Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ongoing notes: late April, 2014



April is poetry month! (You mean we’re still doing that? Yes, yes, yes.)


What else? Oh, I’ve been working on copy-edits for my second collection of essays, out sometime in May or June with Insomniac Press. Admittedly, working on copy-edits is my least favourite part of the process of book-making, but there you go. Looking forward to seeing the final book in a few weeks.

And poems. There are starting to be poems again. Do you remember poems?

Seattle WA: I’ve long been a fan of the poetry of American poet Sarah Mangold, even to the point of issuing and/or reissuing a chapbook or two of hers over the past couple of years, so can’t help but get excited at the appearance of THE GODDESS CAN BE RECOGNIZED BY HER STEP (Dusie, February 2014). An extended lyric sequence of eleven pages, she seems to favour the accumulation of inquisitive lines and phrases that collect into a kind of chapbook-sized quilt. I very much like the way she brings a quirky narrative thread through seemingly-disconnected phrases, managing something subtle and delightful through various small collisions. As she writes: “Plunged you down plunged // down by one minor detail // I would have liked to // imitate a certain kind of // writing Device is everything[.]” She has a poetry collection perpetually-forthcoming with Furniture Press that I am hoping sees the light of day soon.

What is it that makes everyone want a child these days

                        Who is this everybody


                            To call ourselves outsiders is a kind of lie


Sometimes we are forced into this location

                        Sometimes we choose to inhabit it


Normalized

            And comfortable


                        Our companion monsters

                        Paws on keyboards

Fredericton NB: I can’t remember the last time I saw a trade collection from Fredericton poet matt robinson, so the appearance of his a fistmade and then made (Gaspereau Press, 2013), produced as #27 of Gaspereau’s “Devil’s Whim” chapbook series, is worth noting. According to his website, his last trade poetry title was Against the Hard Angle (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2010), which doesn’t seem that long ago. The ten poems that make up robinson’s a fist made and then made continue his blend of formal lyric, descriptive sketch and open-ended accumulation (as well as his continuing subject matter of sports, which appears far less often as the subject matter in really strong Canadian poems than you might think). The poems might be short, but they’re packed with a descriptive patter rich to the point of appearing as a multitude.

february afternoon, near tampa


unsteady – not quite anxious – from the limp of this
deck furniture’s scuff-addled vantage, this small, prefab
balcony’s whitewashed aluminum rails: strobe-frames the inflatable beach
slide’s flaccid blue end-of-day posturing – captures everything
here, uneasy; collapsing; folding in, on itself. and there
is near nothing as far as wave action goes; the water sleepily-dimpled,
the gulf a sun-soaked newsprint facsimile of overworked levi’s.
afternoon’s now a breezy, disinterested sigh; nameless
near palms struggle to grab the air’s pay. checked, the view’s a strip-mall
waffle house, segmented and greasy; you can’t un-stick your eyes’
thick lids for all the air’s syrup. the beer’s not quite warm.
            this, it would seem, is america. you sit here. you lounge
in a favourite shirt worn and washed once too often –
the seams ready to give, but no one’s willing to water, just now, on
quite how.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Joshua Marie Wilkinson, The Courier’s Archive & hymnal



Tonight just opened its door. Your stranger steps in with a head of worries: saying, I have no feeling in my hands, my face. The last brother, the moon’s ditch. We sketched the map out together with red tea. I held my hand open for him to practice the lines on.

Sorry I know you less than the ice does.

Mr. Matta-Clark, dawn sniffs through an oval, mooring the joists. Which are the tools for chronicling what you sawed through? Drywall in an elbow crease, scraped free with sink water.

A hole smeared into the boathouse floor. I startle the gull-laden ocean into beams.

