Feature Review by Triny Finlay
Laura Farina. This Woman Alphabetical. Toronto: Pedlar Press, 2005.
Andrew Steinmetz. Hurt Thyself. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2005.
Tony Cosier. The Spirit Dances. Manotick: Penumbra Press, 2005.
In her recent book 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics, American critic Marjorie Perloff wonders “what if, despite the predominance of a tepid and unambitious establishment poetry, there were a powerful avant-garde that takes up, once again, the experimentation of the early twentieth century?” Perloff’s definition of the avant-garde in Anglo North-American poetry foregrounds technical and formal invention; a preoccupation with the materiality of language; and the genre-breaking, non-representational innovations of early Modernists like T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein. In Canada, this type of avant-garde poetry is generally given short shrift, limited to occasional media frenzies surrounding such anomalous, popular phenomena as the procedural poetics of Christian Bok. And this is a contentious matter in contemporary Canadian poetics, this quest for the “new” in a forest of old growth. Open almost any anthology (or anti-anthology) of new Canadian poetry published in the last five years–tellingly, there are several–and you will indeed find a considerable amount of “establishment poetry.” But there are unexpected, unexposed avant-garde roots among many contemporary Canadian poets, which just might signal a paradoxical return to the “new.”
Of the three books under discussion, Laura Farina’s debut collection, This Woman Alphabetical, is at the forefront of this neo-Modernist sensibility. The biggest strengths of Farina’s book are the predominant imagist and surrealist impulses in her poems. This Woman Alphabetical was this year’s winner of the Archibald Lampman Award and it is a surprising, if not controversial, choice–probably good for poetry in Canada, and definitely good for Farina. I call it a controversial choice because Farina’s book is a very slim collection, difficult to weigh against the other nominated volumes: 21 short poems, in a single, fluid, of-the-moment section; its 48 pages (including titles, flyleaves, etc.) just barely meet the criteria for a book-length collection. It might have been published, more appropriately, as a chapbook. Nonetheless, This Woman Alphabetical is a brisk, engaging read; it holds immense promise. Farina’s poems are refreshingly under-done, with an innate sense of the energy and spontaneity of lyric. The opening poem, “Bugs,” from which the book’s title is taken, unfolds like a Steinian surrealist experiment:
You still understand, don’t you?
You say this must
and can I make this woman alphabetical?
On this day raccoons
and honkytonk piano.
At her best, Farina plucks the tenous line between contemplation and irreverence. There is something of Frida Kahlo here: the obsessive image-making; the meditations on personal pain; the surrealist impetus. Or of Georgia O’Keefe, in the poems’ deceptively simple clarity. This shows up most notably in “Ten Ways Of Looking At Me,” a series of playfully striking self-portraits that exemplify the Kahlo-O’Keefe poetic:
I rarely think about death
but often about headaches.
They could be similar.
in jam jars.
Some of the ostensibly simplest poems in the collection are indeed the most compelling. “In Praise of Simplicity” echoes the early Modernist approach of the innovative American poet Amy Lowell, with its end-stopped, image-based lines and its paradoxically formal complexity: “Today I praise only what is simple. / A spill falling like white silk. / The weight of silence broken by the phone.” This is a formally inventive poem that contains and combines elements of the Japanese tanka and the cinquain swirl. It follows a strict, yet unintrusive, rhyme scheme (abcde abcde); sets up a complex pattern of syllabics on each line, in each stanza (10,7,10,7,10); and incorporates repetition–the first line of each stanza is identical. Here, Farina strips the poem, and poetic language, down to the basics, down to an “empty room and an open window.”
Also key to Farina’s poetic is a playfulness that evokes the spirit of Modernist experimentation while imbuing her collection with wry humour. In her Rilke-inspired poem “And When You Meet Me At My Border,” a series of short prose-stanzas, Farina charts the pulse of obsessive love, of transgression: “And when you meet me at my border I will say my mother had many lovers but she was always faithful.” She also plays with obsession in the juice poems, reminiscent of Susan Musgrave’s strawberry poems. A woman “drinks up all the juice / then drinks up all the wall” in “Juice And German Reunification”; a different woman sips juice from a teacup “and feels it / grow in her stomach / like a tree” in “A Doctoral Thesis On Juice In 18th-Century Literature.” Unfortunately, these playful elements recede as the collection progresses, and in this sense I think the book as a whole would have benefited from closer editing. The narrative poems, in particular (“Aunt Betty,” “Two Tourists,” “Morning At Blair’s”), fail in their awkward sense of line break and stanza division, as well as in their slightly prosaic details. However, even some of these inferior poems contain gems–as in the book’s final poem, “Neighbourhood,” where “[p]urple lateness paints your sky.”
On the other side of the neo-Modernist aesthetic is Andrew Steinmetz, whose collection Hurt Thyself is a ponderous, muscular Eliot to Farina’s spare and surreal Gertrude Stein. To draw them back into the visual arts, Steinmetz could be Henry Moore, or Brancusi, to Farina’s Kahlo or O’Keefe. At times heavy-handed, Steinmetz’s poems nevertheless carry the weight of the “examined life.” On the book’s jacket copy, Carmine Starnino describes the poems as “arch, plain-voiced, funny, disquieting, aggressively unsentimental meditations.” For me, most of these adjectives can be applied to the weakest poems in the collection; Steinmetz’s “arch” and “funny” voice conveys an off-putting cynicism that threatens to undercut the soul-searching force of the poetry. Conversely, the book’s power lies in the deeply personal family histories found in the last section: loose yet pithy; memory-laden. Steinmetz paints expressive portraits of his Swedish maternal grandparents in poems that put into perspective their collective, cultural stories: eating frestelse, the “opera house / of seafood / casseroles,” on Christmas Eve, which brings to mind the dark yet humour-filled intimacy of Van Gogh’s painting “The Potato Eaters”; or playing a childhood game of “Swedish Army Bridge”:
All you need to remember
is this, about their game: your grandfather
was the dealer.
