The simple place and emotion-based lyric is often dismissed or even disdained in this era when, if your poetry has no overt sexual, racial or other trendy engine behind its impetus, and such content isn’t rendered in complexified form, then it seems antiquated, irrelevant, too obvious for these mangled (and yes also emancipatory) times. A shame, mostly. I qualify this statement because it can appear thus – as if the lyric from a non-politicized perspective (though, of course, one could argue that the angle from which anything is examined is political – as one did in the 70s), is a now-tired tune, a side-stepping ditty of emptiness, a rococo so what. Miranda Pearson’s Rail only occasionally made me fall into that feeling and mainly when an ending trailed off as in “Degas Women,” whose promise felt curtailed or when a metaphor was super same old same old like “Magdalene” with its portrayal of personified trees with “boney fingers” and “wild grey hair.”
More often however, the compressed intensities and essential groundings of the lyric are evident in Pearson’s poems. And since when are depictions of nature, relationship, or aging passe? I certainly don’t want to live in a world, as Bertolt Brecht said,
“…when To talk about trees is almost a crime Because it implies silence about so many horrors.”
The first poem, “Camber Sands,” plunges the reader into the collection’s overriding tone: a graceful melancholia, an elegant engagement with time and locale. I hear Patti Smith’s meanderings in M Train at the start of the piece: “the sand drifted on to our shores/and into the corners of the Kit-Kat cafe” and at the end’s return: “the beach grass and long-beaked curlew…the cafe boarded up for winter. /The sand.” Pearson rarely wows with her sounds but she does pursue a consistent and quiet music in words such as chevron, floe, chivalrous, hedgerows – some diction, invariably, “Kentish,” others derived from the Scots, like the strange term “Hentilagets,” meaning clumps of sheep’s wool. Rail is most potent when it offers the tightly honed lyric like the perfect “Fox” (of course reminiscent of but not imitative of Ted Hughes). In three exquisite quatrains it accurately describes the animal while accessing the residue of its mystery too in “Beauty you wish you could/touch but it breaks away,/a sprinter in cinnamon or rust…Over the green/contours of the field, /her supple canter. But silent,/silent. Answering the dark.” Yum!
As a half-Brit, the landscapes that Pearson sketches resonate with me, from Brighton to Whitby, these being her most powerful pieces, along with those that depict her mother’s quirks and eventual unraveling (especially the tender convolutions of what may be a last Scrabble game in “Stroke”) Also, the three part elaboration on a paint box that contains the startling concept of a friendship that is still able to “wick” and the stunning resonance of the final couplet – “Line, line – /I have forgotten how to feel sorrow.” Although I would have axed the sequence Abacus as it seemed clunky, a stumbly departure from the flow of the other poems (and also, I loathe math ;), the remainder of Rail, though not a fashionable railing against per se, is a strong and solid line through land and memory, giving the reader a reliable melody to live within.
Reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography recently, I came across one of his methods for deciding what stays and what goes in any particular recording. “I edited out anything that broke the album’s mood or tension,” he says, wanting the final creation to be more vision than summation. Now, the risk of publishing a volume of poems that span over 30 years, even when it’s a Selected or Collected, is the feeling of mish-mash, an unsatisfying leaping between disparate subject matters that don’t quite gel, and possibly, if some of the pieces come from a much earlier era, the sense that they had their day and it isn’t now, whether in content or style.
David Haskins has been writing poetry a long time but hasn’t published much of it, due to a variety of work and personal factors. Thus Blood Rises gathers a host of poems that arch over time, place, thought, relationship, emotion and ability. I found myself wishing (again!) that publishers didn’t have a page quota for books in relation to block grants. Because not all books need to be 75 plus pages. I personally would pay the same for a book that was 30 pages where most every poem felt it was supposed to be there. These are the books one remembers, carries around in one’s pocket, cherishes.
