Ramsden

by Margaret Avison

copyright ©Margaret Avison, 2002



Let’s go to the park where
the dogs and children
cluster and circle and run
under the sombre old trees – they are
hanging on to their swarthing
leaves – while the young
medallioned trees in the early
sun are dancing
among them.
The knapsacked students too
hurtle, always too late, focused
on there, blindingly
swerving out of the now and
here where children and dogs
and a few rather shabby, slow
old ones, straying, move
across the owners, standing with
loose leashes, intent on “their day.”
The benched but sleepless
mothers and nannies, watching,
are quieted here, warmed and fed
by the good old trees and
the shining little ones.

Notes on the Poem

Let's take a few moments to relish the simple pleasures of Margaret Avison's poem "Ramsden", from her 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize-winning collection Concrete and Wild Carrot. While we're at it, let's enjoy a reading of the poem by Avison herself, generously provided by her publisher, Brick Books. The poem is inspired by and situated in the real world Ramsden Park, which you can find here on the Toronto Poetry Map offered by the Toronto Public Library. In this brief poem, Avison packs in a lot of life and activity, capturing everything from the highly kinetic ... "The knapsacked students too hurtle, always too late, focused on there, blindingly swerving out of the now and here" ... to this fine image of the meditative that we uniquely experience with old canine companions: "slow old ones, straying, move across the owners, standing with loose leashes, intent on "their day."" The contrasting senses of motion Avison presents - slow, fast, deliberate, hasty - exist in tandem beautifully with contrasting representations of age and stages of life, from children and their counterpart young trees to "sombre old trees" and those aforementioned elderly hounds. Perhaps there are more than just simple pleasures at work here.

Debarker

by Liz Howard

copyright ©2015 by Liz Howard



I just want to go back
into the bush and eat
more blueberries
growing wild as she
drops me off at the lumber
mill I’m fifteen and a janitor
cleaning out the urinals
at the debarker I find
pubic hair the lumberjacks
have left long barbs curled
to “put me in my place”
debarker: where they
keep the machine that
cuts the bark away from
the trees years ago my
blood cousin fell in
and emerged skinless
that was before this brain
sprouted from my spine
in an allegory trees
would be distributed
evenly throughout the
narrative in a gesture
of looking back over
my shoulder as mom
pulls away from the
yard I have on a hard
hat that is orange and too
big over my weird bleached
hair I have only the same
rag for the toilets as the
dishes when I look up the
sky is obscured by smoke
I can never tell what
they’re burning

Notes on the Poem

There is so much packed into the slim, breathless column of poetry that is Liz Howard's poem "Debarker", from her 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent. Let's revisit this piece and debark from the poem its many-layered cargo. Yes, just one of many meanings of the verb "to debark" is "to unload, as from a ship or airplane". While the titular meaning refers to a type of hydraulic equipment that removes bark from logs, there is much else to unload here. Another meaning of the verb is "to disembark" and from the outset of the poem, it's clear the narrator would like to step off from where she is being taken and "go back into the bush and eat more blueberries growing wild" Yet another meaning of "to debark" is to reduce or eliminate a dog's ability to vocalize by surgically altering its vocal cords. The young narrator of the poem is harassed and intimidated "to "put me in my place"" She is being prevented from communicating, but as she observes ... "that was before this brain sprouted from my spine" ... it's clear her wit and determination will prevail. We've observed before how Howard wields features such as line length to dramatic effect in her poems. The crisp, taut lines of "Debarker" rush forth - almost like a bracing hydraulic burst - with no seeming demarcation of sentences or thoughts, save for one punchy bit of punctuation near the poem's midpoint. Not only is the narrator conveying her thoughts and feelings, but slid into that torrent of observations and emotion is her sly and very fine revenge on those who would torment her.

from Venus Velvet No. 2

by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

copyright ©2010 by Gjertrud Schnackenberg



My pencil, Venus Velvet No. 2,
The vein of graphite ore preoccupied
In microcrystalline eternity.
In graphite’s interlinking lattices,
Symmetrically unfolding through a grid
Of pre-existent crystal hexagons.
Mirror-image planes and parallels.
Axial, infinitesimal bonds.
Self-generated. Self-geometrized.
A sound trapped in the graphite magnitudes.
Atoms, electronics, nuclei, far off.
A break, without apparent consequence.
Near-far, far-near, those microfirmaments.
Far in, the muffled noise of our goodbyes.

