1075 Canadian poems, carefully chosen

Best Canadian Poetry, 2019
by Rob Taylor (editor)

Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2019
$22.95  /  9781771963305

Reviewed by P.W. Bridgman

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The book under review being an anthology (and a “Best of…” one at that), kindly permit this reviewer a brief prolegomenon on the subject of assembling anthologies—an often-fraught enterprise.

To the properly humble among us, the remit of the anthologist is positively daunting. Whether what is gathered up ultimately for presentation between two covers is poetry, fiction, or writing in some other form, the anthologist must in the end function as a kind of gatekeeper. Some work gains acceptance and, thus, passes through the gate; other work does not and is excluded. What governs such decision-making is necessarily multi-factorial.

There is, of course, old-fashioned (and quintessentially subjective and individual) literary and aesthetic judgment at play. That, surely, must always be at the centre of the selection process. But there are also informal expectations to fulfil—about representativeness and inclusivity for example.

The anthologist does not undertake the selection process “blind” (as, generally, editors of small magazines do); rather, when making selections, the anthologist knows the identities of the authors of the various works under consideration and the provenance of those works. The anthologist must therefore cope with reputation as a potentially confounding variable and strive to manage the distorting effects it can have on a process of selection which, ideally, ought not be responsive to a writer’s past record but rather only to the merits of the specific work under consideration.

Anyone game enough to accept the challenge of serving as an anthologist must juggle all of these factors knowing that the composition of the end-product will reflect choices that some will likely question—particularly where (as here) the word “Best” figures in the anthology’s title. Being an anthologist, therefore, is not for the faint of heart. That said, the power and responsibility that comes with the role may present the big-headed and the immodest with a great temptation. The opportunity, after taking on the anthologist’s mantle, to survey the writings of one’s peers and then declare, ex cathedra, a select few to be the “best” written during a particular time is an awe-inspiring one that some megalomaniacs may not be able to resist.

Risks, risks, everywhere!

Editor Rob Taylor of Port Moody

But do not fear. In the case of Best Canadian Poetry, 2019, publisher Biblioasis has chosen well in making Rob Taylor its anthologist. Though comparatively young, he is already justly seen as a seasoned veteran within the Canadian poetry scene. He is a highly respected poet in his own right, and a respected teacher of poetry and poetics too. He has undertaken unique and important side projects, including the illuminating What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Nightwood Editions, 2018). But—and in light of what has been said to this point, this is important—we need not be concerned at all about his humility. In taking on the responsibility for being arbiter/curator of what passes through the gate and features in Best Canadian Poetry, 2019, Taylor clearly thought the project through, fully. He claims no overarchingly superior powers of discernment. Despite his irreproachable credentials, he plainly accepted the role and responsibilities of guest editor of a “Best of…” anthology with no delusions of god-like insight or a kingmaker’s mandate. In his Introduction (charmingly entitled “A String of Devotions”) he goes so far as to refer to “Best Canadian Poetry, 2019” as being a “silly title.” He continues:

If [the title] helped you pick up the book and flip through it, then kudos to the marketers. Now that you’re here, let’s set that name aside. It really has little to do with what you’ll find in the book, or in the editions that preceded it (the one thing that unifies all art deemed “The Best” is the adjudicator’s delusion). What you’ll discover instead are fifty poems one dewy-browed editor happened to like a good deal and which you will hopefully enjoy as well….

While there will be more said in this review about ancillary content in Best Canadian Poetry, 2019 (there’s too much of it), Taylor’s own Introduction is essential reading. He has thought as deeply about the selection process in anthology-building as anyone this reviewer has ever read on the subject. He is astute, for example, to the fact that poems which are dependent upon the context afforded by other poems contiguous to them (in a suite or full volume for example) are at a disadvantage for inclusion in an anthology built on a one-poem-per-contributor scaffold. As he puts it in his Introduction, such poems “…wither in mixed company” because the reader is denied the ability to witness the “accrual of a common style, meaning or momentum” that is visible when such poems are read together. Taylor has brought enviable subtlety of mind to this assignment. Similarly, he has not shrunk from going on record in his Introduction with concerns about, for example, the pervasive retreat from poetic form that is visible in Canadian poetry in these times (where topical content seems generally to rule). Again, in his words:

Where poems used to fail through incomprehension, they now fail through tedious transparency. The ear becomes drowsy, and the mind follows….

Gary Geddes, 2015

Of course, as readers, we will not always agree with any anthologist’s choices. That is true here as well. There are poems “out there” that some will think ought to have been included in Best Canadian Poetry, 2019 and others whose inclusion will provoke a “Huh?” response. But this, surely, is to be expected. It is certainly expected by Taylor himself. He is therefore rightly troubled by the inclusion of the word “Best” in the anthology’s title. But what is beyond any doubt is that Taylor has brought deep, careful and above all insightful judgment to the choices he has made—perhaps more thought than any Canadian anthologist since Gary Geddes gave us his foundational 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics back in 1969. Because he has done so, we must be thankful that Biblioasis put the challenging anthology-building assignment in Taylor’s capable yet humble and diffident hands.

