Thursday, January 12, 2012

Review: The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011, edited by Priscila Uppal

If you read a lot of literary journals, as we do in this household, you’ll know that every issue of every journal is a distillation of the very best writing among hundreds or even thousands of submissions. So to take every issue of every major journal published in Canada in any given year and painstakingly select 50 of the best poems from them, then what you end up with is a distillation of a distillation, a chosen few among the chosen few.

This is the daunting task that Tightrope Books has established for itself in recent years with its Best Canadian Poetry in English series. The 2011 edition, edited by the prolific academic, poet and prose writer Priscila Uppal (the series editor is Molly Peacock), brings together a broad array of poetic styles and sensibilities, subject matters and approaches. But of course it would. With so many poems in so many journals to chose from, it would be hard not to cast a wide net. Thankfully, Uppal’s aesthetics are open-minded and her tastes vast, even while she maintains a healthy level of discernment.

The really great poems in this anthology are, of course, really great. Reading them in this kind of arrangement seems to even heighten their excellence. I’ve seen Shane Rhodes’ name around a lot recently but it took focusing on his poem “IntraVenus” here, with its incredible rhythm and half rhymes, its astonishing assonances, to make me realize just how brilliant he is. I loved Daryl Hine’s “& 30” in The Fiddlehead 244 and I loved it here. Karen Solie comes bearing her quiet wisdom in “Birth of the Rife” (“Power without accuracy/ is a triumph of unreason”). Evelyn Lau does a fantastic job breathing new life into a tired old subject matter in “Grandmother”. Daniel Scott Tysdal takes online intertextuality to a whole new (pornographic) level. And the always brilliant Patricia Young sings us out with a wonderful flight of anti-war fancy with “The Big Siesta (or: The End of Modern Warfare).”

There were a handful of poems that I didn’t care for, but considering they cleared the hurtle of getting published in journals in the first place and then earned their place here, there’s no point in quibbling or even naming names. These were pieces that I felt were either a draft or two away from being brilliant or were simply just bad poems, but of course you can’t please everyone.

Tightrope is doing a great service to Canadian poetry by launching this series, and Uppal does a commendable job with this go-around. I will definitely keep my eyes open for subsequent editions in the coming years.

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