Tracks: The Art and Times of Switchman Joe
Hagios Press / 23 December 2014

Tracks: The Art and Times of Switchman Joe by Joe Varro Published by Hagios Press Review by Keith Foster $25.95 ISBN 978-1-926710-31-0 Don’t be surprised if you hear Joe Varro humming “I’ve been Working on the Railroad.” He knows the tune by heart. In a series of vignettes from his memoirs, he relates some grand stories of his experiences as a switchman in the last glory days of steam engines in Saskatchewan. He started as a labourer in the Regina rail yards at age seventeen, but due to the manpower shortage of World War II, was promoted to switchman the next year. On his first assignment, as a nineteen-year-old greenhorn in 1945, he was in charge of two inexperienced switchmen. The assistant superintendent cautioned him that damaged stock could easily be replaced, but not arms or legs. Varro describes the dangers of his job, and the tragedies that can befall the careless or the unwary. After two fatal accidents in a space of eight weeks, he went home and prayed, realizing he could have been one of them. In 1949, Varro had a near-death experience himself. While crossing a set of tracks in the dark, he tripped, fell forward, and…

Hagios Press / 7 November 2014

Boy by Victor Enns Published Hagios Press Review by Regine Haensel $17.95 ISBN 978-1-926710-14-3 I first met Victor Enns when he was Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild, work which he did extremely well. With Boy, his fourth book of poetry, he shows more of his varied abilities, and tells us: “The Gretna yard is still the place I dream from” It is often a childhood place that holds us captive, helping to define our adult selves. Though Enns was born in Winnipeg, he grew up in Gretna, Manitoba. Currently, he works as Publishing and Arts Consultant for Manitoba Culture, Heritage, and Tourism. Enns attended the University of Manitoba, and was a founding board member of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild. The book contains haunting, humourous, and singing poems, some with a twist at the end that makes us see the world differently. It begins with the experiences of a toddler connecting with his mother, and progresses into the early teen years of peer friendship in the city of Winnipeg. We find the interconnections of family life with the singular experiences of one boy growing up. But these poems do more than merely evoke an idyllic prairie childhood. It is…

A Country Boy
Hagios Press / 25 July 2014

A Country Boy: From Sussex to the Canadian West by R.D. Symons Published by Hagios Press Review by Keith Foster $17.95 ISBN 978-1-926710-24-2 A Country Boy: From Sussex to the Canadian West is a memoir of an English lad transplanted to Saskatchewan, where he took root and flourished as a naturalist, author, and artist. Robert David Symons came by his artistic talent honestly – his father was a professional artist, and a critical one at that. He called his son’s first painting a “mess” and trampled on it “like one of Kipling’s elephants,” then showed the youngster the proper way to paint. Symons excels at detailed descriptions of prairie life, painting vivid pictures in the reader’s mind: “Coffee bubbled in a granite pot; on the well scrubbed cabinet big, brown loaves steamed, belly upward, cheek by jowl with fragrant pies.” With an artist’s eye, Symons describes one man who “possessed a tremendous acreage of gleaming teeth, and very dark eyebrows, like bits of moleskin pasted on.” His description of a prairie blizzard, resulting in 800 dead or dying cattle, is smack on. Symons enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I and in one particularly hot battle found…

Robert David Symons: Country Man
Hagios Press / 7 November 2013

Robert David Symons: Countryman: Artist, Writer, Naturalist, Rancher by Terry Fenton Published by Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery and Hagios Press Review by Keith Foster $25.95 ISBN 978-1-927516-03-4 As Robert Symons lay seriously ill in bed, a friend dropped by to check on him. Sweating profusely, Symons explained that he needed to finish reviewing the proofs for his forthcoming book because “I think I’m going to die tonight.” His friend remarked, “Boy, that’s what I call a deadline!” They both laughed so hard that Symons’ temperature dropped, his fever subsided, and the baffled doctors sent him home. This is one of the incidents related in Robert David Symons: Countryman, about a multi-talented man who was a naturalist, rancher, artist, and author of eleven books of natural life on the Prairies. Trevor Herriot, a Saskatchewan naturalist who knew Symons personally, introduces Terry Fenton’s text, which is almost a memoir or personal recollection. This is followed by a chronology by Heather Smith, curatorial director at the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery. An astute observer, Symons recorded his observations in both paint and words and illustrated his own books. He also painted many of the dioramas for the habitat exhibits in…

The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild
Hagios Press / 31 October 2013

The Survival Rate of Butterflies In The Wild by Murray Reiss Published by Hagios Press Reviewed by Jackie Blakely $17.95 ISBN 978-192671020-4 The Survival Rate of Butterflies In The Wild by Murray Reiss is a hauntingly beautiful book of poetry, influenced largely by Reiss’ childhood memories of his Jewish family’s struggles – not only with their new life in Canada, but with living with the knowledge that they survived the horrors of the holocaust in Poland, while family members perished. Sadness and an aching longing are sewn into the themes in Reiss’ poems. His work depicts the emptiness felt by his grief-riddled father, shown by the silence that existed in their relationship. This silence held the pain and guilt that Reiss’ father could not bear. Unanswered letters and postcards that never came are recurring themes that illustrate the profound sense of loss his father felt; but more dramatic still is the sense of Reiss’ shame at having survived at all. In the title poem, “The Survival Rate Of Butterflies In The Wild”, Reiss uses a walk through a butterfly park as an analogy to the life of a Jewish person, and in particular, his own life. Reiss writes of opting…

