Posthuman

Yusuf Saadi

copyright ©2021



We were busy worshipping
words. Shipping worlds

through string. We held eardrums
to heartbeats to confirm

we were still alive. Someone unchained
the sun from its orbit. We watched it drift

like a curious child beyond the Oort cloud. Dimming
until it was another star in the night’s freckles

and even the day lost its name. We looked
at our hands with unfamiliarity. Trying to understand

the opaqueness of texture. Our moulting bones
discarded. Our new elbows reptilian.

The latest language stripped of meter,
rhyme, beauty. We were warned: there are no straight lines in nature.

Women sang new myths. Men planted
numbers in the soil to see if the fruits

could solve our problems. We invented
new gods and crooned when we remembered

how to brush each other’s hair. Music played
in a distant never. Insects danced

in a different hemisphere of our brain
or of the earth. We often tried to look up,

but we could only see our feet,
alien and hairless.

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week continues to feature this year’s Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted authors. We’re excited to share “Posthuman” by Yusuf Saadi from the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection, Pluviophile. Replete with ethereal imagery of night, clouds, and stars, Pluviophile teaches us to “dream-underwater.” It reconfigures our sensory perceptions of the world by creating a new physics of intimacy (“I wish I could touch you—/ not like two electrons repulsing…, but hold you how I hold a hand when I’m afraid—). In “Posthuman,” Saadi imagines a world past the threshold, a place in which humans are no longer humans yet retain a child-like curiosity towards the persistent mysteries of material phenomena. Of Pluviophile, the judges say: “’There are whispers in the letters,’ writes Yusuf Saadi in poems that search everywhere for mystery, for magic, for beauty. And beauty speaks back, renews itself (and us) in these pages. Where other poets find moon, Saadi sees ‘moon's kneecap,’ where others see mere daffodils, Saadi asks: ‘Do daffodils dissolve in your / unpractised inner eye?’ This is the poet who is unafraid of play: ‘Outside of Kantian space and time, do you miss dancing / in dusty basements where sex was once phenomenal?’ This, too, is the poet unafraid of the daily grind, of ‘writing poetry at night / with the rust of our lives’. Pluviophile is a beautiful, refreshing debut.” Learn more about Pluviovile in this interview. Listen to Saadi perform “Root Canal” in this CBC Arts illustrated video.

From The Dyzgraphxst

Canisia Lubrin

copyright ©2021

Cansia Lubrin


Here—beginning the unbeginning
owning nothing but that wounding
sense of waking to speak as I would

after the floods, then, after women unlike
Eve giving kind to the so-and-so, trying
to tell them it is time to be unnavigable,

after calling them back to what
the tongue cuts speaking the thing of
them rolled into stone

speaking I after all, after all theories
of abandonment priced and displayed,
the word was a moonlit knife

with those arrivants
lifting their hems to dance, toeless
with the footless child they invent

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week is excerpted from Canisia Lubrin's 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection, The Dyzgraphxst, a book-length lyrical poem investigating the fractured nature of the colonial subject: “I was not myself. I am not myself. My self resembles something having nothing to do with me,” Lubrin writes. Structured into seven acts, Lubrin’s extraordinary compositional feat turns historical wounds into polyvocal chants that can simultaneously hold violence and offer healing. Of the The Dyzgraphxst, the judges say: “The Dyzgraphxst is Canisia Lubrin’s spectacular feat of architecture called a poem. Built with ‘I’—a single mark on the page, a voice, a blade, ‘a life-force soaring back’—and assembled over seven acts addressing language, grammar, sentence, line, stage, and world, the poet forms, invents, surprises, and sharpens life.??Generous, generating, and an abundance of rigour. A wide and widening ocean of feeling are the blueprints of this book. It is shaped to be ‘the shape of the shape / of the shape of a thing that light curves over time / length to width to depth and all of us its information.’” Listen to Canisia Lubrin read from and discuss The Dyzgraphxst here. Read an interview on her role as Room Contest’s poetry judge here.

Kwantlen

Joseph Dandurand

copyright ©2021



If we talked about the past
we would say how strong our people
were and how they had survived
the constant rains and the great floods
and how they lived in the ground
and how they, like us, took the fish
throughout the year and how it fed
their families. And if we talk about
how they would war against other
river and island tribes who would
come upriver to try to take our people
back with them, we would say
we had great warriors who would wait
for the canoes to come to shore
where we would club them to death.

