The 2023 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology: A Selection of the Shortlist edited by Gregory Scofield

Pity the judges for the Griffin Poetry Prize who winnow through 602 books; praise Gregory Scofield for editing a selection of the shortlist for 2023, and House of Anansi for its handsome volume. In his brief “Preface” Scofield uses metaphors of poets as visionaries and dreamers, and poems as gifts of light that illuminate the page and reading experience. The book’s compelling charcoal cover features Gwenaël Rattke’s Vue imaginaire d’une fenêtre, a fitting image for the poems, which are themselves imaginary views from windows with receding frames leading to skylit abstractions. This anthology contains those frames, abstractions, and a range of colours and vistas. The inside of the cover depicts four hands joined by string in a kind of cat’s cradle formation: this intertwining of fingers and wrists may represent the interrelationships among poets and poems shortlisted in this anthology.

“Praise Gregory Scofield for editing a selection of the shortlist for 2023, and House of Anansi for its handsome volume.”

            The first poet is Iman Mersal, an Egyptian-Canadian whose book, The Threshold, has been translated by Robyn Creswell. Thresholds are liminal spaces reflected in the window on the cover where shimmering images and dreamscapes simultaneously invite and distance the viewer. Her first poem, “Just sleeping,” fits into the frame and window on the cover: “His lips twist in anger / at something he no longer remembers.” Visual elements are balanced by the sounds in the sentence: an insistent sibilance, short i’s, and stretched er’ s shape the lips. The second sentence stretches that sleeping memory: “He sleeps deeply, / hands under his head,” as the long “e” sounds and alliterated “h” prepare for the simile that follows: “like the conscripts of Central Security / in their late-night trucks, / eyes closed against all they’ve seen, / breathing in sync with the engines, / transformed all at once into angels.” The surprising transformation at the end is both in sync and out of sync with the sounds that precede it – all those tight t’s. To tread is at the root of threshold, and the memories and transformations of dual identity between Egypt and Canada. Thresholds may be domestic or global in postmodern migrations. 

            “Visits” follows “Just sleeping” to revisit Mersal’s dreamscape: “My dead mother often visits in dreams.” While the first stanza focuses on the mother-daughter relationship, the second stanza opens up to wider implications: “You too / might stop the world’s turning when you die, / which would give me enough time / to point all this out to you.” The reversal of “you too” and “to you,” as well as the “turning,” reflect the scissoring in the final stanza. Similarly, the next poem, “Little lockers,” continues to broaden thresholds between microcosm and larger implication: “Typically, windows are gray / and generously proportioned.” These lines serve as a description of the cover’s art, while “Typically” at the beginning of each stanza forms various views and frames. The poem concludes with “Everything repeats itself” and “The little lockers fill up with new bodies” – Mersal’s anatomy of the ordinary and extraordinary. 

            Like Mersal’s lament in “It seems that I inherit the dead,” Susan Musgrave’s “Exculpatory Lilies” explores loss and loneliness: “Good Friday, the day they delivered / that sad bouquet, was the day our cat / ran out on the road and failed to look both ways.” The lyricism in her title with its alternating lilt of l and long e continues in these opening lines with added long a’s that emphasize a particular day. Musgrave’s rhythms work deftly between caesura and enjambment, sentence pauses and poetic lines that look both ways and listen to each other. “Day” beats and repeats the sadness in the bouquet, along with other monosyllables that measure the mood in varied tetrameter.

            Her second sentence stretches the details of that day through colons and a long dash. The tension between domestic details and ritual ceremonies surrounds both the death of a cat and loss of a loved one. Alliteration in the cat’s “ran out on the road” is matched by the poet’s “stashed the candy eggs / under the sink.” In turn, those alliterations are met by the internal rhyme of sink, “in their pink raffia nests.” Exotic raffia fibre stands out in contrast to all of the other familiar words, and this fibre from Madagascar nests not only Easter eggs, but also meanings that remain hidden. Musgrave offers the obvious as well as the hidden mysteries of her lilies. “Safe among the household poisons”: the contrast between what is safe and what is poisonous remains in toxic proximity. After her first colon she gives us the sounds and rhythms leading to the second colon: “on Easter Sunday before first light / I stole outside to hide the loot.” Much more has been stolen from the poet who near-rhymes light and loot with other long i’s in hide and outside. 

            “The family / of bunnies in gold foil” serves as a foil for the human family – “kids … warned” and “you” who buys high-quality chocolate: “nothing’s too good for my girls!” Dash, exclamation mark, and italics highlight the male’s speech as extrinsic and intrinsic to the females in the poem. The lilies, “smacking of humility,” speak for the absent, addicted male: “sorry, I can stop, / I will lose the needle and spoon today.” It is the “sorry” that is built into “exculpatory” – whether in words, actions, or lilies. 

