The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry edited by Mark Callanan & James Langer

The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland PoetryThe Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry by James Langer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mark Callanan and James Langer combed the rock for its premier poets to build this collection and the rock was not lacking. Showcasing the works of Al Pittman, Tom Dawe, John Steffler, Mary Dalton, Carmelita McGrath, Richard Greene, Michael Crummey, Agnes Walsh, Ken Babstock, Sue Sinclair, and Patrick Warner, each poet has a section all their own. The smallest section has only six poems in it, but most of the others are 10 or more. Some of my particular favourites were Tom Dawe’s Outport Christmas and Abandoned Outport for the beautiful landscapes he wove with his words, Mary Dalton’s many poems with authentic Newfoundlander slang, and the part in John Steffler’s poem That Night We Were Ravenous where he describes a moose as “a team of beavers trying to operate stilts” which amused me so much I immediately texted it to four people. Less amusing were the poems dealing with violence or hinting at abusive relationships. But in the whole book there were maybe five works addressing those topics, and none were excessively graphic. Overall, this book was a wonderful experience and made me long to visit Newfoundland.

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The Waste Land and Other Poems by T S Eliot

The Waste Land and Other PoemsThe Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Are you good at interpreting poems? At diving into the mysterious language and metaphors and resurfacing after minutes or hours or days, breathless but exultant with your hard-won treasure of meaning? I’m not. I’ve read enough about these poems to know that there is scads of depth to them, that every word and line break is resplendent with meaning. But they all went over my head. I can’t tell you, for example, why, in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, the women “…come and go/Talking of Michaelangelo.” (9) Are they at an art gallery? I suspect not. This edition has the odd line in German, preambles in Latin and Italian and (maybe?) Greek, but to be honest even when I went and translated them the poems they were part of didn’t become measurably clearer. In spite of all this, I still kind of enjoyed reading Eliot’s work. His sentences tended to linger in my head, cropping up at random times during the day and giving me something else to think about. And there’s something to be said for writing that you have to work for. Eliot’s poems are that. Keep it in mind; it’s a really skinny book so you can finish it in a day and check it off your to-read list. Or just read the same poem ten times over until you actually understand it. In which case you may be somewhat longer.

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Ramayana by Valmiki, retold by William Buck

RamayanaRamayana by William Buck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What story has a cast of gods, demons, humans, animals and magical objects, spans thousands of years, features wars and curses and kidnapping along with tender scenes of romance and vibrant descriptive passages, and is way more interesting than you think?

Twilight.

No, I’m kidding. It’s Ramayana. William Buck discovered this famous epic poem around 1960, along with other priceless works of Indian literature, and was so captivated by it that he set himself to re-writing it for modern English speakers. Creative license was taken; the original was printed in chronological order but Buck has placed some later events at the beginning of the book, and in other places outright revamped interactions, even to the point of completely fabricating a letter which doesn’t appear in the original. Because this is my first experience with Ramayana I can’t speak to the veracity of Buck’s efforts, but I can tell you this is now one of my favourite ancient epic poems. Valmiki devotes lyrical passages to the beauty of the characters and saturates every page, body and outfit with rich colour and a wealth of ornamentation. People are by turns aggrieved, capricious, generous, forgiving, selfish, and kind. There is a handy list of characters at the front – to which I referred constantly – but no crash course in Hindu theology so if you aren’t familiar with the basics you may wish to do some light reading before embarking on Rama’s journey. It’s a very complex universe. Numerous gods reborn as different people, different gods, or whole sets of siblings. Since knowledge of this is sometimes assumed in the text it can be a little challenging to keep track of who is who. Even with the cast up front. Here’s a rundown: Ravana, the demon king, through devotion and will-power persuades Brahma to gift him with immunity from death by the gods or other demons. He then runs rough-shod over all the other gods, sacking heavenly cities and forcing their rulers into servitude. Indra, the rain god and king of heaven, after escaping from Ravana’s prison, goes to confront Brahma about Ravana’s omnipotence and how Brahma intends to stop him. Brahma sends him to see Narayana, who reveals his plan to be reborn as a man and defeat Ravana that way. Ravana saw men and animals as lesser beings and didn’t think to ask for protection from them. So Narayana, who is also Vishnu, is reborn as Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Satrughna, sons of king Dasaratha’s three wives Kausalya (Rama), Sumitra (Lakshmana and Satrughna), and Kaikeyi (Bharata). Narayana’s consort Lakshmi is reborn as Sita, playing a crucial part later in the story. Despite all four of the sons being Narayana incarnate, the story revolves almost completely around Rama. Lakshmana is clearly an important supporting character, but Bharata plays only a minor role and Satrughna is practically irrelevant. Meanwhile Ravana has brothers Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna, sister Surpanakha, son Indrajit (né Meghanada), and numerous wives, spies, demons, and councillors, all of whom play roles of various importance. Anyways, through various godly machinations Rama and Lakshmana spend their youth learning heavenly weapons, Rama and Sita meet and are wed, and they all return to Rama’s childhood home of Ayodhya for a few blissful years together before political intrigue gets Rama exiled for fourteen years. Sita and Lakshmana refuse to be separated from him and join him as travelling ascetics until they cross paths with Ravana. And Ravana starts a war. In Buck’s retelling, the poem is related by a storyteller to his friend and unfolds in layers a little like 1001 Nights, where the character of one story becomes the narrator for a story within the first, and so on. It’s a literary device I quite enjoy. There are relatively minor content warnings for battle scenes and mentions of rape, plus the standard sexism you find in almost everything. Beyond that, there’s just guts, glitz, and glory. Ramayana is truly epic.

