In the past ten years (post-Kildeer, pre-Covid), I’ve been lucky to have more than a few chances to hear Phil Hall read in the bars, cafes, lecture halls and ballrooms of the Ottawa and Gatineau valleys. His poetry—his voice—is a marvel. He would put it differently. In Niagara & Government, Hall’s 17th collection, it’s “a discordance / that cherishes & defies.” It’s also a “miserable rant voice,” “honesty’s long squeak,” “unboiled calligraphy,” an “unlikely tongue / I am not ashamed of anymore.” With it, he is “curating strident toward a fable / of leaky worth.”
Niagara & Government revolves around twin themes of folk art and failure, and the voice is everywhere. Alongside insights into its construction: “the larynx has to be assembled to be believed in / from scattered detritus & there is no manual.” This from “Stan Dragland’s Wall,” a long poem written as a birthday present for Dragland. The sequence is central to Niagara & Government. The inside covers feature a black-and-white photo detail of Wall. Which is literally that: a wall that Dragland designed and assembled from found objects, then installed in a friend’s quoncet hut in Trinity Bight, Newfoundland. Eventually, the wall was reassembled as part of a 2016 exhibit at Two Rooms Contemporary Art Projects. To quote the gallery, Architec Tonic presented “architecturally oriented artworks and utopian structures designed to restore well-being and invigorate the soul.”
For Hall, Dragland’s Wall is indeed a utopian structure. It’s “an altar” “to the Eden of First Growth / in ruins among us.” Its component parts “have here retreated again / to before function / & are once more nearly creatures / almost écriture.” For readers familiar with Hall’s work—as rob mclennan put it, his decades-long “collage of lines, phrases, and lost sentences … that accumulate into individual pieces, as well as sections of a far broader canvas” (introduction to Guthrie Clothing)—this could be a kind of ars poetica. The affinity between Wall and Hall is clear. While Dragland beachcombs found objects for his wall, Hall undertakes his own accumulation. Like the sand- and limestone of his Lanark County “terroir” (to borrow a word from Kildeer), what he constructs is clastic, made of fragments, it is biochemical, made of skeletons.
The strongest fragments here are local, the skeletons personal: “Only language / its etymology limestoned as sound / lace not place / holds me together.” This from “Bottom,” a 22-part sequence (reflecting “22 years without a drink”) in which, Hall writes, “the bottle still had it over me / I was its tongue.” To borrow again from geology (at the risk of overdoing it), Hall’s close attention to the “detritus” of place, family, failure and art in “Bottom” and throughout this collection resembles a kind of diagenesis—“across generation”—meaning the physical, chemical and biological processes that govern an organism’s ultimate fate, in terms of its preservation or destruction. In Niagara & Government, Phil Hall intervenes in the physical, the chemical, the biological—in that which has governed his fate—to not just preserve, but to create music.