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Travesty the muse of prison poems

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/9/2014 (2149 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Frank Smith's Guantanamo (Les Figues, 158 pages, $17) is composed of appropriated language from the prison camp's verbal trials, released by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2006. Smith shapes selections into a poetic novel, an epic poem for our era, depressing in its power.

This edition is translated by Vanessa Place, a remarkable conceptual poet whose interventions here produce startling, varied effects. The text displays its own obsession with translation and writing: "the other day, soldiers confiscated / our pen. / Yet we had permission to have / this pen / in the room," a prisoner complains.

Elsewhere, we learn that "We are the interrogator, we are the interrogated. / We ask a question, we answer the question asked." The war on terror produces terror as its mirror. The poems here produce a travesty as their muse.

In Down (Coach House, 88 pages, $18), Sarah Dowling combines the repetitive nature of pop-song lyrics and the repetitive horror of what takes place in illicit public spaces.

Dowling mines and recombines the junk language that surrounds the language of popular culture, upsetting the hierarchy. As an example, Dowling corrupts and recombines the lyrics to The Temptations' My Girl: "What can make this matter. What can make me feel us. Make me feel this method."

Dowling continually turns cold conceptual exercises into emotionally crushing poems: "Tell me // are you empty I'm not just Say // yes." Here, Dowling appears to use erasure and cutting to transform some source text into a strange, desperate bid to deny one's own emptiness while demanding the exposure of another's.

Startling and powerful, Down's insistent repetitions pile upon one another to dizzying heights.

Gillian Sze's Peeling Rambutan (Gasperau, 80 pages, $20) presents a poetic travelogue, as the Canadian Sze explores her Asian roots. Although by now a Canadian cliché, Sze's approach elevates the project.

"There are nights when the tomatoes growing below my window / freeze to death and no morning is enough to save them." A lesser poet would gloss this image with some explanation of how tomatoes operate metaphorically to express the occasional impossibility of immigrant transplantation, a failure to thrive. Sze allows room for that reading but skips on. The resulting collection combines beautiful, calm meditations with a breathless urge to move on to the next experience.

Sze captures what always eludes authors of the poetic travelogue: a sense of the ephemeral nature of casual epiphanies along the journey. Beautiful and melancholy, the poems appear like "gardens... strummed to sob."

In Blind Items (Insomniac, 88 pages, $17), Dina Del Bucchia imagines celebrity encounters as a forge for the self. In this way, the traditional speaker of the lyrical poem becomes a fantasy projection of the poet.

At the same time, the poet's public self is constructed as lacking the actual "celebrity" and cultural influence aspired to by the poet and possessed by the actors, models, and musicians Del Bucchia writes about. There's a desire, often sexual, to commune with and become lost in these stars.

Del Bucchia makes it all seem simple, sexy and fun when it's really complicated, dark and sad. Her tone offers both: "My boyfriend is ignoring me. He's busy boning Pamela Anderson on the throw rug." Blind Items covers a camera in teeth.


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


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Updated on Saturday, September 27, 2014 at 8:52 AM CDT: Formatting.

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