Which came first: awards or great poetry? A chicken-and-egg review of the 2010 nominees for the Archibald Lampman Award for Poetry
~ Brenda Leifso
Blaine Marchand. The Craving of Knives. Ottawa: BuschekBooks, 2009
Susan McMaster. crossing arcs: alzheimer’s, my mother, and me. Windsor: Black Moss Press, 2009
Barbara Myers. Slide. Winnipeg: Signature Editions, 2009
Craig Poile. True Concessions. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2009
Let’s be honest: at some point in our lives, each of us has really, really wanted to win. Maybe a Scrabble game unleashed your inner Mr. Hyde. Maybe you felt the glorious rush of victory when you beat the car beside you off the light or when you overcame your spouse in the race to the last delectable piece of cake. You may or may not be shocked or ashamed by the level of aggression you display in these circumstances. You may or may not be comforted by the fact you are merely acting out of an ancient biological imperative: the OED defines competition as “a situation in which people compete with each other for something not everyone can have.” Replace “competition” here with “the writing life” and you have a solid understanding of what it’s like to live as a writer in present-day Canada.
Whether or not we should have awards is another question. Is art an evolutionary refinement that should not be debased by carnal competition? Or do awards, by recognizing excellence, encourage further evolution of craft? Chickens and eggs. Maybe even trees falling in the forest.
Whether or not we must, the reality is, compete we do; and sitting in a room surrounded by jurors, the other nominated authors, and politicos waiting to hear if your book won is both a thrill and a nausea-inducing affair. Much like in sports such as figure skating, books are judged on both technical “artistic” merit. Put another way, jurors—or reviewers, for that matter—are well-versed in the craft aspects of poetry, yet have individual sensibilities. Can jurors or reviewers, then, fairly judge a book if they don’t share the book’s aesthetic? In most cases, one hopes, they strive to accomplish fairness by looking at what each book is trying to achieve, then asking whether or not the book reaches that goal. Still, that pesky subjectivity inherent in us all must creep in. When the winner is announced, then, does it really mean the “best” book won?
All this to say, it is a slightly discombobulating task to review four books nominated for the Arc-sponsored 2010 Archibald Lampman Award for Poetry (given to one book of poetry a year authored by resident of the National Capital Region), especially when the winning book has already been determined. While it’s true Susan McMaster’s crossing arcs: alzheimer’s, my mother, and me, Craig Poile’s True Concessions, Barbara Myers’ Slide and Blaine Marchand’s The Craving of Knives tackle similar themes—the meaning in memory, for instance—each is so uniquely itself, set apart by its voice, structure and approach to subject, it seems a disservice to compare them. Yet, because the award has already been granted, I can’t help but asking, as we all do when an award is granted, whether I would have made the same decision.
In terms of composition, crossing arcs is the most unique to the group: it deals most intensely with the nature of memory and what happens to people and their families when memory fails. The book centres on McMaster’s relationship with her mother, Betty, as they both grapple with Betty’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease. As McMaster admits, this process is fraught even without writing about it: “how can I imagine… / I will / ever be forgiven / for presuming to describe as if it were truth / what is happening behind her eyes— / where I, full of orders, can / not go?” McMaster navigates around this omniscient “I” by including photos of her mother surrounded by loved household objects, books and photos at the beginning of each of the book’s three sections, which are structured to follow the sonata form of exposition, development, and recapitulation. While these photos do give Betty a greater depth of presence in the book, they don’t quite follow the narrative arc of the sections as closely as the sonata form requires. On this front, McMaster’s choice to include Betty’s reactions to the poems via a quote on every page spread is much more successful. The quotes do much to convey Betty’s wisdom, eloquence and feistiness as well as the fracturing of her mind: “What does it feel like? Pods. / Skyhooks. Parachutes suspended / between sky and earth. Like I’m / in a space station detached from / everything and all the memories / are little threads trying to bring / me back.” Sometimes, Betty’s reactions contain a hint of the aggression Alzheimer’s can bring out: “everyone’s going / to get it sooner or later. I can be / smug about that.” The reader is not always certain which voice Betty is speaking from, an effect that must emulate family members’ confusion of not always knowing if they are speaking to a lucid person. The inclusion of Betty’s reaction also allows the book to effectively mimic the liturgical call and response pattern, which itself echoes the book’s music-based structure.
