Is that MY black dog

by Jane Mead

copyright ©2016 by Jane Mead

Is that MY black dog-
with telltale compost on his nose?
Blade of grass, squash of persimmon,

some leggy insect on his forehead
next to the growth? Is that MY
red truck speeding up the vineyard’s

central avenue, porta potty
bumping along behind, toilet paper
unfurling behind in celebratory loops?

Notes on the Poem

Jane Mead's beautiful book-length poem World of Made and Unmade graced the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. This week, we learned with sorrow of Jane's death. We gravitated immediately to the comfort of her words in excerpts from this and other of her memorable works. What a ruefully sweet excerpt this is, with literally earthy images capturing mildly annoying but actually rather amusing snippets of the quotidian. The 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize judges (Sue Goyette, Joan Naviyuk Kane and George Szirtes) were clearly charmed by these rather welcome intrusions throughout the poem, as they remark in the book's citation:
"The poem allows for the intrusions of dogs and the laundry room flooding, acknowledging how the force of our days persists in the company of the dying. And how those disruptions are sometimes what can help carry us, sustain us through the experience, realign our spirit, or afford us reprieve."
The poem's humour is an entry point into things more poignant, those lived in the moment and those to come. The repeated phrase "Is that MY ..." is notably both lively and haunting. Not only can it be read as comic disavowal of that which embarrasses, but it could also signify a genuine struggle to remember as beloved everyday presences and activities grow smaller and fade. At the same time, perhaps one can cope as things unfold and unspool, not unlike that jaunty final image.

Judges for the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize Announced

TORONTO – September 12, 2019 – The trustees of The Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry are pleased to announce that Paula Meehan (Ireland), Kei Miller (Jamaica/UK) and Hoa Nguyen (Canada) are the judges for the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Continue reading “Judges for the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize Announced”

Francesca Woodman

by Don Paterson

copyright ©2015 by Don Paterson


At the heart there is a hollow sun
by which we are constructed and undone


Behind the mirror. Favourite place to hide.
I didn’t breathe. They looked so long I died.


What’s shown when we unveil, disclose, undress,
is first the promise, then its emptiness


Ghost-face. Not because I turned my head,
but because what looked at me was dead.


— We don’t exist — We only dream we’re here
This means we never dieWe disappear


We’d met ‘in previous lives’, he was convinced.
Yeah, I thought. And haven’t spoken since.


All rooms will hide you, if you stand just so.
All ghosts know this. That’s really all they know.

Notes on the Poem

Don Paterson's 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection 40 Sonnets tries on different forms of sonnets and sonnet-like structures from poem to poem. “About half the poems in Don Paterson’s latest book are strict sonnets and half are wild or disobedient sonnets", is how the 2016 judges describe them. In "Francesca Woodman", he wends mysteriously through a series of seven rhyming couplets with an enigmatic young American photographer as his muse. Francesca Woodman worked largely in black and white photography. Her subjects were often herself or female models, in various states of dress or undress. She used different effects and conditions to create blurred, obscured, murky images - surreal, sometimes whimsical, sometimes dark in tone. Woodman died by suicide at the age of 22, in 1981. Most hauntingly, these words seem to capture what Woodman was confronting in her subject matter: "What's shown when we unveil, disclose, undress, is first the promise, then its emptiness" Equally striking are the opening lines ... "Behind the mirror. Favourite place to hide. I didn't breathe. They looked so long I died." which poet Helen Mort took as inspiration for a writing and photography workshop she describes here. 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize winner Eve Joseph devotes an entire section of her collection Quarrels to ekphrastic poems responding to images from the work of American photographer Diane Arbus. Also from the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist, "Verso 40.6" from Dionne Brand's The Blue Clerk uses as its inspiration a historical photograph by French photography pioneer Louis Daguerre. What arresting pas de deux come from the pairing and melding of photography and poetry.

He thinks I should be glad because they

by Aisha Sasha John

copyright ©2017 by Aisha Sasha John

Like the idea of Aisha. I am not the idea of Aisha.

I am Aisha.

You I know you

Love the idea of Aisha.

I am not the idea of Aisha.

I am not the idea of Aisha.

I am Aisha.

