Thursday, April 30, 2009

Marble Weather

When it gets to this time of year, when it feels springlike and as if the schoolyards are drying out, I always think of it as marble weather. This was the much anticipated arrival of the opportunity to pull out our collections of cats-eye, creamy, crystal marbles, to contest over in our rows of avaricious kids sitting on the concrete in the playground. We'd strive to win some steelies (the kids with parents working at the plant who could slip them some large ballbearings were much envied) or some boulders; the currency of childhood. When I start to feel nostalgic for the days of Crown Royal bags bulging with our glistening glass jewels, I remind myself that even then there were capitalist tendencies at play. One classmate, not to be named here, was a charming rogue who convinced most everyone that putting all our marbles together would make us invincible; of course, as with stock options and dividends, he then made off with all of them before the cabal collapsed! Thankfully my skepticism is a long-standing characteristic, and I and my best friend had decided that our company of two was as big as we wanted to take our venture. We ended up being the only ones who had not lost our marbles. ;)

In any case, I came across this poem recently in the online archives of Arc Poetry Magazine, and it stirred up many memories. It's a lovely, sad poem with astonishing detail dovetailing with my own recollections, right down to the Crown Royal pouch to hold the treasures in.

I found your marbles in your
room tucked in the same blue velvet
Crown Royal bag, the gold rope of the cord
still securing your childhood.
I assure you, I opened the bag as if it were
holding all the secrets of your paleolithic world.
And the marbles rolled out—
each smooth round noise.
Small marbled pommels,
kept inside so long, barely remembering
your ten-year-old hands sizing them up.
How your own brown eye would squint down—
marvel the ophthalmic wonders.
But you were never so proud, your perfect
pale blue marble, lightning gold
running through it, its pain line
staying with you all your forty-four years.
So let me hold you my blue marble.
Let me warm you, finally, in my hands.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April Bliss!

And turning from post-modern and gritty realist poetry of the past few years, I arrive at the lyrical 19th century vagabond of verse, Bliss Carman! I know some people roll their eyes at his name, but I have a fondness for rhyming, last century verse. His poem The Grave-Tree was one I loved back in school days, and here is one specially for this poetry month. (how often do you get to use the word 'swoon' these days?) Enjoy! ;)

Under the April Moon

Oh, well the world is dreaming

Under the April moon,
Her soul in love with beauty,
Her senses all a-swoon!

Pure hangs the silver crescent
Above the twilight wood,
And pure the silver music
Wakes from the marshy flood.

O Earth, with all thy transport,
How comes it life should seem
A shadow in the moonlight,
A murmur in a dream?

Bliss Carman

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Poem for the Canadian North

Since I've been mentioning some Canadian poets lately, here is one from Zachariah Wells' Unsettled, a collection gathered around his experiences living up in Nunavut. He is an active writer, editor and performer, full of poetry and essays and astonishing energy, always up to something, as you can see from his blog, Career Limiting Moves. I'll just share one poem I liked, but for a full review of the entire book, look at John's take over at The Book Mine Set.

for R.

From this hilltop, dusty vistas of crushed
stone, unrestricted zones of brown
gravel. Under your feet the first
purple syllable of saxifrage
breaks rock, puckered heads of poppies
prepare to bellow small yellow
shouts. Over that hill,
in the valley, the river runs
black with the backs of char,
one muscle, a ford. The bay's
thousand whitecaps aren't waves,
they're beluga. And that noise you hear
is not merely the wind.

Zach Wells

Monday, April 27, 2009

Erin Mouré: another fab Canadian poet

Erin Mouré is a poet who I felt I had Discovered, long ago, in my intellectual journey through university. She's based in Montréal, and I went to McGill, where I was introduced to her West South West, published in 1989 by Montréal based publisher Véhicule. Only after I had enthusiastically mentioned her a few times did someone point out that, if fact, Mouré was quite well known by that time. Sigh. So much for my burgeoning career as a literary scout! Since then she's published many books of her own, as well as translations from French, Spanish, Galician and Portugese -- imagine being that talented. She has won oodles of awards of all kinds. Truthfully, I haven't read much of her recent work; after leaving university and that total immersion in language and theory and such, my comprehension of Mouré's avant-garde works has diminished. I think -- hope -- that if I spend some time with her texts they will reward me for it, so next up, I think I'll pick up her latest book, O Cadoiro, or maybe her translation, with Robert Majzels, of Nicole Brossard's Notebook of Roses and Civilization. For now, take a listen to this bilingual reading of an amazing poem, Soft Link 3, by Brossard and her two translators, recorded at the Griffin Poetry Prize awards.

And what is she working on next? Well, a new collection is coming out in 2010, and according to her recent interview in the National Post's Afterword, she's also working on a book of poems set in Ukraine called The Unmemntioable (Yes, she assures us, that's spelled wrong on purpose). Can not wait to see that!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Poetics and Pinhole Photography

Did you know that the last Sunday in April is Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day? I didn't either, too bad, because it would have been fun to participate. Oh well, next year! Over at their website you can learn all about how to make a pinhole camera yourself -- a neat project for kids -- and you can look through a gallery of photographs taken by participants in Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day since 2001. There are even workshops and events being held all around the world. How fascinating! As we all go digital, it is interesting to see how to take photos manually with a camera you've made yourself out of something as ordinary as an oatmeal box. (although you can apparently convert your digital camera into a temporary pinhole one as well!) You can even download templates to make a camera as wacky as this SPAMera, over at Photojojo!

Anyway, all this investigation of pinhole photography made me wonder if there were any Canadian poets writing on photographic themes. I recalled faintly that there might be something about it in Stephanie Bolster's 1998 Governor General's award-winning collection White Stone: the Alice poems. Yes -- and here it is -- this collection is made up of poems about Alice Liddell, and the infamy thrust upon her by Lewis Carroll's attachment to her and her influence on his Alice in Wonderland. It's a wonderful set of poems, do try to find White Stone --reading it all at once is fantastic.

