Claire Kelly, Ur-Moth (Victoria: Frog Hollow, 2014). Paperbound, 40 pp., $20.
Michael Prior, Swan Dive (Victoria: Frog Hollow, 2014). Paperbound, 36 pp., $20.
It seems almost quaint that a few years ago we literary writers were feeling threatened by electronic books. They were going to be the death of books and the end of poetry. But in short order it has become apparent that the electronic form is suited to distributing the books that used to be printed on cheap newsprint—the books that sell enough copies to make their authors money. So here we doff our toques to the venerable Canadian small presses that never wavered throughout that electronic kerfuffle; the publishers of short stories, novels, and collections of poems who always knew that readers like to hold good literature in their hands, not to resuscitate it, but to cradle it lovingly as one might hold a sleeping songbird. I mean, how many times can poetry die?
One such publisher is Frog Hollow Press, based in Victoria, B.C. Their self-proclaimed mandate is to "enhance the relationship between the reader and the author's work" by making books that "possess a subtle beauty in terms of the materials used and the style of typesetting and design." When the press began its work, they were printing hand-bound books on a letter press. But the Frog Hollow minions got an acting gig, so although the books are now commercially printed, the press "strives to maintain a fine press ethos by attention to detail regarding typesetting, cover and book design" and they are good at it. The two books I have here seem to me to be the epitome of a marriage between the aesthetic concern for "the book" and an equal care for the quality of the contents.
Michael Prior is an emerging poet who is about erupt onto the Canadian poetry scene. He is just finishing his apprenticeship as a student-poet and has already published widely and won awards, including the Walrus' 2014 Poetry Prize. The reason his star shines so brightly is that he is already very good. Swan Dive is a collection of sixteen poems in which his interests range from ventriloquists' dummies and hermit crabs to YouTube videos and Galileo. The title poem, "Swan Dive" is an example of what Prior is capable of. The poem imagines not only Hamlet's Ophelia, but others who "practice our Ophelia" and know that it is "hard to stay angry on a bed of water. / Harder yet to remain above the tide— // hence the anchor, hence the dive." Rather than attempt to write in Ophelia's voice, Prior has invoked her to plunge his readers head first into the dark consciousness of desperation caused by heartbreak. He sticks our heads under and shows us this lasting image:
I rearrange my lost and found. That man
who was discovered rooting the bottom
three decades after his death: in his boat.
A fish still writhed the line. Hear me out.
Even the swan's necks don't shape a heart
when they hunt beneath the dark.
In these lines is a subtle echo of an older rhythm. The last lines are not a rhyming couplet but the assonance makes it seem so. In many ways—the range of interests, quality of language, the attention to rhythm—Prior's work is a kind of blend of P. K. Page and Karen Solie, but I make those comparisons only to say that his work is already polished and self-assured.
Claire Kelly's Ur-Moth is also a very beautifully produced volume. The cover is an eye-catching reproduction of a painting of a luna moth; the elaborate wings take up most of the page and appear to be en pointe like a dancer. Kelly too is an emerging poet and one deserving of attention. There is a pleasing sense of playfulness to many of her poems as in "How to Fall on a Sword: A Step-by-Step Guide" in which she blends Greek mythology with the voice of an ESL-authored electronics booklet from Korea:
Doing the unspeakable requires raves and silences,
so sit quietly after a stint of
madness, cease drinking and eating. Don't
tidy or sweep.
Some of the best poems in the collection reflect on art—Emily Carr or van Gogh. "Morning Gods on the Day of Enlightenment" is a glosa in response to Gwendolyn MacEwen's "The Breakfast" and achieves a contemplative certainty in lines like," we careen unthinkingly, with domestic ease, / to stack the contents of black holes on the shelf" where she makes me want to reread not only her poem but also to go back to MacEwen's original for another look.
Although the poems are good, the collection gives me a sense that Kelly is trying out a number of techniques and styles and hasn't yet completely found her voice, although I have every confidence she will.