It’s a lovely design and size for pocketing. The cover of The Phantom Hunter in the blues and greys of a snowy mountain recalls a boy’s adventure story and the diameters are narrower than many a Canadian poetry book. And there are a plethora of strong pieces here. Especially the ones on politics and grief. I had the pleasure of including David’s journal piece on the death of his wife in my volume of memoirs called Locations of Grief: an emotional geography (Wolsak and Wynn, 2020) and he evinces a rarely translatable empathy for both strangers and his beloved. There are eight sections in this book. Of these, the strongest poems are in Part 2: the wild among us, Part 3: cranial teapots, pelvic bowls, Part 5: naked again he writes and Part 7: beneath the civil skin. Thus, the pieces on nature, politics, Canadian poets, and loss. The first piece that struck me joyfully was “Forgiven” about Haskins’ sister’s passing and how a butterfly, “Sheltered from the huzzah of wind” appeared, leading to his realization that he didn’t want to ever “kill beauty to keep it.” A poem or two later, the piece “Punting on the Cherwell” instead left me with a cliched taste in my mouth as I read such phrases as “practiced athlete/true line/certain grace/silent passage/grinning Cheshire cat” and the unfortunately archaic contraction of “‘neath.” The volume is undoubtedly editorially uneven, as one spanning such immensities would be, if one wants (or needs) to make up a sufficiently lengthy work.
So, poems I loved: the solid three stanzas of November (apart from the tired, “gulls wheel,” I thought the rest potent with the “cold boring through their sheen” and the knowing that they “take what comes/the provident drizzle, the empty sky”), Spring Rain (the essential doom of “Nothing is enough. The water keeps rising”), the stunning perceptions of violence in Are there No Fish in Guatamala?, The Reason (a roundel variant that could have benefitted from tightening in the third stanza but whose first two stanzas are amazing with the repetitions at start and end of “I am the cancer wanting more” and “If not for me they would earn no wage”), How to Write a Canadian Poem (though it’s super dated, stemming from the 80s ;), along with Poetry Reading and Earle Birney, two pieces about renegade poets, the first of which, Milton Acorn, Haskins can remind one of (also evoking Robert Bringhurst and WS Merwin at times!), Holding On, Dementia (on his father), Things I do to Miss you (a poem also in the Locations anthology), Burning Chair (Oh the ow of the final two lines: “Once again I must turn the earth, find a place/below the surface, suited to receiving salvage”), a Tinge of Blue, and a poem in the travel sequence about Machu Picchu at the end, Dead Woman’s Pass (“I receive my souvenir passport stamp/and wait with the rest for the sky to brighten”).
Haskins concludes Blood Rises with the line “I am defined by what my imagination eats.” And this collection, though a bit overly-filling at moments, is undoubtedly one man’s powerful life feast.
The cover of this book by Anna Weyant (and U of A always does lusciously chamois ones) is stunning, holding the eye with an octopi-fall of titian hair that coils over a set of unclasped jewels with Magritte-style clouds indifferently floating in their Brueghel-world. The title, The Bad Wife, instantly conjures up its ironic opposite, Chaucer’s supposedly “good” wife of Bath, who, with her five husbands and somewhat trashy persona, is indubitably not so. But what is good and bad in relation to a wife in our society, hundreds of years on? Usually, it relates to perceptions of monogamy. A wife who sexually cheats cannot, according to mainstream Western culture, be good; regardless of all the other positive acts she may undertake, this betrayal effectively annuls them (grrrrrr). So is Micheline Maylor playing with this belief system, mocking this notion or at least toying with its hard-and-fastness? It seems so.
In the long poem in ragged segments that composes the last half of the book, “Omen: Calla Lillies,” Maylor states: “Art is the practice of recognising/a responsibility to detail” and she achieves this aim throughout, being utterly loyal and faithful to the minutiae of break-up. She writes of the application of “light pink eye shadow from Shoppers Drug Mart” (How to Become a Bad Wife), of the wife’s ankles and vulva, of her ex “mowing the lawn in [his] underwear…the sun-bleached Celtic glacial tint of [his] eyes” (Inclement Weather), and the “fresh wreck” of a bird slamming into glass like a brute symbol of loss (The Pine Siskin). The Bad Wife is an incantation of what-was, a litany of what-ifs, a sorcery of c’est la vie through which ghosts of Sexton and Shakespeare whisper, amid resonances of such living (and tough) poets as Sharon McCartney, Chase Twichell and Susan Musgrave.