First the flood of chemicals:
guncotton, ether, silver
nitrate. Then forty-five long seconds
of stillness--and she only three
and quick. Did they meet because

of a raising of eyebrows, curiouser
about each other than about anyone
else in the garden? Her sisters
blurred into foliage;
he smelled of medicine. He was

twenty-four, did not choose her
as his favourite until the Adventures
six years later. But something began
that afternoon, marked in his diary
"with a white stone."

Her blue eyes tight buds.
Her mousy thatch straight across
the forehead. Spring everywhere threatening
to open them both: tense in that unfurling
garden, during the long exposure.

After his first meeting with Alice Liddell on 25 April 1856, Charles Dodgson wrote in his diary, "I mark this day with a white stone." The expression originates in Catullus' "Lapide candidiore diem notare," (Poem 68, line 148) which translates as "to mark with an especially white stone the (lucky) day." The English version was quite commonly used in Victorian times.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A wild afternoon...

After an afternoon of wild weather -- high winds, hail, rain, four hours of power outages -- I could only be reminded of this wild poem (and a short one, so I can post it while the power is back!!)

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!

Emily Dickinson

Friday, April 24, 2009

A bit of Fry, Laurie and Shakespeare

And to finish off a Shakespearean streak, what better than a laugh from Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie? Watch this early sketch about the Shakespeare Masterclass:

Shakespeare II

Another sonnet on the same themes:

Sonnet 65

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer's honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O! none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Warwick Collins and Shakespeare's Sonnets

The Sonnets / Warwick Collins
HarperCollins, 2008.
272 p.

This small novel aims to tell us the story behind the creation of Shakespeare's sonnets. It is set on the Earl of Southampton's estate during the Plague years in London when the theatres were closed, and actors and playwrights had to find refuge elsewhere (1592 and on). Shakespeare has been taken in by the young Earl and is biding his time by writing plays and using the library of the Earl's tutor John Florio to spark ideas. He also begins writing a series of sonnets addressed to the Earl.

Collins is a wonderful writer, and this is a well constructed and plausible tale of the genesis of Shakespeare's sonnets. It includes many sonnets within the text, but is not simply an attempt to link them all together with a vague narrative. The story actually makes sense and makes Collins' explanation feel organic. Shakespeare is politically neutral, but observes the machinations of Southampton and his puritanical and politically powerfully guardian, Lord Burghley. There are skulking spies who come and go, including Christopher Marlowe, whose actions are contrasted with Will's. The issue of the Dark Lady of the sonnets is also approached; there are two Italian women in this closed circle who appear to be candidates for the position, one of whom is Florio's wife and the Earl's mistress. There are many characters to this story, some of the most overbearing ones appearing only offstage (ie: Lord Burghley or Southampton's mother). Each one seemed to me like an individual with layers of complexity; issues of sexuality and politically motivated actions loom large. We enter right into the story without much background or buildup, so a familiarity with Shakespeare's life and the political climate of Elizabethan England helps, but is not necessary. The story stands on its own.

I enjoyed this; it was not a difficult or abstruse read, rather providing a possible context which added layers of meanings to the sonnets. Collins includes two sonnets he wrote himself, which appear in the story as Shakespeare's try at political commentary -- these sonnets are judged faintly amusing and then destroyed. (I found that subtle dig at his own skills as compared to Shakespeare's quite entertaining - and he notes clearly in the afterword that they were his own poems, to avoid confusion). The writing itself is also clear and without excessive ornamentation, bringing a distant Elizabethan setting into focus, from its dreamy opening to realistically long sleepness nights, sexual encounters, hunger, exhaustion and so on. It provides fascinating material for speculation for anyone who is a Shakespeare aficionado. Even if Shakespeare himself, or his sonnets, don't seem so intriguing to you, as an historical novel this has much to recommend it. Great characters, a well drawn setting and descriptive, engaging writing make this one a winner.

A few other opinions:

Jen at Devourer of Books
John Self at Asylum
Sally at Sally's Book Blog

And if you are interested in the fictional quest for the source of Shakespeare's short-lived spurt of sonnet writing, here are a couple of other novels which may be of interest.

The Sonnet Lover / Carol Goodman
This one posits that Shakespeare spent those Plague years in Tuscany and wrote a lost series of sonnets to his Italian lover, the infamous Dark Lady. Rose Archer, academic, is bound and determined to locate the lost sonnets.

Nothing Like the Sun / Anthony Burgess
A bawdy and dense retelling of Shakespeare's life, from youth to maturity and his writing. Who is the Dark Lady this time? A Moorish lover with whom he has a son. See a variety of covers!

Shakespeare and his Sonnets

Happy Shakespeare's Birthday! Today is the accepted birth and death date of the late, great William Shakespeare. In honour of such a momentous occasion, I'll share one of his sonnets, as in fact I did last year (but not the same one!) This particular sonnet, #60, hopes that readers in posterity will defeat time's erasures. I think he has achieved that goal.

Sonnet 60

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith, being crowned,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight
And Time that gave, doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of natures truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow;
And yet, to times, in hope, my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Celebrating Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! I'd like to share a poem today by Canadian poet Archibald Lampman (1861-1899), who I had to read quite a lot of in university. I appreciate him much more now. Nature seemed to influence many of his works; one of his best known poems is entitled Snow (how suitably Canadian!) and was used as the lyric for a beautiful song by Loreena McKennit, another Canadian artist.

Today's poem celebrates the beauty of the world, and the realization which nature's power brings us to: we are all part of the same world. Enjoy!

