The Canvas and the Paint: S.E. Venart’s Woodshedding

p. *Brief Review*
bq. S.E. Venart. [_Woodshedding_]. London: Brick, 2007.

S.E. Venart’s first collection is a case in sober point of the current temperance of Canadian poetry: reflective and studied, the lyrics of love, loss and a recalled childhood are rooted carefully in abstractions of the quotidian, the habitual and the [_matériel_]. The book’s title is borrowed from a blues reference to solitary, arduous rehearsal, and from an even earlier notion of parental punishments being spanked out in woodsheds. Venart poetically renders her pet technique in a found poem: “The most productive and fulfilling activity you can choose / to do. How society began. A sort of jam session. The nuts. / …Spending the day seeing what you can get / out of one note. The process of getting details down, all / it’s cracked up to be, the proof you need…”. Though these particular definitions are distilled and crafted words from other sources, the insistence on woodshedding as discipline, method and trope is Venart’s. So we go looking for the jam session, for the image or word worried, worked and coddled until it yields, for the details. The details are there, plentiful and recurring: the natural world is frequently the canvas, and memory the paint. The renderings range from Rockwell to Rothko. The strongest poems reflect the rigour that Venart’s shed-locked modus operandi implies. Witness the velocity and tension in “Intimates” as the speaker remembers a visiting stranger: “In his absence, he’s with me / and my spiders, my glass eye, / my dry and silent downstairs.” The book’s third section, “Postcards to You,” exemplifies the carved-out, practiced narration of which Venart is capable. The percussive language balances precariously with precise, thoroughly thought-out anaphora and observations, and Venart manages to slip between divergent images with grace. “I’ll never spend another golden hour with you,” the section begins with conventional wistfulness, in “Hope You’re Happy Where You’re Living–“, before veering off to dispense with having “a tchotchke fetish, bak[ing] anything heartshaped / …I’ll also never have a keeping room, / three-cornered hat, pearl-handled pistol, the right word / on my tongue. I’ll eat my life with big utensils, thank you…” Never cloying, these poems don’t loiter tonally in remorse or regret, nor does Venart shy from the clanging, unpredictable images that she has since continued to develop, capping a poem about a banal return home with a sublime, domestic threat: “From our lighted windows, resetting our table for a solo / Breakfast, one bright orange next to one bright knife.” The threat seems at once effortless, organic and exalted. Venart is capable of a disarming simplicity–touch, she writes, “makes for only the luckiest misunderstandings”; after an accident, “We’re pointing like needles all over the road.” But the temptation, after toiling away alone, is to show the strain as accomplishment. [_Woodshedding_] suffers from unworked throwaways: book bindings are “As familiar as familiar skin”; an impending storm is melodramatised as “water hitting water, and there’s no time for embrace.” By moments, Venart’s beloved solitary jamming reflects the method more than the result, and doesn’t reveal the poet’s possible scope and daring, so brilliantly obvious elsewhere. A first book to read, and a bright knife to watch.

fn0. _Arc_ 60, Summer 2008

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