Saturday, February 27, 2010

Authorial tampering gives readers a choice

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by: Ariel Gordon

A deus ex machina is a plot device that harkens back to Greek tragedy whereby an insurmountable problem is suddenly solved by some contrived means.

The long poem that constitutes Winnipegger Jonathan Ball's Ex Machina (BookThug, 80 pages, $18) may have done away with the deus but is no less prone to authorial tampering: each line in his numbered poems concludes with the number of another poem.

Which gives readers a choice: beginning-middle-end or choose-your-own-adventure.

It's an apt device for a book that was as much harvested (using tools such as Google's Googlism application) as composed and focuses on the intersects - and divergences - between humanity, machines and books.

Ball, who recently returned home after completing a PhD in English at the University of Calgary, covers a lot of ground in his debut: What is a book? How do we disseminate ideas? What is a machine? And how do we use them?

Though Ball is nothing if not cheekily erudite in Ex Machina, the poem is also, at its core, just another poem about poetry:

"If you are going to insist / on a poem, [01] / I am going to persist / in this evasion. [13]" (39)


The second section of Toronto poet/music journalist Damian Rogers' debut collection, Paper Radio (ECW Press, 96 pages, $17), takes on the project of writing an imagined 'last Shaker.'

More properly, members of the United Society of Believers, Shakers lived communally, believed in celibacy and practised ecstatic dance during worship.

Though Paper Radio as a whole has thematic and imagistic throughlines (the colour red, birds) whose power is torqued by surrealistic flourishes, Rogers' manifest smarts seem to find purpose and direction in this section:

"My body's for bruising / my heart is her sky. / I train my breath / upwards. / I practice. / I die." (Song of the Last Shaker)

The American-born Rogers at play, on the other hand, is canny and crafty but also emotionally true:

"Every day there are new stores. / They look so shiny and great, / mouths stuffed with presents. // I am calculating exactly how much they owe / me and wondering if I can be paid in toys." (Sleeping Till Ten)

(Two more review-lets after the turn...)


Joe Denham of B.C. works as a fisherman in addition to writing poetry.

As such, his second book, Windstorm (Nightwood Editions, 72 pages, $18), is extremely well-informed in its project: an extended praise-song/elegy for the ocean and denunciation of those who have contributed to its ruin. Himself included, of course:

"And I wondered why I had ever sung, or how, / of this sea fished to fallow; the sky's lachrymal."

Sometimes working in terza rima, the rhyming three-line form created by Dante, sometimes in sonnets, sometimes in free verse, Denham repeats lines and images, but the repetition works.

Windstorm is a book you lean into; its combination of passion for subject matter and hard-earned craft is almost enough to bowl a reader over.


Life in the Canopy (Hagios Press, 136 pages, $18) is Regina poet Bruce Rice's third book.

Featuring photographs by Saskatchewan visual artist Cherie Westmoreland in addition to Hagios' usual stunning design, Life in the Canopy finds Rice with his aperture set wide, taking everything in.

Its subject is everything within reach, literally and figuratively, of the canopy of trees that envelop prairie cities like Winnipeg and Regina.

Even though Rice is aiming for a particular time and place, many of the poems have wider ripples, as in the following poem on a cyclone that hit Regina in 1912:

"Disconsolate twilight. / We'll come back tomorrow to grope through the caves / of our homes. / Doctors shout, Lift up that lamp, God dammit, / as the dark moans around them."

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Her first book of poetry, Hump, will be launched at McNally Robinson May 5.

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