I’m curious about the construction of Tuscon, Arizona poet and filmmaker Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s No Volta pentalogy, the third of which is newly out: The Courier’s Archive & hymnal (Portland OR/San Francisco CA: Sidebrow Books, 2014). Each of the three books in the project so far—the first two being Selenography (Sidebrow Books, 2010) and Swamp Isthmus (Boston MA/New York NY/Chicago IL: Black Ocean, 2013)—are constructed out of an accumulation of sections, each in turn constructed out of a sequence of untitled fragments. One begins to wonder: is the structure of the book unit deliberate, or perhaps more of an arbitrary one? It’s as though his projected pentalogy might simply a matter of breaking down a far larger project into publishable units than specifically worked out of five individual works: might the entire project of accumulated sections eventually appear, even a decade or two down the road, as a single publication, perhaps some five hundred pages in size? It’s an interesting question, certainly. The Courier’s Archive & hymnal is made up of four poem-sections: “Day for Night for Night,” “In the Trade of Alive Letters Mis-sent,” “The Dogs” and “fortnight’s Insignia.” What has always attracted me to Wilkinson’s poetry is in the disparate narratives that are suggested through a hodgepodge of phrases, sentences and sections that somehow mesh together into something that bonds into a much larger, layered structure.





She repeats egress & ingress over the lobby scuffle.

The bellhop’s wrist was bandaged with napkins.

The elevator goes up for a long time before returning with nobody.

A ridge of pollen drawn clean into the vent. Trail of gumdrops shows our courier where went a friend.

The bats follow you to the tavern & wait outside on your bicycle until the tenth inning.

Rain rocks the dead.

Curtain, I say: please come down now.

In his “Or: A Hollow Little Nimbus of Grime: How I Made Certain of My Poems,” composed for the “Why Write?” series for Green Mountains Review (posted June 22, 2013), Wilkinson speaks of his recent compositional and thought processes, writing that “I don’t see writing as expressing something that’s already inside me. Instead, maybe it’s to find words for what’s unworkable and thereby feel out the textures of that gap.” In order, he sketches out a bit of the structure of the individual No Volta books:

In my book Selenography, I tried to see how far I could strip a lyric poem back to minimal elements, but still retain character and setting and get glimpses of story churning hard. Tim Rutili’s beautiful polaroids helped me to locate the world of the poem, but also gave me a set of metonyms away from which I could push and they helped me to build up the tension of resistance, of counterpoint, of dissonance.

I cut it all up into strips, laid it out over my big table, and rearranged the scraps with Tim’s pictures. It probably didn’t look much like writing; it might’ve looked more like collaging or watching or arranging or just waiting. With coffee and music on, mumbling and pacing around it, learning the texture of its speech, getting to know its ghosts.

With Swamp Isthmus [see my review of such here], I worked to tease some lyric utterances back through whatever I’d polished out of Selenography [see my review of such here]. And looking back at it (how would I have known then, really?), I was working to expand those landscapes through apostrophe, circuit of address, leaps, and questions.

I love a kind of broken, alive syntax. I love grammar haunted with multiple levels of speech, whose context leaves us uncertain but whose force seems immediate. I love it when the dead speak, and I love talking right back to them, with them. Maybe a poem is a conjuring. And if it’s any good, it frightens us through recognition or just awe. I like it when a poem has the residue of other lives, other failings, other mysteries and plumbed encounters from without.

The prose sentence—and the prose fragment as well—were the units of composition in The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal. I wanted to see if I could write in the shadow of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep Interior (as many before me have done), but to deploy this skeining, gothic, overly descriptive syntax. I missed punctuation (Swamp Isthmus left it behind), so I brought that back, too.

I think I was hoping to overhear these long kinds of uttered sentences and questions, descriptions and tales. There are endless setting details throughout Courier’s that just confound me, but I get drawn in to the overblown half-world it unfolds, while the messenger girl threads the landscapes, making her deliveries. So, that book begins with a morphing of Diogenes’s “I have come to debase the coinage” and sort of takes it from there into the weird woods, through Jean Epstein’s Le Tempestaire, and back out of the pre-apocalyptic Chicago, Ankara, and Trabzon of my dream life.

