Steven McCabe’s MEME NOIR reviewed by Tom Gannon Hamilton

Steven McCabe’s Meme Noir , Quattro Books, 2020. $20.00

The bold figurative abstract painting by the author, gracing the cover of Meme Noir, hints at the sophistication of its contents. At 85 pages, we’re promised a tightly edited literary work and as with any Quattro edition, you can expect a quality read. But nothing can prepare you for Steven McCabe’s ingenious writing. Owing to the clarity and scope of its vision, its originality and unique style, Meme Noir is a work of international significance. It speaks from a wealth of cultural memory to a world increasingly in need of reminding where it has been.

“ I wore black pants, and a thin black turtleneck, with bare feet, impersonating imaginary beatniks. The owner of the resort, where I washed dishes, said, ‘You look like the Viet Cong slipping through the shadows’.” Drawn from events spanning decades and traversing more than one country, the anecdotal entries, each a tableau vivant, at once flowing and pooling in the reader’s mind, constitute prose poems of the highest order, presented with transparency and without pretension. “When Eurydice came home from work and said ‘There’s a spoon in the sink’ I knew it was over. I ran cold water over the silvery spoon. Not now, but soon.”

McCabe’s style, one combining poetic concision and eloquence with the insight and accessibility of great journalism, seems inconceivable without his plural lenses, shaped mainly, though not exclusively, within the borders of Canada and the USA. “We gave the waitress, wearing a pale-green uniform dress, a hard time. She said ‘You won’t talk so smart when you’re in Vietnam’.” Differently situated perspectives afford the author acute cross-cultural vision and impressive historical depth perception; the result is a kaleidoscopic journey that coheres beautifully.

“ I lay beneath the ceiling light, mesmerized by the cut glass patterns emanating mysterious energies of the cosmos. The party went on around me”.

Meme Noir achieves its integrity through craftsmanship, for, easy as it is to read, this fluency could only come from devotion, one that weds passion with discipline and matches imagination with the rigours of composition. It’s no mere diary. McCabe’s subtle ingenuity affects us through a series of dawnings, layered within each vignette and cumulative over the course of the book as a whole.

“My parents left me in charge. After everybody was in bed I aimed my brother’s telescope at the moon. The close-up craters overwhelmed me with dread. I put the telescope down quickly.” A curious mimesis occurs, in which McCabe’s episodic approach is recapitulated in the reader’s own thought processes, dappled of course, with personal memory. “I used a phrase, my father often used, during a visual art workshop in a school. I said ‘Now you’re cooking with gas!’ The student said “What?”. The teacher said ‘What gas?’.”

Wisdom about the terrain upon which we collectively dwell cannot be had without the successful cultivation of humour. This basic tenet of Mother Wit is put into practice here in a mercifully uncontrived way. McCabe has a green thumb and the reader feasts on a crop that gives blessed relief from the force-grown, genetically modified corn that so often lies in store for us these days. The roots of McCabe’s produce are nourished by a richness found deep within the substance of our lives — decades of composted experience. We’ll be feasting on this harvest for years to come.

“Al dropped us off and told us to say ‘If I sell the most I win a trip’. A lady asked where. Off the top of my head I said ‘Prague, Czechoslovakia’. She talked about chandeliers in Europe. Her daughter sat on the sofa in the shadows, looking like she was already famous for something.” Exemplary literature always fosters new ways of thinking. The form of consciousness that Meme Noir presents, and surreptitiously encourages, is infectious. No doubt, McCabe will have imitators; maybe not such a bad thing when one considers some of the alternative models.

“ A child at the non-profit cooperative daycare centre asked me for permission to do something. I said ‘No. That’s not possible’ The child said ‘Your words say no — but your mind says yes’.” Formalist critics rightly decried the authorial fallacy, in which fore-knowledge of the artist’s biography taints or impairs our critical judgement of the work of art; but familiarity with Steve McCabe as a painter and visual art instructor doesn’t cloud the aesthetic virtues of Meme Noir. There’s abundant evidence, within its pages, that we’re in the presence of a true artist, from which we have much to learn. Should literary anthropologists decode Meme Noir 500 years thence, they’ll exclaim “Wow! So that’s what it was really like to live during the turn of the millennium.”