Notes on the Poem

Aisha Sasha John beguiles and surprises us again with this selection from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poetry collection I have to live. The intricacy of these simple, straightforward looking lines is revelatory, with intriguing alterations in meaning introduced via line breaks. In fact, John launches into this even before the conventional opening of the poem in the first line, starting instead from the poem's title. Enjambment is a poetic device whereby a sentence or clause continues beyond a line break. We've examined this in a previous Poem of the Week, "Present from Ted" by Margaret Avison from her 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Concrete and Wild Carrot. You don't have the full meaning of a line in a poem using enjambment when you reach the end of the line - you must continue to the next and possibly multiple lines. Interestingly, this review of I have to live. views the opening line of the poem both relative to and leading from the title and as a standalone line, and remarks:
"On a certain level, this treats of the anxious difference between being and being seen. But the opening line taken by itself appears ominously correct, too: the idea of Aisha is not Aisha, and it is in likeness to this dissemblance that one is as oneself."
As John the poet and John the persona of Aisha in this poem tussle with self and idea of self, how the words are articulated or can be articulated cycle through affirmation of self, self-awareness and awareness of self relative to others' awareness and perception ... a dizzying spiral into and out of self, all in just a few words. How one retains a sense of self and trusts others - or doesn't - is cleverly captured in these lines: "You I know you Love the idea of Aisha." Can the first line stand on its own? Is it "You, I know you" (and can trust you)? Or do "you [just] / Love the idea of Aisha" ... and you don't really know Aisha at all? In an act of poetic legerdemain, Aisha Sasha John deftly and crisply offers a sharp, timely statement about self and idea of self in an era when sense of self is layered, blurred and possibly misunderstood or actively distorted by others.


by Sarah Tolmie

copyright ©Sarah Tolmie 2018

Tonight the fattened mermaids sing
To issue in the internet of things.
Let me tell you what you can do with that misnomer.
I sit here gloomily and think of Homer,

On the dimming beach, as drifts of trash
Clatter softly against my ankles,
The melancholy, long, withdrawing roar
Of everything a humanist holds dear.

Skyward the sad elite have all withdrawn,
To their electric world. They’ve pulled it on
Over the old like a transparent plastic glove.

I hear them pinging dismally afar.
Here on the quiet earth that I still love,
Where the last humans are.

Copyright © Sarah Tolmie 2018

Notes on the Poem

In the 89th and final poem of The Art of Dying by Sarah Tolmie, shortlisted for the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize, we are surprisingly and wonderfully moved when the perpetual cynic who has accompanied us through this collection suddenly becomes wistful. The Art of Dying is a compendium of incisive observations and witticisms on how death pervades all - and how, in the modern day, that includes news, television and social media. The fierce irreverence with which Tolmie tackles weighty subjects, from abortion to politics to aging and disease and more - and leavens it with well-placed pop culture references - is borne out in her feisty and lively presentation of her work at the 2019 shortlist readings. Take a look, just over there below the poem text. Tolmie has not diluted the impact of her themes just because she interjects humour - you know, even if we do suspect the mention of "Homer" in the first stanza could as likely be the Simpson patriarch as the author of epic works the Iliad and the Odyssey. In fact, another Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poet, Matthew Rohrer, defends perfectly her approach in his excellent 2004 essay "Serious Art That's Funny: Humor in Poetry". As he points out:
"But there's a kind of humor that is bigger than a giggle, bigger than a laugh. There's a kind of humor that is as serious as the most earnest exhortation to support the troops. I'm talking about satire and irony. Satire and irony make people laugh. But they're serious and multidimensional in a way that earnestness often just can't be, and to discount them is to be blind to the possibility of serious art that's funny."
and we think The Art of Dying is decidedly in that league. So beautifully, perhaps the greatest irony of all is that after putting it all so entertainingly through her satirical mill, Tolmie grows delicately, poignantly serious at the very end.

In Passing

by Karen Solie

copyright ©Karen Solie 2001.

