Red Obsidian

Red Obsidianby Stephan TorrePublished by University of Regina PressReview by Shelley A. Leedahl$19.95 ISBN 9-780889-777750 Effective poetry is difficult to write. That’s the bottomline, and it’s why I’m so excited about the polished and effectual work inside BC poet Stephan Torre’s Red Obsidian, a recent collection of “New and Selected Poems” (selected from Man Living on a Side Creek and Iron Fever). Perhaps it’s no small coincidence that this latest book was edited by Randy Lundy, who’s also published in the press’s Oksana Poetry & Poetics Book Series, and whose work I greatly admire: both writers construct poems that radiate with energy. Torre’s poems straddle the contentious fence between industry and environmentalism. They’re filled with the vernacular of tree-felling and farming; of the beautiful, raw and disappearing landscapes he’s called home along the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the US; and with the birds, fish and animals he’s shared these wild rural and coastal locales with. He laments the capitalistic fervour that reduces shorelines to realtors’ signs, and though he’s lived mostly off-grid, he ponders his own part in it, ie: how he “drove deeper, and drove away/antelope and eagles from their spring nesting,/eager to rip up sage and greasewood,…

University of Regina Press / 22 September 2020

Burdenby Douglas Burnet SmithPublished by University of Regina PressReview by Shelley A. Leedahl$19.95 (softcover) ISBN 9-780889-777729 In award-winning Canadian poet Douglas Burnet Smith’s seventeenth collection, Burden – a sparely-written account of a distant cousin’s World War I experience – I often found myself wincing. This visceral reaction’s a testament to the efficacy of the Governor General-nominated poet’s precisely-chosen words; to the bone and spirit-shattering power of war; and to this harrowing, personal story that wields the force of a novel in just fifty-nine taut pages. The title, Burden, alludes to the seventeen-year-old British soldier, Private Herbert Burden, whom the poet’s relative, Lance Corporal Reginald Smith, befriended and fought alongside; to the permanent weight of war on one’s psyche; and to Reg Smith’s personal burden of being one of the ten soldiers who killed Burden – a deserter suffering from PTSD – upon firing squad order. The first four poems, written in couplets and each several pages long, are delivered from Reg Smith’s point of view from the war field or from a hospital in England or Scotland, while the final poem, “Herbert Burden,” is a one-pager told from the deserter’s perspective – almost one hundred years after his death – at…

Field Notes for the Self
University of Regina Press / 17 April 2020

Field Notes for the SelfPublished by University of Regina Pressby Randy LundyReview by gillian harding-russell $19.95 ISBN 978089776913 In Field Notes for the Self, Randy Lundy – a Barren Lands Cree originally from northern Manitoba but currently residing in Saskatchewan – writes meditations that embrace the landscape, memory and the ever-changing self. Most often in prose-poem style, the long, sinuous verses carry though along a difficult passage where bright and often homely or humorous images catch the light of truth and recognition in the reader’s mind. As the speaker lives with his dogs on an acreage in Pense SK, a rhythm to the seasons and a feeling of expectation (or its counterpart, disillusion) carry the poems towards discovery in the presence of nature. These meditations reflect not only what it is to be First Nation with a heightened burden of memory but also emphasize how difficult it is simply to be human.       Characteristically, an ease and conversational flow lightens these verses, with recurring bursts of clarity and insight, such as come through with simplicity and force in the poem, “In Autumn, Blackbirds”: Yes, the blackbirds are doing it again. Somewhere beyond the horizon’s what they have dreamed for an entire season….

Vivian Poems
Radiant Press / 17 April 2020

The Vivian Poems: Street Photographer Vivian Maierby Bruce RicePublished by Radiant PressReview by Shelley A. Leedahl$20.00  ISBN 9-781989-274293 Choosing a subject most readers will be unfamiliar with is a risky undertaking for a poet. Will readers care about a subject they don’t know? Has enough research been done? Will the poet sufficiently engage his or her audience with this new literary territory? Regarding Bruce Rice’s The Vivian Poems: Street Photographer Vivian Maier, I say Yes, Yes, and Yes. Rice is Saskatchewan’s Poet Laureate, and this poetic portrait of Chicago photographer Vivian Maier (d. 2009) – whom Rice first learned of via CBC Radio – is the Regina writer’s sixth poetry collection. Maier, his “obsessively private” subject, was employed as a nanny, shot diverse subjects, and died poor, leaving a “legacy of 140,000 black and white negatives, prints, undeveloped rolls of colour film, Super 8 films, and audio recordings” that would later inspire several books, documentaries and “over 60 international exhibits”. Clearly, Rice – who’s frequently inspired by art – found an intriguing subject. He credits many – including the Saskatchewan Arts Board, re: funding his research trip to Chicago – for assistance in bringing this title to fruition.  I was…

Vivian Poems, The
Radiant Press / 25 March 2020

The Vivian Poems: Street Photographer Vivian Maierby Bruce Rice Published by Radiant PressReview by gillian harding-russell $20.00 ISBN 9781989274293 Through The Vivian Poems, Bruce Rice creates a vital portrait of the “mystery nanny” who was also a gifted New York City and Chicago street photographer between the 1950’s and 70’s (until her death in 2007). By entering into her point of view, telescoping through her eye and adopting her persona and voice, Rice lures us into her way of seeing and thinking. By turns, we see the photographer as she was perceived by others, through her opinions as drawn from personal writings and through her street photographs which typically capture people in poses that reflect human moments of indecision. Although some of the poems may be termed ekphrastic, Rice in seeing through the artist’s eyes may also be said to project himself into his own poems, and in so doing, he leaves room for self-discovery inside us all.      What better way to open the collection than with Vivian’s voice to introduce herself in “Vivian Writes Her Own Prologue.” In this elegantly choreographed poem, we see through the child, Vivian’s eyes when she stays with her mother, a single parent, at a friend’s…

