Saturday, June 3, 2023

Kim Fahner : The Most Charming Creatures, by Gary Barwin

The Most Charming Creatures, Gary Barwin
ECW Press, 2022





If you’re familiar with Gary Barwin’s work as a poet, you’ll know that he dances with language and metaphor in a way that most other poets envy. He plays with language, not in an annoyingly punny way, but in a way that encourages you to step outside of yourself and consider how a poem might stretch out like a yoga pose, ask you to sink into the place where meaning is made and transformed through language, and then question your own sense of the world. Barwin presents the poem with a quick hand, turning it so that it prisms in front of the reader. His keen ability to draw the reader into the text he offers is always admirable.

The epigraph to the collection, a quotation borrowed from Rachel Blau Duplessis’ “Precis,” sets the course for the journey. If we have questions about the ways the world works, in both small and large ways, “it is scrupulous to listen./Especially to the shadows.” It is a call to be mindful of what surrounds us each day. In the “Dust of the Wren” section of the book, in “Everything,” Barwin tells his reader that he is going to put “everything/into a poem/but/in a way/that appears/invisible.” Good poets know how to do this, to fashion poems that speak clearly without pulling aside a Wizard of Oz curtain to reveal the time and care it takes to craft a piece of work.

In “I Have No Words,” the poet speaks of how it is difficult to know what should, or should not, be written about. He recognizes that care must be taken, that a writer must locate themselves and consider their privileges before they put pen to paper: “I’m not going to speak/No I will take no air/from those who should speak/from those to whom we should listen.” We write, so we take up space, Barwin says, but he also asks us to think about whether we ought to speak if it is someone else’s space or territory. Still, in the very act of writing a poem, he notes that even the act of writing a poem has it “ending with/the words/my own words.” Even the act of creating a piece of writing takes up space that perhaps isn’t yours to take up, and how do you navigate (and negotiate) that space with care? He asks us to care, to consider, to rethink the context.

In poems like “Phases,” “Errata,” “Portal,” readers will get a sense of the way that Barwin loves to play with typography and space on the page. His wit and sense of humour are conveyed, too, in the way he plays with language. In poems like “Barman,” the poet writes: “Capitalism, Martin Luther and an amoeba walk into a bear.” In “Sandwich,” the three words that make up the poem reflect the physical construction of a sandwich: “bread/something else/bread//bread/something else/something else/bread.” If you’re able, it’s best to hear Gary Barwin read his work in person, to catch the cadence of the ripples of repetition. Sometimes, the humour comes with a wink, as in the necessarily tiny piece, “Haiku,” when he writes: “five snowcapped mountains/seven snowcapped mountains, ah/five snowcapped mountains.” Here is a poet who explores language, sound, and meaning in innovative ways, so that each poem is unique, filled with quirky and sometimes surrealistic internal (and external) landscapes. Barwin might also be the only Canadian poet I know of who has made reference to the game of crokinole, and that’s humourous in and of itself.

All of this is not to say that seriousness does not find a home in Gary Barwin’s The Most Charming Creatures. He writes of the climate crisis in “Goodbye,” creating a litany of things that will be lost if we don’t mind our typically selfish behaviour as humans: “Goodbye he nods but what about the koalas?/We had eucalyptus but now we have fire…Goodbye clouds, streetcars/filled with fish or birds, our hands gripping oceans. We are leaving/now. We are leaving because tangled in this net the ocean comes with us.” The collection deals with loss—of people and places, and even of the passage of time—and grapples with how we manage to live with grief. In “Something Else,” he reflects on advice given by a departed poet friend, Dave McFadden, writing: “it’s been raining all night/and I can’t sleep/half-remembering a poem.” In “For/after Hugh Thomas,” Barwin writes of how “life is long,” unless it ends quickly, like a rocket or “a foot fall/landing on the ground.” He ends the poem with: “but of course I miss you/I miss you/you’re not here//not here/and all I can do/is walk.” When we lose those we love deeply, the grief is just as deeply felt, and Barwin captures this bittersweet truth in his work.

What is really lovely about Gary Barwin’s The Most Charming Creatures is that you turn pages without being sure of where you’re headed, but knowing—if you’ve been lucky to have read his poetry before—that it will be a collection of great depth and complexity, and that his poems will make you think about and then reconsider your place in the world. His artful touch when it comes to poetic craft, and his satirically smart voice and style, can soften or sharpen depending on the topic at hand. It is a gift of craft that too few poets have these days.






Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. Her latest book of poems is Emptying the Ocean (Frontenac House, 2022). She is the First Vice-Chair of The Writers' Union of Canada (2023-25), a member of the League of Canadian Poets, and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim’s first novel, The Donoghue Girl, will be published by Latitude 46 Publishing in Spring 2024. She may be reached via her author website at

Jérôme Melançon : The Big Melt, by Emily Riddle

The Big Melt, Emily Riddle
Nightwood Editions, 2022





An expansive longing carries the poems in Emily Riddle’s collection The Big Melt. As the speaker – a version of the poet – reaches for relations and memories, the poems reach for their readers drawing them close. Everything seems to indicate a craving for proximity, not in the psychological sense, but a metaphysical one of feeling connected and keeping what matters close. Reading this collection then is to be granted energy and yearning, to share in the determination that anchors the poems even as they open up to something infinite. Yet Riddle is direct and unencumbered by this undertaking: the titles of each section begin with “The Big,” which has the effect of indicating immensity without giving that breadth too much importance. The longing is there, simply.

In a recent episode of the podcast Can’t Lit, Riddle explained that many aspects of the poems would likely only speak to prairie Indigenous people, and perhaps most to nêhiyawak readers. I am sure there is a lot I am missing here, then. Traditional and contemporary teachings make up part of the subject and some of the form of the book – but beyond the ceremonial and the sacred, she also refers to the hockey player Ethan Bear as Maskwa without explaining that this word means “bear” and names him as a bear, making him him into a metaphor (see itwêwina: Plains Cree Dictionary). Words in nêhiyawewin abound, never explained but often expanded upon (“Learning to Count” works entirely on this form). In other places, she opens up some elements of her poems through explanatory footnotes, some of which teach historical elements, while others add personal context through stories. By doing so, she marks just how personal these poems are, how the speaker remains the writer even when the book is published (committing in the first person to write a book in syllabics).

Other aspects are hidden in plain sight: the section “The Big Prayer” features poems titled after colours, which read in order form a rainbow and tie together blood, an orange tree, the sun, a non-alcoholic mojito, herself, ribbons, and petunias, all around the idea of renewal, or more precisely the hope for and work toward renewal. Alcohol is both a he and a she, the two being more than personifications, and the narrator here prefers keeping her wits about to all three.

Most of the poems are narrative, and Riddle can really narrate, really tell. Learning of her mother’s sickness, she turns unsuccessfully to ancestors, noodles, and sex for comfort (“Worms,” 51), living beyond and beneath gratitude all at once:

you can barely say what the news is to him
he takes you on a walk up to a lookout in stanley park
and it seems unappreciative to be sad with a view of the ocean

The first line I quote here has the added effect of displaying the impossibility of sharing the news and of understanding what it could be to not have one’s whole being be affected by it, while the second evokes distance as well as the watchfulness and concern that attach to family histories of breast cancer. And the third line here renews the image of rain hiding tears at the end of the poem – a normal phenomenon in Vancouver, we are told, thus disarming the cliché then rearming the image – given the endlessness of sadness and disease.

It would be greatly unfair not to acknowledge just how funny these poems can be. Riddle uses “i am the coworker who microwaves salmon / and then eats it in her cubicle” (“Wildest Dreams,” 47) as a punchline, or “i wonder why skydaddy sent me a white girl to love” (“Blonde Love,” 18) to mark a change of direction. She laughs at the absurdity of economic reconciliatory intentions; she inserts the line “go on dates with people who go home and google ‘plains cree’” in a poem focusing on self-renewal, hair care and split ends. And she checks on the status of the treaty promise after recounting some of its violations, taking on a voice that is grandly out of place:

the sun’s shining
rivers still flow, even if they’re dirty as heck
grass appears to be growin’
since i’m still mowing it

Other poems break through the narration and become nearly theoretical, and certainly philosophical: “tell me you don’t have to die a bit inside / to be on either side of this relationship” (“Light Blue,” 29) she writes of the colonial relationship of theft and loss. The poem “it flows, but” displays at its best Riddle’s capacity for speaking at once about the personal, the political, the historical, the structural, and the philosophical. Its seventh section, a prose poem, slides from one detail of the story into another, until they all mix into the unevenness, irony, repetition, and direct harms of colonial history – from river walks to carrots to armed guards at arenas.

