Knotting-Off: Honourable Mentions and Dishonourable Traits (Part 2 of 2)
Continuing with our two part wrap-up of this little appreciation, I’d like to talk about ten books that were strongly considered for the Knotting-Off Favourites, but for reasons very much tied to the ideas expressed in Part One, were left off. I’m just doing these in alphabetical order by author, with short considerations after the title.
Ken Babstock’s Days Into Flatspin (Anansi, 2001)
Everyone loves to talk about Airstream Land Yacht and the not-of-this decade Mean, but I’ll take his sophomore effort every time. The hesitant and troublingly distant interaction with nature is sublime and morally complex, standout poems for me thus include Bear 10 and Fire Watch. Flatspin holds a similar place in Babstock’s career as Modern and Normal does in Karen Solie’s, the transition piece between a more traditionally biographical debut and the whirling philosophical carnival to come. Both poets have three excellent books to their names, but my discussion of Flatspin would be redundant after my discussion of Modern and Normal, so here we are.
George Elliot Clarke’s Execution Poems (Gaspereau, 2001)
Crushingly beautiful, and deceptively difficult. This collection, as much as any others (maybe in cahoots with WC Williams’ Patterson and Alice Notley’s Disobedience) got me interested in the book as the meaningful unit of expression, as much if not more indivisible, if you want it to be, as smaller atomistic units such as the sound, the word, the line, the phrase, the poem, etc…
Michael Crummey’s Salvage (McClelland & Stewart, 2002)
Have we lost him completely to fiction? Mayhaps. In Salvage, Crummey does the lush pastoral thing (a style much abused by lesser poets) with verve, confidence, and great humour. The collection starts with the caution, “Sad poems ahead” and goes on to inhabit that sadness fully. Crummey also manages to do the devotional love poem well here, something that his generation of male Canadian poets all but gave up on, and seems to be just now returning to.
Dennis Lee’s Un (Anansi, 2003) and Yesno (Anansi, 2007)
This gave me something of an organizational problem. Un and Yesno are hard to separate as books (they look very much like a single product, even having a shared table of contents). Wondering whether to combine them into one textual entity (thus breaking the spirit of the “one collection per poet” rule mentioned earlier) or write them both up (thus breaking the letter of said rule), I decided to simply throw in the towel, and left the project off the list. Dennis is quite possibly my favourite living Canadian poet, for a detailed appreciation, please read this thing I did last summer.
Don McKay’s Strike/slip (McClelland & Stewart, 2006)
Imagine for a moment that poetry books were pitched in much the same way as Hollywood films. A man in a large hat and blue jeans walks into a corporate office wheeling behind him a covered display tray. He greets the executives and says, “I have the subject of an exciting, downright thrilling book of poems right here, under this handkerchief!” The executives lick their lips and lean in as he pulls the scarf away to reveal…”Rocks! All sorts of rocks! Rocks as a metaphor for the ancient earth, disinterested in our fleeting human moment! Rocks as a vehicle for meditative thought! For deep ecological attention!” The executives grow pleased and begin to scribble on the backs of their assistants’ heads. No one doubts this man for a second, because they know this is Don McKay they’re dealing with, and he’ll turn this yawn-inducing concept into exactly what he claims, winding up with one of the three or four best collections of his career.
Erin Mouré’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person (Anansi, 2001)
Moure takes the troubling neo-colonial politics of translating into English and runs with them, gleefully subverting the original work by resetting it in her own neighbourhood. Among the most politically ambitious books of the decade, sure, but also hilarious, alternatively reverent and irreverent, and able to distill big ideas into the smallest gestures and asides. Probably the unofficial #11 on the list, I can pick this book up in any mood and love it.
George Murray’s The Rush to Here (Nightwood, 2007)
Not generally considered an experimentalist, Murray does wonders here by giving the innumerable little tics and reconsiderations that populated The Hunter a single defining conceit. The idea of a sonnet that uses thought-rhymes in lieu of sound-rhymes works better than you’d think. This collection stands as something of the missing link between the form’s more stringent history and its present popularity as a rhetorical frame for philosophical free-versers. There’s an argument hiding in the subtext of this book, suggesting that the non-aural elements of a poem (its messages, images, epiphanies, questions, etc) work in very similar ways to its aural components (rhythm, meter, sounds, and so on). Eventually, you can hear the metaphors click into place at the end of the lines in Murray’s sonnets just as clearly as you can hear the rhyme scheme march along in a more traditional example of the form.
Dave O’Meara’s The Vicinity (Brick, 2003)
There’s so much to be said for poets that can do a little bit of everything. I’m not going to say it here, but, you know….it’s there to be said. Okay, then.
Todd Swift’s Winter Tennis (DC Books, 2007)
Swift likely goes under-appreciated in his home country because he lives in far-off England. However, he makes appearances as a regular booster of young poets of diverse styles and interests (myself included). Rather than bore you with the details, if you’re interested take a look at this review I wrote last year. It’s the only review I’ve ever written that I’m happy with.
Paul Vermeersch’s Between the Walls (McClelland & Stewart, 2005)
Here is the book that spent the most time waffling back and forth between the top ten list and this one. Paul is one of my very best friends, and the typical first reader of my poems. But he’s also someone that I tracked down and befriended specifically because of how much I loved Between the Walls (though I also liked Burn and The Fat Kid, Paul seems to be one of the few poets I enjoy more with each successive book, including his upcoming The Reinvention of the Human Hand, which may be better than all three). Worried about writing a defensive essay to quell my own guilt about choosing a close friend, I struggled to find an acceptable angle on the book. I found myself bogged down in questions of objectivity and personal allegiances (forgetting, apparently, that this was always a subjective personal project, from the very beginning) and ended up abandoning ship on my original plan to include Walls in the top ten. Perhaps a mistake, I’m not sure.
There’s no books in either the Top Ten or this shadow cabinet from 2009. I feel like the kind of critical writing I wanted to do needed the benefit of lapsed time, and the books I loved from this past year didn’t quite have the necessary gestation to get a fair shot with their peers. For the record, the 2009 books I considered for the list were the new ones from Ms. Holbrook, Mr. Langer, Mr. Starnino, and Mr. Surani.
On a personal note (as if blogs had non-personal notes…) when I started this project in late October, I gave myself a trial period from then until the end of the year. I didn’t want to commit the kind of energy I felt a true engagement would require if nobody was reading the results, so I decided that 1,000 visitors would be a nice round number to shoot for, if I got that many by the end of December, I’d keep going. As my nifty little traffic tracker ticks towards 6,000 tonight, I’d like to thank all the people, places, and things that sent readers my way over these two months. I’ll try to pay it back, in much the same way a barnacle tries to pay back a sperm whale. Thanks to the following: Christian Bök, Bookninja, Chris Banks, Coach House Press, The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, Open Book Toronto, Brian Palmu, Poetry Daily, The Poetry Foundation, Alessandro Porco, Sina Queyras, the Quill & Quire, Stephen Rowe, Vehicule Press, Paul Vermeersch, Zachariah Wells, and the many Facebookers and Tweeters who linked in. Special thanks to anyone who enriched the conversation by writing in with spirited words.
I’ll have a post up on the Knotting-Off #1 sometime soon. Promise.