February 21, 2009

donaldson_palilaliaJeffery Donaldson
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008

“Palilalia is disordered speech. According to the Oxford English dictionary, this lesser known vocal tic is ‘an involuntary repetition of words, phrases, or sentences.’”

Defined on the back cover, Palilalia sets the tone for a particular type of wordplay, one where the reader is dragged into a repetitious patterning of language and imagery. If you expect Donaldson’s poetry to skip like a broken record, however, you’ll soon discover how wrong you are. Donaldson works inside the grooves of sound, and manages to avoid redundancy while letting the beats catch just enough to create layers of meaning.

Crafting his poems with utmost care, Donaldson puts down words with a sophisticated precision, creating complex patterns that must be explicated with equal care. Repetition does, in fact, play an important role in his work; the astute reader will notice words, images, and concepts reappear ever so subtly throughout the collection. These repetitions are anything but involuntary, as we learn from the poet himself.

In Museum the poet is visited by the ghost of – is that Northrop Frye? – while waiting for a subway in a darkened tunnel. The apparition comes to shed some light on the poetic process, urging the perfectionist to loosen his necktie and let the “metaphoric roughage” loosen his output. Here we learn of his Touretter’s tics, creating mental hiccups the poet struggles to withhold, lest they disturb the precision of his stanzas. Instead the tics manifest themselves in the obsessive distribution of sounds and words, all the anguish worked out in the brain rather than on the page. One wonders what the effect of such loosening would be on the final product: would Donaldson’s verse take on the effusive rambling of Whitman’s were he to mimic his barbaric yawp?

In Palilalia, the title poem, Donaldson weaves a pattern of repetition into the structure, reusing language from the second and last lines of a preceding stanza in the first and third of the next. The effect is a braided inversion that picks up the inheritance of the Touretter’s son, and echoes the obsessions of the father:

“those unruly tongue-clucks, snorts, and growls.
The unfinished poem you circle towards
is the obsessive’s curse: revise, revise
always until the listening stills. Let your mind rest.”

Palilalia is more than an exploration of sound. Divided into four sections, the book breathes new life into familiar topics such as death, sexuality, and memory. Despite this, the poet’s strength lies in his ability to examine less explored material with sensitivity, as he does beautifully in Ultra Sound, Life-Guard and Four Echoes, and Cashew. And while the writing has a tendency towards density, his stylistic control over the page lessons this effect. Overall, this is a book to be enjoyed, and a success hopefully to be repeated. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2009. Purchase


The Other Sister

February 19, 2009

othersister1Lola Lemire Tostevin
Inanna Publications, 2008

At 97, Julia Brannon, still feisty and independent, moves into the Evenholme retirement home in compliance with the wishes of her daughter and granddaughter. Forced to acknowledge her advancement in years, Julia begins a journal of her past as a gift to her family. In this journal she records her relationship with Sissa, her identical twin Jane, as they come of age, are courted, and eventually grow apart. Aside from this exploration of her own history, Julia befriends Lena, another identical twin haunted by her suffering at Auschwitz and the consequential loss of her sister, and Daniel, a retired mathematician. Through these new friendships Julia is able to overcome some old prejudices, therefore deepening her compassion even at such an old age.

The Other Sister has all the necessary ingredients for a successful end-of-life novel – an old cynic given reason to examine and recount her past, a tender romance between two people old enough not to have expectations, a progressive granddaughter with whom the protagonist can exchange banter, a valuable lesson learned late in life, and so on. The execution, however, could have been stronger.

The narrative alternates between third person omniscient and first person for Julia’s journal entries, in an attempt to bring intimacy to some of the story’s larger themes. The entries, however, focus on very selective parts of the twins’ lives, providing a pat illustration of these themes and rendering them more than slightly sentimental in the grand scheme of things. They do little to illuminate the nuances of this particular relationship, and leave the imagination wanting.

In addition to this, the banter and exchanges between Julia and her family quickly become predictable, and her experiences at Evenholme fail to strike a nerve. Instead you have a novel hoping to communicate several large ideas about generational gaps, anti-Semitism, and sibling rivalry, and trying to tie them together through a gimmick: the flashback. Add to this a slightly ambiguous genealogy that launches a surprise attack on the unsuspecting reader, with a wholly unjustified plot twist in the last stretch. True, everything gets tied together rather neatly in the final chapters, but the result is less than satisfying. What we have here is a book trying to go out with a big bang, but succeeding only in creating a cacophony of little moments. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2009. Purchase

What It Feels Like for a Girl

February 12, 2009

516yl9gm0xl_sl500_aa240_Jennica Harper
Anvil Press, 2008

What It Feels Like for a Girl is a book-long poem divided into four sections that represent stages in the life of a teenage girl. The poems explore friendship and sexuality through the eyes of a young girl, while using a school dance as a refrain to illustrate the confusion and threat that teenage sexuality can pose. Together the speaker and her Angel explore the world of pornography and sex, emulating their heroine, the leather-and-lace Madonna of the 80’s. The intimacy of the girls’ friendship quickly becomes a field for exploring their own burgeoning curiosity about the female body, which, expectedly, leads to more confusion and ambiguity.