Powerhouse pieces include: Two Men (“The last time you tried to touch me, I flinched. I think/how to let go? Easy. Drop a snow globe.” You see how the assonance and rhythm in flinched/think and go/snow/globe makes these lines sing?), The Danger in Georgian Guest Houses (“an organic restaurant blackens fish/near the antique place with buckets of doll heads,” the erratic aural but not actual villanelle patterns of The Pine Siskin (“a life hack/an inside yearning, a witchy tarot pack”), No Matter the Shape of Things, You are Much Missed and its “small relentlessness” of sparrows, and Inclement Weather (“Let’s not forget, none of it was a waste…the slim, sliced schist”).
Of course there are a few toss-aways, or poems like “The Bad Wife’s Clavicle” that could have benefitted from a lengthening, and a couple of lines such as “My shoes are milk-thistle kitten heels, almost remorseless and almost vast” that made me shake my head with the WTF of surreal excess, but most of Maylor’s lyrics are buffed and pumped sonic weapons of distress with threads of triumph within them, of, at the very least, the ability to feel fully. The long poem needs nearly to be taken in one fell swoop like a one night stand of do-si-doing with pain and return. At the close, or near it, Maylor writes: “I trusted you to water me/But we’re made of cosmic-glass-dust/We’ve shown each other that much.” Such beautiful fallibilities and quirky hymns to being wholly human take The Bad Wife way beyond the binaries of blame and into life’s real stages, unafeard, unashamed.
Ok here goes the proverbial can of worms: middle aged, white male worms to be precise. If you do a Google search for those beasts these days, a host of article titles pop up, among them – “Should White Men Stop Writing?” “The Case of the Disappearing Poet” and “Goodbye Old White Male Poets.” Now obviously these creatures are still getting published (though getting read is a whole other ball game for us all!) but the question is should they? Maybe they should take a break and give balance, representation and other racial and sexual identities a chance. Would this work? Is our internal bias still prone to giving the dominant voice a continued dominance? Is it possible to be age, gender and colour blind in the assessment of art? So many tough questions. I’m about to review poetry books by two of the above-categorized humans and I just wrote a review of another one prior to this. Is this because this is the poetry I like? Or just the books that are being sent me? Why, if a press has such a limited number of poetry titles they can release each season, would they choose two by white men? Should they have to consider this or is just “what they like” good enough. Or “what they found to be the best in quality.” And if so, is this true or is this bias? It’s very very complicated. I personally would love to float around in a world where we were all invisible and art sprung from our auras in the most pure of ways but that’s obviously fantasy. Is the poem now less of interest than the identity politics or the subject matter? Is this a tragic or a necessary transition? I do so want poems read as craft, singing, form and not just as the human behind them. And no human should be told they can’t create art, ever (though obviously they have, over and over again). But how will there be justice for both art and its creators when we are not transparent, bodiless, history-less beings?
Enough questions for now. Are these collections any good? What does good mean? (you see soon I will have to descend into silence as taking any stance is too improbable when every utterance can be incessantly questioned). Well, white middle aged male subject matter in this day and age could be construed as somewhat dull. There are wives and children and jobs, a smidgen of travel or the noticing of others here and there, the inevitably decaying body, dying parents and an overall tone of perplexed ennui – “I have it all or did or could have,” the poems mumble plaintively, “but what did it or does it mean?” Leaping from this partially serious razz, let’s address the collections at hand, both apparently second ones (though Unwin’s bio disagrees with the back copy, saying he’s really the author of nine books so huh?) from poets in the above category who both transcend and don’t the listed subject matter.
