Monday, December 11, 2017

Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems - Igor Kholin - Translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich (Ugly Duckling Presse)

Today's book of poetry:
Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems.  Igor Kholin.  Translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich.  Eastern European Poets Series #40.  Ugly Duckling Presse.  Brooklyn, New York.  2017.

Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems

Today's book of poetry can't even begin to imagine the life Igor Kholin (1920-1999) endured.  The few poems in this utterly intriguing translation by Morse and Bela show an utterly unforgiving Kholin in full unmitigated rant.  It's rather splendid.

Russia in 1966 was most likely as reported, not a very nice place for most people.  Today's book of poetry lived in Eastern Europe for the best part of a year in the late 80's.  I had unrestricted freedom, access to more money than most citizens and at best it was a bittersweet existence.  Kholin shared squalor, abject poverty and an orphanage childhood are one hard anvil to pound a life out on.  As a young adult fighting in World War II he got a bullet in the head and survived.  This is a tough man in a tough world.


     You may think
     This shining
     Is a washing 
     I'm not what I seem
     I'm a poet
     The only
     Man on Venus
     My parents
     Are loudspeakers
     My buddies
     Are light switches
     My best friend
     Is a blender


Even though his Diaries name drop an encyclopedic run on the artists and writers of the day Igor Kholin was never one of the educated intelligentsia who wrote poetry.  Kholin was an orphan who ran away when he was in grade two (if Today's book of poetry followed along closely enough) and ended up shot in the army.  After the war he was banned from Moscow for a time for a drunken fight in the street with soldiers.  Kholin may be the most outsider poet of all.

Kholin died poor in Moscow at the age of 79 and it is only now that most of his work is seeing the light of day.  Igor may be the first true pissed off, pissed drunk, piss stink poet we've seen at Today's book of poetry in a while.  He certainly paid all of his dues, some of yours and mine as well.


     One guy says
     I'm a genius
     I say
     That's definitely true
     Others say
     I'm a hack
     And I agree with that
     A third says
     I killed a guy
     Indeed, I nod
     Everything people say about you
     Is the truth
     From nothing


Our morning read stretched into an early afternoon vodka shower and an early evening headache.  Today's book of poetry only now remembers our love/hate relationship with vodka.  Milo, our head tech and soon to be excommunicated vodka dispensing poetry junkie, thought vodka shots suited the sentiment of Igor Kholin's Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems and he was right.  I was wrong to bring out the Becherovka.  

I know that now.

Today's book of poetry did make sure that theses short little power shots by Kholtin were given the space, time and respect they deserve.  These short poems may be the most honest window into a corner of Russia we were never allowed to see.  Igor Kholin was abrasive and completely unrepentant.  These poems are poetry time bombs from  a past that was previously impenetrable to the west.


     Kholin broke his leg
     Thank God
     Against him, but
     May he break
     His neck
     May he break
     His back
     Son of a bitch
     May he
     In the next life
     And in this one
     May his children
     May he be
     Buried alive
     May he
     Fall down the toilet
     May he
     Choke to death on shit


Today's book of poetry is hoping more poetry by Igor Kholin in uncovered and translated.  He makes the world seem a smaller place.  Even in his desolate disquiet Kholin finds humour, dark as a rat's shadow, but humour none the less.  Khodin is proof yet again that there is nothing stronger than the human spirit.

And that there is no one grumpier than a bitchy old poet.  Bless his cotton socks.

Igor Kholin

Igor Kholin

Igor Kholin was born in Moscow in 1920, ran away from an orphanage in Ryazan, and eventually enrolled in a military academy in Novorossiysk. He barely survived World War II (a bullet that grazed the corner of his lips came out of his back). In 1946, he was exiled from the military and Moscow for slapping a drunken comrade-in-arms. Kholin landed in a labor camp in Lianozovo, a suburb of Moscow, where one of his friends was the guard and would occasionally let him out to visit the Lianozovo library—he'd started writing poetry. When he asked to check out a book by forbidden poet Alexander Blok, he aroused the interest of the librarian, Olga Potapova, an artist married to the poet and painter Evgeny Kropivnitsky. The two of them hosted a Sunday salon out of their nearby barracks apartment, encouraging the work of young artists and a few poets, including Genrikh Sapgir and Vsevolod Nekrasov. Along with Kholin, they called themselves Kropivnitsky's students and formed a loose poetry collective known as the Lianozovo Group. Kholin's early work took the rough edges of Soviet life—the poverty, brutality and alcoholism rampant in the barracks—as his primary subject matter, while lampooning formulaic Socialist Realist poetics. The world that Kholin depicted in his poems, where abrupt death inevitably cut down two-dimensional stock characters, was too crude and inglorious to be considered poetry by official standards. Later years saw cycles of outer-space poems and a series of poetic self-portraits, simultaneously wildly superlative and deeply self-deprecating; but all of it equally unpublishable until the fall of the Soviet Union. Kholin barely supported himself with odd jobs: children's book author, writing tutor, waiter and, after the 1970s, antiques dealer. Igor Kholin died in Moscow in 1999. Kholin 66 is the first book of Kholin's work in English translation.

