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Topic: poetry reviews

Unjustly ignored: Hine’s Recollected

“Criticism,” writes Helen Vendler, is “the revenge of the student who once, perforce, sat silent while things that seemed untrue were said unrebuked, and poets who loomed large in the mind were ignored in the classroom.” So many untrue things have been said for so many years about Canadian poetry, and not just in classrooms, that it is hard to know where to begin to take one’s revenge, if that is the right word. But fortunately the recent publication of Daryl Hine’s _Recollected Poems: 1951-2004_ gives us a chance to reassess our most unjustly ignored poet, and to fill in–or begin to fill in–one of the most forlorn and gaping holes in our literary history. …

Alessandro Porco on Steven Venright’s Floors of Enduring Beauty

“I believe in domains of existence vivid and compelling beyond even this miraculous reality we call the world.” So says Steven Venright in his statement of poetics published in the anthology _Surreal Estate_. It’s through language–“a shamanic gloop out of which visions emerge and new meanings are formed”–that Venright reveals, and revels in, the “vivid and compelling beyond.” “The Turbulated Curtain,” the opening poem from Venright’s latest book, _Floors of Enduring Beauty_, provides the best gloss on Venright’s style: “A languid lingual torrent coming out of my own head like textoplasm, full of typogres and lexichauns.” Surreal wordplay, philosophic wit, and Romantic world-making imperatives abound. Venright’s poetry is perfectly intransitive….

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

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…

Knock, knock: Is the real Atwood still there?

If there’s a Canadian poem readers know by heart, chances are it’s Margaret Atwood’s four-liner “You Fit into Me”. A quick start: “You fit into me / like a hook into an eye.” A quicker ending: “A fish hook / an open eye.” As short lyrics go, it’s flawless: perfectly judged and perfectly ruthless.
“You Fit into Me” was published in 1971, and its sting is a fair example of Atwood’s method at the time. The lovey-dovey snugness we associate with hooks and eyes is exactly the conditioned response she uses to draw blood. But you really have to go back to the late sixties and mid-seventies–when her fish hooks were at their sharpest–to understand why she caused such a stir when she came on the scene. _The Circle Game_ appeared in 1966 looking more or less like any other slim mid-century debut. But the differences were important. Daughter of an entomologist and student of Northrop Frye, Atwood fronted a poetry whose soundings of female consciousness were forensic and archetype-obsessed. She was, at heart, a young poet with an unstoppable knack (six books in the eight years from 1966 and 1974) for writing striking descriptions of extreme emotional states. Some of it recalled Anne Wilkinson, who also overhauled romantic emblems and came to conclusions that, for their time, were just as unflinching (“I’d love this body more / If graved in rigid wood / It could not move.”) But while Wilkinson’s poems simmered without boiling over, Atwood remade her anger into a series of attacks with no retreat….

Be transformed: Don Domanski’s All Our Wonder Unavenged

With the long lines and elegaic tones of “All Our Wonder Unavenged,” Domanski, arguably the best of Canadian poets, enters the territory of Charles Wright and W.S. Merwin, arguably the best of American ones, and shares with them the same strengths and weaknesses. The strengths include a complete identification with materiality that lifts it out of simple physicality, imagery that reaches into the spiritual fire of things (“the earth lying like a grain of wheat in a great barn”); a bittersweet sense of the limitations of the idea of the self (“you have nowhere to go, so you go,”); and an arresting freshness brought to a tradition that through most of its history has attempted to limit the present to the confines of the past. All three poets dwell in memory and explore its elusive territory as a process of renewal, made more poignant by its confrontation with a sense of complete temporal inconsequence outside of this lyrical act…

Ken Babstock’s Airstream Land Yacht

I really wanted to like this book. Love it, in fact. I wanted to love it like I fell in love with Mean Babstock’s first book. Mean was glorious, it was the way and the light, and as I read it years ago I kept thinking, this is poetry one could emulate, this is poetry worthy of putting forward on the world stage, this is the best book of Canadian poetry I’ve read in years. Mean stuck with me, and it’s stuck with others: it’s the yardstick for a certain generation of poets. I know of what I speak: I’ve asked dozens of poets, in the midst of flagging polite conversation, “But what do you think about Babstock’s Mean?” And the reaction is often one I myself can identify with: unadulterated awe.

Coy and austere: Margaret Avison’s Books of Revelation

You can measure the success of Margaret Avison’s career by the major awards accorded to nearly half of her books: two Governor General’s Awards and a Griffin Poetry Prize. If you put little stock in awards (fair enough), then the better measure may be the list of anthologies (an appendix to this volume of Always Now) in which her work has appeared, particularly before the release of Winter Sun in 1960. She was first anthologized by A.J.M. Smith in The Book of Canadian Poetry: A Critical and Historical Anthology (1943). Her poems appeared in anthologies published by both First Statement and Contact, edited by John Sutherland, Louis Dudek, and Irving Layton. Earle Birney, Bliss Carman, Ralph Gustafson, and Eli Mandel all selected her work for Canadian poetry anthologies, and Denise Levertov pursued Avison’s second book, The Dumbfounding (1966), for Norton (a point Avison records when giving “Thanks” here). In other words, before Avison had published her first monograph, she was recognized as a representative Canadian poet by some of the enduring names in Canadian poetry, and after Winter Sun that reputation spread.

Staggered state: George Murray’s A Set of Deadly Negotiations

The last book of poems that frightened me was George Murray’s The Hunter (2003). I’m not accustomed to thinking of poetry as a frightening genre. Unlike life and many fictions, poems end neatly; they insist on order; they elude the march of time. Not Murray’s. His Hunter tracks Yeats’s rough beast–or is tracked by it; or is that beast–through fire and desert towards no certain Bethlehem. The poems’ lines go two by two or three by three–but to call these stanzas couplets or triplets belies their staggered state. And because the poems eschew regular rhyme and metre, like fire they resist one’s efforts at remembrance. The poems are burnt out from around their titular bones: what sticks in one’s mind is the index, an alphabetical sequence that reads like a skeletal poem (Albatross, Anchor, Arrow, Bear, Bed, Bomb, Book …)

Quasi-sonnets: Harold Rhenisch’s Free Will

It’s a truism that books come from other books. Shakespeare, for instance, borrowed storylines from classical antecedents. In the hands of a good writer, such appropriations become original works in their own right. I’m thinking here not only of Shakespeare’s plays, but of such brilliant latter-day adaptations of them as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Aimé Césaire’s post-colonial version of The Tempest. Sometimes, however, adaptation takes on a parasitic tinge, either trivializing or leaning too heavily on the source material. Harold Rhenisch’s Free Will belongs, unfortunately, to this latter class…