John Donlan & The Dames by Judith Fitzgerald

Spirit Engine
By John Donlan

What if red ran out
By Katia Grubisic

Daughters of Men
By Brenda Leifso

Late Nights With Wild Cowboys
By Johanna Skibsrud

If poetry eases the anguish of the actual, a trio of high-flying (yet decidedly uneven) débuts from Canadian dames may satisfy readers seeking solace in the (sometimes) sublime. (On the other hand, John Donlan’s accomplished Spirit Engine, without a doubt one of the finest collections created in this country, most assuredly will.)

Consider Torontonian Johanna Skibsrud’s Late Nights With Wild Cowboys, a lovingly produced volume containing five wide-ranging sequences featuring an arresting fusion of interior mindscape and exterior landscape. The collection’s title poem falls short of its promising premise in lieu of delivering little more than an adolescent adventure story in verse. Variously situated in Montana, Idaho, and the poet’s home province, Nova Scotia, these sketches do offer readers a handful of mild cowboys plus that requisite horse; but, its grand somnambulance tends to induce the snooze.

More typically, three “Suburban Dream” poems, with predictable images of barbeques, badminton nets, or book-club meetings with little to redeem its banality, dominates. One waits and hopes for some kind of paradoxical twist, some passionate skewing of the pedestrian; alas, such a transformation does not come to pass. The second of “Two Nova Scotia Road Sign Poems,” subtitled “Eureka, Nova Scotia, A Saturday drive,” fairly represents this nillogical affliction:

Were I to return I would be the sort to
take the car out on the weekends and have
small revelations on the road.

Go home and be
bored sometimes, on a long afternoon.

The book’s initial poem, “I’d be a Hopper Painting,” playfully projects the narrator’s perspective into objects and landmarks in the American artist’s work, suggestively implying an illuminating Hopperesque treatment of the author’s subjects will surface; unfortunately, Skibsrud languishes in the ordinary sans the transformative magic, music, and extraordinary light Hopper unfailingly brought to his brilliant canvases. Then, there’s the questionable inclusion of a weak-kneed fear-and-loathing On the Road perspective that raises hopes in poems such as “If I’m to Have Loneliness”:

If I’m to have loneliness let it be American loneliness. Let it be the
empty road, the blinking signs of the highway.

The twenty-four hour kind. The big paned
windowed kind. Of waiting rooms.
Of all black nights.

The poem fades, a howl of stranded words lacking the passion required to deliver it from the utter isolation of text so porous a prosaic wind blows right through it (and its ubiquitous tumble of Is).

“A Good Beginning” does poetential duty in its glimmers of insight capturing a child’s perspective although, even here, it flirts far too cosily with the maudlin. Still, there’s a quietly restrained beauty pervading a number of these pieces, particularly “Noon,” for example:

Oh, we treasured those days, when my
grandmother was still alive! Before she began her
move away—to

smaller, and smaller, and more
          practical houses, and all of her

extraordinary things began their slow

Katia Grubisic’s What if red ran out, although denser and much richer in tonality, shares Skibsrud’s preoccupations. Firstly, there’s the inevitable atmospheric bifurcation of city and country (and their respective textures and shadings); secondly, granting emotional sprawl priority over formal constraint and structure, including, above all else, acknowledgement of the efficacy of enjambment judiciously employed — in the case of both writers — deflates consistency and leads to a disappointing diffusion of purpose.

With Ontario-born Montréaler Grubisic, however, readers are seduced with several intriguing titles including “Loose Rope Tantrum,” “A Hyena at the Bodega,” “Prelude to Jumping in the River,” and “Love Song for the End of the World” (in a volume divided into four discrete sections).

Eclectic subjects in cryptic combination embellish the music and colour of Grubisic’s work. A number of often surrealistic segues propel the reader through a panoply of subjects from birds to bodies to bladderwort to Brahms. The poem “Talking like Stones in the Night Zoo,” for example, moves the reader from day to night to “The American Dream” within two dozen lines (complete with an ending which lights up with burning bridges). “Strawberry Jam” and “The Time of Figs” constitute a couple of food poems both rich and whimsical while moving at the same time.

Some among these poems blend the trivial and the profound in an engaging fashion. Part way through “Preemptive Fieldnotes” — cf. Don McKay or Robert Kroetsch territory — readers discover the following:

You can see for yourself. The heaviest
hearts are the first to go, no matter
what you’ve heard about bricks

and feathers. What if the world is a slide
and its gentle slope
a misrepresentation? We are tired of dreaming

of gods. We want at least a lack
to pin us. Maybe it’s a phase, a prelude
to gentleness, a way of saying I will be

sorry. The concatenation of apologies
will loosen, give way to a veritable fiesta
of atonement, to screams like a thousand lucky

unlucky pennies screeching to the bottom,
their pantomimed shadows thrown
. . .

Others, such as “Song of my Old Lead Pipes,” simply lose their way, not unlike an intractable jazz riff gone astray. As for the answer to the question posed by the book’s title? Perhaps it lies within Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red or Mary Dalton’s Red Ledger? (Hope springs . . ..)

“The Theban Women, a play in verse,” comprising the centrepiece of Albertan Brenda Leifso’s Daughters of Men, puts one in mind of Sharon Thesen’s provenance or associations and reveals, simultaneously, its inherent weaknesses, particularly when aligned with Thesen’s own thrilling début, Artemis Hates Romance (1980). The play finds itself awkwardly bracketed by two brief yet annoyingly disjointed thematic entries. “Tangible Evidence,” the first of these, consists primarily of childhood reminiscences. Although each piece deals with similar “issues,” some are striking and evocative while others are faintly sentimental, complete with warm and fuzzy garden-variety farm-family memories. These are tailed by a handful of segments that shift abruptly in timbre and tone (in keeping with The Bacchae‘s thrust, one supposes). “Poor Thing,” gripping and gruesome, successfully summons up a completely separate, stark, and chilling universe:

You should know this story
because you never know
if it might happen to you
if you are raped by your brothers
kicked down icy steps by your mother
and find yourself wandering night-crusted streets
to get yourself a man with cash and a leather-warm car . . .

I know this story. You know
this story, know it inside
your clean-pecked,
carrion bones.

The second brief section, “Collect,” which follows the play, similarly contains a peculiar admixture of material as the first (along with moments touching, powerful, and bromidic by turns). Accordingly, it shares the former’s weakness, colouring the play in between unfavourably, impairing its coherence, and ultimately suggesting Leifso’s admirable abilities, had they been given more breathing space and time to ripen, might have produced a first-rate work the quality of, say, Vancouverite John Donlan’s exquisitely achieved Spirit Engine, containing the following unforgettable set of lines (among many memorables far too numerous to mention):

The river’s plump today,
sister I never had, always leaving —
why tot up a life’s balance of feelings
valid only on the day of issue?

If I just lay on the couch all day
wrapped in my mum’s old Afghan
and watched the rain slip off the shining leaves,
soaking the earth, bound for the open ocean,

I’d miss you terribly.
I do anyway.
. . .
(“With My Head On Upside Down”)

An Almaguin Highlands resident, award-winning Canadian poet, critic, and cultural commentarian Judith Fitzgerald recently completed the universally celebrated Adagios Quartet (which she began a decade ago).