review of Steven Ross Smith

by rob mclennan


Fluttertongue 5

Steven Ross Smith

Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 2011


As prairie poet Steven Ross Smith writes in “A Note on the Titles and Other Acknowledgements” at the back of his Fluttertongue 5: everything appears to shine with mossy splendour (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 2011):

Several years ago, fellow poet and collaborator Hillary Clark introduced me to the work of the American poet Elizabeth Willis via her book Meteoric Flowers (Wesleyan University Press, 2006) which I found to be a gem. Then I read Willis' earlier book Turneresque (Burning Deck, 2003). These works spoke to me and led me out of a lull and into new work that became what you read here.

I took a few words from the text in Willis' first poem in Meteoric Flowers as the title to generate my own poem. This became a compelling force, driving the poem, and so I continued to do so with each of her poems in the two books mentioned. I took her words as my title and catalyst, then began to shape my own poem. I resisted taking her most lovey and elegant and complete phrases, because I did not want to co-opt her creations. Instead I took words beside each other, but that often lacked 'completeness' as a phrase. I must say, they have come to make complete sense and lose their oddity as I have lived with them for so long now. The result is the eighty-nine pieces included here. Thank you, Elizabeth Willis.


The fifth in a series of titles that include Fluttertongue 4: Adagio for the Pressured Surround (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2007), Fluttertongue Book 3: disarray (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 2005), Fluttertongue Book 2: The Book of Emmett (Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2000) and Fluttertongue Book 1: The Book of Games (Saskatoon SK: Thistledown Press, 1998), there aren't that many examples of multiple book poetic projects in Canadian writing in some time. Certain of the late bpNichol's work come to mind, being the most over examples of such, whether through his multiple-volume books of The Martyrology, or the four linked collections that started with love: a book of remembrances (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1974), or more recently, Dennis Cooley's ongoing “love in a dry land” project, published so far in the collections Country Music: New Poems (Vernon BC: Kalamalka Press, 2004) and The Bentley Poems (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006). There have been other threads working through author's works, including Gil McElroy's ongoing sequence, “Some Julian Days,” which appear in sections throughout his four trade collections, or larger works that come together much later in the process, including Robert Kroetsch's Completed Field Works (1989) and Robin Blaser's The Holy Forest (1995). But how many deliberately work on a larger multiple-volume work at the beginning of the process? It's something I've worked on as well, including a quintet of poetry collections, beginning with wild horses (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2010) that has yet to fully see print.


For former Saskatchewan poet (currently the Director of Literary Arts at The Banff Centre) Steven Ross Smith, the coherence of his ongoing “fluttertongue” project appears to be a sequence of book-length experiments, each working a different consideration on how a poetry collection is built, each stemming from a different series of triggers. The comparisons made between this and bpNichol's The Martyrology (made, also, by Gerry Shikatani in his blurb for the collection) are there, but only tenous; both are multi-book length works, but have few more connections. For this, the fifth book, Smith works off the poetry of American poet Elizabeth Willis, specifically two of her works, using her own lines to generate his own. From Willis' tight and compact lines, her short-lined cadence, Smith has expanded into prose poems with a long and lovely lyric movement, highly aware of just how sound might possibly move, flowing easily from line to line. Underneath each of his prose pieces is a short trio of lines and phrases, the suggestion of a boiled-down text reminiscent of some of Margaret Christakos' writing. According to a short article posted online May 5, 2011 on Winnipeg's Uptown, written by Quentin Mills-Fenn, the short second text is actually another sequence, running along the bottom of the collection as a sidebar to the main text, a long poem about moss. Mills-Fenn writes:

At the bottom of each page Smith provides a different text, a sequence playing on the natural characteristics of that humble entity, moss. These mossy bits were inspired when Smith was relaxing, but still working, on the B.C. coast.


"I often go the islands to write," he says. "I have a demanding job, so I go away to write. You know, Galiano Island is very wet. I must have been there last year and I started to get really interested in moss. So I picked up a book about it. And I started to write about it.


It becomes frustrating to note the lack of attention Smith's project has received, on the whole, for books two through four up for Saskatchewan Book Awards (with the third finally receiving one), but remarkably few reviews. In a review of the fifth volume recently on the electricruckus blog, Douglas Barbour wrote that the “fluttertongue” series “is slowly building into Steven Ross Smith’s magnum opus, the ongoing poem that will eventually define his oeuvre as a whole.” The beauty of such an ongoing project is that it begins to become a kind of “catch-all,” allowing everything to fall into it because it is open enough that it could be anything, and where he might go next, only he might suspect.


The Stolen Pear


Phrase is dropped from pop (culture) to pyrus (aboreal genus), initial letters found to be the same. The fresh-from-oven-bread-waft spreads its sweet and oaty scent to nuzzle in the nose. A fruitloaf, a pillow of sensation so think it beckons a head to drop to it. Fahrenheit or centigrade cause degrees of confusion. A framed harvest returns to haunt the tension of the lines. Done and set beside the fruitful bowl, looks like a Cézanne still-life. Snow on the deck-chair, a cushion too. No forbidding or theft at the window but with curtains filled with holes to let the light, the room a blossom. A wish to give Ms. Willis another cameo but a wish is not enough to spot her in the street, or in a hooded parka, but possibly in the evolution section of the Olin Memorial Library. Argentina Santos' fado, in iPod headphones, moves saudade over the ocean to a listener's ears into his body, slows him and bends him ever-so-slightly, through not a word in his ken. Yet a hike props the whole day up and might enable a grasp of psychological truth and a sense of pick-pocketing the day. Speak a rhythm with a juicy mouthful, the soundtrack a spirited aubade. Heroes of the word lead to strangeness, love and rubato's patterned sponteneity. A challenge to break and go on; a bite, a puff into hands cupped over the lips, a glimpse through winter's early grab, a tree splendid, still bounteous with its gold and russett, its swollen seeds unseasonably released.


of red—sunset, wine and fire engine;


of red—lust, embarrassment, hypertension;




Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at