Nothing is going to happen in this book. There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity clips time.
–Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, 1977
I have been aware of rob mclennan’s poetry for fifteen years now, and aware, too, of the boisterous, clever and thoughtful presence he brings to discussions of contemporary poetics. Having said that, however, I will discuss only two aspects of mclennan’s poetics as I understand them in this new volume: faith in the banal and playful diction. To me, both aspects represent risk-taking that I admire in contemporary poetry, even though they carry with them the equal risk of initiating the poem’s collapse. In the end, I think mclennan succeeds in both taking these risks and delivering something rather wonderful in Songs for little sleep.
The first risk is mclennan’s faith in the ordinary. It seems silly, sometimes, talking about the material of poetry in this way—but it’s huge. By ‘ordinary’ I mean the quotidian, throw-away objects & situations & images & voices that mill around and populate these poems. mclennan exhibits faith that this material will open up on the wondrous, on a surprise of complexity maybe, on beauty, or whatever else we might want to name it. As Wittgenstein mutters cryptically in Tractatus, “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.” Over and over again in these poems—as their process of creation—mclennan is willing to run the risk of collapsing into the ordinariness he celebrates. As a result, the poems are redeemed by the elusive and resistant and inexplicable and not-to-be-reduced-or-articulated magic that is waiting to ‘show’ itself at the heart of this often-dismissed ‘banal.’ When I was in my thirties, I got a letter from P K Page in which she worried that my poems might suffer from being too “quotidian.” And though I loved P K Page’s wonderful poems (and still do) and seriously sought her approval, something innocent and stubborn in me knew she was wrong about the word. Reading mclennan’s poems carries me back into that moment of struggle with P K Page’s judgment—the wonder of the “quotidian” and the risk of expressing it.
When mclennan refers to the word ‘collaged’ in his end notes, he is referring not only to the first risk mentioned above—allowing the ‘ordinary’ to present itself as a field of juxtapositions, loosely unified—but also to the second risk—allowing ‘play’ in diction and syntax to support other surprises in logic through unexpected association. Again, this is not easy territory; it can readily backfire into a mediocre display of automatic writing (at best) or obscurantism (at worst). But when it works, when it really opens things up—as in Kroetsch, Bowering, bissett, Moure, Cooley, Jake Kennedy, kevin mcpherson eckoff, Natalie Simpson—it can create a true ‘rush’ of making and re-making for the reader. It can be breathtaking. In the context of this risk, mclennan is relaxed and confident and the poems are fascinating and exciting.
If I had been editing this book, I might have advised mclennan to subdue the communal bounce of the self-referential by removing the double-whammy of beginning each poem with a reference to another text (usually written by a friend), then compounding the situation with a dedication to another friend (another writer). In a sequence that is already so committed to the autobiographical, this effect can be a bit cloying. These poems do not need that busy-ness. They stand by themselves just fine.
John Lent has been publishing poetry, fiction and non-fiction nationally and internationally for the past thirty years. He has published nine books of poetry and fiction and his latest novel, The Path to Ardoe, came out with Thistledown in 2012.