Saturday, August 28, 2010

Torontonian's collection focuses on environmental concerns

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by: Ariel Gordon

THE Good News About Armageddon (Brick Books, 112 pages, $19) is the third book from Torontonian Steve McOrmond.

In keeping with the title, this is mostly irreverent eco-poetry, as in this excerpt from the title sequence:

"This just in from Hubble: a pair of black holes / locked in death dance. Make it your screen saver."

Reassuringly, the vulgar, witty snark of tweets and Facebook status updates is underlined by a real melancholy, a real search on McOrmond's part for what, exactly, we're all meant to do now.

Straight Crossing, another long poem, details the grounding of a ferry just off McOrmond's native P.E.I.

It is a much leaner, much more intimate take on large-scale disaster, even as it telescopes in and out of local history, other accidents, other realities.

* * *

Michelle Elrick, a poet and musician who splits her time between B.C. and Manitoba, recently won the nationwide Show Me the Book contest sponsored by local literati CV2 and J. Gordon Shillingford Publishers.

The result is Elrick's first full collection, To Speak (The Muses' Company, 96 pages, $15).

Best described as travel poetry that stays home, Elrick's work maps the distance, literal and metaphoric, between her two bases.

Like McOrmond, Elrick asks, "What now?" But her referents are longing and grief, identity and place, as in the opening poem, Bread:

"I shape the loaf with a roll and even pressure / of hands accustomed to morning prayer. / Score the taut skin with the edge of a knife -- / North and South, the passing flights / of birds."

Of particular interest is the long title poem, but there is enough alchemy and spark here to satisfy even the most exacting readers.

* * *

U.K. writer Ruth Padel wrote six books of poetry and two critical works on reading modern poetry before she took her great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin as her subject.

It's a brilliant conceit, but what Darwin: A Life in Poems (Vintage Books, 176 pages, $24) gains in terms of authenticity and access is squandered when it comes to the poetry itself.

The poems are crowded by annotations and footnotes that include dates, geographical locations, even bios of relevant characters. Literally and figuratively, Padel has not left herself enough room.

Bright spots include the poems from the point of view of Darwin collaborator Alfred Wallace. Since they don't have the same "burden of proof" for Padel, she is able to beg, borrow and steal details from the historical record and make art.

The poems - as in A Spot of Malaria in the Moluccas, for instance - are much looser:

"A lucid interval, a slime wind between / the liquid shiverings sucking his flesh / like a lamprey. Yes. These are his hands. Yes."

Also great fun are the poem titles, which include A Desperate Way to Avoid Paying Your Tailor, The Awfulness of Plymouth, and Why Hermaphrodite is Second-Best.

* * *

Apologetic (Turnstone Press, 120 pages, $17) is the fourth book from B.C's Carla Funk.

Written in part while Funk served as Victoria's inaugural poet laureate, Apologetic cements her reputation as the mistress of the small moment writ large.

As in The Sewing Room (Turnstone Press, 2006), her previous title, Funk touches on relationships, faith and the passage of the seasons, as in her Evening Song:

"The complicated heads of deer raise / question marks in fog. Neighbourhood dogs / turn and turn, then stretch out in the sun's oily rags."

Though Funk writes with confidence and grace, a reader might wish for more spit and a touch less polish.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipegger whose first book of poetry, Hump, was published this spring.

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