The surgeon, seeking only my surrender,
Has summoned me: an evening conference.
We sit together in the Quiet Room.
He cannot ask for what I’m meant to give.
No questions anymore. Just say he’ll live.
A world of light leaks through the double doors,
Fluorescent mazes, frigid corridors,
Polished linoleum, arena sand
Where hope is put to death and life is lost
And elevator doors slide open, closed,
The towers of the teaching hospital.
The field where death his conquering banner shook.

My writing tablet, opened on the table.
I touch it with my hand. The paper thins.
The paper’s interwoven filaments
Are bluish gray and beige. No questions now.
What is the chiefest deed that’s asked of us.
No questions anymore. No questions now.
I turned my back on heaven for good, but saw
A banner shaken out from heaven’s walls
With apparitions from Vesalius:
A woodcut surgeon opening a book
Of workshop woodcuts, skilled, anonymous,
The chisel blade of the engraver felt
Reverberating through the wooden blocks
Among eroded words, ornately carved:
Annihilation, subtly engraved:
All those whom lamentation cannot save
Grown fainter through successive folios.
A seraphy turns a page above: he’ll live;
Then turns a page again: he can’t survive.
I turn the page myself, and write: he’ll live.
Smell of my sweat embedded in my clothes.
The surgeon says: we’ve talked with him; he knows.
A seraph leaning near, Oh say not so.
Not so. Not so. My wonder-wounded hearer,
Facing extinction in a mental mirror.
A brilliant ceiling, someone’s hand on his.
All labor, effort, sacrifice, recede.
And then: I’m sorry. Such a man he is.

Notes on the Poem

It's time to revisit Gjertrud Schnackenberg's arresting collection "Heavenly Questions", which won the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize. It's epic in scope, abounding in rich classical references, mythology, science, mathematics. She majestically marshals those themes and sources to circle and zero in on her own pain. This portion of the poem "Venus Velvet No. 2" illustrates well her ability to swoop from the immense to the intimate. As the narrator of this poem awaits devastating news, her pencil and paper are like talismans. Contemplating the organic miracles that make the objects possible distracts her and takes her to other marvellous realms ... where perhaps other miracles are possible. "Atoms, electronics, nuclei, far off." But does the scientific wonder that is graphite, now in her hand, also make her confront the science that can do no more for her own personal situation? "Far in, the muffled noise of our goodbyes." Spiralling in and out of levels of awareness, from the microscopic to the broadly universal and cosmic ("microcrystalline eternity"), Schnackenberg struggles to find where in that vast spectrum she can face and deal with her immense grief and bewilderment. The harsh reality of her situation brings her up abruptly in the midst of this contemplation: "No questions anymore. Just say he'll live." Just as the results of a pencil touching paper can endure for a while, Schnackenberg acknowledges that all ultimately fades ... "Annihilation, subtly engraved: All those whom lamentation cannot save Grown fainter through successive folios."

The Metal and the Flower

by P.K. Page

copyright ©P.K. Page, 2002



Intractable between them grows
a garden of barbed wire and roses.
Burning briars like flames devour
their too innocent attire.
Dare they meet, the blackened wire
tears the intervening air.

Trespassers have wandered through
texture of flesh and petals.
Dogs like arrows moved along
pathways that their noses knew.
While the two who laid it out
find the metal and the flower
fatal underfoot.

Black and white at midnight glows
this garden of barbed wire and roses.
Doused with darkness roses burn
coolly as a rainy moon:
beneath a rainy moon or none
silver the sheath on barb and thorn.

Change the garden, scale and plan;
wall it, make it annual.
There the briary flower grew.
There the brambled wire ran.
While they sleep the garden grows,
deepest wish annuls the will:
perfect still the wire and rose.

Notes on the Poem

Not only does "a garden of barbed wire and roses" deeply intrigue, but its startling juxtaposition of beauty and menace inspires striking interpretations. What new form does P.K. Page's poem "The Metal and the Flower" take when it is lifted from the pages of the 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Planet Earth: Poems Selected and New? Contemporary classical music composer Haralabos (Harry) Stafylakis set the poem to music, and then arranged for it to be performed for a tenor singer, accompanied by piano and accordion. The piece is a haunting, simultaneously arresting and jarring, and undeniably moving companion to the poem's text: The composer notes:
"This musical setting ... embraces both the graceful, calm tone of the poet’s scene and the cold violence of its constituent elements, highlighting the former in fluid song reminiscent of Romantic lieder and the latter with jagged rhythms and melodic contours drawn from popular (metal) songcraft."
Learn more here about how P.K. Page's poem inspired Stafylakis' award-winning rendition.