Peter Unwin in The Infinite Parade (fantastic cover by the way with its eroding urban landscape) assumes a variety of personas related to domesticity and aging. Certainly more empathic than those “choleric, Scotch-spotted” skirt chasing “white male British authors from the sixties” as one poem goes, Unwin is able to imagine himself a wife (The Pros & Cons of my Husband), a clicheed kid-killer (The Fatal Skin), the old (The Lost Wallets of the Elderly) and even indiscreet furniture (Consider the Bedside Table.) In between these are musings on fatherhood, crows and the pathetic vulnerabilities inherent in contemporary society whose citizens’ “heads are in the oven along with the frozen lasagna” because “someone mocked [them] on social media.” It’s a desperate, sardonic world where the punchlines never quite climax, many lines are uppercase as if pounding home a vital fact while they wither in their content, the stanzas are both solid and formless, and no one “even had time to get cancer anymore.” Geez, now I’m depressed. All the speaker will receive after these indignities will be to fetch “the Big Guy a glass of wine at one of those book events,” which one can liminally attend perhaps but never be the star of (again? ever?). “Poetry Town” is grim. “The Lesson of the Master” speaks of a “dedication to the intricacies of art” that precludes all real intimacies but hey, it results in weird turtle obsessions and an “aluminum walker” anyway so why bother trying to preserve oneself for delusions of greatness. Boy, now I’m even more sunk 😉 Eeyore verse this is, with a wink of course, but also a secretive shot of mythical absinthe. The best pieces resonate with the dryly humorous narration of a poet like Szymborska or Zagajewski or Larkin, a refusal to take serious what is mortal to the point that “only the dead/have things to worry about” and those anxieties reside in the relentless re-reading they must have to do of those “Blockbuster family saga novels/that people leave behind at the cottage.” I enjoyed Lost (with its Bishop echoes), The Blue Train, The Harbour Woman, The Language of Crows and a range of lyrics that poke mercilessly at poets who are “dead broke and brilliant” and often too busy boinking. As Unwin states in a poem called Get Real, “with everything that’s happening/do you really think it’s the right time/to have a meaningful conversation…?” Nah, I guess not.
Michael Lithgow (whom I believe I encountered in Vancouver in the 90s?) circles similar content to Unwin (domesticity, fatherhood, the home, the road and mortality) but in a very different fashion; his poems are more sedate, moody, serious, and moving, especially in relation to scenes of Downtown Eastside poverty and his own father’s death. There are nil jabs at poesie here. Variations on doom are few. Nature for one, is usually cruel (red in tooth and claw?). Songbirds have lice (The Difference between Us), ducks are “dark burrs” (Weakening), the loon has a “broken and crude” cry (Artist Statement for Found Sounds at the Lake). There’s no respite in humans either. “Everything has an invoice” and the once-fun of cigarettes has now turned to cancer (You Can’t Take these Summers), the neighbours’ “private agonies and pleasures” seep “through the plaster” amid the “hectoring sound of [his] irrelevance” (Different Sounds. And most poets can, alas, relate) as “little bits of [him] are perishing everywhere” (Mechanics.) Not one bit droll. And yet I relished the sonorities, the tones, and the poised and multitudinous stanzaic structures in these elegies for everything. I did. Lithgow oxymoronically captures the falling in each entity, harnesses the vertiginous qualities of being human in an endlessly shifting universe. “Floating here/is a full-time job” he states in A Falling of Things, a man who is held aloft by history, responsibilities, a knowledge of loss, loneliness. Among the mentioned poems, I also deeply appreciated What Revolutions I have Left to Live, so honest with its commentary on boredom and the hunger he “once had for upheaval…tremors of instability” that even now he senses “augur beauty,” Vancouver, a very familiar land to me, from Pigeon Park to Spanish Banks and the Eliotian Tremors on the Road with its “exhaustion in April.” And he also quotes one of my core poets, Robinson Jeffers, from Continent’s End! Who We Thought We Were As We Fell is by no means a cheerful collection. And should it be? Of course not. Middle aged white male poets suffer too 😉 And I recall a poet once apologizing for the “dark, depressing nature” of the poems she was about to recite and I reminded her, “You don’t have to say sorry. We’re all adults here.”