Night blind through Rogers Pass,
engine popping like a rabbit gun
after an ambush of tunnels,
I brake for tinfoil, bottles,
dead stares of twisted deer.
This moon-shot boneyard
is a seam of eyes.
Immigrant rail crews lost
to the slides of March
a century ago. Two Japanese dug out
clasped in each other’s arms,
a Norwegian frozen in the act
of filling his pipe. No time
even to bruise.
Hidamo. Wafilsewki. Mitsumi. Sodiatis. Sanquist.
Bronze and marble statues
for the meat ride to Glacier Station.
And the whores who died cold,
full of holes, in clapboard Columbia
or the pockmarked skin village
of Golden. A drunken doctor drowned
in a puddle of horse piss.
Years later, slide shooters
and dozers shoved 92 miles of highway
through the Selkirks’ seismic muscle,
and now my four seizing cylinders
whine for a tail wind
to Saskatchewan. I Go All The Way,
Number One croons
over archival mutterings caught
in the black throat of the old Connaught Tunnel
buried at the Summit. Accordian ballads
of accidents that wait to happen
in the rock face, snow
fall, concentrated gravity of the gorge.
My odometer books odds of sleep
in hands and head. The cat knows it,
moving through luggage in the back seat,
throwing sparks.

Notes on the Poem

In the white knuckle ride of a poem that is "In Passing", Karen Solie builds tension in striking ways. Let's take a closer look - if we dare! - at this singular selection from Solie's 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Short Haul Engine. We've explored with previous Poems of the Week (such as this one, and this one, and this one) just how surprisingly effective poems can be as showcases for compelling storytelling. Not only can "In Passing" easily join those three poems' lively and diverse company, but we think the poem also wields wickedly a literary device usually associated with forms and genres very different from poetry: suspense. The Writer's Digest is a publication that has guided writers and aspiring writers in honing their skills for close to 100 years. Although their advice on creating and sustaining suspense is directed to those crafting thrillers, mysteries and literary fiction, we think "In Passing" fulfills many of the criteria they specify. For example, in the section "Put characters that readers care about in jeopardy" ...
"We create reader empathy by giving the character a desire, wound or internal struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathize, the closer their connection with the story will be. Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be invested when they see the character struggling to get what he most desires."
The poem's narrator is clearly so nervous and jumpy that: "I brake for tinfoil, bottles, dead stares of twisted deer." and "now my four seizing cylinders whine for a tail wind to Saskatchewan." pretty firmly suggests that what she most desires is to travel swiftly to an important destination, a home or sanctuary. That the narrator has an encyclopedic knowledge of the calamity and death that befalls those who traverse the terrain she is navigating illustrates both a nimble mind and very pessimistic, perhaps damaged spirit. "Accordian ballads / of accidents" strikes a note both whimsical and fatalistic, as does the odds-making with the odometer. Then our heart leaps to know that the harried narrator has a travel companion. Please, please, please nervous driver and apprehensive cat ... get out of this one alive.

Sitting with Others

by Rodney Jones

copyright ©2006 by Rodney Jones

The front seats filled last. Laggards, buffoons,
and kiss-ups falling in beside local politicos,
the about to be honored, and the hard of hearing.

No help from the middle, blenders and criminals.
And the back rows: restless, intelligent, unable to commit.
My place was always left-center, a little to the rear.

The shy sat with me, fearful of discovery.
Behind me the dead man’s illegitimate children
and the bride’s and groom’s former lovers.

There, when lights were lowered, hands
plunged under skirts or deftly unzipped flies,
and, lights up again, rose and pattered in applause.

Ahead, the bored practiced impeccable signatures.
But was it a movie or a singing? I remember
the whole crowd uplifted, but not the event

or the word that brought us together as one—
One, I say now, when I had felt myself many,
speaking and listening: that was the contradiction.

Notes on the Poem

Rodney Jones' poem "Sitting with Others" seems to encapsulate everything the 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize judges enjoyed about the entire collection from which it came, Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005. As the judges observed so beautifully in their citation:
"His poems are angry, bawdy, funny, wise and deeply moving. They sing to remind us of our humanity and to heal the language of its long service as a mere tool.”
Be it a wedding, funeral, speech or ceremony, concert or even a movie, Jones finds opportunities and examples bearing out all the judges' descriptors in this poem capturing the often many-faceted, regularly fraught experience of gathering with others, for good or for bad. Angry? Characterizing fellow human beings as "Laggards, buffoons, and kiss-ups falling in beside local politicos" suggests some considerable displeasure, don't you think? Bawdy? Well, the fourth stanza certainly has that covered ... or uncovered. Ahem. Funny? Such juxtapositions as "the about to be honored, and the hard of hearing" and "blenders and criminals" had us chuckling ruefully - how about you? Wise? There is something sly and knowing about "And the back rows: restless, intelligent, unable to commit. My place was always left-center, a little to the rear." And oh, deeply moving ... "I remember the whole crowd uplifted, but not the event or the word that brought us together as one" Does it matter the occasion? Does it matter that as soon as he remarks on it, Jones remarks on its contradiction? Even then, it keeps us thinking about the importance of gathering with others. That is moving, indeed.

