Alisha Kaplan and Tobi Aaron Kahn’s Qorbanot: Offerings (SUNY Press, 2021) is a gift of candour, scholarship, history, and future. Its substantial, glossy pages relax open (on a table, a lap, into the reader’s palms) to insist that we take time to witness its shimmering dialogue between poet and painter. Qorbanot is a particularly complex gift (yes, of course—an offering) that urges us to accept both warmth and pain. I’ve never read a book of poems quite like it.
At first glance, Kahn’s paintings appear abstract, with controlled colour palettes, undulating shapes, and strong outlines—jarringly close (like microscope slides) or assertively distant (like topography). But to neglect the context of Kahn’s paintings—their titles (named “studies,” all), their intimate relationship with Kaplan’s polyphonic poems—is to close oneself off from the experience of Qorbanot. In dialogue with Kaplan, Kahn’s art becomes figurative and emotive, yet just out of reach, “like [prophets] looking into a dim glass” to glimpse God (110).Continue ReadingQorbanot: Offerings
Selina Boan’s debut poetry collection Undoing Hours (Nightwood Editions, 2021) sidelined me for weeks. Read a few pages, fill up on her heartfelt and playful language, feel the swell, come apart at the seams a little bit, put it down, try again; “take your mess / bless it and start over” (30).
Boan’s poems are topographical, concrete, resonant like “messages threading through roots” (62), footsteps, vibrating engines. They take all the time they need to warm up, to untangle themselves—and so you must (take your time, wait, return).
Settler and Nehiyaw herself, Boan presents Nêhiyawêwin (Cree) and English as tools that can explore, breach, or harvest from the body—“blood skin pus / where pain lets itself out little by little” (72)—while bodies, too, are celebrated as instruments for confronting, embracing, or disassembling language, “cracking his skull” (32). It’s a lot. In the best possible way, it’s a lot. Continue ReadingUndoing Hours
Gratitude is something we are reminded to acknowledge every day. While we are aware that others have lives harder than our own, it’s something else entirely to read about such lives in detail—to attach a human face to the concept and rid ourselves of our own ignorance, if only slightly. Phyllis Dyson’s debut, Among Silent Echoes: A Memoir of Trauma and Resilience (Caitlin Press, 2021), is well-researched and portrays its themes of mental illness with a sympathetic, understanding, and personal perspective. She recounts the story of her life, depicting the impact her mother’s schizophrenia has had—and continues to have—on the way she views the world.
Even in lives riddled with tragedy, there are always moments, if scattered, that give hope for the future. Nova Scotia author (and Understorey Magazinecontributor) Laura Best builds on this duality in every aspect of her latest novel, Good Mothers Don’t (Nimbus Publishing, 2020). Best details the after-effects of electroshock therapy and other ‘treatments’ for mental illness in the mid-1900s, only to then contrast them with warm themes of motherhood, family, and home. She portrays her characters in their many shades of gray, never sacrificing their realism to earn the affections of her readers. Among Best’s characters, none are completely evil and none are completely innocent; there are only broken people, and those who are a little more broken than others.
The summary and review excerpts on the front flap and back cover of Medrie Purdham’s Little Housewolf (Véhicule Press/Signal Poetry, 2021) celebrate the considerable skill with which the poet brings tiny, fragile objects into focus—often temporarily into life.
All this laudatory metadata is perfectly true, yet at odds with what I found most intriguing in Purdham’s collection: its teeming menagerie of birds. Whether as specimens or metaphors, lead actors or silhouettes, they are everywhere—roosting and nesting in more poems than not.
The book opens with “Hinge,” a meditation on a creaky old gate that I suspect of being narrated by three birds in a trench coat, pretending to be human: “And every day we came home / […]. Each to his identical little plot / piled high with long mouldy hay and lost plumage.”
From there, the game is afoot: where else are birds hiding in this book that so carefully minds things that are lost in pockets, rolled into corners, almost out of view?
If I could hold Little Housewolf to my ear like a seashell, who would be chirping in the background? In “Carapace,” for instance, the reader is invited to consider crab shells, yet a grandmother’s long-wounded foot has the unfeathered flesh of a newly hatched chick: “tended and collapsed / simmered red”—an image both delicate and unnerving, cooked and raw.