This is Paul Pearson’s first book but it reads more like what it is, a compilation of poems that have taken years to assemble, most of them grounded around an obsession with Galileo (1564-1642) a natural philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician who made fundamental contributions to the sciences of motion, astronomy, and to the development of the scientific method. He also made revolutionary telescopic discoveries, including the four largest moons of Jupiter. His advocacy of the Copernican heliocentric system eventually resulted in an Inquisition, troubling his later years. Pearson, however, derives much of his Galilean inspiration from a book published in 1999 by Dava Sobel called Galileo’s Daughter, in which letters from his illegitimate convent-held eldest to him are drawn from as the basis for a narration and conversation regarding the connections between science and life. The chapter headings in Sobel’s book became the titles for the poems in the initial section of Lunatic Engine (love this title!), a tactic that initially seems far from compelling but ends up being incredibly engaging. If you read reviews of Sobel’s book you will see that it appears to either entrance or repel, and Pearson is obviously from the former camp. Over the course of a decade, he states, these poems evolved in response to Sobel’s story, all the pieces in the first part not only taking titular material from her account but also fragments of conversation between father and daughter, inserted into poems at random or pointed moments, thus enlarging the dialogue to include Pearson and his family.
It’s certainly a curious set of texts. The poems are mostly lower case, set in a variety of stanzaic forms, not excessively rhythmic for the most part, though far from lax, and serve as a compelling melding of ancient lines and modern content, from the personal of bathing an infant “clenched up red…in the same tub…the same fist,” to primordial nature, “the coelacanth/the trilobite the primordial/muck” to Star Trek, hysterectomies, Mars, Catholicism, and, of course, Galileo himself. I found that I had to get into the experiment and let myself go in its strangeness to absorb its aims. The main aspect of this was growing accustomed to glancing down to the footnotes on most pages, featuring lines from Galileo’s daughter’s letters that provide meta-texts for the pieces. As in the extended exercise in simile, “How Anxiously I Live, Awaiting Word from You” that states, in part, “I have read the holes you have left behind” with the numbers 21-36 referring the reader to the bottom of the page where the quotation is “this is everything/I need to tell you/for the moment,” which one can ponder in relation to the fact that the poem continues with its accretive lines: “like gravity reads the snowdrifts at my door/like snow reads the drifts of nests in empty trees/like birds read the empty endless dreams of cats” and so forth.
The second section, “(Or Move Within It),” takes the footnotes from the first segment and creates two poems, one from the footnotes, re-combined and the other the lines the footnotes refer to. Then it invites the reader to concoct their own experiment, and thereby remain as curious about the universe as was Galileo. I must say I had a dream I was doing so (it somehow involved using the numbers in chronological fashion) but haven’t yet. Regardless, fascinating. The third part, “Baedeker,” I found to be the weakest as it’s very short and its lyrics to Callisto and Europa might have been reconfigured into the first or fourth series of pieces instead. “Bibliography,” however, the final sequence, was potent with quotes from both the Bible and Galileo commencing each piece, allowing for much meditation on spiritual and scientific matters like motion, the comets, sunspots and tides. I heard Christopher Smart in Pearson’s anaphoric resonances: “that which is spiralled and spun into every living cell/that which keeps bodies atop water…that which applies torque/that which measures camber.” Ooooo lovely. It’s not easy to write about such subjects but Pearson has taken that risk and, kin to Galileo, he has, in some small measure, through his fidelity to his muse, expanded our poetic comprehension of being.
“But to walk naked is, of course, no guarantee of achievement in the arts….[some poems] are more compulsively concerned with the processes of psychoanalysis than with those of poetry” A. Alvarez on Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in The New Poetry, 1962.
Sharon McCartney’s seventh collection Villa Negativa (of course a play on the notion of the Via Negativa – that one cannot access god via his positive qualities as the state of being human is too flawed – so villa – an inhabiting though with resonances of holiday? temporality? exoticism? Somehow a villa is never where one permanently lives – to my mind at least), probably shouldn’t be subtitled “a memoir in verse.” Such a concept immediately conjures up Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate: a novel in verse, which is wholly in an iambic tetrametre rhyme scheme. Memoirs yes, three of them: one on difficult relationships with still-hard-to-give-up douche bags, one of a sister, horribly crippled both by a neurological disorder and a blandly incommunicado family, and the last of her own torturous childhood anorexia. But in verse? According to the dictionary (to which one must always return when words lose their resonance), verse is “writing arranged with a metrical rhythm, typically having a rhyme.”
