Elizabeth Bachinsky. god of missed connections. Gibsons, BC: Nightwood Editions, 2009.
It’s very Canadian to delve into “missed connections.” Typically, it’s a way to reconnect to the first term of a hyphenated identity, an immigrant family history, through research and imagination. For Elizabeth Bachinsky’s third book, this means writing about Ukraine; in her afterword, she confesses to having been one of those who “claim Ukrainian heritage” but who “are unaware of some basic history about both the Old country and the New.” Her first poem, “Goddess of Safe Travel,” offers a rationale for reconnecting in a series of “because” statements: “Why bother with history? / Because we can. Because we’re curious. Because we want to know. / Because to plough it, you’ve got to own it”; “Because you have not lived thirty years and have / many questions. Because these questions may never be answered / in the way you or I might need.” Hard to manage much history, especially both capital-H History and family history, in a very short book (roughly 63 pages of poems), so Bachinsky leaves family history to a few small threads like the red boots that act as evidence in “Letter to my Sister,” connecting a cousin’s Ukrainian folk dancing (i.e., cultural heritage) to “the story of how [the speaker’s] parents met.” The book’s middle section, a collage of fragments set in the present and the past, and spotted with quotations recording the prejudices against Ukrainians of some iconic Canadians, includes details of a Michael Baczynski’s internment in a labour camp during World War I. These familial dimensions are a light touch in a book conceived around cultural heritage and, apparently, the lightness of the touch is itself a reflection of something inherited: “In my family, we don’t speak of family. / And we don’t speak of the past.” There are side-effects to such selectiveness when addressing cultural history, though. Bachinsky concentrates much of her “basic history” on the prejudice faced by Ukrainian immigrants to Canada and two great tragedies to befall Ukraine in the 20th century: Holodomor, the 1932-33 famine—or murder-by-hunger—caused by Soviet distribution policies and infrastructure, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. While it is hard to ignore the scale and impact of these events, focusing on them shifts the book’s gravity strongly; it connects to a Ukraine that is the victim of its history. Substantial evidence of other aspects of Ukrainian heritage are mostly a subtle and well-managed exercise in of tone, attitude, world-view. Many of the poems, especially the pieces that mimic un-named voices, echo Eastern European and Russian fairy stories—or my limited experience of them—where the characters expect nothing fantastic or benevolent from anything, even the supernatural. Bachinsky’s good at shifting voices and contrasting perspectives through reported speech, and the narrative impulse keyed by the book’s historical elements plays to this strength – enough so that the book might have been better had Bachinsky delved more consistently beyond the front pages of Ukrainian history and spent more time developing the voices of those from whom she feels disconnected. Not that that would change the book’s core, because conflicting perspectives aren’t resolved in the poems; they remain complementary and contiguous, but marked by breaks and unresolvable mysteries, like the present and past of those core, missed family connections. Even in its most optimistic moments, god of missed connections never promises that will change.
Stephanie Bolster, Katia Grubisic, and Simon Reader, eds. Penned: Zoo Poems. Montreal: Signal Editions, 2009.
A themed anthology risks a clinical, stripping down of poetry into a single definition: poem-specimens collected to prove a hypothesis. Penned, the editors write, “began with an idea . . . a collection about not only zoos but gardens, with prose and poetry . . . the earliest known instances of collecting and exhibiting animals and plants, from countries that no longer existed, written in languages that we couldn’t read.” Due to obvious constraints, the editors narrowed the field: caged animals in English. However, Penned, they argue, is not compiled to support a single idea, stating their central concern is not zoos, but “good poetry.” The result is a spectrum of poetic uses of the word “zoo,” from the metaphorical to the literal. In the surrealist (and delightful) “Zoology,” by Sasha West, only the first three letters of its title connect to the theme. Charles O. Hartman’s morbidly titled “Petting Zoo” is actually about road kill. For Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the zoo is the default location to find animals, and “lay down with them / in that unpeaceable kingdom” after hearing a woman through the wall “in ecstasy or pain.” In the brutal and brilliant “Sarajevo Bear,” by Walter Pavlich, the caged bear is both hope (people risking their lives to feed it) and evil (snipers using the starving bear as bait). Indeed, Penned shows how the repeated image of the zoo has crept into the poet’s vernacular almost unconsciously. When working well, the metaphor releases new meaning; when it is not, the zoo is used offhandedly, suggesting it is us who are imprisoned by the metaphor. This diffuse approach presents another challenge for the anthologist: a shifting context. While an expansive definition of “zoo poetry” results in a pleasing array, it does at times feel like zoos are beside the point. Perhaps a more vigorous unpacking of “zoo poetry,” or more attention to the zoo itself, might have provided a better hitching post. For example, some detail in the introduction about the zoo’s colonial past would be pertinent. After all, zoos, along with museums, showcased 19th-century imperial power: species as exotic spectacle. Colonialism invented the zoo. Human beings were displayed in zoos into the 20th Century as part of a colonial agenda. The editors admit excluding “some excellent poems” for fear it “tipped the scales too deeply into bleakness.” Without defined context, attention wavers. The exclusion of author bios does not help. They are keen to point out “we are not writing a scholarly book.” But should deciding “literary quality would be the most significant criterion for inclusion,” preclude deeper discussion of the theme they chose? Regardless, they do an admirable job avoiding “blandly thematic inclusions.” Even though 150 pages is a suspicious amount of good zoo poetry, goodies are plentiful: Ted Hughes, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jann Conn, A.F. Moritz. The list goes on. It is unfortunate, given their emphasis on “good poems,” that the editors chose not to shed more light on what, for them, constitutes “good,” thereby acknowledging their own moral stance. By de-emphasizing the zoo itself, they inadvertently detract from what makes Penned a worthy read.