But today we do not use violence
to survive and we have become quiet
and accepting of our neighbors though
in the beginning we were almost wiped out
as sickness came with the people on ships
who wanted to trade and cheat us of our fish.
That sickness nearly wiped out all river people
but today we are still here, and we survive.

Our children have grown up with loss
and alcohol and drugs and they too fight
for their lives in a world that does not
seem to care about them but we try
to teach them the lessons from a long time
before there was anything written down.
In our ceremonies we repeat those words
and our children will also repeat those words
and so we the river people are still here.
We are all the silent warriors and we say
enough is enough and our young they pick up
the drum and they sing new songs
and they stand and shout to the world
that we are still here and will never leave
this simple island on the great river where
we still take the fish and yes, we still live
where we have been for thousands of years
and we are the ancestors of our future as
a child picks up a drum and begins to sing
a new song given to him from long ago.

Notes on the Poem

Over the next few months, our Poem of the Week will feature works from the seven collections of the newly announced 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. This week, we’re excited to share Kwantlen, a poem by Joseph Dandurand from The East Side of It All, a collection that weaves harsh depictions of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside’s street life to stories in which humans, nature, and land are ancestrally entwined. Dandurand writes from a time “before there was anything written down,” celebrating the survival of Indigenous legacies in which storytelling carries forth a generational wisdom indispensable to surviving this late-capitalist age. Of The East Side of It All, the 2021 Griffin poetry prize judges say: “Joseph Dandurand is a poet-storyteller. Portraying Vancouver's Downtown Eastside's prostitutes, heroin addicts, alcoholics and abused, his autobiographical poems could easily drown in the brutality and tragedy they capture – but instead they heal. These are deeply moving spiritual invocations, extricated from poisoned air by a fallen angel. Dandurand is a member of Kwantlen First Nation, located on the Fraser river near Vancouver. His origin and roots are the sources of wisdom and myths, which he masterly embeds in a drama of a dysfunctional modern society. His crystalline clear and remarkably multilayered poems are written in an unforgettable voice of someone who is telling a story in order to survive and to go on. A story of a man who has become a sasquatch, through writing.” Listen to Dandurand discuss his writing trajectory here and here.

Language (from Obit)

Victoria Chang

copyright ©2021

Victoria Chang


Language—died, brilliant and beautiful
on August 1, 2009 at 2:46 p.m. Lover
of raising his hand, language lived
a full life of questioning. His favorite
was twisting what others said. His
favorite was to write the world in black
and white and then watch people try
and
read the words in color. Letters
used to skim my father’s brain before
they let go. Now his words are blind.
Are pleated. Are the dispatcher, the
dispatches, and the receiver. When
my mother was dying, I made everyone
stand around the bed for what would
be the last group photo. Some of us
even
smiled. Because dying lasts
forever
until it stops. Someone said,
Take a few. Someone said, Say
cheese. Someone said, Thank you.
Language
fails us. In the way that
breaking an arm means an arm’s bone
can break but the arm itself
can’t break
off
unless sawed or cut. My mother
couldn’t
speak but her eyes were the
only ones that were wide open.

Notes on the Poem

Over the next few months, our Poem of the Week will feature works from the seven collections of the newly announced 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. This week’s poem is from Victoria Chang’s deeply haunting collection, Obit—a series of surreal obituaries extending the definition of what can and can’t be mourned. Chang teaches us how to speak grief, a language in which the unsayable and the mundane coexis—a ghostly, yet deeply material syntax. Of Obit, the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize judges say: “...Death is not something that happens to someone else—it is yours too, up close and personal, and deeply particular. It is not just a name or person or relation that dies—it is a frontal lobe, language inside the phone, the voicemail, the view and experience, the language they made or didn’t make, their sounds too...Every bit of a lived life gets a spot. In this book ‘grief takes many / forms, as tears or pinwheels...’‘dying lasts forever / until it stops’ and ‘our sadness is plural, but grief is / singular.” In this Rumpus interview, Chang discusses Obit Listen to her read from Obit Here

Dream of a Language that Speaks

by Michael Palmer

copyright ©Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 by Michael Palmer



Hello Gozo, here we are,
the spinning world, has

it come this far?
Hammering things, speeching them,

nailing the anthrax
to its copper plate,

matching the object to its name,
the star to its chart.

