The Novel As Manuscript

by Norman Dubie

copyright ©2015 by Norman Dubie



An ars poetica

I remember the death, in Russia,
of postage stamps
like immense museum masterpieces
patchwork
wrapped in linen, tea stained,
with hemp for strapping…

these colored stamps designed for foreign places
were even printed during famine—
so when they vanished, so did the whole
Soviet system:
the Berlin Wall, tanks from Afghanistan,
and Ceausescu’s bride before a firing squad.

It had begun with the character of Yuri Zhivago
in a frozen wilderness, the summer house
of his dead in-laws, his
pregnant mistress asleep
before the fireplace
with flames dancing around a broken chair, piano keys,
and the gardener’s long black underwear.

Lara lying there. A vulgar fat businessman
coming by sleigh to collect her for the dangers
of a near arctic escape…

But for Yuri, not that long ago, he was
with celebrity,
a young doctor publishing a thin volume
of poems in France, he was writing
now at a cold desk
poems against all experience
and for love of a woman buried
in moth-eaten furs on the floor—

while he wrote
wolves out along the green tree line
howled at him. The author of this novel,
Boris Pasternak, arranged it all. Stalin would
have liked to have killed him. But superstition kept him from it.
So, the daughter of Pasternak’s mistress eventually
is walking with a candle
through a prison basement—
she is stepping over acres of twisted corpses
hoping to locate her vanished mother …
she thinks this reminds her of edging slowly
over the crust on a very deep snow, just a child who believes
she is about to be swallowed by the purity of it all,
like this write your new poems.

Notes on the Poem

Norman Dubie uses "The Novel As Manuscript" to provide crisp insight into forms of poetic inspiration, useful for those who love poetry and for those who might aspire to create it themselves. Let's take a look at how he does this in this selection from his 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection, The Quotations of Bone. The poem's title is our first signpost. We're ready to decipher from the clues provided which novel Dubie will reference in this poem. We're also ready to figure out how the novel - as a form and as a specific work, in this case Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago - is a manuscript or roadmap for something else yet envisioned. The poem's subtitle - An ars poetica - is our second signpost. With those words, Dubie informs us that he is going to scrutinize "The Art of Poetry", and we can guess that it will be both in broad, philsophical and in personal, individual terms. The Academy of American Poets offers an overview of this poetic term, including excellent classical and contemporary examples. There is much fodder here for understanding expectations for how poetry is crafted, and for what poets must demand of themselves. As we proceed from this signpost into the poem itself, we discover that Dubie is contemplating Pasternak, Pasternak's novel and the novel's protagonist as opportunities to mine the rich veins of other's artistic inspiration to fire other artistry, from the novelist, the novel, and a character who is also a writer, to this poet and his poetry. Dubie is engaging in the practice of ekphrasis, whereby a poem uses as its departure point and expands upon the themes and meanings evoked by an artwork from another form. (Most recently, we enjoyed a series of ekphrastic poems in 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Quarrels by Eve Joseph, where Joseph's poems responded to images from the work of American photographer Diane Arbus.) We're reminded that in praising Dubie's The Quotations of Bone, the Griffin Poetry Prize judges observed that the energy with which Dubie effects the art of poetry itself "blurs the distinction between what is real because it once happened, and what is real because of the emphatic manner in which it has been felt." So, even as Doctor Zhivago is a fictional work, Dubie's consideration of and obvious feelings for the work bring it to palpable life. This is the life, he in turn advises, with which we should all approach our own work: "like this write your new poems."

A five-year-old asks his mother …

by Eve Joseph

copyright ©2018 by Eve Joseph



A five-year-old asks his mother if the clouds are solid and wants to know why, when he looks up, he can’t see the old people and their old cats. I must have dozed off. The trees were bare when I fell asleep but now their leaves are that impossible newly minted green. Tom Waits is bellowing downstairs and any second now someone I love is going to walk through the door. I want to know why the clouds told the Serbian poet their names in the quiet of a summer afternoon. And why didn’t he share those names with the rest of us? Perhaps they did not translate into English. Perhaps the old want to stay hidden and keep their secrets all to themselves.

