It was a struggle of a year – did you feel it too? Frankly, the stress of this always-on, 24-hour world is unallayed by a bunch of poetry books; but if you choose one book (and you can really only read one at a time) and settle in on the sofa … outside, it is cold and the wind is outrageous; inside the book, lord knows what you'll find. In here, you're simply reading; just being here still proves a pleasant challenge and sometimes, after all, an alleviation, albeit not always an easy one.
Not everything needs to be hard, though. You can make Nelson Ball's poems as hard as you want them to be, but I for one wouldn't. It is hard, perhaps, to accept them. They are so there. If you know Ball's work you probably know it in chapbook form, small and sparsely printed-upon homemade books with small and sparely dictioned poems of sensory observation and of thought. Ball is your most minimal minimalist. In selecting and collecting these poems in a Laurier Poetry Series anthology, Certain Details: The Poetry of Nelson Ball, Ball and the volume's editor, Stuart Ross – one of the more generous and industrious figures in the Canadian poetry world – know that the process takes the poems out of their original context, but I enjoyed reading them together all the same. Some physical and mental space was lost – and that is significant given how important space is to these poems, how space is palpably in them (from "Fragment of Poetics": "A tree—the spaces/between its parts"); but it is also a pleasure to read a string of them in a row, easier to see links, to ascertain a path. The essay on himself that Ball pens at book's end finds him to be like his poems: succinct, attuned.
In his introduction to the book, Ross recounts how he often gives a Ball poem to readers who are not converse with contemporary poetry and how it serves as a good first opening. Another sort of opening in that regard might be first books by new writers. Talk about being so very there – copious blurbs aside, there is less reputation to hide behind. The serious flaws to be found, if any, are mostly yet ahead – but are they nascent? And the successes – who is unfamiliar with the slow-growing thrill of hearing an original voice, of inhabiting a fresh presence, or even of learning new words in which to say old things? Although there were too many debuts this year to read them all (that is, while also reading anything else), the haul encountered was promising. One hopes it is relatively representative, though I regret that due to considerations of space, energy, inclination, and timing, there are some worthy books that had to go unincluded (and that doesn't just go for debuts). Poetry-wise it was a pretty good year all around, more than enough for any single reader. [End Page 41]
One Ball-like first book was Emily Nilsen's Otolith, in part due to its approaching (though not matching) the poetic equation "less is more" as exemplified by Ball, in part because its "points of attention" (a phrase that turns up thrice in Certain Details) are often turned to the natural world. In Otolith ("ear stone"), however, we discover a beginning that resists the clarity we often assume we'll find outside ourselves. Isn't balance meant to be found somewhere in there, in here, the inner ear? Nilsen's is a world of fog and a world of work on the West Coast, in which fog is so pervasive as to take on many forms and figures: "Before a storm, its stench/was as though a wet mammoth/had shaken itself at the door"; "like an eclipse/of hungry moths." I read it in winter on the most opposite side of the country and it translated well. Nilsen works best incrementally, by returning to certain evocative questions – "And What of the Fog?," "have you seen the ghost?" – and by listing things ("Meanwhile" this, "Meanwhile" that), or many versions of...