Don’t judge this book by its cover

Elizabeth Cran
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An unassuming-looking small book from Acorn Press, Variations on Blue by Pam F. Martin ($17.95), seems at first reading to be as unassuming within as without.  

But look again. The titles of the different sections are clues: Life is like the movies Death is, like, the; Where the Gun is Buried; Nearer My God to Thee and Between the Bones.  

Most of this insistence upon death — often violent — is not spelled out; a word here, two words there strike the emotions more vividly than sentences of detailed description. And this is what makes Martin’s work not just standard or conventional, but interesting.  

A few examples: How kindly memory / strips away / the flesh of truth // leaving us to fill / spaces / between the bones //  Imagine if cats / spun webs / and had gecko feet /...intricate mouse traps / knitted by kitty / like little lobster traps /...Melancholy / settled over the house, / a soft grey cat / on a baby's face /...

Polari by John Barton (Icehouse Poetry, Goose Lane, ($19.95) is both more unusual and much less sinister. Polari itself refers to a secret coded language sometimes spoken by gay men.  And there is a certain amount of “gayness” in this book as in Mill Creek Reverdie, A Shade and Tuning’s Machine.

However this is not the main characteristic or even focus of  Barton’s poems. A delight in language, especially all forms of poetry, is their most visible attraction. He likes to use intricate verse-forms, of which the sonnet is the best-known. Others used in this book are the sonnenizio, in which a word is repeated in each of the 14 lines, and the palindrome, in which the poem can be read from the beginning to the end and vice versa.  

In other poems, such as 1953, Above Katmandu, whole lines or parts of them are repeated elsewhere in the poem.

The collection has at least one other point of interest. Some of the poems are just simply beautiful. Two examples are November 22 / Benjamin Britten, Opus 27 and Watching the Whale.

No poetry-lover should miss Polari.

Clay Pots and Bones by Lindsay Marshall (Cape Breton University Press, $14.95) was first published in 1997. Recently reprinted with four new poems added, it deserves to be read by a new generation. It most certainly will not entertain, with all the latter word implies of amusement and passivity.  

Rather, the tone throughout is even, yet alive.  Whether Marshall writes of the present with its hassles or the past with its freedom to go anywhere, the words are such that the reader must do the reacting on his or her own. Much is implied.

A brief knowledge of Mi'kmaq history is almost essential; Marshall himself appears to be a leader among his people and known as a poet from Labrador to Scotland. And in Demasduit he evokes one of the last known Beothuk of Newfoundland.  

His historical range is wide, and his imagery, memorable.

Elizabeth Cran is a freelance writer who writes a book review column for The Guardian. To comment or to send her books to review, write her at her new address: 95 Orange St., Apt. 101, Saint John N.B., E2L 1M5, or call her at 506-693-5498.

Organizations: Acorn Press, Cape Breton University Press, The Guardian

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Scotland, Demasduit Saint John

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