Saturday, February 26, 2011

Victoria writer digs up earthy, word-drunk humour

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by: Ariel Gordon

After writing three books of poetry and burying - and eulogizing - her parents, Susan Stenson has arrived at a sense of wry gratitude.

The Victoria poet/publisher's latest book, Nobody Move (Sono Nis, 96 pages, $15), is full of earthy, word-drunk humour, as in her "Lovers and Lesser Men":

"There's no guarantee the size of a man's hands / has anything to do with his heart. But if he cooks, sleep with him. / Garlic, gorgonzola, baba ganoush."

And so Stenson writes of well-worn husbands, of sex and childhood and shaggy dogs.

Nobody Move is denser and slightly more absurd than the stark incandescence of My Mother Agrees with the Dead (2007), even if poems of loss and taking stock creep in amid the ribald glosas and aubades and voice poems.

This is poetry that takes a page from the whip-smart dames in movies from the 1930s: clever but with a speaking heart.

* * *

In the decade since the Saskatoon-based poet Anne Szumigalski died, all but one of her 16 collections have gone out of print.

So it is a great and good thing that A Peeled Wand: Selected Poems of Anne Szumigalski (96 pages, $15) has been published by Winnipeg's Signature Editions.

For all that Szumigalski was a pioneer as a Prairie poet and beloved in her adopted Saskatchewan and beyond, this book never feels like a dusty tribute.

The poems yowl and laugh and grieve and feel as fresh today as when Szumigalski first started publishing them in 1974, as is evidenced by this snippet from "In Praise of My Own Breasts":

"A lover told me one breast is a giant puffball the other a coconut. One is full of sweet milk the other of ripe spores. He didn't say which he admired the most."

* * *

The Scare in the Crow (Goose Lane Editions, 112 pages, $18) is Fredericton-based writer Tammy Armstrong's fourth collection and sixth book.

Armstrong is a peripatetic poet known for her tightly strung verse but The Scare in the Crow finds her writing what seems to be domestic travel poetry.

She's compiled an uneasy Canadian bestiary in the book's first section, with poems about foxes, bears and porcupines. She also includes a handful about that most Canadian of pastimes, canoeing.

Armstrong appears to be plumbing what it means to return to a place after years away and begin to call it home, as in "Patron Saint Against Lost Keys":

"To use the key, / to call this address home, / your mouth shifts, forms something different: / heliotropic."

Also worth noting is how toothy and charged her language has become. Very nice!

* * *

In The Fetch: A Book of Voices (Brick Books, 120 pages, $19), Ontario-based storyteller Nico Rogers re-creates outport Newfoundland of 50 or 100 years ago in a way both surprising and familiar.

Familiar, because these texts/images have their share of gutted fish, drowned fisherman and starving widows, but surprising because there isn't the smallest drop of condescension or sentimentality in Rogers' debut.

And surprising, too, because The Fetch's orphans, widows and yearning men will make you cry as they turn themselves inside out on the page.

Rogers, who completed his MA - and a first draft of this book - at the University of Manitoba, wrote The Fetch in homage to his father. He didn't grow up in Newfoundland himself, but based his texts on interviews with relatives and community elders and time spent in archives.

And it works, thankfully, both as tribute and as art.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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