The Mule-Cart

by Michael Longley

copyright ©Michael Longley, 2014



An engineer, you would appreciate
The technique for yoking the mule-cart —
When they fasten a wicker basket on top
And take down from its peg a boxwood yoke
With knob and guide-hooks for holding the reins
And bring out the lashing-rope – fourteen feet long –
And settle the yoke on the well-polished pole
And slip the eye of the rope over a peg
And tie the rope three times around the knob
And secure it all the way down the pole
And twist if under a hook and thus yoke
Strong-footed draught-mules to the mule-cart.
(What’s the function of the peg exactly?)

Notes on the Poem

Last week's Poem of the Week had us thinking about the journey of the poet and their words to arrive at the page before us, the readers. This week, let's consider how the poet and the poem can send us from the page and down interesting paths. Michael Longley's "The Mule-Cart" from his 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection The Stairwell does just that. Longley inventories with apparent precision the surprisingly complex steps and components associated with yoking a mule-cart, acknowledging the presumed reader of the poem as someone technically inclined or educated. The rhythm of how he spools out these details is rather hypnotic and assuredly poetic. But wait. He doesn't acknowledge the living, breathing aspect of the operation until the end, after which the parenthetical question suddenly seems like an oversight ... and rather alarming. With concern, this reader departed the page to google a demonstration of the task the poem describes: This instructive video factors in the living creature from the outset. It's certainly not as sleek and polished a presentation as Longley's poem, but it's rather reassuring to see the people in the video riding off down the road happily and securely - the functions of all pegs et cetera accounted for - at the end. This reader returned to the page with renewed appreciation for what Longley was really itemizing here.

j)

by Jordan Abel

copyright ©2016 Jordan Abel



if prayers were       tolerable
      if money13 shook like rattlers

trouble now     up     in the air
concerns over missing       knives

      after all if a fella dont shoot
no one man     can change him

because a man can be anybody
      except       little

even snakes are more vital
even bandages       wash away

Notes on the Poem

Words often travel a long way to be on the page before you, assembled as they are. Let's contemplate again how the poems of Jordan Abel's 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Injun came to be, and appreciate again the power accrued in their journey to the page. As we've discussed before, Abel's source for the poetry of Injun was dozens of public domain western novels, published from 1840 to 1950. At the end of the collection, he reveals the process by which he built the work:
Injun was constructed entirely from a source text comprised of 91 public domain western novels with a total length of just over ten thousands pages. Using CTRL+F, I searched the source text for the word "injun," a query that returned 509 results. After separating out each of the sentences that contained the word, I ended up with 26 print pages. I then cut up each page into a section of a long poem. Sometimes I would cut up a page into three- to five-word clusters. Sometimes I would cut up a page without looking. Sometimes I would rearrange the pieces until something sounded right. Sometimes I would just write down how the pieces fell together. Injun and the accompanying materials are the result of these methods.
The 2017 judges cite with admiration what Abel's intense process boils down to and arrives at ...
"The fog of tedious over-dramatization clears and the open skies of discourse can be discerned. What does it mean to arrange hate to look like verse? What becomes of the ugly and meaningless? Words are restored to their constituent elements as countermovements in Abel’s hands, just as they are divested of their capacity for productive violence. The golden unity of language and its silvered overcoding erode, bringing to bear the ‘heard snatches of comment / going up from the river bank.’ To pixelize is to mobilize, not to disappear.”
That Abel sifted through the body of material that he did, contemplated it and responded to it with lines of such searing indelibility as "even snakes are more vital even bandages       wash away" testifies to the work's singular achievements.

from CHAPTER E, for René Crevel

by Christian Bök

copyright ©Christian Bök, 2001



Westerners revere the Greek legends. Versemen retell the represented events, the resplendent scenes, where, hellbent, the Greek freemen seek revenge whenever Helen, the new-wed empress, weeps. Restless, she deserts her fleece bed where, detested, her wedded regent sleeps. When she remembers Greece, her seceded demesne, she feels wretched, left here, bereft, her needs never met. She needs rest; nevertheless, her demented fevers render her sleepless (her sleeplessness enfeebles her). She needs help; nevertheless, her stressed nerves render her cheerless (her cheerlessness enfetters her).