Notes on the Poem

Let's continue celebrating the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize winners by spending a few moments again with one of the softly surreal prose poems from Quarrels by Eve Joseph. The Academy of American Poets offers some useful insights into what constitutes a prose poem, including this:
"While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects."
Couple that with the 2019 Griffin Poetry judges' observation that in Quarrels ... "The poet has surrendered herself to the realm of the illogical, trusting that it has a logic of its own, and the outcome is, indeed, a new music." ... and we see how Joseph has found some ideal techniques to navigate that misty but intriguing realm. In her succinct renditions of the form, Joseph seems to have found the perfect format with which to tussle with the illogical, give it its own internal logic and deliver it in a way that is bewitching in its brevity. As mentioned in the preceding definition, fragmentation can help create this charm, like a snatch of music (Tom Waits will certainly do) or a snippet of a dream that seems to meld with the ostensible real world when one dozes off momentarily. Or was it momentary, if ... "The trees were bare when I fell asleep but now their leaves are that impossible newly minted green." The question opening the poem literally has its own childlike logic. We hope the mother responded to the child's logic in the spirit of that logic, although we don't know anything else about the mother and child, including if they were in the poem's narrator's waking or sleeping world. At any rate, the question is consistent with what seems to be the recalcitrant nature of the clouds - they only told their names to the Serbian poet, no one else. The poet too is not being too cooperative with information - did he purposely not reveal the names or were they lost in translation? To circle back to the beginningm maybe the old people are up there in the clouds, but they do just want to stay hidden. It's all very logical, isn't it?

After You’re Gone / DAY SIX

by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon

copyright ©2016 by Kim Hyesoon / 2018 by Don Mee Choi



After you’ve gone don’t go, don’t
After you’ve come don’t come, don’t

When you depart, they close your eyes, put your hands together and cry
        don’t go, don’t go
But when you say open the door, open the door, they say don’t come, don’t
        come

They glue a paper doll onto a bamboo stick and say don’t come, don’t come
They throw your clothes into the fire and say don’t come, don’t come

That’s why you’re footless
wingless

yet all you do is fly
unable to land

You’re visible even when you hide
You know everything even without a brain

You feel so cold
even without a body

That’s why this morning the nightgown hiding under the bed
is sobbing quietly to itself

Water collects in your coffin
You’ve already left the coffin

Your head’s imprint on the moon pillow
Your body’s imprint on the cloud blanket

So after you’ve gone don’t go, don’t
So after you’ve come don’t come, don’t

Notes on the Poem

On the heels of the work's 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize win, it seems only right that we should reprise this selection from the hypnotic Autobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon. The bulk of Autobiography of Death is a sequence of 49 poems, matched to the period of 49 days a spirit roams after death before it proceeds to reincarnation. Variations of the 49-day period are articulated in different faiths. In the Tibetan tradition, mentioned in this article about the Dalai Lama offering a prayer service for the deaths of Tibetan protesters in 2008:
"Prayers conducted by the living can assist the dead through this journey and can help to guide them toward a good rebirth, and so it is a period that is always marked by special rites."
In Kim's sequence of poems, so sensitively and determinedly translated by Choi, there is much to equate them with ritual and invocation. The prayer-like aspects of this particular selection from early in the 49-poem sequence / 49-day observance include the incantatory opening and closing stanzas and the rites suggested by the second and third stanzas. A particular anguish bursts through in these lines: "You feel so cold even without a body" and paired with this: "Water collects in your coffin You've already left the coffin" makes direct reference to a contemporary Korean catastrophe, the 2014 sinking of the Sewol Ferry, in which over 300 people died, many of them young high school students. what Went Wrong in the Sewol Ferry Disaster is a heartwrenching 30-minute New Yorker documentary on the tragedy, capturing strikingly what haunts many of the poems in Autobiography of Death.

Autobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon and Quarrels by Eve Joseph Win the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize

TORONTO – Thursday, June 6, 2019Autobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon (New Directions) and Quarrels by Eve Joseph (Anvil Press) are the International and Canadian winners of the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize. They each received C$65,000 in prize money.

Continue readingAutobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon and Quarrels by Eve Joseph Win the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize”

67

by Sarah Tolmie

copyright ©Sarah Tolmie 2018



We are scared to death by the words for things.
Even yet, when we should know better.
I know my father’s teeth will chatter

If I say pneumonia about my son.
Suddenly it is World War One
And influenza, H 1 N 1

And doom and liver flukes.
It’s Bay of Pigs and waiting nukes.