McCartney has written exceedingly rhythmical poems (in For and Against, Hard Ass and Under the Abdominal Wall, among others) and this is one of the reasons she holds a place of high esteem in the Canadian poetry scene for me, and there are, without doubt, sounds in these pieces, from the repetitions of “alone, alone, oh to be alone,” in the first sequence “I am who I am”, to the eponymous words “agonal and preterminal,” among other medical jargon in the second section, to anorexia’s staccato ruptures in lines like: “It’s not lust. I do not want them./I want to be them. Flat. Sharp. /Clothes loose on my limbs./ [textual lacuna]/ It is lust” that punctuate the final narration. But verse? That word even has an old fashioned connotation and none of the work in Villa Negativa features old school modes of talking about any of this troubling subject matter in the present day, namely silence or possibly worse, platitudes. Verse sets up other kinds of expectations than this collection delivers. And does genre matter here anyway?
Even though I wouldn’t restrict Villa Negativa to terms like poetry, never mind verse, that doesn’t mean I didn’t find much to ummmm, nourish me in these pieces (minus the first and last toss-away lyrics, which are really just steamrolled sentences). Though there’s little to tap your toes to, there’s a ton to empathize over, rage against, or even pshaw in disdain towards, usually in the face of some sad sack male character. Echoes of Lynn Crosbie’s Lies and more distant ones of Sharon Olds’ general yen to truth-tell ring out in “I am not who I am,” albeit in a more sardonic, less sensual way. Beginning with the undeniable truth, “The urge to text is always there,” this piece follows such an acknowledgment by introducing the reader to the philandering fabricator and later, the sappy luthier and, as more tragic backdrop, the husband she left because she loved him too too much. It’s mostly a hoot to follow all these schmucks around (though I wanted to scream at the Sharon-persona a few times – why are you trying to find the luthier bearable? – yes I became irritated when struck by a former mirror – run, woman, run!) because McCartney provides a plethora of doors through which to enter the accounts: emails, notes on nature, texts, comments from friends, allusions to things read or listened to like Allan Watts or Bach and endless self-questionings. This knowledge of how to texture and pace a narrative is utterly key to the reader’s enjoyment. Crosbie’s account, by contrast, was simply too long, for one, to sustain engagement in the navel-tickling.
“Agonal and Preterminal,” the second piece, perfectly sketches a painful portrait of an era of institutionalization, medicalese and the hush of shame (“No one ever talks about it,/what has happened to our family”) and although the third sequence, “Anorexica,” is sparser (how apropos) and more prone to philosophical statement, it holds its own power, see-sawing between details of calorie-small food (“raw green cabbage…dill pickles”), rich images of her “rococo sundress” or porpoises that “fling themselves,” and admonitions from Sartre on the ineffability of desire.
I liked Villa Negativa‘s Don Coles or Robert Kroetsch style of pointed reportage. Though I was somewhat wary at times of what it wanted to call itself, its slippery positionings. But hey, it’s a villa, visit, don’t believe everything you’re told in the ad, enjoy the stuff that’s there, and go home to Casa Positiva again for awhile 😉
Before beginning, a wish. That we stop with the back cover blurbs that assess the poet’s work as either “stellar….life-altering…one of the greats…at the top of their game” or else as “underappreciated…she has received less attention than she deserves.” And etc. Neither are accurate as both assessments are time-bound and poetry is far from interested in either accolades or regrets. I personally discovered M. Travis Lane’s poems roaming around the library one rainy Saturday when I was in my late teens (it was Solid Things: Poems New and Selected) and have read her work off and on since. Such mysterious readers, random and faithful, are all we need desire as poets. This singular communication of music that sustains. And why would Lane’s poems: resonant but understated in the manner of Anne Marriot or Ralph Gustafson, PK Page or Margaret Avison, Jaan Kaplinski or Li Po, ever imagine the masses? Let’s allow the poems to breathe on their own, as they are, minus the hoopla, the relentless human urge to bumpf. We all know that laurels are fleeting and oblivion generally guaranteed beyond a generation. Or even a season, these days.
