Bent at the Spine and Whiteout test the flexibility of language

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      Bent at the Spine
      By Nicole Markotic. BookThug, 143 pp, softcover

      By George Murray. ECW Press, 64 pp, softcover

      How flexible is language? In a cultural moment when words are adapted to fit into the 140 characters of a Twitter post, does this manipulation leave us all too tight-lipped? Nicole Markotić’s latest book of poetry, Bent at the Spine, playfully rips through conversational lingo, stating what can’t be said within social media’s compressed forms and allowing her language to sprawl hilariously. You see the extensive banter in a poem like “normal x stranger”: “leave it to sisters to be born in smog/lovely to see you both smitten in togas”.

      The sounds “couple” (as this section of poems is called) to create a new way of seeing something like lust. Some lines bend to create quirky aphorisms: “punting the elongations pummels the elevation/but clogs meet my feet like a tunnel, like aviation”.

      Clearly, we are reading avant-garde fashion commentary here, but this sonic fusion is perfect for the contemporary moment, because it allows Markotić, a professor specializing in Canadian literature at the University of Windsor, to show the bland ways we typically use language by exhibiting its strange potential.

      Her book also includes a section called “Guests” where she intervenes in literary culture by placing a who’s who of Canadian poets in various real and imagined scenarios: “George Bowering in Joyville” and “if i were in a cooley poem” cleverly operate as homage and send-up at the same time. To Bowering she writes: “rain escapes Vancouver but it’s desert here. Badlands. crop/thirsty. Ritual hail. Try Kamloops in the morning then/Boom-Boom at night. we talk. You joke, quote Freud/and Jung upside-down”.

      The pace of the book is a rush, as Markotić continually turns things around to alter any easy perception. Readers just get to strap in and enjoy the ride.

      George Murray’s more measured approach couldn’t be more different. Whiteout flexes language with the seemingly similar purpose of showing what can’t be seen, but in a darker way. His work offers alternative visions of whiteout conditions, in which it is impossible to see what lies ahead. A former editor of the Bookninja website living in St. John’s, Newfoundland, he is steely and precise. In the poem “The World Goes Out Like an Old Television” he writes: “infinity and zero meet, saving you/from ever noticing a thing. And when/everything finally goes black, you sit/still, waiting in the dark for such a long time.”

      The book continually documents the moment when distinctions once considered to be true no longer hold. The reconciliation of a relationship might be possible, but probably not. In “The New Weather” he writes: “Just before the key catches in the lock/a snowflake lands on your eyelash and blurs/the scene; stretching the instant an instant/longer, slurring outer and inner worlds.”

      Here is the pain of separating, but again the unremarked moments when perception suddenly shifts are so clearly articulated. What you think you see is maybe not there at all. The transit from one status to the next is what’s on offer in this book, as the poem “Cantus Firmus (Spring Morning)” indicates: “A thought came to me through this accounting,/Subtle instance of near understanding./A moment so sublime that in its writing/It disguised itself and hid in the waning/Beginning of this morning’s latest ending.”

      The sense of an ending, in this case, comes through the technicalities of accounting for things, but also amid the activities of the everyday. You can see it on a desk as much as you can feel it in the ache for the person who left.