            The second stanza returns to the cat’s actions: “The cat darted out, hit the car, staggered back / as far as the front gate.” The cat’s fate parallels the fate of the human relationship: “I buried her at the bottom of the garden / where I had tossed your exculpatory lilies.” The poet questions her beloved’s turn to God instead of love. She ends: “These days I lean heavy into the wind / and the wind’s blowing hard.” This final wind echoes the earlier breathing of her beloved, just as the final “hard” echoes his earlier “hard miracle.” Surrounding this poem are others by Musgrave from “The True Beginning of Loneliness” to portraits of her mother and grandmother, rivers and rain that teach about life’s broken bottles. Her elegies recall her mother’s “deadery” and a river of sorrow ruffled at the water’s surface. 

            Ocean Vuong’s poetry mines themes similar to those of the other poets in this anthology. His book, Time Is a Mother, is highly metaphoric, equating two entities that resonate beyond the equation. His similes reshape identities. In “The Ball” his first likeness envelopes boy, bull, god, and man: “Like something prayed for / by a man with no mouth.” Abstractions and identities merge by the end of the poem after negations: “Like me.” The “I-he” relationship of masculinity relies on ampersands, hyphens, and dashes that freeze abruptly in the final simile.

            The sudden simile reappears at the end of a later poem, “Almost Human”: “Like this.” This short phrase also appears in the middle of the poem to end the first half: “even as the black letters / kept seeping through, / like this.” Black letters on the page are self-referential, part of the body’s anatomy that opens the poem: “It’s been a long time since my body.” Vuong begins as abruptly he ends – in the body’s mystery, which is almost human because incomplete in its sentence, awaiting a verb. Ordinary language accumulates meaning between the lines, in what is left unsaid. “Unbearable, I put it down / on the earth the way my old man / rolled dice.” The body is unbearable because it is too heavy, but its weight is metaphysical, a burden, and a matter of chance. The third sentence parallels the first and moves into a temporal family sphere of old man and Time Is a Mother: “It’s been a long time since time.” Once again, the incomplete sentence has to be fleshed out by the child of timed parents. The poet’s “substance / & sinew” are markers of weight, measures of lines that reverberate: “It was called reading, they told me, / too late. But too late.” The reader is startled by “I red” as the past tense of his reading experience, which may be explained by the blood preceding it and “defunct” verbs following it. 

            The exchange between “I” and “they” runs through the poem where “they” are the boys of desire and the poet speaking from the sidelines, but also “from a people of sculptors / whose masterpiece was rubble.” The poet sculpts that rubble to aim for a masterpiece, “as I wept motionless by the rehab window.” Vuong’s “Almost Human” fits within the receding window frames on this anthology’s cover, his hands tied by maternal lines. “If words, as they claimed, had no weight / … why did the water swallow, / our almost human hands / as we sang?” Vuong’s sleight of hand weaves metaphoric meanings, as his pronouns shift among complex identities from Doctor to Lord, and body to soul. His surrealism blurs the boundaries between his Vietnamese background and American presence. 

            Ada Lemón, Poet Laureate of the United States, covers the territory of autobiography in her eponymous poem, “The Hurting Kind,” a double entendre and oxymoron. The second line of the first stanza is indented: “On the plane I have a dream I’ve left half my / torso on the back porch with my beloved. I have to go.” Regular rhythms capture both dream and plane sequence; enjambment enhances the flight experience; and long o’s open the split between two halves of torso, place, and time. Varying iambic rhythms and enjambment carry over to the second stanza where “back” and “half” complete her second sentence: “back for it, but it’s too late, I’m flying / and there’s only half of me.” “Back in Texas” begins her third stanza, which inserts a parenthesis where “flowers / are more than flowers” – for a funeral or a lover. She proceeds with her “vulgar life. Or not / vulgar” from a “nice” bathroom to the cemetery with Rosie, “who is so nice.” The daughter thinks, “My shards are showing,” whereas her mother says, “You can’t sum it up” in a dialogue between life and death.

            The second section begins with grandparents and muses about lineage and bloodlines. The third stanza covers more history from the war to her grandmother packing peaches, “though she hated the way / the hairs hurt her hands.” Her grandmother’s hurting hands prepare for her own pain, “a weeper / from a long line of weepers.” Lemón’s lament recurs in ancestral lines of poems: “I am the hurting kind.” The sixth and final section begins with a repetition of her grandmother’s words: “You can’t sum it up. A life.” Her reminiscence is a “conjuring” of attachments. “I’m wearing / my heart on my leaves,” which drops the s of sleeves and plays with the trope of tree leaves, leaves as pages of poetry, and the leaving behind of half of her torso. In her endless conclusion: “Love ends. But what if it doesn’t?”

