James Pollock has published poems widely in many journals and his awards include the Manchester Poetry Prize and the Magma Editors’ Prize. He’s the author of You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada (2012) and the book of poems Sailing to Babylon (2012) but his most recent book of poems (on everyday technology) is called Durable Goods (2022). 

These are carefully crafted and imaginative poems about everyday items. Recently I came across a couple of Auden quotes, including the idea no one can create a work of art “by a simple act of will… but must wait until what he believes to be a good idea for a work comes to him.” And “there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.” With all this in mind, how long did it take to write a collection like this, and could you elaborate on the value of turning your attention to everyday objects?

Thanks for your question, Alex, and your kind words.

I’ll tell you how I got the idea to write Durable Goods. I was sitting in a meeting at my college with my English colleagues. We were discussing some randomly-selected essays from our first-year College Writing classes, to decide whether or not our students were learning what we wanted them to learn. 

An essay by one of my own students was projected on the screen at the front of the classroom. The student’s name, and my name, had both been removed, but I recognized it. A couple of my colleagues began criticizing the essay for being written in first person, arguing that we should be teaching students to write academic arguments in the disembodied, disinterested voice of reason, not the subjective voice of an interested person. To my mind, the disinterested voice had certainly been conventional for academic writing throughout most of the twentieth century, but my view was that for some decades it had been gradually superseded by a more embodied, culturally-specific, first-person point of view, at least in the humanities, and I saw that as a good thing. In fact, I spent a lot of time in my classes encouraging students not only to write about things they cared about, but to write in first person, and to bring their own identities and experiences to bear.

I left the meeting feeling thoroughly annoyed and baffled, and as I passed a drinking fountain in the hallway, and gazed at it for a while, filled with emotional heat, it suddenly struck me that I could write a poem by imagining my way into the subjective existence of a drinking fountain, and all at once I felt tremendously excited. It felt very much like something Keats writes about in one of his letters, where he describes feeling despondent, and then, seeing a bird outside his window, “take[s] part in its existence” by a joyful effort of the imagination, “and peck[s] about the gravel.” 

I realized that I could write a whole book of poems about such things: not birds or flowers, but tools and appliances and machines. So the idea for the entire book came to me all at once, standing in a hallway, staring at a drinking fountain. 

After that, to answer your question, it took me about three years to write and revise the book, although I wrote most of the poems over the course of two summers when I wasn’t teaching. 

As for the value of turning my attention to everyday objects, I have two answers for that.

First, I’d say it’s a way of moving past autobiography in English-language poetry. I’ve written some autobiographical poems myself, and of course there are a lot of wonderful poems that have come out of this Wordsworthian tradition that Keats calls “the egotistical sublime”; but I’m interested in finding ways to do something else in poetry. Keats identifies an alternative tradition of the “chameleon poet”—that is, the kind of poet who, like Shakespeare, disappears into the subject of the poem—and that tradition strikes me as the most exciting way forward in our own time. Of course, there are various ways of doing this: dramatic monologues, for example, or certain narrative forms like the verse novel. For lyric poetry, one way to do this is with the thing-poem, which is descended from, and related to, the riddle. This is the approach that excited me when I was writing Durable Goods.

Another way to answer your question has to do with the value of engaging imaginatively with technology. When we use the word “technology” today, we tend to mean recent computer technology—blockchain, smart phones, quantum computing, artificial intelligence—and we forget about all the older technologies we use all day long, so that they have become almost invisible to us as technological: umbrellas, mirrors, teaspoons. It’s all just hardware, appliances, “products,” and before long, junk. In other words, most of us live immersed in a thoroughly disenchanted world of objects that we use and then throw away. Even though these things often help us, and sometimes hurt us, and require our care, we tend not to think of ourselves as having relationships with them.

The poems in Durable Goods, in adapting the thing-poem tradition to tools and appliances, bring an imaginative animism to these things, so they become enchanted subjects in their own right, not just disposable objects. When William Blake writes, concerning a thistle, that “With my inward Eye, ’tis an old Man grey, / With my outward, a Thistle across my way,” that’s a Romantic thing-poem, a visionary animism of Nature. There’s a whole tradition of thing-poems in modern poetry, too, including poems by Eduard Mörike, Rainer Maria Rilke, Marianne Moore, D.H. Lawrence, Francis Ponge, Eric Ormsby, and others. In Durable Goods, I’m innovating on that tradition by writing, not about plants or animals, or even works of art, but tools and appliances and machines.

