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Skibsrud's poetry powered by paradox



Johanna Skibsrud

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/2/2017 (1188 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Johanna Skibsrud’s The Description of the World (Buckrider/Wolsak and Wynn, 88 pages, $18) feels both dense and light, collecting airy poems that flutter around a philosophical weightiness.

One poem imagines a poet returning to her city, having been sent away in the same manner that Plato imagines exiling poets from his perfect utopia. "It was for your own good that we sent you away," says a blind man who recognizes her, "Now everything is as it appears; you need not speak any longer in riddles or tongues."

The poet is next interrogated and assaulted. The language of the poem is simple and direct — exactly as the blind man wants it to be! — but the scene plays out somewhat surreally, and ends with the poet fleeing after having destroyed the city’s peace by not talking.

Skibsrud’s poetry is best when it enacts these sorts of paradoxes, when "eyes see sight, and know it is a wall." She manages to be both straightforward and convoluted, and her poems have a meditative, thoughtful tone.


Meaghan Strimas’s Yes or Nope (Stuart Ross/Mansfield, 64 pages, $17) often takes traumatic material and processes it through ironic filters that somehow leave in the horror, as if displaying the ability of the trauma to supersede the detached tone.

In one poem, an editor criticizes a young writer’s verbs, then they become drunk, she wakes as he is date-raping her, and later she mildly leaves. When she gets home to her own apartment, she knocks on the door. Since it’s her door, and she’s not home yet, nobody answers — a perfect summary image that is oddly comical while still being a brutally depressing way to encapsulate the trauma of the event.

Another poem reaches out to the reader in a manner that offers the act of poetry itself as a traumatic connection — as opposed to the conventional way poems are seen as positive communications through which beauty is shared.

"There are so many things I never wanted to know. And now you know, too. It’s much better this way: we have clarity. We are friends."


Rob mclennan’s A perimeter (New Star, 70 pages, $18) details the struggles of a poet "Caught, between ambition and exhaustion" — in other words, one that is also a dad.

Through fragments that mimic both the fragmentary thought processes of the new father and the tiny slivers of time he can now dedicate to writing, mclennan’s poems crash fragment against fragment in an elegy for "u((n)in)t(e)rr((u)pte)d) s(l))ee)p."

The title poem considers the "property boundary" and the lawn as a place through which to think about identity, a father’s role, and where the personal and public intersect. One of the prolific mclennan’s stronger books.


Winnipegger Carmelo Militano’s The Stone-Mason’s Notebook (Ekstasis, 66 pages, $24) is filled with striking and evocative images: "snow falls like an irrelevant argument" in one poem, while in another the speaker "remember[s] the deep inhuman sound of the sea."

Militano’s poems sometimes question their own purposes ("Can a poem eliminate my regrets") but mostly work to celebrate art’s power to connect and transform, while finding energy in the everyday. "From such stuff something is eventually made, / I said to the young woman at the till / She smiled, lowered her eyes extended her hand / Your change, sir."

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



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