Ainsley Morse
Ainsley Morse has been translating 20th- and 21st-century Russian and (former-) Yugoslav literature since 2006. She holds a PhD in Slavic literatures from Harvard University and teaches all over the Russian and Yugoslav traditions. Previous publications include the co-translation of Vsevolod Nekrasov, I Live I See, (with Bela Shayevich, UDP 2013) and Andrei Sen-Senkov's Anatomical Theater (translated with Peter Golub, Zephyr Press, 2013). Upcoming translations include the farcical Soviet pastoral Beyond Tula, by Andrey Egunov, and a collection of theoretical essays by the brilliant Formalist Yuri Tynianov.

Bela Shayevich
Bela Shayevich is a writer, translator, and illustrator. She is the co-translator of I Live I See by Vsevolod Nekrasov (UDP). Her translations have appeared in It's No Good by Kirill Medvedev (UDP/n+1) and various periodicals including Little Star and The New Yorker.



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Next Door to the Butcher Shop - Rodney DeCroo (Nightwood Editions)

Today's book of poetry:
Next Door to the Butcher Shop.  Rodney DeCroo.  Nightwood Editions.  Gibsons, British Columbia.  2017.

Back in August of this year Today's book of poetry wrote about Rodney DeCroo's Allegheny, BC and you can check that out here:

Today we're looking at DeCroo's recent firecracker from Nightwood Editions, Next Door to the Butcher Shop and let me tell you, the wick is lit.

Who hasn't been drunk and stoned and holed up in a stinky bathroom with the door barred and locked so that your giantly misinformed and closeted giant of a friend won't break it down with further entreaties for sexual demonstrations of affection that may or may not have been earned.  In Rodney DeCroo's world this may be a less unusual event than you think.  These poems are a long way from main street.

Next Door to the Butcher Shop is one hard scrabble motherf**ker.  Things get broken that hurt more than hearts.  This is a world where love comes with bruises whether you can see them or not.  The worst crimes aren't always visible.

The Debt

By day I stole jeans from department stores
in Thunder Bay and sold them at night
in a booze can with my friend Wayne. We
sat drinking from stubby brown bottles
of High Test, the jeans piled on a chair
next to me bristling with price tags.
Wayne was a large Ojibwa man who used
his size to intimidate customers when they
tried to haggle. He'd stand up to look down
on them. Pay him what he wants or fuck off.

The stranger would stammer an apology
and give me the cash. After they left
we lowered our heads to hide our smiles.
Wayne owned a hair salon and spent his days
giving perms to old ladies who came
to tease and gossip with him. His mother
had been a barmaid and he grew up in the bars
of the oil patch and logging towns and knew
the ways of violence. Wayne and I met outside
his salon as I sold cigarettes on the street.

He bought the entire carton of Player's Lights.
and offered to take me to lunch. I knew
what he wanted by the way he placed his money
in my palm. I'd been approached by men
before but I was hungry and it was winter
so I went with him. We spent the day and deep
into the night drinking at a bar filled with old
men who sat alone with sleeves of pale draft
beer tasting like vomit and piss. We left
after last call staggering over icy sidewalks

and falling into parked cars, the moisture
of our breath freezing against our faces, the ache
of coldness pulsing through my finger-bones
and wrists to pierce my drunkenness.
I had to find a place to stay the night. Wayne
beckoned me to follow. I walked head-down,
crushing ice and snow beneath my boots
until we came to houses separated by vacant lots
along the lake. Wayne pulled a portion of chain
link fence high enough to scramble beneath.

