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by K.I. Press

In the marketing materials that accompany Toronto poet K.I. Press’s second book of poetry, Spine, Gaspereau Press has included several “study questions” that reviewers may want to use to discuss this book. Though the questions are perhaps a little high schoolish, they do provide an appropriate introduction to this collection – less for the questions themselves than for the “novel study” tone they set. Books, and novels in particular, form the backbone of Spine.

Press’s first book of poetry, Pale Red Footprints, was billed as “a novel in verse.” Spine may be more appropriately billed as many novels in verse. Taking as her primary focus the action and interaction of reading, Press introduces the characters and narratives of some of the best-loved books in Western literature. The first section, “What Are Little Girls Made Of,” explores how these characters and stories have shaped and defined how Press identified as a girl (and heroine). In other poems, Press tries to reconcile these childhood loves with adult sensibilities: “Look at books/and love them, sadly/seeing why we loved them/then.”

Girlhood favourites are not the only books Press revisits. In the long poem “The Letters,” Press reworks the Biblical letters of St. Paul, bringing a contemporary voice and vision to these oft-quoted texts: “When I was young in Tarsus, I would draw/on my skin with pens and think…. I have stopped these things,/now that I am a man.”

Throughout the collection, Press expresses something of the complicated relationship with books that every reader experiences – namely, that the need to read is always shaded by the suspicion that reading is simply another form of escape from living: “You might not remember/the words after you’ve seen them./The point of the matter./You are reading for your life.”

It is when Press takes on this complicated interweaving of reading and life in the final section of the book – which is much more about the interaction of books and relationships – that her poems really shine with their own light, rather than with the reflected light of other stories. These final (but too few) poems are the ones that create Spine’s most tingling effects, and it is because of them that I await Press’s next collection with anticipation.