Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Patrick James Dunagan : The Fire, by Steven Manuel

The Fire, Steven Manuel
New Books/New: The Journal of American Poetry, 2023





Poet Steven Manuel’s first full collection, The Fire, is poetry verging towards—if not outright embracing and rooted within—occult underpinnings of Modernism. This is an approach towards the poem few employ these days. Manuel, however, admirably stays the course, brazenly heading off into the currently unexplored territory. The results are terrific.

Manuel risks accusations of haughty pretension, as some will find his poetry mired in obscure references, often utilizing language in an arcane manner, yet he shows little care or concern for whether readers are interested in following where he’s gone or capable of appreciating what he’s returned with. He’s too busy recording what he discovers of interest to his own ear coursing along the avenues of his reading and listening.

He conjures and accepts guidance from his own poems.

“The flame in his voice, then,

turned me round

in the mirror,


nitid moon night lets hang

beside me.” (69)

(Note: “nitid”= Bright, shining; polished, glossy. per the OED.)

Manuel achieves an exacting textual richness. Evident of how he reads as means of looking to understand, i.e. hear. Even at the barest of syntactical levels churning out richly imbued syllabics.



aul eve lae den lor carmina

hym tuneye men rust per age


level lies mine eye, sticht oer.


                          (fr. Ausonius’ BISSULA)”  (36)

Here naming his source text, it’s of interest to learn, after doing a bit of on-line searching, that the ancient Latin poet Ausonius (310-395) wrote the poem “Bissula” praising the servant woman of that name whom he had freed from slavery. Clearly love of a sort is a theme intended. In the harsh visual image of “mine eye, stitcht oer” (stitches sealing over one’s eye) a Blues song such as “blood in my eyes for you” might be heard.

With the poem “GROUPED WORKS OUT OF EURIPIDES, HUGH OF FOUILLOY, BION, HERODOTUS, PINDAR, DANTE, HOMER, PEIRE VIDAL, & LORCA”. (64) the title alone gives clear sense of the range of historical works from out which Manuel’s poems arrive. “Out of” here might span in meaning from finding inspiration to outright directly lifting words from the historical text to graph out the poem heard emerging. As with the following closing lines of another poem where all the words come in toto from out the 1921 Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by Ferdinand Schuyler Mathews (a quick search via Googlebooks revealed this). Manuel might plausibly be seen to align Matthews’s words within principles of William Carlos Williams’s thoughts regarding The American Idiom, a poetry particular to patterns of North American speech.

“‘Being English, his song is a possible rendering

of Thomson’s

‘Come gentle spring’;


but to the American ear


his tongue is

hopelessly twisted,


which affliction

may be

due in part

to the



of the American


spring.’” (72-73)

It’s easy enough to hear Williams in “violence//of the American//Spring” echoing, as it does, his title Spring & All (1923) containing the well-known epithet “the pure products of America go crazy”.

Regularly composing in poem-sequences, akin to the serial poem, Manuel brings an often sparse, fragmentary feel to the work, individual poem titles are a rarity, often with touches of Imagism spread across, “owls perched in the arches / Asheville Transit”. (57) Never hesitating to give bare, direct description. Which extends into emotional content as well. Again, echoing Williams (“no ideas but in things”).  

“gaudy, it had

the waves / of the sea

in it, her skirt,

as she / walked, etc,

across Goodwill parkinlot” (98)


“beauty, hard servant,

they say, I once

popped you open

by a trash can

on sleeping pills.” (96)

The classics arrive mixed in with hanging round garbage down backstreets and out front the Goodwill store, explicitly working-class settings. Likely breaking with expectations, Manuel seemingly steps into poetry from outside standard literary confines. His listening is absolute in its assuredness, recognizing with whom he’s playing alongside.

“What birds



the mime—

the trees


, pines, poplars; …


A bliss of thrall


(“For Cecil Taylor”)” (86)

And again, whittling away at the words to pare down the image to its core essentials.





stars” (48)

Manuel welcomes the poem as enchantment. Imbuing our era with alchemical glow from out another time when the words of a poem led not to imagined shores of an individual’s personal concerns but rather broadened out to encompass and alter the scope of an entire community’s conceptions of reality. From a perspective when hidden meanings lay occluded in plain sight of extraordinary speech.

“Apollo hiding his sun.

