Bounding ghazals

Poetry, like Kevin Costner movies, is immune to public indifference. Every year, dozens of poetry books are published in this country only to languish, unacknowledged, on bookstore shelves or, worse yet, in the earnest review pages of literary journals (which could use a little attention themselves).

Why? If you think about it, we all read poetry every day – in ad copy, on billboards and TV screens – and millions of North Americans listen to hip hop, a form derived from African-American folk poetry and the 1950s beat tradition. Most poetry is certainly no more difficult to read than contemporary fiction: If anything, contemporary poetry is often too simple.

I blame your grade three teacher, the one who made you memorize In Flanders Fields. Since then, you’ve equated poetry with a chore, the literary equivalent of sugarless bran cereal. Well, wake up and smell the Cocoa Puffs, because there’s a raft of new queer poetry on the market that is lively, sexy, sometimes challenging and sometimes comforting.

If you’re going to spend 100 bucks on Maya Angelou’s scented candles and homily-stitched pillows this Christmas, the least you can do is buy a beloved an actual Canadian poetry book. You might even keep it for yourself.

Poetry does not have to be difficult to read, and if you’re putting your first toe into the lavender pool you might as well start off with something accessible and straightforward. Norman G Kester’s easygoing but insightful Liquid Love And Other Longings is a great book for beginning readers.

Using plain language and a handful of succinct metaphors, Kester offers the reader a glimpse into the current state of bisexual affairs in downtown Toronto.

Kester’s turf is the multi-everything Kensington Market, and he writes about his romantic and cultural collisions with a directness and lack of guile that is as appealing as it is youthful and (almost) innocent.

The well-versed poetry reader might find Kester’s gushing tone and occasional floods of purple rain a bit jejune, but I for one got off on Kester’s abundantly evident need to record the riot of colour, sensation and sex that surrounds him. Liquid Love And Other Longings is very much a young man’s book, and should be read as such. Try not to be jealous of all the fun Kester’s having. (District Six Press; $14.95.)

When Kester reaches middle age, his poetry might sound a lot like the more subtle meanderings of John Grube, a born storyteller who’s obviously been on one long, strange trip. Imagine naughty reporter Gerald Hannon as a poet and not a journalist, and, for that matter, as a mystic diarist, and you’re half way to John Grube’s God, Sex And Poetry. Grube writes about old boyfriends, magic rings, drunken flirtations, Oak Leaf tumbles and park sex shamans as if he were reporting on the most ordinary things around. He’s the horny man’s Lorna Crozier, the bad puppy’s George Bowering, with a lot of Allen Ginsberg tossed in to salt the sauce.


When I first opened this book, on a poem entitled “Healing Circle,” no less, I nearly threw it under the sofa. But don’t let the hempy, Vancouver coffee shop air throw you off – God, Sex And Poetry, like the smartest doggies, has a sneaky bite. (Dartington Press; $12.95.)

The more seasoned poetry reader will be pleased to know there’s a new Margaret Christakos book on the market – just in time for all the post modernist egg-headed puzzle-solving linguists on your shopping list. Excessive Love Prostheses is Christakos’s fifth poetry book, following her delightful (and Trillium Book Award-nominated) novel Charisma, and it’s a show- stopper. Christakos is now an unqualified master of the language-play confessional poem.

Huh? The what? Let me explain: Christakos is part of a cabal of Canadian poets who treat language like a series of logic games or mathematical assignments. These poets seek out the sense, or senses, that live between words as objects, not necessarily conveyors of specific ideas (which they don’t believe is possible anyway). Words are like pictures, or colours, and are put together on the page in arrangements that please the eye or ear first, and the need for narrative second.

What makes Christakos different from many of her male colleagues, is that Christakos actually has something to say, not merely a geeky new way of re-arranging the syllables. Her ability to blend experimental tactics with actual concerns is astounding – it’s like a dazzling video game with heart.

Having said that, Excessive Love Prostheses is not for the faint of mind. These poems take time to sink into your head, and may not reward the casual reader – hell, I got lost myself at times, and I write the stuff. Give this book to your friends doing post grads in queer theory and watch their pinched eyes pop open under their bifocals. Or keep it yourself and learn some new words. (Coach House Press; $16.95.)

Finally, and most happily, it pleases me greatly to announce, at last at last, the arrival of Trish Salah’s first full book of poems. I’ve known Trish for 10 years now, since way back in her Montreal years when she was one of the people who put together the much-missed Index magazine, and now, after years of publishing her wonderful poetry in every sort of periodical and anthology, years of activism and performance (she co-founded the Counting Past Two series), Salah has found some smart publishers to print Wanting In Arabic – a feast of delicious, swirling, mad, bad and dangerous to know poetry.

Taking as her beginning points her status as a transgendered person and her polyglot post-immigrant heritage, Salah weaves a gorgeous, double-sided tapestry of polyphonic poems that actually appear to breathe (and spit and coo) on the page. The book is as rich as chocolate pistachio halvah, but never, like the rich sesame candy, simply dissolves in your mouth. Watch out for the tongue-tingling aftertaste, because each poem is a challenge – a challenge to acknowledge Salah’s right to be multi-identified, to be present (if not doubly, triply so) and, best of all, to record her reality in densely layered, unapologetically intelligent, maddeningly smart poems.

What surprises me most about Wanting In Arabic is its overtly romantic charms, its need to talk of, and pencil in, the disruptive, joyful and just plain silly vagaries of love. Activist that she is, Salah is a still a lover, not a fighter – so don’t expect a book of protest slogans or reductive sexual liberation anthems. Expect, instead, a bracing, confident and ecstatic debut. (Tsar Publications; $16.95.)

RM Vaughan was a Canadian writer and video artist.

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