Voices of Earth

We have not heard the music of the spheres,
The song of star to star, but there are sounds
More deep than human joy and human tears,
That Nature uses in her common rounds;
The fall of streams, the cry of winds that strain
The oak, the roaring of the sea's surge, might
Of thunder breaking afar off, or rain
That falls by minutes in the summer night.
These are the voices of earth's secret soul,
Uttering the mystery from which she came.
To him who hears them grief beyond control,
Or joy inscrutable without a name,
Wakes in his heart thoughts bedded there, impearled,
Before the birth and making of the world.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Seedling Songs

As you might be able to tell from my recent poetic choices, over the past week or so I've been reading from the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse. I have found a few new-to-me poets as well as some old favourites, such as:

Come into the garden, Maud,
for the black bat, night, has flown


Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!

Can you tell me whose lines those are? Or what about:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

(that's a bit easier but still fun)

For today, though, a rainy, cloudy Spring day, I want to share a poem by a poet I know nothing much about. His name is John Gray -- poor fellow -- but he lived 1866-1934, and moved in Oscar Wilde's circle.

Song of the Seedling
to Arthur Sewell Butt
Tell, little seedling, murmuring germ,
Why are you joyful? What do you sing?
Have you no fear of that crawling thing,
Him that has so many legs? and the worm?
Raindrops patter above my head --
Drip, drip, drip.
To moisten the mould where my roots are fed --
Sip, sip, sip.
No thoughts have I of the legged thing,
Of the worm no fear,
When the goal is so near;
Every moment my life has run,
The livelong day I've not ceased to sing:
I must reach the sun, the sun.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Blue skies

Mary Coleridge (great grand niece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge) is a poet I'm quite fond of; her beautiful poem L'Oiseau Bleu (listen here) was set to music by Charles Villiers Stanford and was recorded by the Oxford Camerata on their cd English Madrigals and Songs. It's a gorgeous song, and I love it so much we used it in our wedding ceremony, a few years ago now.

L'Oiseau Bleu

The lake lay blue below the hill,
O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue,
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught his image as he flew.

Mary Coleridge

There's another Coleridge poem which is quite suitable for bloggers, I think; it's for those days when we wonder if we are talking into a great, dark void...

Winged Words

As darting swallows skim across a pool,
Whose tranquil depths reflect a tranquil sky,
So, o'er the depths of silence, dark and cool,
Our winged words dart playfully,
And seldom break
The quiet surface of the lake,
As they flit by.

Mary Coleridge

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunday Spring Song

It's a clear but cool and windy day here: I finally have a day at home to open the windows and let the breeze clear out the house while I'm doing some chores. It feels cheerful to hear the wind in the pine trees and feel the sunshine even if it is still a wee bit chilly. Spring cleaning weather, indeed! I need to get back to the to-do list, so a short poem for today:

Spring Song

Dance, yellows and whites and reds, --
Lead your gay orgy, leaves, stalks, heads
Astir with the wind in the tulip-beds!

There's sunshine; scarcely a wind at all
Disturbs starved grass and daisies small
On a certain mound by a churchyard wall.

Daisies and grass be my heart's bedfellows
On the mound wind spares and sunshine mellows:
Dance you, whites and reds and yellows!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Poem for a Readathon Weekend

Since it's Dewey's Read-a-thon this weekend and once again I can not participate (boo hoo) I am posting a quick poem in honour of all the readers busy for 24 hours straight.

This is a poem by Eleanor Farjeon, a writer I really love -- I recently read her novel Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard. All of her work is infused with the rhythms of poetry, either in nursery rhyme or songs or poems embedded in her fiction. Here is a short verse she wrote for children.


What worlds of wonder are our books!

As one opens them and looks,
New ideas and people rise
In our fancies and our eyes.

The room we sit in melts away,
And we find ourselves at play
With some one who, before the end,
May become our chosen friend.

Or we sail along the page
To some other land or age.
Here's our body in the chair,
But our mind is over there.

Each book is a magic box
Which with a touch a child unlocks.
In between their outside covers
Books hold all things for their lovers.

Eleanor Farjeon

Friday, April 17, 2009

Waking and Sleeping

After talking about my new word-of-the-week the day before yesterday (grognard: someone who has just woken up and is not yet happy about it, for those of you who missed it) I somehow did something I've never done before. I set my alarm clock for 6:30 am. My excuse is that I was not wearing my glasses at the time, because I was convinced I had set it properly to my real wake-up time, 7:30. Let me tell you, I was quite the grognard in the morning! Once the alarm blared at 6:30 I just couldn't get back to sleep. Utter torture. But, this utter longing for more sleep had one small benefit. It got me started thinking about poetry that discusses sleeping and waking -- not surprising, considering how much poetry I've been reading and sharing this Poetry Month. Anyway, my mind dredged up a beautiful villanelle I hadn't thought of in quite some time. So here is Theodore Roethke's stellar poem, The Waking.

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

And just because April is National (U.S.) Jazz Appreciation Month as well as National Poetry Month, here is an exquisite jazz version of these gorgeous lyrics.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lorna Crozier and Hockey Poetry

Since I've been posting about Canadian poets, I'd be remiss in not including a poem about Canada's sport, hockey! I discussed an entire book of hockey themed poetry last year, Randall Maggs' Night Work, a poetic biography of Terry Sawchuk, which was published by Brick Books and has been very successful. It was very recently awarded the 2008 Winterset Award, celebrating excellence in Newfoundland and Labrador writing (not limited to poetry), worth $5000. Nice.