George Bowering. My Darling Nellie Grey. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2010.
All through 2006, Vancouver writer George Bowering made it his goal to write a sequence a month, a poem a day, with each monthly project using a different construction (or, as he’s called it before, “baffle”). Each monthly sequence was then meant to appear self-contained by different chapbook publishers, and all 12 did make their way in print, including Crows in the Wind (BookThug, 2006), A Knot of Light (No Press, 2006), U.S. Sonnets (Pooka Press, 2007), Eggs In There (Rubicon Press, 2007), Tocking Heads (above/ground press, 2007)—my own imprint—and Fulgencio (Nomados, 2008). All are finally collected here as My Darling Nellie Grey. Who else but Bowering, Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, could convince a publisher to take on a collection of 400-plus pages? In this collection, as in Bowering’s other recent poetry, including the sequences that make up his previous trade collection, Vermeer’s Light: Poems 1996-2006 (Talonbooks, 2006), he seems to be returning his poetry to its original influences? Here, one suite is made up of a dozen sequences working poems from Williams; another sequence (Shall I Compare) from the Shakespearian sonnet, and so on. There are sections that echo whole reams of Bowering’s previous work. April’s “U.S. Sonnets” call up his 1974 collection At War With The U.S., while May’s “Montenegro 1966,” a piece written out of diary entries, is reminiscent of his Mexican periods, such as The Man in Yellow Boots / El hombre de las amarillas (published in 1965). December’s “There Then” shows traces of Urban Snow (1992). And how can the June section, “Some Answers,” be seen as anything but a continuation of Delayed Mercy and Other Poems (Coach House Press, 1986), moving from responding to lines from other poets to outright answering them? A poem a day worked through as monthly baffles is a worthy experiment. When John Newlove published THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems in 1999, there was something in each of the 14 poems that spoke to his earlier work, from the historical poem, to the poem on death, to the hitchhiking poem; it was as though he had distilled the entire oeuvre of his writing life into a series of boiled-down lyrics, closing up shop. Bowering’s considerations through these chapbooks come across more as familiar touchstones. One of my favourite sections is August’s “According to Brueghel,” in which Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the 16th-century Flemish painter famous for depicting peasant life, is not actually mentioned. Instead, Bowering’s reference point is Williams’ Pulitzer-Prize winning Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, published in 1962, a book that opens with a cycle of 10 poems, each based on a painting by Brueghel. The strength of Bowering’s response can be found in his familiar quick turn and deft line break, and the energy that comes from a sequence of poems moving through and around visual art, much in the way Vancouver poet Fred Wah has been working his “artknot” poems over the years as an extension to his own ongoing “Music at the Heart of Thinking” sequence. But why does it feel as though Bowering, through these new poems, is simply re-working the same old territory? The question becomes, where is all of this headed? Just what has Bowering learned in the intervening years? What has he accomplished? The answer: writing not just for writing’s sake, but with a deeper appreciation for the cadences themselves; a kind of Zen attitude to writing poems, writing poetry. As Bowering writes in his introduction, “Texts, I now understand, are not there to replicate life, but to generate something else, including further texts.”
Suzanne Buffam. The Irrationalist. Toronto: House of Anansi, 2010.
