Roxanna Bennett, “Intake Questionnaire”


I have not been as consistent as I’d like to be with these essays – the usual busy-ness. Meanwhile my son is posting on his basketball blog every other week like a boss. So props to him, and if you are one of those rare few whose interests in poetry and interest in basketball coincide, feel free to check it out.

Depending on whether you find it online or in the back pages of her book, Unmeaningable, Roxanna Bennett’s bio states that she is “living with disability” or “a disabled poet” in the first or second sentence. It’s something she frontloads in her literary identity, and her poems often investigate her physical limitations and discomforts, her experiences navigating the medical system, and the way disability impacts relationships in other contexts. She’s rarely specific about the kinds of challenges her poetic speakers are facing, but she can describe pain with an almost hallucinogenic power that I admire and dread.

I admit that part of me is curious, reading these poems, what exactly the speaker suffers from, what disease or injury or deficiency, and when there are hints, I seize upon them in my mind to extrapolate diagnoses and accompanying symptoms. But I’m aware that what I’m trying to do with that curiosity is to pigeonhole Bennett’s speaker, to categorize the poetic voice in a way that is reductive to the rest of her humanity. We are not the sum of our diagnoses, as this poem reminds us.


Intake Questionnaire


Are you rain

against the rec room window?

Are you air

uprooting the old willow?


Are you light

lancing the roof of the gazebo,

wood wreck left at the behest

of a former – ? Be patient.


Be bolted by meds, slow mo,

shunning group time.

Be cement, tonguing

narrow fault lines.


Or are you the lake, land-locked.

Or are you          radiant.


–from Unmeaningable (Gordon Hill Press, 2019), used by permission.

The title brings to mind the forms on clipboards we have all filled out in hospitals or doctors’ offices. But the questions here do not resemble the ones I answered before my recent stress test!

A couple of things to start with: first, the questions “you” is being asked offer a wide range of possibilities in terms of, to put it over-simply, power. “Rain / against the rec room window” is nothing that will make a lasting impression, a pleasant and unobtrusive visual image. “Air / uprooting the old willow,” on the other hand, is a gale force wind to be reckoned with. So the “intake questionnaire” seems to be asking about something more abstract than the subject’s health.

The other thing I notice in the first two stanzas is a weird kind of music. There’s the near rhyme with “window/willow/gazebo” that is familiar. But the alliteration that appears almost serves as a kind of barrier. When I read “rec room window” too fast I end up saying something like “weck woom widow.” “Wood wreck left at the behest” in the second stanza verges on a complete garble in my mouth, it’s literally hard to say. My point is that there’s something in the sonic tools Bennett is using that gives me a halting kind of discomfort, or a sense of being off-balance as I read. I’ve written elsewhere about how the music in some poems can add beauty or resonance to certain images or ideas. But here what it seems to add is complexity, difficulty, even a kind of artful awkwardness.

The second stanza adds another layer of ambiguity to the questions from the first. Is “light / lancing the roof” simply a familiar trick of the light that we’ve seen beam down through a gap in roof slats, or something more piercing and destructive? Remember, these questions are theoretically trying to determine who “you are,” and as such they’re metaphorical to begin with. So is it really so outrageous to imagine a spear of light literally tearing through the flimsy roof of an outdoor pavilion? “Is that what you are?” the poem asks, and the potential answers range from transcendent light to the wood rubbish left behind by someone who cannot be named. How can these questions be answered? And as the “you” pronoun keeps being repeated, I’m feeling increasingly cornered by all of the suggestions. Yes, the poem is imitating the language of a questionnaire, but wait a minute, is it talking to me?

The end of that stanza shuts all this dreaming down with a thump. “Be patient” also suggests “be a patient” to me. When we walk around in the wide world, we are people, workers, parents and children, point guards and power forwards, writers, readers and raconteurs. But when we enter a hospital, we are patients. And the only job of the patient is to be patient. And to follow orders.