As for your first quotation from Auden—his assertion that no one can create a work of art “by a simple act of will . . . but must wait until what he believes to be a good idea for a work comes to him”—I agree. Still, I try never to forget that Rilke learned the opposite, or at least a complementary, lesson when he worked for Rodin in Paris. In Rodin’s words, “Il faut travailler, toujours travailler,” or in English, “One must work, always work.” So, practice is crucial, too. It certainly had a profoundly beneficial effect on Rilke’s poetry, which improved rapidly from that point on, as he started to write the two volumes of New Poems, where most of his thing-poems are to be found. Whereas before—when apparently he was always waiting for inspiration—his poetry was relatively vague and sentimental. Later, when he received the inspiration for the Duino Elegies, walking along the wall at Duino Castle—I believe the story is that he had some distressing financial business to take care of, and then suddenly he heard the opening lines of the first elegy—he was ready for it; he had the technique he needed to turn the inspiration into a masterpiece, because he’d been practicing for years.

Still, today I would revise the lesson Rodin taught Rilke, at least a little. Yes, writing Durable Goods was a great deal of work, involving endless drafts, endless revisions, trying to make it all feel effortless. But really, it wasn’t work so much as play. It gave me great pleasure to write these poems, imagining my way into the experience of a ceiling fan, and then a sewing needle, and then a framing hammer. Each poem was like a new game of backgammon or chess. There were certain rules I set for myself, like iambic pentameter lines, rhymed quatrains, and so forth. Sometimes I’d win, sometimes I’d lose—that is, sometimes the poem would fail—but if I lost, I could always just clear the board, or part of it, and start over again. 

Finally, that second quotation from Auden strikes me as clearly wrong: “poetry must praise.” Tell that to Juvenal or Catullus or Alexander Pope! Not to mention Paul Celan. Anyway, I reject commandments about “all poetry,” especially if they try to restrict the freedom of the poet—in this case apparently to forbid all poetic satire and invective. As for my own attitude toward the things I write about in Durable Goods, I think it’s fair to say the aspersions I cast in that book, however playful, are sown almost as thickly as the praise.


Story collections: The Running Trees (Amber McMillan) was impressive for the variety of techniques used in quietly meaningful stories, and description that’s sparse and potent: We’d let the hurtful things we’d said sit between us like tacky lawn ornaments. Ill-fitting, grotesque.”

Take Us To Your Chief and Other Stories (Drew Hayden Taylor) is an intelligent, biting and meaningful collection of stories that provide an Indigenous take on a set of science-fiction stories. 

Middle-Aged Boys & Girls (Diane Bracuk) struck me as a skillfully crafted book of stories, though it also felt like a fairly cynical one and a book that hints at a certain amount of distaste for people in the description, with a “dull-looking teenage girl behind the counter.”

The Dead Are More Visible (Steven Heighton) is a carefully crafted set of meaningful stories and for Heighton to have passed away this year is an appalling loss. I’m sorry to say I only met him once back when I hosted a reading series and he gave a reading, but we traded emails sometimes (as recently as December of 2021) and he was always considerate and helpful. 

Honourable mentions to Damned If I Do (Everett), The Stone Thrower (Marek) and The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell (Evenson), and in particular here, the opening story “Leg.” 

Novels: Estates Large and Small (Ray Robertson) is both timely and finds profound moments, as the story of a bookstore owner struggling through the pandemic, middle-age and a rapidly changing world. I finished the book with a list of assorted albums and books I wanted to explore. 

The Red Pony (Steinbeck, really a novella) is the kind of concise, poignant and timeless book I adore. 

A brief, incomplete tour through Canadian classics: As For Me and My House (Sinclair Ross, 1941) has an assortment of striking, poignant moments but also felt a trifle ponderous, and as an early Canadian novel I can’t help but feel it helped set a tone as the only kind of fiction that won awards for decades: be serious and historical. But there are many standout moments here in a story set in Saskatchewan in the 1930s during the depression: “It’s been nearly dark today with dust. Everything’s gritty, making you shiver and setting your teeth on edge. There’s a crunch on the floor like sugar when you walk.” It has been a while since I read it, but I think I prefer Barometer Rising (Hugh MacLennan) published the same year. 

Hetty Dorval (Ethel Wilson, 1947) was concise and quietly meaningful book I took to be a story about finding your own way despite overwhelming nearby personalities, and so perhaps understandable as the kind of story we have wanted to tell ourselves in Canada.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Richler, 1959) struck me as having so much more vitality and humour even as it carried meaning, though it apparently made little dent in the perception of what Canadian fiction should be. The scene Kravitz buys all the Beethoven symphonies, listens to them all and date stamps each album every time he hears it is the kind of moment that perfectly illustrates a character even as so many other writers prefer to plainly state what someone’s about. 

