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Jalal Barzanji, Trying Against to Stop Time
Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2015.

Jalal Barzanji’s new and selected, Trying Again to Stop Time, veers from the usual way these collections are put together. While most retrospectives of this type begin at the outset of a poet’s career and work through to recent poems—or are collected without reference to the years and titles of the original texts—this book takes us backward.

We see the progression of the Kurdish-Canadian poet’s craft by watching the complexity of images grow and expand as the author becomes—in a sense—younger. By witnessing his development in reverse, we’re given an intimate glimpse into one man’s creative process.

The collection concludes with three new poems in their own section. These hit the reader with the force of the poet’s decades of craft, as they follow the tremulous first writings of the younger Barzanji. This sequencing is one of the most brilliant aspects of the work.

The poetry itself is political, personal and interrogating. It asks questions of governments, of individuals in power and of ourselves as citizens, readers, and artists. While the poems cross boundaries and decades, Barzanji’s work is intensely immediate, while always acknowledging the swift passage of time:

in a flash time takes me back to reality—
it resembles a wooden stretcher
like the one leaning against the Mosque wall

With the hours of love coming to an end,
time becomes my biggest obstacle,
even as my wife and I reach ecstasy.

In passages such as this (from Trying Again to Stop Time, the collection of the same name originally published in 2009), Barzanji successfully blends the political with the personal in a way that rarely feels heavy-handed. The quick mention of the stretcher against the Mosque wall alerts the reader to war and strife, even at the moment the speaker and his wife “reach ecstasy.” The interconnectedness of lives—in war and in love—threads through the book, and the poems are well chosen in their common theme of the passage of time, and in one man’s attempt to stop it.

“Smart Poems I,” “To Go Back and Back,” and “Smart Poems II” strike me as the book’s masterpieces. Though they originate in three different collections, their similarity speaks to the consistency of Barzanji’s vision. These pieces are composed of fragments, but each one is a complete and startling poem on its own. From “Smart Poems I”:

19.

The bowl
of my life,
full of sorrow,
I leave behind.

Barzanji’s voice is warm, accessible, and occasionally humorous. He does not shy from the seriousness of politics and war, but reminds us that within those larger spheres beats an individual heart, alone or—one would hope—next to another.

 

Kimmy Beach‘s fifth book, The Last Temptation of Bond (The University of Alberta Press) was named as one of the top five poetry Books of the Year for 2013 in Quill & Quire’s Readers’ Poll.?

 

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