Suzanne Buffam’s The Irrationalist explores more widely than Past Imperfect, her first collection, also published with Anansi in 2005. The poems in Past Imperfect behaved like poems, lovely in sound and movement. Some embodied a dreamy surrealism, as in “Intro to Lit,” in which she is expecting to be interviewed by a no-show authority: “You, with your clipboard and your bandaged wing. / I see I will have to explain myself to myself.” Some spun in unexpected directions, such as “Company”: “You answer each question / by repeating it, until its edges loosen.” The Irrationalist contains less longing. It is as if the poems are taken more firmly in hand. There’s diversity in style and tone. One section is made up of aphorisms (such as in George Murray’s Glimpse). One of Buffam’s reads: “No point in swinging the bat / Unless the blindfold’s secure.” There is a deft hand at work. “The New Experience” has already been used as an exemplar poem of extended metaphor in the Tree Reading Series workshop under facilitator Claudia Coutu Radmore. This poem is like a poetic version of Eat, Pray, Love, except that here, the narrator has taken the agency to opt out. The cultural pursuer arrives at the hard lesson (through a route of surprising images) that “Nothing worth doing is worth doing // for the sake of experience alone . . . The sun came out. It was the old sun / With only a few billion years left to shine.” Spoiler: that image ties in beautifully to the chains of smouldering smoke throughout the poem. Buffam isn’t afraid of a comic touch or of profundity. The book stretches beyond the safe grounds of poetry, away from Meaning-Avoidance, or subjects that must be Terribly Emotionally Wrought in A Very Fine Way. Buffam now weaves far more than personal history into her poetic dialogue. What did Picasso say of the Lascaux paintings? What did Henry Beecher discover in medicine? What did Epictetus, Thérèse of Lisieux, or Copernicus say that’s worth carrying forward? And although she introduces us to Ma Yuan of the Song Dynasty, Buffam also has one eye on the contemporary, such as in “Enough”: “I have left all the sugar out of the pie. / My rage is a kind of domestic rage // . . . The more words a person knows / To describe her private sufferings / The more distantly she can perceive them.” Or the list poem “Abstract Fires (Mixed Media, 1972-present)”, which has the flavour and form of a visual art installation: “#1. Candy canes, tinfoil, flamenco guitar,” “#10. Sequins, hairdryer, liquid smoke,” and “#12. Cigarette, rope.” Reading one poem in this collection, I can’t predict where the next poem will go, or how. It’s a refreshing journey.
Stephen Heighton. Patient Frame. Toronto: House of Anansi, 2010.
Don’t hold it against Stephen Heighton that he’s one of those full-justified, narrative-loving, character-driven, complete-sentence-writing prose monkeys we’ll call “novelists” for want of a more pejorative term. Patient Frame hijacks the sort of discussions you might expect about how a novelist works in free verse, or how Heighton manages several traditional forms—sonnets, tanka, Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse—and poses more interesting considerations of the ways in which novelistic virtues adapt themselves to poetry. . . . I don’t mean narrative or characterisation as much as the ability to inconspicuously create mood or tone. It’s a very useful talent when writing a book containing many elegies or elegiac notes; it separates the poem’s emotional space from the loss the poem describes so that the play between those two emotions—loss and the sharing of loss—creates numerous subtleties. In “Herself, Revised,” for example, the sudden distance between a father and a daughter grown beyond bedtime-story-reading rituals veers into a sociological curiosity about measuring the first signs of that separation: “How does the end enter? There’s a hinging / like a book’s sewn spine in the raw matter / of time—that coded text, illegible— / and stretched too far, it goes.” Book spines wearing over time is a measure of repetition, and that repetition is a marker of the value placed on that particular text, and, in this context, the transposition of reading to the colloquial “spending time” sits neatly in Heighton’s metaphor. The phrasing of the whole poem verges on creating archetypes of father and daughter, universalising the pattern (no stretch, I’m sure), but it only verges. Throughout, they take the definite article: he is “the father” and she is “the daughter”, and, while their experience of fading connection may resonate with a pattern, it’s still their private and singular experience. The other observable virtue here is how grounded in an external world Patient Frame is; Heighton’s poems take subjects from history (the My Lai massacre, the murder of Emmett Till, the Norman Conquest), they take subjects from biography in elegies for people identified by personal connection—brother, aunt, mother—and poems for literary contemporaries (Paul Quarrington and George Bowering, with the latter poem, “Baseball Game, Havana,” one of the best in the book), and they take as exemplars the work of other poets in other languages (from Borges to Wang Wei, from Horace to Mallarmé). Heighton delves into the world at various removes; when the old lyric “thoughts and feelings” come to the fore, it’s to harmonize with that world. So the list poem “Some Other Just Ones” can tag along with Borges and claim that those “Who redeem from neglect a gorgeous, long-orphaned word. / Who speak to dogs with sincere and comical diplomacy,” “These people, without knowing it, are saving the world.” And, at the other end of the emotional scale, the perfectly-pitched “approximation” of Horace called “‘A Strange Fashion of Foresaking’” can lay into an aging playboy’s “riddled guts twisting you like a stud in must / who has to stand watching // his old mares mounted.” I can’t say for sure that this is a novelist’s talent more than a poet’s, but I can say Heighton has it cold.
Jim Johnstone. Patternicity. Gibsons, BC: Nightwood Editions, 2010.