This April I thought I would share a hockey poem from a more feminine point of view. Lorna Crozier, a poet I absolutely love, wrote a poem in 2002 for the Canadian Women's Olympic hockey team. I recall hearing her read it on the CBC, during an interview with Sheila Rogers, and despite my almost total lack of interest in hockey I loved it. It was quite memorable; however, I have not been able to locate it in the books by Crozier which I own, so I am not sure where it appears in print. Please let me know if you do! I have cribbed this version from the CBC archives and thus am completely uncertain as to the correctness of the line breaks. Sorry, Lorna!!

by Lorna Crozier

(written for our women's hockey team at the Olympics for the final against the Americans, February 21, 2002)

Angels of the House, Angels of Mercy-
yes, they've called women that.
But these are Angels of Ice.
Hard-muscled, sharp, dangerous as winter's cold.

How else do you explain their speed,
the light streaming from their helmets,
the slivers of water under their burning blades that cut across the blue lines
like scissors slicing through the cotton for a quilt?

Lace to these gals is lacing up.
Cinnamon and allspice is slapshot, snapshot, backhand, wrist-
that's the recipe they're passing on from mothers to daughters, to women like me whose brothers in our races at outdoor rinks, skated backwards and beat us every time.

Break away, break away, swift angels carrying the puck,
invisible wings beating, your goalie a blaze of glory in the crease.
All across the North we'll roar and cheer.
You'll fly us far above the boards, above the rooftop of the rink tonight,
fly us into the skate-blade brightness of the winter stars.

Lorna Crozier

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Come thou Tortoise

To My Tortoise Ananke

Say it were true that thou outliv'st us all,
O footstool once of Venus; come, renew
Thy tale of old Greek isles where thy youth grew
In myrtle shadow, near her temple wall;

Or tell me how the eagle let thee fall
Upon the Greek bard's head from heaven's blue,
And Apathy killed Song. And it is true
that thy domed shell would bear a huge stone ball?

O Tortoise, Tortoise, there are weights, alack!
Heavier than stone, and viewless as the air,
Which none have ever tried upon thy back;

Which, ever and anon, we men must bear --
Weights which would make thy solid cover crack
And how we bear them, let those ask who care.

Come Thou Tortoise / Jessica Grant
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2009.
412 p.

I recently read this charming book, one of Random House's New Faces of Fiction. I was a bit leery about it at first, as it seemed to be consciously 'quirky' and eccentric. But I was quickly disabused of my preconceptions; the narrator, Audrey Flowers, is a sweet girl and hilarious storyteller who is dealing with one of those weights which Lee-Hamilton mentions above, a weight which has never been tested on a tortoise's back. The book opens with the news that her father is in a coma, and Audrey is flying home to St. John's, Newfoundland from Portland, Oregon to be with him and her Uncle Thoby, in the process leaving her pet tortoise Winnifred to be cared for by friends. En route, in the second chapter, she disarms an air marshall named Marshall -- it is becoming clear why Audrey is known as Oddly by her family.

She has a unique way of speaking, disdaining most punctuation beyond the period. It works wonderfully. For example, upon leaving Winnifred she says:

My own heart is all apatter. This is being alive. Can you feel the body worry before every beat. I can. Will this be the last. No. Will this be the last. No.

And then my favourite, in reference to two swans swimming in lonely splendour on an apparently bottomless pond behind Audrey's St. John's home:

When the swans put their heads underwater, they look like baby icebergs. When they lift their heads, they look surprised. Did you see the bottom. No. Did you. No. Let's check again.

When Audrey returns home she finds that her father has already died, and her grief intrudes on the light tone of the narration. The emotion is very real but not at all sentimental. Her Uncle Thoby's grief is also all-consuming, and it leads to the action of the rest of the story: he flees back to England, from whence he came when Audrey was seven years old. Audrey must first cope with his absence and then follow him to England to figure out the mystery of her life and upbringing. The elements of the story which are necessary to the 'mystery' are pretty clear to the reader, but it is handled so much from Audrey's point of view that you are still waiting for her to figure everything out. It is clear that she is much loved, both by her father and Uncle Thoby as well as their neighbours and friends (ie: Clint the Taxi Driver, neighbour Byrne Doyle, her father's secretary Verlaine). Her developing romance with a Christmas tree light technician is perfect as well.

It's a touching story, both moving and very funny. Grant's use of language is clever and Audrey is a truly original narrator. Winnifred's existence as a kind of reality check, a tortoise who has seen everything and will be straight with us about it, is a good foil to the very personal perceptions that Audrey shares with us. I found this book a fresh, intellectually invigorating experience but I also just fell in love with nearly every character. I recommend it.

Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention, I found the perfect new word to add to my vocabulary -- in reference to her father, Audrey comments that he has his "grognard face" on. What's that?
"A grognard is someone who has just woken up and is not yet happy about it."
Now if that isn't the perfect word for me I don't know what is! ;)

Other reviews:

Chris at Book-A-Rama
Kerry at Pickle Me This
Jay at The Quickie Book Review

Jessica herself guest-editing the National Post's weekend Afterword

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Name is Destiny

I've always been amused by people whose names match their profession exactly -- is this chance, or does having a name so specific draw someone into a particular profession? Upon research, I have discovered that this is a whole area of academic inquiry, looking into nominative determinism. If a name fits but has no direct causal relationship to occupational choice, it is known as an aptonym.

A prime example of this that I have always enjoyed is the chief ornithologist in Quebec, Dr. David Bird. He is professor of Wildlife Biology and Director of the Avian Science and Conservation Centre of McGill University, as well as being a long time essayist and author. There is also a book on jam making in my library written by Jan Berry, which makes me smile. Does anyone else notice this phenomenon?