Keeping Count is indeed Lane’s 18th collection, a gorgeously designed piece of Modernist geometry. She remains consistent to her visions: the natural elements (wind, river, birds), loss, the realities of aging, and solitude amid faint traces of earned weariness. The three sections: Inside, Outside and Way Out seem to somewhat overlap in locale and subject matter and the structure of the poems flows from fixed stanzas as in the four triadic lines of “No Dice” that concludes with a consonantal end-rhythmed line (cat/out) to looser ones rambling between randomly-lined revelations. They have a formal feel, some of them, (say “The Comfort that we Knew” with its rhymed couplets of grief/leaf and plain/again) or even an archaic one, diction-wise, as in the Tennysonian-imbued “The Rocking Chair in the Recovery Room” with its solemn quartet of final adjectives: “human, imperfect, injured and unkind,” amid words such as compassion and concepts of God, but none are precisely set forms, and most feature more taut and vivid language. I’ve long been drawn to Lane’s relationship with nature, from her direct familiarity with her cats (“Cat Davy and I were watching TV/hoping they’d show us something else/on Baffin”) to the views outside her window or on walks. Beautiful sounds abound then, as in “the river is clotted with scuttled ice,” the birds who “vanished into their vanishing” (there I hear echoes of Szymborska!), the fox’s return to its “wind-shagged den” and the chipmunks who look upon the speaker in a “conciergerie/who sit on my front doorstep as if I/were less important than a leaf.”
Pieces that feature people as their central subjects are less successful to my ear, though there are at least three stand-outs: “Live in HD” with its sharp descriptors of being in a mall where the “smell of rancid butter…/drenches the crowded atrium” in poignant contrast to the forest beyond and its “candled tufts of withered weeds,” the moving image of the widow in “For Ruth” who lets the “old cat lick [her] thighs” as she recalls her “husband’s weight” while drifting in the passage of time, and the nursing home poem in ragged parts, “Outside for an Hour” that potently and painfully evokes the patience, helplessness and quiet fury of a “geriatrician” whose wheelchair’s “stuck in the molting lawn” until she rings her “help bell.” I think, when I read Lane’s lifetime of poetry, of William Carlos William’s notion that it is difficult (as in not readily available, rather than inaccessible, content-wise) to get the news from poems but that people die miserably every day from having had no access to what poetry can reveal. Lane’s poems teach us to hear and see and to move with our true selves intact towards all of the inevitable ends.
First, I must express a little wince at being left off the list of poets who have shown “interest in these poems.” I think two reviews and the inclusion of a discussion of Vermeersch’s work in my essay on Elegiac Displacements & the Trans-Elegy in Contemporary Canadian Eco-Poems constitutes interest. But hey, I’m not from Toronto 😉
So, moving on as one must, how does one review not only a new and selected collection but one so determined to side-step, transcend and otherwise pooh-pooh the traditionally chronological approach to the genre? I think I’ll start by pasting in two of my prior elucidations of Vermeersch’s poems here and see if I still agree with them. The initial piece is from the above-mentioned essay:
“An even more powerful attempt at this unification process is Paul Vermeersch’s poem “Ape” from his 2010 book The Reinvention of the Human Hand. In three anaphoric segments, Vermeersch calls forth the ape in all its natural, commodified and brutalized guises, asking it to talk to us, to tell us what it has suffered and also, what it has rejoiced in. While mourning the fact that humans have slaughtered apes in “bushmeat trade & war zone” and tortured them in “research-centre sanctuaries with hoseable linoleum floors” (19-20), the speaker still asserts that these acts, though horrendous, do not have to mark a damning separation as in the one-sided conversation between Merwin and the grey whale from “For a Coming Extinction”. Instead, the poet calls humans and apes “family” and contrasts the “book” whose “black covers” hold, I imagine, all the world’s dark elegies, with the “stories” that can “make things closer,” their tales of balanced narration resorting to neither a “happily ever after” nor “the end is nigh” kinds of closure.”