We crossed under the opposite fence and into
the backyard of a brick house the colour of dried
blood. The windows blackened out with newspaper
and tin foil. The only light, a bulb above the basement
door. Wayne lurched down the steps steadying himself
against the concrete stairwell and banged the door.
As we waited, I felt the silence swirling around us
coming in from the huge night over the frozen wastes
of Lake Superior, the freezing wind as hard
and unforgiving as iron or steel. Light rushed out

through the open door to reveal a woman: black
hair streaked with grey. Her fact thin with narrow
eyes that cut like the neat, sharp teeth of a fox.
I followed Wayne and the woman into the acrid
warmth of the smoke-filled, weakly lit basement:
a wide room with a concrete floor and oil cloth
card tables between metal poles bearing the full
weight of the house. I could see the hunched shapes,
people in groups of twos or threes around the tables.
In the back, the woman sat by a yellow refrigerator

filled with bottles of beer. Next to her a space heater
glowed and rattled like an angry coiled snake, a stench
like burnt plastic. Wayne and I sat and drank. Cigarettes
burned in the alcoholic gloaming like the red eyes
of demons. For four months of my twentieth year
I sold stolen clothing, stumbling with Wayne through
desolate winter dawns to pass out on his couch where
I fended off his drunken tearful gropes. Locking 
myself in the bathroom as he punched the door
cursing me for failing to pay what he was owed.


DeCroo's hard-scrabble opera mines Charles the B. territory, without the horses.  These poems know what it is like to miss a meal, or several.  What it is like to feel guilty for the smallest piece of luck.

Rodney DeCroo's poems are rough as the rebar they put inside cement when it is forming.  The surface of it rough enough to rip your skin off -- but in truth it is the strength built inside buildings to hold them up, buildings, bridges, cities.  DeCroo's honesty comes at the cost of what he has already paid.  A cost we can't know.  But the resulting poems pop like corn going into oil.


His hair was oiled and slicked
back. He drove a blue sixty-eight Camaro
with white racing stripes and worked
at the steel mill. My mother said he
didn't drink much, was a Vietnam
vet like my father. Denny moved
into the apartment next door to us.
There were rumours he'd beaten his ex-fiancee,
a girl from New Kensington. My mother
knew Denny since high school, remembered
him as the silent kid alone in the cafeteria,
who didn't go to parties or play football.
Denny had a large eight-track collection
and played the Who, Cream and Zeppelin
so loud my mother banged the wall,
shouted at him to turn the music down.
One Saturday night my mother found
him sitting outside his apartment so drunk
he couldn't stand. When he raised his head
his eyes were raw from crying. She
sat with him for hours reading aloud
from the new testament, testifying
that Christ had saved her life.

That Sunday Denny came to church
with us. His eyes were still red,
he reeked of too much aftershave,
and his large hands trembled. So much
for doesn't drink much, my brother
whispered as we followed our mother
and Denny up Colfax Street. I sat next
to Denny in the pew, mother on the other
side. He was sweating and kept pulling
at his collar to loosen his tie. He took off
his suit-jacket and hung it over the back
of the pew, dark blooms of sweat beneath
his arms. When the collection came around,
Denny stood, pulled a handful of change
from his pocket and dumped it into the plate,
half the coins spilling loudly onto the floor.
He bent between the pews as people
stared, my mother stiff as the granite columns
framing the entrance to the church.

Denny stood with the rest of us, looking
down at the closed hymnal in his hands.
My mother leaned close, holding her opened
book in front of him. He shifted his eyes
to the black print and he spoke out loud,
The Lord is my redeemer, he shall lift me up,
then began to laugh, his eyes clenched shut,
his entire body shaking. The singing
stopped as parishioners turned to watch.
When my mother touched his shoulder
his head snapped up and his eyes opened.
Don't touch me, he said, and pushed past me,
knocking me into the pew. I watched his rigid
back as he walked between rows of sullen
faces, toward the huge white doors
and what waited outside for him.


Spent last night drinking too much red wine and listening to jazz at a new club in our neighbourhood so this morning I'm feeling like I was in a fight, and lost.  Apparently exactly the right temperament to lead a morning read of Next Door to the Butcher Shop.  The minions rose to the occasion and dark-danced Mr. DeCroo around the room a couple of times.