Hermes aflame in his laughter,

   picker of locks,

director. ‘The white cypress’—


     map carousel

(you learned it as



There is a river there.

Prayer and a field,

      chant and subterranean


      to walk under

as you chant.



      sounding anemoes.


Renew calumny, work

      plain speech to strange speech.


      among sparrows.


The green eyes

      in the mesh.



       hiding his sun.”

(“Hear the Bard” / Od. 13.9  [for Charles Segal]) (41)

The Fire offers readers the opportunity to glimpse that world of poetry once again. A poetry wherein the stakes are nothing less than essential and necessary. One that leads the poet to ask himself:

“Is my bow for killing

or to


to?” (45)

And never fully be sure of the answer.






Patrick James Dunagan recently edited Roots & Routes: Poetics at New College (w/ Lazzara & Whittington) and David Meltzer’s Rock Tao. City Bird and Other Poems (City Lights) is forthcoming. He reviews regularly for Rain Taxi and other venues.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Alexis Vollant : Four poems from Nipinapunan : translated by Jérôme Melançon and revised by the author




(Page 13)

Summer is the time to go harvesting
to go breathe underwater
like otters
it’s the time for braving extreme colds
that aren’t so extreme at home

here the earth has remained living and moist
not like on your skyscraper streets

here the earth takes sun showers
it still feeds on its light

in summer we take out the pales for raspberries
with the hope of finding some that are blue
of bequeathing the speed of visions to our dreams
and to the colours of summer that they get lost in them

since the earth is still feeding
it absorbs heat so that we may find the cool
that’s why you’ll still see
our skirts and our hats
even in the middle of July



Pages 30-31

My language threaded its way between the trees
it formed itself within the curves and crannies of the territory
just like Innu Assi, it is imperfect
of a rigid nimbleness and of dead colours
it is everything this Earth has given it
it has constructed itself through the wind and seasons
it has fed on the perfumes of lichen
and of the evening calm
it has forged its limbs
with the lakes and the rivers
it has taken refuge behind the wisdom of stars
it has fled when captivity was too close by

your language built itself within history
through the remorse and the bad luck
it was hardened and contracted
so that it may lay the appropriate pomp
your language had to flee from its palace
to stake a claim to evasion

I take your language to speak about my own
since for so long there has been a war
without end, yours becomes stronger
it hides behind a curtain
of weakness and of fear
but my language is porous
it is wood and mud
it has no restrictions
it will not put on airs for you
it is the sound of the lamprey
it has neither label nor manoeuvre

while my language has fewer words than yours
and you are so proud of this
know that the words we are missing
do not come from this Earth that also shelters you.



Page 57

I look at your blonde hair
and your sunglasses
and you – you stare at my hands
as if I had gotten into a fight
that’s just the skin of Nitassinan
that’s just the song of the territory
the frequencies you are hearing
do not come from the river or from the asphalt
they are coming from inland
where I cannot go
since the perils are too great
for my young years

eukuan ne, that’s just what I’m trying to tell you
a smiling people whose smile is wounded
a people of all the sorrows held up by the beauty of the world
the greatest treasure with a sordid past
a sky of gold and a soul of morbidity
you were told that it was rough
and you thought you were ready
but I can see you hiding your tears
behind that good ally mask.



Pages 69-70

An Innu song
is the closest a man will get
to his wounds
since he is good, tall, and strong
he has the full thickness of his armour
the voices that vibrate throughout the Nation
are those of the men who speak for the others

and in a form of symbiosis
the words travel across the whole Nitassinan
from Natuashish to Mashteuiatsh
they tell us the stories of broken hearts
chilled by the ice and the tundra
they tell us the vibrations of the wild earth
and of its unknown crannies
or frenzied legends
and myths around the fire

I will give them to you
since in a way
they are all I have left
of what you are asking of me
I don’t have much left of these roots
aside from the extremities that teem
with chords and melodies
it is not much
but I give myself to you, naked and emptied
the voices that cradled me, so little
the wounds of men in captivity.



see Jérôme Melançon's review of Alexis Vollant's Nipinapunan here




Multi-talented artist Alexis Vollant hails from the Innu community of Pessamit, in the Côte-Nord region of Québec. Mostly active in the musical and literary realms as a pianist, baritone, composer, arranger, chorister, writer and poet, he offers a new voice for Indigenous arts in Québec and in Canada.

