners / I can bike and never be killed."

Although the poems seem loose and even rushed in places, on occasion the careful construction of John's lines is apparent. A poem seeming to collect text messages from a one-sided conversation reaches a midpoint with "[4:28:28 p.m.] asj: DO YOU HEAR ME?" The only all-caps line cleaves the poem, and the tone shifts into a melancholy repetition to turn at the end with "are you a link in the website of my butthole."

Part poem, part poem-parody, and part informal essay, the lines of John's Thou crack smart as a whip.

Shouting Your Name Down the Well (Mansfield, 168 pages, $20) by David W. McFadden collects haiku and tankas written over six decades. At their best, McFadden's poems walk a fine line between wry commentary and sad observation: "All my books are in / Boxes. It's almost time for / Me to be erased." Less successful, but still charming, are McFadden's more comical attempts: "Please God don't let me / Die one minute before I've / Spent all my money!" I suspect he wouldn't want to live one minute longer, either.

"I'm fifty and all / My old friends have died or switched / To writing fiction. / But I'm still writing poems, / Trapped in high school forever." Poetry to a high schooler is a serious business, unshackled from industry, and suggests a certain integrity as much as its opposite, wisdom as much as immaturity. McFadden is skilled at these simple, straightforward but dense lines. "Why do we worry? / We're merely leaves on a tree. / Let the tree worry."

Magpie Days (Turnstone, 100 pages, $17) by Brenda Sciberras is the Winnipeg writer's first book, and turns bleak material such as divorce and death into lighter yet weighty affairs. "Poets write poetry to remember / their youth, where they've been / question where they're going," writes Sciberras, in lines that seem to capture how she has attempted to capture these things.

"I take my refuge in poetry / weave a cocoon of change / [...] / embrace metaphor / while you wrap your arms around / Johnnie Walker." Sciberras's best moments meditate like this, on art as something that cannot stand against tragedy but still stands in its wake.


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


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Updated on Sunday, March 1, 2015 at 11:53 AM CST: Corrects quote.

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