Lake Michigan, Scene 18

by Daniel Borzutzky

copyright ©2018, Daniel Borzutzky

The beaches are filled with cages

And the cages are filled with bodies

And the bodies are filled with burdens

And the burdens consume the bodies

And the bodies do not know to whom they owe their life

I drop my body on the sand and someone tells me to pick it up

I drop to the sand to pick up my body and someone tells me to steal more hair     to steal more flesh     to steal more bones     to steal more fingers

I tell them I cannot risk contaminating the data

I tell them that if I steal more hair then the data will not be clean

I tell them I cannot touch my own body out of fear of contaminating the data

I have a virus     I say

I am contagious     I say

No salt in my body     I say     no heat in my blood

The sand is dying slowly

It turns into a wall and in the wall there is a nook and in the nook there is light and in light there is god and in god there is nothing and in nothing there is hope and in hope there is abandonment and in abandonment there is wound and in wound there is nation and in nation there are bones and in bones there is time and in time there is light and in light there are numbers and in numbers there are codes and in codes there are mountains and in mountains there are bodies searching for bones and in the mountains there are tunnels and in the tunnels there is so much festering garbage

The men in uniform take the garbage away but they have a hard time distinguishing the garbage from the people so they scoop it all up and carry us into the next morning

And in the next morning there is a confession

I have put my burdens in the wrong body

I have framed my burdens in the wrong language

I have staked my burdens to the wrong nation

I need medicine to sleep

I need medicine to stop the shrieking in my ears

I need medicine to make the Chicago corpses turn into hydrangeas

I need medicine to make the immigrants turn into butterflies

I need an injection to make the bureaucrats turn into terrorists

It is raining again on Lake Michigan

Some say it is raining bodies     but really it is raining trash

The trash they bomb us with explodes when it lands near our bodies

And our bodies are tornadoes

And the joke turns into a mystery novel about how god keeps his hands from shaking when he is about to destroy the universe

I need my burdens     sing the bodies on the beach

I fight for my burdens     scream the bodies on the beach

I know the blankness of my burdens is a battle for love and country

I know the blankness of my burdens is a coda to the death of the city

I don’t know why I can’t see the moon anymore

I can’t see the stars for the sky anymore

I don’t even bother to look up

Notes on the Poem

Scene by scene, wielding hypnotic effects, Daniel Borzutzky presents powerful messages in his 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted Lake Michigan. "Scene 18" is the closing sequence of this unforgettable collection. As we observed examining an earlier selection from Lake Michigan, a potent tool in Borzutzky's poetic arsenal is rigorously applied repetition. As the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize judges expressed it:
“Technically brilliant in its use of repetition and variation, leavened with touches of embittered, and yet, in the end, resilient, drollness, Lake Michigan is an eloquent, book-length howl, a piece of political theatre staged in a no-man’s land lying somewhere between the surreal and the real.”
The incantatory lines of this and the poems/scenes leading up to "Scene 18" capture the power of chanting, to dissipate anger and outrage but, as Borzutzky has deployed it, to also build it to an undeniable crescendo. In describing Lake Michigan as "an eloquent, book-length howl", the 2019 judges allude to and connect the collection to the quintessential protest poem, Allen Ginsberg's "Howl". Described as "a denunciation of the weaknesses and failings of American society ... a combination lamentation, jeremiad, and vision", "Scene 18" is decidedly in the same spirit. A recent commentary piece in The New Yorker offers an intriguing examination of how methods of expressing rage have evolved, for good and for bad:
"It’s not so much that anger itself has gone out of style but that the socially acceptable ways of channeling and expressing rage have radically changed."
This is useful to bear in mind as we consider this poem and its companion pieces. Read it aloud yourself or have it read aloud to you. Ideally, have the poet read it, as he did this spring at the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist readings ("Scene 18" starts at 57:30). You will discover that on the page and speaking the words, Borzutzky strikes a consistently compelling, at times troubling, frequently inspiring balance - protest at its most incisive.