And me? I am a heartless bitch
For saying he should get a grip.

Notes on the Poem

This week's Poem of the Week choice comes from the third of three works on the Canadian 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. We've now spent time with selections from all seven works shortlisted for this year's prize. Now, let's turn our gaze to one of the spirited poems from The Art of Dying by Sarah Tolmie. From the outset, the collection's title (and even how it is spelled out by an unnervingly charming and jaunty cavalcade of skeletons on the book cover), signal we're going to be prodded to confront a troubling and taboo subject. Tolmie takes a largely satirical approach to the attitudes and rituals around death and deathly subjects, floating cheeky and feisty observations on a raft of slyly imperfect rhymes, lively personae (like this poem's self-effacing and supposedly "heartless bitch") and other lyrical poetic effects. As Tolmie contends "We are scared to death by the words for things." and then she launches directly and perhaps perversely into a list of terms naming someone's fear. In fact, experts advise is one of the ways to conquer it. With irreverence, with a light touch, whether the indifference of that "heartless bitch" is true or feigned, she has succinctly and effectively built a strong case for wielding words and "faking it till you make it".

A five-year-old asks his mother …

by Eve Joseph

copyright ©2018 by Eve Joseph



A five-year-old asks his mother if the clouds are solid and wants to know why, when he looks up, he can’t see the old people and their old cats. I must have dozed off. The trees were bare when I fell asleep but now their leaves are that impossible newly minted green. Tom Waits is bellowing downstairs and any second now someone I love is going to walk through the door. I want to know why the clouds told the Serbian poet their names in the quiet of a summer afternoon. And why didn’t he share those names with the rest of us? Perhaps they did not translate into English. Perhaps the old want to stay hidden and keep their secrets all to themselves.

Notes on the Poem

This week's Poem of the Week choice comes from the second of three works on the Canadian 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. Let's spend a few moments with one of the softly surreal prose poems from Quarrels by Eve Joseph. The Academy of American Poets offers some useful insights into what constitutes a prose poem, including this:
"While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects."
Couple that with the 2019 Griffin Poetry judges' observation that in Quarrels ... "The poet has surrendered herself to the realm of the illogical, trusting that it has a logic of its own, and the outcome is, indeed, a new music." ... and we see how Joseph has found some ideal techniques to navigate that misty but intriguing realm. In her succinct renditions of the form, Joseph seems to have found the perfect format with which to tussle with the illogical, give it its own internal logic and deliver it in a way that is bewitching in its brevity. As mentioned in the preceding definition, fragmentation can help create this charm, like a snatch of music (Tom Waits will certainly do) or a snippet of a dream that seems to meld with the ostensible real world when one dozes off momentarily. Or was it momentary, if ... "The trees were bare when I fell asleep but now their leaves are that impossible newly minted green." The question opening the poem literally has its own childlike logic. We hope the mother responded to the child's logic in the spirit of that logic, although we don't know anything else about the mother and child, including if they were in the poem's narrator's waking or sleeping world. At any rate, the question is consistent with what seems to be the recalcitrant nature of the clouds - they only told their names to the Serbian poet, no one else. The poet too is not being too cooperative with information - did he purposely not reveal the names or were they lost in translation? To circle back to the beginningm maybe the old people are up there in the clouds, but they do just want to stay hidden. It's all very logical, isn't it?

Verso 33.1

by Dionne Brand

copyright ©2018 Dionne Brand



If I see a patch of corn, in front of a house as I did this morning, or a zinnia bed, or a wrecked mattress leaning on the side of a house, an emotion overtakes. Not one of sadness as you may imagine, you being you, but a familiarity, a grace of some weight. I might even say longing, because it occurs to me that in the zinnia, the desultory mattress, there used to be hope, not a big hope, but a tendril one for the zinnias’ success, or the mattress’ resurrection – the nights slept on it and the afternoons spent jumping on it. And then the scraggle of corn fighting waterless earth. A small, present happiness and an eternal hope, even also, joy.

If I see a patch of flowers near a road surviving heat and exhaust fumes and boots, a homesickness washes me and I am standing in the front yard looking at zinnias. The dire circumstances in the house behind, the material circumstances, the poverty, are part of this homesickness. Not because, one, the scarcity, and two, the zinnias, set each other off as some might think, but because they were the same.