(The sirens, the howling machines,
are part of the music it seems

just now, and helices of smoke
engulf the astonished eye;

and then our keening selves, Gozo,
whirled between voice and echo.)

So few and so many,
have we come this far?

Sluicing ink onto snow?
I’m tired, Gozo,

tired of the us/not us,
of the factories of blood,

tired of the multiplying suns
and tired of colliding with

the words as they appear
without so much as a “by your leave,”

without so much as a greeting.
The more suns the more dark –

is it not always so –
and in the gathering dark

Ghostly Tall and Ghostly Small
making their small talk

as they pause and they walk
on a path of stones,

as they walk and walk,
skeining their tales,

testing the dust,
higher up they walk –

there’s a city below,
pinpoints of light –

high up they walk,
flicking dianthus, mountain berries,

turk’s-caps with their sticks.
Can you hear me? asks Tall.

Do you hear me? asks Small.
Questions pursuing question.

And they set out their lamp
a      mid the stones.

for Yoshimasu Gozo

From Company of Moths, by Michael Palmer

Notes on the Poem

Our poem of the week has so far presented a selection of individual poems from our Griffin Prize poets. In an effort to highlight shared concerns and create conversations among the many voices of the Griffin poetry archive, we are now launching a curated monthly theme which will feature, every week, a poem from our list of shortlisted authors. Dreams of Language that Speaks by Michael Palmer opens our focus on poems about language. All poems are crafted with words but not all of them explicitly speak to the material they are made of. Palmer invites us to experience a “collision” with words “as they appear.” He writes: “I’m tired, Gozo, tired of the us/not us,       of the factories of blood, tired of the multiplying sun and tired of colliding with the words as they appear” In this collision, the discrepancies between language and what it designates in the material world become apparent. Within these clashes, frictions, and disappointments, writing emerges. The paradox or irony is that all we have is language to express the way language fails us. With words, we dream of letting go of words, of letting language become its own sentient entity: languages that can speak without us. Stay tuned for our next poem on Friday April 16!

About My Mother

by Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

copyright ©2014 by Adam Zagajewski / Translation copyright © 2018 by Clare Cavanagh.



I could never say anything about my mother:
how she repeated, you’ll regret it someday,
when I’m not around anymore, and how I didn’t believe
in either “I’m not” or “anymore,”
how I liked to watch as she read bestsellers,
always turning to the last chapter first,
how in the kitchen, convinced it’s not
her proper place, she made Sunday coffee,
or, even worse, filet of cod,
how she studied the mirror while expecting guests,
making the face that best kept her
from seeing herself as she was (I take
after her here and in a few other weaknesses),
how she went on at length about things
that weren’t her strong suit and how I stupidly
teased her, for example, when she
compared herself to Beethoven going deaf,
and I said, cruelly, but you know he
had talent, and how she forgave everything
and how I remember that, and how I flew from Houston
to her funeral and couldn’t say anything
and still can’t.

Notes on the Poem

We were deeply saddened to learn this past week of the passing of beloved and revered Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewki, who left us on World Poetry Day. We are immensely grateful for the work he left us, especially so because we got to celebrate that life's work in person when Zagajewski received the Griffin Lifetime Recognition Award in 2016. In his Griffin Lifetime Recognition tribute, trustee Mark Doty referred to Zagajewski's best-known poem in English, "Try to Praise the Mutilated World". As the news of Zagajewski's passing was almost cushioned amidst a global day celebrating poetry, so did his magnificent poem come before us achingly well timed and so needed in the wake of the horrors of September 11, 2001. As Doty noted:
"Our capacity for praise may feel itself feel mutilated, it will be at times terribly difficult to find in ourselves the strength to praise, but Zagajewski’s essential poem reminds us that it is the human necessity to try. For what do we have, without praise, besides irony or bitterness? These poems make the work of affirmation more available to us; they remind us — gently, sometimes sardonically, but always with great compassion for what is mutilated in us — that the lucid moment is still possible."
While "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" has taken on worldwide significance, it does so with elements and observations on a small and intimate scale. Doty's wise assessment of what the poem achieves can also be applied to "About My Mother", which was part of Zagajewski's memorable Lifetime Recognition reading: The poem's narrator is able to scrutinize and gently mock his mother, but not praise her. While cataloguing her foibles, the narrator is actually ruefully self-aware ... "(I take after her here and in a few other weaknesses)" "and how I stupidly teased her" ... but not enough to correct his soft cruelties before it is too late. In this stricken portrait of the most profound regret and shame, sketched lightly but indelibly and therefore the more achingly poignant, Zagajewski reminds us all to appreciate and praise before it truly is too late ... and nothing more can be said.

