The cover of this year’s Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology aptly features a wide-open mouth with tongue half in shadow and supple lips framing voice, sound, or shout. If the shadow holds the darker mystery of meaning, then the front of the mouth vocalizes that mystery towards the light of day. Two upper teeth represent the winners of the prize, while the bottom row of five are the runners-up. The back cover quotes Anna Belle Kaufman: “Leave something of sweetness / and substance / in the mouth of the world.” The seven poets represented in this anthology – three Canadian and four international – mouth sweetness and substance in their global ecology and ethnology.
The first offering in the book is Sharon Dolan’s translation of the Catalan poet Gemma Gorga, whose collection Late to the House of Words begins with “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall”: “We showed up late to the house of words.” Belatedness, nostalgia, and domestication form the backbone of Gorga’s poems that probe mysterious interstices between body and objective world. In quest of a woman’s name, “we grope out way down stairs as painful / as vertebrae and search between the walls plastered / shards for some living syllable.” Whether cracked or intact, the mirror multiplies, reflects and refracts insight in a domicile: “Home is a voice that is also silence.” Gorga gives us “Poetics of the Fragment” and a Catalan “Elegy” of the everyday.
Douglas Kearney is an American performative poet whose Sho plays with living syllables and leaves substance in the mouth of the world. With its fourteen lines, occasional iambics and pentameters, “Do the Breakfast Jam!” is a sliding sonnet of playful rhythms. The only punctuation in the poem occurs in the title’s exclamation mark, which is repeated at the end “jam!” On the surface this is a joyous poem about jazz, improvisation, and freedom of movement through slang and vernacular monosyllables that bounce off one another. On another level, a sinister undertone makes its presence felt so that the happy jamming in jazz turns to a traffic jam where the exuberant Black poet is caught up in a racialized situation. Phonemes dance to the rhythms of assonance, consonance, and slang onomatopoeia. His poems are atoms with electrons spinning and bouncing off each other centrifugally and centripetally in the hum and buzz of improvisation. “Stop there fam and jump to the brand spanking.” A shortened form of family, “fam” rhymes with jam in the title to introduce the kinship of this jazz movement.
Run-on lines carry the swing and beat of Kearney’s sonnet where “back again” continues “brand spanking” and gets repeated in the final line “to the back to the back now you right in the jam!” The other back story involves Black history, which alters the meaning of the poem from jazz celebration to oppression where “backseat” has different connotations in Kearney’s rear view mirror. The punishing spanking, throwing hands in the air, a baton for beating, the pain of “ow” – these are the flipside of jubilant jam sessions. For every musical upbeat, the downbeat of a past countdown.
Similarly, “Sho” uses a “torchon” form of double tercets in a rap style with monosyllables bouncing off one another. The title offers one pronunciation of sure, show, and shore. “Some need some Body / or more to ape sweat / on some site. / Bloody.” The Bloody Body rhyme and alliteration would be sufficient, but the placement of “Bloody” to run into the second stanza furthers the flow of bodily fluids: “purl or dirty spit / locked up for to show / who gets eaten. Rig”. A phonemic dance of rig and jig recurs throughout the poem, the rig that makes it to the shore before the jig is up. Between sure, show, and shore the poet strips language until the colloquial yields to the typographical, signifiers on the shores and shoulders of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson: “’This one’s called …” – they clap –/ “’_ _ _ _ _barrow.’ So much dep / ends / upon / dead _ _ _ _ _”; stood.” Quote, call, and clap are all part of the performing lure of allusion of “Sho.” Kearney’s “good / song vox” leaves substance in the mouth of the world and wins the International Award.