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Donna Langevin’s BRIMMING reviewed by Marsha Barber

Donna Langevin, Brimming, Piquant Press 2019, 119pp, I.S.B.N. 9781927396155 

Donna Langevin’s wonderful new book casts a spell. Here’s a writer who isn’t just an accomplished poet, but a master storyteller. Her sense of narrative is pitch perfect. She’s also a superb imagist. In this beautiful volume from Piquant Press, you’ll find poems steeped in the fragility and wonder of life. The book is divided into six sections. Part one focuses on the poet’s brother who is “no longer the brat/ who snipped off/my doll’s eyelashes”. Now she blesses her brother’s home, opens the windows to let in “the hymn of the wind/caressing treetops and ferns”.  More urgently, after a heart condition, the poet blesses her brother’s veins: “May their blood sing clearly,/ glow like ripe strawberries”. The same sense of the fragility of life is present in the heartbreaking and life-affirming section of the book where the poet deals with a son’s heart attack: “Do anything/except dying.” As uncertainty roils around her, the poet howls: “My love, my darling child,/ hope rips me open like birth”.  The reader shares the relief of the son’s eventual recovery: “Because your blue lips turned pink,/ I bloom with your gift shop roses.” As someone who has been obsessed for years by Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, I particularly like the section of the book which imagines the inner life of Niagara Falls daredevils. As Taylor anticipates the event, her “stomach churns white water.”  In contrast to a briny death in a barrel, Taylor remembers her time in Mexico and wishes her last breath would be “scented/with juniper and sage/ from the mountains”. Another daredevil, Charles G. Stephens, isn’t as lucky. After his failed attempt to survive the Falls, his hand reaches out of his barrel evocatively trapped “in sleeves of white water”. The theme of the fragility of life, and the power of love to sustain loved ones, pervades this book. A lover eats a white diet during radiation and lives a pale existence. In contrast, the poet writes: “I exercise in sunlight/to gain strength to sustain you/with love in every colour.” A powerful section named “The Thing in the Mirror” deals with the aftermath of a fall. This time it’s the poet who is supported by a lover: “he holds my hand and whispers/ ”You are still lovely to me.” Particularly striking are the poet’s recollections of the drive home from hospital, post-op, noticing the beauty of the world: “The day steps out from a golden cloud/softer than a fawn.” In the final section, we are reminded that the “stories that write us”, the stories of our lives, “flesh out their plots /in our bloodstreams and bones”.  Just so, you will feel the authenticity and power of this book in your bloodstream and bones. This is a book that reminds me powerfully of the reasons I turn to poetry. Moving, playful and wise, this is a work to savour. It’s a wonderful offering by a poet at the top of her game. 

To order your copy, send $24 ($20 + $4 p&h) payable to Donna Langevin, #313 – 39 Parliament St., Toronto, Ont. M5A 4R2.

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Tom Gannon Hamilton reviews LOVE IS A SIDE EFFECT OF LIFE, poems by Andy Lee

Andy Lee. Love Is a Side Effect of Life. Casa del Alma, 2019 ASIN  B081LSKJ8G

From the first poem in his book, the elements of Andy Lee’s refreshing style are clearly in evidence. Contemporary poetry can be many things but its two most baleful tendencies are polar opposites: on the one hand, a-rhythmic windiness and on the other, self-constraint leading to a sort of cryptic shorthand. Luckily for the reader, Lee writes outside the magnetic fields of both schisms. His concise forms marry natural diction with a hitherto unvoiced metaphysics — to crystalline effect, as in “Astral Travel,” which perceptively juxtaposes ways of knowing: “sea knows your secrets; I know your ghost”; the subject (lover) is at once engulfed, concealed and known by a dense, vast, impersonal (presumably social) medium but the speaker (poet) knows the ethereal soul of the beloved, who, in turn substantiates him: “I ascend from your depths, reformed from ether to fibre.” Thus, a lover’s experience: self-realization through immersion in the world of the other, is brilliantly enacted.

