from Where do you feel?

by Donato Mancini

copyright ©2017 by Donato Mancini

in my eyes



in my face



in my voice



in my neck



in my throat



in my shoulders



in my heart



in my lungs



in my whole bloody body



in my social organs in general



in everywhere, flushing, sweating, pounding heart



in my collarbone and neck area



in my hands, tingling and prickling sensations



in my left shoulder blade, aches and pounds



in my stomach, and my back is paining too



in my arms, my arms feel big and heavy



Notes on the Poem

The opening half of "Where do you feel?" by Donato Mancini is simple but striking, in several respects. How does this selection from Mancini's 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted Same Diff achieve such a profound effect? The spare phrases, all tersely answering the title question, are demarcated by generous line spacing, which creates surprising heft, weight, impact, almost simulates strained breath between words. The way the words are arranged and cascade down the page confirms, as the Griffin Poetry Prize judges remarked on how Mancini's "strong design impulse" caused the words in another poem in this collection to "snow down the pages". Towards end of this segment, the answers or observations start to become more specific, more alarmed, peevish and verging on complaint, building tension. The forceful momentum of each line and chunk of space after each line has a perverse energy, even as it cumulatively and ironically suggests failing strength. Further on in the poem (with you can read in The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2018 or Same Diff), feelings are described in even more detail. The increasing density of words causes the sense of urgency and anxiety to mount further, as the lines wrap and space between each exposition compresses. The judges celebrate in their citation Mancini's words' presence and power on the page, how, among other accomplishments "he offers a way to recover a self, not through self-assertion but by attending to the voices and needs of others." Persuasively, almost unnervingly, this poem has that very influence on the reader.

from Skinned Alive

by Donald Nicholson-Smith, translating from the French by Abdellatif Laâbi

copyright ©English language copyright © Donald Nicholson-Smith, 2016

How easy the inquisitor’s questions are!
Compare them, he says, with the questions
I sometimes dare not ask myself:

What hidden tribe gave you gangrene?

Are you utterly untainted by power?

Have you broken all the mirrors?

From what weaknesses do you draw your strength?

What taboos govern your rectitude?

Why do you pay only lip service to the scope of your ignorance?

Do you not sometimes settle for a mere approximation of what you really wanted to say? Are you not sometimes annoyed by your own most righteous passions? Do you not sometimes tend to curse your fine reasons for living?

Are you not a little prone to play the martyr?

Notes on the Poem

This week's Poem of the Week is an excerpt from "Skinned Alive", from the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted In Praise of Defeat, a collection of the work in French of poet, novelist, playwright, translator, and political activist Abdellatif Laâbi, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. These crisply presented lines offer a sharp twist on the poetic device of rhetorical questions. The first line, one of only two that are punctuated with something other than a question mark in this section of the poem, is perversely sprightly. "How easy the inquisitor's questions are!" No one can possibly imagine an inquisitor asking easy questions, so what exactly is going on as the questions ensue? And as they ensue, to what a cascade of mounting urgency, cynicism and, surprisingly, spirit the reader - bewildered but morbidly fascinated - is subjected. In fact, at the pace at which the thorny, provocative, perverse queries proceed, the reader experiences a psychological bombardment not unlike that of the inquisitor's victim. "Compare them, he says, with the questions I sometimes dare not ask myself" Is the inquisitor genuinely being self-deprecating? Of course not. He's playing ornate mind games, games buried in the spaces between the words assembled into labyrinthine and subtle multiple negatives and deadly pitfalls. It's a challenge to slow down the battery of questions so one can try to carefully parse words such as "hidden", "untainted" and "taboos". Every question is deceptively succinct, treacherously loaded and menacing. The ominousness of the final line in this section ... "Are you not a little prone to play the martyr?" strongly suggests the narrator / target of the inquisitor cannot possibly prevail in this encounter, which is undoubtedly one of many. But there have clearly been many meetings between questioner and questioned, so has the cynical humour of that opening line served as a survival mechanism? These words, so complex and astringent in translation, clearly illustrate how attuned the translator (Nicholson-Smith) is to the original questions and how they were posed by - and perhaps to - the poet (Laabi).

