by Robin Blaser

I live in a room named East
on the map of the West   at the edge

near the door cedars and alders
mix and tower,
full of ravens   first thing each morning,
whose song is
              a sharpness

we quarrelled so
                  over the genius
of the heart
              whose voice is capable

they come on horseback
in the middle of the night,
two of them,   with a horse for me,
and we ride,   bareback
clinging to the white manes,
at the edge of the sea-splash,

burst open,

              to divine
the hidden and forgotten source,
who is transparent
where the moon drops out of the fog
to bathe,
but not to us

the retied heart
              where the wind glitters

              for Ellen Tallman

Notes on the Poem

Robin Blaser's "Suddenly," from his 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection The Holy Forest, fascinates in myriad ways and on many levels. Deceptively simple and arresting is how he wields word and line spacing to guide the reader and create haunting, subliminal effects. We think this previous Poem of the Week is worth a revisit. We've remarked before how spacing in a poem's layout on the page (or screen, where the poem's print form can be rendered accurately) influences how a reader experiences a poem. This excerpt from C.D. Wright's Rising, Falling, Hovering is a great example. The images in Blaser's poem are already vivid, strung together with dream-like logic, and this is further emphasized by both spacing and punctuation, which even achieves intriguing and unexpectedly dramatic impact in the poem's title. Jed Rasula, Professor of English at the University of Georgia, observes how beautifully Blaser arranges spacing in his poems:
"The poet's sensitivity to the tenuous grasp of words, reflected in the awesome grip of the hidden and "bitten" heart, is accentuated by the poem's spacing. The words are semantically informative, yet blank spaces are deployed where punctuation might customarily serve. Blaser's meticulous attention to spatial detail reinforces the rhythmic allure of the images. The pages of Image-nations 1–12 [also found in The Holy Forest] are choreographies, imprints of movement that return the emotions to their transitive order in motion."
"Historically, fragmentation has been used as a troubling effect, or to indicate a subject under stress." This observation comes from a recent article about Anne Carson's latest work Float, which takes the concept of spacing even further.

from Iona

by Mick Imlah

My right hand is Nessie’s head,
her neck my dripping arm. How old
is the dinosaur?
    or fifty million years.
Can the dinosaur sing? No,
too old; but likes to be soothed
    by others singing.

I open her thumb-
    and-finger beak
at least to let her speak
in her quavery Triassic,
‘Take me to your leader!’
—to which you instantly,
    I haven’t got any leader.

What, meanwhile, are my own terms?
Darling—’little’—Mädchen—the same
Suspicious argot I used to spy on.

Strange, that we dwell so much
sometimes, on self and such,
that we can spend an age without
    a clear view out:
when, if I asked the mirror once
in the way of an old queen,
to frame how things might look
twenty or thirty visits thence,
all it reflected back was white
and unrefracted light, the mean
prophetics of a closed book.

Notes on the Poem

Scottish poet and editor Mick Imlah passed away at age 53 in January 2009. The following spring, his last poetry collection, The Lost Leader, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. "Iona" comes from that collection. The poem excerpt captures a sweet exchange between gently doting parent and spritely, spirited child. The little game in which they're engaged ... "My right hand is Nessie's head, her neck my dripping arm" evokes the Loch Ness monster, one of the many legends of Scotland referenced throughout the collection. The child charmingly upends the game with her feisty reply: "I haven't got any leader." It's a comment that reinforces a recurring theme in the collection, as observed by the Griffin Poetry Prize judges:
"Haunted by forgotten figures, lost guides, the divided, leaderless, often feckless characters in Imlah’s poems have to make their own way, now that ‘the fire of belonging was out’."
Before the reader can even consider that the child has spoken unwittingly prescient words, Imlah swiftly answers with almost chilling awareness in the last stanza of this excerpt. A mirror reflecting back "white and unrefracted light" is an almost shocking image, especially on the heels of a scene of cozy domesticity. It's redeemed and vanquished, however, because holding Imlah's collection (or the Griffin Poetry Prize anthology that houses this and other selections from his work), the reader is amply reassured that he was determined to leave a powerful antidote to "the mean / prophetics of a closed book."

My Hand and Cold

by Natalie Shapero

Of surgeons putting their knives to erroneous

body parts, stories abound. So can you really blame
my neighbor for how, heading into the operation,
he wrote across his good knee NOT THIS KNEE?

The death of me: I’m never half so bold. You will
feel, the doctor said, my hand and cold –

and I thought of the pub quiz question: which three
countries are entirely inside of other countries?
I bought the bound ONE THOUSAND NAMES
FOR BABY, made two lists: one if she’s born breathing,

one if not. The second list was longer. So much

that I might call her, if she were never to bear
the name, never turn to it, suffer shaming, mull its
range and implications, blame it, change it, move

away to San Marino, Vatican City, Lesotho.

