Gift Guide Week: Poetry

Stumped on what to buy for your lit-finicky family and friends this season? We’re featuring hand-picked selections for your giftees (or yourself, lest we ourselves be judged) all week, from experts in poetry, short stories, mysteries, YA/kids, and fiction.Today, Wolsak & Wynn Senior Editor Paul Vermeersch gives us five choice titles for your more poetically-inclined gift recipient.


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Stumped on what to buy for your lit-finicky family and friends this season? We’re featuring hand-picked selections for your giftees (or yourself, lest we ourselves be judged) all week, from experts in poetry, short stories, mysteries, YA/kids, and fiction.
Today, Wolsak & Wynn Senior Editor Paul Vermeersch gives us five choice titles for your more poetically-inclined gift recipient.*****As Senior Editor of Wolsak & Wynn Publishers as well as a poet, I have a keen eye for poetry that is well written, aesthetically daring, thought provoking, and also fun to read.It has been a banner year for poetry published by independent Canadian publishers. The following five titles are only a handful of the remarkable books that have made an impression on me in 2014 (and to be fair I’ve chosen only titles published by my colleagues and not myself).*
I’ll start with Broom Broom, Brecken Hancock’s debut collection from Coach House Books. The poetry here is erudite, playful, sly. One sign of a good poet is the ability to transform mundane subject matter into compelling writing.As though dared to do so, Hancock offers a ten-page verse essay called “The Art of Plumbing”, outlining the 5000-year history of the trade, as a centrepiece to her book. With nods to Agamemnon, Archimedes, and contemporary American poet Matthea Harvey, it is a poem so fascinating in its facts, so fresh in its frivolities, so surprising in its progression from one breakthrough to the next, that it not only rescues its subject from the realm of the mundane—restoring its status as one civilization’s great technological marvels—but it also reveals the beauty and tenderness of our most private ablutions.Perhaps even more compelling is Hancock’s twist on the self-portrait in her poem “Evil Brecken”. In wrestling with the concept of her dark side, Hancock has given us a poem that is at once unforgettable, audacious, and entertaining – but it’s also a challenge: can we all be so courageous in facing our own evil twins?Broom Broom covers a wide range of subjects from the archaeological to the purely mythic, but what unites this work is Hancock’s command over language: her words speak, roll over, and attack on command like alert, obedient hounds. *I began reading Stevie Howell’s delightfully imaginative poetry a few years ago when I found one of her chapbooks at a Meet the Presses literary market in Toronto. I’ve been looking forward to her first trade collection ever since, and now that it’s here, it does not disappoint.  Like Hancock’s book, Howell’s ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ [sharps] (Goose Lane Editions) is a debut collection with an already distinctive and developed voice. Published by Goose Lane’s Icehouse Poetry imprint, her writing is assured, risky and aloof, like someone who walks ahead of you without looking back, confident you will quicken your pace to keep up.  Howell excels in creating interesting lexical textures. See how she juxtaposes brand names with personal details; intimate narratives are set against a retail landscape of Fed Ex uniforms, TV antennas, and Mickey Mouse. These ingredients are essential in the world Howell strives to portray, inasmuch as such things are equally present in our own world.The title of this collection suggests an idiosyncratic approach to typography, and there’s a smidgen of truth to this. Morse code and hieroglyphics both make cameos, and a pair of poems, “Avenue” and “Road”, is set on facing pages so their combined mise-en-page resembles an inkblot from a Rorschach test. But Howell is no latter day Cummings or Marquis, and her typographic verve is not so much a cornerstone of her aesthetics as it is a small factor in her overall originality.In the end, it is her lyrical adventurousness and sharp mind for detail that leads us down an altogether different path. As readers, we should be only too happy to follow.*
This year, Mansfield Press published Dani Couture’s third poetry collection YAW under editor Stuart Ross’s eponymous imprint. Couture had already built a good reputation for herself on the strength of her first two books, but YAW takes her poetry to impressive new heights and should be seen as a breakthrough book for this poet.Not for the faint of heart, the spectre of trauma pervades these poems. In “Fact Check”, a series of investigative questions puts the reader in the position of a witness or victim reliving an undisclosed catastrophe. The effect is palpable. And in poems such as “F6” and “F-Scale, Ohio”, she explores the simultaneous necessity and futility of measuring the power of destructive forces based on their aftermaths.None of this is meant to suggest that YAW is an unrelenting tragedy. Couture is too canny for that, and like all good tragedies, its foundation lies in the loss—or losses—of something better. It’s in the reflection on these missing pieces, in poems like “1999”, “Ends” and the title poem, where the narrative finds redemption, and the reader, consolation.This is poetry about what’s in us that needs to get out, and the dizzying pang of its release. With YAW, Couture moves from the “one to watch” category to “definite must read” in one powerful leap.*Ken Babstock’s On Malice, his fifth collection but the first with his new publisher Coach House Books, is probably the most challenging book on this list, but like all great challenges, it’s also its own reward.The book opens with “Sigint”, a long poem sequence whose title is a technical abbreviation for “signal intelligence”. These thirty-nine modified sonnets are set, a note at the back of the book tells us, inside an abandoned NSA surveillance station on top of a man-made mountain in Berlin. We are also told the poem draws its vocabulary, although we are not told exactly how, from Walter Benjamin’s notes on the language acquisition of his son between the ages of two and six. In place of a closing couplet, each sonnet ends with a single line describing a birdstrike on an aircraft in Soviet airspace.Language acquisition is both the theme and modus operandi of “Sigint”. Fragmentary and disjointed, the syntax of these poems turns out to be the puzzle pieces whizzing through the surveillance station of Babstock’s imagination. Like intelligence analysts monitoring a range of frequencies, readers are asked to look for patterns in the chatter. These poems thrum with the power of speech, and with the image of these words both converging on and emanating from a mysterious mountain in Germany, it’s easy to see this as a post-modern foil to Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”. No mean feat.The rest of On Malice is divided between three other verse essays that offer their own challenges and rewards. To be sure, this book is heady stuff, but it’s well worth the effort as there’s a great deal of fun to be found in the Sturm und Drang of its lingual indulgences. *
The last book on this list is a cause for celebration. Don McKay has been a major figure in Canadian poetry for over four decades, and the publication of Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970—2014 by Goose Lane’s Icehouse Poetry is landmark event in a distinguished career.Rightly celebrated as a nature poet, McKay is famous for his interest in the natural world and his poems inspired by birding and geology. Ultimately, though, a label like “nature poet” fails to describe the breadth of his investigations. Whether writing about music or a shovel or the varied thrush, McKay is a master of metaphor, a subtle conjuror of great significance from simple matter.This book brings together ten of McKay’s previous collections with a smattering of new poems, but that says little to summarize Angular Unconformity’s true contents: a life’s work, a lesson in the art of observing the world and the written record of one of its keenest observers. Who could want better? And what will you find? As McKay writes in his poem “Camber”, “That rising curve, the fine line between craft and magic…”That.***Paul Vermeersch is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Don’t Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something from ECW Press. He has taught writing at the University of Guelph, Sheridan College, and the University of Toronto, and he is senior editor of Wolsak & Wynn Publishers, where he recently launched his own imprint, Buckrider Books. The imprint launched with the recent poetry collections: David James Brock’s Everyone Is CO2, Erina Harris’s The Stag Head Spoke, Claire Caldwell’s Invasive Species, and Jesse Patrick Ferguson’s Mr. Sapiens.