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The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire

Flowers of EvilFlowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Baudelaire threw himself a poetry pity party and called it a book. Now, I gather that this book was really ground-breaking at this time; it was maligned for years. Frank writing about sexual assignations, devils, and disillusionment with life, as well as the role of art and the poet in society make an appearance in nearly every poem. Much of what he wrote about was taboo at the time but is de rigueur in our world. He combines traditional poetical structure with these shocking, new subjects in a work that was scandalous when it was published. There are still poems that will appall readers – I’d love to blot The Martyr from my recollection – to say nothing of his scathing attitudes towards sexually assertive women; but overall this book makes me think of Faust. A narrator’s desperate search for meaning and novelty taking them further into depravity, though here Baudelaire doesn’t close the book by sending his poet-narrator to hell for his explorations. Some editions end with The Voyage, an homage to TS Eliot and my favourite piece from the whole book. Not quite the only poem I liked, but almost. My particular edition includes a splash of random poems after The Voyage, but you have to keep those mentally separate from the rest of the work if you’re going to really appreciate the narrator’s travel through his own personal Rubicon. This edition also includes every poem in the original French. Which is great if you’re bilingual but if you bought the book thinking the multiple translations were going to be multiple English translations by different translators so you can get a more refined sense of the original poem without having to learn fluent French you are going to be disappointed. But then once you start getting tired of all these depressing poems rambling on about death and how nobody appreciates poets these days, you’ll be relieved to discover the book is only half as thick as you think because the back end is all French. Always look on the bright side. Perhaps if someone had taught Baudelaire that his book would have been a little more cheerful.

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milk and honey by rupi kaur

Milk and Honey is a wonderful name for a book of poetry. There are no capitals anywhere in the entire book, so I left the capitals out of the title and author’s name. That’s the way it appears on the cover. All of the “I”s are lower case. Nothing has a title. Sometimes there are one-line comments after a poem; a dedication or summary. The poems are deceptively short and simple, few exceed ten lines and many are only three or four, but their subject matter is far from easy. Kaur writes about abuse, sexual assault, misogyny twisted up with racism, and the ups and downs of romantic relationships. Many times her poems focus on menstruation, women’s bodies, and women’s sexuality. At no point does she mince words. It’s refreshing to have these topics addressed so candidly, something that happens more often nowadays but is still frequently considered taboo. Kaur packs quite a punch into a tiny three line poem. Or puts a lot of anger into a poem about body hair. She speckles the book with line drawings, switching between a rage of scribbles or a single curving line to represent a whole figure. They’re evocative and sometimes discomfiting. There’s nudity, sex, and threats in the drawings too. It goes with the poems. One of the neatest is a half page covered with falling eyelashes. It’s paired with a two line poem about loss. Together they create a unique perspective on grieving the end of a relationship that I’ve never heard anywhere else. That sums up Kaur well. What she’s writing is stuff rarely heard anywhere else. The world would be a much richer place if we had more voices like Kaur’s; the voices that aren’t usually heard.