But, as it is Poetry Month, this is one name I really wanted to share. Although it's her first name in this case, Canadian poet Sonnet L'Abbé really couldn't be anything but a poet, could she? How lovely to have such a name to inspire you throughout your life. Somehow mine seems very mundane... but anyway, here is an example of Sonnet L'Abbé's poetry, from her second collection:


The shyness, the delay to say
I'm thinking, I'm processing,
the silence before the words
string into coherence I can't leave
unfilled, all my ignorance,
the mice scurrying in the maze,
please wait while the images
load, sound saying I'm not

or the coyness, the delay to say
I'm answering, when I'm processing
the first thought into a string of words
less hurtful, less assessing,
less revealing of the blunt fact
of my unkindness, all my interiority,
the scurry to hide it behind my back
please wait while I remember
your heart, sound the safety on a sharp

Sonnet L'Abbé
from Killarnoe
(McClelland & Stewart, c2007)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Weekly Geeks: Cookbooks Galore

This week the Geeks are talking cookbooks. I love cookbooks and have highlighted this before... see my previous collection roundup to see my favourites. I mainly buy vegetarian and lately vegan cookbooks, unless it is a specific topic I am otherwise interested in, for example, a cookbook about tea or a local, charity cookbook. As for the cookbooks I use most often, I'd say lately I've been trying out quite a few recipes from Jae Steel's Get It Ripe; it's one of my most recent purchases and I'm still getting to know it. She has wonderful cookie recipes!

But the recipe collection I use most frequently is one I've collected myself; over the years as I find recipes I go back to again and again I've written them out on recipe cards and filled a small photo album. It's extremely convenient; each pocket is the size of a recipe card, and made of plastic -- easy to wipe splashes and spills off. And it makes it easy for whoever is making dinner to quickly locate the required favourite recipe, whether it is me or my baking fiend of a husband.

Easter Monday and the last Easter Verse

The Discipline of Craft, Easter Morning

No use going hunting for angels,
for a Christ in the tree-mops,
a Moses winding his way up the mount
into the fire of God’s fresh stubble.

There is just a serious rain,
a steady crutch for the air,
colder than any April should be.

I am up to my neck in chores:
the cat needs more food,
my daughter’s clutter piles up like ant hills,
I fold her little sleeves, ghost by ghost.
What melody springs from the heart so well?

These lone trees can’t be dazzled by sun today,
they have such tremors like the Pope’s.
Lost loons pitched into sky folds,
their crusty buds just blinking
as if to test how fierce the light is.

They sag and meander from their stems,
they bleed from transparency.
Needless or hopeless, as overused fountains,
they are my metrics, my fortitude;
plants with lemony grass spigots
that will never go dry.

by Judith Harris
from The Bad Secret: Poems by Judith Harris.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Sunday

Again, war themes seem to appear frequently in Easter poems. The most famous, perhaps, is Yeats' Easter 1916 about the Easter uprising in Ireland. Here is another, referring to a more modern oppressed state, by American poet Charles Martin.

Easter Sunday, 1985

To take steps toward the reappearance alive of the disappeared is a subversive act,
and measures will be adopted to deal with it.
—General Oscar Mejia Victores,
President of Guatemala

In the Palace of the President this morning,
The General is gripped by the suspicion
That those who were disappeared will be returning
In a subversive act of resurrection.

Why do you worry? The disappeared can never
Be brought back from wherever they were taken;
The age of miracles is gone forever;
These are not sleeping, nor will they awaken.

And if some tell you Christ once reappeared
Alive, one Easter morning, that he was seen—
Give them the lie, for who today can find him?

He is perhaps with those who were disappeared,
Broken and killed, flung into some ravine
With his arms safely wired up behind him.

Charles Martin

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Donne on Easter Saturday

Last year as I was talking about sonnets, I found some John Donne to share. This time around I will share an Easter-ish themed work in progress he never quite completed:

‘To the Countesse of Bedford. Begun in France but never perfected’ (Poems, 1633)

Though I be dead, and buried, yet I have
(Living in you,) Court enough in my grave,
As oft as there I thinke my selfe to bee,
So many resurrections waken mee.
That thankfullnesse your favours have forgot
In mee, embalmes mee; that I doe not rot;
This season as ’tis Easter, as ’tis spring,
Must both to growth and to confession bring
My thoughts dispos’d unto your influence, so,
These verses bud, so these confessions grow;
First I confesse I have to others lent
Your stock, and over prodigally spent
Your treasure, for since I had never knowne
Vertue or beautie, but as they are growne
In you, I should not thinke or say they shine,
(So as I have) in any other Mine;
Next I confesse this my confession,
For, ’tis some fault thus much to touch upon,
Your praise to you, where half rights seeme too much,
And make your minds sincere complexion blush.
Next I confesse my’impenitence, for I
Can scarce repent my first fault, since thereby
Remote low Spirits, which shall ne’r read you,
May in lesse lessons finde enough to doe,
By studying copies, not Originals,
Desunt cætera.

~John Donne

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Rhyme for Good Friday

Here's a poem for Good Friday; like many Easter poems I find that the ones which resonate for me are war themed. This one is by Siegfried Sassoon, well known WWI poet from England.

Stand-To: Good Friday Morning

I’d been on duty from two till four.
I went and stared at the dug-out door.
Down in the frowst I heard them snore.
‘Stand to!’ Somebody grunted and swore.
Dawn was misty; the skies were still;
Larks were singing, discordant, shrill;
They seemed happy; but I felt ill.
Deep in water I splashed my way
Up the trench to our bogged front line.
Rain had fallen the whole damned night.
O Jesus, send me a wound to-day,
And I’ll believe in Your bread and wine,
And get my bloody old sins washed white!

- Siegfried Sassoon

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Laughing with a Limerick

After a trying week, I needed cheering, and what better way to cheer up than to read a limerick or two? The first poem I ever memorized at a very young age was a limerick I can still trot out on a moment's notice:

There was a young lady from Lynn
Who was so excessively thin
That when she essayed
To drink lemonade
She slipped through the straw and fell in.

And here is one of my husband's favourites, by Arnold Bennett:

There was a young man of Montrose
Who had pockets in none of his clothes.
When asked by his lass
Where he carried his brass,
He said, ‘Darling, I pay through the nose.’