Notes on the Poem

Our next set of Poem of the Week choices come from the three works on the Canadian 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. First, let's savour an evocative selection from The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand. "Verso 33.1" is the concluding piece in a collection that takes the reader through a rich exploration of what poetry is and what the multiple roles of the poet can be in bringing poetry to the world. That exploration wends its way through philosophy, psychology, history, politics, race, gender and more, but as an intellectual and artistic labyrinth of sorts, it is more welcoming than intimidating, even as it confronts and parses complex issues. When the reader comes to the end of this heady and challenging journey, it is almost startling to arrive at such humble and unlikely final images: "a patch of corn ... a zinnia bed ... a wrecked mattress leaning on the side of a house." These things are all so modest, so intimate, but they immediately strike a chord with all of us in some way. And yes, it turns out a veritable wave of emotions overtakes, as these words tumble out: "there used to be hope, not a big hope, but a tendril one for the zinnias' success, or the mattress' resurrection - the nights slept on it and the afternoons spent jumping on it. And then the scraggle of corn fighting waterless earth. A small, present happiness and an eternal hope, even also, joy." As unlikely metaphors for optimism, the corn, the zinnias and the mattress are ultimately so much more resonant because you simply don't expect them to evoke such emotional power. The 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize judges gave us a heads up, though, when they noted in their citation that The Blue Clerk is: "Expansive, beautifully written, structurally compelling, and above all moving" ... and by moving us with these surprising images, Brand has firmly and beautifully sewn up her discussion about how poetry and poets do what they do.

January 1, Dawn

by Ani Gjika, translated from the Albanian written by Luljeta Lleshanaku

copyright ©Luljeta Lleshanaku 2012, 2015, 2018 Translation © Ani Gjika 2018



After the celebrations,
people, TV channels, telephones,
the year’s recently corrected digit
finally fall asleep

Between the final night and the first dawn
a jagged piece of sky
as if viewed from the open mouth of a whale.
Inside her belly and inside the belly of time,
there’s no point worrying.
You glide gently along. She knows her course.
Inside her, you are digested slowly, painlessly.

And if you’re lucky, like Jonah,
at some point she’ll spit you out on dry land
along with heaps of inorganic waste.

Everything sleeps. A sweet hypothermic sleep.
But those few still awake
might hear the melancholy creaking of a wheelbarrow,
someone stealing stones from a ruin
to build new walls just a few feet away.

Notes on the Poem

Our latest Poem of the Week choices come from the seven works on the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. Next up is a fascinating selection from Negative Space by Ani Gjika, translated from the Albanian written by Luljeta Lleshanaku. It's probably safe to say all or most of us - through the ages as they've been informed by the concept of calendars and ways to mark the passage of time - have looked upon January 1st and the significance of having a milestone point at which to recognize a newly incremented year as an opportunity to reflect on how our time has passed and how we can improve it going forward. Lleshanaku offers a clear-eyed and grounded approach to the observance, and Gjika has translated with spirit and wit a view of the New Year's practice that is a bracing panacea. Psychology Today has noted that the universality of the New Year's celebration - whether in a religious or secular tradition - "may be that the symbolism we attach to this one moment is rooted in one of the most powerful motivations of all — our motivation to survive." That sense permeates "January 1, Dawn", particularly the cleverly deployed central image of enduring being swallowed by a whale, as Jonah did. Although those, of course, are an undeniable Biblical references, it is served up in this Gjika/Lleshanaku version in a rueful and decidedly non-devout fashion (or devoted to a different kind of worship, as the acerbic "heaps of inorganic waste" suggests.) The poem concludes with provocative imagery that sounds a cautionary note about how we continue to survive going into each new year. There is a call for vigilance, even as ... "Everything sleeps. A sweet hypothermic sleep." Yes, sleep is "sweet" ... but the accompanying adjective "hypothermic" drives home sleep's potential for treachery and danger. We succumb to its seductions at our peril, jeopardizing ... yes, our very survival. We are cautioned to stay alert as walls are being built from the wreckage of the previous year ... and all that denotes and connotes, from walls torn down previously to the war cry of a world leader who wants to build walls anew ... to individuals who may have any number of reasons for being heartened or disheartened at the prospect of erecting barriers. So pointedly and poignantly, "January 1, Dawn" illustrates how these cycles recur, year after year.