Given his pre-pentalogy works—Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms (Portland, OR: Pinball Publishing, 2005), Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk (Iowa City IO: University of Iowa Press, 2006) and The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth (North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2009), as well as the collaborative Figures for a Darkroom Voice (Saxtons River, VT: Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2007) with Noah Eli Gordon and artwork by Noah Saterstrom—it would appear that this larger project works at a conscious exploration of dismantling lyric meaning and narrative into a kind of amorphous, non-linear collage. Throughout his work, Wilkinson has been immersed in the possibilities of the extended lyric poem, the fragment and a deeply evocative and descriptive collage, and the No Volta project, on the whole, seems to be his attempts to take all of these ideas further, breaking down the possibilities of what the fragment can achieve, even within a structure that can’t help but be held in a linear narrative.

But in the moments of composition, it feels more like a physical need: to talk through the written words, to speak them aloud, to hear it quaver awkwardly in the voice, to scribble them out with a ballpoint pen. To inscribe and cross out; to converse and wonder; to find a name for something resistant to language; to connect and slash; to make up and lie and alter; and to sing an awkward song with a pen in your hand, muttering it out, pretending you know who you are while you’re saying what you’re finding words for, while what’s eluding you is also resurfacing new.

He then goes on to write of the two final books in the project:

The break for me was with a book called Meadow Slasher. I’d begun to write through what I would have otherwise arrived at later, from a more comfortable or safer distance. I needed another compositional practice to steady me, even to locate me, because I was coming apart after a really hard break up. I wrote the bulk of that book in a couple of days, and then worked and reworked it between Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco. I charted a spectrum of feeling previously unavailable to me in my writing life, namely: shame, dread, rage, perplexity, humiliation, and loss—but also vindictiveness and taunting invective juxtaposing playfulness and exuberance, right alongside curiosity and unknowing—and so on.

Not that I knew it then. It just came out in the voices of stark interrogatives. Andrew Marvell’s extraordinary Mower Poems helped guide me (lines from each of them appear throughout), and I obsessed over the violence in Leadbelly’s own life versus the beauty and playful gravity of his songs. (Catullus helped also.) Meadow Slasher marked a chasm between what I’d written before it.

So, with Shimoda’s Tavern, the final book in the pentalogy, the question was, how do you come home when all your compositional practices have been obliterated? When he arrived in Tucson, shortly after I did, I kept asking my friend, the poet Brandon Shimoda, how should it end? And he’d say this way or that way or out to the ocean or into the belly of the mountain, and so on; so, No Volta just ends in his tavern instead. Which seemed like a fine enough place to close out a long poem.

I’m more and more skeptical of what’s gettable and knowable and broadly accessible. And I’m increasingly moved by what eludes and enchants and frustrates and divulges itself differently, in unseen methods and flashes. A poem’s singularity and its otherness remain intact. Like any piece of art, a poem that moves us retains its inassimilability.

To construct these five titles as a single project (as opposed to simply allowing them to exist on their own as part of a trajectory of individual titles) suggests a break from what he has previously produced in his other works, and provide some incredible moments and connections. Even in his own words, the No Volta project is very much about him tearing apart, disassembling and reassembling how he constructs the poetic line, and not only honing his own craft, but altering it irrevocably. This certainly allows him a variety of freedoms, but leads to the question of his post-No Volta works: just what will he do once this project is finally complete?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Six Questions with Jenna Butler: 2014 Raymond Souster Award Shortlist

From early April to early June, I’m featuring short interviews with the authors of the six shortlisted titles for each of the three awards run through The League of Canadian Poets – the Raymond Souster Award, the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Pat Lowther Award. Today’s feature is Edmonton poet, editor and publisher Jenna Butler, whose book Seldom Seen Road (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2013) is on the shortlist for 2014 Raymond Souster Award. See my previous interview with 2014 Raymond Souster Award shortlisted author Anne Compton here. The winners to all three awards will be announced on Saturday, June 7, 2014 at The League of Canadian Poets 2014 Annual General Meeting in Toronto.