Reproductive physiologist Jim Johnstone’s second collection takes its title from a term coined by psychologist Michael Shermer, which encapsulates the human predilection for “finding meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.” While such an inclination often leads to egregious errors in which non-existent patterns get imposed on chaos—think convoluted conspiracy theories—the human species, without its capacity for pattern perception, would not be the evolutionary success story it is. The discovery and production of patterns is an important dimension of poetry—take, for example, Hopkins’ “dappled things”—and there is much in Johnstone’s “fury of collage and assonance” attesting to his attunement to the true and beautiful patterns of nature and language. Johnstone’s writing can be crystalline in its sharp edges and intricate cadences: “when patterns emerge / from a snow of machinery, before / you understand texture, your tongue and its surge / of voice.” There is, indeed, a lot to admire in Patternicity: musicality, intelligence, toughness, tensile juxtapositions of rational enquiry and lyrical tenderness. It is because of Johnstone’s manifest potential, however, that the shortcomings of this book are so disappointing. The flip-side to patternicity is what Shermer calls “apatternicity”: the failure to recognize a pattern that does in fact exist. “At some point,” Johnstone writes, “style became familiar.” The banality engendered by unintentional, habitual repetition is inimical to poetry, and there is far too much in this collection that Johnstone and his editors should have caught and cut or corrected. One case is the overuse of certain tropes; for instance, so many iterations of “fist” (10 by my count, in 40 poems) and “blood” (14) crop up that one feels fairly beaten to a pulp by book’s end. A second problem is excessive reliance on the vaguely unreferenced pronouns “you” and “we,” which has the overall effect of hazing the poems and keeping the reader at a remove. A suspicion of the first-person singular is healthy, but Johnstone’s aversion seems near-pathological; many poems might have been improved if recast in a different voice. (Interestingly, a couple of the strongest “I” poems are the dramatic monologues “Tithonus” (although the poem could have shed 12 dead lines, including the final 7) and “Bomb Disarmament, an Essay.”) The third major issue is default phrasing. In particular, what jumps out is the formula adjective-comma-noun/pronoun-adjective-noun-verb, as in “Naked, our thin chests starve for breath.” Few of these are awful in isolation—though the formula does tend to beget adjectival padding and the odd solecism—but Johnstone repeats the technique so often that it is more verbal tic than thoughtful utterance. One pattern in contemporary poetry is award-winning poets rushing books into print before they’re ready. Patternicity arrives on the scene just two years after Johnstone’s debut collection and hard on the heels of a shortlisting and a second prize in the CBC Literary Awards. Which would be fine, if the book didn’t show every sign of being a raw, still-fizzing wine impatiently uncorked before its maturation date.
Robert Kroetsch. Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010.
Alberta writer Robert Kroetsch has always played the fine line between autobiography and ironic deception, begging the question, who is he attempting to deceive? Is Kroetsch the poet so clever he manages to fool himself? Possibly. The collection of single-page poems that make up his Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait, seemingly all previously unpublished (something of a Canlit oddity, in this culture of the little magazine) are thoughtful, wise and wry, and include flashes from throughout the long line of his 80-odd years. Kroetsch has certainly played with the self-portrait before, for example in A Likely Story: The Writing Life (1995), a collection of essays and poems that covered some of the same ground as this new collection. With poems including “CJCA, Alberta, 1935,” “To Eli Mandel,” “Driving to the Airport at Five AM” and “Victorian Lit, University of Alberta, 1946,” Too Bad shines some light on a number of old stories, gives a few subtle jokes, and the single line at the end of one poem that keeps you thinking, in that usual Kroetsch style: “Every enduring poem was written today.” Still, the subtle lines of this collection somehow provide echoes of Toronto poet David W. McFadden’s straightforward, surreal wit, more than Kroetsch’s usual more open candour, more obvious subversion. Bad jokes aside, the overt play usually seen in Kroetsch’s poems seems more subdued in this collection. Still the strength of Kroetsch for the reader remains in not knowing where his poems will go next, his ability to continually surprise, some decades after many of his contemporaries have started producing poor imitations of themselves. How is it that, into his eighties, he still manages to surprise? Kroetsch the poet, the storyteller, the tavern tall-tale teller. There are, happily in this collection, few conclusions, but plenty of openings, plenty of compelling stories.
Zachariah Wells **Arc Rave**
Jeff Latosik. Tiny, Frantic, Stronger. London: Insomniac Press, 2010.