Still, as explained on the Wikipedia entry for limericks:

Gershon Legman, who compiled the largest and most scholarly anthology, held that the true limerick as a folk form is always obscene, describing the clean limerick as a periodic fad and object of magazine contests, rarely rising above mediocrity. From a folkloric point of view, the form is essentially transgressive; violation of taboo is part of its function.

Which is true enough, I suppose, but I don't want to post any off colour poetry today. ;)
Stephen Fry has written a book on poetic form, The Ode less travelled (yes, the man in a cross-disciplinary genius). He includes a section on the limerick, which has caused a bit of difficulty for a British school which had purchased many copies for student instruction. Discovering that they'd forgotten about the lascivious limericks, the school solved their problem by only giving out the textbooks to students in the higher grades.* (I think it was the limerick about the female parts which gave them trouble, because we all know that female parts are much more scandalous than those of the male).
*I read this in his Twitter feed but don't remember when.

Here's one last one to go (by anonymous):

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
In space that is quite economical,
But the good ones I've seen
So seldom are clean,
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Griffin Poetry Prize

Since I've talked a little about Gil Adamson, it's only fair to share something about her spouse, poet, editor and arts journalist Kevin Connolly. Especially since he has just made the shortlist for the Griffin Poetry Prize! This is a major prize, awarding one Canadian and one International poet $50,000 (Cdn.). Julie Wilson over at Seen Reading has posted a wonderful collection of recordings by this year's shortlist nominees as well as a couple of past nominees and judges. Take a listen!

And take a moment to read this poem, one of the selections from his nominated book, Revolver.
You can also find this poem, as well as a few links to great interviews with Connolly, at his Griffin Poetry Prize profile.


Hello, lady people! Pigeons are good.
Winter is good. Stoolpigeons are good –
though they’re in league with the government,
trying to kill all spontaneity.
Hello everyone! Time to start losing.
Losing is good. Losing is what we came
here to do, and it’s going quite well,
thanks for asking.

This morning I was passed by a minivan,
“Someday” printed on the vanity plate.
I wonder what she meant? “Someday soon,
goin' with you” or “I’m gonna get out of
here someday?” or “Someday my prince,
or a real rain’s going to come.”

Given the words in advance, it
might all be easier. Interpretation –
that’s where the problems start.
Take counterpane, for an example.
Sounds like a magician’s con,
a glass counter you’d bounce coins
off, but really it means something
comforting – a blanket to keep you warm.

Coins bounce off the counterpane
and under that blanket, where they exist
now in the mind only, and so will multiply
at my request. Nothing too greedy,
enough for coffee and a newspaper,
somewhere I can look for a job, anything
to reverse the recent downturn.

People like people who stand for things.
Like Shakespeare arrived at Ellis Island with
a trussed-up suitcase and the equivalent of
$3.50 in badly out-of-date currency.
And look where he ended up.
A real job – I’d like that.
People like people who have jobs.
People like people who stand for things.

From Revolver, by Kevin Connolly
Copyright © 2008 Kevin Connolly

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Adamson's Outlander

The Outlander / Gil Adamson
Toronto: Anansi, c2008
312 p.

The plot of this one is pretty well known by now, at least in Canada -- from the publisher:

In 1903 a mysterious, desperate young woman flees alone across the west, one quick step ahead of the law. She has just become a widow by her own hand. Gil Adamson's extraordinary novel opens in heart-pounding mid-flight and propels the reader through a gripping road trip with a twist -- the steely outlaw in this story is a grief-struck nineteen-year-old woman.

Mary Boulton, the aforementioned widow, was an interesting character; she has a relentless drive to make it through the wilderness after fleeing from the murder of her husband. She seems to have very good luck in running across men (always men) who help her in this process. Her story begins powerfully, in the dark with Mary in full flight, pursued by dogs and her malignant ex-brothers-in-law. The writing is exquisitely descriptive and the scene draws you into the book before you even realize you've turned so many pages. The sense of pursuit remains throughout the book, adding tension to even the most mundane scenes.

While I enjoyed the story overall, the problem I had with Mary was that I never felt that I understood her. We learn of her childhood, of how she came to marry and leave her civilized upbringing, of what exactly happened to drive her to murder and flight. However, there is never a clear why to any of it, and I could not get a sense of Mary's motivations. She seems to suffer from postpartum depression, or is it just the voices she's heard all her life? Not really sure. I am also not really sure if I bought the brothers' actions near the end of the book; they are drawn so clearly as vengeful harbingers of justice that I expected them to do away with Mary when they found her, but their meeting is strangely anticlimactic.

Still, I found the writing, especially the descriptive passages, generally strong. I enjoyed the writing style probably as much or more than the plot -- the story moved along and carried me with it, but on reflection I did find I had some problems with the plotline. One part of the book I found most satisfying was Mary's eventual existence in the real town of Frank, Alberta. Adamson describes it as a mining camp of rough and ready workers, where Mary stands out as the "beloved sister" of local preacher and the only trustworthy man, Angus Lorne Bonnycastle. Mary started to come together as a character once she stopped moving, although unfortunately it was only a brief hiatus for her. Her time in Frank ends when the real life tragedy known as the Frank Slide occurs. In the early morning hours of April 29, 1903, the top of Turtle Mountain collapsed, causing an extensive landslide that wiped out a swathe of the town of Frank, killing an estimated 70 people. However, the reality of this occurrence also tells us that the "bustling town of Frank was home to approximately 600 people in 1903" and that many of the survivors were children. Frank was a town with proper homes, families, and a railway line as well as just coal mines, so I am not certain that Mary would have stood out as such an anomaly as a woman. Still, it does make for very dramatic storytelling, and when she returns to the town at the end of the book it is suitably ambiguous. Just as in the beginning we are not quite sure what or why Mary is doing what she does. It was a thought-provoking story, but you can likely tell that my reactions to it are rather ambiguous as well. I appreciated the skill and talent Adamson brings to the book, but I am not sure that the story fully engaged my imagination or sympathies. Read a few other reviews for a less muddled take on this one!

