Best Canadian Poetry 2023 by John Barton (Editor)

Best Canadian Poetry 2023 is a kind of accordion, partly because of its sounds and notes, partly because of its shape – Anita Lahey’s “Foreword” folding into John Barton’s “Introduction,” folding into fifty poems, chords, accords, and dissent. Lahey opens with a tribute to the late Kingston author Steven Heighton: “Just read the work and love whatever feels alive, whatever / jolts you into new frames of feeling and thought.” Each poem provides a new frame of form, thought, and feeling, as well as ghosts, loves, and necessary words. Lahey next introduces Barton’s lines: “I have come to recognize that each poem is a wild animal / at liberty somewhere in nature.” She then commends Barton’s bravery, for the poems he has chosen are indeed brave and jolt the reader into their new frames of liberty.

“Seasoned in ear and eye, Barton has chosen bravely.”

            Barton’s wide-ranging “Introduction” covers the politics behind Canada Council grants for emerging artists and small presses, then devotes some space to identity politics and intersectionality, which appear in many of the fifty poems. His brief discussion of each of the poems, as well as the “contributors’ commentary” after the poems, assist the reader in a better understanding of contexts and accordion-like turning of pages. I found myself reading each poem, then checking my response with the editor’s and the commentary at the back of the book, all of which help with the jolt of new frames. Seasoned in ear and eye, Barton has chosen bravely.

            He mentions “the mirror that Zwicky holds up to the twenty-first” century that engages with politics and pandemic. When an accordion is covered with 50 reflectors, it becomes a hall of mirrors, refracting contemporary visions, love, and wild animals; with its portraits of self and society, the accordion mirror is convex and complex. Richard Sanger’s “Release” combines legalese with the self-referential poem in a whim of postmodernism: “therefore also the Poet (hereinafter ‘you’) / and author of your own misfortunes, / such as they may be mirrored in the Poem.” When this orderly “Release” is juxtaposed with Elee Kraljii Gardiner’s “A Mirror of Hieronymus Bosch,” the flesh is released in a passionate distorting mirror of ekphrastic history. Gardiner’s mirror, that ends with “everything is ordinary again,” is preceded by Sandy Shreve’s “Late”:

“Just this, the way your robe hangs from the door,
and how the deep green leaf in its floral
pattern (pink on black) is answered in the towel
dangling from a hook below the mirror –
just this, the way it’s overlooked
until one sleepless night
someone rises and flicks on the light.”

“Late” balances on the middle line of “dangling” and end dash after the mirror, which reflects “just this” in the three lines preceding and following it. Dangling echoes hangs, hook overlooked. Shreve’s epiphany in the ordinary hinges on just this – the precision and justness of close observation. Just as poems need to be overheard, so they need to be overseen rather than overlooked, for so many are palimpsests writing over what is hidden and buried under the ground.

            “Just this” is picked up in Jan Zwicky’s “just at dusk” in “Far from Rome.” Written in formal tercets, the poem indents each line to give form to the progression of the ferry ride at the beginning, and the progression of thought and vision in subsequent stanzas. The poem roams far and near, from a cinematic-apocalyptic vision to a domestic view, from local lights to surreal heights. Advancing from pathetic fallacy to music and metaphysics, her accordion stanzas pull against punctuation and sentence structure.

“On the ferry just at dusk,

            heading west into the winter sunset, colourless,

                        the light behind the clouds, which stood above the hills.”

The internal rhyme of “just … dusk” is echoed in “west … sunset.” The play of light, a cosmic chiaroscuro, contributes to the poem’s atmosphere: the light above the hills meets its counterpart and counterpoint at the end of the first sentence where masked foot passengers are “bent / above their tiny screens.”

            The poet is alone staring out the windows while the other passengers are equally “solitary,” masked against the pandemic, which stretches from Rome, defying all distances. The ecopoetic poet at the windows narrows hours later:

“And later, in the small hours, at my bedroom window, woken

            by the faint boom of more fighter jets some thirty miles off

                        heading up the coast,”

From heading west to heading up the coast, the poem heads far from Rome, from the isolation of tiny screens to small hours in shrinking and expanding perspectives of sudden awakenings. The roar of engines does not drown out the sound of “lice-lipped fish” that turns into “the lie-stoked mob” in the next stanza. Twilight at the poem’s opening is transformed into “klieg lights on at Terra Haute” and moonlight in the last stanza:

“the gauze that drifts across the black salal, the leafless alders. Once

            it was called moonlight. Foreign, now, incomprehensible,

                        it fills the air and falls upon the earth.”

Elongated sentences early in the poem shrink to the two sentences in the final stanza: foreign, far from home and Rome, incomprehensible gauze and mob. Zwicky ferries us across the Styx and strait; from terra haute she falls upon the imprisoned earth and the underworld, a foot passenger “burnt to the bone.”