Original imagery flows in thought-provoking juxtapositions, to express ideas that prosaic verbiage could never approach. As if stating the claim for all verse, the nameless is named through a turning of the subject matter; “mechanical jackals” of the cybernetic present yield to the classical — “chariot piercing the pale horizon.” Elsewhere in this collection (“Reverie”), our specific historical moment meets the universal; passing “between colossal capitalist columns” the speaker’s “revolución” (a triumph of consciousness) manifests as an “inverse freefall… into the soft cosmos.” The title “Never Leave a Burning Child Unattended” cleverly blends adages that warn against being careless with open flames and neglectful in the supervision of kids. In our daily routine: “recycled daylight,” the “destructed” combines dissolution and distraction — a mood enhanced by constructions such as “prehistoric punchline” and “amniotic ocean.” There’s a sense of intimate solitude, further developed in “Bumbling Through Love,” a comic indictment of online dating.

In “Love Is a Side Effect of Life,” the title poem, the “desert” and the “Pacific,” present a geomorphological leitmotif that will resonate with most readers. Lee conjures the beauty our forebears knew, embracing objective and subjective, natural and social domains in primitive oral/poetic imagery. The speaker detects a latent danger in clouds, situating us on the same topography as those dead sages, for whom everything was a sign to be interpreted. Today’s faded emblems are contrasted with ancient, more potent associations of Eros with death: a reverse birth of Osiris alluding to the Egyptian god, also the Greek myth of Orpheus, both involving resurrection. To strengthen these already potent archetypes (he) awakens alone, bleeding from your kiss — an utterance that transcends its vampiric connotations to sustain the poet’s juggling of solitary with interpersonal or personal with global concerns.

Our preoccupations with love, beauty and art can get pretty stodgy, but Andy Lee keeps it light in “Loving You Is a Cloisterfuck” wherein we are treated to the poet’s characteristically vivid metaphors: “You redact me for the last time / Heatseeker still locked on my heart.” “From Love’s Gutter” gives us dad, dyad and dead in a single breath and the near oxymoron “next nostalgia” suggests the mutual saturation of emerging circumstance and memory — a familiar though generally unvoiced state. In “A Country Song,” “a buffer between your heart and his charisma” hints at something equally subtle and elusive. “Desert Poem” reflects on the atonement that follows upon error. “Exit Wound” is a double entendre focusing on the severity of injury one feels when a bullet or a lover leaves us.

In “Hunter,” “Conch,” “Sea Dream” and “Death in the Evening,” we find emotionally available, enigmatic allegories for physical affection; the poems are sequenced so as to lend them added layers of context and enhance their meaning. “The Periphery of Memory” offers some especially appealing lines: a series of clauses running from as time shears your mind away to we are sliding back to love. “Seeker” points to a dream’s capacity to resonate beyond its own temporality; so we are primed for the most compact, gemlike poem in this volume, “Tender Trap,” which reads: “headlong plunge into / your tender trap / I come in pieces / against your hard surfaces / pre-demented, / ready to tango.”

Embodied in the ensuing group of poems is a critique of the electronic ethos; this follows, in true dialectical fashion, from poems earlier in the book that venerate the sagacity of our ancestors. “Carbon Copy” “hones in on certain cyber-age excesses, the digital soup, the simulacra in which humanity might altogether go missing. The pithy phrasing in “Generation Hexed”: “addicted to next… craving a glib fix… broadcasting personas… lifetime of waste”, braces us for the salutary dictum advanced in “Poetry Shall Persist”: “to make the ineffable indelible” — which rises like a mission statement from the printed page and sets up “Final Call” with its vision of poetry as DNA, against a backdrop of soporific skies and its bold directive that could be an epitaph: exhume and resurrect my words so I live infinite.

