Saturday, October 23, 2010

Gary Barwin collection firmly in experimental tradition

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by: Ariel Gordon

HAMILTON writer Gary Barwin's latest collection, The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House Books, 96 pages, $17), is firmly in the experimental tradition.

Even though Barwin has supplemented what he calls his "old-school English language technology" (i.e. writing) with poetry-generating software, it is important to note that this is not a dispassionate surrealism.

There's a real depth of feeling and a surprising lyricism in these poems, such as "Inside H":

"we mist the sky with our blue plum lungs / make heaven heron-dark with our breathing / fog the limits with spirit and blue exhalation."

Those who enjoy playing connect-the-dots can follow this poem back to Vancouver's bpNichol, who grew up in the H section of Winnipeg's Wildwood Park.

Literary sleuthing aside, this is a collection for both the heart and the head. Highly recommended.

* * *

You could argue that every poet has a crow poem in them. It turns out that Winnipeg's Ken Kowal had a book's worth.

Though he has been writing and publishing for many years, Gimp Crow (Turnstone Press, 70 pages, $17) is his first full collection.

That maturity shows in Gimp Crow's dissonant musicality, its playfulness with language and structure that's undercut but also underlined by the poet's short, tight stanzas.

See his "parting shot": "Bad bye Gimp Crow / Un great full duck / Go wander coop Blow / Get lightning struck."

In addition to its clever anthropomorphism, Gimp Crow also explores the age-old exhortation "Go west, young man," which is as relevant now as it was when Manitoba was founded.

Which means, of course, travel poetry from the point of view of a crow. And other strange pleasures.

* * *

Toronto poet/prof Catherine Graham's latest book, Winterkill (Insomniac Press, 64 pages, $12), is the last of a trilogy written from the bottom of a water-filled limestone quarry.

Given that the quarry adjoined Graham's childhood home - and that she lost both her parents as a young woman - it should come as no surprise that the depths she's been plumbing here are largely those of grief.

And so, like grieving, working through this poetry is a slightly irrational process.

For instance, Graham invests the colours red and green with layers of meaning to the point that it verges on self-induced synesthesia.

But the repetition of this and other motifs (wings, water) is incantatory - and effective.

* * *

Victoria resident Gary Geddes has published more than 35 books over his long and distinguished career.

His new collection of poetry, Swimming Ginger (Goose Lane, 96 pages, $20), consists of ekphrastic poetry based on the Qingming Shanghe Tu scroll, an artwork from approximately 1127 AD that depicts the city of Bianliang (modern-day Kaifeng in northeast China).

Compliments are due Fredericton-based Goose Lane, which it seems has spared no expense in publishing it, including full-colour reproductions of the scroll.

French flaps notwithstanding, Swimming Ginger is specifically written from the point of the view of people depicted on the scroll.

As such, it follows the same modus operandi as Geddes' The Terracotta Army. That book - originally published in 1984 and reissued this fall by Goose Lane - was written from the point of view of a handful of the more than 8,000 individually sculpted life-sized statues interred with the first emperor of China.

Swimming Ginger takes the conceit one step further than its predecessor, however, in that Geddes gives the scroll's creator house room.

He then permits himself a long poem in his own voice on perils of life and art-making that impishly slips in and out of the vernacular of the other poems:

"This is neither ballad nor hymn, / my friend. 'Song' among the classics / refers to dancing, so get up // off your butt and shake those buns."

Winnipegger Ariel Gordon's first book of poetry, Hump, was published this past spring.

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