Embracing the Blatantly Poetic

water damage Peter Norman

water damage Peter NormanStuart Cole, of The Urge, has claimed Peter Norman possesses a “peculiar mastery” and that, formally, he “seems capable of writing anything he wants.” I have nothing to add to Cole’s typically astute, honest and accurate account of Norman’s poetry. (You should read his reviews).

But there’s one thing about Norman’s latest, Water Damage, that I’d like to dwell on.  It nearly knocked me off the laundry mat chair where I was reading it: the sheer rhythmic force that at times emerges in this book was as if it was beating back against the roaring washing machines amongst which I was terribly cocooned. You see, Norman’s rubbing off on me as I write this—or a part of Norman’s work is. His mastery is “peculiar,” as Cole puts it, because it’s from a “master whose suspicion of mastery leads him to self-sabotage,” leading to a “weird variousness” that stretches the tonal spectrum from “biblical” to the downright “silly,” with a formal range to match.

While like Cole I dig it all, I find the biblical-high-eloquence end of the spectrum especially refreshing. It’s like reading it heals my brain’s ear. Given his range, especially the humour, Norman is no old-fashioned poet, but he’s clearly comfortable hitting notes that might’ve perked up King James. Take part IV from “Dr. F Attends a Show,” and bear in mind that despite the eloquence, this poem is rife with playfulness.

This is no time to think of the lab, of you.
Diversion’s what you need. But like
your patient, you have shackles at your ankles,
the dun scar of branding at your navel.
Joints of you were finished by the weaver
of think black stitch. Ten donors gave your fingers.
Doctor, none’s more composite than you!
Nor more composed. You’re steely as the ropes
and webs of net that hold your organs in
and keep their insurrections down.
Rise now! It’s an ovation! It’s thunder fills the shell-
shaped hall. The patchwork plating of your skull
is hidden by your pilfered flesh, and you
regard the blazing stage with borrowed eyes.

I could write 500 words, easy, breaking down the prosody of this verse. Many poets wait half a book to get to something as strong as “dun scar”—and that’s sandwiched between “shackles at our ankles” and “branding at your navel.” Then there’s “thick black stitch,” “shell-shaped hall,” and “patchwork plating,” as well as the perfectly cadenced and alliterative “blazing stage with borrowed eyes.” I could go on and on. It’s gorgeous. Like, W.S. Merwin gorgeous.

This is what I mean by the “blatantly poetic:” a refusal to be embarrassed by the fact that you’re writing poems, like people always have, and that you don’t have to run away from what’s always worked. Lisa Pasold put her trust in narrative, and Norman’s done the same here with rhythm and sound. There’s nothing “new” in either poet’s work, but both make vigorous books. Perhaps one rule you can follow, then, is “make it fresh.”

That in no way dismisses the search for the “new” or the pushing against tradition—lord knows we need that. But Norman’s proved that you can write poems unmistakably of this time—hilariously so—while writing others that are beautiful in the most old-fashioned, romantic sense of the word. And sometimes you can do both at once.

Five Top Reads For Winter Blues

top 5 books for winter

 Chromotherapy, Noodles, and Resurrecting Kurt Cobain

top 5 books for winterAs a student, I don’t often have time to read for pleasure. Sometimes I get lucky and my Megabus breaks down, or there’s a problem with my internet during finals. Usually I feel like reading only happens when it’s my only option. However I did manage to get my hands on some pretty exciting books this year. It takes a lot for a text to surface in the bottomless pit of titles I have to read and will love!!!. These books managed to do just this, and I’m glad they did.I decided earlier this year that I would try harder to read in my spare time by swapping out some of my other pastimes (see: social media, anxiety, failed romantic endeavours, etc.). My plan consisted of buying more books, which would hopefully shame me into reading them whenever I saw them sitting on my desk. It kind of worked; I read more this year than the first two years of my undergraduate degree. This is either because I read the stacks on my desk out of monetary guilt, or because I moved out of my ex-boyfriend’s apartment and forgot how to leave my bedroom.

