Review | Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, JonArno Lawson

9780889843547The text on the back cover refers to the world of poet JonArno Lawson as one “where sound rules supreme.” Sound is indeed the primary strength of the poems in this volume. The world he describes ranges from the fantastic where wolves live on the moon, to the mundane, where a boy is irritated at his friend’s absence. The poems in Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box are meant to be read aloud. The poems I liked best are those that are pure wordplay: “A budgie in a buggy had a buddy with a grudge; / a toucan in a moving van had given him a nudge. / He nudged him back and nipped him, / but the toucan wouldn’t budge.”

Playful as it sounds however, that poem also has a bit of a dark tone to it — a toucan and a budgie’s friend got into an altercation on the road. This darker tone runs through quite a few of the poems, hinting at perhaps more adult themes than the singsongy rhythms imply. Take for example the absolute horror of the following imagery: “It’s easy to injure a gingerbread man / and a gingerbread injury’s bound to expand / from a foot to a leg from a head to a hand / when you’re eating him, eating him, fast as you can.” I know fairy tales and nursery rhymes are more violent than we would have realized as kids, and I suppose the fanciful rhythms will delight kids even though parents will see the more somber subtext.

I did think some of the poems were trying too hard to be clever, with sly references that may make the adult reader pause, but that are too obvious in their attempt to elicit praise. Take for example the one about Sleeping Beauty: “After Sleeping Beauty woke, she never slept again; / she feared another fairy attack, / and that’s why Sleeping Beauty’s now / a beautiful insomniac.” Clever little turn of phrase in the last line, but self-consciously so. I just thought it sad, and not as fun to read out loud as some of his other poems.

Or take the one about the twins whose lives begin “with twice the force” and have fun with bunk beds and double decker rocking horses. Except “what can be doubled can just as well be cut in half,” which makes the twins “sober up at once, of course.” All I could think of was, so what?

Still, a lot of the poems are fun wordplay, and definitely best read out loud. The book itself is beautiful, classic Porcupine’s Quill with paper cuts by Alec Dempster that add a bit of a stark, classical feel to poems. Teachers and parents of young and elementary school children may best appreciate Lawson’s poetry.

Review | Wayworn Wooden Floors, Mark Lavorato

There’s a reason this is my first poetry review on this blog: I don’t know much about it. I’ve studied some in school, of course, and I’ve bought a few books by poets I like (off the top of my head: Byron, Cohen, Layton and Purdy), but given a choice between prose and poetry, I almost always go for prose. So I love what Mark Lavorato says in the publisher’s page for Wayworn Wooden Floors:

But I would also love to have someone who has never bought a collection of poetry before pick it up. I would love for someone to be turned onto poetry because of it. I know that’s asking a lot. But I think that the poems throughout are really quite accessible, and for that reason, unintimidating. And I would love for that person to read Wayworn Wooden Floors, and in doing so, see that poetry — arguably the world’s oldest art form — is something that has been around forever for a reason.

Lavorato’s poetry is certainly accessible; his language is simple and straightforward. When I like poets, it’s usually because the sense of rhythm in their words is so strong that it propels me through the piece, or because their imagery is so unusual that it captures my imagination. I didn’t quite get that experience with Lavorato’s poetry — I liked his poems, but they didn’t transport me.

That being said, there are some poems and some parts of poems that really struck me. I really liked “This World,” the first poem and the source for the book’s title. “This World,” Lavorato writes, “is the sprawling attic / of an abandoned building / murmuring to its own musty heights.” The comparison appealed to the romantic and the mystery lover in me, and I love the melancholy, heavy, almost oppressive imagery — “the moon heaves,” for example, and “Wayworn wooden floors lie / as if in wait for the dust to settle.” The overall sensation is fatigue; Lavorato’s imagery calls up the notion of a world longing for release. My favourite verse:

Dried wasps coil on the windowsills,

endowed, still, with a sting

for a tidying hand.

I love that final, futile bit of defiance, and I just love the phrase “sting for a tidying hand.”

I also really liked “Maps of Antiquity,” mostly because I love the first two lines: “Back when the world had edges / and was fringed with tentative shores,” I just love the sound of those lines, the unexpected idea of the world having edges, and the idea of “tentative shores” forming a fringe. The poem goes on to a more ordinary ending, in my opinion, and so fell flat for me overall, but the beginning really stuck with me.

