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Book Reviews The latest in poetry: Ken Babstock’s meditations on surveillance and technology, plus the ‘best’ Canadian poems of 2014

Ken Babstock won the Griffin Prize in 2012 for his book Methodist Hatchet.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

On Malice by Ken Babstock, Coach House, 96 pages, $17.95

The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014 edited by Sonnet L'Abbé, Tightrope Books, 300 pages, $21.95

The first section of Ken Babstock's newest collection, On Malice, is called SIGINT. It's a sequence of jagged sonnets that "occur," according to Babstock's notes, in an abandoned NSA surveillance station sitting atop a man-made mountain of "massive quantities of postwar rubble" in Berlin. The poems also borrow language from Walter Benjamin's records of his young son's first words, and feature accounts of "imagine[d] collisions between light aircraft and common swifts in what would have been Soviet airspace."

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I'll give you a second to take all of that in. On Malice is by no means a simple book, but on first read, this section (the book's longest) is uniquely frustrating. The sonnets are compact, and there's a lot of context (imagined collisions?) to read into a relatively small amount of content. Take these lines, from late in the sequence: "A pretzel? No. An apple? Better. A brick?!/It would seem the most extremely/heightened anticipation appears//to diminish the capacity to imagine, which descends/ever deeper, it despairs of coming up//with a worthy object." These poems and their progression are propelled by an intricate internal logic, but if you come to them looking for a clear place to enter, you're doomed.

That said, the more time you spend with them, the more the landscape shifts into focus. It turns out the poems here aren't being deliberately difficult – they're just speaking to each other instead of you. You have to calm down and learn the language first. In SIGINT, certain words – presumably those of Benajmin's son's – flit through the sequence, and themes, too, start to glance in. There are animals, prayer, observation, a weirdly articulated longing. Suddenly the empty surveillance centre makes more sense; it's the perfect place for all this received language to ring out, grow, and double back on itself. The whole thing is less sequence than faulty echo.

Making my way though this book, I kept thinking of a few lines from a poem in Methodist Hatchet, Babstock's 2012 Griffin Prize-winning collection: "Oh, to be rid of the rash,/the rye, the redux, the relentless interiority!/No one occupies me like me. And no one//makes me lonelier." In light of On Malice, those lines don't just feel like a tossed-off truism; they're the seeds of a thesis. Much of this book sounds different from Methodist Hatchet (and from Babstock's other books): three of its four sections borrow their vocabularies either piecemeal or wholesale from other texts. SIGINT takes from Benjamin's journals, Perfect Blue Distant Objects from an essay by William Hazlitt, and Five Eyes from an essay by John Donne.

Explicitly, these poems are concerned with themes of surveillance, territory, history and government, but there's also the quieter question of perspective – how we're occupied and observed by ourselves and others – that Babstock investigates through the form of each section. By forcing these texts and his themes to speak for each other, he creates a voice that's neither his nor the original authors' – it's a whole new thing, entirely itself and unmoored in history, real creepy and diffuse. These poems aren't Babstock, or Benjamin, or Hazlitt, or Donne; they're their own, spoken by a chorus of ghosts and glitchy programs.

On Malice isn't a comforting book of poems, or an easy one – even its back-cover blurbs call it "brittle and hard." But if you're up to its challenges, it's a fascinating collection from a poet whose work grows more surprising with each new book. On Malice brings history, data, technology, growth and obsolescence together in strange new ways, and just as those themes demand your attention, these poems deserve it.

***

Calling yourself "The Best" literary anything always seems like the weirdest kind of hubris; this goes double for Canadian poetry, a field whose enthusiasts have more than enough energy to argue over semantics. Sonnet L'Abbé, the guest editor of this year's Best Canadian Poetry in English anthology, anticipates that skepticism, and the collection, which collects work from a diverse range of 50 poets, does a thoughtful and thorough job of answering it.

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L'Abbé's introductory essay explains that the "best" poems weren't simply the ones she liked most – instead, they're "the poems that have succeeded somehow spectacularly at their own game." The collection's strength comes from its commitment to this rule; no matter what your tastes, there some poems here you'll really like and some you won't, but overall, there's not much to argue about.

That might sound backhanded, but putting together a collection this relentlessly varied in form and content takes an insane amount of effort and discipline; you try combing through a year's worth of literary journals and coming up with a best-of list that transcends your own personal tastes. There's a good chance you couldn't (and neither, in a few previous years, could this series), but L'Abbé has done impressive work. The wide range of writers, forms and themes represented here make it a great jumping-off point for readers who might be interested in Canadian poetry but are unsure about where to start.

Emma Healey is the author of Begin With the End in Mind.

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