My philosophy in reviewing is to place a book into context, and to be fair to its intentions. We all read — and write — for different reasons. Hopefully, I can supply you with the information you need to make a reasonable judgement — and I sure hope we can have a bit of fun at the same time. If you’d like me to review a book for you, drop me a line. If you would like to read a sample of my reviews, I have collected a few of them below.
Return to Eden
Joy Kogawa, Lilian Broca illustrator, A Song of Lilith, Polestar Book Publishers, Vancouver, 2000. ISBN: 1-55192-366-1. 7×7. 110 pages $21.95.
Shani Mootoo, the predicament of or, Polestar Book Publishers, Vancouver, 2001. ISBN: 1-55192-416-1. 5×8. 117 pages. $18.95
(First published in ARC magazine; This review won the Critic’s Desk Award for best long review of poetry in 2003.)
At the beginning of history, in his lovely garden, Adam spoke poetry, named the animals, and fought hard against the temptations of philosophy. Stuff happened. Time passed. Now we have knowledge coming out of fiber optic cables, endangered Bowhead Whales, and self-help books published by the gross. Poetry, the language of Eden, languishes. Even worse, Adam, our first poet laureate, has been made to answer for an absent God — a hard position to be placed in.
This is not the only time in history in which God has been put on trial in absentia. The gnostics gave it a go back in the first centuries after the crucifixion, when they tried to plant Christianity in the ground of more ancient religions. Now, there was a belief system for the oppressed, if there ever was one: echoing back to ancient conceptions of body, soul, and alienation, the gnostics preached that God is an imposter, that we are all stranded on a foreign shore, looking up to the light which brought us forth, yet unable to regain it because we splinter whatever shards of it we have into smaller and smaller fragments by having children. The gnostic solution was like a suicide bomber’s pact: have no children; end your life at a moment of your own choosing; thumb your nose at the occupier. It should be no surprise that Christianity suppressed it ruthlessly: just too counter-revolutionary, it ran the risk of turning the life, death, and rebirth of Christ into a symbolic rather than a literal act. Over the centuries, though, it has survived underground to give us Provençal love poetry and Shakespeare’s sonnets, and now, at the end of history, Shani Mootoo and Joy Kogawa, two novelists turning for a moment from prose to write of Eden. There are no suicide bombers here. Unlike the earlier gnostics out in the desert, in these acts of protest, action is directed towards life and union, not towards death and separation.
In “A Song of Lilith”, Joy Kogawa, the delicate, lyrical novelist of the Japanese internment camp experience, portrays the story of Adam’s first wife, Lilith. Demonized by Judaism and Christianity and long a favourite of the gnostics, Lilith refused to knuckle under to Adam’s fantasies. In a style marrying medieval morality plays and the great didactic works of East German state literature, the book is set up like the multimedia experience which initiated it, with fifty original paintings by Lilian Broca. The style is mock-Victorian. The cover sports an angel playing a violin, in colours reminiscent of a Victoriana shop selling lace and rosewater. The language of the poem is like something from the Irish mystic A.E. in 1901, opening, for example, with a drawing room, fin-de-siècle invocation to the muse, “From out of the land of legend/Into the orb of our day.” (p.2) This is definitely a period piece, but with a twist: although a number of Broca’s illustrations ring true as feminist versions of William Blake’s translucent etchings of men and God and angels storming over the English countryside, many of them look like soft-edged versions of the monumental propaganda poster art of the 1930s and 1940s. In other words, this is political art. It is not an aesthetic object. It is art used as a means to present a series of ideas. Hilda Doolittle would never have written this. Politically committed poets like Cesar Pavejo and Nazim Hikmet, though, would have snapped it up. Kogawa’s poem disdains lyricism or any other aesthetic that does not grapple directly with issues of power. What passion her poem has is the passion of commitment and of rhetoric. There is very little introspection in it, but truckloads of rhetoric, winding their way down out of the mountains to a bridge in the Spanish Cordillera.
The thing about rhetoric is that it is a crossword puzzle: using it is like giving a blank speech form to a politician’s aides and letting them fill in the details by committee: no matter what they pencil in, it will still sound great. That use of fuzziness is great for news conferences and media scrums, but it is a hard way to pull off a poem. At times, Kogawa does make it, though, with poetry that cries out strong and clean, strung on a supporting structure of rhetoric, such as “In the garden before gardens/In the time before time/In the beginning before later beginnings/Under starlight/In the realm of creaturehood, animal/And divine, like Adam,/By the touch of God” (p.6). Just as often, however, the poem employs sonorous phrasing to stitch together a series of political slogans such as “Down the patriarchal path of separation” (p.12), and “Love’s food is not the stone of servitude/But the bread of freedom/And the milk of mutuality.” (p.45), or nails up bars of rhetoric to prop up chunks of lushly symbolic prose, such as “Eve as coiling vine/Twines her dreamy arms/Along Man’s limbs” (p.58), and even a pop-rock pep rally or two, such as “For we are women—/Whole and equal/Strong and beautiful/Gentle, free and wise.” (p.96) In such cases, the rhetorical energy stutters, like the West Coast electrical grid with too many Californian air conditioners plugged in at the same time as thermostats are cranked up in Edmonton and Prince George. The strain between the expectation set up by the strong rhetorical form — you can imagine this stuff booming out over a loudspeaker to a vast crowd on Parliament Hill — and the sentimentality of the words pegged into it causes the words to break down as poetry. The lights go out. The words drift, untethered, over the crowd, but no-one catches them, and they blow away. This is poetry which has not earned its passion, although the passion that gave rise to the poem is obviously heartfelt and genuine.
And that’s too bad, because this is really is a beautiful book, not only physically, but in its argument. It presents the fall from Eden, rising not from the old story of Eve and the serpent and the apple, but from the even older story of Lilith, who fled the garden after Adam raped her. When Adam complains to God that all the animals have a mate but that he has no love doll, God agrees to help Adam out with a more pliable helpmeet, and replaces the banished Lilith, who was made of the earth as Adam was, with Eve, who was made from Adam’s rib, “A bite-sized bride/Barefoot and edible” (p.58). Kogawa parades Lilith out as a model of feminine power. She pities Eve, whose passive acquiescence allows Adam’s confusion between force and power to gain strength and fill the world with ruin and starving children. It is a powerful distinction. In this gnostic vision, it is not God who is the oppressor, but Adam. Eating lustily of the apple of knowledge, Kogawa argues that Eden can be regained if women can shake off the stigma of Eve who “sleeps/While the demons rage” (p.81) and “birth the new age/Under the banner/Of our true and original name” (p.96). With the forward-thinking of all gnostic and socialist literature, the poem concludes with a call to action and a promise of a glorious future: when women have regained their power as Lilith, as the equals in power to Adam, Eden will be restored.
Shani Mootoo’s “the predicament of or” also begins in Eden, also passes through banishment, and also ends with promise. Unlike Kogawa, she doesn’t begin as Lilith, though, but as Eve, an Eve who transforms herself by self-reflection into a Lilith. This gentler Lilith, however, sets up no loudspeakers on Parliament Hill, marches down no streets, and utters no slogans. The bass-beat of Mootoo’s aesthetic is that these very actions are destructive of clear sight. The theme is stated most poignantly in the poem “For Nan”:
How it berserks me
That I have exoticized
My great-grandmother’s land,
That someone else relentlessly
Tames conquers colonizes gazes objectifies leaves pawmarks
Where I can only dream of an embrace (p.100).
Mootoo wants love. “the predicament of or” is saturated with eroticism. For Mootoo, the all-consuming question is how to deal with memories of a childhood in her first country, in the Caribbean, a land of dried grass and ocean and beaches and passion, in the context of her adulthood in her new country, Canada, where she is actually alive, now. In this debate, the tourist’s camera becomes the killer: it captures what is a dead, yet gives the appearance of life — a contradiction which in the end diminishes life because it strips away life’s most important attribute: action. Mootoo struggles between remembering a place (as it was) and trying to imagine that place (as it is) remembering her (as she was). Although the book is intensely lyrical, in her search for the emergency shut-off switch to this runaway midway ride, lyricism is no answer, because “sea salt and ocean breeze/can pick apart flesh” (“Beach Composition II”, p. 12). Similarly, although the book continually drifts into and wrestles itself away from philosophy, philosophy can’t stop the blur, because it is “romancing the crumbling” (“Beach Composition III”, p.16). For Mootoo, participation is key. She is either here (whether in Canada or observing lovers from behind a hedge), or there (the lover behind the hedge). She can only be both if she lives in a nowhere land which is neither of them — a distanced land without action. This is her objection to philosophy, and the predicament of her title, the predicament of ‘or’.
Mootoo’s means of escape is splendidly gnostic: writing. It works for her where photography and philosophy do not, because, in her heavily ironic words, “the plan to ensnare and remember/is a true, a final,/a most perfect forgetting” (“Beach Composition III”, p.17). When she finally returns to the garden, Mootoo doesn’t do so in the innocence of photography, childhood, or philosophy, but in knowledge, in accepting her exile. She achieves freedom when she names her exile as her true home and her true garden of Eden. She calls this exile the “State of Migrancy”. For her, this definition of home is that place “where I depend neither/on memory nor desire…nor [am] mindless of these.” (“Point of Convergence”, p.102). It lies not only between the Caribbean and Canada, but also between the moment of perception and that perception recalled, between the remembered sea and the sting of salt remembered long after, between the loss of beauty and love and her participation in the ruin, between writing as death and writing as the tenuous thread connecting her to life and love.
This is a delicate, strong, and intensely lyrical book, which earns respect with intense imagery, “blue butterflies fell from your eyelids” (“Wanting Blue”, p.48), deep feeling “And I held this respect,this wish/this head,/this bawl.” (“Sometimes I Could”, p.80), and steel pan music, “Man-high moat of razor grass/keeps vandals, and me,/from trespass” (“Beach Composition III”, p.13). When Mootoo speaks of her experience as a migrant, looking back at the Caribbean, she is on the mark. When she expands her theme to include images of Canada, however, she finds herself on uncertain ground. The poem “The Unshakeable Man in Abbotsford”, for example, reads like one of the closed photographs she finds so unbearable on the Caribbean shore of her ocean. “Cracks and Crevasses”, in which she admirably attempts to bridge the salt of a Caribbean beach with the snow of Canadian mountains rings hollow. As she points out herself, “chasmal fissures conceal/bridges of snow//sometimes/thick enough/to hold a body//and sometimes not.” (p.66) In this case, not. Similarly, her poems are highly-crafted, and the book develops strongly from start to finish, adeptly repeating, modulating, and deepening themes, images, and ideas, yet such poems as “Magic Word” and “Game of Watch the Migrant Dream, #1”, apparently set into the book to deepen and modulate themes, read like finger exercises, something you practice over and over again on the piano in the basement so that when you get up on stage, a sonata will come, seemingly effortlessly. The predicament of these weaker poems is that they spring from philosophy, not from perception — in a book with exactly the opposite message. They are responses to the book, but not of the book. They simply do not belong. The book is 113 pages. At around 93 pages it would not have weakened its integrity.
