canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Hammer & Tongs: A Smoking Lung Anthology
edited by Brad Cran
Arsenel Pulp Press, 1999

Review by Ibolya Kaslik

Hammer and Tongs, edited by Brad Cran, includes the voices of 12 promising and already accomplished West Coast poets. The selections are long enough for readers to engage with each unique voice and glean insight into the hearts and minds of a younger generation of poets who are intent on both the lyricism of their craft and revelations.

Cran's organization of the various poets is a bit top-heavy as the first six poets are more serious types. Most memorable is Shane Book's "Dust" which combines a personal and family narrative and Carla Funk's series of Solomon's Wives poems which creates a Middle-Eastern world replete with sensory and sensual details. The only break from this more somber, meditative school of poetry comes with Cran's own junkie-aesthetic. For example, in "Death by a Friend by Overdose" the jaded, disenfranchised Cran reports:

what Jeff's done now, the dumb-ass is all blue and cold and dead.

Worthy of mention too is Chris Hutchison's "Thirteen Spiders" a playful series of instalments on the mythical virtue of spiders. The second half of the book is more mixed up in terms of voice as, Aubri Aleka Keleman deconstructs our first narratives - nursery rhymes, parables and myths. Most successful are the "Raven" poems as Keleman taps into an almost fearsome Hitchcockian intensity:

Darkness will streak and stain,
and caught in the stick,
break into fine dark feathers at last.

Ryan Knighton's poem "Braille", is the most poignant and well-crafted work in the collection and, interestingly enough, is the most clearly 'West-Coast' in terms of location and climate: "Vancouver's light autumn drizzle is what it is & it's finally pressing stars to dial God." Knighton's work stands out as the most mature as his ability to balance often times humourous detail with ideas is superb:

...My brother is a blond child
in his Mr. Turtle pool. There is no water & no way.

Knighton is unpretentious, more certain of his voice than some of the other poets in this collection. Worthy of high mention too is Billie Livingston who writes about abortion, adoption and adultery with grace, confidence and without cliche: "How will he feel? He? If he were sick, would you ask how I felt?"

Billeh Nickelson's cheeky, sensual and humourous poetry on homosexuality are also memorable. Nickelson is the undisputed king of one-liners -"Being a faggot means you get to/hear about everyone else's/faggot friends...". But Nickelson also captures the dynamics of gay love in his work, with tenderness:

My lover feeds me mangos
with his switchblade
close against my lips.

Although there were a couple of weak moments of first Poetry Workshop indulgence and a few teenage angst debacles, and it would have been nice to see the authors' names next to their photos (why have photos without names?) overall, Hammer and Tongs is a successful anthology. In a country as large as ours, it is inspiring to see young poets, who are several timezones and climates away, who possess the talent, humour and skill to represent their work in such a rich collective.

Ibi Kaslik is a graduate of the English Masters program at Concordia. Her work has appeared in "Matrix," "Hour" and "Peckerwood". She dreams of one day owning her very own banjo.







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