George Ellenbogen, a longtime resident of the U.S., is one of those rare Canadian poets better known abroad than at home. Morning Gothic, his selection of new and previously published work, shows just how arbitrary literary renown can be. While Ellenbogen’s oeuvre lacks the sort of individual standout poems for which a poet becomes known, his work is of very high quality and he fares remarkably well tackling the Big Topics of history and geo-politics. Ellenbogen’s particular technical forte is syntax; his handling of long sentences strung over many lines is exemplary. My only substantial complaint about this book is that I wish the new material had been vetted as carefully as the older work; much of the former does not measure up to the latter.
Actualities is St. John’s-based medical student Monica Kidd’s first collection of poems. The speaker in one of Kidd’s poems says “by slight, I guess you know/ I don’t mean just skinny,” which, unfortunately, provides an apt summary for this book. Actualities is more skinny than compact. There is not much particularly bad about the writing, but on the whole it is carbon-copy Canadian lyric. Kidd, who is at her best when attuned to a vernacular idiom, often strays into a stilted “literary” voice. In 36 short poems, I counted 20 instances of “as” similes and 29 “like” similes, including such clichés as “stiff as a board” and “still as stones.” With so many books and so many strong debut collections published each year, a poet really must do more to stand out.
The Work of Days is also a first collection, a highly unified sequence authored by Alberta-born Sarah Lang. Like Actualities, this is not a long book, but it has the sort of density Kidd’s lacks. At her best, Lang’s disjunctive syntax and taut, oblique episodes can be hauntingly moving. But she tends to overdo the po-mo alienation; some of the best passages in the book come when she gives her sentences and lines a bit more room to breathe. The Work of Days could be fairly classified as confessional, but there is nothing self-indulgent in the collection –
unless you count its unremitting, monochromatic seriousness. When there’s more whimsy to be found in the author bio than in the rest of the book combined, you have to wonder what this poet might produce if she relaxed and had a bit more fun. Still, a very strong debut.
The Real Made Up, Ottawa-based software designer Stephen Brockwell’s fourth collection, is something of a conceptual experiment. It consists of several threads that are picked up and dropped over the course of the book. One thread is transcriptions of speech, most of which are set in very short free-verse lines, giving the misleading impression that all the speakers have the same speech rhythms. Some of these work well as poems, but many read like, well, transcriptions. Two other threads are “Untrained Machine Voice Recognition” – which is just what it sounds like – and “Randomized Oxford Exploration,” in which randomly selected words from the Canadian Oxford Dictionary are riffed upon.
Like most conceptual art, these poems are more interesting as ideas than as finished products, which in this case tend to resemble the work of an undergraduate avant-gardist. Which is too bad, because when Brockwell sits down to write a good old-fashioned poem, he can be terrific. There are several such pieces in the book, especially the virtuoso “Ingredients for Certain Poems by Al Purdy,” which are worth the cover price all by themselves.