Both “A Song of Lilith” and “the predicament of or”, stir together a stew, a callaloo, of feminism, post-colonialism, and gnosticism. Both books begin in Eden, and end in knowledge. In both cases, this knowledge wavers between being rooted in the body and the earth and being rooted in philosophy. In both cases, the philosophical soil, although vital to ensuring the life of the body, is poor stony ground when it is not tilled by the body and its perceptions. From a technical point of view, in both books it is philosophy which threatens to extinguish the possibility of return to Eden: in Kogawa’s case, through a surfeit of didacticism and untethered rhetoric; in Mootoo’s case, through a surfeit of editorial inclusiveness. Only when it is rooted in the body, does knowledge in these two books not precipitate the fall from Eden but the return to it. Like Cordelia’s commitment to honesty in King Lear, which is both the source of her greatness and of her undoing, the desire for inclusiveness has given us these two visions, yet also dissipates their energies. That is the risk of dealing with such volatile compounds as words. Its connection with Eden and God’s Word notwithstanding, poetry is not a perfect art. It brings its journeys along with it, out here in our exile outside the garden walls.
Reconstructing the Tradition
D.G. Jones, Wild Asterisks in Cloud, Empyreal Press, Montreal. 1997. 5.5×9. 137 pages, with 9 drawings by the author. Pbk. ISBN: 0-921852-15-0. $14.00.
Susan McCaslin, Veil/Unveil, The St. Thomas Poetry Series, Toronto. 1997. 4.5×8. 45 pages.Pbk. ISBN: 0-9697802-4-9. $?
Nancy Dembowski, Ninety-seven Posts with the Heads of Dead Men, Tortoiseshell & Black, Toronto. 1998. 5.5×9. 64 pages. Pbk. ISBN: 1-896901-07-7. $13.
E.D. Blodgett, through you I (Apostrophes II), The University of Alberta Press, Edmonton. 1997. 6.5×6.5. 74 pages. Pbk. ISBN: 0-88864-304-7. $14.95.
(This review first appeared in ARC magazine.)
While the blunt instruments of early 20th Century poetry still carry enough potency to pry open literary list-serves spanning the modern, the post-modern, and the avante-garde, four new works by Nancy Dembowski, D.G. Jones, Susan McCaslin, and E.D. Blodgett quietly present four original methods of slipping out of their range. Each of these writers gains a measure of freedom from tradition by neutralizing it, if only for a short time. They all do so by slights of hand, and by bracketting 20th Century traditions in broader or older concerns. Dembowski and Jones, the classicists of the group, escape by distance, wit, and by relentlessly extending irony until it snaps and devours itself. McCaslin and Blodgett, the romantics, slip away by the passion of their engagement and the delicacy of their touch, by reclamation of older traditions, and, not least, by re-envisioning boundaries. To greater or lesser degree, all four writers have translated the brash distance of early 20th Century irony into proximity and self-knowledge.
Dembowski centres her poems in a fairy tale, “The Princess and the Panopticon”, in which a woman lives in a magical tower “with twenty-six windows, which looked out in every possible direction,” which allows her to see
everything above the earth
and under the earth
and nothing at all could be kept secret from her.
Not wanting to share this magical tower, she promises to marry only the man who could “conceal himself from her so effectually/that it should be quite impossible for her to find him.” Any man who failed had his head struck off and stuck on a post. Hence the title, and a book full of dead men glaring at us. And glare they do, as Dembowski steals their words and power. We are granted a fine revision of Pound’s “Kung” Canto, in which Pound’s dictums are turned on their heads,
And Confucius gives the words ‘order’
and ‘fellowship with men’
And has reservations with ‘the nature of Heaven.’
And he said
‘True fellowship among persons are not exclusive,
The basic principals of any kind of union,
Must be accessible to all concerned.
The deliberateness of this technique reveals and calls into question the deliberateness of Pound’s own.
Each of Dembowski’s poems borrows, steals, and remakes works of the 20th century, with insight and a great clarity of vision. Neutralizing the century through replacing its content with new content sounds like bludgeoning, but Dembowski works with considerable subtlety, working from within the energy of the original pieces. Her poems modulate against remembered passages, gaining meaning from the discrepancies between the original text, the static and accumulations of meanings and connections it throws off, our memory of the original text, and Dembowski’s use of it.
Dembowski’s Apollonian clarity is often expressed through apocalyptic imagery. In the midst of a terrifying new version of Pound’s Pisan Cantos, for example, Dembowski writes,
And in the morning, under the tent flaps, the smell of mint
And it rained, deep and heavy
And there is wind space and rain space
And flashes of lightening,
which lead into “An earthquake so violent the great city split in three,” a storm so violent that
Bones tumbled out of tombs
Stars fell from the sky
The earth caught fire,
and then throws us right back to the beginning of the Cantos and Odysseus’ journey to the underworld for wisdom at the beginning of Western History,
And before day’s end
A whole day’s wage for a quart of flour
And we went down
Into the sun burned black
To the souls of those who had been slaughtered
Into the hole
Dembowski flinches from nothing. She goes into the hole again and again and again, and comes back with wisdom. What gives the book its considerable strength is that Dembowski draws no easy conclusions, and writes fully aware of the culpability of her position.
McCaslin’s Veil/Unveil is a thin and gentle book of poems without irony, interested not in deconstruction, but in reconstruction and reconciliation. Included are poems purifying the intent of the gnostic heretics, bringing into a central Christian spiritual concern those excluded from it by exclusionary dogmas — including women, Buddhists, and, of course, gnostics. McCaslin’s rendition of gnosticism is clear and moving. Reading her work is like encountering C.S. Lewis or T.S. Eliot of The Four Quartets, for like them she extends the tradition of Anglican spiritual verse into a time more characterized by ignorance — or repudiation — of that tradition. McCaslin takes a long view of history, but she does so with authority.
Typically, the poems in Veil/Unveil slide off heavily-weighted final lines, into presence and unity. She notes this tendency herself in the poem, “Blessed are the Merciful”, which she closes by writing,
even if there is no mercy,
yet will I have mercy on myself,
for the crime of separateness.
Her mastery of the expansive — yet contained — closing can be seen in “Gnosis 3”, echoing the troubadors (also gnostic):
You were not in and out and away
like any ordinary lover, but lingered
all night, sequestering, calling me
and I told no one when the morning rose.
The opening of a physical or spiritual rose out of the verb ‘rose’ is handled with a light but sure touch. In the same way, McCaslin reaches out to include women within Christian spiritual tradition. In “‘Lift up Your Heads O Gates, and be Lifted up, You Everlasting Doors,” she closes with “Were you always carved in me,/swinging open in the small breath?”, effectively placing the traditional image into the context of a woman, the child in her womb, and birth. Other poems explore the nature of the bride. She presents both Christian bride, with a veil which
Falls, covers, shields, filters, kisses,
is light, almost diaphanous, unstifling
all it clothes,
and an ancient one, Persephone returned to independence from bondage,
She will not rejoin her mother this year
or return to the dark king who scooped
her body up so many turns of the earth.
She will (at the risk of disappointing
or seeming rude) remake her myth
as the seasons rotate without her.
In Veil/Unveil, McCaslin is doing just that: remaking the mythology of her faith to include all the positive openings which it has excluded. As a mark of her maturity, she does so with a combined strength and gentleness.
Jones uses the tired contemporary trick of loading his last lines with heavy weight, but as are most things in this book of feints and sleights-of-hand that use is not what it at first seems. In poems as chiselled as if cut out of blocks of stone, in rhythms and conflations echoing the later poems of Ralph Gustafson, Jones puts his individual twist to the modernist tradition. Like Gustafson, he expresses a complex sense of history through contemporary events embedded in the frame of the commonplaces of the human and natural world. Even the Gustafsonian tone is there:
hurry, I say, mix and match
it may not help
a man in Cambodia says
it cannot be genocide
even racist, killing your own parents
brothers and sisters
in which case there’s no help.
Like the modernists, Jones’ language is abbreviated, his line breaks are used for deliberate effects of modulation, and collage is widespread. In resilient, unpredictable poems laced with an at times almost crippling detachment, Jones has found his own path out of modernism. He uses collage, for instance, not as an assemblage of external material designed to spark a symbolist-derived field of meaning, as did Pound, but as a self-reflexive collation of the material of the poem by the poem, as it is being written. Jones pushes his poems along by austere image clusters masquerading as rhetoric. The early 20th century amplification of imagery and mocking irony of “Prufrock” or “Mauberly”, have become here at the century’s end, imagery which seeks, through an ironic distance, to shatter any rhetorical development and to throw the poem continually back upon the world. The world so encountered can only be seen against the foil of an observing self which destroys or changes or beautifies it as it observes. Look at his bees:
a woman makes notes
blessing the thunder
and something the size of a match head
yellow with a dark band, moves
over the screen, its
it is (is it?) justification
Wild Asterisks in Cloud contains many such moments of beauty and renewal, and like this one they are framed in a tragic vision, of a trapped self relieved only by intelligence, precise observation and sly humour. Jones is relentless in his mission, however, for at the same time that the self distorts the world through observation, words from the poem in the act of its creation invade the observing self, are in turn taken up, and their metaphorical opportunities explored. As a result, the self of these poems is a tangled presence, in which the observer, observing himself observe, observing his observations, is continually striving through this method to escape his observations and enter a state of balance. In unmediated Western tradition, the end of this process would be madness. Often in these poems there is a sense of tragedy about the pursuit, but there is no madness. It is rescued because Jones has fused its extenuated western irony with eastern Zen practice, to flip the observing mind over into its opposite, into the moment of observation, in which nothing any longer is being observed and the self and the world are equally negated, and so, paradoxically, set free. Even that Zen approach is negated, as in “The Window”, which opens with “glass is beautiful like/a Zen mind”, yet continues with a dead bird, seen through that glass, which is “a koan/hard to see through”, a pivot on which balance the first, and these final, lines:
holds no birds, clouds
leaves pretty rubbish
clearing the mind.
Perhaps. In one of his very first poems, originally published close to 40 years ago, Jones wrote of snow buntings, “You must make them/Out of earth and snow.” That Gustafsonian sense of resolution of the searchings of the mind through the physical world is stronger now, but now the birds are dead. It is heartbreaking and austere, reminiscent of Shostakovitch’s last symphony, or the last scraps of Pound’s Cantos. So is passed on to us the wisdom of the masters.
Blodgett’s through you I unites Elizabethan and Symbolist traditions. In poems echoing Shakespeare’s sonnets, Blodgett uses very firm, almost wooden free verse line breaks and a metronomic rhythm, amplified and often swelling over the linear sense of his sentences, as a ground against which to hypnotize and to foil expectation. Rhymes are subdued, chiming, and are often placed before the end of the line, so that the musical movement of the piece moves in a sliding motion, like that of a minimalist composition, against the larger structure. These sliding rhythms, sparking against each other in unexpected and delightful harmonies, are anchored and driven forward by a steady beat, working much as the 3000 C notes of Terry Riley’s “in C”. There is no discord in these pieces, and their hypnotism is very reminiscent of the mantric harmonies of Philip Glass, a kind of New Age Gregorian chant completely purified of Gothic angst. These are love poems. They work through the reverberations of association and accreting levels of symbolism created by obsessive repetition, to portray the mythic, romantic poetic mind in the act of creation and perception.
Blodgett’s imagery centres largely on a few words, rose, sea, sphere, star, dark, bones, and sun. These words appear in a shimmering, ever-changing context, as the speaker moves through the variations of the body seen as the world and the world seen as the body. Ultimately, through the experience of love for another, the poems arrive at a conscious sense of the human. This sense of a known self is created through “memory becoming flesh”, through memory of the visions of a perceived world cast up by previous encounters with the beloved, all amplified by the symbolic accretions of the poems. The variations of the poems are profound and subtle, beginning at an Eden, in which the body of the beloved sits beneath a tree, in one sense the bones of the body, in another breath and cognition:
The words you spoke settled on your lips. Flowers appeared and grass,
trees and the small stones, rising in your breath. Animals
were standing in the shade, your breathing in their flesh.
