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(David Ellingsen)
(David Ellingsen)

The Daily Review, Thursday, July 23

How do you like your poetry? Add to ...

Reviewed here: Curio: Grotesques & Satires from the Electronic Age, by Elizabeth Bachinsky; Asking Questions Indoors and Out, by Anne Compton

I am fond of a particular Czeslaw Milosz quote: "The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person."

One only has to skim the press copy for Elizabeth Bachinsky's re-released first volume, Curio: Grotesques & Satires from the Electronic Age , to note she can be more than one type of poet. She can roll with conventional poetic forms and the "retro avant garde" - whatever those terms actually mean when you get right down to it. With this volume, Bachinsky proves herself to be a versatile, skilled poet unafraid to shake things up.

  • Curio: Grotesques & Satires from the Electronic Age, by Elizabeth Bachinsky, BookThug, 107 pages, $20


For fans of her collection Home of Sudden Service, Curio is several cha-cha steps in the opposite poetic direction but contains the same sharp intelligence and sense of audacious whimsy. Both books were composed simultaneously, released with different publishers within six months of one another. Curio has now been re-released with a larger print run, a striking new cover and an essay by K. Silem Mohammad in praise of her poem Lead the Wants, the anagrammatic reconfiguring of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

For example, Bachinsky's first line is: "Brilliant duel them corset her penis," The original line being, "April is the cruelest month, breeding ..." It only gets weirder from there.

The back-cover copy on Curio explains the book was originally released prior to Home of Sudden Service, "a collection that went so far in the other direction as to be nominated for a Governor-General's Award." This reads like a bit of an odd, back-handed compliment. In fact, the first sentence of the press release is, "Tired of the same old Can Lit?" The translation seems to be: She's capable of more than the usual humdrum narrative work that is traditionally praised in Canada by awards juries.

Bachinsky's work, with its myriad of influences ranging from Eliot - considered quite experimental in his time - to Lisa Robertson, is able to rise above the boring drone of the avant-garde-versus-traditional debates. Her work can straddle both sides: formal and experimental, personal and mathematical, with a keen ear for the erotically ridiculous.

The poems in Curio utilize found text, anagrams of famous poems and work within a variety of formal constraints. The result is often surprising, sexy and bizarre. The Secret Diaries of Antonin Artaud, for example, is a series of imagined journal entries, letters and a particularly hilarious dialogue between Antonin and his lover E., who may or not may not be the imagined author.

Curio is a mixed bag - think Weird Al meets Peaches meets Diamanda Galás - and is not for the linear reader. You can't read it like a grocery list, but then, you're not supposed to. A few pieces may be too dense for some to appreciate; others would make any reader laugh out loud for their sonic audacity, despite their lack of adherence to conventional syntax.

If your tastes run to the more conventional, Anne Compton, winner of a Governor-General's Award for poetry, offers up her third collection, Asking Questions Indoors and Out. Compton is a narrative poet, and perhaps a nature poet, and her long lines are concerned mostly with asking questions and observing life, revealing themselves through images of the natural world and constructions of home. She has a natural, meditative voice, invoking memory and emotion, telling stories through imagery.



  • Asking Questions Indoors and Out, by Anne Compton, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 77 pages, $15

Poems featuring gardens, bodies of water, plants and trees are numerous, from "Talk on the hill was all about trees," in the second poem, to "fields of grain composing a plainsong" and "the vulgar confidence of the perennial." The images are often striking and unexpected.

A few poems are a little too imagery-laden for my taste, weighing down the page with what could pass for sentiment. Other times, the language is precise and the rhythm spectacular, showing imaginative and metaphorical range. My favourite poem, The Summer Storm, includes the following passage:

the body turning over in sleep imitates the grace of pond fish - a movement that moves through, or momentarily above, water - the arc of it in tomorrow's sunshine, a last good thought on the fly

If Bachinsky's Curio is an absinthe milkshake, Compton's third collection is more along the lines of tea brewed from a homegrown hodgepodge of herbs. Both will likely be appreciated by poetry enthusiasts for their well-established compositional skill and occasional hallucinatory joy.

Zoe Whittall's latest poetry collection is called Precordial Thump.

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