After You’re Gone / DAY SIX

by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon

copyright ©2016 by Kim Hyesoon / 2018 by Don Mee Choi



After you’ve gone don’t go, don’t
After you’ve come don’t come, don’t

When you depart, they close your eyes, put your hands together and cry
        don’t go, don’t go
But when you say open the door, open the door, they say don’t come, don’t
        come

They glue a paper doll onto a bamboo stick and say don’t come, don’t come
They throw your clothes into the fire and say don’t come, don’t come

That’s why you’re footless
wingless

yet all you do is fly
unable to land

You’re visible even when you hide
You know everything even without a brain

You feel so cold
even without a body

That’s why this morning the nightgown hiding under the bed
is sobbing quietly to itself

Water collects in your coffin
You’ve already left the coffin

Your head’s imprint on the moon pillow
Your body’s imprint on the cloud blanket

So after you’ve gone don’t go, don’t
So after you’ve come don’t come, don’t

Notes on the Poem

Our current series of Poem of the Week choices come from the seven works on the recently announced 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. This selection comes from the mournful and hypnotic Autobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon. The bulk of Autobiography of Death is a sequence of 49 poems, matched to the period of 49 days a spirit roams after death before it proceeds to reincarnation. Variations of the 49-day period are articulated in different faiths. In the Tibetan tradition, mentioned in this article about the Dalai Lama offering a prayer service for the deaths of Tibetan protesters in 2008:
"Prayers conducted by the living can assist the dead through this journey and can help to guide them toward a good rebirth, and so it is a period that is always marked by special rites."
In Kim's sequence of poems, so sensitively and determinedly translated by Choi, there is much to equate them with ritual and invocation. The prayer-like aspects of this particular selection from early in the 49-poem sequence / 49-day observance include the incantatory opening and closing stanzas and the rites suggested by the second and third stanzas. A particular anguish bursts through in these lines: "You feel so cold even without a body" and paired with this: "Water collects in your coffin You've already left the coffin" makes direct reference to a contemporary Korean catastrophe, the 2014 sinking of the Sewol Ferry, in which over 300 people died, many of them young high school students. What Went Wrong in the Sewol Ferry Disaster is a heartwrenching 30-minute New Yorker documentary on the tragedy, capturing strikingly what haunts many of the poems in Autobiography of Death.

from Apparition of Objects

by Robert Majzels and Erin Moure, translated from the French written by Nicole Brossard

copyright ©English translation copyright © Robert Majzels and Erin Moure, 2007



winter water blue melt backlit
life suddenly in thin chemise
steadfast
in questions and old silences

in the puzzle of proper nouns
and barking city: February
slow eyelashes that beckon to love
and spinning tops

foliage of word for word
gentleness that evades meaning
plunge into the dark
with metronome

Notes on the Poem

This week, we are celebrating the announcement of newly minted Griffin Lifetime Recognition Award recipient Nicole Brossard of Canada. Let's revisit some of her work, which was shortlisted in translation for the Griffin Poetry Prize several years ago. The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize judges noted that Nicole Brossard "has always shone an investigative light on every word that comes to her." The judges go on in the citation for Notebook of Roses and Civilization to note that those essaying to translate Brossard's work have high standards to reach, but they conclude that Robert Majzels and Erin Moure have done so very admirably. This piquant portion of "Apparition of Objects" illustrates their achievement well. Individual lines and phrases taken on their own, with no assumed relation to the lines preceding or following, are pleasurable and evocative fragments unto themselves. This one is refreshing: "winter water blue melt backlit" ... and this one is startling: "life suddenly in thin chemise" ... and this one is alluring: "slow eyelashes that beckon to love" The poem's brief, uncluttered lines, virtually devoid of punctuation, allows each word to seem to breathe expansively on its own. Perhaps Brossard/Majzel/Moure's intended effect is best captured in the line: "foliage of word for word" Perhaps words linked together in a certain order force a certain dense or tangled meaning, and it's only by "plung[ing] into the dark" unknown and setting a new rhythm or approach (whatever the metronome might signify) can those words be invested with new meaning.