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  • Poetry
  • Malcolm Woodland

In her recent collection, AVATAR, Sharon Harris offers the following recommendation 'For Reviewers':

There is a very simple method for distinguishing a good poem from a bad one without hurting anyone's feelings. Rotate the poem in question on a plate, and the true masterpiece will spin in the mind for eons. If its form and content are uniformly distributed and mostly pure, then it will stay upright like a top.

The contradictions within a lesser work prevent this. Since the form and content are likely warring, these opposing forces create a sense of inertia. Thus the poem falls flat and doesn't stand up to the force of reviewing.

Harris isn't just trying to put a fresh spin on the reviewer's business here; she's agitating for wholesale revolution. Her method eliminates the vagaries of personal taste and individual knowledge that inform any review; in fact, it pretty much eliminates the reviewer. For some, this may not be much of a loss. And there would be a gain, of course – the resulting judgments would have an irrefutable objectivity, a near-pontifical infallibility. So it is with regret and relief that I confess to having encountered Harris's recommendations at a late stage in this review – too late for me to apply them to the books under consideration and still meet my deadline. Readers who proceed beyond this point will have to put up with my own idiosyncrasies of taste, sensibility, and ideology. But there is a more positive side to [End Page 29] this situation. The idea of a wholly objective scale of aesthetic judgment is, after all, a bit terrifying; I'm not certain that I would want any of my own work (this review included) to be assessed according to such principles. The poets of 2006, then, may well breathe a collective sigh of relief, since any disagreeableness in the following pages may safely be ascribed to the idiosyncrasies of my own taste, sensibility, knowledge, ideology, and so on.

But of course I don't intend to be disagreeable. I come to praise our poets, not to bury them. And I want first to praise some poets who published their debut collections in 2006 (Harris's AVATAR is one of them, and I will return to it a little later). After looking at the debutantes, I will consider a number of book-length poems published by some of our more established poets, then 'selected' volumes that appeared last year, and finally the lyric collections produced by some of Canada's poetic veterans.

First among the debuts is a volume I particularly liked, Steven Price's Anatomy of Keys. Anatomy is a long poem recounting the life of Ehrich Weiss, the man better known as Harry Houdini; its mostly short lyric and narrative poems employ a remarkable variety of forms and styles. Price turns the paradoxically interdependent necessities of the escapist's art – confinement and liberation – into richly developed tropes for the complexities of romantic and sexual love, loss and grief, faith, skepticism, and selfhood. Price's Houdini wants to 'open / what is shut to [him],' but repeatedly confronts a darker and more ambiguous knowledge of 'the closing and the opening as one.' That last line has a rather programmatic abstraction about it. But more often Price's lines are tightly packed with a dense, dark, lush particularity of sound and image: celebrating his wife, Bess, Houdini notes how her 'thighs freckled like long-moist leather / held in their golden hairs astonishment / and the furred inelegant calligraphies / of the ordinary'; he mixes eroticism with the escapist's art in the gorgeous phonic play of 'the jellied give of locks, greased in, / shuddering, the tightening of pins / sliding home: all of it fingered, // lubricious, enterable and entered / into like language.' Often, the deliberate thickness of Price's phonic world seems to embody the poems' concern with enclosure and constraint. One poem early in the sequence captures the sheer physicality of Houdini's dying father in a remarkable sequence of flawed words and stubborn sounds: 'Like sweat, like broiled meat / you thickened to a smoke-rank stink / as the months passed; your oilish heat / hung...


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