The vision unfolds into language itself, in
If I were to write your name, shaping letters through the night, I need
another alphabet, composed of roses and the fragrance of
a spring that rises intermittent through the mind.
In the last third of the book, the original sense of a world translated into sense impressions, goes through a series of transmutations to become an incarnation of the physical world in symbolist language. On this bridge, the original Eden opens at last into the transcendence of
I held your head within my hands. It might have been a fallen bird,
a stone, the moon in memory, but it was not a stone, and it
was warmer than any moon that passes through the sky at night
and then is gone. My hands are holding you, contemplatives of your
being in them, your speaking passing into flesh and bone, a word
incarnate and corpuscular.
That bird rises again simultaneously from the substance of the poem and the body, in a manner representative of the allusive movement of every poem in the book:
I think that sometime all that will remain of me
will be the silence of my hands, and when the trumpet sounds the final
time, my hands will clap once, and nothing will be heard but echoes
of all you said to me, no flesh put on again, but air alone
In that sense of the self living in the other, of world and body living in and through each other through the agent of amplified and modulated memory, the speaker finds completion, “the moon appealed to once, a stone, and memories/of birds aloft within eternal skies, both of us recalled.” ‘through you i’ is simultaneously a profound series of love poems, a sonorous piece of music, a map of the romantic creative mind, creating order from a sea of undifferentiated perceptions and emotions, and the journey of self into consciousness through poetry. It is masterful.
Sibum on a Tightrope
Norm Sibum, Girls & Handsome Dogs, Porcupine’s Quill. 2002. 119 pages. ISBN 0-88984-230-2. $14.95
(This review first appeared in Vallum magazine.)
Reasons for reading vary: entertainment, knowledge, the suppression of knowledge, the illusion of entertainment, duty, fantasy hand-in-hand with titillation, political gossip cheek to jowl with recipes for coq au vin. Some books are aware of their pretensions, some are not. Girls & Handsome Dogs lands in the middle, in a waiting lounge in Lester B. Pearson airport, that happy country we all as Canadians inhabit. What starts out as a one-way ticket to the world, to cozy up with a girl in a little love nest, winds up on a return flight to itself. Lucky dog.
If “Make it New” was a plague that Pound hammered above his wall in his unheated flat in Paris, Sibum’s would be, “Make it Old.” Girls & Handsome Dogs is a second year university survey course of English literature, with one twist: to Sibum, it is all about lust — the muse (girls) and the slavering types who follow her around (handsome dogs). To get an idea of how it looks on the ground, imagine taking an anthology of Victorian, pre-Raphaelite, and modernist poetry, tearing all the pages out, scattering them around on the floor in a central library in Baghdad, letting the looters walk over them for a few days, and then reassembling them — or what’s left of them. The resulting combination of randomness and order would approximate what can be found between the covers of Sibum’s bed.
Girls and Handsome Dogs is about order. Some of the order is deliberate, rising from carefully-crafted texts that could be found in the Anglican hymnal — the polished teak poetry Robert Graves and his friends sang in fine tenor voices before shipping out to France to lead their boys to battle with a revolver and a riding crop. Some of the order is what Tristan Tzara and his friends cooked up a year later in a café in Zürich, when they realized that civilization was, ultimately, a violent, meaningless act, while Lenin sulked alone at a table for two, drawing his finger through the wine stains, plotting revolution. Besides the obligatory Rösti and Schnitzel, the menu that night included randomness — the order that the mind makes out of any two events, articles, experiences, fruitcakes, bats, or vegetables set side by side. And there you have it — either there is meaning in the world, meaning which comes from God, plump with rosy apple cheeks and the new Jerusalem, or there is no meaning at all, except what we create. The smart money is on the latter, because people will create meaning out of anything. It is our signature, like a dog eyeing a tree or cat scratching the arms of the Louis Quinze.
Sometimes Sibum the wire walker handles the balance between the profound and the banal, which undercuts and mocks it, with great grace. Sometimes he does so with a clumsy narrative line, a stretched lyricism which plods with a fevered tediousness from plot point to plot point. Still, his chutzpah is refreshing. The antidote to Wordsworth waxing rhapsodic in the fields, ah the sturdy peasants, the sad ruined Abbeys, the bowers, the land we’ve lost, a veritable Eden (sniff, sniff), has been Byron, tripping across European culture, irreverent, juxtaposing the aesthetic and the banal, collapsing categories, bringing recognition of the world as it is lived. Now we can read Sibum’s generic Don Juan instead. Tired of free verse, that plods across the page like an article in a small town paper, with its pictures of children and horses and teen princesses? It’s forgivable. Even Pound, who invented the damn stuff while Graves was crawling through no-man’s land wrote “Homage to Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” in the rhythms of the Anglican hymnal, to send the whole thing up with a ton of TNT. Sibum does a remake of Mauberly’s bitter satire, too, even going so far to parody line by line Pound’s scathing attack on the literary life and how it fits — or, rather, doesn’t — into society.
On first impression, Girls and Handsome Dogs is a satire of early modernism, with Sibum compulsively pulling the chairs out from behind his clowns, for one, so they fall down flat on the floor, arms and legs akimbo, like a kind of high-brow Chaplin. Occassionally, the voice and mind are held alive within the tension between the musicality of the lines and the plodding, weary-to-the-bones all night slog across Belgium of Sibum’s narrative delivery. This is narrative Dunkirk-style. It leaves the impression of being in the position at any time of collapsing completely. The fact that Sibum can maintain it at all is a tribute to his skill. I don’t think that Sibum, riffing off of stock lines at a late-night Improv show, is exactly looking for purity, but I do think that with a few tummy tucks the poems would have brought in a better crowd. As it is, the book sounds like Sibum has cast Brando and his cotton ball cheeks in the leading roll. Cut to the slaughter scene of Apocalypse Now now.
Sibum has been called a Browning for our times. By a kind of reductionist logic, that would mean he is a Pound for our times as well. Pound’s subject matter was lowered into the muddy Mississippi of modernist evangelism, certainly, but never washed off its fey fin-de-siècle world. He was a romantic. His great modernist work of collage and randomness, The Cantos, was originally a remake of an extended monologue of Renaissance life: Browning’s Sordello. But that’s literature for you: nesting Russian dolls, hiding a miniature bottle of vodka instead of a heart.
Sibum shares Pound’s triumphs: the satire, the bitter wit, a fine sense of the undercut to the chin (Pound learned his boxing from Hemingway in Paris), an ability to use colloquial speech, grounded in the trivial world of real life, to give a richly-textured document to show a man balancing on the Berlin wall of the mind. He shares Pound’s pitfalls, too: an occasional droning monotony of phrasing, a truncated, awkward, fitful narrative so self-absorbed in minutiae that a large part of the narrative line is the struggle to return to it from the lyrical riffs and a sense of things running away on their own. Lyrical narratives can get like that, when the tension between the lyric’s need for detail and the narrative’s need for scope falls too closely to the detail side. That’s the path of least resistance, and most lyrical narratives choke on it.
Sibum nods to the Rape of the Lock, and all those Elizabethan sonnet sequences to Cecilia, to Mr. W.H., to Delia, all neatly dedicated to a single (imagined) lover, aka the muse. Sibum’s? A waitress in a diner, serving coffee, eggs-over-easy, and a smile, to a writer asphyxiating on cigarette smoke, trying to find a way past his cynicism and the whole precious tradition of inspired and lyric poetry, to the world. I expected Mickey Rourke to step in at any time.
Like Pound, Sibum finds the world sometimes, and loses it at others, but the struggle, as Sibum looks back past Browning’s Renaissance Italy and Pound’s Provence to Rome itself, provides a valuable road map to the era of transition in which we live, among the ruins of what even Pound held as certain. This is a book of a man trying to shake himself clear of the tradition so he can use it for his own ends, in his own time, and write, as Hemingway put it, giving Pound a clear right hook and sending him up against the ropes, one true simple declarative sentence.
A Second Earth
Harold Enrico, A Second Earth: poems selected and new, Ronsdale Press, Vancouver. 1997. ISBN: 0-921870-53-1. $14.95
(This review first appeared in LitRag.)
I started reading Harold Enrico 20 years ago, because we shared a landscape. His was the Cascades of Northern Washington, mine the Similkameen Valley of British Columbia. They are the same landscape, actually, with a border cut, sadly, straight through it. I was looking for a way to create images of my land, a way to live as a poet within the everyday images of a non-literary land. Enrico showed that it could be done. Where he could have fallen into pat-phrasing and imported imagery, laying it over the landscape like a colonial screen, he showed that out of a simple, spare description of landscape, the sense of an observing mind could be created, wide-ranging, yet bound intimately to place. Here he is in “Vertigo”:
Four hawks sweep the light with perfect wings
Above the canyon’s farther lip. Deer drowse
In draws, and on a ridge two red mares browse
On meager blades. A katydid sings and sings
Its desiccated old lament upon
A mullein stalk. A thread of smoke, a mile
Away, climbs perpendicular a while.
Typically, having built a solid foundation in place, Enrico ends the poem by making it symbolic:
…clutch at the car
In vertigo before a sheer abyss.
No bird sweeps that air. Black rocks hiss
With all that wind. And we know where we are.
From the physical depiction of a very specific landscape, the whole world opens before us. This is mythic writing, writing in which the objects of the physical world take on, in their very physicality and in their representation as physical objects, a non-physical, and multi-layered, meaning.
The theme has continued, into his latest poems. For instance, in “What the Hawk Never Knew”, he writes:
Finality is not what the plover thinks
Nor is it the dream of two merging streams
Becoming one. Only the hawk can tell us
If and when there is an end, but he will not say.
The poem is like a house constructed in a distant forest, out of rough pine lumber. The rhythms show the work of their construction. It is honest, solid work, however, a bit out of fashion, perhaps, but only because it adheres to no fashion but its own. Here Enrico has opened Yeatsian symbolism in a very solid music, so that the symbolism and the natural world coexist:
At the zenith of mid-July,
Dogged by an angry star,
I could listen to you murmuring forever,
Leaf-tongued over the creek’s bed in the soothing shade.
Maybe I will.
I have nothing else to do.
In a world of fashion, the latest, the newest is all that matters. Enrico stands instead by the oldest, the most enduring. Through the landscape, Enrico has attained eternity. The strength of his voice speaking through the final line above is reminiscent of Williams’ “Of Asphodel that Greeny Flower”. They are both passionate poems written by an elder. Like Williams, Enrico is one of the few poets of this century who has written his or her very best work in old age.
Enrico’s commitment to landscape and the relationship between thought and landscape, however, has ensured that he is an elder mostly unknown. In a world which has grown almost completely ignorant of mythic poetry and which is largely unable to read the nuance of landscape, mythically-presented, Enrico is a master, weaving European traditions seemlessly into a North American space, and showing the part they play in the creation of his response. In this context, take a look at the following excerpt from “The Northernmost Island”:
The old Irish poet is long since dead.
The pony is no longer tethered to a post.
The dog’s barking is at an end.
The new moon rises from the old.
Ghost clings to ghost
In a tremendous wind.
America’s modernist confrontation with Europe and European tradition, and with the mythic poetry of W.B. Yeats, is revisited here. Before death put a stop to his late poems, Williams brought this confrontation to art and passion, out of his beginnings in the commonplace and the everyday. Enrico, in our own time, long after Williams’ death, and long after modernism itself, has extended that vision, by bringing it to the natural world. The circle, from land to Europe–through art–to art, to land, has been closed.
