Five must-read books of poetry

poetry-small-200.jpgIt's National Poetry Month, so we decided it's the perfect time to come up with a list of five poetry books from the past year that deserve special mention.

We're deliberately steering clear of collections that made the Governor General's Literary Award shortlist or are finalists for the Griffin Poetry Prize. We decided instead to focus on relatively unsung writers.

Do you have a favourite book of poetry from the past year that slipped under the radar? Let us know in the Comments section below.

A Lovely Gutting by Robin Durnford


This is a book of loss -- Durnford dedicates the book to her late father, "for the Newfoundland we shared together" -- and though it's partly a touching remembrance of him, it's also an elegy for a traditional way of life threatened by the decline of the cod fishery. Durnford's language, honed and taut, brings to life the island's rugged landscape and the toughness needed to survive in a place of "cold crags" and "the baldest rocks/in the hardest coves." Strong stuff, and compelling.

The Lease by Mathew Henderson

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There's nothing pretty about this book -- at times there's even an abrasive rawness to it -- but that's entirely fitting for a collection of poems about working in the oilfields in Saskatchewan and Alberta. It's hewn from the gritty details and vernacular of the job ("a coil cleanout/a blowdown, a frack, a bleedoff") and vividly portrays the dangers that can lead to the loss of a hand or worse ("Two dead when the stabbing valve went,/pipe swung so fast it took one guy's/face clean off"). To his credit, Henderson doesn't smooth down the rough edges of that working life, with its cursing, bluster, coarseness and hard drinking. But he also manages to take a sidelong, sceptical look at a culture of testerone-driven masculinity.

Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box by JonArno Lawson

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Pure fun. This book is meant for young readers, but adults who are young at heart are also sure to enjoy Lawson's exuberant whimsy and rhyming wordplay. He's particularly fond of animals, though there's nothing typical about the menagerie that populates his imagination; he writes of lunar foxes that "orbit round some/distant planet far away/or simply sniff and dip and drift/around the Milky Way" and of "sun-furred/solar bears" that "strike fast and bright/and dynamite the skies." Paper-cut illustrations by artist Alec Dempster add to the collection's charm.

Sumptuary Laws by Nyla Matuk

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It's not unusual for a book to be built on a concept as a unifying theme. But Matuk comes up with an intriguing one here: the collection is based on the sumptuary laws of medieval life, in which social rank determined what people could wear and eat. An arcane premise, to be sure, but Matuk gives a 21st-century spin to her exploration of food and clothing as social indicators. The hallmark of the collection: striking turns of phrase and a rather peculiar turn of mind. (Who else would have thought of the "stiffed peaks" of meringue as "little swans across a lake"?)

You Exist. Details Follow by Stuart Ross

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Ross is the joker in this pack: in his latest book, he serves up absurdist wit and playful irreverence, putting a weird but entertaining tilt on subjects as varied as family ties, suburban life and geopolitics. There's heart as well as hilarity here. In Fathers Shave, written from a child's-eye view of a father shaving, the blade of the razor "rips the carpet/and the curtains, rips/Sylvester the cat/right off the TV screen..." -- surrealistically bizarre, yes, but emotionally true to a young boy's awed view of his father.

We hope this list inspires you to both read and write some poetry this month, and every month. And don't forget to enter your own poetry in the CBC Poetry Prize. The contest is open until May 1.

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Note: CBC Books originally identified JonArno Lawson as JonArno Larson. CBC Books regrets the error.