An Enemy Comes Down the Hill

Fady Joudah, translating from the Arabic written by Ghassan Zaqtan

copyright ©Translation copyright © 2012 by Fady Joudah



When he comes down
or is seen coming down
when he reveals to us that he is coming down.

The waiting and silence

his entire lack
when he hearkens before the plants.

His caution when he comes down
like one postponed by a hush,
and by his being not “us”
and not “here”
death begins.

He bought a flower
nothing more, a flower
that has no vase and leaves no will.

From the hill, he can spot the military checkpoint, the paratroopers,
he can spot the squatters, the mountain edges, and the only road
where their feet will leave a print in the rocks, mud, and water.

Losses also will appear from the hill
abandoned without effort.

And the fragility in shadow,
the Jewish man with a long mustache
who resembles the dead Arabs here.

From the mountain edges, all the caves will appear peaceful
and the road will seem as it were.

While he was coming down
the caves continued to stare
and blink in the cold.

Notes on the Poem

This week, we're rereading a previous Poem of the Week and approaching it from some different vantage points. We have 9 years' worth of selections to choose from, and the poem that calls out to us is "An Enemy Comes Down the Hill", Fady Joudah's translation from the Arabic of Ghassan Zaqtan's original poem from the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems. Let's examine this poem this time informed by some of our experiences reading and communicating through the myriad challenges of the worldwide pandemic.(We previously discussed the poem here.) Let's be grateful we are still managing to read - even if it's just snippets, something to which reading poetry lends itself - through the stresses and distractions of this singular time. Many who normally find solace in reading have noted in the last year that the concentration needed to derive those comforts has eluded them. As we seemed to be emerging from the first wave of this situation, Glenn Sumi of Toronto’s Now Magazine explained some of the science behind why this normally pleasurable pursuit had become difficult. As the first wave became successive waves, the problem persisted, prompting advice (here and here, for example) on how to spark one's reading enthusiasm again. Rereading and poetry make significant appearances. Rereading as a panacea to regain one's reading focus and momentum doesn't necessarily mean seeking out easy or comfortable reads. And that's where choices like this poem and collection are so appropriate. Sometimes it's the unusual or provocative that snaps you back to attention. As Scots Makar Jackie Kay remarked on Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, "The poems compel you, outrage and upset you, but also fill you with wonder." As we observed when we last studied "An Enemy Comes Down the Hill", what is in sight and what is perceived in the poem are both presented in fine detail. Still, we asked ourselves then, are things as they seem? Jackie Kay is correct - we are intrigued and decidedly compelled. The opening stanza illustrates well how Joudah's words delicately balance what is seen, what is perceived, what the subject who is seen ("he", presumably the "enemy" of the title) tries to hide or convey - and how these can all be confused to blur what truly is. "When he comes down or is seen coming down when he reveals to us that he is coming down." While we imagine that an enemy would advance on us with caution, don't we also assume that advancing is a form of aggression, inherent in being an enemy? What then, do we make of his caution being gently described ... "like one postponed by a hush" What have we uniquely learned about communicating in this past year that might prompt us to reconsider how we reacted to these cues the first time we read this poem? For one thing, most of us are spending much more time online, often reluctantly in front of cameras and microphones, among others equally reluctant - and what have we learned about conveying and interpreting body language signs and miscues? Perhaps sufficient that articles about video call body language tips are pretty commonplace. Add to our online dissonances the frustration of a different kind of miscommunication during those rare occasions when we can meet in person and cannot express ourselves effectively because we're all wearing face masks. Is he of Zaqtan/Joudah's poem really an enemy then? He's carrying a flower, and there's that "fragility in shadow" that suggests vulnerability, not menace. Have we ever misjudged someone's expression or the seeming indifference of what appears in the background of their zoom calls? Do we despair then - even more so now - that we can never fully trust or comprehend each other? The caves are staring, but not so harshly that they don't also blink. Conversely, can we be heartened that how things appear can always be open to interpretation? If not put in the best light, can we assume that some appearances are at least benign and certainly not what they seem? In its way, does this poem cut us a bit of slack as we struggle with basic communications - incoming and outgoing - these days?

