Just over a decade separates the publication of Brad Cran’s first book of poems, The Good Life (Nightwood, 2002), from his most recent collection, Ink on Paper. If forced to point to Cran’s earlier influences, one might usefully draw comparisons with the lyricism and themes (violence, anger, loneliness) of Patrick Lane or Richard Hugo. It has, however, been a fairly horrendous ten years or so, geopolitically and environmentally, and the author of Ink on Paper seems no longer interested in the passions of the solitary lyric poet. The poetics that inform many of the best poems in Ink on Paper evidence a studied and almost principled rejection of poetic form. Technically, I suppose, one could characterize Cran’s poems as free verse lyrics—but so were the poems of his first book. The truth of the matter is that what’s most interesting about these poems is the way in which they resist poetic artifice. This is not the case in all the work, and, where it isn’t true, those poems seem to lag, their rhetoric serving as an almost clichéd lyric stance: e.g., Ronald Reagan composes a love song to Nancy that begins “Nancy with your nights on fire, / let me be your cold wet rag.” Best, however, not to harp on the negatives, since to my mind a handful of Cran’s poems are powerful and serve as a welcome contrast to the increasingly complex aestheticism of more lauded contemporary Canadian poetry.
One of my favorite poems, “The Avion Flu,” begins as if in answer to a questionnaire:
My first recollection of the threat of the avion flu
was in Tucson in 2002. Some friends
told me of a woman who had dedicated her life
to saving and rehabilitating raptors. She lived on her own with little human contact
and prophesized a major culling of the human race.
The poem proceeds over several pages to recount Cran’s daughter’s birthday; the shootings at the University that year; the bombing of Iraq; the possibility of a nuclear meltdown nearby; guards stationed at his daughter’s elementary school, and one guard’s rhetorical observation to Cran, “Do you know how easy / it would be to lob a grenade over that wall?” And Cran notes: “By looking at the wall and its proximity to / the parking lot, it was hard to dispute that / yes, it would be easy to lob a grenade over that wall.” Other favourites in the collection are “Science Fiction” and “Contemplating Divorce While Watching Porn at the Local Best Western Two Miles From Home.”
Stanzas persist but function more like dislocated paragraphs in a essay-like lyric, where social and political criticism is married to the personal anxieties of the speaker who, if not identical with the author, is very much akin to Brad Cran, the father, husband, and citizen. Social engagement by means of poetry is a risky affair, but I can think of no one else currently writing in Canada who does so in quite the way Cran manages. His closest counterpart is the American writer Eliot Weinberger, whose lyrical and political essays seem to me the prose kin of Cran’s poetry. And if you’ve read Weinberger, you’ll know that’s high praise.
Darren Bifford is the author of Wedding in Fire Country (Nightwood Editions, 2012). He is also an occasional contributor of criticism to theurgepoetry.blogspot.com. He lives in Montreal.