Jenna Butler is the author of three books of poetry, Seldom Seen Road (NeWest Press, 2013), Wells (University of Alberta Press, 2012), and Aphelion (NeWest Press, 2010), in addition to the upcoming collection of essays On the Grizzly Trail (Wolsak and Wynn, 2015). Butler teaches Literature and Creative Writing at MacEwan University and the University of Alberta in Edmonton during the school year, where she is also the Writer in Residence for the Canadian Authors Association. In the summer, she and her husband live with three resident moose and a den of coyotes on a small organic farm in Alberta’s north country.

1. seldom seen road is your third trade collection of poetry, after Aphelion (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2010) and Wells (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2012). After three trade books over the space of nearly half a decade, how do you feel your concerns as a writer have developed? How do you feel the work, and even the process of writing, has evolved?
I think it’s always evolving, partly out of the desire to create something new each time, and partly because writers are pretty omnivorous, aren’t we—we enjoy many styles and subject areas, and we’re forever tweaking our craft.

As a writer, ecocritic, and small-scale farmer, I find myself becoming more and more vocal about the interfaces between the manmade and the natural. This manifests itself in an evolving desire to use poetry in a way that explores/exploits technology to get its message across. I’m also starting to branch out into other genres to explore these boundaries; my new collection of essays, somewhat akin to Brian Brett’s Trauma Farm (which I adore), looks at what it’s like to live close to the land on an organic, off-grid northern small farm surrounded by Big Ag. If you’ve read Eric Brende’s Better Off (I truly can’t recommend it enough), you’ll recall his point that we’re at a technological tipping point in the West, struggling to define how much technology aids in our daily lives and how much is just too much. And somewhere under all of that is the land and what we’re doing to it.

I guess I’m finding that three or four books in, I have a bit of a better sense of where I want to go as a writer. People say “Oh, landscape poetry, that’s so done,” but that’s rather a tired and urban way of looking at it. Maybe sometimes you really do need to go out into the woods to understand what they mean and, equally, what is meant by their loss. There’s nothing more enduring and encompassing and troubling than our various landscapes, and I do think it’s vital to keep engaging with them and the ways in which they collide with an increasingly technological world.

2. Who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
I always come back to Phyllis Webb, especially her Naked Poems and Water and Light. But there are many, among them John Newlove, Di Brandt, and Lorine Niedecker, so connected to landscape. In terms of breath and play, I have a deep fondness for Denise Riley’s Mop Mop Georgette. Newly, Traci Brimhall offers a lovely, steel-riddled sort of beauty.

I also read the work of my contemporaries, poets I respect and admire. Seeing their ability and success really fills me with excitement about craft. I’m speaking of people like Catherine Owen, both in her essays and poetry on ecology and grief; Marita Dachsel’s polyphonous Glossolalia; Liz Berry’s incredible work in dialect over in the UK; and many, many more.

3. You’ve lived in Edmonton for quite some time, and I’m curious as to how the community of writers around you, as well as the landscape of Alberta, have contributed to your work. Do you think you might have been a different kind of writer had you lived in another part of the country? How did your time in the UK contribute to your writing? Do you see your work as predominantly influenced by Canadian writers and writing with a bit of a British twist, or more of a blending of the two?

Yes, I’ve been in Edmonton for close to thirty years now, and so have had the privilege of growing up around/amidst this community of writers. Many who were mentors are now colleagues, and that’s a fantastic transition, though a bit fraught in its own way.

What I’ve learned in Edmonton is this do-anything mentality in the arts. It’s one of the best places I know in Canada for all the arts, and there’s definitely a sense of “just go ahead and try it” out here. This is very true of poetry. Yes, there are particular reading series that cater to the tastes or styles of particular groups, but you’ll always find spoken word artists going to university poetry talks and vice versa. There’s a really interesting sort of cross-pollination that goes on in this province.