No Great Mischief (Alistair MacLeod, 1999) explores the bonds of family through adversity, and I eventually really enjoyed it after finding the beginning quite slow. The novel takes its title from James Wolfe apparently commenting this way on sending Scottish soldiers into battle: “they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.”

Theatre: J.M. Barrie may be best known for Peter Pan but I thought Mary Rose was superb, both for an unsettled feeling throughout even as some poignant comments were made on the inevitable passage of time. Apparently seeing it as a young man had an influence on Hitchcock, though he never made it into a film. 

Graphic novel: Mazebook (Jeff Lemire) is a thoroughly engaging and superbly well-realized story about love and loss. 

I’d also really recommend The Holy Ghost (John Hendrix), a collection of charming philosophical comics: “Perhaps joy, without suffering, is too cheap to understand.”

Essays: The Difficult (Stan Dragland) is a collection on Canadian literature that’s a trifle rambling at times but finds its way to some great quotes: “Rouse the faculties, keep an open mind – to appreciate difficult work, certainly, but also to receive worthy accessible work on its own terms.”

Nonfiction: On Browsing (Jason Guriel) is a concise look at what we lose by giving up browsing and boredom, and it comes strongly recommended. After reading it, I wrote my first review of a book in a very long time for The Fiddlehead site. Here’s a quote from the book: “A mind whose baseline is boredom is well primed to feel, with acute sensitivity, the slightest stimuli. A mind that’s buffeted by novelty, on the other hand, is the fender of a beater: it absorbs a lot of undifferentiated dings.”

The Last Word: Reviving the Dying Art of Eulogy (Julia Cooper) is more about grief and our society’s impatience with it than anything else, but it’s a worthy, articulate book. 

Galleria: The Mall That Time Forgot (Shari Kasman) is a fascinating historical document featuring both photos and the perfect amount of accompanying text. 

The Book of Malcolm: My Son’s Life with Schizophrenia (Fraser Sutherland): I lived a few blocks from Fraser and his family near Bathurst and St Clair for a number of years. This is what I expected: a poignant memoir about struggle, loss and love that remains as a record now that they’re all, sadly, no longer with us. I will continue to miss his friendship, honesty, and passion about books. 

Genre: The Left Hand of Darkness (Le Guin) plays with gender brilliantly, and does what all superb science-fiction does by both imagining a new world and grounding it in impressive details and characters that give you a real, everyday feeling. 

Poetry: Little Housewolf (Purdham), Ox (Christopher Patton), Ninety-fifth Street (Koethe), Hail the Invisible Watchman (Alexandra Oliver), Primitive Mentor (Dean Young), Ninety-Fifth Street (John Koethe), Infinity Network (Jim Johnstone) Boxing the Compass (Richard Greene), Deepfake Serenade (Chris Banks), Morning After You (Carmelo Militano). 


Amber McMillan has won a Penguin Random House award for fiction and has been shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. She is the author of the memoir The Woods: A Year on Protection Island (2016) as well as two poetry titles: We Can’t Ever Do This Again (2015) and This Is a Stickup (2022). This question concerns her book of stories, The Running Trees (2021) available from Goose Lane Editions.

I’m impressed that your quietly meaningful stories use a variety of techniques, including description that’s sparse and precise, but sometimes (even most often) dialogue as a way to get everything across. What appeals about that particular technique? 

Approaching writing in terms of sparsity and precision comes from my practice as a poet in which the idea is to see what can be effectively communicated in as little words as possible. I want to communicate but I don’t want to be the authority; that is, I want there to be an interpretive relationship to the text available to the reader that bypasses the author, or whatever authority on the text the author is thought of to have.

I made a particular point in The Running Trees not to assign gender to the characters as often as it was meaningfully possible because I wanted the thoughts, behaviours, and words of the characters to be experienced out of that (out-dated) context. For similar reasons, I also eliminated descriptions of age, race, body type, hair colour, profession, and other characterizations to see – as a kind of experiment – how much of what we’re used to being told about a character is actually unnecessary to the story. I’m still thinking a lot about the idea of an “author” and the ways we not only allow but expect them to take on the role of narrative expert, leaving us, the readers, as passive receivers and interpreters.

