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Review: Kevin Connolly's Xiphoid Process, Linda Besner's Feel Happier in Nine Seconds and Gary Barwin's No TV for Woodpeckers

Feel Happier in Nine Seconds By Linda Besner

Globe and Mail Update

Xiphoid Process

By Kevin Connolly

House of Anansi, 88 pages, $19.95

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Feel Happier in Nine Seconds

By Linda Besner

Coach House Books, 88 pages, $18.95

No TV for Woodpeckers

By Gary Barwin

Wolsak and Wynn, 104 pages, $18

How do we relate to ourselves and our cultural past? What role do language and the senses play in our experience of the world? Inquiring minds want to know! Three new books by mid-career and veteran authors – let's call them the Crazy Canucks of poetry – employ zany language, humour and pathos to open up and examine these philosophical questions.

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Kevin Connolly's fifth book, Xiphoid Process, presents itself as a cohesive collection of individual poems about the wheeling mess and near futility of human existence. Poems are built out of rock lyrics, e-mails, quippy har-hars from stand-up comedy ("Hipster, I don't hate you because you're young, I hate you because you're you") and reworked poetry nuggets ("In the room the fat men come and go, talking of Ida Lupino"). But don't be fooled: These are tears of the clown. Within the seemingly random, wisecracking stream is a terrible sadness about growing older and a bleak apprehension of empty, predictable patterns in life and art.

… it's a short stumble from muse to groupie.

Waves are neither ornate nor plainspoken.

[…] Cue the shorebirds.

Many poems involve wry meta-thoughts ("Can't take a walk now after a rain without someone yelling, 'cliché!' "), which can be funny but frustrating for readers who want poems to just get on with the business of being poetry. The book's two middle sections – celebrity voice recordings put into line breaks, a redaction of Whitman's Song of Myself – are not to my taste (they lack wit) and there is a world of emotional weather that doesn't make it into Connolly's showroom. But over all, Xiphoid Process is charming, and when they work well, as in the title piece and the impressive final section, these poems are masterful elliptical meditations. Connolly's glum speaker has read too many poetry manuscripts ("Make your point as if it seems worth making"), fears artistic irrelevance ("Destiny's Child is yesterday's news, but someone's busy making Oreo portraits") and doubts his own DNA-worthiness ("Mate and you might pass the trouble on"). But these vulnerabilities – and the way he swims through a pleasant Hellespont of classic movies, nature documentaries and eighties rock – only make him more likeable and human. And when they happen, Connolly's poetic flights are short, beautiful and speak back to the darkness: "But is it so wrong to want? So terrible to love the rain? Beautiful as it always is."

*******

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Linda Besner's Feel Happier in Nine Seconds continues the idiosyncratic fireworks of her impressive debut The Id Kid.

Peak joy is at nine

times nine – saddle up, dear.

An asteroid of happiness

is blasting through

the atmosphere.

As with many rewarding poets, Besner speaks metaphorically, but long gone are the days of "like" or "as": When it's working well, everything in Besner's world is a metaphor. This can take some getting used to. Add to this staccato rhythms, oblique subjects, sardonic puns and a riptide of surreal perspectives, and readers can be left feeling blind and molested in an ocean of cold, salty language, like the speaker in Helen Keller Swimming, Smoking, Crying. But initial strangeness gives way to freedoms of tone and phrase few poets achieve, as in the brilliant Zouaviana:

Morning Glory, you're tapping

at my window. I get it, already,

I'll never be the winning trivia answer

with this pillow smothering

my greatness face.

The most memorable section of the book is a bejewelled, stately experiment called Magnetic Variations on One and Six. Superficially reminiscent of Christian Bok's Eunoia, individual letters are printed in full colour, following a synesthetic pattern. The beauty of the design makes this an instant collector's item, but what impresses more is the fervid, Arctic summer of entrancing language triggered by the formal constraint. This is brave art, raw not cooked, a pure pleasure to experience.

The emotional core of Feel Happier is a tension between the life of the serious (female) artist and the painful human consequences of melting relationships. Love disappoints or becomes a cheap trick, and the lovers who dot these poems are always getting some comeuppance, literal or otherwise. This tension could have been explored more, but perhaps it wasn't because, like Marianne Moore, Besner's mind launches out of a sublimated frustration with past and present toward (brief, quick-collapsing) linguistic utopias. Whatever the reason, the result is a fine, unfamiliar art.

*******

With almost two dozen titles to his name, Gary Barwin is a veteran of the Canadian publishing scene, but his new book of poems, No TV for Woodpeckers, is not his best work. The opening 20-page section called Needleminer lists names of animals found in and around Hamilton, where Barwin lives, and fuses them with a lexicon of body parts: "Refrain to the distalwolf, a thoracic minksong down and down the porcupine of ventral ectolight." I don't know what this means, but incomprehension is not a fatal flaw – this is poetry, after all, not a press release. What's lacking is a sense of urgency, shapeliness and a vision to transform the word-paste from poetic nonsense into luminous arcana. That's because, at heart, Barwin is a comedian, not a prophet, at his best when seriously clowning around:

it [the centaur] was wearing gloves and I said

"with those gloves, the centaur cannot hold"

and really, like Yeats said, things fall apart

but today reminded me: not everything

Barwin's creative process seems quick and breezy, and his poems resemble artful shopping lists, written and forgotten daily. Easy come, easy go. The ad-hoc aesthetic of Barwin and similar troubadours might be (apologies to Groucho Marx): Here are my poems, if you don't like them, I have others. The challenge for prolific Pierrots is not production, it's knowing what's worth publishing. In its best pieces (including Grip, In Memoriam, the eerie Autopsy, the intriguing Foot, Gaspar and a monologue called Alien Babies), Barwin yokes his clowns to a serious chariot and arrives somewhere unique and utterly surprising. But a more judicious selection would have made this a better book.

These poets demonstrate how skiing on the edge of language can produce great results and the occasional spill. Like the original Crazy Canucks, it's the fearlessness, as much as the finish, that sticks in the mind.

Derek Webster is the founding editor of Maisonneuve and author of the poetry collection Mockingbird.

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