The landscape, too, has certainly marked me as a writer. As someone from “away,” who comes from a very mixed background and carries multiple homes (as so many of us do), Alberta has given me the chance to bring my respect for the land and its stories home to roost. The off-grid organic farm I run with my husband north of Edmonton is the most tangible link I have to the landscape; that desire to work with the land in a low-impact way, to protect some of the boreal forest and to learn the stories of an area right down to the ground.

I’m sure I’d have been a different sort of writer if I had landed anywhere else. And I have lived many other places for various periods of time, but I always come back—there’s something about Alberta that I just can’t leave behind.

My time in the UK made me more sensitive to the exceptional range of writing styles developing there under the pressure of being in a very compact space; I found the literary politics sometimes quite intense, but always energizing. I certainly see myself as influenced by Canadian writers and the land first, and after that, as possessing an awareness of British writing. I feel fortunate to be able to write into/toward that particular dialogue, but at the same time, I relish the ability to play that we have over here in Canada.

4. One aspect of your writing I’ve always admired is how aware you are of the space of the page. I know of your influence by poets such as Douglas Barbour, and can see a bit of an influence there, but I wonder, is your line and spacing influenced by the breath, by the physical space on the page, or both? When composing, is yours a physical or performative space?
Thank you, that’s very kind. I would say both, certainly. I’m always trying to balance the visual effect of the poem on the page with the performative element, what it does in/to the body when read aloud. I’m constantly fascinated by the way a writer can draw on the reader’s body through the spacing on the page and make her feel a particular emotion simply by laying out the spacing in such a way as to drive the breath. That bringing of the body back to poetry is deeply appealing and troubling—how on earth did the two become separated in the first place? It’s a physical and performative space, both, for sure.

5. What do you feel teaching writing and creative writing has brought to your writing and writing life? Or are the two entirely separate?
Not separate at all. On the one hand, I feel massively, stupidly grateful that I get to spend my days teaching what I love, and interacting with students who are either passionate about English and creative writing or discovering their passion. And on the other hand, as a writer, I seem to have an inherent tendency to become rapidly unsocialized and to disappear off into the forest at my farm for long stints of time, so teaching keeps me socialized: dialoguing, reading, performing. My students’ energy galvanizes my own desire to keep talking about and creating new writing. Yes, I often run up against the boundaries that say you can teach writing or you can write, but you can’t do both; all I can say is that it’s a balancing act.

6. Literary awards have been known to shine spotlights on individual works and authors, as well as writing generally, but have also sometimes brought with them a particular kind of pressure and a frustration for those works overlooked by awards. As a writer, reader and, now, shortlisted writer, what are your feelings on literary award culture generally?
There are many really wonderful poets out there who have not yet been shortlisted, and that’s not a call to stop doing the important work: creating. Being shortlisted is an honor, but being able to sit down and write when you’re called to? Focusing in on the work itself, which will be there for you year after year (whether or not the awards are)? That’s the real deal.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Crad Kilodney (1948 - April 14, 2014)

Stuart Ross posted a note on his blog that infamous Toronto writer Crad Kilodney died on Monday, as reported to him by lorette c. luzajic. When people talk about how Ross sold thousands of books on the streets of Toronto in the 1980s, he was taking a page from Crad Kilodney. Still, anything I've heard of Kilodney is second-hand, so I'll defer to notes on Kilodney by others, such as this one by Jay MillAr from January, a piece by David Chilton from April, a piece from Bookslut from 2008, and this anonymous piece from 2005. He was legendary.