Sure enough, the next stanza begins with a pair of prescriptions, though how they are intended to help us is a mystery: be patient, be bolted, be cement. The possibilities seem to have narrowed significantly. To “be bolted” can mean to be secured, as in “bolted in place,” but it can also point to a kind of imprisonment. Being “bolted by meds” certainly doesn’t sound like the image of a light lancing the gazebo that we could have been a few lines ago. And this change in status also represents a kind of isolation – we are “shunning group time,” and my sense of “tonguing narrow fault lines” is that “you” worries these points of division rather than trying to surmount them.

The final stanza gives us two more answers that reframe of the situation. A lake, while beautiful and even perfect, is “land-locked” in a way that seems to keep it in isolation. For me it calls to mind those I’ve known who take medications for psychiatric disorders, but who describe the side effects as living under a kind of psychic gauze. On the other hand, that isolation of a lake also allows it to reflect light from above and contain its own ecosystem in a way that can be nourishing and rich.

To me, that last line is the beginning of a kind of resistance to the whole situation the poem finds itself in. Hospital questionnaires are a kind of self-analytical tool, meant to help others figure out what sort of person you are. But the information they predominantly care about is medical: are you diabetic, do you smoke, are you on medication, whatever. Our medical conditions, though, are only a small fraction of our “selves.” This is true even when our diagnoses are a constant presence in our lives, as they are for the disabled. In fact, I’d venture to suggest that it’s even more important to assert a “non-medical” self when much of your life is determined by disability. And so the answer to that last question seems to be a defiant yes: I’m not patient, I’m radiant. Even the small extra space Bennett places before that last word, a kind of deliberate pause, feels like a shoring up of the strength required to make this declaration. We sense the effort it takes, and we admire the speaker who summons the will to make it.


Lee Ann Roripaugh, “hungry tsunami / tsunami as galactus”

Lee Ann Roripaugh, “hungry tsunami / tsunami as galactus”



hungry tsunami / tsunami as galactus


the hunger of trying to hold back

the hunger a little longer


the hunger of restraint and pullback

churn and growl of beached fishes

in an agitated bouillabaisse

liquid silver squirming on an empty shore


to lick the gilding from the buildings

like golden drizzles of caramel


to take the cake / flick off the crumbs


to raze the fruit / spit out the pits


the hunger of sucked-out marrow

the unwillingly pried-open oyster

the cracked and pillaged lobster claw


to shuck / to husk / to unshell

her way to what’s most tender


to dismantle the protective scrims

that signal a cache of rawness


to demolish defenseless succulence


the hunger for the liquid center

squirt of ganache in a swiss truffle

chocolate lava cake’s molten fondant core


to feed past the end of greed


to feast past the end of want


to gorge past the borders of voraciousness

until she becomes the monstrous goddess

of binge / pure mercenary lack


the blooded face


blood in the water


the blood moon’s exposed sweet throat

with its lipsticked jugular bitten clean out


–From Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50 by Lee Ann Roripaugh (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Lee Ann Roripaugh. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.


When I get to the end of this poem, I want to roar. It’s so guttural in its language, brutal and luscious, the way a person eating lobster must verge on the barbaric in order to extract the best of the meat. So we begin our encounter with this poem through those overwhelming sounds – the rhymes and near rhymes of hunger/longer and gilding/buildings, but also the sonically ferocious phrases like “churn and growl of beached fishes / in an agitated bouillabaisse / liquid silvers squirming.” It’s a delightful mouthful, and it’s ok if it also sounds a bit over-the-top, even grotesque.

That’s because it is grotesque what Lee Ann Roripaugh is describing – once I get past the rich language, I remember that the poem is evoking gluttony as a way of anthropomorphizing a tsunami. The “hunger” referred to belongs to a wave system that is capable of laying waste to whole coastlines, and indiscriminately killing thousands. And so the sensual pleasure I get while reading the poem has a dark undertone, because the lobster being eaten is everything. In a phrase like “to unshell / her way to what’s most tender,” human beings are being shucked from their protective structures, not just molluscs.

The poem opens with a reference to a strange phenomenon associated with tsunamis. As National Geographic puts it:

A tsunami’s trough, the low point beneath the wave’s crest, often reaches shore first. When it does, it produces a vacuum effect that sucks coastal water seaward and exposes harbor and sea floors. This retreating of sea water is an important warning sign of a tsunami, because the wave’s crest and its enormous volume of water typically hit shore five minutes or so later.