Hagios Press / 26 April 2013

Grid by Brenda Schmidt Published by Hagios Press Review by Justin Dittrick $17.95 ISBN 978-192671013-6 There is a moment in Brenda Schmidt’s latest collection of poems, in which the speaker invokes the melodious sing-along of nursery rhyme: Cinderella dressed in white Went downstairs to say goodnight. Made a blunder. Too far under. How many shovels make it right? “None”, the speaker interjects, “The going is slow, conditions poor, traffic/steady. There’s a shovel in every trunk.” In this poem, called “Too Far”, acute observation is combined with commentary that is, at times, humorous and, at other times, distressing. The verses are fragmented, while the images mutate from the wild into the mundane, as though the poem stands interrupted in the collection, as an abandoned nature documentary. Yet, still, it belongs, with a marvelous image of a window onto the world of the poem: “Where in hell/is the scraper? I use my nails./Through the scratch marks/the forest resembles a bit of parsley/left on the cutting board.” That poem feels like a digression, and a telling one. In Grid, moments are approached in their apparent stability only to be swept away in song rife with interruption and fresh stimuli, lending a new perspective….

Ducks on the Moon
Hagios Press / 16 January 2013

Ducks on the Moon by Kelley Jo Burke Published by Hagios Press Review by Regine Haensel $18.95 ISBN 978-1-926710-07-5 Ducks on the Moon takes the reader into a multi-media experience that is part one-woman play, part self-help book. Kelley Jo Burke is an award winning Regina playwright, poet, director, documentarian and broadcaster. She is also the parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder, a combination that makes for a readable, informative and emotionally engaging book. A few pages in, we are caught by a side note: “A flavor like mustard, if tolerated, can mask many tastes and textures that are sensorially unacceptable to the child.” This captures the strange, wonderful, and demanding world that parents and others must enter if they are to live with, love, and help a child with autism. Burke’s one woman play takes us through the emotional highs and lows of giving birth, of discovering something is different about this child, and then into the long process of getting a diagnosis. After that comes the frustration of trying to find help, and learning how to cope with a life that will never be normal. One of the parents says, “It’s got its ups and downs…

The History of Naming Cows
Hagios Press / 12 July 2012

The History of Naming Cows by Mitch Spray Published by Hagios Press Reviewed by Brinnameade Smith $17.95 ISBN 978-1-926710-15-0 The History of Naming Cows is one of the quirkiest titles for a poetry book that I’ve come across, but it’s a natural fit. It speaks to the tradition as well as the personal connection of farming and raising cattle on the prairies as found in the poetry. Many of the poems begin in childhood and describe the curiosity, wonder and contentment with farm life as well as bringing new life and brightness to seemingly mundane tasks. The objects and experiences that fascinate a child growing up on a farm aren’t the same as a city kid would have and the seemingly obvious points of interest are only touched on in this collection of poems, while hidden treasures and overlooked curiosities are brought to the forefront, showing a new perspective on prairie life. Some stories are also revisited in other poems placed at a different time where the cares and concerns of childhood are set parallel to those of adult life. The curiosity behind simple everyday tasks has been replaced with a calmness as they become routine. But with age also…

Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry
Hagios Press / 11 July 2012

Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry by Lorri Neilsen Glenn Published by Hagios Press Review by Kris Brandhagen $18.95 CAD 978-1-926710-11-2 Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry, is simmered to perfection; reading it wasn’t enough, I wanted to chew it, comprised as it is mostly of tender, slow-cooked self-reflexive prose, seasoned with poetry as earthy and rich as rosemary. A morsel of this work spends a moment in the mouth, red wine reduction keeps one licking the lips, and wanting another bite. This book presents to me, again, that we, in the prairies are our own flavour of people. Though our seat may seem insignificant, we are not; our lives are just as heated as those anywhere else. And we have visceral challenges. And we feel deeply. Neilsen Glenn’s writing, originally from the prairies, is browned by world experience and a fork-tender perspective. “A decade flies by. Children on bicycles… Jeffrey has kicked the dog and she isn’t moving… Allan collapses from a stroke in front of the stove, mumbling incoherently; paramedics and a babysitter are in the driveway. The next semester, and the next and next and next. Screams in the emergency room as…

The Cellophane Sky: jazz poems
Hagios Press / 9 July 2012

The Cellophane Sky: jazz poems by Jeff Park Published by Hagios Press Review by Chris Ewing-Weisz $17.95 978-1-926710-09-9 In the same way a jazz musician feels into the heart of a melody to improvise a free expression of its soul, Jeff Park in this collection of poems imagines the inner lives of the jazz greats, spinning onto the page their physical worlds, the emotional meanings of events in their lives, and the stories they told themselves about their place in the scheme of things. Meet Jelly Roll Morton as God, Billie Holiday as unwilling accomplice in her grandmother’s death, and Lester “Prez” Young as a lad on the streets of a New Orleans suburb, absorbing jazz along with the boat whistles and neighborhood arguments. Stay up all night in Paris with Duke Ellington. Get inside the skin of Mingus as he challenges racism. See, feel, taste, and smell their world. Many of these musicians experienced poverty, abuse, and racism. Music became a way to push back, to imagine and indeed to create a world “rising like a dream/from all that is broken” where, as Park writes of Mingus, “all would change, anything was possible.” Jazz aficionados and general readers alike…

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