canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Paul Vermeersch
ECW Press, 2000

Personal Effects, poems
by Ronna Bloom
Pedlar Press, 2000

by Ian Samuels
Red Deer Press, 2000

Reviewed by rob mclennan

Burn, by Toronto poet Paul Vermeersch, feels very much like a first book, with all the strengths & weaknesses it implies, including a host of physically & emotionally strong poems alongside other poems that don't live up to the mark. One of the best examples of the first, "A Portrait Of My Sister's Roommate" (p 17), which could easily be the strongest in the collection, tells of a photo of the late girl, given to the narrator's parents, after the girl's wake in their house, as "they put it in the basement / with my grandmother's knick-knacks, / my paintings from high school, / and all the other things / they never wanted in the first place, / but keep."

Vermeersch, founder & host of the popular I.V. Lounge Reading Series (& subsequent editor of the I.V. Lounge Reader anthology, published by Insomniac Press), is very good at writing true things, & real things, in a way reminiscent of David Donnell's narrative sweetness & brutality, but more innocent, & naive. In Burn, he talks of rural lives, of family, hopes, & those other things you wanted but couldn't have - "...sometimes when you look at me / I notice a slow ghost moving through the rooms, // wearing your perfume, touching / my back." (p 92, "RAINSTORM").

I like the way Vermeersch says much without having to say it all. There's a rough-cut grace to these poems, & a clear but hidden violence suggested, in poems that roam the countryside like a warm wind through the fields.

Some of Vermeersch's poems try too hard, such as "MELANIE PANHANDLING" (p 69-70), or "Megan On Fernwood Avenue" ( 71-3), as you see what he's trying to achieve so badly, but can't, & it pains to read.

Other poems, such as "When I Was Superhuman" (p 14), or "The Day Dogs Die" (p 15), evoke the myriad of childhood sensation very well, in finely crafted lines - "I was a powerful, beautiful boy, / and I could call down thunder and lightening, / you know, / if I really wanted to." The first of the three sections, "the day dogs die", is the highlight of the book, with other strong pieces such as "The Skaggs Boys" (p 18), ending "the four of them lived like picks and shovels / in the dirt. They were blamed for everything - / for the egging on devil's night, blody lips / for stolen bicycles, missing cats // the things we had to live with." I love the implication that perhaps they were responsible, or perhaps not, the narrative "we" guilty instead. I like that you can't tell, & have to read between it, as most parts of childhood & memory often are.

Never cut & dry, but cloudy.

When Ronna Bloom's first collection of poems, Fear of the Ride (Carleton University Press) came out a few years ago, I remember being taken by the emotional fullness & stylistic sparseness of her lines, each phrase carefully & deliberately placed, but not obviously so. In Personal Effects, the follow-up, Bloom shifts slightly with longer lines, & less fragmented bodies, & ever longer prose pieces. Bloom's poems are best when she writes just below the line of giving it all, where the reader has to fill in the gaps, but knowing, exactly, what those gaps are. "Standing with my arms out, / full of wanting to hold / that lake and all the trees around it // but can't quite get / my arms around them, // I too take pictures." (p 36, "BLACK LAKE III, Aperture").

One of the sections that stands out, is the section/series "BLACK LAKE", an eleven-part poem (or series of poems) that weave through what Bloom is best at - the small poem fragment turning back in on itself, sparingly & easily, "...will wait with his shutter open / for their power to sizzle film, show up / the black light of lake, for the image / to show up black." (p 35, BLACK LAKE II, Meticulous (D)").

Meticulous would be the best way to describe Bloom's poems, although there are some that don't quite work, rambling on without purpose, such as "RETREAT" (p 91), & parts of the nine-part "THIS IS YOUR FATHER" (p 24-8).

Bloom is a photographer's poet, writing poems as a series of portraits, whether of people, stories or ideas, invoking connections with the work of others in that vein, such as Stephanie Bolster. "The urgency to touch / has slowed slightly, the condoms / not used at the same clocked / pace." (p 72, "WE'RE GETTING CLOSER NOW"). She is brilliant at exclaiming the astonishments - "Where'd she learn to do that? Where'd she / learn to love like that?" (p 29, "LONG, BROWN EYELASHES").

Personal Effects, the collection, is just what the title suggests, of personal movements & belongings, whether items with histories & stories of their own, or those belongings between people - "The dead air on the phone between me and / you is a picture I couldn not take, / but there's a space reserved for it, in the book." (p 46, "HOLD"). Really, it's the last two stanzas of the five page "Personal Effects" that put the book as a whole into perspective - "In my mother's house the book shelves hold the books / and the books hold the bookmarks:", ending with "An archeology. I don't take / what is flattened there. Just take it in." (p 70).

In Calgary poet Ian Samuels' first poetry collection, Cabra, the young poet has written a unique small book, working through a single fragmented whole on the idea of knowing a place as much as the particulars of the place itself. In magnificent turns, Cabra speaks through the main character & marrator, Cabra, of Brazil, a place the author has never been - the country, & the myths & stories of that country (not the Terry Gilliam film, although Robert DeNiro would not be unwelcome here). "Perhaps our eyes would birth the land." (p 5, "You Excellency,").

To see this place is to invent it, building it from the ruins of its own histories. Samuels writes this as an "exploration of the imagination of Brazil", making discussions of comparisons to the actual place irrelevant. Cabra reads like an anti-tourist guide, a series of admonishments & testimonials, & letters, to & from the narrator, Cabra. "The cruel scene invited an enchanted land. / Perhaps we should beg on our knees?" (p 13, "Senhor Cabra,"). There is both a human care & inhuman brutality expressed through these lines, writing of a culture struggling between religious faith & base cruelties. "The officers express regret. The bridge consists of four / chains. The women sell fish. After firing on the crowd the / officers will restore order. The men sell goats. The cattle are / lowing. The river turns from its southern course as if / distracted by fine fields of Indian corn. Even the slaves need / slaves. Celebrate masses for the weal of your souls." (p 5, "Your Excellency,").

Samuels has written a unique & beautiful poetic book of grace & animal instincts, of the movements of slavery, colonialism, religion & political hierarchies. "The intoxication of / mimosas might drive a man to empire." (p 36, "Sauva").

rob mclennan is the editor/publisher of STANZAS magazine & above/ground press, as well as the anthologies "side/lines: A Poetics" (2002, Insomniac Press) & "YOU & YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS: NEW MONTREAL WRITING" (with Andy Brown, fall 2001, Vehicule Press). his 6th poetry collection is "harvest: a book of signifiers" (2001, Talonbooks). he lives in ottawa, & can be found at







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