At his request, The Crad Kilodney Literary Foundation was launched on Tuesday.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

An Interview with rob mclennan: The League of Canadian Poets National Poetry Month Blog

The League of Canadian Poets recently posted this interview with me over at their own enormously clever blog, for which I thank them! I'm reposting same here:

National Poetry Month Blog :An Interview with rob mclennan

rob mclennanWe are so very pleased to announce that rob mclennan will be doing a special Poet to Poet feature on his wildly popular blog, in which he will be interviewing all of our award shortlisted authors. But more on that below! If you do not already know him, please meet rob…
The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, rob mclennan won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include various chapbooks in Canada and the UK, the trade books notes and dispatches: essays (Toronto: Insomniac press, May 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Ottawa: Chaudiere Books, May 2014), as well as his forthcoming twenty-fifth trade poetry collection, If suppose we are a fragment (Ottawa: BuschekBooks, September 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com


BE: Why do you poetry blog?
rm: Originally, I started blogging (in June, 2003) for the same reasons I started reviewing at all: I saw so many worthy works being completely ignored, and couldn’t understand why. For whatever reason, I felt the need to do something about it. I started writing reviews more than twenty years ago, originally for The Carleton Arts Review back in 1993, starting what became a weekly column for The Ottawa X-Press in 1994 (for four and a half years), and then on the blog (as well as dozens of other venues, including The Antigonish Review, filling Station, Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, RAMPIKE, Rain Taxi, Jacket magazine, Prairie Fire Review of Books, Jacket2, etcetera). I’ve always considered that unless we speak of what we have already produced, there doesn’t seem much point in producing more, does there? A healthy reading and writing culture needs to be far more aware of what is happening, especially on the margins. Have you seen the work of Mercedes Eng, Jordan Abel or Marie AnnHarte Baker? Rachel Zucker, Cole Swensen or Pattie McCarthy? Brecken Hancock, Sadiqa de Meijer, Phil Hall or Sandra Ridley? Essential works are being produced right now and not enough readers who claim to love poetry are paying attention. Worse still, not enough writers who claim to love poetry are paying attention.

I’ve never seen the blog as one that is poetry specific, but one that moves as my interest does, although that does tend to favour poetry. Since I began (and even back to my Ottawa X-Press days) I’ve featured reviews on fiction, non-fiction and comic books (as well as reports of literary events, especially during my tenure in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta). I’ve also managed to post nearly a thousand interviews with poets, fiction, non-fiction and comic book writers since 2007 in my “12 or 20 questions” series, as well as a few dozen publishers in my sister-series of interviews with small publishers.

cover 2Cover1BE: Are you doing anything special for National Poetry Month?
rm: I’m currently working on a series of interviews/profiles on the various shortlisted works and authors for this year’s Raymond Souster Award, Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and Pat Lowther Memorial Award, working up to the announcement of the winners in June. April is also when the Ottawa International Writers Festival’s spring festival occurs, so I expect to be attending many book launches (including the Anansi Poetry Bash, for example).

BE: In the 16 years that NPM has been running, what is the most creative celebration of it that you have seen?

rm: A good question. Perhaps the most creative celebrations I’ve seen have been those that have specifically worked to celebrate poetry outside of poetry month, such as Ottawa’s annual poetry festival, VERSeFest. An intriguing side-effect of celebrating poetry during the span of a particular month has forced some to react against the seeming-arbitrariness of “Poetry Month,” and push to celebrate the craft beyond the boundaries of April, and throughout the rest of the calendar year. In the end, it brings a much larger and ongoing spotlight to poetry, which can only be good.

BE: What one book of poetry would you suggest right now?
rm: That might change from day to day to day, depending on when you ask. As I write this, we’re still in the midst of March Break, and I’m excited for spring poetry titles by Suzannah Showler, Brecken Hancock, nikki reimer, Sarah Lang, Paul Vermeersch, Natalie Simpson, Rob Winger, Chus Pato, Cecilia Nicholson, Sina Queyras, Gary Barwin, David W. McFadden and a whole ton of others, none of which I have yet seen. How can I pick just one?

There’s also a new work of short fiction by Lydia Davis, but that doesn’t answer your question, either.