Three buildings make a tide

by Tongo Eisen-Martin

copyright ©2017 by Tongo Eisen-Martin

I do not regret the things I said to that wall
stories about hand ratios in brawls
and a hotel kitchen entrance killer
and steamboats where they dedicate their one-night stand to

While we look at all the pretty kingdoms floating
   over our tents
      While we get the surplus treatment

Don’t put your shoe on my shoulder
And call it a hand (one building makes a jail)

“that’s a lot of people for
only a little bit of commotion”

The bookshelf looks alive to me
Alive and my opposition (until the devil lets me go)

My sidekick is the bootlegger

I tied up our friend as soon as a couple rich people acted like they
cared about him

A painting of a sun watched me end lives

The point I was making began scaring other patrons in the pool hall

“who would name themselves after this city?”
– to which I reply, “the only woman for me.”

Calling my drug the scoundrel and cousin / an axe handle in its
   five minutes as a twin

Painting my walls with pieces of other walls

I wandered to the edge of the parking lot

Notes on the Poem

Of the collection from which Tongo Eisen-Martin's poem "Three buildings make a tide" comes, the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize judges observed "Heaven Is All Goodbyes moves between trenchant political critique and dreamlike association, demonstrating how, in the right hands, one mode might energize the other — keeping alternative orders of meaning alive in the face of radical injustice." Line by line, we can feel the movement the judges describe, and yes, we can feel the clash of allusive, at times elusive, at times propulsive energies at play. From the start, a line like "I do not regret the things I said to that wall" has us willing to take the words literally, or to accept that we're willingly entering an edgy and treacherous dream world. From "brawls" and "a hotel entrance killer" to tying someone up (again, literally?) or wielding an axe handle (where is the blade?), a sense of foreboding shifts back and forth with benign whimsy the likes of "pretty kingdoms floating". Where have we followed the poem's narrator to, and where are we going next? In fact, is the narrator menacing ...

"I tied up our friend as soon as a couple rich people acted like they cared about him A painting of a sun watched me end lives The point I was making began scaring other patrons in the pool hall"

... or being menaced?

"The bookshelf looks alive to me Alive and my opposition (until the devil lets me go)"

Perhaps loosely akin to the medieval literary form of the dream vision, Eisen-Martin leads us through the mists of a threatening, bewildering dreamscape to the promise of stark, crystal clear revelations at "the edge of the parking lot" ...


by Sue Goyette

copyright ©Sue Goyette, 2013

According to our scholars, the newly birthed Milky Way
was rhinestoned with souls, which proved the soul’s

existence. The lifeguards, when asked, said they’d tasted
the hard candy of the soul when they tried reviving

an ocean victim. But we’d always been suspicious of souls.
We knew they could escape because we often heard

their hooves, the slap of their tails. They’d wander off
at night and when we’d wake, we’d feel emptier,

our great finned souls swimming against the current
and further away. We’d cover our mouths when we laughed,

when we yawned. Once they broke out, souls were just a nuisance
to coax back. There was a trap of words the poets had sugared

and we’d take classes to learn how to enunciate without sounding
desperate. When they returned, we’d have to swallow our souls

like the pit of a plum or a vitamin. It could take several days
to feel enriched, to see the sky in the puddles again.

Notes on the Poem

In her 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poetry collection, Sue Goyette creates a singular character, with distinctive presence and personality, out of an unlikely entity - the ocean. The poems of Ocean depicts the eponymous subject as, by turns, feisty, mischievous, threatening and mercurial. When she takes on something so immense with such imagination and verve, it's not surprising that she can work similar poetic alchemy with the soul. As the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize judges observed in the citation for Ocean: "The ocean is its own character – or characters – a pet, a starlet, a dragon, a pacing old man." Those are rather unusual symbols for or depictions of the ocean, don't you think? This set of guidelines for using symbols in visual communications prefaces its examples with the contention that "some symbols, ... have become so ingrained within our cultural sphere that they carry an almost universal meaning." The guidelines go on to reference the butterfly, fire, rain, darkness and witches as symbolizing souls or aspects or states of one's soul. While readily recognizable, could "so ingrained" also mean that using those symbols could render a piece perfunctory or cliché? Well, we don't have to worry about that with this poem. Goyette depicts the soul as everything from rhinestones and hard candy and a creature with hooves and slapping tails to a creature with fins, a wayward nuisance and something to be regained by swallowing it "like the pit of a plum or a vitamin." By referencing the less likely, the more unconventional, the unexpected and even revelatory, Goyette makes the mystery of the soul somehow less elusive, perhaps something with which we can be less intimidated and can come closer to understanding.