Enrico repeats the theme in these lines from “Lilacs in Bloom”:
The lilacs are in full bloom
In every corner of the overgrown yard.
I smell them everywhere.
The spaces between their blossoms and leaves
Are blue caves, swirling with dust.
Roofs and cupolas of a foreign city
Seem to float out of the haze.
There’s Europe, there’s history observed, in the scent of lilacs in the Cascades. It all comes down to a man living, now, and yet forever, past and present. It might only be an illusion, but that illusion is so powerful it dissolves time and space, just as Enrico has also dissolved the boundaries between art and observation.
In the context of language poetry, verse modelled on prose, and post-modernist theory, Enrico’s work seems at first glance to be very old-fashioned. That would be to misread it. Enrico’s work adds to traditions that come before the present and its fashions, and extend them into the present. By their very presence they are a challenge, of craft and integrity, providing a ground against which our time can be measured. In a time of rootlessness, Enrico has stood firm. Work, such as Williams, that was abandoned before it could be completed, is, in Enrico, completed for us now.
The New Gods of the City of God
Maggie Helwig, One Building in the Earth: New and Selected Poems, ECW Press. 2002. 133 pages. ISBN 1-55022-552-9. $16.95
Robert Priest, Blue Pyramids: New and Selected Poems, ECW Press. 2002. 204 pages. ISBN 1-55022-554-5. $16.95.
(This review first appeared in ARC.)
Nothing is as it seems. Everything is as it seems. There is the city, and there are the people in the city. There is nothing else. There is everything else. There is everything. There is nothing. These books are of two minds. But then, these are selected poems, thick enough to keep you awake through a whole box of Celestial Seasonings tea. What’s more, they are a match made in Heaven; they fit into each other like two bodies in a bed — one awake and one asleep, occupying the same space and time. Because they are each other’s Doppelgängers, I’ll start with the cold shower: the whole idea of a selected poems is to place a poet’s work in the life of society, to gain a large view of where it has taken us and to suggest from that the outlines of where it might lead us in the future. A selected poems is also intended to give us pleasure. By collecting the best of what a poet has written, it allows some small amount of hard-won wisdom to be revealed in a world of far too many words. What we don’t expect is a surprise.
That’s exactly what we get. In selecting these poems, the editors at ECW did nothing surprising. They even overlooked the cry of Priest’s poems for a wilder, more scattered sense of design and capitalized instead on the strengths of Priest’s and Helwig’s previous volumes. It might not be inspired editing, but it is solid. You could build a bridge that way, or a shopping centre, and be safe there. In One Building on the Earth, for instance, we read our way into Helwig’s crystalline intelligence, her brash sense of Ondaatje-induced literary violence like hot light reflecting off a car windshield, her highly-evolved global social activism, her sense of the city as a spiritual entity, and her serious concern. She takes life earnestly, like the workers at Chernobyl who saw the mounds of uranium and contaminated graphite spilling out of the ruptured reactors, knew they were doomed and damned, and ran down there to shovel the damn stuff back in for the two minutes of life that were left to them. People like that are the last of the great romantic heroes. Helwig is their poet. Similarly, in Blue Pyramids, we are swept up in the exuberance of Priest’s city, or, rather, the way a man acts in a city which is the physical manifestation of the hopeless tangle of ecstasy and degradation that hounds human social affairs to the bone. It is the city of an angry, committed, satiric, ironic clown, a beat poet, a song-writer and pop-artist and lover who writes from that side of Toronto which the CBC very successfully manages to hide from the rest of the country: despite the canyons of glass and steel, that place is San Francisco. Ferlinghetti and Kerouac are alive and well on Bloor Street. Bukowski is hunkered down on Spadina. Harold Norse is serving espresso in some little joint out on Egglington. It’s like 12 Monkeys, or The Matrix: the people are living underground, while the animals, or the machines, rule the world and the poets are beating the padded walls of their underground cells of social responsibility and pop culture, which allow them, as all good tragic flaws do, to pose the question but not to solve it. Or so it seems.
Or so it seems. Because Helwig and Priest have, albeit in small ways, albeit tentatively, albeit with the angst of a Woody Allen or a J. Alfred Prufrock, solved it. While celebrating the opposing sensibilities of these two poets, these books reveal a great commonality: despite all their insistence on social, impersonal poetics centred in the streets of the city, both Priest and Helwig write a kind of poetry which pushes towards moments of transcendence. These are very much poetries of consciousness. It doesn’t matter one bit whether Priest sings of a march down Bloor Street or whether Helwig chants about East Timor in language lifted out of the New Testament. What matters is that they both praise the revelation hidden in the present moment. For Priest, it is in caring for children. For Helwig, it is in small acts of social responsibility and of pleasure.
But, wait. When Helwig and Priest talk about love like this, they aren’t talking about yet another episode of Friends, nor the kind of love found in the transcendentally humanist later poems of William Carlos Williams, or the committed socially aware love of a Carolyn Forché or even the tangles of love, drunkenness and despair found in Anne Sexton. Surprisingly, although they live in McLuhan’s city and within the gamma cloud of his dictums, a sense of an ancient world lives out its forms beneath and through all the ironic, sardonic, deliberately shocking, often deliberately sentimental pop culture (Priest), tv-guzzling, zealous evening news anchor and pulpit (Helwig) gloss of these two poets. At first glance, the Medium here is not the Message. From Priest’s “buildings wait[ing] for the assassins,’ to Helwig’s Sophia standing “between the king of battle and the king of law,” these books are powered by the ghost in the machine.
Welcome to the worlds of Robert Priest and Maggie Helwig, two Canadians, formerly from Britain, living in Toronto which was formerly a city and is now, as they assure us, the body of Christ. Or Lucifer. Or Helwig and Priest are the body of Christ. Or Lucifer. At any rate, consciousness falls, is flattened, breaks apart, and endures. For his part, Priest conjures the fallen one to speak: “look at this durable dark — this dark that speaks from rim to rim / encompassing the world.” For her part, Helwig witnesses the imposter god: “The Emperor / bends, stands, his black blood rubies, god yes there is pain — // under his slender plutonium hands / the cities empty like rain.” To read Helwig and Priest together is to relive the battle of the Inquisition as it strove to stamp out Gnostic heresy — except there is no Inquisition, only the action of a false, blind and broken world and its apocalyptic witnesses. There is only the minotaur living within his maze of mirrors. Except, there is no beast, only a disembodied consciousness maintained in the computer grid of the city’s streets (Helwig), and the fallen body of Lucifer — occasionally seeing the angel within himself, occasionally the false and fallen god (Priest). Helwig tries to puzzle a way out of the maze. “We are small figures, journeying,” she writes. “We wait for the arrival of ourselves.” Priest and his assassins on the other hand try to smash the mirrors and get out that way with “Ventriloquism for dummies” and “Stop procrastinating / tomorrow!”, as the fallen Christ joins Priest at his protest rallies. They both have to settle for love, here, now. Except for self-destruction, which shows up in Helwig as a sense of impotence and despair bravely faced and in Priest as a bad-boy rocker with black leather and metal studs, and in them both together as a relentless, courageous deconstruction of the self they are desperately trying to shore up, it is the only independent act they are capable of and the only act capable of reassembling a fallen world.
That sounds a lot like Williams, except that for Helwig such pleasure and such love for the things of this world are a sin, but a sin which must be taken on by creatures doomed to live as fragments of themselves on this broken shore, because it is the only way of recognizing what little of Godhood remains to us. Typically, Helwig closes her poems on a point of transcendence which is nothing more than the culmination of a gargantuan battle to get out of the streets of her thoughts and to actually perceive something of the world, whatever it might be. This is a feat which requires considerably more effort than Hillary’s ascent of Everest, and over a considerably longer period of time. This is the Mars mission of poetry. It becomes a street battle between managers in the halls of NASA. Thoughts snipe at Helwig from every rooftop. She has to keep her head down. It can get to be very frustrating, as the transcendence can at times seem so minor as to be unworthy of all the fuss. “There are only short moments of safety,” she writes. “A glass of milk in the darkness, under these / uncompromising stars…Love, we can never ask for more than this.”
It is like living a life within a film set: the transcendence is real, but only for the characters; for the rest of us, we get to walk around the back of the canvas sets, pick up a bite to eat at the caterer’s trailer, and sip a Cappucino while going over the script for the next scene as the cameramen practice on the stand-ins. It’s the same for Helwig: she has set herself such a tight set of parameters (no self, subdued music, lots of social concern), that in reading her I longed over and over again for her to rent a car and drive out of the city for the weekend, maybe up to the cottage to chase some crawdads and some nieces and nephews through the shallows. She can’t, though, because she is the city. By bringing broad intellectual intelligence and focussed rigour to her tragic trap, namely her panic at being bound within the last gasp of a culture on the verge of death, she faces down her fear of return to her doomed body — the fallen, perfect body of a cabbalic Eve — with relentless courage. In a small way — a very small way — she accepts her mortality. “I dream of theory. Awake, I stand under the arm / in a fierce tide of chemicals, calcium, bones and veins / and the body climbs the hill, above these trees.” It might be small, but it is enough. “Lead us,” she writes, “without complication, without regret / to this small place of light.”
Priest also sees himself as a stranger in a strange land. Characteristically, he writes of the experience from behind various ironic masks. Here he is, being born: “on this cold hearth / writing in the oracle of the scar / i speak my first shrill prophecy.” Here he is being torn apart by the hounds of love: “if I could strike the summer / from its place among the seasons / though: wreck the whirling of the world / to rid myself of memory / my love / i would.” His Gnosticism takes him to the bloody sacrifices of Christ and his Doppelgänger John Lennon and to the fall of Lucifer, which caused the light of God to be scattered across the stone floor of the earth like a set of Wedgewood dishes smashed against the kitchen wall in the last moments of a marriage gone very sour. In response, Priest tries to piece Humpty Dumpty together again, to save the marriage however he can, except it’s never clear whether he does so out of fragments of God or of Lucifer, or of both together. In his earlier poems he eschews transcendence for rock music sentiment (“I was the great idealist / I wandered all the world with a bag of filth / and anyone I met I said — here / take whatever you think is your rightful share”), marching slogans (“Poetry is manual labour”) and pop song choruses (“If I have become a prison / let me be broken and empty.”
Priest has learned his lessons from Leonard Cohen. In his later poems he finds transcendence — and, like Helwig, he finds it in sin. This is the sin of the gnostic sects which believed it was a sin to have children, as by doing so one divided his or her spark of divine light into yet smaller fragments and so bound it more deeply in obeisance to the false God who made this false world. Likewise Priest finds it troubling to have a child, but then finds the love for his son to be a path leading him out of the gridlocked streets of all of the social concerns, prejudices, hardened attitudes and sheer stubbornness to give into age and death that characterize our common journey into the dark. Whereas Helwig finds hope in existence itself, in simply enduring and finding the courage to enter this sinful world and to separate the corrupting influence of the world from the pleasure, however small, that can be found in it, Priest finds hope in using love and care to create, nurture and shelter his son, a human form unbitten and unscarred by the iron-chained dogs of history. He is, in other words, creating Adam.