Finally, I also liked “Fingerpaintings,” where Lavorato seamlessly integrates into his verses lyrics from nursery rhymes. Part III for example, my favourite in this poem, begins: “It was Einstein said we’d fight / the Fourth World War with / Sticks and stones.” The section goes on to talk about war, integrating within the lines the children’s ditty “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names with never hurt me.” Other than the clever conceit of including the saying so seamlessly, there is also the irony of the line “names will never hurt me,” given the historical context of war. In World War II, for example, being called a Jew can most certainly hurt you, and on so many disturbing levels. Lavorato also includes a sly description of “that mushrooming / knowledge of perfect decimation,” clearly referring to the atomic bomb and its genesis in Einstein’s theory.

Most of the poems, however, didn’t really stand out to me. I mostly found them okay, though I fully admit people who read a lot of poetry may appreciate it better. Take for example “A Handful of Seeds.” It had a beginning that I found promising: “My father teared at movies. / His hobby, though, / was taking life.” It turns out that the speaker’s father is a hunter, until he injures his leg and makes friends with birds. It should be a touching scene, the injured hunter feeding birds seeds, but I just found it sappy. The description of birds, “Light feathered bodies / dainty with hollow bones, / hovering like spectators in a gallery” strikes me as a fairly standard description of birds. I like the unexpected metaphor in poetry, as in fiction, the phrase that makes me sit up and pay attention.

Still, it’s a beautiful book, as all Porcupine’s Quill titles are. I also like Lavorato’s idea about poetry: “I would like to impress upon readers that their lives are filled with as much poetry as any other. It is simply the magnification and the Petri dish that make it verse.” (from the publisher’s website) If you’re interested in checking out Wayworn Wooden Floors for yourself, Lavorato has a couple of upcoming appearances:

Tuesday, June 19, 6 pm
Paragraphe Librairie/Bookstore. Mark will be reading from this new collection.
Located at 2220 McGill College Avenue, Montreal

Thursday, June 21, 6 pm
Nicholas Hoare Books. Reading and Celebrating.
Located at 45 Front St. E., Toronto

Want to want to win a copy of this book? I’m giving my copy to Nicholas Hoare Books to give away on or before their event with the poet. Follow them on Twitter (@NicholasHoareTO) for an upcoming contest to win the book, and drop by their event to get it signed!


Thank you to Porcupine’s Quill for a finished copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson, George A. Walker

Most Canadians know Tom Thomson as a famous Canadian artist affiliated with the Group of Seven. His disappearance during a canoe trip and the discovery of his body days later have remained a tragic, yet intriguing mystery. Official cause of death was accidental drowning, but clues suggest possible foul play. If you’re interested in knowing more about this story, here’s the Wikipedia entry, and I’d also highly recommend Roy MacGregor’s fascinating Northern Light.

George A. Walker’s The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson is a beautiful addition to the list of books on Tom Thomson. Curator Tom Smart calls it a “visual elegy,” and I think that describes the book perfectly. Mysterious Death contains a hundred and nine woodblock engravings that cover Thomson’s life from his youth in the city to his death in Algonquin Park. I’m a fan of Porcupine’s Quill books in general — I love their textured pages, and think this is such a fitting format for the starkness of Walker’s medium. Mysterious Death is a wordless narrative, so all we have is a single black and white woodcut print at the centre of each page.

Certainly, it is possible to tell a story using only images, but I wouldn’t recommend reading Mysterious Death as a biographical resource on Tom Thomson. Rather, it is best to know a bit about Thomson’s life in order to understand the story. Because the images are so stylized, with faces either in shadow, or portrayed with few lines, and because there is no text, it can be difficult to recognize Thomson or other characters. Rather than give details about Thomson’s life, Walker gives impressions. This is especially true in the second half, about Thomson’s life at Algonquin. While the first half shows a more structured narrative, of Thomson as a professional artist, selling and exhibiting his work, the second half feels more like scenes plucked at random. Walker intersperses images of Thomson painting or fishing with images of the landscape, and creates an overall idyllic picture. Some of Walker’s images also give pleasant jolts of recognition, calling to mind, for example, Thomson’s famous The Jack Pine or West Wind.

The section on the fateful canoe trip is especially interesting because of the anger Walker conveys in his images. We may not understand the circumstances behind Thomson’s altercation with another man, but we can feel the menace, and the frustration. Walker’s account answers no questions about Thomson’s life; rather, it offers readers a sense of how that life must have felt — from the sense of purpose of getting his work exhibited, to the more relaxed, idyllic days painting in Algonquin Park, and finally, to the altercation that preceded his death.

Images from the book, from the Porcupine’s Quill website

A fact from the Author’s Note that I found especially interesting: The block used for the last image in the book is from branches believed to have fallen from the trees Thomson painted in Byng Inlet. That’s a fitting, rather haunting connection, eh?