Roripaugh transforms this into the “the hunger of trying to hold back / the hunger a little longer,” which gives the tsunami a strange emotional complexity. The “beached fishes…squirming on an empty shore” seem to be the result of this, as Tsunami pauses in the moments before letting loose her appetite. I think about how, at the end of Yom Kippur, when family and friends are ready finally to break the fast, I’m often tempted to just wait a moment longer, with our bagels and kugel spread out before us, and there’s an exquisite (self-righteous?) pleasure that comes from that last pause before I open my mouth. Here in the poem Tsunami takes a similar breath before gorging herself.

If you see this, it’s too late to run.

But Tsunami’s hunger transcends my bagel by more than a little bit! The lines that follow, with her “lick[ing]the gilding from buildings” remind us of her destructive power, so that as the imagery of appetite accumulates it becomes more and more monstrous. By the time the poem gives us “the squirt of ganache in a swiss truffle,” we are no longer just thinking of gastronomical pleasures, but also of horror. Roripaugh has transformed Tsunami into “the monstrous goddess / of binge,” placing her alongside other badass ravenous goddesses from various traditions like the Harpies or Kali.

I want to think for a minute about this gesture, the poem’s transformation of a destructive force of nature into a mythological creature with human characteristics. Of course, we have always done this, whether it be ancient peoples deifying volcanoes or contemporary meteorologists giving hurricanes names like Katrina or Sandy. On the one hand, if a volcano has human desires, then perhaps its wrath can be appeased by gifts the way ours sometimes can. We can debate the efficacy of that approach, but even in our contemporary discourse about climate change there’s an awareness that humanizing “Mother Nature” can make it easier for us to articulate the necessity to act in order to “save” her.

There’s another side to the anthropomorphizing of natural phenomena, though, that has more to do with the way we project our fears and obsessions away from ourselves so that we can isolate and confront them. The way that snakes have been characterized in myth as sinister and conniving has little to do with the real reptiles and everything to do with our sense of how dangerous and hard-to-pin-down this sort of behaviour is in people. Volcanoes do not feel “rage” any more than pimples do, but by equating human anger with volcanoes, we try to understand how internal pressures in us can lead to an eruption that hurts everyone around.

It’s easy enough to see how the ravenousness that Lee Ann Roripaugh attributes to Tsunami in this poem might be a projection of the sensation we sometimes feel that we want to devour everything in reach – damn the diet, damn the expense, the mess, the indigestion I know I’ll have two hours from now. Tsunami in that sense becomes a projection in this poem for the irrational side of our desire to consume. Feel free to derive planetary implications from this if you choose.

One quick aside about form: you’ll notice Roripaugh using a backslash (/) sometimes instead of a line break. To my eye, this functions as a sort of half-line-break, a way of directing the rhythms of our reading in a poem with no other forms of punctuation. I also can’t help but notice that the accumulation of these slashes in lines 9, 10, and 14 start look like a bit like a series of waves interrupting the text.

Galactus deciding whether or not to eat us.

There’s another connection to the other-worldly this poem makes in its title. Galactus, you might know, is a “cosmic being” in the Marvel Comics universe. He’s a huge demi-god who literally eats planets for lunch. He makes numerous appearances in comics and films in which he must be persuaded to refrain from devouring Earth. Like a tsunami, Galactus destroys without any real awareness or concern for the creatures he devours – if he considers them at all, it is only as we might consider a colony of ants living on land slated for new condo development. He is driven only by his gargantuan hunger.

I get a big kick out of comparing Tsunami to Galactus here, granting the oceanic phenomenon the same ravishing hunger and using the term “tsunami” as a name (Tsunami) to humanize her.  The poem reminds us of the connection between comic book superheroes and mythological creatures. The title of the collection, Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50, further evokes the 1960s Japanese monster movies like Mothra vs. Godzilla or Gamera vs. Guiron that we think of now as quaint with their laughably antiquated special effects. (Mothra makes an appearance on in another poem from the book.) Roripaugh’s savvy consideration of what “Tsunami” might be in a pop-culture context calls attention to our taste for disaster, whether we are reading comics or watching the news.

Gamera vs Guirion
Gamera vs. Guiron, 1969. Those are definitely not people in costumes.