            Penn Kemp’s witty “Cancel Culture” speaks to the moment through politics and the material page, reading not simply between the lines, but also between letters of words: “Between earning and learning lies / kerning, the name for the space between letters of type.” This state of in-betweenness characterizes so many of the poems, as Kemp concludes: “Leaving mere / palimpsest left / to scratch literate / out of obliterate.” So many of the fifty create palimpsests that write over common and uncommon ground, and mediate between Indigenous and immigrant experiences. Randy Lundy’s “A Note on the Use of the Term Genocide” begins with the Holocaust in Auschwitz: “A few, scattered flakes of snow, / and you want to say they drift down / like ash from the chimneys of Auschwitz.” The poet cannot claim that history, “the long shadow of that time,” for appropriation creates its own boundaries and borders. In the next stanza he moves on to the sixty million dead in the Americas in the first hundred years after contact. The third stanza concludes: “you’ll be accused of confusing, of conflating.” While each genocide is unique, their juxtapositions amount to a collective gauze that falls upon the earth, as ghosts haunt the globe, and buried bones of residential schools, concentrations camps, ethnic cleansing, climate crises – all of history’s barbarities. On the one hand, J.J. Steinfeld’s “I Thrust My Left Arm Forward While Thinking of the Past” tattoos the horrors of the past on the Canadian landscape, which has its own history of Indigenous palimpsests. On the other hand, other refugee poets who escape tragedy for the safety of a new home. Barton’s anthology of hauntology is, in part, an attempt at reconciliation between immigrants and Indigenous.

See also  Just Passing By Kamal Parmar

            Louise Bernice Halfe’s “Angels” covers a large swath of Indigenous history from 1820-1979: “Children’s shoes in a ghost dance” and “The bones / Will share their stories.” During the 160 years of waiting, she summons and releases the Cree “Awasis, the spirit-light, these angels / Dance in the flame.” Similarly, Tawahum Bige’s “Attention Deficit” tries to mend “complex trauma wounds” and show how “art revels in the ashes,” while a “drum beats in the distance.” Susan Braley’s “He Thinks It’s Their First Book” describes the Cree Syllabary of 1841 and inscribes a palimpsest of carving over natural objects: “These letters more than letters, / their simple shapes sing / this place.” Samantha Nock’s “kiskatinaw interlude” is a love poem to a river. Michelle Porter’s “Parts of the Needle, Manitoba, Canada 1870” sews Métis history into the fabric of Canada through her grandmother’s work on the sewing machine.

            Immigrant experience lays claim to a different history. Laurie D. Graham’s “Calling It Back to Me” examines her family’s history from Europe. Once again, grandmothers take centre stage from their marginal status and burdens of belonging. The ongoing verb forms in the title carry through to sinking, founding, listing, belongings, seeming, exacting, touching, and thinking, which are opposed to pasts in erased, retained, carried, nibbled – the tenses augmenting the palimpsest of old and new countries. The short couplets echo, according to Graham, a legacy of silence, her process of re-calling an ancestral migration. The first stanza’s enjambment leads to clipped sentence stops in the second. “Sinking through imagined / founding, across fault-lined” initiates the poem’s vertical sinking on the page, while the hyphenated “fault-lined” refers not only to geography and settling, but also to the fault lines of poems that end in the hyphenated “story-keeper.” The hyphenated dilemma of re-call is further accentuated by the two end dashes: “Two chests – the baggage of belonging(s); “and so, and so –,” a repetition of two words and worlds.

            The second stanza stops: “expanse. What wilts. What / mutates. The quality of soil.” She examines names that are erased and retained, the names of individuals, towns, and countries. Photographs remain, while “borders heave.” She calls the stories back; the stories call back to her in an echo across land and sea. Similarly, Helen Cho’s unpunctuated vertical columns in “I elitere lyric poetry” spill down the page from indonesia to canada and end with: “tell me story     of     all these things / beginning      wherever you wish       tell even us.” Where there is occasional punctuation, a period precedes the last word, so that the reader experiences the dislocation and disorientation of Cho’s migrations and Korean grammar. Eric Wang’s “Poem after Group Text Anticipating Next Millennium’s Sushi Date” exemplifies the contemporary multicultural scene in Canada.

            If Indigenous and immigrant poetry highlight two aspects of otherness in this anthology of hauntology, so too does sexual orientation. Sarah Hilton’s traumatic “coitophobia” (fear of sexual intercourse) is deemed by Barton to be the bravest of the fifty poems. Jake Byrne’s “Event Coordinator Moving into Project Management” describes events in a gay bathhouse: “the crackle of the static air / The vibration in the puddles / On the sopping sauna floor.” Sophie Crocker’s “nobody cums rat poison anymore” further represents the LGBTQ2S community.

            In addition to the fifty poems, Barton offers a list of fifty other “Notable Poems.” The editor has his hands full drawing the fine line between the fifty chosen and those “notable poems,” each worthy in its own right. Hats off to Barton for editing this collection that has so much variety and serves as a forum and format for reconciliation; hats off to Biblioasis for publishing Best Canadian Poetry 2023.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (Nov. 15 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 192 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771964995
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771964999

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