Yes, Priest is God. To be more specific, when he is not portraying the city as Christ/Lucifer/ Adam, fallen, sacrificed, betrayed through knowledge and, like all of us, unable to go home again, he portrays himself as Christ. He has died on the Cross, has become the city, and is now resurrecting human life in the hopeless tangle of the grid. But, wait: Helwig is Christ as well — that is, when she is not portraying the city as Christ, of course, as every good Doppelgänger should. If you look in the mirror on this wall, you will see Toronto, embodied as the sum of all human aspirations, struggles, defeats, and history, and two people within it struggling to create identities within the unbearable weight of all that baggage. For both Helwig and Priest, there is no world beyond the borders of the city, although tradition suggests to them that there should be. Watching them struggle with that expectation of there being a social space called Canada, as they have been taught, and slowly finding themselves only as they abandon all hope of its existence and move from Gnostic exile to the tenuous belonging of an immigrant putting down roots in a new country, is a gut-wrenching experience, because it hits so close to home. This is Canada, right here, right now, where there is no Canada, only a new country we are making up as we go.
Just remember that these poems are written out of Gnostic sensibilities, imperfectly selected, and collected in books that are far too long, and you’ll be alright. The light of creation is within them, but it is scattered. I’d take Priest’s best pop song, any day, over the three sentimental ones collected here alongside it. The same for his activist slogans and political rants. The same for his Beat pieces. I’d pay good money to have his brilliant double-take aphorisms creatively integrated into the structure of the book, rather than chunked throughout it like pawns in a softwood tariff. Similarly, one example of Helwig’s gratuitous verbal violence would have been plenty, and the excision of at least one section of her literary, all-in-the-head take on world politics would have lightened her book. Even one more piece of multi-layered pop-culture irony, angelic doublespeak, lyricism and wit would have been worth twenty pages of such repetition. In trying to give us the broadest possible view of the astonishing ranges of these two poets, the editors have clouded them. As a reader in and of their world, you will have to gather and reassemble the pieces yourself. You will, in short, have to select.
Poets and War
Sam Hamill, A Pisan Canto. Floating Bridge Press. 2004. 32 pages. $10.00. ISBN 1-930446-08-X.
(This review first appeared in LitRag.)
Ezra Pound once boasted that he could write better propaganda than Joseph Goebbels. For two years during World War II, he broadcast over Radio Rome in an effort to incite a populist revolution; on December 7, 1941, he claimed that he had, “NO objection to the U.S. absorbin’ Canada and the whole NORTH American continent —” as long as it left Europe to the Europeans.
This was the man who brought the machine poetry of the Italian Futurists into the English tradition, who out-Rossettied Rossetti yet taught Yeats to strip off his gossamer to reveal the Irish Revolution, who wasted The Waste Land, wore a pirate’s ring in his ear, seduced the flower-bedecked Dorothy Shakespear by reading her war poetry from Provence, and undertook to write a tale of a trip to Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in a bastard cross between Robert Browning and Hans Arp. In short, the act of poetry was, for Pound, not a celebration of the brotherhood of poets, but a forceful continuation of a tradition of individualist revolutionaries, intent on replacing legislators with poets, and, failing that, just blowing the whole lot to Kingdom Come. He saw himself as the successor of John Adams, poring over texts, clarifying his thought and a nation with it.
Once Pound was arrested for treason in 1943 and incarcerated him in a prison cage in Pisa, the sick, broken-spirited, white-haired old man who had once been the dandy Ezra Pound wrote his last testament: the Pisan Cantos. This great and horrible poem honours Mussolini, damns Roosevelt, spits on Jews, and embodies a man who has completely lost his way; heartbroken, crumpled in the middle of the road, like Vladimir and Estragon he is knowingly waiting for coherence that is never going to come. It is impossible not to be simulataneously revulsed and deeply moved. If you are a poet, it is also hard not to be driven into action. Now that the American Army is again warring without a popular mandate, Sam Hamill is driven to such action in his new poem A Pisan Canto.
Unlike Pound, Hamill believes in the community of poets, yet his answer to questions of the role of a poet in war is as quixotic as Pound’s: that as a citizen he has the right to determine how his country is represented. Like Pound, he sees economics, history, and foreign policy as an extension of words artfully arranged. Revulsed by governance which does not include art and the shared human aspirations it represents, he links Arabic poetry, through Pound’s Provence, to American culture, spitting out his disdain for a president who has chosen to destroy his nation’s roots:
All born between the Tigris and Euphates,
the cradle the Shrub has rocketed.
Drop no bombs on a people
whose poetry you have not read!
It’s as dismissive as anything in Pound, and equally as unlikely to change the mind of anyone: those who are signing chits for the bombs will not be moved by a defense of love poetry; those who are moved by such a defense will just write more poems.
That’s Hamill’s point. “I have tried to build a Paradise,/a temple for poetry./Now it threatens to crumble,” he sobs in anguish, echoing Pound, who keened, “I lost my center/ fighting the world./ The dreams clash / and are shattered — / and that I tried to make a paradiso / terrestre.” Hamill’s paradise is not Pound’s light-soaked logic of male intellect, but poetry which exists “not in the gift/but in the giving;” the shared poetic world which Pound sneered at, complaining that “the amateurs are all over the shop.” “I am not/ the magalomaniac Ezra,” Hamill counters, “but am an American…I have my own errors to live with —” ones drawn from Neruda, Hikmet, and Pound, all together:
libertá, justice and mercy,
a little love to thaw the heart in dead winter,
a little conviction we can live by.
Hamill is playing the dissembling game Pound played in Pisa, mocking fools so that their ignorance will be self-revealed. It will be, too, but, again, only to poets, a failure that ultimately drives Hamill’s plea for art into the past tense: “We stood for something, the word writ large: to be makers, not destroyers.”
Stripped of his dream, left only with his memories, Hamill fortifies himself by declaring himself against Bush and war: “I have made a gift, whatever it’s worth. / I stand for something.” Poetry here is not an agent of resistance, though, but is “like Zen/the more we discuss it,/the further away….” Closing a poem which pays very close attention to poetry and dresses along the way in the Usury Cantos, this is ultimately an unsatisfactory answer. It is as if having grown tired of even the effort of countering closed minds, Hamill turns even from the discussion of poetry, which he opened, because closure is, ultimately, absurd.
Even though A Pisan Canto shatters on the unavoidable rocks of comparison with Pound’s language, it often rises to moments of strong indignation, clear dignity, and renewed purpose, and manages to meet with some grace the challenge of irrelevance. It doesn’t read as Hamill’s final koan on poetry, though — more like a preliminary announcement of intent. “To depart is not/to depart from the way,” Hamill writes. The dignity in that statement makes this poem a fitting tribute to a poetic generation.
Five Laureates on the Red Earth Road
Maryanne Bluger. Early Evening Pieces. Ottawa: BuschekBooks, 2003
Cyril Dabydeen. Hemisphere of Love. Toronto: TSAR Publications, 2003
rob mclennan, red earth. Windsor: Black Moss Press, 2003
Colin Morton. Dance, Misery. Hamilton: Seraphim Editions, 2003
David O’Meara. The Vicinity. London: Brick Books, 2003
(This review first appeared in ARC 53.)
If George Bowering had phoned me from Ottawa during his term as poet laureate and had told me that the city has poets laureate the way Hamilton has Timbits, I wouldn’t have believed it. I’d always thought that a poet laureate was a plaster bust, a figurehead for a National Literature, a dream in the eye of the Canada Council in a country patched up out of a bunch of regional poetries. I was wrong. Such things do exist. If George had stood in Parliament and said, “those laureates are hoofing it with Jack Kerouac; their poems are graffiti lipsticked in every gas station washroom from St. John’s to Sooke and spray-painted on Canadian Wheat Pool grain cars clattering down the VIA line,” I would have thought, “Whoa, too much Black Mountain moonshine for you, George,” and left him for the performance poets to nibble on like a pack of soynuts. But he would have been right there, too.
Welcome to the poets laureate of Canada. The first one up to the plate, the staunchly lower case rob mclennan, is not even in his book. With the others, a tear on the top corner of each poem, the book turned on its head and given a little shake like a package of cornflakes, and the poets come tumbling out, chatting, talking, laughing, whispering, and, yes, sadly, Cyril, extolling, but with rob, well, he tore the corners off the poems and shook them out before the book put its covers on. The concept of a poem which is really an anti-poem, a poem which exists in its edges, in fragments, parentheses, lacunae, jottings scribbled on the back of the hand or the inside of the skull, even notes chiseled into the brain stem with a dental pick, is liberating. These are poems caught up in a sensory whirl, which find stillness not in turning away from transience, but in turning to face it, unshaven and bleary-eyed as the road unwinds past like a NFB film flapping onto its reel:
(this land is not my land, its…
green green always green
brown walls motel one room
two beds (wha
) irving gas
red earth is full of delights like that. What sets it apart from the other laureates is not its reliance on travel, imagery, and its civic sense of poetry, but that it gets its kick of this Bank Street roast straight from the source, from Whitman, Stein and Kerouac, and from George Bowering, King of TISH. mclennan is better than the lot, a kind of Canadian Robert Creeley, presenting us with moments to move into, like museum dioramas, incomplete until we stand in them. In mclennan a whole tradition that has been underground in Canada for almost half a century, has found a new champion. Street people could duct tape these things together between a couple of newspaper boxes on any city streetcorner in February and make an acceptable ice-fishing shelter.
In contrast, in Early Evening Pieces, Marianne Bluger writes the way D.G. Jones, the final — and literary — member of the Group of Eight, wrote of snow buntings back in the old world of 1963: made out of earth and snow. Intriguingly, even though Bluger’s Polaroid snaps of this Jack Varley landscape are written in classical Haiku forms, focusing on the traditional veracities of the temporal nature of the atemporal world to get the mind to snap so the body can get on with its life, many of them are interchangeable with mclennan’s post-post-post modern assemblages of silence and caught breath. From mclennan’s road music “put back up/in a rental/apple blossoms” to Bluger’s “cheerful mechanic,” who “sketches the broken fuel pump / on my map” or even to her “highway wind / whipping the fur / of a farm dog’s corpse,” is only the distance between taking a snapshot (red earth) and running it through an unsharp mask on Photoshop (Early Evening Pieces). Nonetheless, it is an ironic distance: Bluger’s haiku, detaching from the self by attaching to the world, let emotions and perceptions flow through her and back to the world but also let them settle down into a self; mclennan’s scritch scratch, much more concerned with the transitory world of appearances, doesn’t settle down into a self, but, rather, into a gesture. There is no self. What is left in its place is a record of its passage. Other than that image of the ego thrashing around in a padded room, however, the eye is the same, and the poems are infused with the same pointillist’s sense of impermanence.
In Cyril Dabydeen’s Hemisphere of Love, Canada is an undiscovered, even unknown country, a set of open mic performances surrounding ideas of landscape and civil life laid down and then abandoned by a previous civilization. He sets out to explore them all: like mclennan, he has one eye on the road and the other on a notepad propped up on the dash. The eagerness of his travels, however, coupled with his pluck and sheer chattering confidence, leads to a bit of confused thrashing as he gets the straightjacket tapes of citizenship correctly adjusted and accustoms himself to images of snow in at least four dimensions: at times he plays a kind of travelling this land is your land, this land is my land poet, starring in that most Canadian of poetic cults: the Al Purdy Impersonation Rag. In Dabydeen’s poem about Yellowknife, “Old Town”, for example, he has the rhythms of Purdy’s “The Country North of Belleville” nailed:
“From distance it’s the beginning or shape of things
not from from Great Slave Lake;
and Jackfish Lake is what I recall
He covers Purdy flawlessly. The whole circus act is here: folksy asides, Dog Rib Indians, Japanese tourists, the Franklin Expedition, and sweeping statements like “or being amazed at how really vast Canada is.” All of these tricks are stripped of the irony that let Purdy, like Jean Cretien, get away with them for so long. Purdy could get away with it: he was inventing the form. Unfortunately, Dabydeen is not. Accordingly, his cover of geographic Canada never touches land or history themselves, never moves into them, and never makes them his own. He is only more successful at moving into the empty shacks and deserted landscapes of Canada when he steps away from it into his own experience. His discussions of the life of an immigrant are subtle and moving, and the distinctions he makes between knowledge and wisdom, in the context of place and placelessness, are transformative. For Dabydeen, the issue of being an immigrant is a non-issue: “all where I’ve come from / like other states of being, // as I talk myself hoarse / with claims of a new country, / or it’s the sheer desire … / to live life independently.” For Dabydeen, in other words, issues of land and place are non-issues; the real story is the story of the independent individual, experiencing other landscapes of individual independence. This is his Canada. It’s uncannily close to mclennan’s “( ) is the perfect place / to look at the ( ).” and Bluger’s “the long dash / one o’clock — still in her corner / that winter spider.”