But there’s a limit to this playfulness. The poems in Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50 are concerned with a very real tsunami which occurred on March 11, 2011 and which, among other kinds of destruction, led to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The “Fukushima 50” were workers at the nuclear power plant who stayed at their posts in order to try to contain the damage done to the reactor. And while other poems in the collection give voice to various witnesses and victims of the events, granting those people a mythical heroism as well, we know that they didn’t “defeat” Tsunami the way Gamera defeated Guiron. They may have heroically protected the public from greater harm, at great personal risk, and in that sense deserve heroic art to be made in their honour. But the violence in comic books and monster movies doesn’t really hurt anyone. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused the deaths of more than 15,000 people. fukushima

For me, after all the momentum and poetic relish that occur in the poem transforming Tsunami into a ferocious and attractive “goddess of binge,” the last four lines of the poem pull us up short. “the blooded face // blood in the water” are not particularly musical, and the repetition feels hesitant, even deliberately clumsy. It’s as if the narrator of the poem has stopped herself. After all, Tsunami is not like Galactus, or Mothra, or the Harpies, because she is real, she has been seen on this Earth, she has devoured whole cities, and she will return. Those were real people in the water, some of whom have never been found. The brutality of the last image – with the “lipsticked” mark of this feminized monster murdering without thought or even hunger – leave us with a resonant sense of the danger faced by those who live even now in Tsunami’s shadow. The shock of that realization cleans out all the fun like a wave cleans out a sandcastle, leaving us suspended between fascination and fear. There’s a word for that combination of feelings that this poem articulates with rich language and a swirl of allusion and image: the word is awe.






Getting Back on the Horse: Alison Smith’s “What We Loved to Love About Prison on TV”

Time to get back on the horse.


A lot of great poetry has crossed my couch in the years since I started this blog in the fall of 2016. I took some time off from posting in order to finish the book (How a Poem Moves in print! Get your copy here!), and to focus on other projects, but here we are, it’s the fall of 2019, and I’ve got oodles of poems I want to tell you about.

One phenomenon of working on this project is that now, when I’m reading poetry, I often  say to myself (in addition to “wow that was great!”) something along the lines of “I could write an essay about that.” So the impulse to get back to this form has persisted. And when the occasion came to write on Emma Lazarus’ famous poem for The Toronto Star, I found the form still suits me. So I’m going to try to start this up again, probably at a rate of one essay per month. We’ll see how it goes.


I first encountered Alison Smith’s poems at the annual Poetry Weekend that’s held in Fredericton every fall. In fact, this year’s festival is starting today. I don’t usually get to go because of teaching responsibilities, and because the Weekend usually falls right smack in the middle of the Jewish High Holidays. But I did manage to go last year, and among my discoveries there was This Kind of Thinking Does No Good, a whip-smart, funny, deceptively-subversive collection by Nova Scotian Alison Smith, published by Gaspereau Press.


Alison Smith, “What We Loved to Love About Prison on TV”


what we loved to love about prison was the radical separation

what we loved about the separation were handwritten letters

what we loved about letters was the first-person narrative

what we loved about the person was tragedy

what we loved about tragedy was a glimpse of gallows humour

what we loved about the gallows was revenge

what we loved about revenge were the rules about snitching

what we loved about the snitch was language, inside

what we loved about inside was the passage of contraband

what we loved about the passage was ingenuity

what we loved about ingenuity was the chance to win respect

what we loved about the win was ‘what they do to the pedophiles’

what we loved about what they do was adherence to a code

what we loved about the code was a saint-like purity

what loved to love about saints were the bones


– from This Kind of Thinking Does No Good (Gaspereau Press, 2018, used with permission)

I have two initial questions when I read this poem: first, how does she get away with it? That is, how does Smith manage to repeat the beginning of these lines “what we loved about…” so often and not seem repetitive or boring? The rhetorical term for this sort of repetition at the beginning of successive lines is anaphora, but the repeated phrases in anaphora don’t usually dominate the whole line the way they do here. And she does it fifteen times! “What we loved about” becomes a sort of mantra on the one hand, cataloguing all of the things “we loved,” and there’s a kind of progression to the way the poem analyzes the attractions of Prison on TV, almost the way a nursery rhyme like “The House that Jack Built” accumulates. But the poem has a weirder sensibility than most nursery rhymes, and the logical leaps it makes, off-kilter and rather dark, keep me engaged and curious about where the poem is headed next.

