Return from Erebus, by Julia McCarthy, 2010
Alien, Correspondent, by Anthony Di Nardo, 2010
Lost Gospels, by Lori Neilsen Glenn, 2010
The Fetch, by Nico Rogers, 2010
The Good News About Armageddon, by Steve McOrmond, 2010
All too often, poets settle into familiar literary territory, autobiography, let’s say, rather than engaging in dialogue with other disciplines. The poetry titles published by Brick Books are a rare exception. In its 35th year of publishing, this well-known Canadian press continues to promote innovative work by writers who are well-versed in history, politics, and philosophy. Five recent releases from Brick Books—Julia McCarthy’s Return from Erebus, Anthony Di Nardo’s Alien, Correspondent, Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s Lost Gospels, Nico Rogers’ The Fetch, and Steve McOrmond’s The Good News About Armageddon— present these disciplines as a source of inspiration. While these poets exhibit a range of styles and influences, their works each place varied academic traditions in dialogue with one another.
Performance artist and storyteller Nico Rogers’ debut collection, The Fetch, is the most formally innovative of the five books. Presented as a collection of prose vignettes, which explore the triumphs and struggles of 1950s outport communities in Newfoundland, his work juxtaposes text with black-and-white photographs of the region. The book presents the written word with both its creative and documentary possibilities, and results in a provocative blurring of those boundaries. A prose piece called “Counting on a Coin” exemplifies these ideas,
In the spring of ’39 I tried everything to get a penny so I could buy am eleven cent can of Old Bugler, cheapest tobacco there was. That’s how hard it was for our crowd on Pork Island, not one penny to spare between us. I had found a ten cent piece pressed in the mud along the path to Sydney Cove and believed I was in the fat.
Rogers juxtaposes this passage with a photograph of two young boys wandering outside of an abandoned house; thus he distills history, biography, and a narrative into a single image. As he pairs historical documentation with lyric prose, Rogers prompts the reader to contemplate the best way to preserve history, and he ultimately suggests that disparate storytelling traditions are necessary. Throughout the book, fact and fiction illuminate and complicate one another, and the tensions surrounding the boundaries between history and mythos create a book with its own personal mythology in this historical period.
Along these lines, Julia McCarthy’s Return from Erebus places contemporary poetry in dialogue with the classics. Taking its title from the geography of the underworld in Greco-Roman mythology, this plaintive, lyrical collection situates modern life within a matrix of ancient influences. Written as lyrics, pastorals, and odes, the poems in this volume evoke the work of Horace and Virgil as they trace the origins of contemporary Western culture. In “False Spring” she writes, “With a body of blue dust I loved / the voluptuous rooms you described / the vaulted ceiling and endless view / from your house of glass.” McCarthy suggests that ancient ideas about beauty, love, and their impermanence remain implicit in contemporary depictions of personal loss. As the poet conflates myth with medieval and biblical allusions, she suggests the pervasiveness of those Greco-Roman influences. As myths themselves have been revised, blended, and repurposed by history, the poet blurs the boundaries among received poetic forms, also—the pastoral, the lyric, and the ode—matching form and content, McCarthy, much like Rogers presents history as a source of inspiration, but also as a conversation in which the poet must inevitably take part.
Likewise, Lorri Neilsen Glenn envisions literature as a conversation with other humanistic disciplines, notably philosophy. Her collection Lost Gospels proves comparable to The Fetch and Return from Erebus as it questions, appropriates, and revises received ideas about spirituality and place. The book is structured around a poem sequence entitled “Songs for Simone,” which read as lyric responses to the works of French mystical philosopher Simone Weil. As with the previous two books here, Glenn’s Lost Gospels blur boundaries between disciplines and cautions us against limiting ourselves to a single tradition. Consider “Trouve I,”
The egg in this world we see, the bird
in it is Love. When the shell is broken, the being
is released, space is opened, torn apart. The spirit leaving
is transported to a point which is not a point of view, but from
which the world is seen.
The moment stands still
Poetry, we learn, can make valuable contributions to philosophical debates. While recounting Weil’s beliefs about truth in everyday life, Glenn also uses style to comment on them. The shell is “torn apart,” for example, and the poem itself filled with caesuras. Yet Glenn challenges Weil’s assertion that objective truth may be obtained through introspection. By recounting Weil’s beliefs, then isolating the line, “This moment stands still,” Glenn suggests the consequences of this line of argument. In other words, Weil’s philosophical system conflates subjectivity with objectivity and leads to absurd yet beautiful conclusions.
Steve McOrmond’s The Good News About Armageddon and Anthony Di Nardo’s Alien, Correspondent similarly use style to mirror, comment on, and question contemporary ideas—this time about politics. McOrmond writes in “Night Figures,
Darkness, a gloved hand
pressed over the mouth.
Telephone, at this hour
must be bad news.
By scattering these disparate items across the page, McOrmond seems to suggest that contemporary culture regards them all as being equally important. Thus personal gratification (“whisky, olfactory / chiaroscuro…”) becomes as pressing an issue as personal suffering (“Cold bone’s / tuning fork…”) and violence (… at this hour / must be bad news…”). The Good News About Armageddon is filled with poems like this one, in which subtle technical decisions complicate the content of a given piece. Alien, Correspondent, too, presents a graceful matching of form and content. Di Nardo writes in a piece called “Oh the Streets of West Beirut,”
Yet no one would ever leave their shift at the wheel,
Or turn home in the grim belief life’s purpose is that unreal.
Oh the streets of West Beirut, where bodies bend
on Bliss, life and life only, inshallah
is the reason this journey never ends.
Here Di Nardo describes the optimistic propaganda presented to both soldiers and civilians. At the same time, his pairing of end rhyme and foreboding imagery suggests the misleading nature of these messages. The incongruity between form and content also suggests that most may never know the extent of the dangers hidden in a pristine surface. Di Nardo’s collection as a whole is marked by stylistic precision, a quality that lends itself to multiple readings.
These five recent releases offer a window into the editorial tastes of this fine publisher. With that in mind, Brick Books chooses poetry that proves as ambitious as it is finely crafted.