Also luxuriating in the down pile of a national vision, is David O’Meara’s The Vicinity. Of all the books here, it is the most daring, and the most disappointing — daring because it opens with a bold thesis, and disappointing because it quickly departs from it. O’Meara’s thesis is that life is in cities, period. This is an issue directly at the heart of a nation that has recently switched over from rural to urban life and has not yet come up with a corresponding set of physical and civic images. Because O’Meara has tackled this theme head-on, this is a vital book — a steel and glass-edged roar of traffic and brick corresponding to an almost universal experience. Seen from its core, however, this is not a book about such urban experience, but about civic experience, which is a far subtler thing, and, specifically, about the specific civic experience embodied by W.H. Auden’s fresh eye, impeccable craft, comprehensive rhythms, and quirky, Dali-esque humour. O’Meara’s “From a Stopped Train” is a good example of how he creates a self that builds its self-awareness out of such gentle, mocking irony:
Now that I have some time alone — a stolen
hush in the bustle of our social selves —
I’d like to give some warm applause
to oxygen, to water, to all those usual taken-
Auden permeates this book. In fact, the best poem in The Vicinity is a long tribute, “Letter to Auden”, styled after Auden’s journal poems and full of a very English, and very witty, distance and reticence. Here’s a short example: “But history, more than ever, is now a snazzy show/ Put on for the tourists,/As if no one lives here anymore /And culture just exists.” The thoughts are commonplace; the treatment isn’t. The Audenesque mask is used to create a measured, elegantly-paced homage, and a self which can step forward from that to make sense of the world. The other side of The Vicinity contains the early urban poems, in which Auden’s images of the squares and streets of W.B. Yeats’ mind are taken one step further in time: they are stripped of Yeats’ mind entirely, leaving only brickwork, concrete, structural steel, a safety elevator, grass, glass, wire, and the rooftop of the city — a whole new tarot pack to spell out our fate. They feel as if they were written in the spirit of Ponge or Guillevic or Ferron, and the possibilities opened by this bridge between French and English culture are one of the delights of this book. All in all, whereas in “Letter to Auden,” irony and humour are everpresent, in these early poems, a new Canada is present as well, one built on but freed from its colonial past, moving forward into a potential for transformation which, thankfully, this book tentatively puts forward, and which, I hope to God, O’Meara will pick up again soon.
The final book in this series, Colin Morton’s Dance, Misery, also honours Auden and Purdy. Like O’Meara, Morton has written a long poem which ranges widely across images both personal and public, in an attempt to define a communal identity. Dance, Misery is an elegy, a song of the self in the manner of Whitman, a civic self reminiscent of Dennis Lee’s now dated ode to Toronto, Civil Elegies. Morton has danced in protest throughout his life, marched and stood in the cold on Parliament Hill, and now, in this poem, thinks deeply and quietly about his place in Canada and Canada’s place in the world. Of all the five forays into laureateship reviewed here, Morton’s is the most consistent and successful. “We’ve had it with masks,” he writes. “We gotta talk / as if our lives depend on it, I mean / the we without a they.” In elegies for the Unknown Soldier, The Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry Band, rocket attacks on Baghdad, Rocket Richard, VE day, wartime Berlin, the Blitz, the Blue Berets who marched “into a peace and began to heal,” Trudeau, Belgrade, Janis Joplin, Chilé, and Rwanda, Morton’s measured voice seeks to build “a collective noun,” “to be here in front of a makeshift podium / to hear one another’s psalms and prayers / because the lines sound truer, more their own, / when read aloud in a crowded room.”
They do. All five of these books were contenders for the Archibald Lampman Award. For reasons of their various strengths any one of them could have been the winner, or even all of them together. David O’Meara is deserving of the award, and I hope it spurs him on to completing his urban project. To close, here are my nominations, not for the Lampman Award, but for poet laureate: rob mclennan for the panache with which he lyricizes a long-standing anti-lyric tradition; Marianne Bluger for a Canada which is simultaneously a walk through a gallery of Canadian masters and any backyard between Halifax and Thunder Bay; Cyril Dabydeen for his wisdom and his vision of a Canada free from any distance; David O’Meara for his ironic engines and his report from the future; and Colin Morton for putting it all together with heart. It makes me wonder how many other poet laureates are hanging around Bank Street as the wind whips up off the canal. By the looks of it, probably a heck of a lot.
The Bursting Test
Linda Rogers, The Bursting Test. Guernica Editions. 2002. 185 pages. $12.
The Bursting Test is cause for celebration. Rogers is one of our best poets, and this is her best book. It is more than just her best book, though: it is the book she has always been trying to write. The great books that came before, The Saning, and Heaven Cake, are still great books, but books which always came most alive in Rogers’ conversation. It has always been in conversation that Rogers passions became most animated, and where her vision of the world achieved its broadest shape. Until now, that is. With The Bursting Test, the world of reversals, the great pun and operetta that fills Rogers’ house and her prose has combined with Rogers’ life and with her poetic vision of childhood as being our link to God. The sanctity of childhood was always the background of Rogers’ previous work, and for years she has been portraying children in distress, in a world that will only go right once we raise sane children, and in the process make ourselves and our world sane as well. The Bursting Test presents a world bursting at the seems with pressure, in poems which are bursting with vitality, uniting death and life, love and hate, the gruesome and the divine, in one vision. If there are precedences for this work, they are in Whitman and Page: Whitman for Rogers’ all-encompassing vision, her baroque detail, her lush, sure, and compelling voice; Page for Rogers’ almost 200 page riff on Page’s Millennium poem for the earth. With their appetite for opening up into new worlds with every thought and image, these poems risk falling apart, but Rogers’ voice rises above them like that of a true Diva, always sure, always in her range, always carrying to the whole room. Intimate and public, these poems are, in Rogers’ own words,
that every child, every dress, every
sewing lady and ghost, every tree, every
song, every fiddle, every laying hen
and river on this cross planet deserves.
Ken Howe, Cruise Control: a Theogony. Nightwood Editions, 2002. ISBN 0-88971-186-0.
(This review first appeared in The Bookseller.)
Ken Howe’s first book of poems, Household Hints for the End of Time, took the country by the arm, slid it into a red vinyl booth in a roadside diner, and over bad, reheated coffee, with the snow melting off of their boots onto the lino, stirred the whole prairie post-modernist poetry hash on his plate, all that earnest Kroetschian renaming and deconstruction and poking of gophers in a hole with a stick, and made it fun again. It was also a little thin on the ground and left the question open, in flagrant first book style, as to whether Howe could pull it off a second time, leave Kroetsch in the booth writing poems on matchbook covers, and hit the road on his own. It was with great relief that I read Cruise Control: a Theogony, Howe’s latest. He’s pulled it off. It’s not the humour he’s pulled off, though, although it was the humour I was expecting him to develop. It’s the irony, the sheer audacity of taking on the game rather than deconstructing it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s deconstruction here, alright, but not of the poem and its conventions. Howe plays that straight as a prairie highway. Here is the whole bag of tricks, the philosophical wizardry and sleight-of-hand that has come to denote the well-made poem here at the cusp of a, so far, rather bleak looking century of mis-truth and untruth and half truth and sometimes just plain too-much-truth. It’s all here, but written out large. The world of fakery is praised, tongue-in-cheek: “Hide the you you’ve got inside”, writes Howe in “Fr. Leonardo Boff O.F.M Constructs a Phenomenology of Cognition”. In fact, the whole darn book, a riff on Kerouac and Rob McClellan and even Purdy, on the road, is spiced up with the ketchup of irony, where “Filling-station pumps are Wagnerian/in their square-helmeted Teutonic postures”, and “All I ask of this road, this/land, this ride, is that it give way forever/to a state-of-the-art recliner rocker/on a porch by a door.”, and “the magpie trashtalking from a tree”. It’s funny stuff, alright, as we can expect from Howe, but he plays it deadpan, acting as his own straight man the whole time. Accordingly (or is that accordionly?), Howe frames his roadside manner with a blur of language, as if the whole trip has not been across the country, but in a monster truck crunching over a football stadium full of poetry books (What poet wouldn’t pay to see that?), as in “Parc National”, where he goes right over the top with “The green staircase on the highway map/delineates the space/Sapir-Whorf hypothesis applied to the/semiotics of land, a frame to hold up/in front of the scene, to look through and/construct the picturesque, tuck it away/in a borderland of marginal economic utility.” It is audacious. If there is a failing to this book, it is that it is unrelieved, and both lonely and sad, as if there is a mouldy motel curtain hanging between Howe and the country, and he is fighting to rip it aside — for a view of a parking lot. The curtain, I think, is poetry. It’s a good fight, though. I for one am looking forward to seeing where Howe goes in his next book, and how his two sparring partners, the clown and the philosopher, will get along, fix the fight, or whether they will come to blows and Howe will get to step in as the referee, blowing a whistle on the whole show.
Long-Stemmed Lungfish Jazz
Stan Rogal, sub rosa. Wolsak & Wynn, Toronto. 2003. 6″x6″. 127 pp. ISBN: 0-919897-87-8. colour illustrations by jacquie jacobs
(This review first appeared in ARC 43.)
sub rosa is the antidote for any reader estranged by Bök’s Euonoia, and a welcome fix for those who found themselves drumming out its rhythms on their espresso cups. Rogal hasn’t changed his name to Røgal, though, and dressed in a daisy chain of umlauts so his book can be piggy-backed by the Amazons; it’s just that both poets have tied one hand behind their backs. Bök’s clutches an alphabet; Rogal’s, nine paintings by Jacquie Jacobs, off of which he riffs into a language of minimalist music and the sensuality of fragmentation. sub rosa turns a kaleidoscope filled with erotic dreams, rose petals, atomic mushrooms, salamanders, and the bric-a-brac of a modern mind overrun with stuff. Rogal’s play revolves around Jacobs’ images of flowers and bodies, folding, unfolding and transforming, both inside and outside of the frame, “appearing ripe enough / To transform this place / of madness, murder, rape / to one of bucolic, splashy pleasures.”
Rogal follows his images as they turn and twist, at times metamorphizing along with them or riding on top cloaked in ecstasy and adrenalin: man and woman, sexed and sexless, running off into saxophone solos like Alan Ginsberg. Listen for a minute to Rogal’s punning, erotic music: “I mean, how interpret such cunning linguists…/ swapping spit / & shedding skins to moon the panorama?” and be glad that Canadian poetry has come to this. Rogal’s minimalism riffs back to Yates’ sonorous, totemic esox nobilior non esox lucius, Smith’s exclamatory opiate, A Buddha Named Baudelaire, Blodgett’s synaptic buffet Apostrophe, and Dewdney’s virtual naturalism, but the eroticism and the cloaked and uncloaked layers of thought and sense taken off and on, sultry silks of signification drawn along and brushed over skin and cognition, are Rogal’s own.