We Were Never Meant to Break Like This

by Billy-Ray Belcourt

copyright ©2017 by Billy-Ray Belcourt

1. follow me out of the backdoor of the world.

2. how do you tell someone that they are helping you stay tuned into life?

3. what does it mean that her first breath was also her last?

4. i am so sad that i burrow into the absence of every boy who has held me.

5. i kiss him knowing that when i wake up i will be in a body differently.

6. the future is already over, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have anywhere else to go.

Notes on the Poem

The poem "We Were Never Meant to Break Like This" from Billy-Ray Belcourt's 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection This Wound is a World is presented as a numbered list. Does this structure guide the poem's readers ... or lead them, with intent, in some unexpected direction? As this consideration of the list poem form observes, "Lists are part of life ... used throughout the centuries to make an inventory of things." We assemble lists to classify or contain a set of items with common elements - or, perhaps, to hold together as a reminder disparate items that only have in common that they are on that list, such as groceries. A numbered list might suggest hierarchy or chronology, an arrangement of priorities or rankings, or a sequence of steps or instructions. What is Billy-Ray Belcourt doing with this modest numbered list? Does the title suggest what each entry has in common with the others? Do the numbers suggest that each entry happens in some order or sequence? #1 and #2 might be linked, but then #3 veers tragically, #4 remains in a depressed slough, #5 hints at a redemptive turn, #6 is pragmatic but oddly hopeful. In its use of the list poem form, "We Were Never Meant to Break Like This" also seems to lightly employ the rhetorical device expeditio, whereby numbers of alternatives are put forward but then narrowed down to just one. If the numbered list is a sequence or set of steps to be worked through, then #6 is the ultimate, the final, the arrived-at conclusion and solution. Interestingly, that final line item seems to strike a note of rueful optimism as it declares "the future is already over".

An Enemy Comes Down the Hill

by Fady Joudah, translating from the Arabic written by Ghassan Zaqtan

copyright ©Translation copyright © 2012 by Fady Joudah

When he comes down
or is seen coming down
when he reveals to us that he is coming down.

The waiting and silence

his entire lack
when he hearkens before the plants.

His caution when he comes down
like one postponed by a hush,
and by his being not “us”
and not “here”
death begins.

He bought a flower
nothing more, a flower
that has no vase and leaves no will.

From the hill, he can spot the military checkpoint, the paratroopers,
he can spot the squatters, the mountain edges, and the only road
where their feet will leave a print in the rocks, mud, and water.

Losses also will appear from the hill
abandoned without effort.

And the fragility in shadow,
the Jewish man with a long mustache
who resembles the dead Arabs here.

From the mountain edges, all the caves will appear peaceful
and the road will seem as it were.

While he was coming down
the caves continued to stare
and blink in the cold.

Notes on the Poem

In "An Enemy Comes Down the Hill", Fady Joudah's translation from the Arabic of Ghassan Zaqtan's original poem, what is in sight and what is perceived are both presented in fine detail. Still, are things as they seem? Let's take another look at this intriguing poem. The opening stanza illustrates well how Joudah's words delicately balance what is seen, what is perceived, what the subject who is seen ("he", presumably the "enemy" of the title) tries to hide or convey - and how these can all be confused to blur what truly is. "When he comes down or is seen coming down when he reveals to us that he is coming down." While we imagine that an enemy would advance on us with caution, don't we also assume that advancing is a form of aggression, inherent in being an enemy? What then, do we make of his caution being gently described ... "like one postponed by a hush" Is he really an enemy? He's carrying a flower, for heaven's sake ... and there's that "fragility in shadow" that suggests vulnerability, not menace. Do we despair then that we can never fully trust or understand each other? The caves are staring, but not so harshly that they don't also blink. Conversely, can we be heartened that how things appear can always be open to interpretation? If not put in the best light, can we assume that some appearances are at least benign?