Really, over the past few weeks I’ve been in the midst of Rosmarie Waldrop’s Love, Like Pronouns (Richmond CA: Omnidawn, 2003). She is absolutely incredible. I’m attempting to go through everything she has published so far.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Brecken Hancock, Broom Broom



PROLOGUE

BEFORETIMES. Uranus culls his gilded camels and bathes in the Baikal, the Zaysan, the Lanao. He wades in low-lying plains, spas in every rain-filled meteor crater. Sixty-fourth parallel, March. Sunlight fires a salvo off his lover’s collarbone. Gaia’s slums hoard water, Asmat mud and patches of pubic forest. Her valleys are aqueducts feeding antechambers of lakes: caravans of bathtubs clawing overland talon by talon according to deep time, glacial wake, geochemistry. Lake Agassiz Basin, Morass hollow, calderas. Gathering my hair off the pillow, I rise from the spill on our sheets to bathe. Oceanus – Titan of the brutish Atlantic, master of Ketos and Kraken, conductor of sky to land. Half-man, half-serpent; horizon marks the fix. Biceps of accumulated cloud ceiling the sea. He’ll rip your ship apart for a violin. His tail’s a woman’s braid dropped deep. And over its mucus and muscled carbuncles, legions of mollusk princes ascend, knot by knot by octopus tapas – crabs’ pincers and half-spumed clams – through bergs of cloying oil slick, plagues of dross, black-booming purple and a drowned Cassiopeia of phosphor. Abyssss. Germs fermenting in the kegs of their slow-moving shells. Up through the punch-holes of Poseidon’s belt, out through the tunnels of his prosthetic manifold, svelte pipelines, immaculate taps – an invertebrate army comes to kiss the slit where my tail splits, two legs.

Ottawa poet, critic and dog walker Brecken Hancock’s first trade poetry collection, Broom Broom (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2014), explores the depth and darkness of death, loss and disappearance, as well as a history of plumbing, all while attempting to come to terms with her mother’s extended years of illness and recent death. Hancock strolls her poems through sing-song cadences and performs a wild linguistic gymnastics across both a comfortable domesticity and an unsettled history, and yet, this entire collection is unsettled, attempting repeatedly to discover and gain precise footing. As she said recently in her “Poets in Profile” interview over at Open Book: Ontario: “I’m invested in the tension between façade and confession, bravado and vulnerability. My poems are one way that I hold a mirror up to my bad parts, and I think poetry offers a potent means for exposing an internal landscape that’s not available narratively.” Compare the poem “BRECKEN” at the beginning of the collection to the poem “EVIL BRECKEN” towards the end (published recently at Hazlitt):

BRECKEN

Booze tides me.
TV abides me.

My tits slung
astride me,

I noose quiet
to lie with me.

My other husband’s
a broom.

The sibling poems, situated at either end of the collection, show the ways in which Hancock explores and plays with the self, with unanswerable questions and uncertainties, and the mirror held up to the tensions she spoke of “between façade and confession, bravado and vulnerability[.]” Utilizing poems throughout that explore plumbing back to the Greeks, it allows her the distraction, perhaps, to write what is really the focus of the collection: the loss of her mother and the nature of the self through memory, and a rage both sharp and worn; a rage at times so fierce it can’t help but catch in the throat. As she writes in the poem “HUSHA”: “Some animals eat their young. / Animals sweet on their young.” Another poem, “WOMAN, WOLF,” ends with the direction: “Love, you’re the kind of cur / that gnaws the buttons off his coat / and drinks and drinks to blur the raw.” When it appears, the rage is sharp, directed and pointed, and comes with a remarkable clarity. The poem “THE CRIME FOR WHICH HE’S SERVING LIFE” includes: “This poem, his prom. I grew up with a boy // who grew into a murderer and I loved him. Love him // on the far side of the object of love, // the him beyond him. For words there are no // larger words.” One of the most striking pieces in the collection is the extended poem “THE ART OF PLUMBING” (an earlier version of which appeared as a chapbook through above/ground press), comprised of an accumulation of short prose poems progressing from 3300 BCE to 2014 CE. The history of plumbing, again, centres here, and allows Hancock to distract against what the focus might actually be. Two sections from different points of the piece read:



1348 CE: Forty-five percent of Europe’s population succumbs to the Black Death. Bathing, thought to transmit disease through the pores of the body, begins to decline as common practice. One hundred and fifty years later, Queen Isabella of Castile boasts at having bathed only twice in her lifetime: once at birth and once on her wedding day.

