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. Let's revisit what he achieves in this unforgettable piece. 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.


by Karen Solie

copyright ©Karen Solie 2001

It was the summer some rank fever weed
sunk her bitch hooks in, sowed my skin
to itch and ooze, that we shared a bed
for the first time. It’s not so bad,
you said, looking for a clean place
to put your hands while I stuck to the sheets
and stunk up the room with creams
and salves. You didn’t cringe,
(though in those days my back was often turned)
took your showers at the usual time, rose,
a bank of muscled cloud above
my poisoned field, and blew cool
across the mess. I said, eyes shining
with antihistamines, that you were potent
as a rare bird sighting, twenty on the sidewalk,
straight flush. It was only falling
into sleep that your body twitched away
from mine, a little more each time
I’d scratch, and I knew then we were made
for each other, that you lie as well as me,
my faithful drug, my perfect match.

Notes on the Poem

With "Anniversary", from her 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Short Haul Engine, Karen Solie perhaps sets out to undermine romantic love with the less-than-attractive aspects of everyday life. On the other hand, perhaps she has created an unconventionally beautiful love poem - doing the very same thing. Jeremy Richards took on the assignment from the Poetry Foundation to interview four poets on "how to write love poems that don't suck." When he posed his questions to Rebecca Hoogs, she astutely observed:
"A good love poem lives in a tense state. If there’s no tension in the love, there’s no tension in the poem. “I love you, you’re perfect,” no matter how prettily said, is boring."
The narrator of Solie's poem is clearly tense and feeling less-than-perfect, extremely self-conscious about some unfortunate and acute allergies that the narrator's lover can't help but notice. The narrator notes gratefully "You didn't cringe" and praises the lover as something very special "a rare bird sighting, twenty on the sidewalk, straight flush" but later ... "It was only falling into sleep that your body twitched away from mine" Referencing those signs of good luck, is the narrator actually kind of rueful, sarcastic or doubtful ... because while a "straight flush" is a winning card combination, couldn't it also pertain to itchy skin? Solie has uniquely mined ugliness for unexpectedly transcendent beauty before, as in her powerful and unforgettable poem "Sturgeon" from this same collection. As her narrator concludes here "you lie as well as me, my faithful drug, my perfect match." the ugliness might be more than the physical, but whatever it is, it seems that love knows when to expediently ignores certain things. Wryly and perhaps perversely reassuring on one hand, on the other it suggests that this unusual love poem is actually far from over.

Food For Risen Bodies – I

by Michael Symmons Roberts

copyright ©Michael Symmons Roberts, 2004

A rare dish is right for those who
have lain bandaged in a tomb for weeks:

quince and quail to demonstrate
that fruit and birds still grow on trees,

eels to show that fish still needle streams.
Rarer still, some blind white crabs,

not bleached but blank, from such
a depth of ocean that the sun would drown

if it approached them. Two-thirds
of the earth is sea; and two-thirds of that sea

-away from currents, coasts and reefs –
is lifeless, colourless, pure weight.

Notes on the Poem

Michael Symmons Roberts is consistently identified as and commended for being a poet who produces works that skilfully juxtapose religious and secular themes. This selection from the poem sequence "Food for Risen Bodies" from his 2005 International Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Corpus is a striking example of the fine balance he achieves. In a 2014 article in The Irish Times, poetry editor Gerard Smythe profiles Roberts, observing "He is a poet as much immersed in the sensory world as in the transcendent moment and equally at home in scientific knowledge ... as in the revelations of scripture." The first stanza of Roberts' poem refers to resurrection, a concept perhaps unimaginable without some kind of spiritual faith. The poem's first words strike a celebratory note ("a rare dish is right") for those who have literally or figuratively conquered death. From this hopeful opening, the preparations for that celebration turn to the ecological: "fruit and birds still grow on trees" and "fish still needle streams" and then turn even deeper, to parts of our world perhaps as unimaginable as the concept of resurrection if it was not for the efforts of and faith in scientific exploration. The "rare dish" contemplated at the beginning of the poem has a positive connotation, but when we get to "Rarer still, some blind white crabs" an ominous tone seems to take over, as we proceed deeper, as there is the threat of the sun being extinguished, as everything becomes bleached of colour ... and drained of life. Roberts has taken us full circle in six brief stanzas. What might he be suggesting?

from I Imagine a Poet

by Khaled Mattawa, translating from the Arabic by Adonis

copyright ©2010 by Yale University

A salute to Jacques Berque

I imagine his voice as the sound of a tambourine,
that the tambourine is broken in his throat,
that his throat is a fire named God.