Structurally, Rogal lays down chords to a painting, then explories the themes set up in those first notes. In the first series, for instance, Rogal opens in near silence, with a snare drum and sultry sax: “Beneath the rose begins a dark correspondence / As congress between the red lion & the white lily.” In the next riff, the rose transforms into “What hoary secret whispers across the pitch / to strike a body blooming?” By the third, the body has evolved and has left this sensory sea, like a lungfish crawling up on land: “On the bank of the apocalyptic pool / The fiery red mandragora swells to monster fruit.” The fourth riff strips down to the non-eroticized body; the fifth to the “the animal / Hybrid shift[ing] at the jungled edge.” In the climactic riff, evolution is complete: vegetal and animal, sensory and conceptual forms stretch towards each other like consciousness itself, leading to one moment of Miss Enola Gay stepping up to the mic like Karen Plahto dropping her voice down through the floor, “Oh, sweet lunacy, come push to shove. Oh, rough crocodile of love.”
“Listen,” writes Rogal. “The heartfelt noise of it. / The sound.”
Carmine Starnino, Credo. McGill Queen’s University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1907-6. 63 pages.
(This review first appeared in The Bookseller.)
After modernism blasted through poetry as the wars did through world culture, scattering it to the winds, this is what we have left as the pieces reform, like the War Memorial Church in Bochum, Germany, built by hand out of rubble. Starnino’s rubble is old words, often ecclesiastical and obscure, remembrances of life in Italy before his parents were transported to this new country, and shards of immigrant life reforming into a whole as Starnino circles around the closed hallways and open doors of his immigrant parents, snapping shots. With a title hammering back to Plato, eulogizing Socrates, that cranky sophist, Credo nails down Starnino’s foundation: poetry, elegy, and a refined urbanity. The poetry builds on the academic precision of the 1950s, when global culture had not yet taken up its day-job of taking the world apart. The elegy of Credo is a very Socratic elegy, one longing for a lost world of things, written by a man who is within a suitcase of words. Within the paper walls of his suitcase, he can remember, or imagine, the touch of an old world, but can recreate it only in poems. Credo‘s urbanity powers through with a wit dryer than Valpolicella, especially in the last series of poems, “Cornage”, in which Starnino resurrects old words of the language, not to put them back into place, not to relish the worlds they described, but to view them in a museum. The poet strolls through the museum wearing his Cavafy cloak and taking on all the parts, from the Socratic “Trust me, deception is part of the game. It’s best/to be corkscrew-eyed in your dealings, sharpsighted/chary and inquisitive,” to the Platonic, “Shy, soft-spoken young men,/so nervous they grip and wring their caps, and who,/at each doorstep, stammer a request for a single live coal/to start a fire. Invited in, they filch small valuables.” Credo is a book of quiet craft, marred only by a muffled woolliness towards the world and an unresolved struggle between the classical metres Starnino has chosen to write in and the often prosaic rhythms he stomps into them, often by doing considerable violence to his caesura. This is not a bad thing. Starnino is a young poet. When he finds his mature voice, the marriage of these two strains will give Canadian poetry a liberating balance. Until then, the chamber music of Credo is still very refined and luminous, not with light, but with thought and care. It feels of the street, not the street of neon and hookers and boom boxes, of which we’ve had a lot in the last few decades, but the more urbane one, of cafés and thought, of wit and civility.
Charles Mountford, The Harvestman. Pendas Productions. 5×9. 72 pages. ISBN 0-920820-60-3.
(This review first appeared on the League of Canadian Poets bookstore.)
We haven’t seen poetry like this in Canada since the 1950s. After modernism and post-modernism blew over the country like American oil company executives craning out of the windows of floatplanes whining across the tundra, and after Canada’s eager enchantment with arctic listening stations (again American) eavesdropping on the Russians who were, ostensibly, eavesdropping on us, Charles Mountford has written poetry for people who are still sitting quietly in old brick apartments with torturous plumbing, or in back yards full of cardinals and yellow sunlight, reading Books in Canada in the afternoon and thinking, deeply, from the luxuries of place. These are confident poems, without any wavering or unsurety of identity, yet with ironies so subtle they seem like snow blowing across an August window. Mountford’s poem “Polar Bears,” for example, opens with “The polar bears bust like bombs/from below the ice,” and closes with a sheet of ice sliding overhead to seal us below: “We cannot explain our joy/to see them as they are.” It echoes Purdy in the best sense — honouring a tradition, making it personal, and recreating it anew. It is no accident that Mountford is a researcher and restorer of old buildings.
Mountford, however, is not a restorer of Tom Thomson’s Canada of flecks of paint imitating maple leaves but, rather, of the lives people lived within Canada during its most confident decades. Glenn Gould would have kept this book out at the cottage. The poems in it are like listening to Frank Sinatra croon out song lyrics by Northrop Frye. This is not a spurious comparison: Mountford’s poems are flush with crooners, and the band, in their starry glitter, playing “a solid four beats to every bar//very soft and very, very slow.” It’s delicious. Like Sinatra, Mountford’s sense of self is strong, and, like Sinatra, he constantly undercuts it with a wry taste of tobacco, the breath carefully drawn and savoured. It is savoured, because it is all on stage, from the lounge lizard set piece of “Donny has liquid eyes and all the girls/would like to drink him in,” to the hilarious monologue of “Playin’ it for Candy.” You could make an afternoon program on the CBC out of these pieces. People could set their old bakelite radios on window ledges in old houses shaded with sugar maples, with the gentle rush of an old millrace coming in the window, and would enter the martini hour refreshed and renewed.
As for Northrop Frye, the Frye here is not the Frye of arcane symbolism, ensconced in the crusty Victorian architecture of the University of Toronto, but the Frye of careful attention wrapped up in layer after layer of tissue paper for the delight not of the gift but of its disrobing. Sometimes you tear it off all at once, in a flurry of ripped paper and crumpled ribbons tossed onto the floor. Sometimes you unhook each sheet of tissue, smooth it out, and fold it to re-use for another celebration later in the year, or maybe next year, or the year after that.
As for the dance, Mountford’s poetry doesn’t always lead us perfectly across the floor. This is no longer the grand ball in Anna Karenina, after all. This is the 21st century. Sometimes we are meant to lead the dance and Mountford is trying to follow. When he leads, though, we whirl along with him, energized and charmed. Oranges bob in the punch bowl. Wax slips under our feet.
These are not big poems. They are not trying to listen to Russia, for instance, but they are, at their best, exquisite, unexpected, populist gems. A hundred small books like this would be good for Canadian poetry. Canadians could make their way home through the storm, arm in arm, shoulder on shoulder, and the rest would be up to them.
After Ted and Sylvia
Crystal Hurdle, After Ted and Sylvia.Ronsdale Press, 2003
(This review first appeared in The Bookseller.)
This is better than following the royal family in the tabloids. Poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were a car crash on the freeway of Twentieth Century poetry. In comparison, the Royals are people, placed in impossible petrie dishes, and watched, squirming, by the gutter press. It’s not a crash, but something slow and clinical. Not so with Hurdle. She’s clinical, alright, but there’s nothing slow here. Hurdle portrays Ted and Sylvia as Everyman and Everywoman. This is definately not a medieval morality play, with jesters in cap and bells and death given all the best lines. Sylvia gets all the best lines here, gets to be the Auschwitz Jew, the corpse on a dissecting table, a writing teacher, snakes and prophetesses out of Harry Potter, a Victorian novelist, a criminal in a lineup, and on and on it goes in a merry-go-round of rape and rage and posing and bewilderment. In this post-modern morality play, Ted gets to stand in for Sylvia’s nasty Daddy, for the pig farmer murderer of Port Coquitlam, a paper doll, the dashing lover, with his “manly, musky grief”. Here are poems laid out as the periodic table, as late night talk show jokes, as self-aware students and teachers, in a style very close to Plath’s: chatty, arch, angry, sensual, in a language that seems to be less shaped than spilled out. It’s not, really. The breathless, at times mundane, surface of the poems is a foil, to allow Hurdle to crystalize her portrait of an entire world gone wrong into lines of clarity. The best poem of the book is, in this sense, Laureate V: Poem for Sylvia, because it manages to speak for and by both Ted and Sylvia and Hurdle all at the same time, as Hurdle tries to shake them off her back so that she can move on to a free, creative life. Ultimately, the subject of the book is not Ted and Sylvia, their screwed-up marriage, her staged, but sadly successful, suicide, their manipulated kids, their manipulated memories, but a cry for a breath of air, a new form of male/female relationships that does not lead to such nasty obsession. This is a love poem, about the reunion of Ted and Sylvia after death. Anticipating that reunion, anticipating (or at least echoing) sex without the burden of rape or dominance or unequal power, Hurdle has Sylvia say:
Do not worry, my dear one
Whatever the crew
I will guide your ship
into my safe full-throated harbour.
Concrete and Wild Carrot
Margaret Avison, Concrete and Wild Carrot. Brick Books. 87 pages. ISBN 1-894078-24-1. $15
(This review first appeared in ARC.)
Out of death springs life. When my grandparents died, back in the 1970s, black-edged cards came in black-edged envelopes from Europe. There was a chilling finality to those deaths, which came at the end of long and often bitter lives. At that time, Margaret Avison was only 10 years their junior. Now she has survived them by thirty years.
Concrete and Wild Carrot is framed by black endpapers. It is a book written by a woman who has lived, and writes, out of a phase of human life from which we hardly hear a report. Locked up in retirement homes, behind the walls of retirement complexes, retired from life, often cut away from their communities, either by moving to so-called Edenesque retirement complexes or by the relentless one-by-one loss of their peers, our elders wait out the end of their days in diminishment, until they vanish under earth’s lid. For all of us, retired or still combatting the confusion of life, confusing it yet further, Avison has brought us a wisdom few people get to experience, and fewer yet retain the clarity and energy to bring back. These are truly heroic poems, for they come from the other side of human experience, from the land of death.
Avison makes it abundantly clear that there is no such land except where we make it. Out of the hard concrete with which we have covered the fruitful earth spring weeds, in cracks, lifting up the hard lid of the grave, asserting a perennial spring. It’s in the title of Avison’s book, it’s on the cover: life is irrepressible. It is also a weed.
Out of the hard sculpted shape of poetry brought back line by line to the left margin, only to creep out again like the roots of a weed to find a crack, to escape to the right edge of the page and away into freedom, Avison has given us a vision of resurrection. Those hard, unpromising, narrow poems on the page, like the root of a wild carrot forcing its way down through waste soil, have a lyrical, sinuous flow, crossing their line breaks effortlessly, stepping across the gulf of death separating our world on earth from an eternal world, not as if that gulf is not there, for Avison is very aware that it is, but with the full knowledge that it is, and that no line break and no death is an ending.
Not one of the poems in Concrete and Wild Carrot ends in death, in closure, although each one of them rises from, dives into, circles around, and is immersed in the world of death (and life). They are all poems of resurrection, just as the wild carrot throws up a few leaves in its first year and in its second comes back again from the dead earth to cast up a tall flower spike with a beautiful white birds-nest of flowers, each stained with a drop of blood, scattering a myriad seeds in the following fall. Because of those seeds it is impossible to eradicate wild carrot. It came with the first European colonists to North America and is now ubiquitous. Through Avison, it has given us this simple gift, this book of joy.