“Something caught.” The first sentence of Jeff Latosik’s debut collection is a presage of what’s coming, as many things in this book should catch—and keep—readers’ attention. Latosik’s poems—urban, witty, slightly skewed and disarmingly poignant for all their obliquities—are dialed into the malaise of the moment (anxiety, boredom, doubt and anomie), but don’t succumb to it; they may be “tiny” and “frantic,” but they are also, recalling Nietzsche’s dictum about that which doesn’t kill us, “stronger.” Those titular adjectives come from “Cockroach Elegy,” part of a three-poem suite celebrating the persistence of benighted household pest insects (the unholy trinity is rounded out by centipedes and silverfish). Latosik’s implied message is that these creepy-crawlies ain’t so different from us. Like Latosik himself, the cockroach makes “a palace of the cracks in things” and the centipedes “go on precisely / because they don’t matter.” A fit analogy not just for poets, but for humanity itself in our little micro-crumb of a habitat. In the book’s opening poem, the tiktaalik, said to be the first fish to come ashore, is a “Devonian fluke.” So, by extension, are we. Part of what makes this book a terrific read is that, besides containing a clutch of exceptionally fine individual poems (“How the Tiktaalik Came onto Land,” “The Backwards Builders,” “The Pinata,” “Misfortune Drove a 1956 Buick Convertible,” “Cactus Love,” “I’ll Climb the Tree if You’ll Climb the Tree” and “The Thought Box” stand out) and several other very good ones, the matrix of motifs linking the pieces make the book into “something huge and complete,” a mosaic and not just an assemblage of disparate one-offs. Things are always breaking, bending, rotting and falling in Latosik’s universe, but so too are they building, running, growing and climbing. They are often going in both directions at once, and not always in the order one would expect. The final poem, “The Thought Box,” (riffing off Ted Hughes’ “The Thought Fox”) encapsulates the book while also transporting us back to the prehistoric sea of the opening poem: “In the mind, a box weighs / as much as an ocean, and both get bigger, / or smaller, or both.” The human mind—Latosik’s prime subject—is the product of evolution and also its prime mover, qua concept. In an interview with Jacob Mooney, Latosik has said that “there needed to be weak spots” in his poems. In thematic terms, this jibes, but there are also flaws in the collection that needn’t be there. While Latosik is too sharp to have allowed any real duds in, the book would nevertheless have been more taut if, say, its 10 weakest poems had been trimmed. There are workmanlike formal exercises (a pantoum, a villanelle, a sestina), the dutiful inclusion of which is all too common in first collections, and a handful of poems are flat, especially compared with Latosik’s best efforts. But, even in what is becoming an increasingly crowded field, this is a great debut—it has earned your attention: sustained, focussed, longer.
Michael Lista. Bloom. Toronto: House of Anansi, 2010.
First books divide into several species, ranging from loose “work-to-date” to a heavy water saturated with every good project idea the poet could muster. The former, the collection end of the spectrum, limits expectations better than projects, which so often collapse under the weight of too many competing ideas. Every book of poems plays this game, I suppose, weaving as many threads together as the poet can without shutting out all air and strangling the thing, but first books seem to play as though more were at stake. Michael Lista chose to court risk with Bloom. The book’s narrative thread revisits the death of Louis Slotin, the Canadian physicist who died in 1946 when the plutonium core he was working with went critical, which is, apparently, called a bloom (the title-as-trope runs through many phases). Lista focuses on the human causes of scientific error more than the science itself, which fits with the stylistic play off of another bloom. Lista mimics elements of the structure of Joyce’s Ulysses, not only in focusing on the events of a single day in the life of a cuckolded man but also in varying the style of poems into different “voices.” Each poem in the book is “after” the style of another poet—Ted Hughes, Irving Layton, A.M. Klein, Anne Sexton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W.H. Auden, the Pearl poet . . . I count 37 exemplars, and many of the imitations are adept. Lista does a great John Crowe Ransom, yet this project shows Lista’s virtuosity at the expense of making it seem like a trick. That disappoints; Lista’s a talented phrase maker, most so when working a Ted Hughes vein at home in rhyme: “I was never tempted / To touch her except in brotherly comfort. Like siblings, / We never let our wonder wander from interest into incest” (“Scylla & Charybdis”). The demands of the project, though, tempt a parallel slackness in lines that seem to exist to fill out the rhyme: “All the things assumed to be the same / hue they were yesterday change wavelength / as the sun ages, illuming us with less strength // than it did our fathers, our blood less red, / names of the living names of the dead” (“Louis Slotin and the White Lie”). In a way, this is the same issue that is at question with grand projects: judgment. Even poets who thrive on excess have a sense of when even good ideas need to be excluded; and they are armed with an alarm bell for slackness. These gifts derive from experience, which may be why this seems like a first-book question. To be clear here, Bloom will receive some rave reviews, and Lista deserves them, but it’s worth remarking, for those who will share my reservations, this book’s prophetic promise of future books that will merit unreserved praise. You can, after all, see even its ambition as a question of matching form to subject. It’s an experiment that attempts to bring out the critical moments of material about an experiment to bring material to criticality.