This anthology is to be commended for its depth and breadth. Important issues of the day receive the attention they are due. The talent and contributions of a culturally diverse community of poets are made readily accessible in a single volume. The book does seem to provide a representative snapshot of what Canadian poets were writing in the small magazines at the time in question. Established poets appear alongside up-and-comers. In all, it is a rich tapestry that is revealed between the covers of the anthology that Taylor has laboured so hard to build.

Each of the 50 included poets has contributed, as noted above, a single poem. There is pleasing variety and texture and the quality, overall, is high. Like Taylor himself, this reviewer would have preferred to see more work that showed a willingness to engage fully with form. But there still persists in modern Canadian poetry a tendency to worship at the altar of free verse and skirt around form in the belief that it operates only as an unwelcome shackle or constraint. Thus, there was not much other than free verse for Taylor to draw from. True, form does impose limitations, but the discipline it requires of the poet produces many of its own miracles, not to mention serendipitous twists and turns that would never have come to mind but for a requirement that a particular line end with a word that rhymes with “orange,” for example. Paul Muldoon said it well when he observed that “Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini.”

As is the case when reviewing any anthology, choosing particular poems for particular mention puts the reviewer in something like the same predicament the anthologist faced at first instance. Isolating for special attention here only a little content from 50 chosen poems is both challenging and unnerving. But, it must be done. So, what follow are a few highlights from this reviewer’s perspective.

Sonnet L’Abbé. Photo by Josef Jacobson, Nanaimo News Bulletin

Sonnet L’Abbé writes some of the most viscerally affecting poetry being published in Canada at present. It engages fearlessly with problems of race and misogyny, for example, and does so in a way that (to fall briefly into cliché) takes no prisoners. In her prose poem, “CXXVII”—previously published in Sonnet’s Shakespeare—L’Abbé rails against intolerances of many kinds and, just as vehemently, decries the constraints imposed by our sometime enslavement to politesse in English diction (even while we aim, as poets, to expose and root out those intolerances):

…The critics never unpack the intestinal douleur of one’s own beauty slandered with a bastard shame. Informed since I could read by the monarchy’s hand on the throat of English, I’ve put on an enunciative face, trusting the foreign anguish, language! With art’s facelessness I borrowed legit face; with my sweet syntax a beauty that they couldn’t disown. Shame on who? Shame on who? I’m literally bowed over the keyboard of my computer….

One hears distant echoes of what rages through the earlier poems of Lynn Crosbie, and maybe even in Anne Sexton, in that extract. Hard going, to be sure, but so essential.

Kayla Czaga

Kayla Czaga is present in this anthology—as certainly she should be. She turns a gimlet eye upon a construction site in crushingly unaffordable Vancouver where yet another column of unaffordable condos will eventually poke up through the ground. With Czaga the reader never needs to wait long for a blisteringly clever simile and, sure enough, there it is, about two-thirds of the way down the page of “Under Construction:”

…It’s important
to get places but you
doubt another condo tower
beside the train line
will do more than rattle
like a Yahtzee cup tossing
professional couples.

Laura Matwichuk. Photo by Jonathan Bitze

What Czaga laments is, of course, just fine as far as the property developer overseeing the project is concerned. But she is not about to let him off the hook (so to speak):

…An invisible raptor stands
behind you in a business
suit, factoring in inflation
with his talon on your hand.

Laura Matwichuk, in her poem “Fuji, Baby,” conjures a swirling and surreal blend of travel reverie and abject terror encountered during a tense and anxious pregnancy examination. The spine of the reader cannot but spark with dread when encountering passages like:

…I can’t forget
how the sonographer paused,
transducer in hand, to say “Let’s double-
check that,” her words a fault line
in my heart cracking open….

Mallory Tater

A different kind of chill is invoked when, in Mallory Tater’s poem “Flattering”, a bridal store salesperson heaps toxic praise upon an incipiently anorexic customer trying on a wedding gown:

Wow—your hips are
invisible in this.
It’s just so flattering.
It’s like
where did you even go?
Where are you?
Where are you?

Billy-Ray Belcourt. Photo courtesy Toronto Star

Billy-Ray Belcourt takes us roughly by the scruffs of our necks and makes us look hard at some hard truths in “The Terrible Beauty of the Reserve” where “[t]eens blaze to feel the / euphoria of memory” and “[v]ehicles pass through in droves, but no one looks, / so we drown together in the freedom of utter anonymity.”

Darkness—an existential darkness—coloured 2019 for many (if not most) of us. The rule of law seemed to be in full retreat. The Trump presidency was riding high on its shameless and chaotic triumphalism, the Syrian Civil War with all its depredations entered its eighth year, and a Canadian Prime Minister who swaggered into office promising “sunny ways” unceremoniously shuffled his Attorney-General out of her Cabinet portfolio after she refused to take direction from his office in handling a prominent and politically sensitive criminal prosecution. As the foregoing quotations show, the dark mood that suffused 2019 pervades in turn much of the poetry that was written in Canada in and around that year. Unsurprisingly, that mood surfaces often in the pages of this fine anthology.