The following are a sampling of the books I read on trips home, sleepless nights, in waiting rooms, and while waiting for my Wifi to be fixed. These are my top five, in no particular order:

Otter by Ben Ladouceur
Coach House

Otter by Ben LadouceurIn the article, “Bear (gay culture),”, Wikipedia defines an “otter” as “a slimmer or less hairy bear.” Otter is Toronto-based poet Ben Ladouceur’s first collection of poetry. It is a collection in three parts: “The Honeymoon Festival,” “Rites of Spring,” and “Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men.” The back of the book asks: “If your lover speaks in his sleep, how do you know ‘you’ is you?”, and there isn’t necessarily an answer inside. From queerness and WWI to intimate details of male spaces, Otter is intelligent, stylistically advanced, and educated. Ladouceur seems to have queer history at his fingertips.

I found this collection on the Canadian Poetry shelf in a BMV in Toronto. The cover depicts soft blue sketches of half-dressed, tattooed men, stacked on one another. I turned to his poem, “Happy Birthday, Thomas Dearnley-Davison” at random, which begins:

Happy birthday, Thomas Dearnley-Davison!
Sorry to arrive empty-handed. The plan
was to give you some tallboys, a carton
of Viceroys and a quality handjob, …

There’s something refreshing about Ladouceur. Maybe it’s that he knows how to have a good time, without losing a grip on his poetic foundation. His poems are playful, but never juvenile. This may be Ladouceur’s first collection, but as Emma Healey says in her review for The Globe & ail, “it could just as easily be his 10th.”

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

The First Bad Man by Miranda JulyMy friend emailed me an e-copy of this book over the summer. I hadn’t heard of July at the time, but I mentioned her name at a party that night and a girl came out of the bathroom and screamed, “I love Miranda July!”. I later finished the book and felt a delayed kinship with that drunk girl.

The First Bad Man is July’s wonderfully absurd first novel (but not her first book). Unrequited love, a dirty, TV-obsessed teenage freeloader, and a chromotherapist who makes her clients pee in her office to save time. July isn’t afraid to get weird.

Her narrative flows with ease; before I knew it I had finished the whole book. She writes playfully, the way people write when literature isn’t their first medium. There is often value in coming to something later, and July is definitely a good example of this. Every time I bring up this book in conversation—which, for a while, was often—I heard a similar response: “I knew it would be weird, but it got weird.”

Where Did You Sleep Last Night by Lynn Crosbie
House of Anansi

Where Did You Sleep Last Night by Lynn CrosbieMy introduction to Lynn Crosbie was reading my sister’s copy of Life is About Losing Everything (Anansi, 2012) on a Megabus to Montreal. Crosbie’s work has a way of making me feel nostalgic for a place I’ve never been; and sometimes places I have been (see: Toronto). She writes without holding back, and knows how to highlight the painful parts of the mundane.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night in a way is Crosbie’s own take on fanfiction, but also more. The novel follows a teenage girl’s relationship with (the maybe real and maybe not real) Kurt Cobain. Crosbie masterfully writes passionate, all-in teenage love, though she manages never to condescend to her young protagonist.

It’s risky writing about an icon like Kurt Cobain—and not just writing about him, but writing him into the novel. Cobain appears under the moniker Celine Black: a moody, messy, 90s-grunge kind of guy in a band called Bleach—an homage to Nirvana’s first album. Celine tells the protagonist, “I hate joy and laughter.”

However celebrity call-outs are not a new form for her—her poetry collection, Queen Rat, contained what David Trinidad described as Crosbie’s “personal wax museum.” However this is the most thorough and focused of her pseudo-celebs.

Crosbie is slow and lilting—so much so that you never see it coming when she breaks your heart.

My Struggle Book 3 (Boyhood Island) by Karl ove Knausgaard
Vintage Books

Boyhood Island by Karl ove KnausgaardThe third book in Knausgaard’s My Struggle series isn’t my favourite of his, but it’s still my favourite book from this year. I started reading the series over the summer while I was working as a sales associate in a baby store—but I won’t get into my struggle.

Boyhood Island is a return to Knausgaard’s childhood; an exploration of his earliest memories. It would be impossible to summarize the events of the book without it coming off as a mundane slice of life—and not necessarily a remarkable life. But there’s something to be said about whose life we’re getting an all-access pass to. There’s a reason we’re reading this guy, and not just any guy.

Karl ove Knausgaard is self aware, earnest, and relatable in ways that sometimes feel uncanny. When I picked up an almost-50 Norwegian man’s autobiographical novel, I didn’t expect to think, “this is so me.” And based on the reviews I’ve read—and I’ve read a lot of them—I’m not the only one who feels this way. Knausgaard has a way of capturing emotions I could never put into words, and flawlessly putting them into words. He slips in and out of his child-self effortlessly, weaving meditations on life, death, and pain, into a crystal clear narrative.