Notes on the Poem

Natalie Shapero's "My Hand and Cold", from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Hard Child, keeps the reader feeling off kilter, even apprehensive, over the course of seven brief stanzas. Let's examine how she does it ... and why. Shapero achieves much of the suspenseful sense of the poem by upending and fracturing expected sentence structures. She starts in right away. the unnerving opening sentence amps up the alarm by throwing up frightening imagery - surgeons, knives, erroneous body parts, no less - right off the bat. Starting the sentence more conventionally, with the phrase "stories abound", would have softened or delayed that shocking effect. Clearly, that was not the intent. We're so intrigued with parsing what the doctor says - which explains, but not entirely, the poem's title - that we're again out of sorts, a bit distracted. We're not necessarily paying attention to or wondering why the poem's narrator is having this interaction with the doctor. It starts to dawn on us when she asks the cryptic question (why is she thinking about a pub quiz at a time like this?) "which three countries are entirely inside of other countries?" ... and then is driven home, with a new intensity of shock, when the narrator posits her two lists and ponders one longer than the other. Has she been trying to distract us ... or herself?

Citation for Anne Carson’s “Men in the Off Hours”

by Carolyn Forché

Anne Carson continues to redefine what a book of poetry can be; this ambitious collection ranges from quatrains studded with uncanny images (‘Here lies the refugee breather/who drank a bowl of elsewhere’) to musing verse essays, personal laments, rigorous classical scholarship, and meditations on artists’ lives, caught in the carnage of history. All are burnished by Carson’s dialectical imagination, and her quizzical, stricken moral sense.

Notes on the Poem

We've noted before that when we consider each Poem of the Week, we often take as our cue the observations of our judges, beautifully encapsulated in the citations that accompany each shortlist announcement. We've also remarked on how those citations are often poetic works unto themselves, as they pay tribute to shortlisted works. We marveled at how 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize judge Heather McHugh riffs on Ken Babstock's words and stylistic flourishes in Methodist Hatchet to offer her assessment and praise. very different in approach and style, but equally reverent of the work and celebratory of the poet's accomplishments, is Carolyn Forché's citation for Anne Carson's Men in the Off Hours, which won the inaugural Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize in 2001. Forché's awe is conveyed in precise, succinct language, with a striking example of Carson's work as the citation's almost literal centrepiece. The concluding sentence is unforgettably resonant, with the elegant phrase "her quizzical, stricken moral sense" reverberating like the crisp peal of a bell. This citation speaks tantalizing volumes about the work in just a few well-chosen words and sentences.

The Cows on Killing Day

by Les Murray

All me are standing on feed. The sky is shining.

All me have just been milked. Teats all tingling still
from that dry toothless sucking by the chilly mouths
that gasp loudly in in in, and never breathe out.

All me standing on feed, move the feed inside me.
One me smells of needing the bull, that heavy urgent me,
the back-climber, who leaves me humped, straining, but light
and peaceful again, with crystalline moving inside me.

Standing on wet rock, being milked, assuages the calf-sorrow in me.
Now the me who needs mounts on me, hopping, to signal the bull.

The tractor comes trotting in its grumble; the heifer human
bounces on top of it, and cud comes with the tractor,
big rolls of tight dry feed: lucerne, clovers, buttercup, grass,
that’s been bitten but never swallowed, yet is cud.
She walks up over the tractor and down it comes, roll on roll
and all me following, eating it, and dropping the good pats.

The heifer human smells of needing the bull human
and is angry. All me look nervously at her
as she chases the dog me dream of horning dead: our enemy
of the light loose tongue. Me’d jam him in his squeals.

Me, facing every way, spreading out over feed.

One me is still in the yard, the place skinned of feed.
Me, old and sore-boned, little milk in that me now,
licks at the wood. The oldest bull human is coming.

Me in the peed yard. A stick goes out from the human
and cracks, like the whip. Me shivers and falls down
with the terrible, the blood of me, coming out behind an ear.
Me, that other me, down and dreaming in the bare yard.

All me come running. It’s like the Hot Part of the sky
that’s hard to look at, this that now happens behind wood
in the raw yard. A shining leaf, like off the bitter gum tree
is with the human. It works in the neck of me
and the terrible floods out, swamped and frothy. All me make the Roar,
some leaping stiff-kneed, trying to horn that worst horror.
The wolf-at-the-calves is the bull human. Horn the bull human!

But the dog and the heifer human drive away all me.

Looking back, the glistening leaf is still moving.
All of dry old me is crumpled, like the hills of feed,
and a slick me like a huge calf is coming out of me.

The carrion-stinking dog, who is calf of human and wolf,
is chasing and eating little blood things the humans scatter,
and all me run away, over smells, toward the sky.