            Touch, hurt, hands, and lines recur in Robert Reeves’s Best Barbarians – winner of the Griffin. In “Journey to Satchidananda” Reeves introduces us to Alice Coltrane’s harp and the Japanese Kintsugi, a healing of a broken ceramic vessel through an application of gold. The cat’s cradle of strings in the harpist’s fingers appears in iambic rhythms of the opening line that resonates with stops: “Alice Coltrane, her harp, fills in the cracks of me” – her music penetrating the poet’s soul. The second line fills in the first “With gold. The Japanese call it Kintsugi.” The rhyme in these first two lines is matched by all the hard k sounds that fill in meanings to connect Coltrane’s life, the Japanese ritual, and the poet’s experience. His phrasing and syntax combine both brokenness and filling: “Where the vessel broken, only gold will permit / Its healing. Its history.” Within this syncopation “Its” changes to “It’s How the Stars Understand /Us,” Christopher Gilbert’s poem from Across the Mutual Landscape (1984). Reeves weaves Gilbert into the inter-texture of his poem, for the mutual landscape belongs not only to the lovers, but to all lovers of poetry.

            Reeves borrows metaphors from Gilbert and pays homage to him. “Mosquito filled with the blood that sirens its fat, / Long life.” To use “siren” in its verb form is to add sting to the long life that appears equally surprising at the beginning of the line, as well as to complete the preceding metaphor of the skin of the earth. “Who isn’t dying to heave this house” is a rhetorical question that plays with the literal and figurative senses of dying, while the “masked” that follows leads to the hyphenated “animal – Breathing,” – the unusual line break highlighting the theme of brokenness. Furthermore, animalism leads to “the black dog with the sword in his mouth / Passing from house to house will not bring its itch.” Much hinges on this possessive pronoun its – a marker of identity, possession, and dispossession. “Its itch” stitches together sound in a surreal blend of blues, the clarity and blur of plague, quarantine, and blackness. After “its itch,” “Its ticks and locks clogging our lungs” signals a permanent quarantine of colours and chokeholds: “nothing that a little gold / Netted to ichor and spilled into our veins / Won’t seam.” Reeves’s prism is coloured with double entendre and multiple meanings, spilling into the seams of being and foreignness. 

            At the centre of the poem, “seam” is situated as a fulcrum for the second half, which returns to Coltrane’s harp – Muse and arpeggio: “Everything is a blue divergence / On a harp.” While everything contrasts with the preceding “nothing,” blue diverges to other colours: “the red bells in the purple / Crepe myrtle.” Colours fold and corpses are observed by a kneeling spring tree. “Everything” reappears in this remembrance, the resonance of mother and daughter in the rest of the poem. “No, no, they remember, / As everything dying remembers its mother’s / Name.” Reeves’s caesuras punctuate brokenness, breathing, and the glimpse of a harp’s force “to be more / than a hesitation.” Poems hesitate at thresholds, views from windows across mutual landscapes. Gold fills in the cracks, “A window thrown open for no other reason / Than to continue a blue feeling.” In the turn from mother’s name to daughter’s name, the poem ends: “—a window thrown / Open – her voice, gold filling in the cracked / Basketball court of me.” All those long o’s caught in the court where “Nature, all nature will be dead for life soon.” Resurrection under a hoop, and along jazz’s journey to changing identities – all of those and more fill the poems of his Best Barbarian. From Coltrane’s harp to Kintsugi to basketball court, Reeves glimpses power in the broken vessel of verse.

GREGORY SCOFIELD is Métis of Cree, Scottish and European-Immigrant descent whose ancestry can be traced to the Métis community of Kinosota, Manitoba. He has taught Creative Writing and First Nations and Métis Literature at Laurentian University, Brandon University, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and the Alberta University of the Arts. He currently holds the position of Associate professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria. Scofield won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1994 for his debut collection, The Gathering: Stones for the Medicine Wheel, and has since published seven further volumes of poetry including, Witness, I am. He has served as writer-in-residence at the University of Manitoba, the University of Winnipeg, and Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is the recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012), and most recently the Writers’ Trust of Canada Latner Poetry Prize (2016) that is awarded to a mid-career poet in recognition of a remarkable body of work. Further to writing and teaching, Scofield is also a skilled bead-worker, and he creates in the medium of traditional Métis arts. He continues to assemble a collection of mid to late 19th century Cree-Métis artifacts, which are used as learning and teaching pieces. Scofield’s first memoir Thunder Through My Veins (Doubleday Canada/Anchor Books) was re-published Fall 2019.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ House of Anansi Press (July 4 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 104 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1487011806
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1487011802

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.