The collection also holds its own lessons about the multiplicity of the self and of identity, about matriarchy, and about decolonization. And these, as far as I feel and can see, are meant to be told, not explained by môniyâwak.





Jérôme Melançon is a wêmistikôsiw who writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His third chapbook, Bridges Under the Water, is forthcoming with above/ground press. It follows Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022) and Coup (2020), as well as his most recent poetry collection, En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He has also published two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018). He has edited books and journal issues, and keeps publishing academic articles that have nothing to do with any of this. He’s on Twitter mostly, and sometimes on Instagram, both at @lethejerome.

erin nuttle : permanent revolution





i hold / a permanent revolution / in the veins of my / estrogen infused blood / i button my shirt / with blades / sweet / scary / kind / evil / transsexual / my body is uncomfortability for / the cissexual eye / like a cracked mirror / an undesirable siren / scary / sweet / evil / kind / see all the / queen’s decked out / in their streetwear eleganza / dripping in campy blood thirsty jewels / and virgin pearls / we are a / permanent revolution / an undesired desire / dangerously seductive / a transsexual temptress / pulling you / towards her / with sharpened red stiletto claws / i lap your / closed minded views up / your sacred mind / shattered by my cypress legs / and my evergreen arms / like a thirsty dog / rebelling





erin nuttle is an aspiring trans feminine poet & pseudo-queer-historian from metro detroit. She is an avid Kate Bush fan. erin has a doctorate in transsexual anger, with a minor in historical fashion from the University I Just Made Up. This is her first publication.

Joseph Donato: on Toothache





Toothache explores adolescence through the eyes of the mouth; that’s how I explain this chapbook. Exploring the trials and tribulations of my final teenage years through lovely and grotesque oral imagery. Bite-sized poems that make no sense on the surface and less the deeper you look. But they mean everything to me.

I wrote these poems in my first in-person creative writing class. Covid restrictions were lifted and people were crawling out of their homes, reintroducing themselves to each other. Last time I was in a classroom I was a teenager and I returned a grown-up. The transitional period was lost and suddenly I was thrust into a world where people expected me to know what I was doing—and of course I didn’t! That was terrifying.

But that’s no fun to write about. I like weird horror because I can say something painfully mundane and universal in the most dramatic way possible. In this chapbook, I dramatized the death of my adolescence to fictionalize what scared me most. That’s why I’m so thrilled to have an x-ray of my teeth included in the chap; the poems are so outrageous and fantastical that it’s easy to forget that they are, at the end of the day, about me. The x-ray is a grounding moment, a reminder that this strange world is actually the inside of my mouth. It’s mostly a reminder for myself.

I’m often asked: why teeth? Well, why not? I don’t think teeth are given the credit they deserve. If all your teeth fell out of your head right now, you’d be a little cheesed, right? Exactly. They’re important and wonderful and should be celebrated more.

Growing up, my teeth falling out terrified me because it meant I was getting older. I wouldve hot-glued them to my gums if I could. I’m not sure why growing up bothered me so much—maybe I just dreaded endings. Secluded in my bedroom, I didn’t notice my childhood slipping through my fingers until my hands were empty. But as abrupt and gut-wrenching as that realization was, the missed ending may have been for the better. If you’ve read this chapbook and have seen how dramatic I was in the aftermath, imagine how crazy I would’ve been in the moment. We would’ve had a novel on our hands, not a chap.

I’m learning to appreciate adulthood. For example, I ordered Minecraft Crocs the other day without asking for permission. That was an adult purchase. And my adult teeth are much whiter and straighter than my original set, so I’m grateful they’ve pushed through. Plus, I’d look ridiculous as a grown-up with baby teeth.

So, I guess my toothache is gone and I don’t want my cavities back anymore. Woo hoo! I’m sure adulthood will be a breeze!




Joseph Donato is super cool and popular. He is the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Block Party, a Toronto-based magazine and press. Apart from writing, Joseph enjoys illustrating, buying CDs, and Tic Tacs. Toothache is his debut chapbook publication. 

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