I imagine a poet
into whose innards history pours
drenching his words and pooling at his feet,
a poet who rains blood that some hoist as a banner made of sky.

Notes on the Poem

Previously discussing Adonis: Selected Poems from the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist, we've noted with admiration how translator Khaled Mattawa has forged powerful poems that stand as unique entities distilled from the source of Adonis' works in Arabic. As we look again at an excerpt from another selection from this collection, we continue to marvel ... as we catch our breath. What an imagining of what a poet can be and what a poet can achieve! In the first of the two stanzas drawn from the longer poem, the tambourine is a jaunty symbol of music and rhythm and percussion, rousing the listener to motion. Then, from one line to the next, that symbol is shattered ... and yet ... "his throat is a fire named God" ... the poet carries on defiantly. That momentum carries on into the second stanza of this selection, which vividly depicts how a poet can uphold passionately historical truths. When the poet "rains blood", which can be understood as the emblematic words of his (or her) poetry, others can take that blood, those words as their banner, their inspiration. The poem salutes Jacques Berque, who clearly had a profound effect on Adonis. Berque, who died in 1995, was a French Islamic scholar and sociologist whose expertise focused on the decolonisation of Algeria and Morocco. Not long before his death, his translation from Arabic to French of Adonis' poems in the collection Soleils seconds was published. Mattawa has conveyed strikingly the importance of Berque to Adonis to English-speaking poetry lovers, at the same time painting a shining and universal portrait of what a poet can stand for.

Ten What

by Natalie Shapero

copyright ©2017 by Natalie Shapero

The camera adds ten what, I can’t remember.
But the threat’s enough to make me stay

away. I don’t want any more of what I have.
I don’t want another spider plant. I don’t

want another lover. Especially I don’t want
another clock, except insofar as each of us

is a clock, all hammers and counting
down. And yes, I know by heart the list

of lifetimes. A worker bee will die before
a camel. A fox will die before a pilot whale.

A pocket watch will die before the clock inside
the crocodile—I think of this often, but never

tell my lover, as I do not tell him that,
upstairs, a moth is pinned by the window

sash. I make no plans to free it. Everyone says
the baby looks like me, but I can’t see it.

Notes on the Poem

Natalie Shapero certainly has a way with opening lines. We observed that previously with "My Hand and Cold", from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Hard Child ... and she left us feeling off kilter and apprehensive for the rest of the poem. She does it again in "Ten What" to somewhat different but equally unsettling effect. "The camera adds ten what, I can't remember." One sentence in and we're already forming an impression of this narrator, aren't we? That this person is concerned about being captured on camera and possibly vain sets up an unpleasant air of nervous egotism. Using "what" vaguely and abruptly as a noun (repeated in the poem's title) sets a blunt tone. There are only so many things there could be ten of in this context: pounds (or some measure of weight) and years, likely. The narrator can't remember that? Really? Do you believe him/her/them? After enumerating that "I don't want any more of what I have", do you get a tiny bit concerned about the narrator's honesty and fidelity that not wanting another lover is on their list? Why would that come to mind as an example - along with spider plants and clocks - unless maybe the opposite was true? After enumerating an apparently memorized and rather unusual "list of lifetimes", the narrator mentions some things they are withholding from their lover, including some rather perverse insect torture. Finally, doesn't ... "Everyone says the baby looks like me, but I can’t see it." sound kind of furtive? While it's an intriguing approach to storytelling found in novels, film and television, the device of the "unreliable narrator" is arguably not as often or as pointedly employed in poetry. Or could it be argued that, while Shapero's narrator is more noticeably suspicious, a lot of narrators in poetry are at least a little bit unreliable, and that is another strange allure of the form? As this poetry exercise offered by The Poetry Society's Young Poets Network contends, "In fact, lying in poetry is often necessary for the sake of the poem and the poet."