Field Notes for the Self
University of Regina Press / 25 March 2020

Field Notes for the Selfby Randy LundyPublished by University of Regina PressReview by Shelley A. Leedahl$19.95 ISBN 9-780889-776913 It’s official: Saskatchewan’s Randy Lundy is one of my favourite Canadian poets. His last collection, Blackbird Song, fueled my fandom for this erudite writer, but the recently-released Field Notes for the Self has secured it. This is a poet at the top of his game: one doesn’t so much read this new collection of mostly prose poems as she experiences it. This is Lundy’s magic: although the title indicates that these are works “for the Self” – and the second person “You” (the narrator) is addressed throughout – I felt these contemplative works so viscerally it was as if they were articulating my own intimate thoughts and practices. Move over, Mary Oliver.   In Blackbird Song, many poems spun on the word thinking, and in this handsome new volume, knowing is central. Lundy writes: “you know you know the song, but nothing is clear to you anymore,” “Your heart knows and holds the key – meditate, live purely, do your work, be quiet,” and “You know that you almost know, and you know that is as close as you will get.”  There’s a…

Beautiful Stone, A
Radiant Press / 20 November 2019

A Beautiful Stone: Poems and Ululationsby Lynda Monahan and Rod ThompsonPublished by Radiant PressReview by gillian harding-russell$20.00 IBSN 9781989274200 A Beautiful Stone is a unique collection of poems written collaboratively by Lynda Monahan and Rod Thompson. At the Radiant launch, Lynda explained their creative method whereby the two poets took turns editing a virtual copy of poems over the internet and, in this way, the poems like stones in a stream were shaped by the combined experiences of both writers ( Lynda lives in Prince Albert and Rod lives “west of the city in the woods” according to his author bio). Lynda’s rationale for their chosen method was that they had both shared common experiences, such as the loss of a father, and so she hoped by interweaving the best of the images from two minds they could together create a seamless poem that had a greater universal appeal. As a past writer-in-residence for the John M. Cuelenaere Library in Prince Albert, Monahan strongly supports the idea of art as therapy for life’s downfalls. The collection is divided into a trinity of sections: “Choice of Light,” “Loon and I,” and “Ululation.” The first section introduces a mature speaker whose chosen…

Live Ones
University of Regina Press / 6 September 2019

Live Onesby Sadie McCarneyPublished by University of Regina PressReview by Shelley A. Leedahl$19.95 ISBN 9-780889-776500 I’ve reviewed hundreds of books over the decades, and have developed a kind of ritual before I read a single word of the text proper. Today Charlottetown poet Sadie McCarney’s first book, Live Ones, is under inspection. A book is a reverent thing. Firstly, I turn it in my hands, and study the front and back covers. McCarney’s slim cream-coloured volume is adorned with a small purple graphic, Winged Skull / Memento Mori, by artist Susan Crawford. What does this image suggest about the poems? There will be sorrow – quite possibly death – addressed within these pages. I flip to the back, read the publisher’s blurb, any other blurbs (usually provided by accomplished writers), and biographical notes about the author. Here I learn that McCarney’s book “grapples with mourning, coming of age, and queer identity against the backdrop of rural and small-town Atlantic Canada.” First books often cast a wide net. Next I check the author’s birth year (just curious), if available; her Acknowledgments (where these poems previously appeared – impressive); and finally, I scan the individual titles in the Contents. Titles interest me….

Forty-One Pages
University of Regina Press / 10 April 2019

“Forty-One Pages: On Poetry, Language and Wilderness”by John Steffler Published by University of Regina Press Reviewed by Toby A. Welch $21.95 ISBN 9780889775879 I have a confession to make: this Forty-One Pages intimidated me. After finishing the introduction, I shook my head. I could not have put into words the gist of what I’d read. I took a breath and dove back in. I was rewarded with a glimpse into a completely different way of looking at writing and language. I felt like an alien whose ship touched down on the Saskatchewan prairies – discombobulated yet awestruck. The entire book continued in this vein. It challenged ideals I’d never questioned before, opening my eyes to a multitude of previously unthought-of possibilities. Even though I am a writer, I’ve never given as much thought to writing and language as I did while devouring this book. Steffler delves deeply into those themes from all directions. The history of language and the history of words are covered in detail. He even compares the parallels between writing and photography, between the camera and language. Engaging with words on a page is a theme that runs throughout the book. It is an enormous thought, especially…

For the Changing Moon
Thistledown Press / 10 January 2019

For the Changing Moon by Anna Marie Sewell Published by Thistledown Press Review by Shelley A. Leedahl $20.00 ISBN 978-1-77187-168-6 I’d been looking forward to multi-disciplinary artist Anna Marie Sewell’s second poetry collection, For the Changing Moon. She’d impressed with her debut, Fifth World Drum, and in her capacity as Edmonton’s poet laureate, I once observed her deliver an outstanding performance poem she’d created on the spot, based on a few words provided by the audience. It was a kind of magic few possess. In Sewell’s newly-released collection of poems (and songs) we again find an assured and original voice, and the kind of literary abracadabra (ie: superb use of linebreaks) only a skilled writer can pull off. “We are in large part composed of slanting/sun” she writes in “The Mortal Summer”. Sometimes playful, sometimes prayerful, sometimes angry, sometimes tinged with grief (particularly for lost family members and for injustices suffered by First Peoples and the impoverished) or inspired by legend, these eclectic pieces prove that Sewell knows her way around language, the map, and the moon. Each of the book’s five sections contains a kind of moon, ie: “Moon of Wolves,” and among my favourite poems is “Kinds of…