Love Is a Side Effect of Life is full of speech-enriching takeaways. The most substantive poem is saved for the end, its rhythms working effortlessly through euphonic strophes: the “oxytocin has oxidized”, and “in a vision she’s breastfeeding a blue whale,” towards the consummate agreement of content and form: “straining to recall the harmonies of a long forgotten song”, the book’s suitably musical conclusion. We have a beginning here too, insofar as the poet is bound to scope out an ever-broadening vista. One of Canada’s best emerging poets, Andy Lee brings glad tidings; the stylistic achievement in this sample of twenty-two poems bodes well for the future of Canadian Letters and for the literate world in which humanity is re-invented.

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Thomas Gannon Hamilton’s PANOPTIC reviewed by John B. Lee

Thomas Gannon Hamilton, Panoptic, Aeolus House, 2018, 110 pp.      I.S.B.N. 978-1-987872-13-2

… which brings me to your assignment …

“Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes.

                 The optic heart must venture: a jailbreak

                 and recreation.”      

~ lines from Margaret Avison’s sonnet “Snow”

 Every book is an artifact, a technology, a delivery system for the work to be found within the covers, and as such first impressions involve an apprehension of and appreciation for those qualities that are particular to the publisher’s attention to presentation. In the case of Aeolus House and Thomas Gannon Hamilton’s book Panoptic the poems within are honoured by the beauty and clarity of production. The cover stock, the paper, and the legible font all contribute to the dignity that these fine poems deserve. The illustrations throughout compliment the poetry. The cover illustration by Hamilton, with its use of Feng Shui, its complimentary combination of water, flora, fauna, and architecture, and its rainbow-colouring of feminine and masculine human figures provides an introduction to the themes we will find within. The opening pen and ink illustration of a swallowtail imago, followed within the book by equally lovely images of catfish swimming tail to tail, and what appear to be mandalas of wheat woven within and emerging from the corolla of a paper flower in combination with Hamilton’s opening epigram “This garden blooms in Fall” combine to prepare us for the delights that will follow when we begin to read. And I can tell you without equivocation that Hamilton does not disappoint. His work is complex without being needlessly obscure, deeply engaged with the world he inhabits and profoundly erudite without being arrogant. The reader lingers, turns a phrase every which-a-way under the light of understanding, sustained by the music that serves the theme, and then is rewarded if not always emerging from the experience unscathed.

It’s a long book, packed with long-line poems, many of which are two to three pages in length, so I’ll concentrate my attention in this review on four poems – the opening poem, the closing poem, the eponymous-to-the-title-of-the-book poem, and the poem that made me laugh out loud so often that I read it and re-read it to amuse my silly self. But then I once coined the question, “What’s the difference between being Solomon, and being Sirius?” so you might forgive my deep appreciation of the truly funniest poem in the book.

The opening poem “Caul” and the closing poem “Mount Pleasant” provide us with something of a framing device in that “Caul” deals with birth and “Mount Pleasant” an apt coda, is a seven-verse contemplation of death and mortality. The alpha poem, rather than being metaphysical is an odd poem concerning a baby born “fully enrobed” in the amniotic sac, a one in eighty thousand rarity. I’m reminded of the star child in Kubrick’s film 2001 when Hamilton compares his own christening to “the first cosmonaut who left earth,/ well in advance of his lift off,/ prior to his re-entry and splash down,/ I had already made my entrance.” The originality of Hamilton’s perceptions and the quirkiness of sensibility enrich the reader’s experience throughout this volume.

In his closing poem he writes: “When you are little you learn to classify/ the living and make distinctions/ between those you’ve seen die;” and you’ve journeyed here if you read this book from front to back, by way of an intelligence that is restless and never satisfied with the obvious surfaces of life. The range and depth of this poet’s concerns remind the reader of the importance of both breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding. He becomes something of a reliable guide directing our attention and illuminating what we see. And what we experience is sometimes achingly sad as he writes of the “untimely death of a lover, best friend,/ husband, wife or someone you love/ no less;” and the journey through grief is equal to the music of Orpheus and his doomed beloved Eurydice. The pain is almost too much to bear. Like Hamlet contemplating Yorick, we are brought to the edge of the grave to think upon “…this ultimate/ enterprise, each holds an equal share,/ all have a common stake; yet/ you distinguish, still you compare.” And I note the way that word ‘yet’ lingers at the line’s end before tumbling to ‘you distinguish,’ and the final words of the closing poem ‘still you compare.’   And is that not the poet’s lot? To compare, to seek a metaphor for the strangest and most mysterious of all experiences – our own mortality. We are born only to die. This need not be morbid or ghoulish contemplation. Like the gravedigger’s comic relief, there are lines in this poem that elicit a smile as it is with the punning of “the grave differences,” leading to a list ‘junior and gramps,/ magnate, minion, maven, twit” and so on. The wit in these lines does not go unnoticed. And the rhyming of “twit” with the phrase “pulses quit,” disallows the reader from descending into a dark mood commensurate with the overplaying of morbidity.