Judges for the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize Announced

TORONTO – September 19, 2018 – The trustees of The Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry are pleased to announce that Ulrikka Gernes (Denmark), Kim Maltman (Canada) and Srikanth Reddy (US) are the judges for the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Continue reading “Judges for the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize Announced”

Gay Incantations

by Billy-Ray Belcourt

copyright ©2017 by Billy-Ray Belcourt

i fall into the opening between subject and object
and call it a condition of possibility.
when i speak only the ceiling listens.
sometimes it moans.
if i have a name
let it be the sound his lips make.
there is no word in my language for this.
sometimes my kookum begins to cry
and a world falls out.
grieve is the name i give to myself.
i carve it into the bed frame.
i am make-believe.
this is an archive.
it hurts to be a story.
i am the boundary between reality and fiction.
it is a ghost town.
you dreamt me out of existence.
you are at once a map to nowhere and everywhere.
yesterday was an optical illusion.
i kiss a stranger and give him a middle name.
i call this love.
it lasts for exactly twenty minutes.
i chase after that feeling.
which is to say:
i want to almost not exist.
almost is the closest i can get to the sky.
heaven is a wormhole.
i first found it in another man’s armpit.
last night i gave birth to a woman and named her becoming.
she is four cree girls between the ages of 10 and 14 from northern saskatchewan.
we are a home movie
i threw out by accident.
all that is left is the signified.
people die that way.

Notes on the Poem

Billy-Ray Belcourt's 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection This Wound is a World offers, from beginning to end, a poetic journey both elucidating and starkly affecting. Each poem along the way manages that dual achievement differently, but helps build meaningful momentum over the course of the book. In "Gay Incantations", Belcourt renders the poem even more moving by using language in seemingly counterintuitive ways. From the poem's opening lines "i fall into the opening between subject and object and call it a condition of possibility." Belcourt uses the technical language of language, in effect, to show how feelings and interactions can be depicted dispassionately, in fact coldly, as intersections of grammatical components. One can fall into that clinical void between words, be left unsignified ("there is no word in my language for this"), even be dismissed as "make-believe." At the same time, Belcourt calls out those linguistic constructs for creating isolation and alienation when the opposite is so urgently needed. Most poignantly, this plea comes at the aching heart of the poem: "it hurts to be a story." The audio version here of Belcourt reading a slightly varied version of the poem has the not unpleasant cadence of someone carefully but not perfunctorily, but also wistfully rhyming off a list. That delivery balances what we've just observed, a struggle between what is depersonalized because it is seemingly reduced to a mere list, but cumulatively cries out for connection before it is reduced and dismissed. The poem's title is the clue: these are incantations, perhaps unlikely in form and content - sometimes intimate, sometimes grim, but all evoking hope for something magically transformative. If words can't bring back "four cree girls between the ages of 10 and 14 from northern saskatchewan", the plea is that words can somehow at least keep them signified and remembered. The last line of the poem is an emphatic full stop.

Which Helmet?

by Ken Babstock

copyright ©2011 Ken Babstock

With the glove on, her pixellated breast every
demonstrably offensive line about young plums
and buds budding. With the glove and helmet on, “her”
is a proposition. With the helmet on she likes it when I
read to her from the book of desires I wrote
with the helmet on. Under the glove and helmet,
day indiscernible from night and want from love.
The other helmet cues God whispering in his quadrant.
There’s no visor or need of one on the God helmet;
face a mask of contemptuous ecstasies, road
map of heaven on earth and the helmet on.
There’s a crash helmet and infantry helmet
over in the corner that no longer fit as the head
of the poem has developed macrocephallicly.
Our universe, said to be coming apart at the seams,
poorly made, a Jofa from the mid-eighties, placing
us, like Butch Goring’s head, at no small risk.
Jousting viable with the helmet on with the helmet
on time soups finally and selves sift. Horizons converge
in the mouth under the helmet and the glove
grips them like floss. This is Helmut Lang; I got
it at a consignment store. There’s a Spartan
helmet behind glass; there’s not much on it.
The helmet you were born
with very nearly obsolete, its list of incompatible
attachments growing longer by the day. Take trees,
for instance. Think of all the songs. Think of all the songs
without a helmet on and how they seem to weep
torrents over nothing for no reason. Put this on. Put
this on feel time die bewildered, binary, purchased
but no purchase gained, drainage
streaming out over the chinstrap.