Notes on the Poem

After dwelling amidst the delights of the poetry collections comprising the most recent shortlist, it feels like a good time to go back to the shortlist with which the Griffin Poetry Prize started off 18 years ago. This powerful selection comes from Les Murray's 2001 International Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Learning Human. In an interview over a decade after this poem was published, Murray revealed that "The Cows on Killing Day" was part of a set of poems written in the early 1990s, "when I was suffering a bout of depression and decided to get out of my own head and be an animal for a while. It worked for a time." He grappled, perhaps not entirely successful, with this method of self-treating his depression in a memoir discussed here. That article opens with this bracing characterization of Murray's work:
"The signature quality of a Les Murray poem is anger — a visceral smoldering that freshly lights up the tired old landscape and turns conventional pieties inside out."
It's not there at the outset, but that anger does emerge partway through this poem: "The heifer human smells of needing the bull human and is angry. All me look nervously at her as she chases the dog me dream of horning dead: our enemy of the light loose tongue. Me’d jam him in his squeals." "The Cows on Killing Day" an extremely harrowing poem to read, even more so to reread. But it's worth it, as Murray takes a horrifying subject and somehow resolves it in transcendent fashion. Therapy for the poet becomes good, if harsh, medicine for the reader. Do you agree?

Epistolary Correspondences

by Susan Howe

Before I was sent to Little Sir Echo I had an imaginary friend who lived in our Buffalo mailbox. His name was Mr. Bickle. When we moved to Cambridge he vanished as transitional objects tend to do although his name lives on as a family anecdote.

     Strange that one half-suffocated picnic in the course of life can disappear into Lake Armington’s hanging rock echo portals. Until the replication of love prevails in art and Periscope – one of Paul Thek’s late “picture-light” paintings, bubbles up from puddle blue depths

     So many things happen by bringing to light what has long been hidden. Lilting betwixt and between. Between what? Oh everything. Take your microphone. Cross your voice with the ocean.
     I’m here, I’m still American

Notes on the Poem

Susan Howe is the winner of the 2018 International Griffin Poetry Prize, for her singular and intriguing poetry collection Debths. Let's celebrate this milestone in her distinguished career by revisiting our Poem of the Week look at "Epistolary Correspondences". "Epistolary Correspondences" picks up from the very beginning of the Foreword section, where Howe reminisces, but in somewhat pointed fashion, about the summer camp her parents sent her to when seh was eight. "I hated the place." In one visit where she had a solemn picnic with her parents, "I begged them to ransom me" ... but they departed at the end of the day and left her at the camp. Clearly, that incident still haunts her, not only raising the spectre of Mr. Bickle (although surely we think fondly about childhood imaginary friends, he's rather coldly referred to as a "transitional object") but earning the troubling adjective "half-suffocated" and other haunting analogies for that unfortunate picnic. The leap from there to the paintings of Paul Threk - here is a gallery of them to capture the mood - is fascinating. Did Threk's images somehow disinter the unhappy summer camp and perceived parental insensitivity? "So many things happen by bringing to light what has long been hidden." That images - not words - provoked this unearthing of memories further intrigues. If Mr. Bickle lived in a mailbox, perhaps he would have witnessed some written missives petitioning for a summer camp reprieve ... but no, he had already transitioned and vanished, perhaps taking the power of words with him. As we delve into Howe's Debths, we see that images and text often battle it out on the page, deepening our curiosity and drawing us into her explorations.

The Rez Sisters II

by Billy-Ray Belcourt

after tomson highway

girl of surplus. girl who is made from fragments. she who can only
be spoken of by way of synecdoche. she whose name cannot be
enunciated only mouthed.

mother of that which cannot be mothered. mother who wants
nothing and everything at the same time. she who gave birth to
herself three times: 1. the miscarriage. 2. the shrunken world.
3.the aftermath.

sister of forest fire. sister who dwells in the wreckage. she who forages
for the right things in the wrong places. nothing is utopia and so she
prays to a god for a back that can bend like a tree splitting open to
make room for the heat.

aunt of the sovereignty of dust. aunt of that which cannot be
negated entirely. she who is magic because she goes missing and
comes back. she who walks upside down on the ceiling of the
world and does not fall.

kookum of love in spite of it all. kookum who made a man out of
a memory. she who is a country unto herself.

father of ash. father of a past without a mouth. he who ate too much
of the sunset.