Marchand dedicates his sixth collection of poetry to the memory of Anne Szumigalski, whom he describes as “poet and dancer extraordinaire,” undoubtedly for the soirees she would hold at her residence in Saskatchewan. This collection must have been quite long in the making, as the title poem took second place in the League of Canadian Poets’ National Poetry Contest in 1990. Having enjoyed Aperture, his fifth book (which I earlier reviewed for Arc), I was looking forward to reading this one: I was not disappointed. One of the first poems that caught my attention was “Grosbeaks.” Marchand paints images in rhetoric, changing the direction of the gaze with a line break, as in, “This morning as I wake / yellow grosbeaks are caged / by the wiry branches of the rowan.” The rowan, also known as the mountain ash, is a tree burnished with goldleaf against which crimson berries herald their sustenance to migrating birds. Marchand has the birds being burnished by the returning sun. It is he that is caged, having to attend church on a beautiful spring morning while the birds are free. He ends this poem with an incredible series of lines: “The birds, like sparks, spiral / beyond the cremation of darkness; / they drop the fruit, / hearts impaled by blades of grass.” The personification of the knives in the title poem demonstrates the freshness that can be brought to a subject by an accomplished poet. Note the opening stanza: “The knives are no longer content. / You notice it in the way / they sink their teeth into / lobes of bread, / leave marks as they slice / open the hearts of tomatoes.” It is no wonder that this poem took second place in the League’s contest. (I’d like to read what took first.) That opening line is a killer. The use of “lobes,” rather than “loaves,” to describe the bread is inspired in the way it continues the body references begun by “teeth,” and transforms a tired cliché into something fresh and unexpected. Marchand refuses to make clear whether this is about a suicide or a murder, an effective stance in a poem that functions as an assault on the supporters of the NRA. If you are a foreign movie buff, then your mind will immediately turn to Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire when you encounter the title “The Pale Object of Desire” at the start of section two. Buñuel relates a story of destructive love. Marchand follows suit, capturing the essence of this as seen in the second stanza: “Deep within the body / desire is an ancient land / nomads wander through / and never possess.” We hear traces of Neruda in this subdued passion. It is this poem that is the entrance to the gay labyrinth where “The Stranger” appears “Purple as a plum, / stain of nectarine / on the skin / just above his rib / A lesion? A lesion / I kissed it.” In The Craving of Knives, Marchand has created a multi-dimensional travel monologue in which “Life is a Train” is our embarkation point. All aboard for an exciting ride.
Blaine Marchand, The Craving of Knives. Ottawa: Buschek Books, 2009.
Shane Neilson **Arc Rave**
Peter Sanger. Through Darkling Air: The Poetry of Richard Outram. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2010.
Richard Outram was shamefully neglected throughout his poetic career. Preferring formal, stanzaic verse to loose-limbed, unrhymed anecdotes, and with a bent for the difficult, Outram went (deliberately) against the grain. But amid this neglect, a poetry was developed in an intense privacy that might be said to be our very best. Only in the few years before his death in 2007 did Outram begin to garner the recognition his work deserved. Peter Sanger is part of this reclamation and memorialization project, or perhaps it’s a project of pure seeing. Sanger has written a diligent, comprehensive, erudite, and biographically-enriched book that I hope does for Outram what his past efforts have already done for John Thompson: make Outram one of our most respected, known, appreciated, and emulated poets. (Canpo’s ghazalmania can largely be attributed to Sanger’s resurrection of Thompson.) To accomplish this, Sanger would have to bring to bear, here, the same level of scholarship he used to defend and champion Thompson (though this is emphatically not merely an academic work). And he does. Consider the following casual snippet referring to the exquisite Outram poem “Bittersweet”: “Among the echoes is Christ’s description of Himself as the ‘true vine’ in John 15:1. Another is George Herbert’s poem, “Bitter-Sweet.” And, in the penultimate line, I also hear the echo of Fackenheim’s ‘authentic self’ together with, by way of defining contrast, the ‘Selfhood cruel’ with which Albion in Blake’s Jerusalem (96.8) ‘marches against thee [Christ] deceitful . . . to meet thee in his pride.’” Sanger performed a magic trick with Thompson, excavating the lines of the ghazals; he performs the same trick here. What is also needed in a fellow poet’s take on a master is enthusiasm. Sanger’s is infectious. “Anyone who writes about Outram’s books with admiration will invariably feel the need to quote as many of his poems, either in pieces or in wholes, as the situation allows . . . ” This is the genius of the Gaspereau book: knowing that there is, as yet, no definitive collection of Outram’s poetry ever published (another travesty, though one is rumoured to be coming courtesy of poet, scholar and regular Arc contributor Luke Hathaway), this book quotes enough poems entire to serve as a primer on Outram, allowing Sanger the room to investigate themes developed over entire books and not just samplings. This is a very intricate and masticated thesis of greatness. The final praise that can be bestowed on Sanger is that Outram’s love for artist Barbara Howard, and her inextricable influence on his work, comes through in the book. Sanger makes their collaboration come alive, and it’s a fitting tribute to a poet whose life was inextricable from that of his mate. Lastly, the book is beautiful: Gaspereau likely broke the bank producing such an object of physical beauty, with extensive and lavish photographs inside, a sleeve for the cover, a gorgeous dust jacket—from subject to object, this clearly was a labour of love. Outram deserves it. It may be late, but it’s definitely not too little.
Jim Smith. Back Off, Assassin! (New and Selected Poems). Toronto: Mansfield Press, 2009.
