Frontenac House Poetry Quartet 2019

By Steven Ross Smith

by Frontenac House
2019/$19.95 Each

Frontenac House has published its Quartet 2019, a suite of four books of poetry, as they’ve been doing annually since 2001. The release of four poetry books by four authors simultaneously is a smart marketing move, attracting attention through bundling and from one title to others in the set. As poets and publishers know, most poetry books need all the attention they can get, by whatever means. Still, a quartet implies a harmony, and this quartet is really four players all strumming language with individual instruments and distinctive notions of melody, as the publishers have selected a wide definition of poetry’s style, form and content. Yet each in their own way is well worth a listen.

Baddie One Shoe is Natalie Meisner’s first book of poetry, though she’s no stranger to the written word, its pace and rhythms. A multi-genre writer—playwright, non-fiction and children’s book author—Meisner shows a mastery of voice and tone in snappy, audacious verses. The poems are wry, witty and occasionally hilarious but do not shy away from pain and poignancy. Meisner’s “Baddies”—movie stars, artists, lesbians, heroines and renegades—are struggling in an oppressive world. Characters include Frida Kahlo, Dorothy Parker, Georgia O’Keefe and others, some unnamed. In “Continuous Smile/The MGM Lion (for Greta Garbo),” Meisner writes: “Daughter of a toilet cleaner,/ growing up so hungry you ate glue/ you and your sisters too/ needing to learn on the spot/ how to sell your suppression/ to the highest bidder”.

There’s gritty truth here. Meisner’s poems feel fresh and visceral, engaging and urgent, as she portrays her buddies, her “Baddies,” and urges them to rise up.

Conrad Scott, in Waterline Immersion, plunges into geologic time, travelling through ice ages, old cultures and Scott’s own habitation in the unceasing flow and flux. His landscapes include such locales as the Thompson River Valley, the badlands of Alberta and the icefields of the high terrains—“I am the glacier,” he writes in one poem. A variety of voices past, present, human and earthly utter to and through him in these poems, as does “ÖTZI THE ICEMAN”: “He reaches out to me/ that figure from the past // lips moulded/ as if speaking words/ speaking his poetic/ into the icy fathoms of my mindscape”.

In his academic work at the University of Alberta, Scott “contemplates the dystopian and environmentally apocalyptic zeitgeist of today,” and this shows through when he salts present commentary into his poetry, as in “FLOODBRINGER”: “The Slims River disappeared in four days/ that year climate change made history./ The first act of river piracy.”

Even Scott’s endnotes make interesting reading, tracking his poetic sources, inspirations and mentors. These lead the reader to other texts. As with a buildup of ice, there are many layers to his work. The intention is ambitious and makes for an inviting immersion.

Keith Garebian borrows Carolyn Forché’s anthology title against forgetting—a risky grab, given the iconicity of her book and its art and power—to present a contemplation of his own life path from a Bombay childhood to emigration to man of letters in Canada. Initially the narrative content is interesting, but the rushed historic details feel like lists, meaningful to the author but failing to draw the reader into deeper insight or well-wrought language. However, as one delves further into the book, poems begin to gather power as the focus magnifies, for example in “Damned Water”: “Silence between my father and me/ a dam holding in dark water./ When the dam burst with bitter chill/ the house was flooded./ His anger, my disdain floated together.” Or further into the watery symbol: “Having been born near water, I have read/ water. Shallow, deep, limpid, scummy,/ foamy, amniotic, saline, subversive,/ placid, psychic.”

Garebian’s biographic musings offer a poignant story of one life, one trace, through fact and “metaphor… winding leading to further winding.” It’s quite a journey.

Last but by no means least, physician and poet Laura Zacharin takes us, in Common Brown House Moths, into several worlds and whirls with gripping details. Her skill is concrete, her poetics built on a foundation of verbs and nouns, the strongest elements of language. Right from the start, in “We Are the Repositories,” this reader was hooked.

“unsuspecting drivers asleep/ at the wheel oblivious behind shatterproof glass ambushed/ by the skirl of rubber band its blowback.”

Zacharin unfurls language with a momentum that creates exhilarating work, even when dealing with unhappy subjects like breakups, fears, grief and infestations. Her poems, whether free verse or prose poem, are dense with the familiar—socks, refrigerators, automobiles, edibles, closets, windows, lice and so on—the elements of our daily world parlayed into intimate, potent messages. Near the end of her collection, the poem “A Fleck on the Invisible” stirs a personal and universal ache with its crafted repetitions: “and again you’ll leave, because // that’s what children do, they leave/ and leave and when you think they’re done,/ they leave again. Someone’s always standing/ at a gate or a window, by a car door somewhere/ waving, saying goodbye and goodbye.”

Steven Ross Smith is Banff’s 2018–2020 poet laureate. His latest book is Emanations: Fluttertongue 6 (Book*hug, 2015). 

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