Beyond his musical life, Alexis is also a poet. In May of 2023, his first poetry collection called Nipinapunan was published by Éditions Hannenorak. The work was received with good enthusiasm in Québec. He was a guest writer at the Acadian Poetry Festival (2023 Edition) which took place in Caraquet, New-Brunswick. He is currently working on a novel manuscript with the financial aid of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Jérôme Melançon writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His third chapbook is Bridges Under the Water (2023) was published with above/ground press, as were Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022) and Coup (2020). His most recent poetry collection is En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021), and 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 various social media under variations of @lethejerome.


Jérôme Melançon : Nipinapunan, by Alexis Vollant

Nipinapunan, Alexis Vollant
Éditions Hannenorak, 2023




Alexis Vollant’s collection Nipinapunan is a story that dwells on what runs beneath relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and, here, specifically, between an Indigenous woman and a non-Indigenous man: her boyfriend, who sees himself as a “good ally.” The structure of the collection is operatic, reflecting Vollant’s day to day concerns as a music student (now graduated!) in Vancouver. The occasion of the story is a return home to the North Shore of the Saint-Lawrence River, to her/his home community of Pessamit.

The structure brings this story into a rushed linearity, moving from the Overture to the First then the Second Movement, to the Intermission, and ending immediately with a Postlude, as if something ended early – as if the protagonist and narrator (the speaker, literally, who speaks to her boyfriend) had discovered something untenable about this relationship that brought it directly into a past tense even as the two remain together.

One of the grandest poems in the collection shows that this relationship already was muted, contained, or limited, perhaps because of the stunting effects of colonialism on the capacity to create relationships:

“I have a fire for you / it’s not much / but it’s burning / that’s something [...] and if the fire threatens to go out / I’ll light it again / because life is a series of fires / that make it so that life never goes out”

“j’ai un feu pour toi / ce n’est pas beaucoup / mais il brûle / c’est quelque chose [...] et si le feu menace de s’éteindre / je le rallumerai / car la vie est une série de feux / qui font que la vie ne s’éteint jamais” (47)

Repetition here brings our attention to relatedness, to mutual reinforcements – to the need for relationships, but also to the unavoidable repetition of past relationships and all the fear and danger that comes with a difficult past, and, also, to the lasting possibilities of life in spite of these threats.

Vollant often includes words in Innu-aimun, with some irony when they are (badly) spoken by the white boyfriend, and with some defiance and much love when they are the only words that will hold up the poem, or when on three occasions they make up the entire poem, without translation. He juxtaposes Innu-aimun and French, inhabiting the space of their inequality, highlighting their oppositions and differences, and especially the inability of French to mingle with the territory. After all, the speaker reminds us:

“We come from here / as much as our blood / ute / our tongue double with wood and bark / with the forest that crowns our reserves”

“Nous venons d’ici / autant que notre sang / ute / notre langue de bois et d’écorce / de la forêt qui couronne nos réserves” (60)

Unlike Joséphine Bacon, who is also from Pessamit and who offers her poems in mirror versions so that their original language is never stated, Vollant writes in French or in Innu-aimun, and only translates into French as one might do so in speaking around a unilingual person, a concession made to explain a point that needs to come through. The other poems are there, and he leaves it up to each of us to use the tools we can to understand more of their meaning… or create our own relationships.

There is great, straightforward beauty in Vollant’s poetry. Most lines are clear, clean, direct, and some take on great imagery:

“the white speed of a death-approaching routine” (“la vitesse blanche d’une routine de trépas,” 33)

“The forest sends out subtle vibrations” (“La forêt lance des vibrations subtiles,” 40)

“I repainted the sky of my apartment” (“J’ai repeint le ciel de mon appartement,” 53)

While lines such as these might be able to exist in isolation, most depend on the support they give to others and receive from them. As Vollant moves through poems, always with these lines, he creates carefully and with great effect dynamics that lead to swelling moments and moments of respite and breath. Nipinapunan is able to fully contain at once a story and poems by abandoning some of the typical forms of storytelling and poetry, while focusing on some of their sharpest aspects.



Read Jérôme Melançon’s translation of Four poems by Alexis Vollant.




Jérôme Melançon writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His third chapbook is Bridges Under the Water (2023) was published with above/ground press, as were Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022) and Coup (2020). His most recent poetry collection is En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021), and 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 various social media under variations of @lethejerome.

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