Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Keillor has good ear for overview of American poetry

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by: Ariel Gordon

GOOD Poems: American Places (Viking, 484 pages, $36) is a poetry anthology edited by writer/radio host Garrison Keillor.

Like his previous anthologies Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times, it contains poems selected for - and read aloud on - Keillor's NPR show The Writer's Almanac.

Though Keillor declares himself "strongly biased towards the high-spirited and jazzy voice" and poems that are "straightforward, declarative, in plain English," he still manages section heads that include: The Place Where We Were Naked and 2X2X2 in addition to the more straightforward On the Road and City Life.

If you don't buy the populist conceit - given that the great majority of the writers included in Good Poems: American Places are poet/profs - then another possible framing mechanism is "poems by contemporary American lyric poets." Particular favourites of Keillor's, going by the number of poems he included from each poet, include Rexroth, Stafford and Kumin.

Organizational quibbles aside, Keillor has a good ear. His anthologies are a good place to start for anyone wanting a quick and dirty, lovely and lilting overview of American poetry.

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Speaking of contemporary lyric poets, Sue Goyette has made quite a name for herself since The True Names of Birds appeared in 1998.

In addition to being nominated for the Governor General's Award for Poetry and both the Pat Lowther and Gerald Lampert Awards, Goyette's debut is now in its seventh printing.

Her third outing, Outskirts (Brick Books, 112 pages, $19), represents a departure for the Halifax poet. Prose poems and long sequences prevail where in her previous books Goyette favoured poems a page or two in length.

Goyette has also italicized the poems here with only the odd proper noun or bit of dialogue in regular typeface. The effect is that of a writer speaking from the sidelines, as if she regrets her previous pronouncements.

"There was a secret / level to all of this but I hadn't collected enough feathers to get into it," she notes in her poem Memoir.

But perhaps the sotto voce is useful for a poet who is also the mother of teenagers, who is using the language of government and reports to write about the loss of darkness in our fluorescent cities, of privacy and time and the poisoned sea.

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Raised in Dauphin but based in Vancouver, Rachel Thompson won the First Book Competition at the Writer's Studio at Simon Fraser University.

The result is Galaxy (Anvil Press, 96 pages, $16), a coming-of-age collection full of memorable strikes of pleasure and pain, as in her Coriander:

"Your kiss hello is a bee sting. / Both of us would rather you hit me / to complete the violence / of your gesture."

Galaxy is a book of extremes: the poems rocket between childhood / adulthood, rural / urban and desire / love. And although Thompson traffics in strong images and abrupt juxtapositions, she also allows room for doubt and ambivalence.

Which is to say: Very nice! (More poems, please!)

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Ken Babstock's fourth collection, Methodist Hatchet (Anansi, 102 pages, $23) is brimming with allusions, with dry wit and the precise language with which Babstock delivers his precise images, as in his As Marginalia in John Clare's The Rural Muse:

"The wall-mounted paper dispenser // narrating nightmares of scale, sores fell / from fingers - get well petals - and grew // back puce."

The Toronto-based poet and editor's three previous collections have been nominated for every award under the sun and the poems in Methodist Hatchet are likewise dazzling and dizzying.

They're poems you attempt to follow because you trust the poet to deliver you somewhere unexpected and yet familiar, even if you get snarled in the pop culture and canonical shrubberies to either side of the path.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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