Reading the introduction to Back Off, Assassin! by Mansfield Press editor Stuart Ross takes you back. Remember the 1980s in this country? A decade of artistic courage and joy with bare bones resources. Remember the energy of little poetry presses and names such as Victor Coleman, bpNichol, Michael Ondaatje (before The English Patient) and Jim Smith? Perhaps that last name wasn’t on everyone’s lips but Jim was ever-present, “frenetically inspiring, challenging and annoying us,” writes Ross, with his poetry of “newspaper headlines and surrealism,” its uncomfortable mix of “confession and crime.” In the mid-90s, Smith took up the law and practiced as a civil litigator, a professional passion that has filled his work with more true grit that ever. In his critical writings, Victor Coleman has characterized Smith’s poetry accurately as agitprop, “a political poetry” that reaches people “through humour and the absurd . . . embodying, more than most, Zukofsky’s designation of poetry as the communication of particulars.” Those particulars range from comic book characters to torture victims, from action film heroes to rotary phones rendering bemused disconnectedness a way of seeing whole. Variously, they furnish the individual rooms of each poem with vivid lyricism, wry observation and occasionally a raw, rare mythology: “The little bird hides in drink / and in the machete used to lop off an arm.” Dry-eyed and grainy, Smith’s voice prickles with compassion, responsibility and guilt, the complicity of victim and victor. The “assassin” of the title—starkly portrayed on the cover from a 1920 Mayakovsky poster—can be read as any anti-life force. And they are numerous. This is not a comfortable book. You won’t find many places to sit and relax, breathe purer air, calm yourself. Smith’s rancor and scornful guffaw can remind one of Jimmy Porter’s verbal tirades in Look Back in Anger. His arsenal of satire, irony and anger against hypocrisy may be compared to the difficult truth-telling of Canadian playwrights Brad Fraser and Judith Thompson. Indeed, the theatre analogy is an apt one, given the number of parts played out in these poems, the range of vocal expression and the energy of performance. Poets are Smith’s people and they populate his imagination. Poems variously embrace Cesar Vellejo, Nicanor Parra, Victor Jarra, Borges, Burroughs, Ginsberg and the Canadians, Dewdney, Acorn, Jones and the incomparable bpNichol, incendiary and incandescent in this superbly characteristic tribute: “bp was on fire / & we rolled him round the room / to put him out, each of us / threw ourselves on the pile / But he just blazed up / He consumed us all / & and when they found us they / had to wrap what was left / in foil.” Covering Smith’s work between 1979 to 1998 as well as new poems, the book is not chronological. Finally, there is no appreciable distinction to be made in tone, style or subject matter between “now” and “then.” There is only the seamless continuum of Smith’s imagination. While Assassin ventures into several wars, whether Viet Nam, El Salvador or Iraq, “the various invasions, coups, and revolutions—personal and otherwise,” as Ross lists them, happen in poetry time and “make this book more like Jim’s brain,” a poetry brain, I would add, equal to every manifestation of our troubled world.
Fraser Sutherland. The Philosophy of As If. Toronto: Bookland Press, 2010.
Fraser Sutherland’s new collection of poetry takes its inspiration and its title from a 1911 book by German philosopher Hans Vaihinger, which proposed that “man” willingly accepts falsehoods or fictions in order to live peacefully in an irrational world. Since we can’t know “things-in-themselves” we must construct fictional explanations for them. Sutherland plays with this notion in a number of ways, often wistfully, looking back in the poem “Green,” for example, on “a boy / man who / given his future / gets up and walks away from me.” Despite the book’s motto, taken as epigraph¾“I would like a different mind, a different body, a different life. Is that too much to ask?”—this is not a bleak collection, but a fascinating one. Of course it’s too much to ask. The courage and chutzpah to pose the question at all, places Sutherland, in this volume, as a man of his era—by which I mean, though I don’t wish to pin him there, the 60s and 70s. As a woman of the same era, I’m reminded of related philosophies we were reading then (e.g. existentialist Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning). Although existentialism, too, proposes choosing new meanings for our lives and then living out the chosen path, Frankl elsewhere quotes an advertisement that puts a pithy turn on his philosophy: “Calmly bear, without ado, / That which fate imposed on you, / But to bedbugs don’t resign: / Turn for help to Rosenstein.” That Sutherland is not often the sort of man to “calmly bear, without ado” is amply demonstrated both in the poems making up the first two parts, and the epigrammatic pronouncements that are by turns witty, silly and profound, in the third (“And All Shall Be Redeemed”). In this entertaining, often startling, compilation of prose and poetry, the things that shall be redeemed are many and varied, described in mock-elevated language—“a shell offered to the ear shall echolocate to the places we have been”, “and television anchors shall be anchorites”, “and the energy field of shorts shall fray,” “and to ask for life to have meaning shall be a category offence.” Accomplished as he is as both poet and journalist/essayist, Sutherland has the difficult task of separating the two disciplines—poems don’t thrive under “if it bleeds, it leads,” nor have the necessity to draw conclusions and make statements. As poet, Sutherland is at his best where originality of thought finds expression in tightly-constructed pieces, such as “Scheherazade,” which revolves around “practicing the art of delay,” where neither sultan nor maiden “wants to make the story end.” In “Texture,” the stated wish “to become a cop. It would give my life some meaning,” typifies the yearning quality of much of the work. Sutherland uses his dissatisfaction as a means of re-visioning objects and events. In his ars poetica, “The Poem,” the speaker “wishes the poet had more legitimate / means to relieve his mind, / less wasteful ways of exacting revenge,” positing a contrast between the poem as pure vessel and the “soup-stained” poet (as Neruda said), and disowning the unworthy poet with a shrug of world-weary romanticism. While not all the poems completely succeed—sometimes pieces are left to stand that could have benefited from more exploration—there’s much to enjoy and admire. Sutherland creates his own oeuvre with curmudgeonly ire and delight in language, and clearly has something to say. In one argument with himself, the yearning to be remembered (“Immortality”) resolves into accepting (“calmly, without ado”?) that until his work is remembered or forgotten, “he will sit on his back stoop watching between a neighbour’s garage roof and the trunk of a Manitoba maple, the stately transit of 1,2,3,4 teenage raccoons.”
