Saturday, June 26, 2010

Debut collection polished, properly incomplete

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by: Ariel Gordon

TO borrow from the patter of real-estate television, Melanie Siebert's debut ticks all the boxes.

Deepwater Vee (McClelland & Stewart, 96 pages, $19) is polished and also properly incomplete, euphoric in its use of language but also at the same time elegiac.

The Victoria-based poet surveys Canada's northern rivers, and her poems are full of the jargon of back-country campers and whitewater enthusiasts on the one hand and of resource extraction on the other.

In addition to these wetted-down works, Siebert writes from the point of view of three characters: an urban busker, a grandmother figure and Canadian explorer and fur trader Alexander Mackenzie.

Given that these poems are the most eco-critical, it makes sense that Siebert does not fully submerge herself in Mackenzie. He is a scowl she wears for the sake of the poems, as in her Mackenzie's Dream:

"Terrain in a-fig, with or without angina. / Bribes grease his lope, his long-legged, drill-rig gait."

Readers increasingly angered by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill will find lots to think on here.

* * *

Robert Kroetsch is a senior poet - both in terms of chronology and reputation - and so it is a great relief to see that he still firmly believes in play.

In Too Bad: Sketches Towards a Self-Portrait (University of Alberta Press, 98 pages, $25), Kroetsch looks back as far his childhood in Alberta but dwells also on his recent past in Winnipeg.

Those more accustomed to Kroetsch's expansive use of the page in works such as Seed Catalogue will have to get used to a book full of three-line stanzas, some rhyming, some not.

But Kroetsch, in the poem Touch, has even wryly anticipated this adjustment period:

"Time is a kind of poet, writing three-line stanzas / on the blank above our eyes. We read the lines / with our fingers. We rush to the pharmacy."

The book's cover also brilliantly - and hilariously - summarizes Kroetsch's entire pervy oeuvre.

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

* * *

Learning to Count (Frontenac House, 88 pages, $16) is former Winnipegger Douglas Burnet Smith's 13th book.

This collection like its author, is constantly in transit, locating readers in France, Italy and Corsica.

Given Kroetsch's assertion that Burnet Smith "hears landscape," the poems in Learning to Count are best understood as site-specific recordings.

In Paris, for instance, Burnet Smith takes his son to school and is confronted every day by a plaque naming the murdered schoolchildren shipped to Auschwitz by Nazi collaborators.

And so the reader, in the title poem, is confronted with the image of "some small hands visible between slats, colder, colder, and only more / snow on the platform."

Burnet Smith's poems function as subtle accretions, as lilting songs that are not complete until the last line has been sung.

But the effect of his poems - and their range, capturing the instant and the epic equally well - is magnificent.

* * *

In Fallout (Hagios Press, 88 pages, $18), Ottawa resident Sandra Ridley pits the nuclear family against the nuclear age.

Her debut makes the link between the death of her elder sister in 1958 and the nuclear weapons testing in the U.S. around that time.

Ridley's family, like thousands of others in Canada and the U.S., were exposed to radiation downwind of the tests.

Ridley is somehow able to parse the emotion - and the science - of what would be a daunting subject to most writers.

And she does it with these marvellous matter-of-fact long lines, as in the poem Safety Intervals:

"Some sheep died. / Some unable to stand, bled. / Some were burned, but still stood. // Some sheep, the Commanders were certain, were not harmed at all -- / they ordered soldiers to find them."

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer and editor. Her first poetry collection, Hump, was released this spring by Ontario's Palimpsest Press.

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