An awkward lyric

by Denise Riley

copyright ©Denise Riley, 2016

It sits with itself in its arms. Out of
the depth of its shame it starts singing
a hymn of pure shame, surging in the throat.
To hold a true note could be everything.
Getting the hang of itself would undo it.

Notes on the Poem

In just four lines, Denise Riley encapsulates her fascination with lyric poetry and lyrics and opens floodgates of provocative thought about what constitutes poetry. There is much to delve into and many directions in which to head from the starting point offered by this selection from her 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Say Something Back. We can thank editor Peter Riley of The Fortnightly Review for performing extensive yeoman's work on the questions and conundrums posed by Denise Riley's poem. The focus of his examination is clear, as his very detailed review of Say Something Back opens with: "THE WORD LYRIC has hovered round Denise Riley’s poetry for as long as I can remember ..." From the start, "An awkward lyric" is obviously tussling with the value of lyrical expression, suggesting with "It sits with itself in its arms." that it is the ultimate in solipsism and self-absorption. As Peter Riley tussles with "a nineteenth-century divisive and mistaken re-definition which says that lyrical poetry is not a formal category at all but 'the expression by the poet of his own feelings'", he also points out that:
"Lyric cannot at the same time be direct transmission of the author’s own “thoughts and sentiments”, and the highly impersonal work involved in close attention to the formalities, the metrical and phonetic events involved in fitting words to music or assuring a recognisably song-like writing. It seems more likely that lyric is not a kind of poetry at all, but a poetical technique. The purpose of the technique is to create an illusion of song."
Representative of what Denise Riley grapples with throughout the collection, feelings are decidedly paramount in what follows the opening line of this poem: "Out of the depth of its shame it starts singing a hymn of pure shame, surging in the throat." ... yet there is still the quandary of whether or not this is admissible as poetry, so much so that the sentence repeats the word "shame". Notably, the longest poem in this collection is "A Part Song", in which the poet confronts and struggles with the loss of her son. Again, as the Griffin Poetry Prize judges observe, she continues to question what form of expression is possibly adequate: "In it she addresses poetry itself and questions its ability to give appropriate form to such loss." Riley the poetry editor's musings on Riley the poet's work can lead us further along to the wide and ongoing discussion of whether or not what is expressed in song lyrics can and should be considered poetry. Sparked again in earnest by Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize, we get to revisit Simon Armitage's contentions on the subject:
"Songwriters are not poets. Or songs are not poems, I should say. In fact, songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you're left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted cliches and mixed metaphors."
Arguably, this crisp line ... "To hold a true note could be everything." refutes that this brief poem is or contains an awkward lyric, and equally redeems lyric as something much more than sappy or undisciplined. At the same time, the yearning of "could be" and the sweep of "everything" undeniably hold the poet's feelings. And then ... "Getting the hang of itself would undo it." again, crisply stated, holds within it yet another conundrum, questioning if refining the form of expression would "undo" its emotional profundity. Perhaps that Denise Riley is able to pack so much in and provoke so much thought in so few lines proves that this is far from an awkward lyric.


by Don Paterson

copyright ©2015 by Don Paterson

For months I’d moved across the open water
like a wheel under its skin, a frictionless
and by then almost wholly abstract matter
with nothing in my head beyond the bliss
of my own breaking, how the long foreshore
would hear my full confession, and I’d drain
into the shale till I was filtered pure.
There was no way to tell on that bare plain
but I felt my power run down with the miles
and by the time I saw the scattered sails,
the painted front and children on the pier
I was nothing but a fold in her blue gown
and knew I was already in the clear.
I hit the beach and swept away the town.

