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"Sharp teeth, lyrical talons": Teethmarks in the Toronto Star

Sharp teeth, lyrical talons; Human nature, more savage than nature can be; plus a reflective take on love, loss and cruelty
Barbara Carey. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 10, 2004. pg. D.14

With a title such as Teethmarks, Sina Queyras' second collection seems to promise real bite - and her fierce poems live up to that billing. A similar suggestion of savagery lurks in Randy Lundy's second collection, The Gift Of The Hawk (the cover features an avian predator in flight, talons extended). But it's somewhat misleading, for his lyrically driven work is more often tender than threatening.

Queyras divides her time between New York (where she teaches at Rutgers University) and Toronto. So it's not surprising that her work is thoroughly urban and cosmopolitan in sensibility her focus isn't nature "red in tooth and claw," but human nature, which can be crueller and more destructive than any fanged beast.

In the powerful opening poem, Queyras is tour guide to a streetscape of bleakness and environmental blight, eschewing the city's other, more pleasant possibilities ("I can give you the insides of books, take you through the shelves / of the New York Library"). That choice reflects the collection as a whole, which bristles with the energy and chaos of urban life and seldom backs off.

Stylistically, Teethmarks is a mongrel. Queyras shifts from long loping lines of acerbic litany to terse, fragmented narratives whose incompleteness seems to mirror the disconnected lives of the characters they describe.

The collection isn't all snap and snarl. For instance, a poem about coping with moths attracted to a bedside reading lamp has a rueful (though pointed) humour. At first, the poet captures the moths and sets them loose, not wanting to kill them. But such humane scruples fall away and she undertakes a campaign of elimination, "until the house is wingless ... all the dark fluttering / of the night safely contained."

In fact, there's "dark fluttering" of various sorts in Teethmarks, and an urgent sense that things are not safely contained. This tough-minded collection is disquieting, but it's also compelling.

Like Queyras, Randy Lundy lives and teaches in an urban setting (Regina), but his imagination seems drawn more to countryside than cityscape. A Cree from northern Manitoba (same village as Tomson Highway), Lundy is part of a new generation of Indian writers who are influenced by aboriginal culture, with its reverence for the natural world, but also by the lyrical tradition of English literature. As such, Lundy uses heightened figurative language, and seldom relies on the plainer style of oral tradition.

Images of the moon, rivers and various wild creatures recur frequently in his work, in vivid phrasing ("Night is a raven, moon / a bright stone in its beak ..."). Even writer's block, that curse of the cerebral, is rendered with physical immediacy "Words haven't abandoned you / but have retreated, dogs scared off by the scent / of something wild."

Many of the poems are about love, both romantic and familial, but the collection isn't all tenderness and sweet romanticism. Lundy also meditates on loss and cruelty, though these poems about harsher subjects tend to be regretful and sad rather than angry or sharp- edged.

The Gift Of The Hawk is primarily a gentle, quietly reflective collection; at its best, its striking lyricism proves that poetry doesn't need claws to get a grip on readers.