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Bizarre Winery Tragedy

by Lyle Neff

Bizarre Winery Tragedy is Vancouver-based literary journalist and fraud investigator Lyle Neff’s third poetry collection. As in his first two books, Neff’s voice is for the most part brash, alert, and inventive, and his subjects reflect a very Canadian tension between southern cities and northern wilderness and hard-edged towns.

In one poem, Neff writes of pigeons’ “big-street struts,” which doubles as an apt nutshell summary of his own verse. Neff has a knack for knocking together unconventional and memorable phrases, such as “a shoddy sporous era” and “anti-yule/tide of revelry round firework’d/sedans.” He mixes diction like a magician and sets down spray patterns of consonant and vowel that are at times effectively dissonant and euphonic.

But for all his abrasiveness, many of these poems are remarkably short on friction, and are no sooner read than forgotten. This short book contains far too many disposable, seemingly unfinished pieces. Even the title bears no apparent relation to any of the book’s poems – one suspects that Neff just liked the way it sounds.

Talent and wit are things that Neff has in spades, but talent and wit without corollary focus can be disappointingly hollow. Neff’s habitual sarcasm and bravado combined with the self-consciousness of his craft tend to foreshorten his tonal range in poems that should be more affecting. Even an elegy for a dead mother and a meditation upon mortality spurred by the poet’s baby are surprisingly shy of emotional resonance.

A few poems do stand out. “Halloweenthink” is a linguistic tour de force, while “Time Lapse,” one of the only poems long enough to require a second page, is a beautifully unsentimental love poem and contains the most memorable lines in the book. “Yaasriel’s Seventy,” a poem apparently about Irving Layton, is likewise strong. The bizarre tragedy of this collection is that Neff didn’t give us a few more like this.