In the title poem, “Panoptic” I am reminded of Avison’s importuning of the reader to fully engage the world in her sonnet “Snow.” The idea that in order to understand and appreciate experience, the individual must engage in active cognition, “Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes,” she writes, and Hamilton’s opening salvo in his poem “Diminished as I am in your ears,/ I cannot get between them,/ enter and leave without a hearing,/ the way rodents and roaches cross/ more freely than thoughts,/ from one cell to another.” The word ‘panoptic’ is all by itself an invitation to engage. And the poem ends with an echo reference “Though diminished in your eyes,” as the opening line in the last verse. Understanding these lines is not easy work, but wrestling with them is damned rewarding play. Like Avison, Hamilton rewards reading and rereading. The music sustains and the effort rewards.

And then there’s the quirky “Home Ec.” A poem in which the speaker is a teacher and the reader is privy to the reactions of an imaginary class wherein we are invited to contemplate the joy of cooking squirrels, rabbits, woodchucks, opossums, beavers, raccoons, bears, and finally humans. And the teacher chastises the imaginary class, like that in Monty Python’s sex education class in their film The Meaning of Life. To give but one example: “Seminoles who tasted settlers, runaway slaves/ and their own, reported some differences;/ alright, that’s enough, go stand in the hall.” (Ialics are mine). The poem ends with “and now for your assignment,” and so I end this review by suggesting to the reader of this review “and now for your assignment” read Panoptic and then see me after class. To order your copy, send $24 ($20 + $4 p&h) payable To Tom Gannon Hamilton, 577 O’Connor Dr., Toronto, Ontario, M4C 2Z9.



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Luciano Iacobelli’s DOLOR MIDNIGHT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Luciano Iacobelli, Dolor Midnight. Quattro Books.  84pp. $20.00

There is a poetry in gambling and Luciano Iacobelli has written an important book about it. As a child watching the neighbourhood men play dice in the streets, he felt “the poetry crawled across our young souls….” Like poetry, gambling is an art. The energy of gambling inflames Iacobelli’s language to a high level of poetic speech. ” I come to practice my art…/so that when death arrives/ it’s features will be known.” Iacobelli is a kind of Canadian François Villon who finds glory in his vice: “…it’s always my falls that summon miracles/draw up enough compassion and grace/to bring forth angels.”

Dolor Midnight is a rich tapestry of stories: portraits of gamblers, anecdotes of addiction. Iacobelli is honest about his own addiction: “take a 16 hour bus ride to New Jersey…/play 3 or 4 hours just to quell the fever/then return home to be back in Toronto by Monday morning/in time to teach my first class.” In the seven sections of the book, Iacobelli writes fascinating poems about the history of cards, dice, horse-racing, casinos, the habits of gamblers, and he reflects brilliantly on the kind of things that go through the mind of a player : “How many birds will land on a branch”; “some say luck can be trained/ you can whistle and it comes.” His speculations rise up from philosophy to religion: “what counted was how nothing became something/how a fish and a loaf/multiply into/ feast.”