I’ve been troubled by the cultural notion that an author’s aim for a book is the aim that most matters – and so that is the aim that gets unpacked in, say, a Creative Writing class. What is the author’s intention? What is the author trying to tell us? What does the author mean? When I’ve been faced with questions like that I think to myself: who cares? As an author, I can admit that I have aims when I write, but I’m not convinced that what I meant to do is worth doing, nor that what I meant to say is worth interpreting. I’m far more curious about how my work is interpreted, how it reaches or doesn’t reach you, how it fits or doesn’t fit into the current milieu.

When I write poetry, I’m interested in atmosphere. I create atmosphere by word choices, rhythm, and imagery. I feel the same way about writing stories. Like other authors I have a narrative focus, I have intellectual aims, I have “a message” in mind, but… who cares?


After twenty-five years of rather stylishly rolling out the red carpet for a lot of impressive writing (including fiction, poetry and non-fiction) Taddle Creek is calling it a day after the latest issue, set to launch on Sept 9, after 6pm in a park near Jet Fuel at 519 Parliament St. I’m honoured to be reading, and the evening will also feature Chris Chambers, Jessica Westhead and Alexandra Leggat. I’ve always saved my favourite poems for my favourite magazine, and I’m looking forward to seeing a poem of mine published in Taddle Creek one final time.


This year I had an essay published on life as a bookseller with quotes from Orwell on the subject. It’s in the current issue of Canadian Notes & Queries if you subscribe now. It was a difficult year personally that included my friend Fraser Sutherland passing away (I have him to thank for suggesting I submit the essay, more on Fraser below) but as I enjoy doing it, I’ve gone ahead with a listing of my favourite books of the year, including fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, poetry and books for kids.

Fiction: Seven Down (David Whitton) was my favourite novel of the year. It’s a witty, sharply written and concise story told in seven interviews (with seven people) about a failed assassination attempt. Whitton is skilled at reproducing the imperfect way people often speak, and I found it a strangely delightful dose of cynicism and a story that unfolded in a fascinating way.

The Sea (John Banville) has an impressively original narrative voice and finds profound moments of consideration. Some novels have no patience for small talk, and this is one of them. Winner of the Booker. 

Convenience Store Woman (Sayaka Murata) is a novel written in a fairly charming and convincing voice, even as it examines societal norms and expectations. I only wish I could have read it without it conjuring up rotten memories from when I worked in retail. 

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore is the kind of novel I really enjoy: poignant, concise, and loaded with arresting images. Looking forward to reading more of her books. 

Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow (Jason Heroux) is concise and just the right amount of experimental for my taste: different enough to be interesting but far from incoherent. 

Loving (Henry Green) is interesting for conveying a lot through dialogue, generally dropping even descriptions of characters, and Green is a smart, witty writer. When brief moments of description arrive it’s often startlingly good: “The room was dark as long weed in the lake.” 

I went on to read Back (also Henry Green) about a WW1 soldier returning to England and found it slow-paced — almost meditative — but involving. And in a sudden reminder the novel is over 70 years old, I was startled by a moment of racist description brought forward by the narrator near the end.

Why Birds Sing (Nina Berkhout) is a novel that seems to understand life can be both appallingly difficult and sublime, even as the story is engaging and the characters feel quite real. 

The Student (Cary Fagan) had characters that felt immediately real and a compelling story that interestingly (for me, anyway) includes snapshots of Toronto, starting in the 1950s. 

Catching Desire (Carmelo Militano) was a concise, compelling and personal novel about Modigliani, and as Militano is a friend there’s a One Question Interview below to be found earlier on the blog. 

Fauna (Christiane Vadnais) is a climate disaster novel that has startlingly good moments of description and inventive twists. It’s a fascinating blend of realism and fiction in a far-sighted way. Here’s a moment a character has a vision: “She feels the sun and the moon blinking, faster and faster, as if the earth’s rotation has sped up and days contracted to mere hours, minutes, seconds. The sun seems to cross the sky at breakneck speed … Laura has found the secret to seeing how the townspeople are born and die by the hundreds, like the crackling of some eternal fire.” 

Graphic novels: Rust (Royden Lepp) is four volumes but reads as a quick, compelling reimagining of history: a First World War with robots, though really the aftermath and a family’s struggle to survive on a farm provides the backbone of the story, done in a skilled, highly filmic way. 

Stay (Lewis Trondheim) is not, I hope, based on a true story about a woman trying to continue to enjoy a vacation spot after her partner is almost immediately killed. 

Slaughterhouse-Five (Ryan North) is a superb graphic novel adaption of the novel by Vonnegut. 

Victory Point (Owen D. Pomery): beautiful artwork accompanies a story about returning home. 