What Today's book of poetry most admires about the poetry of Rodney DeCroo is that it feels alive, you can take a pulse, alive and messy with human folly and frailty wrapped into brief moments of grace and the understanding that for most of us that is as good as it gets.  These poems strive to reveal and to share those moments.  And when it is all on the line, whom of us is going to be able to rise out of it.  These are important questions, they may be the most important.

Why Can't You Be Leonard Cohen?

She told me she disliked my poems,
that poetry should be beautiful, stylish,
sad and romantic. She said Leonard Cohen
was her ideal of a poet and a lover.
She spent a week in Montreal
wandering the streets, reading his books
in cafes, listening to his songs at night
in her hotel room. She said I was just
a dry drunk with anger issues
and a penchant for making
everyone around me miserable.
And why couldn't I be handsome?
Leonard Cohen was handsome in his way.
He tried, but you, you're just ugly.
Like your poems and your songs,
just ugly and mean. And why,
why couldn't I see the beauty in the world?
I told her that her assessment
of my poetry and songs was probably
the most accurate I'd heard.
But she was wrong on one point.
I'd seen the beauty of this world and known
it was not meant for people like us.


Today's book of poetry was honoured to dive back into Rodney DeCroo territory once again.  You feel like your taking a bit of beating but you come out the other side knowing just that little more.  Of course we had to put on protective clothing to mine these glowing embers but it was worth the fuss. 

This is old school, tell it like it is from your busted and broken heart stuff.  Who doesn't love that.

RodneyDeCroo_by Rebecca Blissett-2-3

Rodney DeCroo

Rodney DeCroo is a Vancouver-based singer/songwriter and poet. Born and raised in a small coal mining town just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he has called Vancouver home for years now. He has released a previous collection of poetry, Allegheny, BC (Nightwood, 2012) and seven music albums that have received critical acclaim in Canada, the USA and Europe. Music critics have named him one of Canada’s best folk/alt-country songwriters. Next Door to the Butcher Shop is his latest collection of poetry.

Rodney DeCroo's
"Stupid Boy in an Ugly Town"
Selections from "Allegheny, BC" as performed at The Cultch in Vancouver, BC during the 2014 Fringe Festival. 
Video: Tonic Records


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Museum of Kindness - Susan Elmslie (Brick Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Museum of Kindness.  Susan Elmslie.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  2017.

And what if I did run my ship aground;
oh, still it was splendid to sail it!
                                                                                                 Henrik Ibsen

Those are the words Susan Elmslie wants us to consider before opening the door on her Museum of Kindness.  Well Ibsen is a real Crackerjack by any standards and Today's book of poetry loves Henrik's quote.  Close enough to our world view that we would tattoo it somewhere.

Today's book of poetry has worked in several museums including the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canadian War Museum.  But we've never been in a museum like this.  By the time you're finished reading about Elmslie's Museum Today's book of poetry is convinced you will agree that both your time and your money was well spent.  Enthusiastically.

The Museum of Kindness is built out of the blocks of human toil, suffering and joy, the blocks of human experience both good and bad.  This museum has many rooms.  In some of them Elmslie's poems are taking on the fight against cancer, in another the battleground is the health of a child.  Having a healthy child is a generally safe assumption when you are having a child.  That's the way it is until you are on the other side of it.  Elmslie's poems struggle the human struggle, create empathy in the search for the same.

School Shooting

          Dawson College, September 13, 2006

          for my daughter

When shots blanched the corridors and a small throng
of students and another teacher crouched on my office floor,
some under desks, some receiving calls or text-messages
until I commanded, "Turn off phones in case they give us away,"
there was an instant, between the first shot that ruptured the silence
and our release by the SWAT team that chalked an x on my door,
that I met the dark eyes of the girl nearest me and beheld
you--and knew whatever happened to me it'd be
all right, your dad, harrowed, would raise you, I'd live
in memory, fading with time, all right. I felt
from one side what looked like faith and,
from the other, unforgivable: I could go
true as a tree felled by lightning.
Not as one who parts seas but as one who splits,
child of a God who seems to have abandoned us perfectly,
and can do no wrong.


I can tell you there is a static silence
between reports of a gun; bullets

pierce drywall; we were too afraid to move
a filing cabinet to block the door;

when the smooth-jawed SWAT officer
ordered me to hold it open for my students

then swung around to cover my back I felt
his core hot and trembling through Kevlar.


The Museum of Kindness takes a close look at what happens during a school shooting--and what comes afterwards.  The rest of the world loses much meaning when the bullets are flying and you are under a desk.  Susan Elmslie takes the reader where you've never been and gives you lots to think about.