Other reviews:

Pickle Me This

Keepin' It Real Bookclub

Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover

Lizzy's Literary Life

Gil Adamson as Poet

Gil Adamson is known mostly for her latest novel, The Outlander. It was one of the Canada Reads choices this year, and I have just finished it, finally getting to my turn in the library queue. During the Canada Reads debates, much was made of her writing style as "very poetic", "a poet's voice" etc. I think that was just shorthand for a writer who actually enjoys using language, whose style is as much a part of the narrative as the storyline. In any case, Adamson really is a poet as well. She has published two collections, Primitive and Ashland. Here are two poems, one from each collection (found on her website, where are there are a few more to sample if you wish)

Brother and Me

It's a mad day to run away from home, brother. Trees fall drunk in the orchard, heads swarming with bees.

Finally, the river has slapped the fields away, so no harvest, no singing, the roads all gobbled up.

Down in the city, women shoot darts, fed up with their lives, or so we’re told. They drown men, sleep in movie theatres, sing the same song over and over until someone gets murderous.

Today wind rushes the empty house, licks the dinner bell inside and out. We settle down to wait.

Our lives are not what we expected.

We eat little crisp buns under the awning and peep out at the sun, the big white fury booming around in heaven.

from Ashland


One tanned arm.

At night the road sweats.
Each restaurant
riddled with light.
I can't smell anything now
no sound in the dark halls
and I wake up
kicking sheets to the floor.

My mother always said
never forget where
you come from.
I drive deeper into
the hopeful quiet
I do my best.

These hills grow dark
the air shines.
Any hopes I once had
turn off.
Imagine that relief.

Listen for them, the babies
the bombs in the ground
shining under your car
as you pass.
Soon you won't hear
yourself thinking.

How could this be wrong?
Each mistake
all my bad dreams
crushed between my teeth.

I feel a state line
a cobweb, float by.

from Primitive

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Best of P.K. Page

The Essential P.K. Page / selected by Arlene Lampert and Théa Gray.
Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill Press, c2008.
64 p.

The second in the Porcupine's Quill series of Essential Poets, this is a quick gathering up of some of the many, many poems of P.K. Page. As they say in the introduction,

the collection is admittedly wildly idiosyncratic and certain to be controversial. Arranged alphabetically for easy reference, these poems do not reflect a `young' or a `mature' voice; for Page, time is not linear and change does not occur along a narrow path. Think of this volume as a sort of pocket P. K. Page making its way into backpacks, carry-on luggage, doctors' waiting rooms ...

P. K. Page has been writing for around 60 years; she's in her 90s now and put out a new volume of short stories just over a year ago, entitled Up on the Roof. She's best known as a poet, however, and this is a good introduction to a wide variety of her work. I can see it carried in a pocket and being pulled out to read one or two from time to time. Here are a couple for your delectation:


The very stars are justified.
The galaxy

I have proofread
and proofread
the beautiful script.

There are no

P.K. Page

Evening Dance of the Grey Flies

Grey flies, fragile, slender-winged and slender-legged
scribble a pencilled script across the sunlit lawn.

As grass and leaves grow black
the grey flies gleam --
their cursive flight a gold calligraphy.

It is the light that gilds their frail
bodies, makes them fat and bright as bees --
reflected or refracted light --

as once my fist
burnished by some beam I could not see
glowed like gold mail and conjured Charlemagne

as once your face
grey with illness and with age --
a silverpoint against the pillow's white --

shone suddenly like the sun
before you died.

P.K. Page

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Essentially Don Coles

Erin, ON : Porcupine's Quill Press, c2009.
64 p.

I was lucky to have met Don Coles at a Book Expo a couple of years ago. He's a wonderful poet who has also written one novel, Dr. Bloom's Story. I had just finished reading his excellent novel about a doctor & would-be writer before I met him, which made it even more intriguing -- he was able to confirm that he had indeed been inspired by Doctor Glas, a Swedish epistolary novel that is one of my all time favourite reads. He's been publishing his poetry for many years, and is a well respected elder statesman of the art, so to speak. ARC Poetry magazine even put out a special Don Coles issue in 2003, of which much is now available on their site.

I enjoy his poetry because it is much like the man himself; unpretentious, erudite and clearly steeped in knowledge of past masters. It has emotional weight, and yet in my favourite pieces has a distancing sense of melancholy about time's passage. Porcupine's Quill Press has just released The Essential Don Coles, edited by Robyn Sarah, a fine poet in her own right. This is the 3rd in their uniform series of "Essential Poets". As always from Porcupine's Quill, this series is beautifully printed, on fine paper with an aesthetically pleasing theme of cover images from Pierre-Joseph Redouté; they have the usual Porcupine's Quill sewn binding, and, they smell good! This series is a pleasingly affordable way to become acquainted with some important Canadian poets. I talked about the first, The Essential George Johnson, last year during Poetry Month. (and will discuss the second in the series tomorrow). If, after reading this sampling, you want to explore his poetry further, there is also a fairly recent longer collection of Coles' work he put together for Véhicule Press; that is the collection that he signed for me at Book Expo and which I treasure.
Please enjoy this Coles poem:

How We All Swiftly

My God how we all swiftly, swiftly
unwrap our lives, running from
one rummaged secret to the next
like children among their birthday stuff --
a shout, a half-heard gasp here
and for a while bliss somewhere else
when the one thing we asked for all year
is really there and practically as perfect
as we knew it would be. Those beckoning passes
into what's ahead: first words, the run
without a fall, a bike, those books,
a girl whose nakedness is endless in our bed,
and a few public stunts with results that
partly please us. And on we go, my God how
restlessly among glimpsed profiles turning and
undarkening towards us as we reach them -- praiseworthy
the ones who'll press on with this, press on
so long and so often wrong, hoping to prove
some of the children right.

