10 February 2008

My first-ever review; my most recent review

To my surprise — and delight — I Cut My Finger was reviewed in today's Toronto Star, 10 months after it was released. It's a nice beacon of positivism while I'm sitting here with the threat of a defamation suit hanging over my aging noggin. The writer of the review is Barbara Carey. I was pretty sure she reviewed something else of mine in recent years, but then I remembered that the first review I ever received was by someone named Carey, 32 years ago. Turns out to be Anne Carey. Can't help but wonder if they're related. Books by Kids, incidentally, soon became Annick Press.

Here are both those reviews…

Toronto Star, 6 March 1976

Fascinating reading in books by and for young Canadians

By Anne Carey
Star staff writer

I remember being 6 and 8 and 18, but I don't remember being a boy — all of which helps explain why The Thing in Exile, one of three new books by and for young Canadians, fascinates me.

The Thing in Exile, by Steven Feldman, Stuart Ross and Mark Laba. Books by Kids [1975], 53 pages, $3.25

The complexities of being 16, male, a poet and a resident of North York are the shared characteristics of Steve, Stu and Mark in their altogether collected collection of poems.

It's uncanny. Have they been peeping into our subconscious? Yes — and their own, too. Febrile thoughts while making out at a drive-in, to the counterpoint of a monster movie, come from Stu. Shipboard romance clouds but slightly the vision of Steve, a boy "from the kiddy bar" intent on getting a lady "drunk on gin." Last, and most Daliesque, are the reptilian, surrealist tears wept by Mark inside the terrarium-aquarium that is his head.

It's wicked stuff, attractively laid down. The poets, say the editors, are "of varying degrees of sanity (or insanity)" and available for readings by contacting the publisher, Books by Kids, a Toronto non-profit venture.

P.S. The picture of Steve, Stu and Mark on the inside cover makes them look like the teenagers next door. Consider yourself warned.


Toronto Star, 10 February 2008

A serious streak meets absurdity

Rita Wong's fierce indictment a contrast to Stuart Ross's surrealistic shenanigans


by Rita Wong
Nightwood Editions,
86 pages, $16.95

I Cut My Finger
by Stuart Ross
Anvil Press,
104 pages, $15

The American playwright Edward Albee once said a good play "is an act of aggression against the status quo."
As far as good poetry is concerned, there are probably a lot of like-minded poets, since they tend to be more Kensington Market than Bay St. in style. But there are various ways of delivering a counter-cultural message — as these two poetry collections show.


Wong writes of being "born with a serious streak the width of an altar." Stuart Ross, on the other hand, uses humour as a subversive weapon. Ross is a prolific writer and editor, a mainstay of Toronto's small press scene for more than 30 years, and much of his work is the poetic equivalent of a whoopee cushion.

His latest collection, I Cut My Finger, is a gleeful package of surrealistic absurdity and unruly narratives of non sequiturs that undermines the norms of conventional poetry explicitly and those of the social order implicitly. Ross delights in deflating expectations of an epiphany or lyrically driven payoff to a poem. He caps off a poem called "Sediment" with the stanza: "a better poet than me / would insert a really good sediment / metaphor right here. (Or, more poignantly, / here.)"

He also enjoys poking fun at the notion that a poem's subject should be important. In many of his poems, he celebrates (in mock-epic style) the trivial or reduces an experience that should be dramatic to banality. Another favourite tactic is to make inanimate objects animate. In one poem, a chicken breast in the frozen foods section of a grocery store calls out to him; in another poem, "The sign above the billiards hall begins / to sneeze from all the chalk."

Though they're comical, Ross's surrealistic shenanigans often draw attention to real issues, such as the lack of fulfillment in routine work and the hold that the mass media, especially films, have on the popular imagination. (As he puts it in one poem, "now wherever I go, movie music follows / me".)

Occasionally, Ross steps out of his jokey character. In "Others Like Me," he sums up human civilization with an understated, sober wistfulness: "We fought, f---ed, / built a society, / and set out / to construct / a sailboat from toothpicks, / books from the wings / of an aphid."

In a collection that makes a virtue of the outlandish, this quiet, touching poem is easy to overlook. But in a way, it's more of a surprise than the talking chicken breast – and in its quixotic images, just as far removed from the status quo.

Over and out.


At February 10, 2008 8:27 pm , Blogger hg said...

Good to see this, Stuart. She seems to have 'got' it. It might have been nice to see what she had to say about Wong as well, if only for the element of contrast. Still, thanks for calling my attention to the piece.


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