Poetry from Adam Sol and Michael Penny brings bright flashes and quiet insights

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Complicity
By Adam Sol. McClelland & Stewart, 106 pp, softcover

Outside, Inside
By Michael Penny. McGill-Queen’s, 104 pp, softcover

In Complicity, his fourth collection, Adam Sol, a Canadian poet very much on the rise, displays to the fullest his interest in societal collapse. But unlike the novels of Margaret Atwood or the postapocalyptic films and TV shows that are everywhere these days, his poetry deals with the dystopian present, not the dystopian future. That is to say, with “the usual blur of awe and horror” that’s all the more terrible because it’s come to seem so bland and ordinary that it deadens our spirits, encouraging us to become cultural zombies.

What really makes Sol’s book so interesting is the way he employs such a wide range of techniques in pursuit of his view. Sometimes he’s a storyteller in verse, somewhat in the manner of, say, Tom Wayman. At times the tales are inner conversations. At still other moments, images seem to come as brilliant afterthoughts once the phone has already been hung up. A tone very close to surrealism interrupts now and then, only to be beaten back with such lines as this: “A parade of far-fetched-promises/barely held its own/in wrestling matches against the market.”

The quotations above are from the first of three sections. In the second section there’s more wordplay yet additional seriousness as well, leavened by place names and pop-culture references, nearly all of them American rather than Canadian. There are numerous chants and lists of things à la Walt Whitman, and bright flashes of metapoetry. “Me I’m out there in the metaphorical porch swing/looking for other ways to speak,” Sol writes. The final section is more domestic—dads and kids et cetera—while still making us consider how we’re trapped in an unforgiving present.

The book’s title comes from a poem that goes: “My exoskeleton will harden/and I’ll resume the jargon/that reflects my complicity.”

Michael Penny also now has four collections under his belt. The new one, Outside, Inside, is a suite of 300 epigrammatic haikulike statements, confessions, observations, and self-conscious self-portraits that work beautifully together, making a full-length, sustained work from the kind of poems that usually function on an individual basis. Or as he puts it: “I collect a bit here/another bit from there//and the pieces begin to fit/and together build a new place.//It’s all construction and shout/as the accumulation gets louder.”

The construction metaphor certainly seems the correct one. His book is a beautiful little structure handmade from tiny bricks, all the same size. It’s strongly built.

Penny divides his time between Edmonton (he’s policy director of the Law Society of Alberta) and Bowen Island. I wonder which residence he had in mind when he wrote the following: “There is no geography/for this unmappable place//even though sky sits on rock/and there’s light from somewhere.//I might be lost/but I am here.”

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