Which bring me to the other question: who is the “we”? This is the question I want to dig a bit more deeply into, because as I try to answer it, the poem becomes richer and more interesting.

First and foremost, “we” are people who love Prison on TV. I suspect that’s partly because the people who make up this “we” don’t have any first-hand knowledge of real prison. (Do people who are in prison like Prison on TV? I admit I have no idea, because I am not a person in prison nor am I a person who loves prison on tv. But I imagine that if the speaker of this poem, if the “we” being referred to, were in prison, we would have a different set of reasons to love Prison on TV).

You’ll notice one clever trick about Smith’s use of the “we” throughout – even as I read and try to explore the poem, I find myself going back and forth between including myself in the we, and referring to the “we” as separate. This give-and-take about whether a reader identifies with the poem is one of its pleasures. As I read through, I sometimes think, “Oh yeah, that is why we love tragedy!” with a shock of recognition. And at other times, I think, “Oh, that’s interesting that these people loved separation because of the hand-written letters. What quaint romantics they were.” Throughout, I’m rarely anticipating where the poem is going next, so that even when the sentiment (“what we loved about..”) isn’t mine, I find it engaging.

There isn’t space here to explore every logical leap the poem makes as it moves around its subject – which is not actually Prison on TV, but rather “what we loved.” Suffice it to say that what attracts “us” to Prison on TV doesn’t seem to be exactly what might be expected by producers of The Night Of. There’s something in here about how as viewers we repurpose and manipulate the art we encounter. The speaker on the one hand leans toward the romantic, and the self-consciously literary, but does not seem averse to enjoying the violence that often appears in these shows as well. In my mind I’m formulating a certain portrait of this group of people by their likes and interests.

PousseyNewBut I want to skip to the last three lines because they haunt me in a particular way. The “adherence to a code” is a familiar trope in all kinds of dramas that involve criminals. But for the speaker of this poem, “adherence to a code” brings up “purity,” which is not at all what I connect to the codes of behaviour we find in prison. On the one hand, I’m reminded of characters like Poussey from Orange Is the New Black or John Coffey, the saint-like character from the film The Green Mile, or maybe Morgan Freeman’s Red from The Shawshank Redemption (which we now mostly see on TV). But I’m wondering all of a sudden whether “adherence to a code” might have special relevance for this group of people. The romanticism at the beginning, the darker attractions in stylized violence, and now this interest in “purity” seem to me to point to a specific set of concerns I associate with teenagers.

So now I’m imagining a group of teens binging on Orange Is the New Black while struggling with the social norms of their high school. But just when I think the poem might give us a deeper hint about this particular social group, the poem sends us packing with “what we loved to love about saints were the bones.” The entrance of religious themes deepens my sense that what is at stake here is more than entertainment choices. Stories of saints often include imprisonment or martyrdom, and point us to beliefs and principles (“codes”) that some are willing to sacrifice themselves for. But “what we loved to love” about them are not the beliefs, but the detritus of those sacrifices – the bones. We transfer our conflicted emotions about the codes themselves into a passion for the concrete and even grotesque remnants of those beliefs. For the “we” in this poem, bones and prison shows are the only way to access values that might grant meaning and clarity in what might otherwise be a jumbled mix of influences and bad answers.

saints bones

Last point: all of this is in the past tense. The litany of things “we loved” is, apparently, no longer true. Something about this era has passed for the reporter of the poem. It makes me wonder how things have changed for “us.” My first suspicion is that we have grown up a bit, and perhaps no longer have the time or inclination to spend our leisure time watching Prison on TV. But more deeply, I wonder if the search for values and codes that connected the speaker to her love of prison shows when she was younger no longer has the romance or drama that it once did. The “radical separation” and “chance to win respect” that seemed so important long ago no longer have the same appeal. It makes me wonder what the speaker would “love to love” about her current entertainment choices. Or is “loving to love” something no longer so central to the equation? What have we lost or gained by shedding the passions of our youth?