Harper’s writing is simple and unadorned, with language much more suited to the teenage girls the book deals with than adults. While not inherently juvenile, the story holds little interest for anyone who has been thirteen and survived. That said, as a poem for young women it reads remarkably well. It has both the grit and glamour to appeal to the Bonne Bell crowd. The dance refrain, which builds around Angel’s attempt at seductive dancing and ends with her being heckled and punished by authority, has a realism to it that is sure to make it strike home. From my perspective however, the most interesting part of the story was the young speaker’s love for famous poets, which she suddenly abandoned, and is given a much too cursory glance. Reviewed by Marianne Perron 2009. Purchase

Paper Oranges

February 10, 2009

cpaperoCarolyn Marie Souaid
Signature Editions, 2008

Divided into three sections, Paper Oranges comes as a poetic response to Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon. Souaid has a knack for assembling clips and images, creating depth from a scattered handful. Her words are carefully plucked, and her arrangements are neither stingy nor indulgent. What we have here is a collection of poems that attain buoyancy, like a bouquet of red balloons against dismal waters.

The first section, The Weight, takes its name from one of the poems, The Unbearable Weight of Being, which in turn, inverts the title of Kundera’s novel. In this inversion is suggested a heaviness to existence that drags one down, that keeps one from attaining enlightenment. Where is God in this collection of poems? He is unavailable, behind the scenes, absent. Instead we have rain and rain, insomnia, stagnation. Many of the poems contemplate a third person “she” that hovers slightly out of sight and is tied to a “he” that captures her history, and at times in entwined with another. This gives the impression of a fossilized marriage and suggests an infidelity:

your wayward, jezebel name
way off the radar, wavering
already because of her
in black & white, focused,
holding on

In this stanza from Skating we have the godless, hell-bound jezebel whose very existence seems challenged by another, the ego undetectable, threatening to fade away. Somewhere within this static shapes begin to solidify, and Souaid uses these to create a story about waiting, although for what is never made clear.

The second section, Inertia, is an exploration of prisons, whether they be real or imagined, of habit, or steel bars. In these poems Souaid collects fragments from different lives, and juxtaposes solitude and mass existence. Prayers, images, and dreams build a despondent landscape, with the threat of obliteration hovering quietly on the horizon. In many of these poems the end is nigh, attainable through the darkness of the mind, Armageddon, a quiet avalanche, or simply the extinguishing of spirit. At times grim, the imagery is sometimes unexpectedly vibrant, pulsing with life, as in this excerpt from Forty Thousand Wishes on Your Birthday:

To be universal, to be the scandalous
burn-your-bra snarl in the yard:
jungle of exploded pollen

The third section, Flight, uses the metaphor of flight and travel, to examine the earth as a “pixilated memory”, crowded with color, objects, and words. Here Souaid swoops from the familiar to the sublime, breaking the mundane world she catalogues with the sharpness of a sudden pang.

Midflight, you snooze
through an even band of galactic light.

Until turbulence: electroshock’s
shrieking comet through your blood.

For every action, planetary reaction.

Even at her worst, Souaid hints at something profound lurking beneath her poetry. If her fluidity and agility stumble along some of the more fragmented passages, the reader is able to brush away the barbs and discover behind them some shard of lucidity so piercing that it carries forward its weight. Although slightly heavy-handed, the following poem, entitled Most Diminishment Slips in Under the Radar, still offers an escape as the character is upended from her sleepy life.

The plain white bread you ate religiously for years
secured your place in the Lego world
of homes and gardens.

Until the “unpredictable” relegating you
to a speck:

from the deep valley, the arctic screech.

By the end of Paper Oranges, one is left asking the age-old question: where is Godot? And while certainly he isn’t here, the reader has come this far being carried with such care that is no longer seems to matter. Reviewed by Marianne Perron 2009. Purchase

Pardon Our Monsters

February 7, 2009

Andrew Hood
Véhicule Press 2007

When Trevor Furguson champions your writing, you know you’re onto a good thing; usually his critiques are intended to scare sloppy creative writing students straight. I know from experience.

Pardon Our Monsters is anything but apologetic. Hood’s debut packs enough punch to keep readers reeling as he mixes sentiment and vulgarity, vulnerability and cynicism. This award-winning collection features a lineup of “small town anti-heroes” caught in the far from riveting community of Corbet, Ontario. Left to their own devices they strive for attention, satisfaction, or just plain old kicks, all the while proving what little monsters they can be.

In the title story a family of bullies is granted amnesty by the town around them, with the exception of the narrator, a victim of their violence harboring a volatile resentment. In “Make It a Better Place” a disfigured drug dealer is held hostage by his stepmother and forced to travel to California to the site of the Michael Jackson trial, where they find themselves in the thick of Jackson-fever. “Giving Up the Ghost” features horny teens, baseball hall-of-famers, and Samantha Fox.

Hood’s writing is clear and sharp. Never getting bogged down with superfluity, it comes at you with clever quips, taunting story lines, and the occasional twist intent on capturing the reader in a full nelson. There’s a childish violence to many of the characters in Monsters that sometimes catches you off guard, but the quality of the writing is usually enough to sustain credibility. Violence and forgiveness are indeed running threads (along with men with breasts) as punches are thrown, faces broken, and grudges die hard.

Schooled in pop culture the way most young and hip writers are, Hood sprinkles his stories with enough cultural references to inform readers that his characters know what’s what – without making them feel like losing game show contestants. An entertaining read for those in the know. Reviewed by Marianne Perron 2009. Purchase