Metamorphoses by Ovid

Metamorphoses (''Transformations'')Metamorphoses by Ovid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One downside to ebooks: if you’ve never seen a physical copy of the book you’re starting, when you break out your ereader and flip that first page you have no idea what you’re getting in to. Did you know Metamorphoses is huge? I didn’t! It’s 15 books long! I guess Ovid sat down one day and banged out a chronological list of every transformation in Roman mythology, and then wrote a poem for each one. And then wove them together like some massive, wordy scarf. Everything rhymes. He even includes things you wouldn’t typically think of as transformations, like Caesar being deified. Metamorphoses includes such classics as Orpheus and Eurydice, and Narcissus. The Trojan war shows up in segments too, as does the Odyssey. And plenty of myths I’d never heard before, all wrapped in a rich cloth of descriptive imagery. Unfortunately, because in the earlier myths transformation was typically a way for a woman to escape an assaulting god, or a punishment for failing to, the first half of the book is loaded with sexual assaults and victim blaming. There’s also some passages of gory violence. Mainly pitched battles, but also a boar hunt. Surprisingly, there’s a sizable monologue towards the end by a guy espousing the virtues of vegetarianism, specifically to stop cruelty to animals. Not an attitude I was expecting to see displayed after so many pages of sword fights. One of my favourite poems came towards the end of the epic; in the Trojan war segment. The Greeks are discussing who should get Achilles’ armor now that he’s been killed. It’s down to Ulysses (Odysseus) and Ajax, neither of whom will budge. The solution winds up being a trash-talking contest; the one whose accomplishments are the most impressive and who can make his opponent seem the weakest wins the armor. Ajax accuses Ulysses of being a coward and Ulysses claims that since he persuaded Achilles to join them in the war the armor is rightfully his. Ovid really makes you see how invested each man is in winning the right to wear the armor of their greatest warrior, how they try to be nonchalant while brimming with emotion. In fact, this poem is suffused with men feeling every emotion: sadness, rage, embarrassment, pride, love, desire, you name it. I’m not sure where people got the idea that men don’t have emotions, but it couldn’t have been from this. Furthermore, it’s a giant poem. You can’t write poetry without having emotions. It just doesn’t work. And unless it turns out Metamorphoses was ghost-written by one of Ovid’s wives, this means not just that men write poetry, but that they have a full range of complex human emotions! So the next time someone tries to tell you men don’t cry, grab your copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and smack them with it. Ovid earned us all that right.

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Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Pale FirePale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a book with a relatively straight-forward plot, Pale Fire definitely had one of the stranger constructions. At first glance it’s completely normal: a foreword, a poem, and commentary. Even an index. Then the oddities begin. Everything is written by authors of Nabokov’s invention. The poem by John Shade and the remainder by Dr. Charles Kinbote, John Shade’s adoring fan. While the poem isn’t exactly short, the commentary dwarfs it. And rarely relates to it. It morphs into Kinbote’s historial reminiscences of his life in Zembla, the mythical “northern land” of his youth. In all honesty I was a little disappointed that the commentary didn’t comment on the poem. It was pretty enjoyable and I wanted more detail. But that obviously wasn’t part of Nabokov’s plan in this crazy literary adventure.

Speaking of things that may not be properly aligned with reality, intrepid commentator/fanboy Kinbote is a stellar example of an unreliable narrator! The subtle suggestions that he isn’t working with the standard issue pack start off in the foreword and only become blunter from there. He’s also impressively misogynistic, so brace yourselves for that. Women are “dishevelled hussies,” but men are “tawny angels,” to pull out one example of what I’m hoping is Kinbote’s double standard, not Nabokov’s. On the upside, he’s not homophobic! Race hardly shows up, if at all, so there’s no apparent racism. Very little violence too, although would you expect a lot of violence in a book based around a poem? Actually I take it back, there’s no reason poetry can’t be violent. There’s just almost no violence in this one. I do need to add one final content warning for suicide, however. Just so any future readers are aware.

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The Poetic Edda translated by Jeramy Dodds

The Poetic EddaThe Poetic Edda by Anonymous
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Before I stumbled across a review in the back of http://www.vallummag.com/ (12:1) I had never heard of The Poetic Edda. Or any Edda. I was so entranced by the description I added it to my “to-read” list and actually managed to track down a copy a few months later. But you know, I don’t actually know anything about Norse folklore. I’ve heard of Thor, and Odin and his ravens; Loki; Sigurd and Brynhild. I didn’t think my lack of knowledge was going to be an issue. It’s a book about Icelandic mythological poems. Surely it will cover whatever I need to know. Tell you what, just to make doubly sure I have all the information necessary, I’ll read the foreword and introduction. Even the index! I’m set.

Foolish.

