Dislocation & straining towards uncomfortable but perhaps necessary spaces, whether on the land or in narrative is at the centre of both these new books of poems: jenna butler’s seldom seen road (newest press 2013) and Camille Martin’s Looms (Shearsman Books 2012). butler is of British origin but has lived in Canada since she was a child; further, over the past few years she has been engaged in the practices of farming, attempting to negotiate these threatened locales alongside the urban realms she also continues to navigate; Martin was born in the States, resides in Canada and her book was published in Britain; in a reading she gave at Argo Books in Montreal, she mentioned that her earlier work resisted narrative while the poems in Loom enter the spaces of story at varying levels. Thus, both poets query placement and its discourses in an engaging and sometimes perplexing way.
1/jenna butler’s Seldom Seen Road
What Shines: A pliable, beautifully designed slender book of poetic sketches, Seldom Seen Road plays seriously with disappearances and commemorations. Ghost towns, the dying life of farming, women’s histories, and the ephemeral butterfly all flit their lives through in the barest of presences. The free verse, lower case lyrics tremble fiercely, haunting the blood with their refusal to remain while they inscribe a engagement by their very composition. This book reads less as individual poems than the coursing of a spectral melody: “sun catches your eye like/a backward glance/alights/moves on.” Stirring & evocative.
What Stumbles: When butler’s desire to make a simile intrudes, the poems falter. Pure description or metaphor is much more potent when one aims to evoke the land than lines that trip into awkward comparisons: “the church/knuckles under like an old woman” (hard to envision) or “the brightness goes out of it/ like a veiled eye” (abstract). Then too, the reasons for line or stanza breaks often aren’t apparent and so a finer crafting would have been of service here.
What it echoes: Andrew Suknasi, Robert Kroetsch & other 80s era prairie poets, Little House on the Prairie 🙂 Connie Kaldor, Drylanders, Gregory Scofield, HD.
2/Camille Martin’s Looms
What Shines: One of Martin’s collages graces the cover, exemplifying the consistency of the untitled lyrics found within, each a taut strand in a pattern that traces the skeletal features of narrative as it dips into the surreal and emerges questioning, pensive, bewildered. Every piece resides in a block of language and statement, often circling inward on itself where the warning might be the first line of the poem on page 40: “Welcome home. That was a lie.” The work puts the reader on the edge of a knowledge and a telling that refuses to anchor itself so they are left to say, along with the author, “Thread, I follow you.”
What Stumbles: At times, the pieces are too blandly declarative as in “My reflection in the shiny pot startles” or “I arrive at a friend’s house/we look at magazine pictures.” Thus, when taken individually the poems can rouse or rupture but as a whole the effect can feel somewhat deadening and “swing like a bludgeon” instead of entertaining all the “possibilities of song.”
What it Echoes: John Ashbery, Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques Op. 13, Alex Colville, Brossard, Auden, Gordon Shark.