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Alice Major, Standard candles
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2015

Standard candles is signature Alice Major poetry, and I say that in the most favourable manner. This work focuses on and develops Major’s career-long poetic concerns: how poetry intersects with science, mathematics, the lives of humans and the cosmos.

A tall order, but one of Alice Major’s strengths is her ability to introduce an idea as sweeping as ‘science’ and distill it down to a moment, a memory, an object. No one but Major could have written this book: in a way no other poet consistently does, she grasps the edges of the universe and pulls it into a headlock.

Her work has the precision of Leonard Cohen (whom she purposely invokes): a rare ability to condense the monumental into the quietly personal. While Major asks us to consider her influences (the section entitled “Let us compare cosmologies” takes our minds naturally to Cohen), she consistently reminds us that this is her work. Her confidence shines. This is the work of an artist secure not only in the power of poetry to speak to all aspects of life, but also secure in her particular way of doing so.

“Underworlds” is a powerful study of homelessness and an unflinching, yet non-judgmental study of the marginalized. Those at the edges of our vision—at the edges of our personal universes—receive the gift of Major’s careful (almost prayerful) poetry:

!!!!!!!!!!How can a man
ever seize his life again like this? How shitty
does it get?

I hear Major invoking Cohen again from “The Tower of Song,” in which he asks Hank Williams, “How lonely does it get?” That song resonates in its own kind of shitty loneliness. These invocations may seem odd, but Alice Major and Leonard Cohen share similarities in their explorations of the personal and the universal.

The book sometimes feels a bit too secure, in that Major—in her use of speakers—often keeps a healthy distance between herself and her readers. At times, I wanted a bit more passion, a touch more rawness. And in a pattern that the University of Alberta Press often employs, the book is note-heavy: I think unnecessarily so.

Standard candles ends with “God submits a grant application to the Canada Council”: one of the most delightful pieces I’ve read in ages. The purpose of this grant is “To create a world.” The writers who read this book will find themselves laughing about the often ridiculous hoops through which we leap in CanLit.

The grant has been approved. “Oh, shit,”
she thinks. “Now they’re expecting it.”
She sighs, dispirited, then peers
at the amount she’s been awarded.
Sure they gave her what she asked for.
But how is she ever going to live on this
for fourteen billion years?

Major’s use of humour to end the book hits exactly the right notes, and it’s an excellent reminder that behind the science and the poetry, there lies a lively, wry heart.

 

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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