Asbestos Heights by David McGimpsey
Coach House

Asbestos Heights by David McGimpseyI’ve seen McGimpsey read more times than I can count. He is always funny, always charming, and always … McGimpsey. Just like his Twitter—and well, his entire social media persona—Asbestos Heights is irreverent, chock-full of literary disses, and aggressively celebratory of the lowbrow. The book’s frequent refrain, “I love noodles,” says a lot—though I wouldn’t want to sell it short. Asbestos Heights is thoughtful, often sentimental, and refuses to back down.

This is David McGimpsey’s latest release, and his fifth collection of poetry. He dedicates it to his father, as well as some lucid and touching images:

The tulips my father planted back home

bloomed steady most Easter-times, sure as

the plans I sketched out to start feeling good

got crumpled alongside a map to Rome

McGimpsey juxtaposes the natural, beautiful, gentle, with brand names like Arby’s and Diet Sprite. He balances humour with raw emotion like it’s his job—and I guess it is.

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

a god in ruins

“When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal” – A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

“War is savage. For everyone. Innocent or guilty.”

a god in ruinsKate Atkinson is, without doubt (for me at least), one of the greatest writers of our time. I remember discovering her books when I was about 14 and devouring my way through my school library. I was recommended Behind The Scenes At The Museum and was hooked on her from then on.

Having read and adored Life After Life, I was very exciting when I found out Atkinson had a new, in her words “companion” book on the way. And I can happily say this book does not disappoint. Whilst Life After Life chronicled the multiple lives of Ursula, in A God In Ruins,  Atkinson delves into the life of Ursula’s brother, Teddy.  Once again the author plays with the structure of the narrative, allowing herself to jump backwards and forwards in time in a non-linear direction but often linking these episodes by an idea or an image. As Atkinson herself notes in her wonderful Author’s Note, she often comes back to certain images or ideas such as birds, flying and falling, and the notion of Utopia. In this way, the time-hopping doesn’t jar and we can easily follow the flow of the narrative. Furthermore, it brings into stark relief the idea that life is fleeting, one day we are a young boy gazing at skylarks, and the next an old man in a nursing home.

There is a sense of melancholy and loss which permeates this book, only fitting considering its subject: that of World War II. A large component of the book focus on Teddy’s role as a RAF bomber pilot and his missions as part of the bombing campaign which devastated Germany during the Second World War. One of Atkinson’s many strengths is her ability to conjure up these ‘set pieces’ and bring them to life with such clarity.  Her descriptions of bombing missions, the fear, flying through thunder and lightening,  are some of the best passages of the book and it is clear how much time and research she put into her novel.

As Atkinson says, “War is savage. For everyone. Innocent or guilty.” It is always unfair. This novel doesn’t just chart the effects of war at the time but shows the reader how it resonates down the generations, affecting everyone, in particular those who are left standing afterwards. It is about “All those beautiful songs that would never be sung.” The stories that were silenced by war. And silence is something which permeates the novel. The silence which weighs heavily on Teddy and those around him, in all his relationships. It comes in the form of things left unsaid, of secrets, of failing to open up, of repressing memories and keeping them to oneself. And, of course, we see that this question of silence holds extraordinary poignancy when we reach the end of the book. But that way lie spoilers, so I will say no more. Suffice it to say many tears were shed.  In her Afterword, Atkinson acknowledges it as “the whole raison d’être of the novel…hidden at the heart of the book to do with fiction and the imagination, which is revealed only at the end.”  It really is a master stroke and packs a big literary wallop!

However, whilst the vein of silence and war runs through this novel, a large part of Atkinson’s brilliance lies in her wonderful ability to capture and present the essence of human beings and humanity. Her depiction of Teddy and those around him really capture what humanity is, and sadly what it can sometimes mean. The lives of humans are terribly short, and our actions and our relationships with others are what makes it special. We must embrace every moment of our song, for we are lucky – unlike many young people in the war – to have so long to sing it.

This book is worth every tear I shed, and cements in my mind the brilliance of Kate Atkinson. If you haven’t read it already, grab a copy now!