Manipulating Manifesting
(Re)generating Landscapes

Abigail Chabitnoy

copyright ©2019 Abigail Kerstetter



I.
I buried my bones.
              No trace was left.

I buried my bones and the landscape
              became settled in [its] disturbances.

There’s no telling where the hand that digs might
              unearth the outline of a dwelling place,
                            the shape of ivory in the process [of]

becoming human.
              It is not evident.

I buried my bones in the fault
              [where] they were of little consequence,
                            more matters to settle

in the end.
              The land remembered only now.

I want to live somewhere old
              in the earth. On the water
                            now there are many boats, [but] the vermin

they are hunting [is] dead
              with metal feet. His pelt
                            [is] already sinking out of reach.

Old in the water. Let me sink
              [mine] in enough earth to bury [me].

II.
Mother, it was my fault. I buried each of my other selves
              until I couldn’t see [ ] the earth was full.
              I was born(e) in this wound mother.

Singing made i[t] so. Steel singing. Destined
              men singing mercantile songs, manifesting
              swindling songs.

Singing say you see. Singing beautiful
              spacious skies, singing
              the brave in d(r)ead silence reposes.

You sang this land for me, (m)other. Each night
              I must find a new way to lay these arms
              stiff under the weight [of] my body.

III.
I don’t know what I expected but at length I found myself a loan. I found
myself a part in a room of my own making, susceptible to drowning, to cave-ins.
I couldn’t hold a shape my own among so many bones and matter besides.
The field turned relic into me.

IV.
                            like this, Apaq?
can I wear these faces? which [way]
              shall I bend these bones?
does my skin show [through] these furs?
              do my metal feet b(ear) too much weight?
can I bend my arms in light of mo(u)rning?
                            can I bend them in name for what I (k)now believe?

V.
Return every (last) bone to the l[and]
              I will shape my body in the sound [of]
                            waves breaking the shore

[if] singing made it so
              these days will not be many
                            no(w)

VI.
I wonder if you hear me, Apaq.
              I wonder if I say your [right] words.

Michael, will you row the boat (a)shore and dig a womb-shaped home
              with my arms
              for your arms
              for all the world worn arms

[until] the waters b(r)each our skin and skin these bones
              in their weight
              in the sand
              to begin again without blood in the print?

Notes on the Poem

In the 475 weeks we've celebrated Poems of the Week associated with Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poetry collections, anthologies and related works, we have regularly reflected on the power of poetry read aloud. It's fascinating to compare the words on the page to how you hear it as you read it to yourself and how others interpret it as they read it aloud. "(Re)generating Landscapes" by Abigail Chabitnoy from her poetry collection How to Dress a Fish from the most recent Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist is just one of many examples where putting the page and the audio rendition side-by-side is an intriguing and revealing exercise. Every year since 2001 - save for that one year about which the less said the better - we've celebrated the Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted works with public readings. We've extended those readings to as a wide an audience as possible by providing selections from those readings as individual videos and by livestreaming them (since 2012) and making those livestreams available for playback after the events. We were deeply disappointed to not be able to present the work of Abigail and her fellow shortlisted poets and translators in a live setting last year. However, we were eventually able to capture some of the delights of readings by the poets by melding exclusive audio recordings from their works with specially designed video treatments and interpretations. Abigail's beautiful reading radiates from this arresting video setting: and videos showcasing the voices of the other shortlisted poets and translators are found on their individual web pages and on the Griffin Poetry Prize YouTube channel linked above. How much does the layout of the text on the page influence how the words play in your mind? And how surprised are you when you hear the poet or another presenter or performer read the words aloud? Let's look, for example, at how Section I of "(Re)generating Landscapes" has an entrancing flow as it is laid out with regular indentations and spacing of stanzas down the page. Keep your eyes on that text as you listen to the poet read the same words. Does the rhythm and cadence of her voice support or contrast with how the text appears on the page? Is it what you expected? The Academy of American Poets web site (www.poets.org) offers generous advice on how visual and sonic approaches to poetry. From "How to Read a Poem", there is this:
Before you get very far with a poem, you have to read it. In fact, you can learn quite a few things just by looking at it. The title may give you some image or association to start with. Looking at the poem’s shape, you can see whether the lines are continuous or broken into groups (called stanzas), or how long the lines are, and so how dense, on a physical level, the poem is. You can also see whether it looks like the last poem you read by the same poet or even a poem by another poet. All of these are good qualities to notice, and they may lead you to a better understanding of the poem in the end. But sooner or later, you’re going to have to read the poem, word by word. To begin, read the poem aloud. Read it more than once. Listen to your voice, to the sounds the words make.
When you've finished this piece, we bet you'll be curious to go to YouTube and search on "robert creeley reading" ...! A year ago, when live events and performances of all kinds were being shuttered, not only were our own annual celebrations suspended, but we realized we had to update our International Poetry Events Calendar (here and also on our home page). With sadness, we added "postponed", then "cancelled", then removed a lot of events, so as not to create confusion. But then the tide rapidly turned. Artists of all kinds moved online and swiftly strove to replicate the power of live performance - including readings and spoken word - presented in various formats. Those events, then and thankfully still ongoing, were and are mounted with varying degrees of success but with consistent determination, commitment and resourcefulness. In the glow of all those sometimes fatiguing zoom screens, moments of connection, emotional resonance and true magic were and are still possible. Kudos and much gratitude to all the poets, publishers, booksellers, reading series, providers of venues and more who have given and continue to give us countless opportunities to hear poetic words lifted off the page in wondrous ways ... even if it's just coming from our laptops, tablets and phones right now. Soon, very soon, we look forward to hearing poetry ring out with the gorgeousness and subtlety and power of Abigail Chabitnoy's reading here, in concert halls, bookstores, pubs and more.

