The Concrete Air


96 pages
ISBN 1-55128-040-X
DDC C811'.54






Reviewed by W.J. Keith

W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.


Nelson Ball’s poems have become accessible in a rather odd way. His
early verse appeared in chapbooks, mainly from his own Weed Flower
Press, between 1965 and 1971. Then came a 20-year hiatus until his first
substantial volume, With Issa: Poems 1964–1971, was published by ECW
Press in 1991. This was followed in 1994, also from ECW, by Bird Tracks
on Hard Snow, the product of his verse-writing from 1987. Now The
Concrete Air has appeared, yet these poems, the back cover informs us,
represent “previously unpublished work written primarily in 1971 and

His poems are invariably short and compact, often imagistic, recalling
for historically minded Canadian readers the work of W.W.E. Ross and, in
wider terms, the concentrated forms of Chinese poets like Wang Wei and
Tu Fu, or Japanese haiku writers (hence Issa). Such poems depend for
their success on causing readers to experience a sudden fresh insight or
to view a common subject from a startlingly new angle.

In The Concrete Air, this happens sometimes but not always. “Conflict
of Interest” makes its point cleanly and, I think, effectively: “We
fell trees / to feed the pulp and paper mills // then write poems on
paper / about trees // still / standing.” On the other hand,
“Toronto Spring” reads simply “soot / & cigarette butts” and
leaves me blankly unimpressed. There are a dozen or so poems here that,
in my view, have a faux-naif quality—I found myself wishing that the
poet had either worked harder at them or discarded them as promising
ideas that haven’t worked. Still, there are more than 80 poems in the
book, and the majority of them have something—albeit modest, fleeting,
and elusive—to offer. At his best, Ball proves that short can be
eloquent, and small beautiful.


Ball, Nelson., “The Concrete Air,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 25, 2024,