Having said all that, and some of the other difficult subjects Elmslie handles with alacrity, she does have a very good sense of humour hidden in a dark, dark place.  She lets it come out to play from time to time in the hallways and backrooms of the Museum of Kindness.

Today's book of poetry had Milo, our head tech, check the stacks to see what else we had on hand by Susan Elmslie.  Milo came back with three previous titles. When Your Body Takes To Trembling (Cranberry Tree Press, 1996), I, Nadja (above/ground press, 2000) and I, Nadja, and Other Poems (Brick Books, 2006).  Today's book of poetry has been aware of Elmslie for a while.  We're very happy to report that in our opinion Museum of Kindness is a landmark title for Elmslie.  

When you can write gems like "To Mark the Day I Saw I Could Slip This Skin" and then repeat the process repeatedly for an entire book you are entering special territory.  Splendid, just splendid.

To Mark the Day I Saw I Could Slip This Skin

          for Billy

"That's impossible," I sneered at my brother, one
Saturday spent bantering in front of the TV.

The remark that sparked such incredulity in me
is lost to the darning pile of memory,

along with my sundry worn-out resentments from 
growing up the scrawny four-eyed baby of the family.

Though I do clearly remember his reply,
sing-song, prepackaged: "Nothing's impossible,"

in a tone somewhere between Mom's pep talk
and the mischief-nicked baritone of Jack Palance

hosting Ripley's Believe It or Not.
I had to bite:

"Some things are. A snake driving a car."
I thought I had him, but he didn't skip a beat,

he pointed at the TV, which was showing a cartoon.
And without a thread of triumph, impossibly cool,

he said, "Look," just as a snake hopped into a car,
coiled about the steering wheel and sped out of sight.


This morning's read followed a light dusting of snow here in Ottawa.  As Christmas nears you can see children looking skyward trying to bargain for snow.  The Today's book of poetry staff ate the Museum of Kindness like they were kids visiting their first museum.  Everything looks grand.  The gang read through these poems like they were opening presents.  And in a sense they were - Elmslie really has bargained with some higher/alien God because this book shines even when the poems grow dark.

The Worst

          Then was all care at an end, and they lived in great joy together.
          --The Brothers Grimm

What you thought you couldn't endure
you lived through and something else
became the worst--all at once
or in increments. The worst telescopes,
may be happiest in the future, barely
detectable, like a shadow on the lung
below the whorl and grain of ultrasound.

We learn that hubris connects Sisyphus and schlep.
In Greek mythology we say nemesis.
In therapy we say lifestyle and rock bottom.
An anagram for ruined is inured.
The waxed doorknobs of semantics!

How do we get a handle on the worst
when it's a moving target, always beyond
the baldly conceivable and
unimaginable--beyond lynchings
and postcards of lynchings?
It must be that there are more worsts
than ways to parse them:
the personal and the collective, the local
and the global, and the worst is where
they overlap. I think of that
bus in New Delhi and can't think.
What pill blurs the mismatch
between our need for meaning
and our inability to find it?

When what feels like the worst happens
to us, I wish us an eye
of oblivion that we can enter
like a licked thread
and somebody ties the knot.

A pendulum swinging to and fro
between boredom and pain,
is what Schopenhauer thought.

What if the worst,
rather than always receding
like the mirage of water on the road ahead,
is more like a threshold
so what we thought was the worst is
only an opening?


As good as Museum of Kindness is, and it is very, very good, Today's book of poetry sees now that Susan Elmslie has entered Sue Goyette, Julie Bruck territory.  This is stratified and rare air stuff.  

Today's book of poetry thought Susan Elmslie's Museum of Kindness was so fine we were reluctant to leave.

Susan Elmslie

Susan Elmslie’s first trade collection of poetry, I, Nadja, and Other Poems (Brick, 2006), won the A.M. Klein Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the McAuslan First Book Prize, the Pat Lowther Award, and a ReLit Award. Her poems have also appeared in several journals and anthologies—including the Best Canadian Poetry in English (2008, 2015)—and were collected in a prize-winning chapbook, When Your Body Takes to Trembling (Cranberry Tree, 1996). She lives in Montreal and teaches English literature and creative writing at Dawson College. Museum of Kindness is her second poetry collection.