Iacobelli’s wit churns out surprising one-liners: debt is “a sea weighed down/ by its own salt”; nostalgia is “hope walking backwards.” These are very satisfying to read. But, at the heart of his book, is Iacobelli’s effort to articulate why the gambler is driven to take risks after losing. He asks whether it is a “genetic disposition…/or chemical wave washing the brain”? If so, is gambling a vice or a disease? He doesn’t settle on either of these alternatives. Rather, he moves the issue to the spiritual level: taking a gamble is “an attempt to outrun the weight/return to the original lightness.” If that is the case, who can point the finger at “tossing dice for the last time/ a sick old yellow man wears an oxygen mask/ and who is to blame him….” Iacobelli’s art is both ruthless and compassionate. If I had to choose a single word to describe the poetry of Dolor Midnight, that word would be ‘redemptive.’


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Valentino Assenza’s THROUGH PAINTED EYES reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Valentino Assenza, Through Painted Eyes, Piquant Press, $19.95

Here are some admirable lines from Through Painted Eyes, Valentino Assenza’s first full-length collection of poems: “that precious/subliminal taste/of the past through/my senses.” These lines say that though his form resembles chopped prose, the lines are in fact made up of ‘spoken word’ held together by the real voice of a sensitive personality. Assenza’s memories come through his senses, and this conveys the livingness of the episodes and characters making up his personal epic journey into the past. Whether he is chronicling growing up with his mother in Toronto neighbourhoods, or among relatives in Sicily where he spent summers with his father, Assenza’s memories carry with them a sense of life: “my father peeling/me a cucumber from/the garden,/ and a lizard/crawling across a stone wall.”

Through Painted Eyes contains a gallery of portraits, notably Assenza’s father, grandfather, relatives and neighbourhood characters drawn so you get what these people meant to him, and still mean. The portrait of Jack the barber and his ‘victims’ is touching and deft, conveying a sense of neighbourhood life in the class of Laurence Hutchman’s Two Maps of Emery, and that is makes me think somebody should appoint Assenza poet laureate of a Toronto neighbourhood, perhaps Leslieville.

Whether he writes about life in Sicily or in Toronto, many of Assenza’s spoken words are in the Sicilian dialect, and he scatters phrases throughout these poems, where they function like charms and spells and incantations summoning up a richness in the mouth that is one of the more rewarding effects of reading his work, all the more so if you’ve had a chance to hear him read. “The Tobacconist” is one of his best in performance, where you also get a strong sense of how at ease the author in his world where he is happy to fit in. There are dark touches in the poems due to separation, death, and failure of ambition, but  remarkably, there is not a trace of alienation in Through Painted Eyes.



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Tom Hamilton’s EL MARILLO reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

El Marillo is an elegaic work of great passion focused on Hamilton’s late wife, Rhena Hymovitch, and her humanitarian passion to bring ‘boots-on-the-ground’ aid, relief and protection to thousands of displaced ‘campesinos’ during the 1980’s in El Salvador where she lost her life.

El Marillo  commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of her death with poems that record the brutal conditions she and Hamilton worked under from 1984-88 when Hymovitch drowned. The book concludes with a handful of poems in which Hamilton reflects how the passing years have been marked by his devotion to his late wife’s memory.

Hamilton’s verse forms are, as he says, “a consequence of extreme lived experience matched with a poet’s imperative to give it voice.” His lines are filled with facts: “penecillin, amoxocylin, tetracycline, Imodium, with no expiry date/ later than ours we hope….” They also record actions: “…finally we sneak under the bridge turret and sleeping/ machine-gunner as we cross Rio Lempa, then traverse the playa seca,/ to the pueblo, El Marillo, with our forbidden medicinal cargo.”

The thought lines run in long  narrative and discursive stanzas sometimes marked by a complexity of rhythm, a loftiness of diction, and a profundity of thought that blossoms into a more traditional mode of poetry:

“Terror is to the survivor what valor is to the warrior: a priest;                                         consider the multi-faith corpses whose myriad beliefs                                                               had this covered; a mystery who will get it;                                                                               humor is their talisman, any swatch in a field….”

