Hand Full of Threes: the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize


By Lori Cayer

About prizes: I will say I’d like to win one, as a lot of writers do, but they are so fraught. I will also say a mystery prize, for example, should be given to books that at least contain a mystery, solved or not. Call me naïve.

Two bigs and a small: Two big names, two big hits in one year for a big press, two big budgets. One small press and one poet who merited Griffin-list attention without the updraft of celebrity.

Early talk (pre-announcement): Wouldn’t it be a delightful upset if one of The Annes, as I am calling them, don’t win but Sue does? What a cheerful punch in the shoulder for small presses and poets who toil at poetry.

Three places in history: one imagined beyond itself and back again, one quite real and painful, and one a dystopic memory of an almost future.

red doc coverred doc>: Let me say I’ve been reading Anne Carson for years, revelling in her language collage and how it leaves me at sea. Whimsical juxapositions, willfully confrontational and willfully aloof, genre-bending and outright wacky. Her books, this one included, are a highbrow kind of fun that I like to pretend I understand. She expects a magical thinking kind of investment from her readers.

What I didn’t find much of was metaphoric poetry even considering the layers of story. It was when I got to the end that I found what I was looking for in the dying of G’s mother, how she’s become a handful of twigs under the sheet. This feels like poetry coming from the heart of something. I’ve felt this before and I feel it now:

Rain hits every
Side of everything. Her
deep blue raiment streams.
Her history hums along
the veins and balanced on
the beam of her.

Three projects: The Annes with their research, and a publisher who can makes books that are artifacts. Both extending between their hard covers to novel length by placing a lot of white space on each page: Michaels using postcards and Carson using the postmodern newspaper column, Sue’s project one of carefully wrought layers of magic. If these were chapbooks on steroids The Annes would have come from the den and Sue’s would have come, still damp, from the kitchen where homey things come from.

Three books, four words: The titles of all three books contain a total of four words. That doesn’t mean anything but is noted by me as interesting.

Ocean coverOcean: Breathtaking and visually evocative. These are not poems of buoyancy, they are brisk and bracing like sea air when you know it is stronger than you by far. From page one I was, perhaps oddly, reminded of Margaret Atwood’s dystopic trilogy of novels, MaddAdam in particular, because I recently finished reading it. An allegorical world already what it is when you arrive and the story unfolds to tell, for the human record, how things were and how they got to be this way. Sue Goyette’s Ocean may be about hope or the utter lack of it.

It is geo-social commentary, the anthropomorphized ocean versus the early settlers, a history of our time in the new world, a changed relationship, a warning. And the poetry in this book, the mica-layers of metaphor just don’t stop drowning with their beautiful and plentiful abstractions.  They move me even when they don’t make a logician’s sense, and when they do they are perfect and apt.

For a long time we waiting for our dead to return…

We consulted the ocean but it was either a furrowed
brow or a pacing waiting room. Against our will

we’d pick up from where we’d been left but always
further away and always without.

Three covers, three grey: Ocean, light grey jacket with hidden dark grey and black cover, blue-green title. Correspondences, dark grey sleeve, light grey cloth cover, surprise of light, light blue inside. red doc>, grey and black sleeve with hint of blue shading, appropriately red cloth cover underneath.

CorrespondencesTwo poets, four hands: On a street corner I opened Correspondences to show my friend and it bloomed outward, sending out a stream of bent pages that escaped all four of our hands. I felt drunk and klutzy and worried I’d battered an expensive production. She, ever the poet, wondered if we could have walked a city block unfolding it.

CORRESPONDENCES: Such a beautiful object, Correspondences, how it opens and is three things. The portraits by Bernice Eisenstein are stirring as are the selected quotations beside them. Fast read, the verso.

This book is not epistolary, which the title might lead one to think. It is elegy for a father and for the lost, it is cross-talk, a timeframe. An accordion is not easy, in the hands, to read. A book best read on a table. Liftings and touchings down. Reading these poems is to become buoyant. Instances of poems within poems, so a fourth thing from three.

What I’ve always loved is how Anne Michaels uses punctuation. Poems of light and sparseness embedded in long, long sentences, all fully and properly punctuated. All carefully line-broken. Her commas fill me. She begins the book with the words The wet earth. And ends the book this way:

and the water is engraved,
and the sky,

with its moving mark
of birds,

and all around your grave
the shadows of hoof prints
in the wet earth

No period to end the poem, no full stop to end the book. Perfect

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The Downlow on Parnassus

Lori Cayer

Lori Cayer is the author of two volumes of poetry: Stealing Mercury (Muses’ Company, 2004), and Attenuations of Force (Frontanac House, 2010). She also reads poetry for CV2 magazine.