Don Coles

Saturday, April 04, 2009

A Kite is a contract of glory

April is not only National Poetry Month, it is also National Kite Month (U.S.). I've always loved kites, and recall going to the Verdun Kite Rendez-Vous way back when I lived in Montreal. It was beautiful -- a sunny day with a festive atmosphere, lots of colours and music and good natured crowds...

Well, here is a way to combine both. Who knew that Leonard Cohen wrote such a great poem using kite imagery? He's been in the news lately because he is on tour through Canada, the US and with a few European appearances; the tour just began yesterday. He has a new tour cd out from his concert in London last year as well, which has all his hits on it, including my favourite, Hallelujah. The latest volume of poetry he's put out is The Book of Longing, and if you really like Cohen, you must take a look at the collection at the CBC Archives (video and radio clips from age 22's wonderful!) But, on to the poem, celebrating both poetry and the kite:

A Kite is a Victim

A kite is a victim you are sure of.
You love it because it pulls
gentle enough to call you master,
strong enough to call you fool;
because it lives
like a desperate trained falcon
in the high sweet air,
and you can always haul it down
to tame it in your drawer.

A kite is a fish you have already caught
in a pool where no fish come,
so you play him carefully and long,
and hope he won't give up,
or the wind die down.

A kite is the last poem you've written,
so you give it to the wind,
but you don't let it go
until someone finds you
something else to do.

A kite is a contract of glory
that must be made with the sun,
so you make friends with the field
the river and the wind,
then you pray the whole cold night before,
under the travelling cordless moon,
to make you worthy and lyric and pure.

Leonard Cohen

Friday, April 03, 2009

If you find yourself inside a fairy tale...

I love fairy tales; if you do also there is a wonderful challenge for you to join, Carl's Once Upon a Time III challenge, which runs until Midsummer's Eve. I have been thinking about joining, but haven't yet...I think I will go for Quest the First: Read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time III criteria. They might all be fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology…or your five books might be a combination from the four genres. I like fantasy, so perhaps I'll go with Lesley Livingstone's Wondrous Strange, John Crowley's Love & Sleep, Gordon Dahlquist's The Dark Volume, or a reread of an old favourite, Alis Rasmussen's The Labyrinth Gate.

In any case, if you are at all familiar with fairy tales you will know there are certain rules to follow if you happen to be in the middle of a story yourself -- Neil Gaiman has thoughtfully put together a poem called Instructions for just that instance.

Here is the beginning:

by Neil Gaiman

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never

saw before.

Say "please" before you open the latch,

go through,

walk down the path.

A red metal imp hangs from the green-painted

front door,

as a knocker,

do not touch it; it will bite your fingers. go read the poem in its entirety.......
(Or you can find the poem in his story collection, Fragile Things)

And then perhaps you'd like to hear the man himself read his poem to you. It is a wonderful experience.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Buy a Poem, Read a Poem

Another Poetry Month celebration is being held, this one by our bookstore, Chumley & Pepys. For the month of April, our poetry catalogue is on sale at 30% off. Come over and take a look; there's a little bit of everything there, lots to search through!

And in celebration of the joys of selling and buying and coveting books, here's a fun poem by the entertaining versifier Eugene Field (1850-1895)

The Bibliomaniac's Prayer

Keep me, I pray, in wisdom's way
That I may truths eternal seek;
I need protecting care to-day,--
My purse is light, my flesh is weak.
So banish from my erring heart
All baleful appetites and hints
Of Satan's fascinating art,
Of first editions, and of prints.
Direct me in some godly walk
Which leads away from bookish strife,
That I with pious deed and talk
May extra-illustrate my life.

But if, O Lord, it pleaseth Thee
To keep me in temptation's way,
I humbly ask that I may be
Most notably beset to-day;
Let my temptation be a book,
Which I shall purchase, hold, and keep,
Whereon when other men shall look,
They'll wail to know I got it cheap.
Oh, let it such a volume be
As in rare copperplates abounds,
Large paper, clean, and fair to see,
Uncut, unique, unknown to Lowndes*.

*William Thomas Lowndes (d. 1843), famous English bibliographer.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A Month of Poetic Posts

It's back! April brings with it the status of National Poetry Month, and I am going to celebrate once more, just I have in 2007 and 2008, by posting a poem daily. There are many projects ongoing to celebrate the month, and one I find fascinating, which will also give you a poem a day, is the League of Canadian Poets' Poetry Planet blog. You could also read daily interviews with poets over at the National Post's Ampersand, or perhaps read Ben Okri's line-by-line poem he is publishing via Twitter.

I'm setting up a display at the library and hoping to hear some poets reading this month. What about you? Are you organizing/attending/celebrating Poetry events this month?

For the first poem of the month, I am going to share an April-ish verse by American poet Richard Wilbur (b. 1921), beautifully illustrated with a photo by (and of) my lovely niece.

A Storm in April

Some winters, taking leave,
Deal us a last, hard blow,
Salting the ground like Carthage
Before they will go.

But the bright, milling snow
Which throngs the air today—
It is a way of leaving
So as to stay.

The light flakes do not weigh
The willows down, but sift
Through the white catkins, loose
As petal-drift

Or in an up-draft lift
And glitter at a height,
Dazzling as summer’s leaf-stir
Chinked with light.

This storm, if I am right,
Will not be wholly over
Till green fields, here and there,
Turn white with clover,
And through chill air the puffs of milkweed hover.