I dog-eared the pages with the family trees and the index because I referred to them so often and still barely scraped by. The index is a list of character names with single-word descriptors like “dwarf” or “Jotuness” and the pages the names are used on. Odin’s nicknames run an entire column. Different people may have the same name. If your level of knowledge of Nordic legends is mostly gleaned from Avengers movies, you’ll be as lost as I am. The Poetic Edda is meant to be the paper mimic of an ancient, community-building aural experience, by firelight with a tankard of ale. Interruptions were probably punished by stabbing. The poems are reproduced the same way. I’ve heard rumblings of a Prose Edda version which sounds like it might be better suited to the novice reader, so if this is your first kick at the Viking saga can consider starting with that? Without sufficient background, it’s hard to construct a frame to hang the poems on.

And hang they must, because they don’t really stand on their own. The language is rigid and brittle, although there are parts that glow. Two of my personal favourites were:

I know I hung in a winded tree
nine whole nights, spear-pierced,
ardent to Odin, me to myself
on that tree whose taproots
no one will ever know. (53)

and

He began to bloom at the bosom of his friends,
a radiant-born elm backlit by bliss. He gave
openly and paid his horde in gold, never
hoarding any of his blood-splattered loot. (127)

But stanzas like that are few and far between. To be fair, these poems began as oral traditions. They were meant to flex with the times and audience in addition to being augmented by facial expression, inflection, tones, and pauses, vital elements of communication which are impossible to duplicate in writing even when you don’t have hundreds of years’ distance, culture, and language barriers putting the finishing touches on the crevasse before you. Tall order. Still, even when I peered out from the haze of characters to marvel at the language there wasn’t a lot of language to marvel at. Maybe the tone and meter are more faithful to the Icelandic originals than other works have been. Apparently what I was really hoping for was an epic poem (or several) with rich, luscious language to feast on. This wasn’t it.

Final note: content warnings for some homophobic language, quite a lot of violence, and some graphic sexual coercion.

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Transfigurations by ED Blodgett and Jacques Brault

TransfigurationTransfiguration by E.D. Blodgett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let me see if I’ve got this straight: a renga poem is a collaborative effort between two or more poets who take turns composing alternating stanzas, usually of a specific number of syllables. Typically about nature. The way that ED Blodgett and Jacques Brault (who should both be listed as authors, not only Blodgett) have used this in their beautiful book Transfiguration is to each write a stanza in their native tongue, send it to the other, write a response, and then translate each other’s work. Each page has a short poem on it, written (if I am understanding the execution correctly) together by both poets, translated by both poets, in both languages. It’s genius. Beautiful. The poems are accompanied by these impressionistic ink wash sketches of landscapes and birds which only make sense if you don’t look too closely at them; when you stare they dissolve into masses of shades and lines. They’re the polar opposite of the poems, which reveal more and more meaning as you stare deeper into them. I love it. It’s wonderful. An incredibly unique idea for truly bilingual work impressively executed by two Canadian poets.

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Possession by AS Byatt

PossessionPossession by A.S. Byatt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Originally published October 27th, 2012
So. Good. I was sucked in right from the first page. There are so many layers and nuances to this book: Ash’s and LaMotte’s poetry, batches of letters, excerpts of other books (fictional and actual); I could see myself reading this book over and over again. Each revelation gave a new perspective on everything else. Byatt constantly switches viewpoints and styles of narration: third person, first person, poetry written by her characters. She does a marvelous, effortless job of writing in a variety of voices. Unlike other books I’ve read that employ this device, I didn’t have any trouble keeping track of who was talking or what was going on. I especially enjoyed her inclusion of Ash’s and LaMotte’s works; as their lives unfurled it added so much depth and perspective to be able to go back and re-read a poem with the new information. Even better was including partial quotes in the early chapters, and the whole poems later on; so you get a slight nuance and think you know what’s going on and then she hits you with more info and the full poem and it’s a whole new story. When I was reading this I completely believed that LaMotte and Ash were real writers and I wanted to look up their work. It was a surprise to learn that Byatt had invented both of them, and seals my opinion of her as a phenomenally talented writer.
The gothic elements were delicious and eerie; I wonder if author Kate Morton (The Forgotten Garden, The House at Riverton) was influenced by Byatt and Possession. There seemed to be a lot of similarities of method and style, with stories that start in the present and float back into history before coming around full circle to explain everything. Byatt just hints at the gothic though, Morton drenches her tales in it.

I can’t wait to read this book again.

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