[…]

2014 CE: I need to soak. Gathering my split hair from the pillow, I rise from the television news, from the navalia proelia on our sheets. Grief isn’t an epoch; it’s a milieu. In the tub, Mom’s waiting, water slipping through the noose at its bottom. Tuberous teats in the faucet’s bulb. One damp hand fixed to the hot faucet; fingernails chewn, skin leavened at the quick. It’s not quick; the earth turns round on its spit.

In her essay “Forensic Confession,” composed as a companion to “ONCE MORE” (published in the ninth issue of seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics), Hancock writes about the complications of “confession” against the emotional complications of attempting to reconcile her mother through her writing. She writes, “This poem isn’t making me feel better. It’s no time travel.” She writes:

Ah, my mother’s deathbed. Now we’ve come to the nub of my obsession, my compulsion to confess. For as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve been writing about my mother. Mom contracted front-temporal dementia when she was forty-three years old and I was eighteen. The timeline is rather muddy because she was misdiagnoses over and over again, the medical establishment considering her too young to test for dementia. […] By considering forensics in creating my own work, I’ve been able to think about rhyme, rhythm, metre, formal structure, word choice, image, and metaphor as reconstructive tools for piecing together the case of my mother’s death and my culpability. As I said, the timeline is muddy. I scour the trail, back and forth, attempting to see things from an objective, scientific perspective, looking for the clue that will click the pieces into place. I consider my mother’s decline and death again and again from different angles, like an investigator pinning disparate photographs and pieces of evidence to the wall. Taken together, poems form the picture of what I know: the crime scene. I try my mother in the role of perpetrator, then exonerate her as victim. See myself as prey; try myself as criminal.

Broom Broom is very much a book about Hancock’s mother, composed as the thread that can’t help but run through the entirety of its pages. Broom Broom is a powerful first poetry collection that exists as both an exploration of a dark history and subsequent grief, as well as an opening into a comprehension of what might remain, and a possible freedom from that same grief. Still, the book isn’t one burdened or weighed down with any such overwhelmingly serious tone; one can’t deny the playfulness of her writing, even through poems composed to cut down to the bone, such as:

LIFE’S A CYCLE OF HAIRSTYLES

Husband leaves me.
I swill another.

Sandy leaves me.
You only get one another.

Best friends’ babies
amass like cloud cover.

Why wasn’t Mommy
a better lover?

Over the space of some seventy pages, its as though the subject of her mother circles throughout Broom Broom, circling ever tighter as one moves past the first few pages, becoming featured in a poem such as “THE ART OF PLUMBING,” finally to emerge as the focus in the second last poem, “ONCE MORE.” Reminiscent of the prose of Susan Howe’s That This (2010) that wrote of the death of her husband, Hancock’s penultimate poem includes:

Mom would stand in her pyjamas and green, knee-length insulated coat, puffing without remembering how to inhale. Hair forcibly washed, stringy, scraggly, broomstraw. Face: wet-bread white. Disconnected from language, from subjectivity, she still ached for home. She forgot her name, forgot her pronoun: adopted the neuter ‘it.’

                        **

            It asks my brother over and over to break it out:

            ‘Take it. Take it to where you have your life.’

                        **

Before the disease rendered it completely dumb, it was abusive. Exiling me from home, it forbade me from visiting and told me repeatedly that it hated me. It chased my dad with a knife and would sometimes turn on the car in the garage – make him watch while it knelt at the tailpipe, purposely sucking in exhaust.