Big Black: Stand at Attica (Frank “Big Black” Smith) is a graphic novel memoir of a 1971 rebellion against the injustices of the prison system, and a historical moment that should not be forgotten. 

The Stringbags (Ennis, Holden) is the true story of antiquated biplane torpedo bombers used by England in WW2 that nevertheless enjoyed some important successes. Well illustrated and compelling. 

Graphic novel biography: Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula (Koren Shadmi) is an excellent graphic novel (by the same creator as Twilight Man about Rod Serling). 

Orwell (Christin, Verdier) looks at the life of one of my favourite writers and only really stumbles in the opening pages with a sweeping statement about “woman’s novels” being “sad and sentimental.” Hey, I like a good solid dose of sad and sentimental. 

Lon Chaney Speaks (Pat Dorian) is another worthy graphic novel biography, though because parts of his life are a mystery the book is forced to dwell, at times, on his assorted films.

Genre: I finally read The Lord of the Rings (not a huge fan of fantasy) which I generally called Lord of the Onion Rings as I read it to my daughter in the evenings. I had to fast-forward through some of the remarkable amounts of description, and it felt a little like trying to show her a TV show from fifty years ago in terms of the pace, but there are also remarkable moments in the description and she found the story and characters compelling, particularly Frodo and Sam. I was nearly moved to tears when reading aloud Gandalf’s wonderful return, and the moment Frodo and Sam say they’re glad to be with each other “at the end of all things.” 

Consider Her Ways and Others (John Wyndham): inventive speculative fiction stories from an author I admire, though sometimes the kind of story or general idea we’ve seen produced as a film in all the decades since. 

Dr. No (Fleming) suffers from the usual sweeping generalizations (culturally speaking), but I can’t imagine who’d read it as an accurate portrayal of Jamaica – particularly all these years later — it’s an entertaining Fleming novel. 

Hombre (Elmore Leonard) is a gripping Western told in precise, straightforward language I found both admirable and compelling. 

Stories: Zero Gravity (Sharon English) is a superb set of stories: well written without being flashy and meaningful without being heavy-handed. I’m fifteen years late to the party, but a great book is a great book. 

Tiny Deaths (Robert Shearman) was a dark (and by that I mean really dark) inventive collection I enjoyed. 

Instruction Manual for Swallowing (Marek) is another inventive collection I found refreshingly original and unpredictable. My favourite was about a huge talking centipede full of regret. 

Nonfiction: On Decline (Andrew Potter) clarified some important ideas for me, including the idea that when media outlets post bizarre articles (that sometimes left me scratching my head) the outrage is the point. It’s concise, and part of the new Field Notes series by Biblioasis. 

A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson): don’t know how I took this long to read Bryson, but this is funny, thoughtful, charming and immensely readable. It was perfect summer reading at a cottage.  

My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (Christian Wiman) had me reaching for my highlighter frequently: “I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe.” 

Unreliable Memoirs (Clive James): James is good company here, though I would not consider it his best book. I also picked up Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language and enjoyed it. 

The Unreality of Memory and other Essays (Elisa Gabbert): a set of impressively thoughtful, articulate essays that addresses, in particular, our deeply troubled times. 

Poetry: Manual for Emigrants (Fraser Sutherland) is a book I enjoyed and found skillfully done, but more importantly a book very kindly signed and dropped in the mail to me by Fraser a few months before he passed away early in the year. He was a talented poet and a supportive friend. I’ll always remember him editing my first book of poems and calling it “Good stuff,” as well as insisting on buying me every coffee on a patio, saying “The writer doesn’t pay” (though of course he was a writer as well). I’m glad I made it to the launch of his 2019 poetry book, and that his book about his son (The Book of Malcolm) was completed and will be out in 2022. 

Looking back on the year I’m surprised at how many poetry books I read even as I drifted away from writing poetry: Elephant Rocks (Kay Ryan) We Can’t Ever Do This Again (Amber McMillan), Mere Extinction (Evie Christie), All the Daylight Hours (Amanda Jernigan), Strangers (Rob Taylor), A Tunisian Notebook (Russell Thornton), The Id Kid (Linda Besner), The Suicide’s Son (James Arthur), Dunk Tank (Kayla Czaga), How Long (Ron Padgett) Lucifer at the Starlite (Kim Addonizio), The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, Troubled (R.M. Vaughan). 

I revisited The Stovehaven Poems (Rick Patrick) and below on this blog I’ve reviewed the debut book The Pit (Tara Borin).  

