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A Bad Year for Journalists

By Lisa Pasold

Frontenac House, 94 pages, $15.95

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Puti / White

By Patria Rivera

Frontenac House, 86 pages, $15.95

Being a nomad sometimes feels like it can't be helped: You roam, feeling most yourself in transit, somewhere between fatalistic masochism and euphoric independence. Occasionally, you begin to put down or discover a rootlet, only to shake yourself loose, move on.

Lisa Pasold's second collection, A Bad Year for Journalists, is steeped in homelessness. By turns sympathetic, critical, darkly funny and painstakingly lyrical, the poems trace Pasold's journalistic travels in the Middle East -- "places . . . at their best dismantled" -- and overlay the national and geographical settings with characters and anecdotes so vivid the reader feels as if she might be home in these places after all.

Pasold ostensibly set out to commemorate journalists who have lost their lives -- the book repeatedly brings up the statistics -- yet A Bad Year is more personal than political, the complaint of the journalist as a nomad of the 21st century, seeking fleeting solace with lovers, in the comfort of television, in imported cheese. Solace is only found, however, in the shared acknowledgment of absence, and then promptly undermined by laborious attempts to forget.

More memoir than monument, A Bad Year does comment on the often absurd frame of the mass media: goats, munching unsanitarily by a hospital tent, are ushered out of the photograph by a young shepherd; a "former model/ sit[s]in yoga position on the roof of her jeep," scarcely out of place among the hyenas and hibiscus.

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Pasold's colloquial, cynical squint is refreshing, disarming and often funny (reporters making up guidebook titles: "Let's Go Mogadishu"). Pasold makes allies and icons of Proust, Frida Kahlo, the White Stripes, but these pop-cultural touchstones seem frantic, facile attempts at permanence. The speaker "finds herself buying Libération," humming Dusty Springfield tunes and dancing to Beyoncé in an effort to confirm her presence in the world, but this cluttered catalogue seems stilted in comparison to, for instance, the makeshift familiarity of Winnipeg, where one correspondent wants "to be back where the hawks are as big as his suitcase," or to the quiet, moving insights of "personal private news," a meditation on compassion and the worth of truth: "he has a sudden craving for pistachios, must be something to do/ with the flavour of the air this morning, its lack."

The collection would benefit from more such counterpoints to the vignettes of shop-talk, data and eavesdropped ironies. In an increasingly hyperbolic idiom where everything is so conveniently unspeakable, Pasold speaks up, conveying more than impressions or exaggerations; these poems "explain what it was/ not what it was like."

Toronto poet Patria Rivera, too, has a background in journalism, which perhaps lends her poetic voice in Puti/White its candour: She chronicles the exile's condition and the conditions leading to exile, without guile, nostalgia or pity. Right from the bilingual title of Rivera's very fine collection, which was justly a finalist for this year's Trillium Prize in poetry, oppositions exist in unquestioned juxtaposition: home with exile, belonging with exclusion, torture with moments of breathtaking and breath-giving grace.

Unlike Pasold's gritted renunciation of even the possibility of home, Rivera writes her homeland as normal -- not remembered, but woven into the present. The first section shows us her childhood in the Philippines: The reader is offered "persimmons/ of the orangest hue," and meets an aunt "hatching mangoes." But Rivera avoids false exoticism, choosing deliberately unusual turns of phrase and leaving Spanish and Filipino words unitalicized, making her childhood home seem quotidian rather than sepia-tinted.

Rivera's language is textured and playful -- "suitors" are "suitable" two lines later, and plant stems are "tauped" by the sun -- but ultimately, the narratives carry these poems. The poems that rely more heavily on linguistic scaffolding crave the filmic clarity of Sitting Down for Tea With the First Lady, 1954 or Naomi in a Shoebox. In the memorable Watching Television Through a Wire Mesh Fence, Lassie, John Wayne, Lucy and Desi are in the service, not in the way, of the speaker's recollection of spying on a rich man:

We

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sighed and gawped at

those wondrous manes,

marvelled at

those huge horses galloping into our dreams.

Mosquitoes feasted

on our grubby thighs, bore their hunger into our marrow.

This was my home, Rivera writes in the first section; this was where we took it, the second echoes. The Geography Outside scoops out that hungry marrow and licks it off its fingers as emigration gouges the patria, which was home despite the daily tragedies of stillbirths and wars. Rivera recounts departures, compresses family histories and gnashes at exile. Although, "Somehow the words do not seem to match/ the nettles that lacerate and I roil inside," the poems are tenacious and tender, hell-bent on relearning, rebuilding -- the opposite of destruction.

The final section provides abstracted reflections on the same themes, but Rivera's muscular verse takes on a softer, more reflective pitch. These intertextual pieces, nature poems and languorous occasional verses, are best when the poet allows herself awe -- "O if it were infinite!" -- simply and unselfconsciously.

An absorbing and promising first book, Puti/White suggests an alternative to homelessness, inviting us instead to be multi-homed, learning the past by heart without wearing it on our sleeves. "The poet speaks," Rivera writes, "in the voice of our ancestors/ and all we remember is the last line: what is is."

Katia Grubisic is a poet, translator and habitual nomad whose wanderings are complicated by the challenge of piling 22 cartons of books on the back of a bicycle.

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