As is necessary to guide readers through the tangled arcs that memory loss creates, the poems themselves are largely narrative. Some poems, such as “What We Don’t Say,” left me wondering whether the poetic form was best utilized in conveying dialogue and progression of action as the lines lacked tautness and intensity of image. Other poems, such as the untitled opening poem, use on image and line much more successfully: “I have no way to comfort you in the / empty room / your mind now is / doors and windows / shut / blinds hung / closed.”
Equally compelling is “Fighting the Trap,” where McMaster and her husband lie in bed, listening to a mouse struggle in a trap under “the rain-smacked roof:”
We lie and will it dead,
as it struggles, voiceless,
the pauses between rattles
countable by breaths
just as we hope,
again it drags the trap
through the crate of the ceiling.
As metaphor to the toll caring for a person with Alzheimer’s takes, this poem concludes with the startling image of the husband as he scrabbles after the mouse with a two-by-four, then “whacks it quiet. / throws it out the door.” This honesty, combined with McMaster’s unwillingness to heroicise or romanticise herself, her mother or their reactions, lends this book its strength.
Blaine Marchand’s The Craving of Knives also refuses to romanticise illness (in this case HIV/AIDS). Rather, it explores what’s created when “we are silenced / by this mystery darkness creates”:
words are fragile
full of possibility yet limited.
We hope, like you, that laying them
across a white page renders them
fixed as stars that emerge
when light and dark collide.
This diffusion of light and dark memory creates a fraught tension, particularly in the centre section of the book. Here, “The Pale Object of Desire” and “The Word Becomes Flesh”—poems celebrating beauty and newfound sexuality—starkly contrast long poems “The Stranger” and “Stigmata.” The male body in “The Pale Object of Desire—“a torso rises / still as stone, / arms reaching out / tactile, beautiful / as marble”—becomes, in “The Stranger,” “leper, cadaver, carcass / plague, pestilence.” The book’s structure tightropes along this tension as the speaker evolves from the intensity of youthful innocence to sexual awakening to the slow simmer of middle age.
Marchand’s use of language reflects a similar attempt to bring together two polarities. At times, as “Stigmata’s” “I want to shout / I am the patron saint of fucking, nailed with purple stigmata” shows, the language can be angry and bold. In “You take down a tomato,” on the other hand, the language is soft and sensual: “it sits in your hands, still warm from the atrium / both of your palms lush / with the radiance of the setting sun.” The shocking language and images is often, however, heavy-handed. In “Apres From the Spanish,” for example, we encounter “electrodes / clamp to your penis,” while “Four Feathers” brings us “bones, feathers / a desiccated foetus.” True, good poetry should sometimes shock, but shock value is all the greater when it is subtly achieved. In fact, with the exception of “In the White Giant’s Thigh,” the book works best in section three, where the poems sidestep the Bildungsroman theme or at least don’t plunge so headfirst into it. These poems concentrate instead on quiet, fragile, fleeting moments in human relationships, and as a result seem the antithesis of contrived.
Just as The Craving of Knives addresses how memory infuses the present and vice versa, so too does Barbara Myers’ Slide explore, from a very different angle, “nunc stans,” or the idea of the eternal now. Nunc stans can also be loosely translated as the consciousness of the Supreme Being or, as Myers’ poem “Wash of the Moon” illustrates, “this knowing by heart / when, called or not called / the god is present.” As a family might futilely use photographic slides to still and frame life, so too does Slide seek to capture the formlessness, ever-presence, ever-motion and ultimate un-capturability of the human experience and consciousness, memory and future: “sliding back into / your spine, your blood / always the same age / they ever you ever were.”
Myers increases the inherent tension in her writing by frequently employing form or near-form poetry. Combined with the book’s cerebral explorations, her use of form keeps a reader busy, which is by no means a criticism: it’s rare to find a new book so grounded in and formally reflective of philosophy. Take “Against A Grand Unified,” for instance, which plays content against a sustained use of quatrains throughout:
Purrs when I pet her but wouldn’t turn a hair
if I disappeared.