Notes on the Poem

We've marveled before at Ken Babstock's rapier wordplay in previous Poem of the Week selections from his Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted and winning works. (So has Griffin Poetry Prize judge Heather McHugh.) "Which Helmet?" from Methodist Hatchet is another dazzling example, with yet more breathtaking twists and angles. "Which helmet?" indeed. All manner of headgear are launched at us - some for us to wear, some donned by others - from the get-go. The poem tosses out new meanings, interpretations and revelations with each reading and each chapeau. As words and meanings shift line after line, the line between reality versus virtual reality and even unreality wavers, and it's increasingly difficult to establish just exactly where we're performing this juggling act. "[H]er pixellated breast" suggests that both she and the narrator, wearing helmets, are in some digital or virtual reality. Then again, "God whispering in his quadrant" could be some heavenly realm. What functions are these helmets performing? Protection, yes, but some seem to be symbols of aggression (jousting, for example), while others are just trivial fashion items (Helmut Lang, perfectly) purchased on sale. "There's a crash helmet and infantry helmet over in the corner that no longer fit as the head of the poem has developed macrocephallicly." How interesting that rather than getting a swelled head as "head of the poem", the narrator confesses in self-deprecating fashion that his head is abnormally small, likely due to incomplete brain development. However one tries to arm or protect one's brain or reasoning or intellect, it turns out that, in fact, it's the emotions no helmet can contain, as the poem concludes with "drainage streaming out over the chinstrap."

The goat

by Aisha Sasha John

copyright ©2017 by Aisha Sasha John

He has to bray.
To pull his rope leash in the light.
He did it again in the black-blue sky
Of my leaving.
It is death.
He has to fucking bray
Because he is alive
Tied up.

I asked Fadwa what
A phrase meant;
It had hooked my bad ear and what
She said is it meant
You should be

And then Manuela said my buns were horns
Were my tied-up
I released them.
Je ne sais pas how to say this en anglais mais
My selves:
I suppose we
Gave me a course
Making our soul of a fitness enough
To scorn you
But not enough to
Not scorn you –

Notes on the Poem

The poem "The goat" is an excellent example of the unique ways in which Aisha Sasha John draws the reader into her experiences in her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection I have to live. Griffin Poetry Prize judge Ian Williams offered a wonderful overview of what Aisha Sasha John accomplishes in her collection when he introduced her at the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist readings:
“Aisha Sasha John delivers a master class in voice. In fact, the voice of her collection I have to live is so masterfully constructed that one can misapprehend it as effortless or easy. But better adjectives might be 'confident', 'assured', 'secure in its right to exist and to speak'. Over the course of the book, that voice sustains itself through a number of complex intersections with gender, sexuality and race. In addition to the pleasure of the voice, this collection is also infectious. After reading it the first time, I set it down and found myself quoting it, after just one time. The very title I have to live, according to David B. Hobbs in The Globe and Mail, is 'repeated enough to become a sort of heartbeat for the collection.' True, the collection as a whole has a sort of recursive quality that draws you back to itself through some current, some magnetism, some need. One final pleasure is how Aisha Sasha John's commitment to declarative sentences turn into affirmations. She courts a line between what is tacitly understood and what needs to be stated. It's hard not to fill in your own name in a poem like this one: 'He thinks I should be glad because they / 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.' Urgent, sincere, confident, unforgettable – here's Aisha Sasha John and I have to live.”
(You can read the full review Williams mentions in his introduction here.) Williams remarks on the power of Aisha Sasha John's use of declarative sentences. If, in real life, someone spoke to you almost exclusively in this fashion, it might quickly become off-putting. The speaker would come across as too focused on self, with no inclusive or at least polite interest in you or others. In poems like "The goat", the narrator balances her own story and observations with that of a goat who "has to fucking bray Because he is alive And Tied up." That this might be a justification for the narrator's own tendencies, but that justification is illustrated with this creature, couches it with both acute, even harsh awareness and humility, and maybe even a bit of self-deprecating humour. The use of proper names in the poem adds a layer of specificity and intimacy to the poem - it's as if we're invited to listen in on the narrator's conversations with her friends - yet simultaneously it excludes us, as we don't necessarily know who Fadwa and Manuela are. Similarly, the French/English mash-up with which she closes the poem suggests she is simultaneously striving to make her contentions clear, but maybe also striving to obscure them just a bit. What does she mean by "To scorn you But not enough to Not scorn you - D'accord?" We are indeed drawn in and intrigued, even though we don't know for certain if she wants to bring us closer or keep us at arms' length.

In the Evening of the Search

by Brenda Hillman

copyright ©2013 by Brenda Hillman

   Vastness of dusk, after a day –
        what is a person? Too late
to ask this now. The court has ruled
   a corporation is a person.
Persons used to be called souls.
   On the avenue, a lucky person
stands in a convenience store
   scratching powder from his ticket –
silver flecks fall from his thumbs
  to galaxies below.

