Sunday, December 26, 2010

Author speaks in many voices in debut novel-in-verse

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by: Ariel Gordon

WENDY Phillips' debut, a young adult novel-in-verse called Fishtailing (Coteau Books, 200 pages, $15) was recently awarded the 2010 Governor General's Literary Award for children's literature.

Phillips, who teaches high school in Richmond, B.C., has managed several minor miracles in Fishtailing.

First, she writes convincingly from the point of view not only of four very different teenagers but also their creative writing teacher and guidance counsellor.

Second, she writes about child abuse, mixed-race identity politics and traumatized refugee children without sounding earnest or preachy. And, finally, she manages to tell a fairly complex story without overburdening the poems with exposition or plot.

Highly recommended for any older teenagers on your list that you want to impress.

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Like many in Saskatchewan's thriving literary community, Saskatoon writer Dave Margoshes has taken advantage of the artists' colonies at St. Peter's Abbey in Muenster.

Dimensions of an Orchard (Black Moss Press, 110 pages, $19), which won the Anne Szumigalski Poetry Award at the 2010 Saskatchewan Book Awards, is set in - and framed by - Margoshes' experiences in that religious community.

Which means that this, his fifth collection of poetry, opens with a slightly smart-alecky re-telling of the Genesis story before moving on to poems that focus on the process of writing poems, as in his "Reading poems at McIntosh Point":

"You read a poem that moves within me / like the eyes of the bear we saw from the car / driving here, the frightened menace, the awe. / The beer is cold as the night, and I shiver."

This is poetry too skeptical to be born again but tender enough to believe in almost anything.

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As in Dimensions of an Orchard, Richard Greene's latest collection is a re-examination of ways of being in the world, of love and spirituality and decline.

Boxing the Compass (Vehicule Press, 80 pages, $16), which won the 2010 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry, spans 20 of the Cobourg, Ont., poet and prof's life.

Given that it includes poems from his two previous titles, Boxing the Compass could almost be dubbed a selected-poems. But you'd never know unless you'd read the acknowledgements.

Which is to say that the seams holding together these poems - the learning process inherent in 20 years of thinking and writing - don't show.

And that is, in and of itself, a neat trick.

Particularly good are the poems about Greene's father living and dying, which provide a specific mortality amidst slightly more formal poems about Christian martyrs and meditations on place.

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Craig Poile, who co-owns Ottawa bookstore Collected Works, recently won the 2010 Archibald Lampman Award and the Ottawa Book Award for his second collection.

True Concessions (Goose Lane Editions, 76 pages, $18) contains poetry that acts like the light that knifes through a sky full of clouds, drawing the eye to a barn or a tree or the stillness in the middle of a field.

In Poile's case, the things illuminated include a cotton candy booth at a fairway, a bluebottle that lands on his hand, and his parents' beige rotary phone, as in his "Extension 1":

"With a wail, my sister bashed the phone, / Smashed the dial to pieces / With the receiver, like a cave dweller / Staving in skulls with a bone."

Also worth noting are poems that chronicle office cubicle days and nights with small children, whose restrained but very present emotion ever so slightly undermine Poile's orderly verses.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer whose first book, Hump (Palimpsest Press), is nearly a year old.

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