Monday, November 13, 2006

Two from Pedlar: good meat, poems by Dani Couture & The Book of Skeletons, poems by Rachel Vigier

Toronto's Pedlar Press, much like Regina's Hagios, is one of those interesting frustrating presses that produces very interesting and attractive (and even award-winning) work, but doesn’t have a website, making it difficult to engage with either of them from a distance (why is that, Beth Follet and Paul Wilson?). In two new poetry collections from Beth Follet's Pedlar Press, the frustrations increase, with graceful and magnificent new poetry collections from Rachel Vigier and Dani Couture. Dani Couture, currently a Toronto resident and managing editor for The Danforth Review, co-editor of Northern Poetry Review, and a writer for Word: Canada's magazine for readers and writers, is the author of a first poetry collection newly out from Pedlar, the collection good meat (2006).

blood memory

here in our bodies, through old blood & careful
touch our mothers breathe dizzy tales into us,
we are girls with slender china necks, long spider legs
& chipped nail polish. my grandmother's spine re-
appears in my back, & my cousin's fingers twist
tendrils of my father's hair, my mother's stomach
is an incubator of regional tics, kissed and passed,
grafted into limbs, lips, and fingers to write.

Writing smooth and straightforward lyric, I like the ebb and flow of Couture's lines, working and wending their way through territories both familiar and unfamiliar, whether family, memory, childhood or the details of the day-to-day. There is an ease to her poems that soothes, even when writing her own pro-/anti- Meat Is Murder poems working with and against the grain.

mystery meat

23: that is now many meals we have consumed this month
without being able to identify the meat. every night, we sit
across from one another, taiwan beer in our right hands,
forks clutched brazenly in the left. who'll go first? last night
you won, and spent 13 hours hunched over the toilet.
this morning, i had mild nerve poisoning from softball-sized
pear-apples. i couldn’t yell, tongue numb with pesticides.
nothing raw: the only rule. you were winning with that bag
of shredded squid mixed with salt peanuts. had me beat.
but i came back, stole first place with a plate of fried brown
meat and chicken claws–spent 2 smug weeks in the hospital,
digesting the reward, sweating on a podium of bedsheets.

Originally from Manitoba and currently in New York City, Rachel Vigier's The Book of Skeletons (2006) is her second poetry collection, after On Every Stone (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press), and a book of non-fiction, Gestures of Genuis: Women, Dance, and the Body (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press). In Vigier's poems, history stacks upon history and isn’t a matter of past but the present tense, including, as the press release tells us, "the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York City, which she witnessed first-hand."


I snapped the stranger's mask into place
then we climbed, single file
with the others, from the shelter to the street.
Inside, someone had been praising her Lord
shaking with disbelief.
It was impossible to stay in the building.
Outside, the air kept coming down
flecks of light
falling with the air
to the street drained of colour.
I was walking without thinking why or where,
had suddenly become with the others a great herd
circling away from burnt grassland
puffs of ash and dust rising from our feet.
We were travelling in the same direction
listening with the body but I wouldn’t let myself think
how we had been that morning, a man and a woman
reaching out of sleep, bodies turning into each other
how I had pressed my ear flat against your cheek
the roughness of it, eager for your breath
already strong, as we found our way
waking to a good morning.

It's interesting how she deals with the attacks, including in this piece, where she writes:

I am well aware of how fortunate I am. Within hours
of the attack I was being treated at one of the best hos-
pitals in the world; I had a home with running water
to go to; within days my children were in school again
as usual. Yet the fact of the attack remains and I keep
asking myself the same question. What does poetry have
to do with this?

Some days it feels like too much to ask; other days it
feels like not enough. Lately it doesn’t feel like the right
question at all. But what is the right question? What
question is there to reconcile the act of making poetry
with the death, confusion and fear that came with the
attack? And with the sudden and sharp clarity, too, that
permeated everything?

In the days after the attack, New York was encouraged
to go about its business. And we did. So I began to write
again because this is my "business," because it's what
I've always done to think through what I don’t know
or understand. I still want a poem for all of us who got
on the subway after the attack and went to work next
to sixteen acres of remains that burned for months.
"How's the air today?" we'd ask each other before going
out for lunch.

It's only been over the past year or so that I've seen books appearing with deeper poems on 9/11 [see my note on Matthew Zapruder here], as opposed to most of the quick ones that appeared almost immediately after; there is a depth to these new pieces that move away from sorrow into a deeper sorrow. Not that this is a collection shaped by such a single event, but shaped by many such single events throughout history; framed by them, in fact, and through the experiences of the narrator, negotiating herself both through that world and through the worlds and experiences that came before, outside of her immediate reach. This is not just a book of skeletons but a book of ghosts, writing dying just as much as living gets.


Surprised by the mind—with the body—in pain

its tightness knotted in the flesh

like the ligature of a hangman's knot

cutting through the windpipe. The end

is sudden and complete and it doesn’t matter

where the breath goes. What matters

is absence—sudden—felt

the sound of our family breathing in the same bed

the weight of our children resting on my chest

the big rustling of the pin oak on our street.

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