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Garth Martens (Handout)
Garth Martens (Handout)

Russell Smith: On Culture

A glimpse of poetry, thanks to a slim pamphlet Add to ...

Books of poetry are still published, regularly, by small presses, and some occasionally sold in bookstores: You will find them on five narrow shelves on the fourth floor or in the basement, behind Romance and the boxes of packed books destined for Mental Health. You are unlikely to see them on the front tables. So for most of us, new books of poetry are not part of daily expectation, as is the torrent of news from Islamabad and Pitchfork. Poetry is something we happen upon: It comes at us between articles in The New Yorker or on the odd nationalistic poster on the bus. It has come to take on the role - quite a pleasant role, actually, for most of us - of an unexpected moment of contemplation on one's way somewhere else.

Which is why I am so thrilled by a pamphlet recently published by the Writers' Trust of Canada, a few pages of prize-winning poetry, all by unknown young talent, showing, in an easily digestible package - a package worth an hour of escape in your day - what kind of things poets are doing at the moment.

The Writers' Trust is an organization that raises money for literary prizes and grants. With its corporate sponsor the RBC it administers an annual prize for young, unpublished writers, called the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. The prize is named after a poet who died young in 1989, and is given to a writer under 35 who has not yet published in book form. The prize is given to fiction writers and poets in alternating years. The idea behind rewarding the young is to help them get agents and publishing contracts. The winner gets $5,000, the two runners-up $1,000 each. The jury is made up of three published poets (this year it was Kate Braid, Gail Harris and Robert Priest).

The three finalists this year all, by coincidence, live in British Columbia. We know that it was a coincidence because the judging was done "blind" (the names and histories of the applicants were not shown to the jury). Last year, when the prize was given for fiction, all the finalists happened to live east of the Prairies. But one might say the geographic thread among the poets is also sort of not a coincidence, as B.C. is for some reason - probably all the intense creative-writing programs at universities there - a hothouse of Canadian poetry.

This year's winner is 28-year-old Garth Martens from Victoria. His poetry is gloriously dense, not prosy - even when it's written as prose. It's poetry as concentrated language, a play of sound and allusion that's frequently right on the edge of conventional meaning: Its deliberate ambiguities can dissolve into a sparkle of fragments, darting in all directions, as here: "Googling the gloss, the Teflon-/ photographic/ ping..." Googling the gloss is more about sound than meaning, and that's okay: If poetry were easily translatable it would have no reason to exist.

And it can be tough to read aloud, like a tongue-twister, with its thickets of clicking consonants: " He could hear the hammer's hook, its wrench and reach."

Martens's work is also interesting because of its focus on manual labour and machinery, the emotions of object-related work, rather than on the tired thematic troika (family-memory-loss) that so deadens so many of our books. Martens has worked in construction and his writing is a kind of ode to work. His aching poem Leathering, about a lonely migrant worker, ends with the stunning image, "If he could reach he'd pull/ every twisted star with a hammer."

The two runners-up make thrilling reading as well: Raoul Fernandes, a more straightforward writer stylistically, wrings surprising emotion from everyday images: "She's out into the late dusk, heavily editing the garden." Anne-Marie Turza, the most cryptic of the group, was nominated for a suite of mysterious paragraphs, each describing a different kind of quiet. ("the eye looking through darkness into a far-off eye, or lunar shadow: eye, shadow.")

Each of the excerpts made public by the Writers' Trust is a refreshing reminder that there is poetry, serious poetry, beyond the deceptive propaganda of "spoken word" (a code word for prose read aloud with a certain intonation), and also that the nation's young people are quietly brilliant. You can order a copy of the pamphlet at www.writerstrust.com.

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