Notes on the Poem

Don Paterson's "Wave" is unique as it brings to life in tricksterish fashion an entity we don't usually expect to see depicted quite this way. While singular, we realize that this poem from Paterson's 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection 40 Sonnets also reads well with some excellent companion pieces. In a review that delights in 40 Sonnets like a delicious box of chocolates, Kate Kellaway in The Guardian hastens to celebrate and praise this poem first:
Wave makes this explicit and is a perfect subject for a sonnet, the form a seawall. I love the unlaboured wit, gathering momentum, human appropriation of water, the moment of breaking as a “full confession” and the effortlessly achieved (although I bet it wasn’t): “I was nothing but a fold in her blue gown” – a beautiful line. And I love the acceleration at the end, the sense of completion, with the sea crashing into town like a joyrider.
Before it was even part of this collection, an earlier iteration of the poem published in the New Yorker intrigued this reader. Agreeing with our observation about the trickster quality of the poem, this reader remarks on lovely aspects of the poem that "all lull us into imagining a sunny poem, until the final line fells us." Yes indeed, this sonnet concludes with a wallop of a punchline. Just as the sea is an enduring and central source of fascination, inspiration and symbolism for many writers (here is a great examination of its powerful influence on Walt Whitman), so does it challenge artists to avoid cliché and find new ways to use and characterize it. Clearly, Paterson has done that by allowing us to get into its "head" and hear its "thoughts" firsthand as it works up to its devastating revenge. We realize this poem pairs superbly with Sue Goyette's Ocean, an entire collection / "biography" devoted to this enigmatic entity's allure.

The third time my mother fell

by Jane Mead

copyright ©2016 by Jane Mead

The third time my mother fell
she stopped saying she wanted to die.

Saying you want to die
is one thing, she pointed out,
but dying is quite another.

And then she went to bed.

Notes on the Poem

World of Made and Unmade, shortlisted for the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize, is poet Jane Mead's spirited and moving book-length poem dealing with the bittersweet waning days of her family's matriarch. We enter Mead's contemplation of this farewell to her mother by way of a jolting and almost perversely lively "cold open" ... A cold open is a narrative tactic used in television and films, a technique of jumping directly into the action of a story at the beginning of the show before the title sequence or opening credits are shown (as defined in Wikipedia). Comedy and satire TV show Saturday Night Live is renowned for topical, often memorably trenchant and clever cold opens that draw viewers in swiftly and enthusiastically. So yes, Mead brings us into her story with the zing of an SNL opening sketch. That the action we are placed in the midst of is that of an elderly woman falling - repeatedly, apparently - might seem troubling, but we're compelled to continue and find out more. Not without a sense of humour - in fact, fusing the senses of humour of both the narrator and her mother - this sequence is tinged with stoicism and irony, depicting a defiance that in the intent to go to bed and die, probably fuels and infuses the subject with even more life. Lending even more potency to the opening to this extended poem is the powerful connotation of things happening or being expressed in threes. Echoing her three falls, three lines lay out with blunt simplicity the mother's determined words, followed by an emphatic punchline. Mead's opening has set an indelible tone and pace for a singular examination of death and dying and, subversively and gloriously, observing life along the way.

Citation for Matthew Rohrer’s “A Green Light”

by the 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize judges

With jumpy verve, Rohrer’s green-lit poems lay bare an anxiety of influence, social and linguistic, and present us the sideways view of the world of a young American not able to assume the mantle of hero, not able to be ‘the adorable boy’. In the midst of what could be, in other hands, wreckage or hopelessness, Rohrer’s poems run up the banner of hopefulness, create complete poems out of incomplete thoughts. Rohrer has an enchanting willingness to look outward, a willingness not to grasp the world using old means which have failed us, even if no new means present themselves ready-made – no wonder jumpiness is in our very condition. There is, too, a current of sadness that his lines and words buck even as they convey; yet the grief they carry does not bear us downward. This is a book with an edge, a book of brash clamour and hard-earned joy.