Notes on the Poem

Billy-Ray Belcourt is the newly minted winner of the 2018 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, for his powerful poetry collection This Wound is a World. Let's celebrate this achievement for a young poet's first poetry collection by revisiting our Poem of the Week look at "The Rez Sisters II". The poem's distinctive title will probably already ring a bell. The attribution "after tomson highway" confirms that the poem takes its inspiration from Cree Canadian playwright and novelist Highway's 1986 play The Rez Sisters. The cast of characters comprising Highway's work are described vividly here. As this definition clarifies the use of "after", the work that follows is considered to be "a direct imitation of an original artwork, made at a later date". Belcourt's poem definitely takes its cues from the play, but it is no mere imitation. The poem's spare and striking depictions of damage, such as: "girl who is made from fragments" and "sister who dwells in the wreckage" are analogous to what Highway's characters have contended with, but the moments of transcendence: "she prays to a god for a back that can bend like a tree splitting open to make room for the heat." and "she who is magic because she goes missing and comes back. she who walks upside down on the ceiling of the world and does not fall." are homage to Highway's themes of survival, by whatever feisty, whimsical and resourceful means necessary. Tomson Highway has acknowledged that his work was inspired in part by Michel Tremblay's 1965 play Les Belles-soeurs. It's interesting to see that core themes of a potent collective feminine energy facing life's adversities have carried through and informed three such powerful interpretations and tributes.

Debths by Susan Howe and This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt Win the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize

TORONTO – Thursday, June 7, 2018Debths by Susan Howe and This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt are the International and Canadian winners of the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize. They each received C$65,000 in prize money.

Continue readingDebths by Susan Howe and This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt Win the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize”

A Short Story of Falling

by Alice Oswald

It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again

it is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower

and every flower a tiny tributary
that from the ground flows green and momentary

is one of water’s wishes and this tale
hangs in a seed-head smaller than my thumbnail

if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass

to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience

water which is so raw so earthy-strong
and lurks in cast-iron tanks and leaks along

drawn under gravity towards my tongue
to cool and fill the pipe-work of this song

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again

Notes on the Poem

While we await the announcement of the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize winners on June 7, 2018, let's enjoy agaih a Poem of the Week selection from the work of 2017 winner Alice Oswald. When Alice Oswald read from her 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize-winning collection Falling Awake in the spring of 2017, she was not in fact reading - she was reciting her work. In the video of her reading, note that she never looks down, but gazes directly at the audience throughout the poem. In this picture, all that is visible on the podium before her is a small scrap of paper that surely cannot contain the text of all the poems she presented that unforgettable evening. Alice Oswald OK, maybe she has a wee advantage because it is her poem. Still, memorization and performance of that memorization are estimable feats, perhaps especially so in this age of myriad distractions. Oswald is known and admired for memorizing her work when she presents it. Her performance of her book-length poem Memorial was described as a "visibly exhausting tour-de-force" in an article in which she touched on reasons for this rigorous practice. “I do very much believe in poetry as a kind of tune or music,” she revealed. As well, the Memorial presentation was clearly a type of veneration: "In a kind of superstitious way, I feel that for those names actually to be sounded out loud is even more than for them to be written on a page. It’s a kind of giving of life back to those people." Memorization and recitation might seem too daunting, even for the rewards of challenging oneself, succeeding, honouring, leaving an impression. Poetry In Voice, an organization that encourages Canadian students to fall in love with poetry through reading, writing, and recitation (including competition) offers straightforward tips for giving it a try. It just so happens Oswald's "A Short Story of Falling" is a perfect recitation candidate, with rhyming couplets unspooling in a satisfyingly rhythmic fashion. Its circular construct invites you to repeat it over and over again. While demanding, there are any benefits to the poet or presenter in reciting a poem. Recitation lends added power and resonance for those listening to and experiencing a poem rendered in this way.

or more or

by Donato Mancini

Notes on the Poem

We've devoted this and the previous six Poem of the Week installments to the poetry collections on the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. We now draw to the end of the tour with "or more or" (as it's called in the "Contents" at the end of the book) from Donato Mancini's Same Diff. This selection can easily lay claim to being an intriguing example of two very different - perhaps even mutually exclusive - forms. As you can tell from the image of the poem here, before you enlarge it to fully take in the words, it is a form of concrete poetry. The poem's themes, significance amd effect are achieved visually, through the arrangement and styles of letters, words and lines on the page. At first glance, the three arrows? icicles? daggers? ... or any numbers of pointed objects or signposts might not yet signify what the poem is about, but those shapes leave an impression that informs our continued exploration of the poem. And of course, that impression, that impact, that layer of experience of the poem is lost on us if we cannot see the page. That's where it's revelatory to discover that the poem also stands on its own as a startlingly powerful example of sound poetry. Imagine it being read aloud or ... go ahead, read it aloud! The driving force of the incessant repetitions and variations of a seemingly simple figure of speech is hypnotic. Intriguingly, the phrase's meanings - somewhat, with small variations - echo the process by which the phrase is being deconstructed, with incremental variations that build such that the words' innocuousness suddenly becomes desperate, obsessive, sinister or ... or ... or ... are rendered blank, ready to take on new meanings. As the Griffin Poetry Prize judges concluded about Mancini's work throughout Same Diff, "[h]e is a custodian of language who returns it to us cleaned.” However you approach this particular poem, he has clearly done that here.