“… These poems are so acute, so clear-eyed in their brutal wisdom, that I had to put the book down to rest between poems, like a woman in labor, entirely wrung out…. a masterpiece of loss transformed by love into some of the most greathearted, lyrically daring poems I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. ” 
     — Rachel Rose

“Susan Elmslie has written a remarkable collection. Many of these poems deal with some of the more demanding elements in the lives of women, of mothers. These are poems that will speak to many people with power and dignity and a healing touch.” 
     — Marge Piercy, author of Woman on the Edge of Time

Susan Elmslie
Reads from I, Nadja, and Other Poems
Video: Brick Books



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Pillow Book - Suzanne Buffam (House of Anansi Press)

Today's book of poetry:
A Pillow Book.  Suzanne Buffam.  House of Anansi Press.  Toronto, Ontario.  2016.

A Pillow Book

A Pillow Book is a type of private diary.  Ambling around inside Suzanne Buffam's A Pillow Book is about as much fun as you are allowed to have with a book of poetry, it's as much fun as you are going to find.  Buffam makes splendid lists and you all know how much Today's book of poetry loves lists.  Buffam starts with lists, not literally, but her lists are the best.  How she got this much wit into one little pillow is remarkable.

The rest of the connect the dot compendium is a riotous assemblage of a particular Holly Golightly meets a hipster Zen chronologicalist.

Beautiful Names For Hideous Things

Concertina wire.
Orb Weaver.
White flight.
Night soil.
Crystal meth.
Lhasa Apso.
Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Peach Tea.


Today's book of poetry simply loved following the flawless logic of Suzanne Buffam's musings about any and everything.  She is ahead of the pack.  She will make you laugh out loud and then make you catch your breath.

Dubious Doctors

Dr. Who.
Dr. No.
Dr. Zhivago.
Dr. Moreau.
Dr. Strangelove.
Dr. Feelgood.
Dr. Dolittle.
Dr. Spock.
Dr. Jekyll.
Dr. Faustus.
Dr. Pepper.
Dr. Dre.
Doctors who drink.
Doctors who don't drink.
All Doctors of Literature.


And Today's book of poetry is leading you astray, A Pillow Book is not at all centered on lists, we were simply enjoying them so much we put two together so you'd get the drift.  Most of this cornucopia of delight is held in the short prose passages Buffam peppers at us.  Somehow each is almost perfectly weighed and served with the right degrees of both glee and pathos.  Suzanne Buffam isn't making your everyday bed for her pillow book.  A Pillow Book is its own private universe and that Buffam has let us in is something we shall be grateful for.


     A Great Book can be read again and again, inexhaustibly, with great
     benefit to great minds, wrote Mortimer Adler, co-founder of the
     Great Books Foundation and the Great Books of the Western World
     program at the university where my husband will be going up for
     tenure next fall, and where I sometimes teach as well, albeit in a
     lesser, "non-ladder" position. Not only must a Great book still matter
     today, Adler insisted, it must touch upon at least twenty-five of the
     one hundred and two Great Ideas that have occupied Gread Minds
     for the last twenty-five centuries. Ranging from Angel to World, a
     comprehensive list of these concepts can be found in Adler's two-
     volume Sytopicon: an Index to the Great Ideas, which was published
     with Great Fanfare, if not Great Financial Success, by Encyclopedia
     Britannica in 1952.  Although the index includes many Great Ideas,
     including Art, Beauty, Change, Desire, Eternity, Family, Fate,
     Happiness, History, Pain, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, Time and Truth,
     it does not, alas, include an entry of Pillows, which often strike me,
     as I sink into mine at the end of a long day of anything, these days,
     as at the very least worthy of note. Among the five hundred and
     eleven Great Books on Adler's list, updated in 1990 to appease his
     quibbling critics, moreover, only four, I can't help counting, were
     written by women -- Virginia, Willa, Jane, and George -- none of
     whom, as far as I can discover, were anyone's mother.


These missives are written in English but Buffam's sensibility might actually be foreign, no, not foreign but perhaps like Claire Randall/Fraser in Outlander Buffam is travelling through time and collecting the goods on us mere mortals.  She may be a time traveller.  

What Today's book of poetry means is that to be able to focus and report on a culture with such accuracy you either have to be alien to it to see it in clear light or a time traveller like Buffam.  No other explanation will do.

Buffam moves past witty into another type of humour.  She is in Eva H.D. territory, Buffam has the same sort of universal clever and it's got a type of intoxication all its own.  