The main import of those first colonists, of course, was Christianity. Avison is rooted in it. Concrete and Wild Carrot opens with the poem “Pacing the Turn of the Year”, with its images of spring, of children, of newness, the question “The new is going to last?” which throws the poem out of the descriptive into the contemplative, and the closing “Alone, and mute stands/dark, one huge oak tree.” which opens the poem into the symbolic, the heraldic, the spiritual. It is a frightening image, but also one of joy and duration. The book moves from this overture into a series of portraits of Avison’s friends, maintaining vision and intelligence, unbowed by age, including George Grant,
Reading in the open world of
this writer’s geography of
ideas is to look, staggered and
overwhelmed by the
ideas, almost lost in the
the living, long-dead, to him
present as friends, each lifted face
featured for horizons. For
holding close an everywhere of sky.
and the less openly elegaically celebrated Gordon G. Nanos
Nanos is gone
after four-score years. I see
a clown’s death has
a spacious dignity.
(Remembering Gordon G. Nanos)
Avison then takes us into Christ’s tomb, making clear that her homage is not made simply, but rises out of a world view which includes death in the moments of life, where
trying not to slump
in shiny patio furniture
observed, smiling to see
splashers and little dancers in the sun.
(Remembering Gordon G. Nanos)
in “The Whole Story”. In Christ’s tomb, we are presented with no ordinary resurrection, but a view in which life and death are united and inseparable, not in the commonplace and virtuous view that death and life are part of the same linear process, but in the more radical one that there is no linearity to the process at all, and that the presence of death, the proof of death, are the liberating doorway into life, and turn us back to life, not in the future, but in the now. In the acceptance of death, there is life. It is more a world of verities than a world of forms.
Concrete and Wild Carrot closes back in the present world, but with Avison’s symbols and heraldic images made clear, purified by that vision of death, with a call to arms, a call to
Forget the elegant speeches,
the unbreakable delicacy
or cello resonance of
(Alternative to Riots But All Citizens Must Play)
and a cry to
transmuted loss. There will begin,
perhaps, a slow
secrete, gradual, germinating
in the darkness.
(Alternative to Riots But All Citizens Must Play)
Avison is our greatest poet, and these are poems worthy of high praise. They are masterpieces, constructed with a craft so impeccable that it is inspiring and made me many times laugh out loud with delight, enclosed in a book elegantly shaped, beautifully designed, and exceptionally well-integrated. Wild carrot is a healing herb, first used by the Greeks and Romans. This is a healing book, healing the concrete of ideas by breaking them open, line by line, ending by ending, poem by poem.
George Payerle, The Last Trip to Oregon. Ronsdale Press, Vancouver. ISBN: 0-921870-96-5.
(This review first appeared in The Bookseller.)
The Last Trip to Oregon is the story of a long, deep friendship between larger-than-life B.C. editor and fiction writer George Payerle, and legendary B.C. poet Charles Lillard. It is also Payerle’s first published book of poems and it is more than worth the forty year wait. Payerle’s and Lillard’s trips to Oregon to visit Lillard’s mother and, eventually, his dying father, and to renew Lillard’s connections with the mythical west coast which he knew so intimately from California to Alaska, the fateful trip on which Lillard’s cancer was first evident, and the last trip, when Lillard was dying, form the backdrop for a series of poems which explore a far different Oregon, an Oregon of the mind. This Oregon, the Oregon which infuses this book, is a place of ascension, paradise, if you will, represented in a hard, clear light. Lillard was no aesthete and these poems pay tribute to the sinewy strength of his voice, as it lives on in the world. Perfect, sustained, and poignant echoes of Lillard’s voice echoing Pound’s in turn, fill this elegaic book not only with a passionate tribute to a master poet, but also with a promise to continue the real work, and a masterful and moving testament of spirit and heart. This accessible but never trivial book is the best book of poems to come out of Canada in years.
Anti-lyric: Translating the Ghost of Paul Celan
Paul Celan, glottal stop, tr. Nikolai Popov & Heather McHugh. Wesleyan University Press. 6×9. 2000. 147 pages. ISBN 0-8195-6448-6
Paul Celan, Breathturn, tr. Pierre Joris. Sun & Moon Press. 6 x 8. 1995, 270 pages. ISBN: 1-55713-218-6
(excerpted, from Vallum magazine)
Line by line this translation reaffirms free verse traditions and embodies intelligent decisions about the ambiguities and multiple dimensionalities of Celan’s text, but it’s not Celan, on either side of the language divide. In comparison with it, a whole tradition comes to its end in Celan’s poetry. The angelic flight of the lyric poem, bringing the Word of God into the world of human speech, spouting out of the fountains of the Baroque and washing through 19th Century art songs, finds its last gasp in the mass grave of Celan’s verse. Along with it are buried the other broken children of German tradition, as it deconstructed itself generation by generation to a black hole and then swallowed itself inside: the exile, Heine, the divine madman, Hölderlin, the demonic junkie, Trakl, the cryptic symbolist, Rilke. The cultural road to Auschwitz was long. Closest of all these crippled dreamers to Celan and the sound of the next transport from Czernowitz was Rilke, who wrote the Duino Elegies secreted in a sunless castle above Trieste: the whispered introspections of a man past all belief in culture and humankind, reading faces in the fog, in a candle, in a tea leaf: “Who, if I raised my voice, would answer me from the spheres of the angels?” No-one. After that last whisper of the romantic age, Celan’s family went up in smoke in Auschwitz. Celan wrote to the smoke. His words are what came after poetry.
The translation of the ghost of a lyric and cries that are ash drifting through the birch trees require at least the same attention as Celan gave to them: as a person not present, writing to dead ancestors in a language folding into itself in ever more violent constrictions. In Celan’s self-portrait, for instance, written at the end of a lyrical tradition celebrating the individual, “the waltz of two words / made of pure fall, silk, and nothing,” as Popov and McHugh put it, there is simply no individual left, only a “nothing” so insignificant that it is not even acknowledged within its own poem. If Celan had written this as a lyric, his missing mother would be waving good-bye to her small son as she boarded the transport. She is not. What Celan presents in her place is a ‘what’, a relative pronoun, which Popov and McHugh follow with “[what] spirited you away from language / with a gesture —” fine late American free verse lines, especially in the choice of “spirited” to capture the sense of an S.S. seizure in the middle of the night.
But it’s just not Paul Celan. Whereas Popov and McHugh are writing a lyric, Celan actually wrote an anti-lyric, an utterance rising directly out of German grammar itself, fighting against it like Prometheus in his chains, and, ultimately, ending in failure, spitting out its final words, “pure fall, silk and nothing,” in contempt for language and in self-disgust far greater than hinted at by Popov and McHugh’s wistful strains. In this tragedy, Celan and his dead are depersonalized as “what” and “what.” Remarkably, Celan survives this kidnapping by the language: in the intensity and unity of his utterances, his innovative syntax, his linebreaks, the missing Celan is everpresent, unwilling either to subjugate himself to the language or to entirely leave his creation and the last traces of a self. The poem harks back to King Lear’s Gloucester, whose reward for loyalty — as is Celan’s — is to have his eyes scratched out with thorns: “Go blind today already: / Eternity too is full of eyes,” as Popov and McHugh put it, or, as the ghost of the lyric behind the lines might have been, “Why don’t you just stick your eyes out with thorns now: / even Eternity is crammed full with eyes,” with its image of boxcars and eyes staring accusingly out of darkness.
Celan’s creation is not that lyrical poem, however, but the edges of it; Celan’s self does not inhabit its words but their outlines, building up to a final personal gesture in an ultimate dismissal of both language and self. Celan gets there by framing each line with directional marks and gestures: a colon, a dash, isolated relative pronouns, a series of phrases without a verb, mimicry of a command, phrases with cascading references expanding outwards in geometrical series, building in intensity with the dual purpose of drawing in all possible interconnections and isolating the ending’s “nothing.” German can get away with that. Relative clauses are rife in German, and they often begin with pronouns: only context differentiates the “which” and “what” of the language from its identical “who” and “him” and “her.” Lacking such reliance on relative constructions, English grammar can’t move as subtly between the personal and the impersonal. The result, as Popov and McHugh demonstrate, is often a translation that loses Celan, while retaining the language he threw away in an attempt to get out from under its weight. For example, whereas Popov and McHugh write “there the fire goes out of / what spirited you away from language / with a gesture you let happen / like the waltz of two words,” compressing Celan into a (typically English) long nominative phrase, Celan threw his weight instead on the myriad opening and closing doors offered by his German: isolating “darin” (in which), on a line by itself, and relativising “was auch dich aus der Sprache / fortnahm” (“what spirited you away from the language”) to the verb “erlischt” (extinguishes, dies out). English is not German, of course, and these effects are very subtle, but when the author has buried himself within them, their loss is a betrayal of the spirit of the poem: without them, the poem can never resolve itself.
Such subjugation and sublimation are not the only use Celan makes of German grammar: he also employs its capabilities of compression to build adjectival phrases, which read, in English, as phrases embedded within phrases, for example: “jeder mit einem / Teil des noch / zu versenkenden Zeichens / im geierkralligen Schlepptau.” (literally: each with a part of the still-to-sink sign in vulture-clawed tow). Popov and McHugh translate these embedded adjectival phrases with their prepositional and nominative building blocks as a participial phrase subjugated to a noun, and add a verb as well, in: “each / with a vulture-claw / towing a part / of the still- / unsunken sign.” English, with its greater reliance on linearity and action, provides few other options, but when played straight like this it does completely subvert Celan’s intentions.
The most dramatic and revolutionary use Celan makes of language is to create new compound words — “heavenleaf”, “thought-beetle”, “blood-bloom”, “breathturn.” In any use of German less intense than Celan’s this common trick of word-compounding is reserved for compounds that compress two nouns in predictable series, or a closely related adjective and noun. Some of these formations, such as “Handschuh” (“glove”, literally “handshoe”), are permanent in the language, while others come and go, formed when needed and just as soon discarded — powerful examples of grammatical compression in a language that does not aim for linear action but for singularity and gnomic unity. In keeping with the spirit but not the practice of this grammatical device, Celan achieves intense, startling creations, further compressing the work of his embedded adjectival phrases. The result of his “daygorge” and “wordmoon” and “breathcrystal” is a series of miniature imagist poems, set within the language he so distrusts: a revolutionary path out of the trap of a language that led to Auschwitz and did not lead out of it again. The effect is entirely transparent within German, and leads to utterances of great evocative power.
In translation, however, the effect is unveven. Here are two examples from Pierre Joris, who has the most success at these compounds in English: “Strahlenwind” (beamwind), and “Zeitenschrunde” (timecrevasse). In German, “Strahlenwind” actually beams, like the sun breaking through clouds or like wind pouring through a wind tunnel at Peenemünde. It carries, as well, a lyrical charge, by echoing the participle “strahlend” (beaming). The effect is mixed in English, as it is unclear whether a beam of light or of wood is indicated. Similarly, “schrunde” splits “time” quite viscerally in German, like an earthquake in spacetime, whereas in English “crevasse” and “time” are equals: either can modify the other. In effect, in English, the success of such constructions relies on the unexpectedness of the neologisms to throw the reader out of expected language into a world of metaphysical contemplation: the end is the Word of God separated from, as opposed to revealed within, the world of man. Once again, no space is allotted for Celan, the self-confessed “outline” of a man; once again readers are given the impression that Celan is a far more difficult poet than he is. Whereas Celan escaped from the prison of tradition, these translations return him to it, and achieve what all the ovens of Auschwitz failed to do: to remove him from his creations.