Notes on the Poem

As we've mentioned before and is evidenced in many of our notes accompanying these selected poems, when we consider each Poem of the Week, we often take as our cue the observations of the hardworking and erudite Griffin Poetry Prize judges. Their citations capturing and praising the nominated works are an essential part of each shortlist announcement. We've also remarked on how those citations are fine crafted pieces unto themselves, as they pay tribute to shortlisted works. The citation for Matthew Rohrer's 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection A Green Light not only pays tribute but also seems to converse with the work. The adjective "green-lit" plays off the collection's title and has multiple inviting meanings. The phrase "the adorable boy" directly references a persona the reader will encounter in the collection. The citation celebrates ("Rohrer’s poems run up the banner of hopefulness"), cautions gently where it might be warranted ("There is, too, a current of sadness"), but concludes as a warm invitation to not be intimidated because it's poetry, but to just read and enjoy it. Decidedly different in tone and intent but equally celebratory, we've also singled out the citation for Anne Carson’s Men in the Off Hours and the citation for Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet as other fine examples of ways to approach the works shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize.


by Clayton Eshleman, translating from the Spanish by César Vallejo

copyright ©2007 The Regents of the University of California

   I tell myself: at last I have escaped the noise;
no one sees me on my way to the sacred nave.
Tall shadows attend,
and Darío who passes with lyre in mourning.

   With innumerable steps the gentle Muse emerges,
and my eyes go to her, like chicks to corn.
Ethereal tulles and sleeping titmice harass her,
while the blackbird of life dreams in her hand.

   My God, you are merciful, for you have bestowed this nave,
where these blue sorcerers perform their duties.
Darío of celestial Americas! They are so much
like you! And from your braids they make their hair shirts.

   Like souls seeking burials of absurd gold,
those wayward archpriests of the heart,
probe deeper, and appear … and addressing us from afar,
bewail the monotonous suicide of God!

Notes on the Poem

Let's consider more of the work of distinguished translator Clayton Eshleman, transforming into English the work in Spanish of César Vallejo. That work is encompassed in The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, which was shortlisted for the 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize. Just last fall, we pondered Eshleman's work in the poem "Spain, Take This Cup From Me". If one is proficient in both Spanish and English, the delight and the challenge of reading work like this is the facility with which one can alternate between the meaning and nuance of the original and translated text. Knowledge of both languages gives one the privilege of assessing the quality of the translation. The bilingual reader is afforded the luxury of determining if the poem has traveled safely and soundly from one language and culture to another and is still, arguably, poetic. But if one is reading work that has arrived in English from an origin in which one is not conversant, what then? Trust in the translator is essential, not just to employ linguistic accuracy, but to apply cultural sensitivity, historical context and more, along with an ear for the original's lyricism and music. Here is an interesting collection of reactions to what can and cannot be translated when poetry moves from one language to another. Ellen Welcker ponders this and more in her 2009 essay "Only Poems Can Translate Poems: On the Impossibility and Necessity of Translation" in The Quarterly Conversation. Her piece includes ruminations by 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poet Joy Harjo, who performs a startling type of translation in her work by, as a person of Muskogee heritage, not writing in her native tongue but in, as the essay describes it, "the language of her people’s colonizers". This powerful essay posits:
"In poetry, as well as in translation, there is no ultimate meaning. Indeed, the “trans” in translation and trans-creation indicates that we are always moving across languages, across cultures."
and concludes:
"As post-colonial translation and trans-creation become bolder and more experimental, the idea of ownership of language falls away. Each newly created text becomes the author’s, and simultaneously becomes the world’s. These poetries are dialogues, conversations. Language becomes three-dimensional as it encompasses more of its history and culture. Poems to be translated are no longer mathematical equations filled with estimations and “equals” signs. As new poetries assert that there can be both “homage and reappropriation,” new methods of translation arise and language is stretched, tested, discovered, and discovered anew."
When we read poetry in translation, we either trust poetic and linguist guides such as Clayton Eshleman, Susan Wicks, Heather McHugh, Mira Rosenthal, Joanna Trzeciak and more to present us with a faithful rendition of the original work, or we are in a position to critique the quality of their work because we're conversant in the original and translated languages. Either way, we can appreciate that translators undeniably embark on daunting missions, often crossing thorny terrain, often crossing it alone, to bring us poetry from a place of origin to a new place that still respects and holds precious a work's roots and essence. As Welcker observes, "translation and trans-creation are not only about what is lost, but also about new solidarities, built by a fusion of language."