The Good Companion

David Harsent

copyright ©David Harsent, 2007



Laid-up with all about me
a man could want: a stack of the cross-
hatched notebooks I always use,
a Stabilo pen,
a brand-new thriller that famously stole its plot
from The Spanish Tragedy, vodka,

a pineapple tub
of ice to sap (a little) the bright
fever that loosened my teeth, so I half-expected
to see them drop to the quilt
like sticky Chiclets,
laid-up like that, alone

you might say, but well provided for,
I felt a sleep coming on, so thick
I might have been sleeved in darkness; and next
fell into a dream quicker
than my eyes could close: in fact
I’d already declared for Bel-imperia

and was just getting down
past the damp in the crook of her knee
to those salty, pink petals
of crêpe-de-chine,
when a voice I recognised
had me up and out of there and back to my bed –

a hot, synaptic zip
that almost made me believe I’d woken up
until I saw the tattoo:
a letter to every finger neatly between
the knuckle joints,
as he collared the bottle and turned

a page or two of my notebooks. ‘Just here:
is this lorel or Lorelei? – each syllable sharp
as the detonations in ice
when you pour on vodka – ‘It’s plain
what’s fretting you, but look,
you’ll know it sure enough

when someone you claim to recognise climbs up
out of your bones
and legs it for the door
without so much as a kiss-
my-arse-goodbye (on a darkening day of “rain
moving in from the west”) or even a shred of song.’

Notes on the Poem

David Harsent weaves an underlying sense of unease, even menace through this and many of the poems in his 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Selected Poems 1969-2005. While poetry can comfort and shed gentle light on myriad subjects, it is often at its most potent making readers uncomfortable - which is not a bad thing. Let's observe Harsent's mastery and learn more about how he went on to wield it. In the fever dream that is "The Good Companion", the ailing narrator thinks he is armed with the remedies that will get him through a presumably passing illness. How interesting that they turn out to be nostrums, ingredients making matters worse, disorienting, increasingly troubling. How about a good book to distract from one's discomfort? Well ... "a brand-new thriller that famously stole its plot from The Spanish Tragedy" resurfaces in dream or hallucination about a woozy, interrupted encounter with that story's vengeful female protagonist. Well then, how about some soothing libation? The medicinal liquid of choice and its related components somehow connect disturbingly to a common subject of nightmares: the loss of one's teeth. The breadcrumb trail of troubling details are surely leading to some kind of discovery or meaning or revelation, aren't they? Fortunately, the underlying menace is coupled with lashings of caustic humour, culminating with ... It's plain what's fretting you, but look, you'll know it sure enough when someone you claim to recognise climbs up out of your bones and legs it for the door without so much as a kiss- my-arse-goodbye We don't really know who is delivering the message ... and no, it isn't plain what deeper worry is below the surface here. What a wicked punchline with which to wrap this fascinating poem. In 2008, the Griffin Poetry Prize judges noted in Harsent's poems "the haunting psychological situations that give you a novel’s worth of drama in a few lines." In 2012, when Harsent's collection Night won the prize, the judges that year noted his poetic explorations of "dream, terror and hidden impulse". Between the timeline of the poems collected in Selected Poems 1969-2005 and those in Night, Harsent's writing path took a turn both intriguing as a seeming departure from poetry, but also consistent with this dark current in his work. From 2006 to 2011, he crafted episodes of the enduringly popular British crime drama television series Midsomer Murders. The program is described as "featuring a mixture of lighthearted whimsy and dark humour", which sounds like an excellent match with Harsent's incisive literary skills. Don't think, by the way, that even writing under a pseudonym, Harsent's work on Midsomer Murders went unnoticed and unconnected to his poetry achievements. In 2017, the extremely clever London Review Bookshop posited a brilliant conspiracy theory that drew in Harsent as well as several other Griffin Poetry Prize winners and shortlisted poets ... and connected them all to (spoiler alert) Midsomer Murders.

