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book review

The Corpses of the Future

By Lynn Crosbie,

House of Anansi, 143 pages, $19.95

Rag Cosmology

By Erin Robinsong,

BookThug, 96 pages, $18

The Corpses of the Future, Lynn Crosbie's new poetry collection, is both unswerving in honesty and high in impact. By distilling the blows dealt to the poet and her family through her father's frontotemporal dementia, this 140-page grief-song makes for a most dangerous and essential reading experience. At one point, a young Crosbie interjects: "Dad, why won't you get better?" But there is no coming back from Dad's bewildered place, a place Crosbie can "access only through the parole of dreams and poetry and lies."

Crosbie's works consistently reject perceived expectations, as with Liar, Life is About Losing Everything, and Queen Rat. In her latest, Crosbie lets language loose upon itself. She calls this book a conversation with her father, a way to better understand him in his changing relationship with language, family and life. But the discerning reader will find more: a burnishing of tragedy and confusion toward clarity. The collection's eponymous poem, for instance, much like the whole book, is a repository of the many ways that words contain a father's woundedness but, simultaneously, refuses the despair of the limits of language. Crosbie's father's jagged new language contributes to the book, a richness and humour that refine much of the tragedy contained within its pages.

The story of Douglas Crosbie's fall, the resulting brain bleed – which first-response doctors failed to detect and treat on time – wrenches. In The Doctors in Part, she writes that she wants to "bag them, and leave them on the curb with the expressed request that they never be returned/ that they burn in metal cans that old men abrade their hands over, elementally,/ having changed something worthless into bright, palliative fire." Here is Crosbie's brilliance even more defiant of categorization: the reader expects castigation and ends up finding astonishing grace.

Crosbie's grief is intimate and profound such that the book reads both like a final love letter and a devastating portrait of a stricken man – a father who, when younger, expressed his want for "peace and quiet for his birthday" and a "want to live like Napoleon/… exiled in silence on my Elba" (which was a boat in Curacao where the family once lived). You'd have to be half-dead or worse not to weep, rejoice and rage when the speakers of these poems take you to the edge and offer "some faint, still powerful memories, of love and mercy" as salve.

Erin Robinsong's Rag Cosmology is an ecstatic rumination on the primal and cosmic self, whose ecology is a crypt of language in a sound-scape donated by thinkers from Homer to Bernadette Mayer. The work of "words we're making as gifts" is an invitation for the reader to wander through a cosmology of fragments, toward furthering an intimacy with "the generous green" – six poems attempting to reveal a place where "everything felt possible." Part of Robinsong's wonder is how seamlessly she involves the reader in this "anthology of dreams" without taking to the pulpit. Here, the poems tend to do as they please – some contained by the traditional poetic line are clear in their engagement with a vast lineage of eco-poetics, while others that enact the very human-world interactions of Robinsong's obsessions are scattered about the page, both belligerent and inevitable.

This debut explores an intimacy of ecological identities as wild, sensual and rhythmic as the cosmos. Our species' troubled relationship with our "landlocked […] inventory" seems to curse at common human impulses to build "an empire in the/ bodies/ of everything." The speakers in these poems are desperate to be anywhere long enough for things to "not lose their value as they will […] a wealth without end." Yet, Robinsong's performance of poetry lets us move like air or water taking stock of the many ways we centre ourselves. Poems such as Polygon 4357632 riff on the word "wood" in a dizzying performance of deforestation producing a kind of negotiated disaster. One can also read this discomfort, not at an extremity but as a willful commemoration of something that, once lost, becomes unrecognizable.

Rag Cosmology 's playful lines vacillate from jazz to blues to ballad and the beats: a hot-tempered, always erotic and unexpected shuffle. Many poems echo innovators like Saul Williams. All of this is helped by her lively diction to create a radical reading experience. Concrete poems litter intermittent pages like debris on bodies of water. Still, phrases like "crimson craftsman" referring to clouds undercut the urgency of some poems, especially against lines like "a rough place/ holds/ all possible help/ trained as leaves and flowers." Robinsong's trail through her Rag Cosmology is still in the faith of a chaotic universe where "any forest can be made to march," and it is through this rogue voice that the reader is invited to move past "lighting ourselves on fire" into Robinsong's "photographic mouth," which reminds: "actually, you die into life."

Both collections catalogue personal and common displacement, and both bond variously with time, love and loss, the limits of language to contain life. Yet, if the reader is willing to dare, what is found in these pages can offer up new frontiers for the self.

Canisia Lubrin's first collection of poems, Voodoo Hypothesis, will be published this fall.

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