Books for young kids: Through with the Zoo (Jacob Grant) was, remarkably enough, a book about being an introvert as far as I can tell, and really the first one I’ve come across in ten years of reading to my kids.

Other books my young son enjoyed included Bear Meets Bear (Jacob Grant), On the Other Side of the Forest (Robert, DuBois), The Barnabus Project (Terry Fan) and a series called Big Words Small Stories (by Judith Henderson). 


I’ll have an essay on what it was like to work as a bookseller (“Paper Problems”) with quotes from the Orwell essay on the same subject (“Bookshop Memories”) in the next Canadian Notes & Queries. If you don’t subscribe, it’s easy to do online and the affordable price gets you a pile of thoughtful book reviews and articles at least a couple of times a year.


Carmelo Militano lives in Winnipeg and is the author of a number of books, including poetry such as Morning After You and The Stone-Mason’s Notebook. Most recently he has published a novel about the life of the painter Modigliani, called Catching Desire.

In your novel on Modigliani and his work, you have striking moments of description even as you make use of a blend of different perspectives, including your own. The title Catching Desire could also be said to reflect your desire to know the artist and the story of his life a hundred years later. It feels purposeful that looking back through history was a perspective, almost a character, but was it a suffocating feeling or a most positive one

Thanks for the question. To begin with let me say a few words about description. I like description for description’s sake simply for its sensual and emotional zing even though it may not add to anything to the story or character. Yes, the title does include or suggest my desire and curiosity to capture Modigliani, to understand his ‘desire’ to paint; to ‘catch’ or discover what was the spirit behind his reach in art. It was a positive experience and I deliberately limited the amount of books I worked with to avoid being overwhelmed by research.

(continued)

I was not interested in writing a detailed academic work. I was more interested in getting under the skin of Modigliani, to discover the essence of his artistic and personal reality and how both evolved. This was not ‘suffocating’ so much, to use your term, but at times exasperating. He could be so difficult, fickle, and inexplicable yet he possessed an incredible work ethic; romantic, and madly cruel to his ex-lovers, generous to his friends. His rebel behaviour in Paris at times seemed unnecessarily self-destructive. But, along with all that he was imbued with a type of pure artistic desire and when all is said and done it was great learning about him. He would have made a fun drinking companion if you avoided talking to him about Picasso.


Set in and around “a small-town, subarctic dive bar,” The Pit is a superb debut.

It’s a book of poetry that finds impressive focus in spare, precise language that leaves implied connections hanging in the air. A church key quietly carried around is a source of comfort and “secret to speed,” while working. In a poem about fathers (“Father’s Day”) a possible tragedy is foreshadowed in four concise lines from what I assume to be two voices: “she’s on the honour roll / he gets into a lot of trouble / if anyone hurts her / that’s my boy.”

There are poignant and empathetic portraits here, as the poet ponders a particular drinker and wonders “who he’d be / in a kinder timeline,” and readers are introduced to a night janitor who “Hears God / in the electricity.”

But as fascinating as the people are here, the landscape is also a character, and a refreshingly different one for many readers, particularly in strong poems like “Flood,” in which “Neighbouring buildings lift / from their cribbing and jostle / against each other / like drunks commiserating / in the street.” And this particular poem has an ending that may or may not be poetic exaggeration, but regardless, it’s perfect. 

“We’ll Never Have Enough of This,” is a found poem using graffiti from a washroom, and while it’s not quite clear if the title is also found poetry, it doesn’t matter because it works well. 

Personally, I’ve troubled to put my own poems in a particular order rather than group them into sections that seemed a bit arbitrary, but here I thought it worked well to have sections like “The Regulars,” and “The Hard Stuff.” Is it possible to have section envy? I’m not quite sure.

Here’s what’s important: this is a mature, self-assured and sharply written book. I hope it finds readers, because it quite clearly announces a new talent. 


This year a couple of my poems found homes: The Undertow of the World is over at Cypress, and a poem called “Dictators at Night” can be found in the new, winter issue of Taddle Creek. It’s easy to subscribe online (not to mention quite affordable in Canada). As always, here are some thoughts on favourite books of the year including nonfiction, novels and stories as well as graphic novels.

Essays: Notes of a Native Son (James Baldwin) is a collection of essays published in the 1950s but still relevant today. I reached for my highlighter often. Here’s one of the many statements that struck me as very perceptive: “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.” 

The Mystery Shopping Cart (Anita Lahey) is both essays and interviews. Lahey deserves thanks for so frequently engaging with other writers over the years.

Be Scared of Everything: Horror Essays (Peter Counter) is a set of concise, articulate essays that actually draws from a variety of cultural sources, from horror films to some of the more bizarre alleys of the Internet. A full review can be found a little further down on this blog. 

