Friday, 30 November 2012

Small Hallows is No Small Feat

Small Hallows
By Gabriel Wainio-Théberge, Published by Baseline Press, 2012

Several weeks back, I was fortunate to enjoy Baseline Press’ Chapbook Launch and Readings at Organic Works here in London. Baseline Press, in its second year of operation, is the project of London poet and current Managing Director of Poetry London, Karen Schindler, featuring beautifully fashioned, hand-bound chapbooks reminding us of the unmatched experience that a tangible, tactile book can bring and that will always remain unmatched by e-books and e-readers.

One of three new titles published by Karen’s imprint this fall is the debut of Gabriel Wainio-Théberge, who had a bit of a bumpy go with the start of his live reading, perhaps, but soon settled down to render his poems in a clear, engaging manner. And now, going through this succinct collection a second time, I wanted to share some highlights and give a little plug for a very young (just graduated high school within the past year) and very capable, rising poet.

Birds, always a favourite of mine, are cited early and often, both in the preface quotation from a Ted Hughes poem and then in the opener, First Raven, where the setting is conveyed with all the serenity that one would find in a painting or pastoral piece of music.

One of the birds in The Event is seen with “a white petal caught between its feathers, / the pads of its claw-toes clutching at nothing, / bright lice still moving over its wings” – describing the exhaustive calm after a chase, and the author’s skill at relaying images that resonate is easily admirable from the onset.

About the prospect of writing on the impending autumn, the poet asks “Will the words / curl up and go brown at the edges, / fall like yellow leaves to the ground / while the trees are still green ...” and later “smoulder, die / and not be transfigured?” (Chronicle I). The poem’s sequel shares some rather unique visions of the continual autumnal theme, where “the cold is a bright and eager schoolboy, / And soon will grow glum and sink in clouded spirals.” And about the wind, “His business is stirring dust, a quarrelsome historian” while “Dust-motes are the flies of autumn.” Walking in this setting, the author, “blindfolded by thoughts” (which usually make us miss the wonder of the present moment), ponders “how I anticipated a single day / In order to understand a season.”

Chronicle 2 closes with 3 footnotes in smaller font which are not mere explanatory as one might expect, though they do just that without the direct intent, but glorious poetic lines where “Wind is a workman-poet, and industrial balladeer,” silent when sprightly as “His frequencies go over the heads of the rooftops. / In some places butterflies are omens.” The giant pine, in the 3rd footnote, “drops its needles / year after year, like skeletal fruit / between the driveway and the window.”

The tender, moving burial of a bird occurs in Anyone want to say a few words, with its riveting prelude opener “’Still’ is not stopped. It is slow, not timeless. / It can rise and fall, like a sleeper’s chest, / like waves on the sea’s sleeping side.”

At the reading, Gabriel spoke a bit about the construction of Wndryn, and when read in its eight couplets on the page, the reader is rewarded as “The asphalt sweats out its heart. A clod of cold / slips down its road throat. Something moves.”

A grandfather’s ashes are placed into paper boats in Disappearance, and the poet’s descriptive prowess serves to bring the earthen to the heavenly; the terrestrial metaphor to a celestial feast of nebulae and light awaiting rebirth. Geology too comes to call in “cliffs / scraped bare of moss by floods, / slopes swallowed in older explosions, / strata like slanting stacks of books.”

The third of three Chronicle entries  serves as the penultimate piece, and the poet, still immersed in the fall, acknowledges that “every season will be shrouded / in not knowing / whether it was worth it” and concludes, by the poem’s end, that “the ambiguous music of the shroud, / the predictability of white skies / and crows” are best left to be what they are and as they are, to be dusted with the translucent snow that brings this brief but wistfully cerebral collection to a close in the chapbook’s final offering.

The poet is clearly well-studied on both the intricacies of nature and the crafting of verse – I felt enlightened on both thanks to Mr. Wainio-Théberge and look forward to seeing how far his gifts will take him.