The Canadian winner, Tolu Oloruntoba, is less radical than his American counterpart, but he too is able to “form my lips into the final syllable / of what I’ve been trying to say.” In The Junta of Happenstance, the Nigerian-Canadian poet-physician explores his dual identities through combinations of metaphors. Junta means joining, and metaphor joins two disparate elements through the mind’s happenstance. “Tinderbox” expands a domestic circumstance through a runway at an airport, an explosive situation spreading through migration. “We were a conflagration asking / to be incarnated into the world.” The mother in the poem prevents the dangers of spontaneous combustion. She keeps apart “two stones of the same / igneous anger.” If the runway serves as a metaphor of migration, then its prophylactic is the extinguishing foam. Medicine keeps the tinderbox under control to result in a “prefabricated peace.” The mouth is a tinderbox, the tongue a runway for migration and metaphor.
“Medical Séances” conflates science and séance, the empirical and metaphorical. The poet’s medical training proceeds through four sestets, the third developing fish imagery of “sturgeons-general,” while the fourth stanza turns biblical with a father figure: “I am not the Esau you sought, with a stethoscope beard.” Oloruntoba’s stethoscope transforms anatomical sounds into metaphorical meaning, his tongue depressor adding to the happenstance and substance in the mouth of the world.
In “A History of Treachery” the poet also turns his sights to Nigeria’s colonial past with its history of treaties and treachery. Similarly, the five sections of “Feud(al)” trace personal and international histories, and in “My Therapist Assesses Suicidal Ideation,” he concludes with a chiasmus of mind and fact, internal and external truths. “My mind has bent the facts, I know. / The facts have bent my mind.” Oloruntoba bends backwards to see forward, for “the timeline ahead is / infinitely longer than the knives behind.” The Junta of Happenstance joins a painful past to a future of possibilities in medical and historical lessons.
Liz Howard won the Griffin in 2016. This time her Letters in a Bruised Cosmos grapples with climate crises from an Indigenous perspective of experimental forms. Her “Probability Cloud” begins with “The universe broadcasts its lifespan in radiant heat,” marks the middle of her poetic paragraph with “THE / HOLE / IN THE / SKY,” and ends with “Not truth but surface.” She invokes the “palimpsest of furniture” – layered lines between the Indigenous and the immigrant, the trace of cloud and sky, the typographical covering of “night” and history, layered lips framing white teeth and bilingual tongue. A mouth that opens to Anishinaabekwe and beckons to abjection, superposition, and the splitting of columns of verse. “Life Cycle of the Animal Called She” is a feminist cri de coeur that ends with “My headstone could read that I was a creature unafraid to breathe these titles into speech.” Howard resurrects her headstone to breathe a bruised cosmos into speech.
David Bradford’s debut collection, Dream of No One but Myself, completes the Canadian entries. A native Montrealer, Bradford experiments with English and French, bold and faded typography, and engaging footnotes. His verse is all process, a gateway along the way. The international shortlist also includes Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow by the Ukrainian poet, Natalka Bilotserkivets, and translated by Ali Kinsella and Dzvina Orlovsky. Written before the Russian invasion, these poems are even more poignant in the light of the current destruction. Ed Roberson’s Asked What Has Changed rounds out the selections and collection with its Black aesthetics and ecopoetics. His title poem ends with “The eye is not filled with seeing, / with only / seeing, but with understanding the sight.” Young and old voices and visions fill the pages of this varied anthology, and add considerably to our understanding and surprise of a world and a poetics in flux. With his ear attuned to these polyphonic nuances, Adam Dickinson has edited judiciously.
ADAM DICKINSON was born in Bracebridge, Ontario. He is the author of four books of poetry, including Anatomic(2018), a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award and winner of the Alanna Bondar Memorial Book Prize from the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada. His work has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and twice for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. He was also a finalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Poetry Prize and the K. M. Hunter Artist Award in Literature. His work has been translated into Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Norwegian, and Polish. He has been featured at international literary festivals such as Poetry International in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and the Oslo International Poetry Festival in Norway. He was also part of the VERSschmuggel poetry translation project hosted in conjunction with Poesiefestival Berlin, Germany. He is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.
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