Stuart Ross’s You Exist. Details Follow. is a wonderfully sprawling collection far more interested in exploring poetic process than in using poetry to make grand statements. The title quashes any desire for conclusions right away: “you exist”, full stop, clears the way for the interesting parts—the details that follow. Ross excavates those details playfully, using various structural strategies, one of which is the cento, or “patchwork” poem, in which a new poem is constructed from an existing poem or poems. “Cento for Alfred Purdy” gives us “love and hate/ doing pushups under an ancient Pontiac…” and “I knew a guy once would buy a single drop/ of the rain and mists of Baffin,” lines where Ross channels Purdy, reflects on Purdy, and works at pushing past him through the respectful assimilation of the other’s work. The poem also ends with a lovely, loving evocation of Purdy: “standing on a patch of snow/ in the silvery guts of a labouring terribly useful lifetime.”
In notes included in the collection, Ross writes that a number of these poems were written “during” another poem—“’Keeping Time’ was written during John Ashbery’s ‘Grand Galop’”—which suggests that he uses his reading of a poem to provide the springboard for creating a new poem. In this case, Ross transforms Ashbery’s descriptions—“the smiling expanse of the sky / That plays no favourites…” and, “The dog barks, the caravan passes on” (Ashbery, Poetry, 1974)—into condensed, assertive metaphors—“The sky is honest, / smiling down at the barking / caravan.” Ross’s approach acknowledges the role of reading, suggestion, and influence on creation, while the selection of Ashbery and David McFadden (another poet whose work is interpolated in a similar fashion) situates him amongst other avant-garde poets with a deep understanding of surrealism.
While Ross’s bent for surrealism is evident throughout You Exist, it is particularly effective in the haunting prose poem “Lineage,” which begins, “I step into a crowded swimming and look for my grandparents. They are dead on another continent.” The associations and juxtapositions Ross works with in “Lineage” create a profound sense of absence and loss, leaving behind “the sort of silence that broadcasts from another era or from across an ocean.” The poem ends with an apocalyptic vision of “distant explosions of orange,” conveying a sense of dread founded in humanity’s propensity for committing the same horrors over and over.
This volume’s reflection on process shows up in five new offerings of his annual New Year’s Day poems, most notably “Inventory Sonnet.” From 2008, it is an example of Ross’s respectful use of the sonnet to work through an idea before providing a couplet that is typically a bit wacky but that is sustained by its aptness. Here, after radically disassembling himself within his “inventory” (including seeing part of himself as “Claes Oldenberg’s / Giant Hamburger”), the poet writes, “I sit in a circle/ all by myself trying to convince myself/ that I love myself. A passing forklift agrees. / I rake fingers through my hair and pluck out a stray breeze.” Who, reflecting on a new year, isn’t at once weighted down by disappointment and buoyed by hopefulness? We all believe in the possibility that a “stray breeze” will come along, offering something fresh and new. Thankfully, stray breezes abound in Ross’s You Exist. Details Follow.
Andrew Johnson is a Hamilton-based writer and editor.