Impossible Owls (Brian Phillips) is series of long, thoughtful and well-written essays on obscure subjects – like Sumo wrestlers – and comes highly recommended.  

Novels: True Grit (Charles Portis) and Hard Rain Falling (Carpenter) were two of my favourite novels of the year. Both were hard-hitting, compelling and highly descriptive in an accessible style. 

An Artist of the Floating World (Ishiguro) is a quietly compelling and flawlessly written story, not to mention a poignant one.  

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Siegfried Sassoon) is what I assume to be a memoir wearing a thin disguise as a novel. I was struck by description like this: “In 1917 I was only beginning to learn that life, for the majority of the population, is an unlovely struggle against unfair odds, culminating in a cheap funeral.” This after a description of a British soldier with “a horribly smashed head.” Sassoon describes a mug of “reviving but trench-flavoured tea.” Meeting the Colonel during a conflict he feels he has “no business to be there at all, let alone helping to make a hole in the Colonel’s cake, which was a jolly good one.” Or the absurdity of a fairly sadistic doctor who appears to enjoy upsetting the soldiers under his care. Sassoon asks about a few weeks in the country and the reply comes: “You’ll stay here; and when you leave here, you’ll find yourself back at the front in double-quick time. How d’you like that idea?” Sassoon feels like hitting him, but in the end assumes someone else will do it. 

Mr. Bridge (Even S. Connell) is a superb portrait of a flawed character and borderline fascist. I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as Mrs. Bridge (written earlier) given the earlier novel has a more sympathetic character and manages more poignancy. But a portrait of a narrow-minded character is still relevant and both are quiet American masterpieces. 

I found both Moon of the Crusted Snow (Waubeshig Rice) and Split Tooth (Tanya Tagaq) to be absolutely compelling reading.

Life of Pi (Martell) is a novel I’d been meaning to read for I don’t know, twenty years? I loved it, and it’s always a pleasure to discover a book that’s a philosophical adventure worthy of all the hype. 

Stories: Robert Walser spent decades simply wandering, and I really like his meditative, short (sometimes very short) stories that find their way to reverence frequently. This year I read Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories. Here’s a moment he contemplates a matchstick: “And what would the reader say to the little match or matchstick, just as dear as delicate, a sweet, odd little person, lying in its matchbox next to its numerous comrades, patient, proper, well-behaved, as if adream or asleep.” 

Speaking of concise work, Collapsible (Tim Conley) really impressed me for being both concise and so inventive I was rarely able to assume they were based on the author’s life. 

Flying Home and Other Stories (Ralph Ellison) is a set of stories not collected after his death, which is surprising given how potent they were. 

Jesus’ Son (Denis Johnson) provides lessons in rarely having a dull sentence, as demonstrated by this transition when a character has been picked up as a hitchhiker: “Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City’s rush hour with a sensation of running aground.” 

Dark Tales (Shirley Jackson) is a well-written, inventive and perhaps somewhat cynical collection, something like entering a literary Twilight Zone. 

Genre: Somewhere in Time (Matheson) felt long to me, and somewhat clumsily written even as latching on to a woman quite desperately and having her respond with the same feelings stretched believability. I’ve admired other books by Matheson, but this one felt like it needed more work. 

Station Eleven (Mandel) is a thoroughly compelling take on a possible apocalypse, and I particularly loved the way some characters ended up living in what should have been a pit-stop along the way, but at that moment civilization happened to crumble. I thought the end seemed a little movie-like, which was a trifle disappointing. 

Nonfiction: Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three (David Plante) is a pretty fascinating memoir that plucks interesting moments from the lives of three fascinating women. Here’s a quote from Jean Rhys, late in life: “I want to tell you something very important. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy … and there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters.” 

Man-Eaters of Kumaon (Jim Corbett) was a bestseller decades ago, and these gripping real-life stories of hunting tigers that had turned (unnaturally) into man-eaters were remarkable. Frequently the tigers were quite old or wounded in a way that forced a change in diets. Corbett reveals that tigers are sometimes a bit incompetent at killing porcupines and injure themselves that way. In some tigers he finds porcupine quills “over nine inches in length and as thick as pencils.” 

The Invention of Solitude (Auster) is an incredibly gripping read in the first half for its remarkable portrait of his father. I found it a topsy-turvy experience, though, with a second half more dense and, for me, suddenly less enjoyable. 

