Three poets reflect on the transforming power of loss

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      The Semiconducting Dictionary (Our Strindberg)
      By Natalee Caple. ECW Press, 111 pp, softcover

      Indexical Elegies
      By Jon Paul Fiorentino. Coach House Books, 73 pp, softcover

      Recipes From the Red Planet
      By Meredith Quartermain. BookThug, 127 pp, softcover

      The words “I miss you” are probably the most written (or texted) words in contemporary English. But how do you relate those words to the actual person or the place that is missed? The intricacy of that connection is explored in three stellar poetry books: The Semiconducting Dictionary (Our Strindberg) by Natalee Caple, Indexical Elegies by Jon Paul Fiorentino, and Recipes From the Red Planet by Meredith Quartermain.

      Caple, who lives in Peterborough, renders a version of loss in her look at the 19th-century dramatist August Strindberg. But what’s interesting about this decade-long project is that her own subjectivity and gender concerns are layered on top of her portrayal of Strindberg as both adversary and almost-lover. She reinhabits his love poems, populating them with her own cast of characters and asking the reader to be the magic that makes this alchemy possible. In the poem “I Miss You” she writes: “Half-awake in sandals/Perfumes fighting the air/I stumble in your dress/I’m drunk/Impossible to make/My face replace yours.” Examining the aesthetics of the breakdown is how Caple deals with the missing artist. The desire for transformation is worked through in multiple forms—haibun, prose poems, lyric fragments, drawings—to evoke a complicated portrait of “Life in One Act”.

      The elegiac takes its turn more faithfully in Montreal poet Jon Paul Fiorentino’s latest work. Here, his mentor Robert Allen is recalled though a series of indexical poems that list the loss in tangible ways. A lament for two cities—Montreal and Winnipeg—begins and ends the book so that place becomes the way to literalize absence, but also a way to maintain some kind of connection to what’s been lost. It is also a memorial to how we are constructed by place, and to how we retrieve information to find out what we know or how we know it. In the title poem Fiorentino writes: “I miss everybody/Me too/Where are the other senses: the sick twist of what you strain through metre/The feelings, notions, street corners, alcoves/jargonistics, sidewinders, string theories/me too.” The inclusion of loss builds a new city, as those of us displaced by death always have to do, re-creating the spaces where we once lived when people we lost were in our lives into the places we are forced to live now, without them. By making the book look like a card from a library catalogue, he also marks the moment of our transformation from library cards to Google in order to show that the object of our search has changed too.

      In a series of lush, seductive, and intellectual playful narrative poems, Quartermain—from Vancouver—sets out a series of eclectic renditions of contemporary longing. In “The Plackener” she intones: “Oh my moral fibers, my spirits and dispositions, my quixotic combatants, soar across my universe and bring me news of eccentricity.” Instances of the eccentric offer us ways to re-look at places that seem familiar. By noticing the everyday details that get glossed over, a new sense of place can be developed. In “Alpha” Quartermain writes: “Why must I, like a wind-tangled palm tree, burn for you? The nosecone of your jet, its glassy cockpit Operation Romance”¦You stand by your craft. I stand by mine. You smoulder, you stalk, you seethe. I refuse to be painted.” The past is rendered as if the subject is whispering to an old photograph, where the object of desire is impossible to reach, as are so many love objects. Still, talking back to the image and refusing to be pinned down are ways to deal with exquisite longing. The range of observances here is vast, but wherever you listen in, the words will stun and amaze you with their presence.



      Natalee Caple

      Feb 9, 2011 at 9:29pm

      I am so thrilled with this review and with being grouped with Jon F who is my friend. I will look up Quartermain's book right away! Thanks!