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Phillip Crymble, Not Even Laughter
Cliffs of Moher, County Claire, Ireland: Salmon Poetry, 2015.

Of the 58 poems contained in this collection, an astonishing 43 have seen previous publication in a wide variety of journals in Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and Ireland. This speaks to the excellence of Crymble’s work and it is gratifying to have those poems, and more, gathered here by an important Irish press. Crymble, who was born in Belfast, came to Canada with his parents at age 11, having also lived in Zambia for 2 years. Since 2010, he has lived in Fredericton, where he studies and teaches at the University of New Brunswick. Such biographical detail is mentioned only because the notion of “home” plays such a significant role in Not Even Laughter. Is home where one was born, or is it where one now chooses to live? For the author, the pull of memory and nostalgia contributes to a fluidity that allows him, often through sensory associations, to slip between each world, or even occupy both at once.

From the first line of the first poem of the book’s opening sequence, “House Reel,” the tone is set: “How we long for known surroundings—nostalgia’s equal mix of home / and pain” (“Trees and Weeds”). “House Reel,” suggesting a home movie, contains poems that reference gardens (“Marigolds” and the darkly sly “Tomatoes”) as well as other domestic touchstones, such as home repairs and garbage collection, that serve as a conduit to deeper musings. Frying onions leads to a vivid memory: “Soon the kitchen comes / alive—the sound and smell so long familiar: / weekday mornings, and my father home / from night-shift at the plant. I’d rise for school / still half-asleep—a greasy sweetness / in the air” (“Onions”).

In the book’s second section, “Travelogue,” we are transported to Northern Ireland, to County Down and the Antrim Coast. As one who has spent time there, I found these poems particularly evocative, but any reader might, given Crymble’s genius for selecting just the right details to conjure atmosphere and the weight of longing for what was in the face of what is: “The winter / days were damp, and though a grand, romantic / gesture, living by the sea was desperate” (“Forcing House”). Here, again, are touchstones of the familiar that could veer into sentimentality, but somehow never do: hedges and High Streets, wet woolens and football fans in anoraks, tea and toast and potted jam. It’s as if the author, visiting familiar terrain, is now once-removed and able to cast an objective eye on the scene: “Women crowd the bridal / shop. It’s raining. The confectioner sorts / hard-boiled sweets and sugared jellies. All / of this is somehow strange, a dream you can’t shout / out against” (“Letter to Missoula, Next Day Air from Castlebar”). Yet, there are also moments that simply are, as in the lovely recollection titled “Poem”: “The chips we shared in Bushmills town / sustained us like a pair of tramps / stood gathered round a punctured drum / left burning in a long abandoned rail yard— / steam escaped the hole we tore, bloomed as thick as woodsmoke / on the windows of the car.”

After the travelogue, the film theme continues with the section titled “Answer Print,” a series of poems that find their inspiration in movies, as in “Baby Face”: “Back in my father’s day, the heels / in weekend matinee two-reelers all wore black, made off // with Fay Wray wannabes, got foiled by Captain Midnight.” Film titles are name-checked and genres considered (“Disaster films are in again: zombies / and apocalyptic nightmares”), as Crymble riffs on what is clearly a personal passion. These are fun, often stylistically adventurous, and solidly considered pieces—paying homage to the form—but can feel detached, somehow, after the personal immediacy of the previous poems, as if we’re in the dark, watching them play out on the screen of the page, which is, perhaps, intentional.

Appropriately, “End Title” is the final section, containing an assortment of occasional poems that, again, do not feel as cohesive, even though they are individually finely made, particularly the sonnet, “The Bird Cage.” Here is a 14-line masterpiece that introduces us, via a geriatric ward that features a bird cage as a “centerpiece,” to an old man who’d “flown / from Austria in ‘thirty-eight and made / a break before the camps.” As with many others in the collection, this poem displays the author’s knack for end lines. With few exceptions, where less would have been more, poems conclude with genuine questions—“Is there nothing that can’t keep?” or “What difference does it make?”—or with wry, sometimes self-deprecating, statements that can speak volumes: “[I]… find the sales receipt, unfold it—look to see how much I’ve saved.”

Crymble’s talent is formidable and his next collection is eagerly awaited.

 

Rhonda Batchelor’s poetry titles include Bearings and Weather Report. Her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in many journals and anthologies including Force Field: 77 Women Poets of British Columbia. She’s the assistant editor of The Malahat Review.

 

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