Before a dark window
I wonder at the starry sky,
she bats at specks on the glass
to tease them before
she eats them, unruffled
by the theorist’s cat-in-a-box
and the urge to explain
in terms of quantum physics
that nothing happens
until you look.
There are times, though, when use of form or near-form is not as engaging because the final lines don’t turn the content enough askew. The enforced rhymes in the pantoum-variant “Call of the Wild,” for example, don’t allow the poem to elevate beyond the unremarkable situation of a man who “can’t take heart from tonsured lawn / craves a wilder seed outcast / and drives his truck to hell and gone.” A few more poems, such as “Hazel” and “Baptism—February 2003,” rely on similar caricatures.
But Myers more often surprises and startles with unique and well-executed use of images and senses. “The Beginning of Melt” manages to be both rooted in and matter-of-fact about life’s daily noticings and our global peril:
Here this morning, your motherly
tan-and-cream body roosts on the sunny
bird feeder, pigeony breast spilling over the roof;
alert to the unseen crow, your
low coo-oo-oo-ing still pitched
in the register of grief,
even though you birds know melting,
and ice, you know, has had its day.
Whether it is through a pigeony breast, rooted things succumbing to heaviness “gravity’s full stop,” or the roar of a cappuccino machine, Myers is wise enough offer us respite from heady flights by perching us in the physical.
Craig Poile’s True Concessions, which won both the Lampman Award and the Ottawa Book Prize for Fiction, also relies on form to illuminate the truths, beauties and even eroticisms that can be found in daily living, though Poile’s form of choice is the quatrain. This approach works splendidly when used with a touch of humour and hyperbole as it is in “The Balloon:” “The era of the Giant Floating Fish / Of Great Happiness began with a knot / That tied it to my daughter’s wrist. / The slender tether went loose, then taut…” “The Blanket” also begins with an everyday object, but is even more successful at sustaining the image and giving it greater emotional depth:
The sleep that blanket brings is unnatural and deep.
Sometimes I’ve left it out and you’ve succumbed.
I see it on the bed, arched in a curve borrowed
From your spine. As if it, too, expected to rise and go.
These lines are lovely not only for their gentleness but also for their pace: the end-stop pattern broken by the borrowed arch of spine. They contain no forced rhythm and sound matches content. The same is true for the best poems in the book, such as the terse, couplet-based stanzas in “From the Couch”: “When will you stop / Making noise in the kitchen?” Other poems, such as “Year Away,” feel stuffed into quatrain form, especially when also employing rhyme: “Once she chose not to sell the place / Her preparation seemed like subterfuge. / The “to do” list read like advice for those who make leaving a refuge.” Here, it feels like form strangles content and prevents it from taking on greater subtext.
You’ll note that I twice used the verb “feel” to describe my unease with Poile’s use of form—a word most jurors or reviewers tend to stay away from because it emphasizes taste over craft. This is, however, precisely my point. I agree with the Lampman jurors that True Concessions often achieves greatness through craft. They clearly disagree with me that here craft sometimes inhibits depth of content and, in full disclosure, I’ll admit that I have a learned or natural disinclination towards heavily structured and end-rhymed poetry. I’ll also admit that the use of form and rhyme appeals and makes the poetry much more accessible to a larger audience, which, it can be argued, happens too rarely in poetry as a genre. It can be further argued that crossing arcs also successfully reflects the sometimes insurmountable struggles of daily life. Both books, then, were worthy of winning the award, and by no means do I wish to diminish Poile’s well-deserved success. On the other hand, if I had sat on that Lampman jury, I think I would have found myself arguing strongly for Myers’ Slide, precisely because—given its exploration of philosophies and consciousness—it represents a far more complex venture and because it brought me such a pleasurably challenging reading experience. Is intellectually challenging poetry necessarily better than poetry rooted in daily living? We’re back to chickens and eggs. Perhaps it’s enough to say: buy each of these books and enjoy the range of style and quality of effort each offers. I have no doubt each of you will come to your own conclusions.
True Concessions by Craig Poile won the 2010 Archibald Lampman Award for Poetry.
Brenda Leifso has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Her poetry has appeared in many journals, and has received the Bliss Carman Banff Centre Award for Poetry, as well as awards in the Vancouver International Writers’ Festival Writing Contest.