Notes on the Poem

Let's marvel again at what Christian Bök achieves by applying rigorous restrictions to his work as he creates poetry. In other Poem of the Week selections, we've examined how abiding by specific rules and constraints as to how a poem is constructed have produced intriguing and moving results for poets such as P.K. Page, Don Paterson and Christian Bök himself. While Page and Paterson have worked with constraints in terms of the structure of their poems at the stanza and line levels, Bök has gone as far as restricting his word and even letter choices. In fact, he has even brought his work down to the literal cellular level, as described here. In that same article, Bök reveals what scares him as a writer:
"I often write poems through the use of procedural constraints that often court "the impossible," and, consequently, I fear that I might eventually set for myself a task that cannot in fact be done because the language itself cannot accommodate the rules that I have set for the outcome."
... and it would probably be fair to say this pushing of self-imposed bounds also exhilarates the poet, producing results fascinating for him and for his readers. Even the Harvard Business Review praises the use of constraints to foster innovation:
"According to the studies we reviewed, when there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance – they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas. Constraints, in contrast, provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas for new products, services, or business processes."
When Bök was asked to create a piece using one-syllable words only, he concluded slyly with this: "I vow, from now on, to say just what I mean (no more!)—with no need for me to lean on the crutch of some cheap trick." Well, aren't we glad he didn't make that vow before he crafted "CHAPTER E, for René Crevel". The last two lines, with their gorgeous parallel structure and echoes ... "She needs rest; nevertheless, her demented fevers render her sleepless (her sleeplessness enfeebles her). She needs help; nevertheless, her stressed nerves render her cheerless (her cheerlessness enfetters her)." ... produced under the pressure from the constraints applied to the entire exercise, are diamonds.

from Verso 1.1.01

by Dionne Brand

copyright ©2018 Dionne Brand



From under the sea a liquid hand would turn a liquid page each eight seconds. This page would make its way to the shore and make its way back. Sometimes pens would wash up onto the beach, long stem-like organic styli. We called them pens; what tree or plant or reef they came from we did not know. But some days the beach at Guaya would be full of these styli just as some nights the beach would be full of blue crabs. Which reminds me now of García Márquez’s old man with wings but didn’t then as I did not know García Márquez then and our blue crabs had nothing to do with him; it is only now that the crabs in his story have overwhelmed my memory. It is only now that my blue night crabs have overwhelmed his story. Anyway we would take these pens and sign our names, and the names of those we loved, along the length of the beach. Of course these names rubbed out quickly and as fast as we could write them the surf consumed them. And later I learned those pens were Rhizophora mangle propagules.

What does this have to do with Borges? Nothing at all. I walked into the library and it was raining rain and my grandfather’s logs were there, and the wooden window was open. As soon as I opened the door, down the white steps came the deluge. If I could not read I would have drowned.

Now you are sounding like me, the clerk says. I am you, the author says.

Notes on the Poem

In the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted work The Blue Clerk, Dionne Brand examines in detail the act of writing through an extended and fascinating conversation between a poet (the author) and a clerk. As they share and dissect myriad observations, what do we as readers glean? The clerk is, in effect, the poet's functionary for cataloguing the observations and research that feed into and inform the poet's poetry. As such, the clerk covers a stunningly wide range of subject matter and approaches to the world around us all. The 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize judges capture that gorgeous immensity with crisp perfection in their citation:
“Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk is many things at once: a book-length ars poetica; an act of memory and reconfiguration; an extended meditation (one that moves at times directly, at others by a kind of philosophical osmosis) touching on the realms of history, politics, race and gender; an internal, consciously curated and interrogated dialogue that manages to create a space for all of these. Expansive, beautifully written, structurally compelling, and above all moving, The Blue Clerk is a book to be read (and re-read), not just for the pleasures of its language, but for the breadth of its vision, and the capaciousness of its thinking.”
With all that to potentially take in with each poem - and to potentially be intimidated by, we might add - it's wonderful that "the pleasures of its language" is enough at many junctures. This particular section opens so welcomingly ... "From under the sea a liquid hand would turn a liquid page each eight seconds. This page would make its way to the shore and make its way back." ... that we know it's more than acceptable to just relish the gorgeous words and dream-like imagery. We can circle back later (because, as the judges point out, we will re-read this) to find out that Rhizophora mangle propagules are both an invasive plant species and are also part of habitats for diverse ecosystems, which is intriguing information with which to emerge from this beautiful dream concocted by a clerk and a poet.

The poets reflect on their craft

by Di Brandt

copyright ©2003 Di Brandt



Some days like pulling teeth, rotten roots.
Staring down the barrel of the gun.
Shooting the town clock.
Forty days in the desert.
Fifty days in the desert, no food and water.
The devil sticking out his tongue.
Electric shock. Thunderbolt.
Heroin. Poison in the veins.
Angels beating their wings on your bared skull.
Who will believe you.
Moon in your hands, transparent, luminous.
Cursed by God.
Cursed by mothers, fathers, brothers, the bloody town hall.
Bereft.
Dogs limping on three paws.
The fourth one sawed off by a car wheel, careening.
The devil making faces.
Long red tongue, goats’ horns, trampling the streets of Ptuj,
announcing spring.
Licking licking. Cunt or wound.
Bad gas leaking from stones, earth fissures.
Nettles. Poison ivy. Bee sting.
Rotgut. Fungus on your toes.
Wild strawberries low to the ground, cheating the lawn mower.
A wall waiting for the wrecker’s ball.
Clear vodka. Ice.

