Laura Clarke’s witty romp, Decline of the Animal Kingdom, helped her win the 2013 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers (when the selections were called Mule Variations). In her debut collection, she ruminates on mules, deer, bears, husky dogs, killer whales, roebucks, and other animals with a capering and sometimes sardonic tone. Clarke uses a plethora of literary devices: sound play, internal rhyme, refrain, and neologism to demonstrate her out-of-the-ordinary thinking.
This postmodern/surrealist collection amasses amusement aplenty. “Architeuthis” entertains with strange connections: “When I finally saw the giant squid, I was like, / it’s not that big. My dog pissed a heart shape / on the sidewalk and it was bigger than that.” Or, “If we were birds, I’d eat your young, chew / on a highlighter, and regurgitate fluorescent bones / in a patch of sunlight.” Highly memorable for its images, I had to wonder if these poems would sustain a reread. Was the punchline busted the second time around?
Fortunately, Clarke’s silliness occasionally contains a universal truth or insight that is truly startling for its sly commentary on Darwinian fitness or existential confusion. These lines from “Nature Lovers’ Meet Up” had me giggling and horrified in the same moment.
Yes, but the wings are my favourite
part of the bird because they taste good
and are aspirational. I should put on my
Fly Like a Falcon workout DVD because
I’m feeling revved by its tufted BMI.
Clarke’s ability to evoke complex responses from the reader is her strong suit, and underscores her capability, though I hope she becomes less frivolous in her next collection. She shows much skill, and I look forward to her future writing.
Entrainment is Ewan Whyte’s first collection of his own poems, though his translations of Catullus appeared in 2004, and his reviews appear regularly in Canadian publications. His debut is unusually slim at 52 pages. It is a case of quality over quantity. The collection is a portrait gallery mingled with transportation poems and infused with historical characters and translation.
The introductory ekphrasis poem, “On a Yuan Temple Wall Painting in the Met,” with its bland verb use, odd punctuation, and opaque phrasing in the first three lines, prompts instant arguments from a reader: “Diaphanous lines through blotches of faded colour, / the giant rising Buddha, tame behind the museum rail, / is still static joy within all former recognition.” Recognition of what, one wonders.
Fortunately, this opening poem is not representative of what follows, which comprises a long sequence of satisfying and enticing portrait poems: Fioretti, who renounces worldly possessions for ecstatic joy, a bawdy Catullus translation, and a self-portrait titled “Bike Accident Poem.” Each of these reveals something sly and delicious about the character on which it focuses. The organizational choices build on the strength of each preceding selection, as in “Bike Accident Poem,” in which the narrator becomes a sort of stand-in for Catullus in the present:
My head is numb.
The nurses are lovely though,
they tease me for my art complaints,
I recall salty Catullus poems to them
while they pick gravel bits
out of my hands and face.
Narrative order creates a deeper portrayal of a lustful loner character; Whyte hits a strong stride nearer the middle of the book. The elegy “On a Night Bus” contains high tension and smooth turns of phrase while capturing a strong emotional charge:
While watching a procession
of collapsing monsters our ancestors
would have called gods,
I receive the confirming phone call
that you have died.
The twist returns the verse to portraiture, which startles and energizes the poem. Whyte’s keen eye for original and stark observance is on display again in “Bag Woman Singing into a Carrot,” “Bag Jesus on a Dirt Mound,” and “Freama’s Portfolio Bag.” Each of these is a poignant and focused profile. Entrainment is a strong debut capable of echoing old masters.