The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2014
Edited by Robert Bringhurst
House of Anansi, 2014
Reading poetry from an anthology is a lot like speed dating—it’s barely an introduction—but less so with The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology, which features twelve pages of poetry by each of the eight shortlisted poets. These selections by no means feel complete, but the opportunity to sit down and stay awhile with each poet makes the experience far more robust, as layers and themes converge.
Rachael Boast’s poems, from Pilgrim’s Flower, contemplate transformation: “the burned skin of the embrace / flinches into intimacy, into focus, / then changes into dust, then rain” (13) and “I envisaged / the inside eyes of his hands remaking words / for a song that is a drawing that is a film – / that is, a poem…” (6). While in Carl Phillips’ poems, from Silverchest, it is a lost lover that appears and reappears, “It is hard to see anyone who has become / like your own body to you.” (33)
Among the seven poets featured, Canadian Anne Michaels’ sparse prose stood out. Correspondences features a single, 700-line poem presented in 54 sections, eleven of which are included in this year’s Anthology. It is a poem that envisions language as geography, as psyche, as memory, as family, as language. Michaels’ word choices are simple, the themes quotidian, but the poetry transcends. In the opening lines, she addresses her father, Isaiah Michaels, who died in 2009, “…I did not imagine / your death would reconcile me with / language…” (91). What follows is indeed a reconciliation, if not a celebration, that comes full-circle in its final lines:
each to smell their favourite dish
each to hear his own language,
her own song, mother and father
tongue, mother and father
reading under the lamp, the lost child
asleep upstairs, the lover’s breast,
the mother’s breast, the book open
to the third side of the page
Polish poet Tomasz Różycki’s work, as translated by Mira Rosenthal, is also a form of memorial, in this case to what has been lost in the contemporary era, including the written word: “The twentieth century’s come to an end / and literature has left the cities… At last it’s moved to weighty libraries, / virtual archives in machines.” (54) Twelve of the 77 sonnets from his collection Colonies are featured in the Anthology. Several feature humorous reflections on the writer’s life, “When I began to write, I didn’t know / how quickly it would make me very rich,” (50) while others long for meaningful expression, “And if I speak / with language, but don’t know this, I’m nothing.” (56)
In Sue Goyette’s poems, a hungry, boisterous sea commands respect from imagined shore-dwellers. The nine poems featured from Ocean, Goyette’s collection of 56 numbered poems, depict mankind’s often-turbulent relationship with the ocean. Goyette’s engagement with her theme is masterful: “The trick to building houses was making sure / they didn’t taste good. The ocean’s culinary taste / was growing more sophisticated and occasionally / its appetite was unwieldy. It ate boats and children,” (80). And yet, her reach extends far beyond what one might expect from a book of poems about the ocean, to the metaphysical:
The words we used had the thin syrup of our loneliness
in their veins. In this way, we learned that words also have souls,
and when the souls of our words escaped, there was a glitter
frosting the ocean, and briefly, we had managed to sugar its tide.
The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2014 is both an introduction to poetry and an advanced reading, recommendable especially to those who want an overview of the poetry of the moment. I finished this book with a sense of privilege, in the knowledge that I inhabit a linguistically rich landscape made ever richer by contemporary poets like these seven, whom I believe capable of opening the windows that exist between languages and at times, of passing right through.
Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt is a Montréal-based writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. She is currently working on her first novel. Visit her at carlyrosalie.com.