Ignore At Your Own Risk

A train whistle.
A knowing wink from a drunk.
Campus security update alerts.
Warming currents.
Vows made in the dark.


Buffam's A Pillow Book is a charmer.  Other women have ploughed this ground, Dorothy Parker may have got here first, Fran Lebowitz certainly claimed this ground with aplomb (we cannot possibly express how much we admire Lebowitz), and there was a woman I knew in university about forty years ago named Kristy Eldredge, she also lives in New York City.  It's a sophistication that is warm and welcoming but comes with the appropriate sharp knives.


     The skeleton of the stocky, sixteen-year-old Neanderthal boy known
     to us as Le Moustier was discovered curled on its die in the foetal
     position in the dim glow of a cave in Peyzac-le-Moustier, France,
     in 1908 AD.  Beside his dusty remains, over forty-five thousand
     years old, lay a small handaxe and the scattered bones of wild cattle.
     Miraculously intact, the boy's toothy skull, with its lumbering brow-
     ridge and sloping forehead, rested on a small, undisturbed cairn
     of ancient stones.  His bones were promptly sold for a handsome
     fee by an amateur Swiss fossil hunter and suspected German spy
     to the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Berlin, where all but his badly
     damaged cranial remains were destroyed in the flames of World War
     II.  Le Moustier's pillow, which as far as I can discover is the oldest
     one know on Earth, has not survived.  The foxes have their holes,
     the birds of the air have their nests, bu the Son of Man hath no
     place to lay his head, says Jesus in the Gospel According to Luke.


Our morning read was a great one.  Everyone in the office takes a turn in our read and so do any guests who happen to wander by and hang around.  We had a new mailman this morning and I invited him in.  He was old-school and having no part of any antics of any type, and he wasn't happy.  He dropped off several small parcels and said he'd be back with the truck for the larger boxes.  He was kind of grumpy so I didn't remind him that Suzanne Buffam pays his wages and if she hadn't come through the door along with all the other poetry he wouldn't have a job.  I don't think hearing that would have made him happy.  But I did want to shout "poetry pays your wages!"

You can see what kind of cloud of unreasoned turmoil I live in.  Books like A Pillow Book are problem solvers.  When I read poetry this smart it clears the air for me.  When I read books of poetry like this it is like that first big breath of fresh air when you open the door in the morning, all of a sudden - you know you are awake and in the world.

I stood on our stoop and debated saying more to our tired mailman but could see he wasn't having the sort of day where he'd appreciate further debate.  Back in our office the staff were passing Buffam's A Pillow Book back and forth like a giant burner at a Grateful Dead concert.


     The pillow has a certain sacredness, reports Lafcadio Hearn, also
     known in some circles as Koizumi Yakumo, in his 1894 account
     of life in the Far East, Glimpses of Foreign Japan. Only this I know,
     that to touch it with the foot is considered very wrong: and that if
     it be kicked or moved thus even by accident, the clumsiness must
     be atoned for by lifting the pillow to the forehead with the hands,
     and replacing it in its original position respectfully, with the word
     "gomen," signifying I pray to be excused.


Suzanne Buffam's A Pillow Book is more fun than any book of poetry has a right to be.  Brilliant, funny, illuminating, clever and so on.  If all poets were this smart we'd be running the world.

Image result for suzanne buffam photo

Suzanne Buffam

SUZANNE BUFFAM’s first collection of poetry, Past Imperfect, won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for Poetry and was named a Book of the Year by the Globe and Mail. Her second collection of poetry, The Irrationalist, was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in international anthologies and publications, including Poetry, Jubilat, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, Books in Canada, and Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets; her poetry has been translated into French, German, Spanish, and Slovenian. She lives in Chicago.

"A Pillow Book is one of the most finely controlled, subtly structured books of Canadian poetry in recent memory..." 
     - Globe and Mail

"Suzanne Buffam’s third poetry collection, A Pillow Book (House of Anansi), takes the reader into the haze-filled world of the insomniac, turning the half-muddled thoughts of sleepless-ness into irreverent, sharp and meditative poems." 
     - Maisonneuve

"Buffam’s pillow may not inspire sleep, but it does inspire smart, relevant writing." 
     - Arc Poetry Magazine

Suzanne Buffam
reads from The Irrationalist
Video: Griffin Poetry Prize



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