from Verso 4

Dionne Brand

copyright ©2018 Dionne Brand



To verse, to turn, to bend, to plough, a furrow, a row, to turn around, toward, to traverse

When I was nine coming home one day from school, I stood at the top of my street and looked down its gentle incline, toward my house obscured by a small bend, taking in the dipping line of the two-bedroom scheme of houses, called Mon Repos, my rest. But there I’ve strayed too far from the immediate intention. When I was nine coming home from school one day, I stood at the top of my street and knew, and felt, and sensed looking down the gentle incline with the small houses and their hibiscus fences, their rosebush fences, their ixora fences, their yellow and pink and blue paint washes; the shoemaker on the left upper street, the dressmaker on the lower left, and way to the bottom the park and the deep culvert where a boy on a bike pushed me and one of my aunts took a stick to his mother’s door. Again, when I was nine coming home one day in my brown overall uniform with the white blouse, I stood on the top of my street knowing, coming to know in that instant when the sun was in its four o’clock phase and looking down I could see open windows and doors and front door curtains flying out. I was nine and I stood at the top of the street for no reason except to make the descent of the gentle incline toward my house where I lived with everyone and everything in the world, my sisters and my cousins were with me, we had our bookbags and our four o’clock hunger with us and our grandmother and everything we loved in the world were waiting in the yellow washed house, there was a hibiscus hedge and a buttercup bush and zinnias waiting and for several moments all this seemed to drift toward the past; again when I was nine and stood at the head of my street and looked down the gentle incline toward my house in the four o’clock coming-home sunlight, it came over me that I was not going to live here all my life, that I was going away and never returning some day.

Notes on the Poem

We know and love them in our favourite songs. Refrains are powerful, captivating and often beloved features in music, but we can also find them interwoven into prose and poetry. Songsmiths ranging from Neil Diamond and Dolly Parton to Stan Rogers and André 3000 - and many, many more - wield refrains infectiously in their work. In very different works, so do Shakespeare, Allen Ginsberg, Sojourner Truth and Barack Obama. Think of anyone's spoken or written words that have captured your heart and mind, and it's very possible something in the form of a refrain has imprinted those words on you. So too does this excerpt from "Verso 4" by Dionne Brand from her 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted work The Blue Clerk. This discussion of the refrain as a literary device offers excellent insights and examples, along with this useful definition to keep in mind as we consider Brand's piece:
"In a poem or song, a refrain is a line or group of lines that regularly repeat, usually at the end of a stanza in a poem or at the end of a verse in a song. In a speech or other prose writing, a refrain can refer to any phrase that repeats a number of times within the text."
With every repetition of "I was nine", along with the entrancing reordering of other words and phrases, Brand ploughs deeper and deeper into memories and turns up revelations. As the opening line of "Verso 4" suggests, what is being cultivated here can potentially be built, enriched, perhaps even harvested in future. Arising from the details and intimacies of a particular set of memories are observations and wisdom that any reader can use, and gratefully so: "... it came over me that I was not going to live here all my life, that I was going away and never returning some day." With that goodbye, the plough turns, and the individual ploughing moves on to greener pastures.