Sunday, October 25, 2009

Collection achieves ambiguous wisdom

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by: Ariel Gordon

Though Regina writer Andrew Stubbs has published three books in his other life as a professor of rhetoric and composition, White Light Primitive (Hagios Press, 96 pages, $18) is his first collection of poetry.

Taken as a whole, Stubbs' work achieves what most writers hope for in mid-career: an ambiguous wisdom that escapes most Young Turks.

The poems on offer here eschew title case and in most cases punctuation, and his line breaks intend uncertainty. But Stubbs is still somehow able to parse shifts in feeling and thought precisely.

Particularly good is the long poem war, where Stubbs re-inscribes his father's experience as a soldier in the Second World War:

"war is in our bodies. we see / with war, all dead things becoming gentle, / restful. the living are the / smell. rubble. hunger. / without death there / wouldn't be anything to talk / about, memories to make us powerful, empty."

* * *

The first half of Toronto writer Soraya Peerbaye's first book, Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names (Goose Lane, 108 pages, $19), is comprised of a poem-by-poem contemplation of the relationship between objects and people, what we choose to share with each other, "what our hands have held."

Peerbaye, whose ancestral home is Mauritius, lapses delightfully into (fully glossed) French and Creole as she writes warmly of pistachios and mangos but also stethoscopes and harmonicas.

Once the title sequence is reached, however, the book changes pace.

Drawn from a trip Peerbaye made to the Antarctic, the poems travel blindingly fast, moving from the informed zeal of eco-poetry on whaling and long-line fishing, to the wistful intimacy of family poems, to the elegiac reach of writing on a chapter of Tierra del Fuego's colonial history.

But despite the range of work here and the number of registers Peerbaye is working in, she is always in control of her material. Highly recommended.

* * *

The Exile Book of Poetry in Translation: 20 Canadian Poets Take on the World (Exile Editions, 299 pages, $25) is Toronto poet and novelist Priscila Uppal's response to a call to action from W.H. Auden.

Auden famously asserted that a writer's only political duty is "to translate the fiction and poetry of other countries so as to make them available to readers in his own."

Uppal Canadian responses are varied, from Christian Bok's homophonic translations of Arthur Rimbaud's Voyelles and George Elliot Clarke's translations of other literary translations of Alexander Pushkin to Paul Vermeersch's translations of literal translations.

The introductions that each poet provides to their works-in-translation are easily as fascinating as the poems themselves. Dionne Brand, for instance, admits to taking Spanish lessons over a period of years so she could translate Pablo Neruda more faithfully.

* * *

Vancouver Island writer Maleea Acker's first book, The Reflecting Pool (Pedlar Press, 94 pages, $20), reflects a lineage that includes an MFA from the University of Victoria as well as five summers in remote Alberta firetowers.

In poems that are canny mash-ups of city/travel/nature poetry, Acker touches down in urban Mexico, semi-urban Spain and rural Saskatchewan.

The poems, many of which are built of two-line stanzas, reach for grace, for release, for ways to encapsulate and order the world:

"Ours was the happening in between, / a diffusion of streets into history, an environment // defined by you, unrolling, alleys, not drawn but born."

In the book's third section, however, Acker goes home, writing about her father, a familiar landscape. The well-crafted, well-considered elegance of the earlier poems slips a bit as the poet is forced to contemplate losing her home base:

"Someday my father will die: the place // will be the one I return to the rest of my life, / to recall the sorrow, to swim past dark in its dry husk."

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Her first book of poetry will be published in the spring by Palimpsest Press of Kingsville, Ont.


Brenda Schmidt said...

Nice! And nice to see the Winnipeg Free Press's continued dedication to books!

Ariel Gordon said...

Thanks! And yes, the WFP should be lauded for not doing away with their books section, esp. in this time of newspaper jeopardy.

Speaking of which, it's kind of funny that my first poetry review appeared in the last Sunday edition of the Books Section. As of next week, they're shifting it, along with most of the rest of Sunday's usual content, to Saturday's paper.