Notes on the Poem

With surprising poetic sleight of hand, Di Brandt builds several layers of sardonic wit and irony using outmoded expressions and clichés in "The poets reflect on their craft", a poem from her 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Now You Care. Let's explore to what end she applies them. Not only does Brandt unleash a torrent of mean, stale expressions in this poem, she seems to dig deep for ugly ones, such as: "Some days like pulling teeth, rotten roots. Staring down the barrel of the gun." The one about the dogs is maybe a little more original, but it and many other references are still truly nasty. Anton C. Zijderveld, a Dutch sociologist, has pondered the function of cliché in his treatise On Clichés (referenced here):
“A cliché is a traditional form of human expression (in words, thoughts, emotions, gestures, acts) which – due to repetitive use in social life – has lost its original, often ingenious heuristic power. Although it thus fails positively to contribute meaning to social interactions and communication, it does function socially, since it manages to stimulate behavior (cognition, emotion, volition, action), while it avoids reflection on meanings.”
So then, how are we to respond to this cascade of hideous woe? It looks like writer and reviewer Michael Dennis has found the clue:
"There is what Don McKay calls "poetic intention" to the beauty and ugliness, joy and suffering, of everything around you." Di Brandt, You pray for the rare flower to appear
The irony? Take a peek back at the title. Perhaps she's criticizing her peers, but there's probably an equally good chance Brandt is reflecting ruefully and with displeasure on her own work. The additional irony? Buried amidst all the angry, unpleasant clichés are glimmers of beauty and hope: "Moon in your hands, transparent, luminous." "Wild strawberries low to the ground, cheating the lawn mower." "Clear vodka. Ice." Yes, even that last line has appeal, if you want to see it as a boost to the spirit or a toast to new possibilities rather than a gesture of despair. The narrator has reflected on her craft and has decided to stick with it.

The Scarecrow Wears a Wire

by Paul Farley

copyright ©Paul Farley 2006



The scarecrow wears a wire in the top field.
At sundown, the audiophilic farmer
who bugged his pasture unpicks the concealed
mics from his lapels. He’s by the fire

later, listening back to the great day,
though to the untrained ear there’s nothing much
doing: a booming breeze, a wasp or bee
trying its empty button-hole, a stitch

of wrensong now and then. But he listens late
and nods off to the creak of the spinal pole
and the rumble of his tractor pulling beets
in the bottom field, which cuts out. In a while

somebody will approach over ploughed earth
in caked Frankenstein boots. There’ll be a noise
of tearing, and he’ll flap awake by the hearth
grown cold, waking the house with broken cries.

Notes on the Poem

"His work engages with the commonplace and the overlooked ..." is just part of why the 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize judges were drawn to Paul Farley's poetry collection Tramp in Flames. What they go on to observe about Farley's work is what made the poem "The Scarecrow Wears a Wire" singular then ... and perhaps even more so now, several years later. The 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize judges go on to praise Farley's scrutiny in Tramp in Flames of "... the absurd and the catastrophic, the scientific and the mythic, in ways that make us stop and think again about what it is to be living in this particular world, at this particular moment in our history." The notion of a farmer - "audiophilic", no less - equipping his scarecrow to eavesdrop on the field he is guarding is rather amusing. What the scarecrow hears is, on one hand, pretty small and mundane and on the other, achingly exquisite and extraordinary. Especially lovely is: "a wasp or bee trying its empty button-hole, a stitch of wrensong now and then." It's both hilarious and wrenching when the farmer's "listening back to the great day" ends so abruptly. How has the meaning of this poem changed or deepened from when it was peering out at and listening to the world midway through the first decade of this millennium? How is it now pertinent in perhaps new ways now, at the end of the second decade of this millennium? The encouragement to listen closely to the little things still resonates ... but are there more questions about who is listening, using what kinds of tools in what kinds of milieus? Who, in fact, is the scarecrow, who is the farmer, and what will jolt us and make us "flap awake" ...? Farley's poem is still making us stop and think about what it is "to be living in this particular world, at this particular moment in our history", isn't it?