Marion Quednau. Photo by Kat Wahamaa

But there are lighter moments too. The anthology’s content is leavened by entries like “Train Wrecks, Rare Fossils,” for example, where Marion Quednau writes of witnessing, as a child, something tumble by accident from her father’s woollen swim trunks, a garment that is “shamelessly / war-time and loose at the inner thigh.” She continues:

                               …I was surprised
to find what finally made a man
a man, this bruised fruit
like something forgotten in a lunch pail—
this was what all the fuss was about
when the boys clutched themselves, keeled over
in mock pain like big cry-babies.

And here most men of a certain age thought that the road to Hell was paved with Speedos. Yikes!

Kevin Spenst. Photo by Ash Tanasiychuk

This rollcall of specific mentions must end somewhere and it will end where the anthologist started. It was a stroke of pure genius for Taylor to include a poem by Kevin Spenst as the first entry in the Best Canadian Poetry, 2019 anthology. How does one even begin to describe Spenst’s exuberant poetic language? It is adventurous, unruly, riotous, sometimes unhinged—all to marvellous effect. “Above Picasso and his Musings” is a perfect example of what Spenst does best. It traces a ragged path through an exhibition of Picasso’s works at the Vancouver Art Gallery while simultaneously chronicling the flowering of fresh new and intoxicating love. Spenst’s language play is by turns playful, joyful and immensely clever. Comparisons to Joyce are irresistible:

Ineptitude’s tidings
ashore me. I’m sprawling stumble-
drunk in seawrack…

“Ashore” as a transitive verb. Savour that.

…You
shall know us by our bookshelves’
blisteringly thin spines…

Yes, indeed. Indeed we shall.

Rob Taylor. Photo by Marta Taylor

As can be seen, this review offers a very positive assessment of an admirable anthology that surveys the inspired writings of a wide cross-section of Canadian poets writing today. Taylor’s anthology reflects the range and depth of that writing and, equally, it places on full display the sophisticated and nuanced approach of an editor who took his responsibilities as an anthologist very seriously. Would this reviewer have chosen the same poems? No, not all of them. Would he have included others that do not appear in the anthology? Of course. But that’s not the point. So it must and will be for every reader; the importance of Best Canadian Poetry, 2019 as an addition to the Canadian canon is undiminished by that.

Before ending, kindly allow your reviewer a small quibble. Best Canadian Poetry, 2019 runs to 160 pages. Of those, only slightly more than half (83) comprise the anthologised poems. As has been noted, Taylor’s own Introduction is absolutely essential reading (it sheds helpful and instructive light on his admirable process), but beyond that there is an awful lot of unnecessary clutter. The poets’ bios are longer than they need to be, and the commentaries offered by them on their aims in writing the subject poems are not only unnecessary but unwelcome. While acknowledging that there are differing views on the subject, it is nevertheless asserted here that poets whose work is chosen for inclusion in an anthology like Best Canadian Poetry, 2019 should trust their readers and their own writing sufficiently to let that writing stand on its own without being propped up by explanatory notes.

Oh, just one more thing. The word “Best” just has to disappear from the anthology’s title in future years. Listen up, Biblioasis. Taylor justly calls its use “silly.” Of course, he’s right. Let’s leave “best” for the poodles and the Pomeranians. You know. “Best in Show.” The Booker Prizes don’t claim to identify the “best;” rather, their stated purpose is to bring “recognition, reward and readership to outstanding [writing].” That’s Biblioasis’s purpose in bringing out annual anthologies of Canadian poetry too, isn’t it?

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P.W. Bridgman

P.W. Bridgman is a Vancouver poet, fiction writer and the sometime player of a wickedly cool, vintage ebony Gibson SG. In 2018 he studied poetry with, among others, Ciaran Carson, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Leontia Flynn, Gerald Dawe, Edna Longley and Stephen Sexton at the intensive writing summer school program offered by the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, Belfast—an experience that he says was a transformative one in his writing life. Bridgman’s second selection of poems, entitled Idiolect, will be published by Ekstasis Editions in June 2021. His second book of short fiction, The Four-Faced Liar (also published by Ekstasis), was released at the end of January 2021. Bridgman’s poetry and fiction have appeared in The Maynard, Grain, The Antigonish Review, The Moth Magazine, The High Window, The Glasgow Review of Books, The Honest Ulsterman, The Galway Review, Ars Medica, Poetry Salzburg Review and other periodicals and anthologies. Learn more here. Editor’s note: P.W. Bridgman has also reviewed books by Michael Prior, Leslie Timmins, Marilyn Bowering, and John Swanson for The Ormsby Review.

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