Hamilton’s verse often rises to an eloquence that extends to the limits of speech in lines like ” No hand/ is big enough to cover the river’s bloody mouth…” and, “oblivion/ pure, unmitigated nothingness compels him to pray.” The latter line is from the closing poem of the book. Entitled “Susto,” it serves as the concluding portion of Hamilton’s elegy or lament for the dead, in which, traditionally, the grieving poet reconciles himself to the loss and experiences a realization that allows him to let go. Through the closing lines of the poem, in the formal elegaic manner, the poet uses his ‘susto’, the illness of his grieving, to liberate both the memory of his beloved and himself: “yet, with susto./ you take up and face what you’ve long been seeking/to exorcise: the dread you must embrace to extinguish.”

Tom Hamilton’s chapbook is so personal and so intense, I have to let go of some lines that leave me in the dark, even after several readings. It is possible their darkness forms a part of Hamilton’s intention, as he seems to indicate in the closing lines of this remarkable poem: “bituminous train cars,/ their tomorrows trail off; each day/to follow they ‘ll see me, not whole, but if not for the darkness, they wouldn’t see me at all and they wouldn’t know.”

El Marillo won 1st place in the 2018 Big Pond Rumours Chapbook Awards. I say it possesses the ‘gravitas’ to earn a permanent place in the archives of this country and beyond.



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Penn Kemp’s FOX HAUNTS Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Penn Kemp. Fox Haunts. Aeolus House, 2018. 97 pp.

The way suburban garden fences are a line the fox crosses from the countryside to steal our chickens, is like the line fox, since time immemorial, has crossed from the countryside into our myths, into our dreams, into our literature and our language. Shenanigans is derived from the Gaelic word for fox. A skulk of foxes is the collective noun. Jimmie Hendrix sang of his “Foxy Lady.” And here is a stanza from Penn Kemp’s poem to Inari, the Shinto fox-god deity:


Fox girls dance beneath the twisted maple

caling their sister to tranform from mist

as beguiling women with red in their hair.


Fox Haunts is a meditation in 90 poems on a predator who is our closest neighbour and who is getting closer all the time as it’s habitat yields to subdivisions. The longest section of Fox Haunts, entitled “Urban Fox,” consists of poems about foxes Kemp might have encountered: her writing can be elegant.


It’s true you walk on toes like cats

like a ballerina of the wildwood.


Kemp empathizes with the drama of the hunt, the inside as well as the outside of it.


Fox circles her prey, closing in

on her victim in ever tightening

gyres. Her fixed glare freezes


poor rabbit into terror so pure it

dissolves to acceptance, suspended

acquiescence, adrenalin overload.


Almost like peace. Soft as comfort,

this compliance in the fox’s grasp.

Just a single shriek before the


neck snaps.


At her best, Kemp’s narrative and poetry are transparent. She has variance in her voice: sometimes she addresses her images directly to the fox:” I come upon your prints on/muddy path, neatly, deliberately splayed.” Sometimes, she drops into a journalistic mode and addresses the reader directly in what sounds to me like chopped prose: “Like Canada Geese, Fox may/be adopting city life to avoid/ hunters, the tough slog of/country life. Clever fellow.” Only to follow that with a passage of the most startlingly direct poetry:


They look upon the easy prey of pets, soft

and vulnerable bichon frisés left outside

by themselves in the yard, those with no

defense but a petulant, startled bark —


before they are meat, carried off dangling

in the soft jaw of a mother triumphantly keen

on feeding her kits.


Kemp is ‘entranced’ with the world of “Wily wiry trickster tales,” and devotes a section to ‘Fox’ references in the writings of Taliesin, Ovid, in the legend of Samson, in other Hebrew Scriptures relating to Solomon and Ezekiel, in Aesop, W.B Yeats and St. Exupéry, Akiro Kurosawa and Alice Munro whose father raised foxes for fur on a farm where he also kept ” Old horses in the barn waiting/their turn to be fed, to be feed.” As for the night sky, Kemp puts fox in the constellation Canis Major and Canis Minor, This bit of Fox arcana brings into close focus the mythical resonance of that beast in the human imagination.


After having the pleasure of reading Fox Haunts, and of writing down these few thoughts, I look forward to more hours with the book, looking into the stories behind lines like:


Fetch Laelaps, a bitch commanded to catch all

she chases. Let her seize that Teumessian fox!





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