You weren’t lucky at all.
In “Diaspora in Colours,” Steinmetz paints a vivid portrait of his paternal grandparents’ experiences of displacement and despair in the early twentieth century:
….between the wars,
when the earth exploded, churned unworldly
shades of iron and steel, and men looked
ill, at ease, doing things they did, wearing
the hats they wore, my grandfather reached
out to a woman, and gave her our family
name, instead of a ring…
And, despite distracting typographical inconsistencies throughout this section–in which the Swedish grandfather is variously designated Morfar, morfar, and morfar– the focus, the intensity, and the bang-on use of enjambment to urge the poems forward lift personal histories into the present, rife with the pressure and thrill of anticipation. Steinmetz also thrives when exploring his own clinical experiences in spare and direct poems such as “Oligodendroglioma” (a reflection on brain tumours) and “Small Talk,” the final poem of the collection, with the starkly hopeful refrain that a life “doesn’t have to make sense.”
In other sections of the book, Steinmetz’s formal and pedantic voice disrupts the thematic potential of the poems. “The Parthenon Galleries,” for instance, is a ten-page catalogue of Greek gods, with little nuance or spin; and in literary commentaries such as “Monograph,” Steinmetz’s satire becomes a dull and extended meditation on the insipid conventions of book publishing: “The Library of Congress CIP / is a little much, is it not? / The book’s own obituary notice…” These attempts at dry wit, with a cynical and over-wrought vision of the world, fall especially flat in the book’s first section, a treatise on marriage. The voice in these poems is somehow controlled by formal limitations, such as linked couplets, which are, perhaps, symbolic of societal constraints. But ultimately the reader is left with an image of anti-coupling, as in “Marital Sex,” with its inimitable refrain: “[w]hat’s all this I hear, about your last mistress / and her ex… what can be wrong with marital sex?” In his desire to represent an “examined life,” Steinmetz, like Moore or Brancusi, searches for something tangible in the abstract–without always finding a workable form.
Somewhere between the “new” surrealism of This Woman Alphabetical and the driving skepticism of Hurt Thyself is the composed lyricism of Tony Cosier’s collection The Spirit Dances. On the book’s final page, Cosier provides a brief and highly personal bio-historical note about the cover artist, Ray Cohen. This careful attention to artistic detail highlights the interdisciplinary relationships involved in a book’s creation and, by extension, within Cosier’s own work. As with Steinmetz’s collection, the last section of The Spirit Dances is also its strongest and most interesting work: the serial poem “Missa Solemnis,” an enthralling evocation of the Mass in D, Beethoven’s “last great triumph.” Cosier prefaces this section with a note on his research, explaining that he came up with the poem’s form of five sections “to reflect the formal divisions of the Mass, taking care to match my rhythms and text in accordance with the original score.” Although the series runs only 26 pages, it recalls, in depth, magnitude, and conceptual drive, such early Canadian Modernist projects as Louis Dudek’s ambitious long poem Europe (1954).
“Missa Solemnis” is an intensely emotional (yet undeniably procedural) poem that probes both the public and private facets of Beethoven’s–and the poet’s–relationship with this difficult and controversial Mass. Cosier’s project, to experience the mass anew, is set out in the opening poem “Kyrie,” in which the poet invokes Beethoven’s spirit to tell “the angels in whatever region you are: / We feel for you here and it matters. / The dead are not past caring for.” And it is this sustained, dramatic yoking of old and new that propels “Missa Solemnis,” that marks its subversiveness. It is a poem of and about formal innovation, of and about Beethoven’s challenge to conventional masses, written in shifting verse styles.
In the final poem, “Agnus Dei,” Cosier imagines that Beethoven will:
Kettle us with trumpets in the distance
Into a quavering of panic,
Quell the panic with emerging
Hope for equilibrium.
This is the effect of living in the violence of Beethoven’s time: a hope “for equilibrium.” Knowing the “moral void,” the “shame of being human / And part of it.” Cosier, too, lives in a violent time. He, too, clearly hopes for equilibrium. And, although certain poems in the collection strike me as idealistic, even naïve, evocations of the human spirit–such as the eerily intense ‘mentor’ poems “New Year Meditation,” “Professor Williams,” “Walking With Richard Wilbur,” and “Walt Franklin”–there is also a profound optimism that moves me.
In many ways, Cosier’s writing closely corresponds with Archibald Lampman’s own poetics. There is a transcendental lyricism in Cosier’s work, a sense of spiritual inquiry and formal control. But there is also a Modernist impulse to push limits and question boundaries of representation. In this way, Cosier’s work could be compared with that of the Dutch Modernist painter Piet Mondrian: both have clear obsessions with the processes of composition; both privilege the forms of their expression; and both seem to search for a spiritual knowledge of nature. Theirs is a concern with making things “new,” if only for the sake of a different perspective.
Feature Review Winner, “Critic’s Desk Award” in 2007
review appeared in Arc 57, Winter 2006
award announced in Arc 58, Summer 2007