                    Deep in the night
    a trough of chaos forms;
your lover’s body stops it every time.
  Meteors of the season over minnows
in the creek with two kinds of crayfish,
    tiny mouths & claws
      – nervous, perfect, perfect
life – the flesh of a dreamer,
  facing the wall –

   Around each word you’re reading
there spins the unknowable flame.
      When you wake, a style
 of world shakes free
   from the dream. It doesn’t stop
      when you go out;
it doesn’t stop when you come back
    as you were meant to-

Notes on the Poem

Brenda Hillman's Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire won the 2014 International Griffin Poetry Prize. 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize judge Robert Bringhurst selected her poem "In the Evening of the Search" from that collection for that year's anthology. It's a wonderful choice that quietly surprises on repeated readings. With each reading, we find ourselves unearthing fresh examples of images and ideas suggesting a struggle between pessimism and optimism in the poem. As this tussle produces different reactions each time, this observation from the judges' citation is applicable every time: "The mighty challenges of now are fully engaged." As the poem opens with "Vastness of dusk, after a day - what is a person?" Hillman captures succinctly and poignantly that end-of-day weariness and despair we've all felt at one time or another - or more so, more often nowadays? The crisp, sardonic "The court has ruled a corporation is a person. Persons used to be called souls." darkens things further. Does the next image swing just as emphatically to a sense of hope? Or are we just like those silver flecks, mere specks among the vast galaxies? Yes, perhaps so ... "Deep in the night a trough of chaos forms" ... but wait ... "your lover's body stops it every time." There is hope. We all have ways, means, resources, defences against whatever the world throws us into or tries to throw at us. Are the next words a frustrating intimation, pragmatic guidance or acceptance? "Around each word you're reading there spins the unknowable flame." However positively or negatively you interpret those words, what follows simply states that the world - some form of world - will always be there and will not stop. We must choose to go out, come back, do something, endure. It is as if Hillman has sent us out to face things, with a gentle push and a subtle benediction.

The Amen Stone

by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, translating from the Hebrew by Yehuda Amichai

copyright ©2000 by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld

On my desk there is a stone with the word “Amen” on it,
a triangular fragment of stone from a Jewish graveyard destroyed
many generations ago. The other fragments, hundreds upon hundreds,
were scattered helter-skelter, and a great yearning,
a longing without end, fills them all:
first name in search of family name, date of death seeks
dead man’s birthplace, son’s name wishes to locate
name of father, date of birth seeks reunion with soul
that wishes to rest in peace. And until they have found
one another, they will not find a perfect rest.
Only this stone lies calmly on my desk and says “Amen.”
But now the fragments are gathered up in lovingkindness
by a sad good man. He cleanses them of every blemish,
photographs them one by one, arranges them on the floor
in the great hall, makes each gravestone whole again,
one again: fragment to fragment,
like the resurrection of the dead, a mosaic,
a jigsaw puzzle. Child’s play.

Notes on the Poem

Yehuda Amichai takes us on an eye-opening journey by starting with a simple but potent object. As translated with care and respect by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, that object is given profound, talismanic meaning. From that broad sweep, it is then brought back to an intimate and resonant place among like objects. It's a powerful experience produced by a brief but unforgettable poem, well worth a revisit after it was previously featured as Poem of the Week. We see the object first on Amichai's / the narrator's desk. We are swiftly assured that this is no mundane paperweight, although it is a tangible reminder of immense, weighty and tragic forces. The object is one piece of many that have been cruelly scattered. The inventory of yearning that proceeds from that scattering is heart wrenching. Each broken connection, from "first name in search of family name" to "date of birth seeks reunion with soul that wishes to rest in peace" is a depiction of physical fragments tossed asunder as well as the vast devastation of many human lives torn apart. At the mid-point of the poem, there is an echo of the serenity with which the poem commenced: "Only this stone lies calmly on my desk and says “Amen.”" ... and then ... "the fragments are gathered up in lovingkindness by a sad good man" Amichai/Bloch/Kronfeld brings us full circle back to a type of peace and hope, by beautifully, subtly and simply bringing an object to life and imbuing it with both gravitas and the warmth of a collective human experience that is first tragic, and then transcendent. As the scattered fragments are reunited and restored, the phrase "Child's play" seems seems to be a gentle but telling rebuke, as if bringing things back together could ever really be that simple.