Priscila Uppal. Traumatology. Holstein, ON: Exile Books, 2010.
Poet, novelist, York University professor and recent Olympic poet-in-residence, Priscila Uppal, is the type of poet this reviewer admires for her refusal to sit back and rest on past accomplishments. In each collection, this being her sixth, she opens a new door into her fervid poetic imagination. She erects a new edifice on the foundation of what she created before. Thus, each new book is received with excitement by her admirers, who wonder in which direction she will take them now. Here is one of those directions: “Consider yourself lucky. Once you lose / your body, you will have only your mind / or your spirit left. Both are useless tools, / which is why they are subjects for poetry.” This is from the opening, title poem “Traumatology,” which captures in its concise confines the three divisions—body, mind, spirit—into which the rest of the collection will fit. One thing to immediately notice about Uppal is that, no matter the manner of presentation, her caustic wit will find a way in. Notice also that, once the body is gone, you cannot have both the mind and the spirit remaining—and it’s not your choice which remains although both are incarnate within the veiled complaint of society’s disregard of poetry. But there is more to consider within this cleavage—fertile ground for Uppal’s explorations. And, of course, one of the most fertile is the body’s encounter with the realization of the immanence of death, a topic to which Uppal applies her wit in “Training”: “Once my metabolism slowed and I realized / I could no longer digest green peppers, / I started training for death.” Uppal’s early poetry began under the influence of Sharon Olds and Lorna Crozier. She has retained that influence but made it her own, as in the gut-bustingly funny “10 Ways to Destroy Love.” This poem opens with “Cook it over a hot stove until it bubbles white as boiling milk and splatters the / other pots and pans, your apron, and the kitchen tiles,” and contains the memorable instruction, “Train love to withstand beatings and scale barbed wire fences in boot camp. It will / grow tougher, but will think you’re a pussy.” “Lobby” builds on Crozier’s vegetable love poems by extending their secret lives into a revolutionary force: “The plants in the lobby are organizing / a revolt. For the last three months I’ve been / monitoring them—they don’t think I know, but / oh I do . . .” As with all the poems in Traumatology, Uppal handles “Lobby” with the adeptness of an accomplished poet which, you will discover, she is.
Bernadette Wagner. this hot place. Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 2010.
When a poet chooses the words of first-hand experience as the way of framing her poetry she opts for a difficult path. What might be extraordinary about crazy Uncle Ted to the writer may be totally unmoving, or simply old hat, to the reader. Ultimately, she must successfully poeticize the mundane in order to make Uncle Ted someone we care about—very much how good fiction works. It isn’t surprising how many experience-based poems hang heavily and prosaically. Bernadette Wagner’s first volume of poetry, this hot place, redolent of her full life as a feminist, activist, mother, and rabble rouser, admirably struggles to reach her readers with the experiences of her own life and the lives of her sisters in the good fight. When she succeeds she is reminiscent of Helen Potrebenko at her sharpest and least compromising. Success comes when she remains faithful to the experience instead of being overly conscious of the writing process. In “Something Else,” Wagner assumes an “it’s-bad-when” narration while leading up to a bullying incident. She skillfully steers into the personal and particular, as we find that it is her son being victimized, and she becomes a tigress snapping at any animal wishing to take liberties with her cub. The writing here is palpable and charged. Yet what the poems cry for is a proportional measure of self-doubt. The book, trisected into Maiden, Mother and Crone sections, mirrors the growth, maturation and wisdom of women in lives that are wallpapered with put-downs and abuse. But things gravitate toward black and white, and we are too often provided only one perspective to view an infinitely faceted womankind. The poems have the talky, casual feel of a conversation around a kitchen table, sometimes to their detriment. When Wagner writes about a tea cup that “still holds grief / three decades after Grandma’s death,” it sounds flat and clichéd. Contrast this with the crotchety narrator of the poem, “While Corporate Revenues Top Seven Billion She Steals.” A woman is in a mall, looking at wooden blocks for her young children. In a moment of complexity, truth and doubt converge. The protagonist wavers until she looks deeper into the mess of modern life, and comes out stronger: “stickered Made in China where, she knows, gears and buttons / churn out purchases, plastics, assorted other toxins, and / more of what she thinks she just might need.” That last line supports the weight of a poem that remains genuine to its author in all her frailty, stubbornness, persistence and failure—a complete woman.