– Andreas Gripp

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Brick and Bruck Prove that CanLit Can Get it Right

Monkey Ranch by Julie Bruck, published by Brick Books, 2012

I’ve had Julie Bruck’s Monkey Ranch in my possession for a while now, and having been struck by her earlier work years ago, I’d hoped to write about her latest collection of poems a few months ago. In the past week that I’ve finally gotten around to it, Julie Bruck has won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for this book, so I imagine it’s not necessary for me to tell my potential readers of this blog how good it is – nevertheless, I’d like to finish what I’d been hoping to get done.

Presented in five segments (and yet working easily as a whole), Monkey Ranch begins with This Morning, After an Execution at San Quentin. The famous island prison site, located in the San Francisco bay area, directly plays a role in only a single line, where it is casting “its sharp light.”

The poem is more about the narrator’s daughter transfixed by a “singing monkey,” as she calls it, witnessed earlier in the day at the zoo. The fact that the poem is focused on the child’s mantra of such, briefly touching upon the author’s husband recovering from illness, underlines the understatement that serves as the foundation for this poem and which thunders from its title and yet barely makes a whisper – saying far more with nothing than it could ever hope to in a didactic eulogy.

This effective style is revisited in At the Music Concourse, where the aftermath of a stranger’s suicide is described only in morning-after Tai Chi, coffee-drinking police officers, a dog in the park and a potted ginkgo, “its little fans the hammered gold / they turn at the cusp of winter – / trembling, though there is no wind.”

The author concludes the opening section with The Change, and sounds eager for some sort of spiritual self-improvement,  “even if I stop short / at crystals and meet-the-plankton music.” She struggles with her battle to not hate or desire to kill the mouse that darts across her kitchen floor, vowing to set it free in the park after capture if a humane trap works – “I’ll be better than I am, / pretend to love / this creature I’d rather drown.”

In the second section, there is the pure poetry of “What gives this day such perfect pitch, / a held note against the usual desolations?” in Gold Coin, with its sights and sounds of Chinatown. From San Francisco, Bruck’s hometown of Montreal appears in the flashback of The Trick, with its mix of childhood fun and tragedy. Montreal again in Entre Chien et Loup, with its fascinating, enthralling insight into the fall of a marriage conveyed through her mother’s painstaking efforts to dress for a party while a father and husband fumes with impatience. The descriptions are vivid, clear and memorable. Its ending, glorious in metaphor.

The less-is-more comes back to the page of A School Night in February (section III), where the deceptive normalcy of evening will soon be replaced by a mass shooting in a school, and the fact that the whys are left unsaid makes the poem speak louder with its lights left on for “ ... someone / who must have been inexplicably delayed.”

Bruck is the master of both the ordinary and the extraordinary, which are simultaneously found in a vagrant’s blanket, “which gives him the weight of a weathered sage. / Or would, if we could stand to look at him / the way our children do, when they’re still / too young to strip the world of miracles.” (Section IV’s Cold Cases, Adult Division).

Parental disconnect is evident in Girl in the Yellow Cardigan (a mother’s insistence on her daughter’s use of an outmoded lunch container in the schoolyard) and in My Father’s Clothes, where the paternal parent is unaccustomed and unable to offer suitable affectionate touch. Bruck’s narrative role flows seamlessly from that of daughter to one of mother in these vignettes of verse that span three generations, seen most effectively in Ocean Ridge, where her daughter’s ear reveals “delicate runnels and inlets / shaped as if by water.”

References to the animal world, while most obvious in the title poem and in Great White, Released (Section V), also peek through as “complete stamps from Borneo with wax-paper / hinges frail as insect wings” in Girl in Her Brothers’ Bedrooms and during Barack Obama’s first presidential victory relived in Election Night with Dog.

Dead Air, toward the end, gives the kind of acute vision to an auditory event that crowns so many of Julie Bruck’s poems in this collection. Read with one sense and you’ll have the other four absorb the penetrating beauty residing throughout this splendid offering.

– Andreas Gripp

Monday, 5 November 2012

Video clip from new London poetry reading series

Here is the final poem from my featured reading set from October's London Open Mic Poetry Night at Mykanos Restaurant, a new one called "Columbia, 33 1/3" ...