Five boxes of slim volumes appear in my office. They represent a fair portion of the poetry published in Canada in a single year. It is not everything. Some publishers forget to send out review copies. Still, it is a significant sample. My task is to read through these books and offer an assessment of what matters. No reader can be responsive to all the threads of writing spooled out in a busy culture. I have my preferences, and as Sam Solecki, an expert on Canadian poetry, says, “Only the auctioneer likes everything.”1
Right off the top, I am the wrong reader for much experimental poetry, which, in my view, often pretends to be working without a net when it is really working without a rope. My brief is to describe what I find good in Canadian poetry in 2014, and there will not be space for me to discuss all the books I admire, let alone to pursue quarrels over theory. As with all literary reviews, this will put a very personal taste on display.2
This article will be divided into two main parts. The first will look at debut volumes, and the second at authors who have gone more deeply into their careers. This is not meant to indicate any different standards of value. My intention is to draw particular attention first to what is new and surprising. There are extremely fine books in both sections. At the end of this essay, I will look at an important annual anthology that offers its own reading of recent Canadian poetry. [End Page 224]
Kerry-Lee Powell’s Inheritance (Biblioasis) is a spectacular debut. Originally from Montreal and now in New Brunswick, Powell has lived in Australia, Antigua, and the United Kingdom. She studied at the University of Cardiff and experienced the extraordinarily vibrant poetry scene in Wales, where she received advice on her writing from Gwyneth Lewis and other highly accomplished poets. Powell is also an admired writer of fiction, publishing with Harper Collins. Inheritance is mainly inspired by her father’s experience of a shipwreck during World War II, his long years of posttraumatic stress disorder, and his eventual suicide. Powell typically writes in strict forms, which, in her handling, achieve an almost elemental solidity. “The Lifeboat” is a poem with affinities going back at least as far as William Cowper:
All night in his lifeboat my father sangto keep the voices of the other menwho cried in the wreckage from reaching him,he sang what he knew of the requiem,of the hit parade and the bits of hymns,he sang until he would never sing again,scalding his raw throat with sea wateruntil his ribs heaved, until the saltwept from his eyes on dry land,flecked at his lips in his squalling rages,streaked the sheets in his night sweatsas night after night the reassembled shipscattered its parts on the shore of his bed,and the lifeboat eased him out againto drown each night among singing men.
I cannot imagine how such a subject could be better handled, and many more examples could be quoted. Good debut collections generally show skill but tend nowadays to rely on a torrent of marginally clever references to social media and pop culture, usually with the obligato adjective fractal, as if the poets were looking for a strangeness to hold place in poetry until some significant experience comes along. Powell seizes on a grief of terrible magnitude and renders it with technical mastery.
Another striking debut is Garth Martens’s Prologue for the Age of Consequence (Anansi). Martens lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and has won the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Drawing on his experience in the construction industry in Alberta, Martens is able to communicate in the textures of his language the extreme physicality of the life. To read his lines is like dragging your hand across a cinder block. These poems about the making of towers become a babel of memorable voices: [End Page 225]
We were sure it was him who flockeda bag of syringes in the drywall bin,and...