New Essay!

Hello everyone,

For a while I’ve been thinking about whether or not to start writing HPM essays again. But then an occasion arose for me to write one, when US acting Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli made some… uh… remarks referring to Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus.” It’s the one that contains, “Give me your tired, your poor, / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” and is cast on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty.

My friend Martha Sharpe suggested that I write a HPM essay about the poem, to “set the record straight,” so to speak. I reached out to someone at the Toronto Star, did a 24-hour binge-write, and behold!:

A new How a Poem Moves essay, with historic content, hosted by the Toronto Star. 

I did not create the headline. (The answer to its question is No.) Otherwise, it’s a bit of a rush job, but if you’re looking for new essays, here you go.

Thanks for your support, everyone! And feel free to comment if you think I should start posting new essays again or if I should just pack it in and let what I’ve done stand.



Hello everyone,

How a Poem Moves is now an audiobook! It’s a whole other way of experiencing the book, I think, and the brilliant Soraya Peerbaye reads the poems with real complexity and a terrific, silky voice. You can get it from Audible here, or at your local public library. Happy listening!



More Goings-on for HPM

Happy weekend, everyone! Spring is springing up all over the place. This is usually a very productive time for me writing-wise, but I’ve been spending an exorbitant amount of time cheering on the Toronto Raptors, so I’m getting less done than usual. However, How a Poem Moves seems to be getting some nice attention:

  • I did a “riff” for CBC Radio’s program The Next Chapter. It’s just a couple of minutes long, and if you’ve been reading the essays on this site it won’t have much new information, but if you’re curious, you can find it here.
  • I also wrote a short piece about the book (in which I compare reading poetry to eating ice cream!)  for All Lit Up, a website that promotes independent Canadian publishers.
  • Rob Mclennan, a ubiquitous figure in the Canadian Poetry scene, wrote a thoughtful review of HPM on his blog.
  • There was also a write-up about the book at Open Book, a website which “celebrates and profiles Ontario’s non-stop literary scene.” They reprinted my essay on Ali Blythe’s “Shattered.” By the way, Ali has a new book out called Hymnswitch, which is just terrific.
  • The Toronto Star did something similar, reprinting my essay on Elise Partridge’s “Domestic Interior: Child Watching Mother” and saying some nice things about the book.
  • I’m told there will be some sort of write-up about the book in the Globe and Mail next week. Updates to come.

In other news, this coming week is the celebration of the Griffin Poetry Prize. There are still a few tickets left to see the shortlist readings on Wednesday, June 5, if you are interested. It’s one of my favourite poetry nights of the year, so I’ll be there! Click here for tickets. The winners will be announced at a gala on June 6.

Also, the Trillium Book Awards shortlist readings are the following week (yes, it’s prize season!), on June 12. Find out all about the finalists, and the events surrounding it here.

I’m thinking I’ll start writing essays again for this blog in the fall. Lots of great books and poems to celebrate! In the meantime, happy reading!

Things Happening


I’ve been neglecting this site while things were busy with the initial launch of the book, but I’m trying to get back on the horse, so here are a few updates:

  • How a Poem Moves is on its second printing already! So thanks to those who have bought the book, requested/borrowed the book from the library, or generally talked about the book so that others can know about it. I’m glad it’s getting into people’s hands. You can find the book at ECW‘s site or on Amazon or your favourite local bookstore.
  • There’s going to be an audiobook! A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in a tiny studio reading the book out loud into a microphone so that those who prefer the “listening experience” can get HPM that way. Soraya Peerbaye read the poems, to add a different (fabulous!) voice. It’ll be a few weeks before that’s released, but it’s another milestone.
  • Since the launch at Holy Blossom, I’ve done events at the North Toronto Public Library and in Hamilton at GritLit, as well as a hilariously brief book signing at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when I was there visiting my sister. I’ve done a bunch of smaller book clubs as well, and am open to other invitations…
  • I’ve been — shocker! — reading a lot of poetry lately, and there are some new books I want to draw your attention to, so there may be more essays coming down the road. Not right away, but they are percolating in my addled brain.
  • More updates to come. Thanks for reading!