Graphic novels: Kingdom (Jon McNaught) was simply among my favourite books of the year. Not much happens to a family on holiday in the UK, but that’s entirely the point of this exquisite book with entire pages that decline to have any dialogue. 

The New Ghost (Robert Hunter) is a short, delightful and slightly trippy graphic story that isn’t easy to track down. I ordered three copies by mail in a pandemic and the first two simply didn’t make it to me. But I understand there will be a new edition in the spring of 2021. 

The Twilight Man (Koren Shadmi) is a graphic novel biography of Rod Serling that’s well worth tracking down. 

Black Hammer (Jeff Lemire) is a series I finished this year and I loved everything about it, from the artwork to the refreshingly different take on the superhero genre. 

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (Stephen Collins) is perfect: a profound book hiding beneath a somewhat silly (but at least refreshingly unpretentious) title. 

Both Goliath and Mooncop by Tom Gauld are well worth checking out as well as his brilliant cartoons, of course. 

Pulp (Brubaker, illustrated by Phillips) manages to pack meaning into a short story that blends the Western and hard-boiled detective genres in a satisfying way. 

In Waves (Dungo) has clean, calming images that are used to blend the history of surfing with a touching personal story. 


I’m a little torn about horror. There’s something magical about the old Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff films, and I like the Hammer horror films that came later and were elevated by actors as credible as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. But I discovered all that after growing up on a series of empty-feeling 1980s slasher films I don’t want to revisit. I gave up on The Walking Dead after they killed the most civilized character near the end of the second season – I think zombie stories aren’t about the zombies but the values survivors mange to keep – and because generally if I want to be anxious these days I can look at headlines. I was impressed with The Fireman, a novel by Joe Hill, given its subtle message about choosing how compassionate you want to be and choosing how to live your life in difficult times. It’s particularly important considering the possibilities on the horizon. 

Reading Be Scared of Everything I expected a breezy, enjoyable examination of horror films but the book easily surpassed those expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a series of concise, accessible and articulate essays that look at much more that film. Peter Counter blends his personal experience and struggles with everything from sharks to video games and some of the more bizarre alleys of the Internet. There’s even astute literary analysis to be found here: “To Lovecraft, we’re all worthless, but some of us are more worthless than others.” In short, it’s a book that illustrates the way horror is relevant to daily life and springs from daily life, even if not everything manages to have a level of quality. 

(continued)

Live involves sitting “in the middle of a story” with a certain amount of accompanying anxiety, and horror movies reflect this: “Like life, horror begins with oblivion, is animated by human resistance to that terrible lifelessness, and finally urges us to accept death as inevitable.” Counter talks about our tendency to tell personal stories of the unknown and supernatural somewhat apologetically before going the book goes on to say “horror can liberate us from the shame of trying on different existential frameworks to see what fits. It can give us the tools to respect our experiences. Horror suggests there isn’t an objective metaphysics we can know as humans. It posits belief as decentralized, that all spooky stories, no matter how conflicting, are legitimate.” 

Counter takes a moment to touch on funerals, including the idea that what’s quietly interesting, even pleasant about them is the way they celebrate “something real, non-institutional, and fully inclusive.” He’s no stranger to loss and trauma, giving these essays all the more authority. His own personal struggles are detailed in a handful of essays where it’s relevant to the topic, including a piece called “The Shattered Teacup:”  “After trauma, safety looks like a cheap illusion, and people who feel safe appear naïve for not having also realized that catastrophe can visit at any moment.”

Film and TV also get their fair share of coverage, though again wherever a particular show can be woven together with a particular idea. X-Files gets an essay, along with a piece that touches on the “authority porn” of the assorted CSI and Law & Order shows. And here’s Counter on the assorted Hannibal Lecter appearances in film and TV: “Will Graham and Clarice Starling both want the same thing: they want to be normal. Hannibal Lecter’s gift to them is denying what they want on principle, saying that the source of their pain and confusion is that they’re right and the normative world is wrong.” 

I learned about The Cloud of Unknowing, a text by an anonymous fourteenth-century monk concerning our inability to comprehend God, and religious and secular horrors are examined in “Manufacturing Mephistopheles:” “Our insignificance as people is the nuclear core that holds all horror together, and that core is made manifest by independent non-human annihilators.” 

Orwell wrote model essays: articulate without being overdone or impenetrable, and thoughtfully engaged with each subject so that the topic becomes interesting to any reader, even those who weren’t particularly invested at the start. That’s the kind of worthy writing I found here, in a book that rewards attention assuming the reader isn’t dismissive of everything connected to the genre. I certainly hope we hear from Peter Counter again.