Yes, “Ape” remains the most powerful poem Vermeersch has likely ever written, a Ginsburgian incantation, rawly emotional, vividly rupturing, a tripartite tragic yawp that remains major (as poems are but poets aren’t in the future’s sour dust).
And here’s another chunk of praiseful critique, this time from my review of Don’t Let it End Like This, Tell Them I Said Something (ECW 2014):
Vermeersch’s chorus of textual eidolons is manifestly inviting. From the first section of the initial long poem, “Magog,” the voices drag you in exquisitely. With questions, with the delectable contrasts between the flattened demotic of “blankety blank” and the rare slang of “gungy,” with the sonnet structure, with traceries of myth and with the tone of romantic eco-despair in the last four assonantly-singing lines: “We dreamt they loved us; all was clover./But we woke to a cough, and the rude birds,/silky and distant in their aerial world,/were clearing their throats for no one.” I also loved the shattered glosas in the section, The Toys of the Future Escape Me, the tangibly-garish Bernsteinian “prompts” like “Write the names of endangered species all over your body. Whenever a species goes extinct, surgically remove the corresponding body part,” and many of the multi-media centos in Rubble, especially #4 and #10 (stronger than many lyrics these days likely because they are composed of what is essentially “best of” lines). And his stunning, self-led elegy in three parts, “I became like a wooden Ark. The lives of animals filled me.” Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether poems are perceived as “self” or “other” produced. Not when they are as memorable as much of Vermeersch’s output.
Indeed, re-reading these poems in their new re-formed texts within this collection I continue to feel moved by many, but am still essentially distrustful of the cento form, as compelling an experiment as it is. However, in a sense, this book is a massive cento of all of Vermeersch’s influences, ghosts, memories, planetary spheres, nightmares, and other stinging flotsam & jetsam of a wildly discursive, diverging and deadly mind. I personally didn’t need the word-laden Tysdal essay (or at least it could have been positioned at the end where the reader could have reflected on it in the post-leisure of entering the poems freshly) nor all the heavy blurbs on the back. It’s time to release poems into the world free from these baggages and let them sing in their own selves. If I want to read a poet, I will, gushes be damned. I ached to carve each of these combinative books out and suspend them in their quivering ectoplasmic melodies and visions as if on a mobile, watching how they stir separately and en masse.
That said, the only pieces that didn’t click with me were from Vermeersch’s The Fat Kid (2002), mostly because they are quite prosy and their endings often clunk, but I can see where they fit on the foundation of his work. Given my fascination with ecology and extinct species, for me the collection really started to re-cling to my cortex in the booklet, “Creatures of Another Ark,” featuring pieces from The Re-invention of the Human Hand (2010). “Another Ark,” the kick-off poem, is truly stunning in its quatrains of what is not, featuring delectable diction such as sarcophagi, manticore, constellation, scanning resonantly in its anaphora and Lear-echoed ending: “It is not the ark that will save you and all that you love. /No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. It is another ark.” The titular intro poem in the booklet “Required Modifications for the Transhuman” with its oracular opening line: “The next Earth will require more of us,” its Latinate word, chromatophores, that chimes against the simple Anglo-Saxon of skin, and the startling visual of the speaker being in “salamander” while “you’ll be/in bright cuttlefish,” is also tremulous, as is the stirring I Became like a Wooden Ark The Lives of Animals filled me with its nostalgic pangs of the era, 1973, when “the Age of Wood was in decline.”
The Imaginary World is Now Available in your Choice of Two or Three Dimensions too contains a range of wham-bam poems like the Acorn-response “I Feel Love: HI-NRG” (the collection features many pieces “after” this or that poet or other influence, a wonderful and essential gesture when interspersed with other non-tribute based works). Again, Vermeersch is at his most vital when he draws on the vatic voice, a rarity in Can-Po, utilizing repetition, anaphora, and the potent directive line. “I feel love in the repetition. I feel love in the/repetition of the myth” as he states in the above piece. Three Anthropomorphic Studies with its Ashberyian mojo is truly mind-blowing in its melding of visions. I adore the discombobulating concluding lines of 1. Duck Season: “Flying cars shimmer in the sunrise below us/and the satellites are pulling at the seas;” 2. Call me Coyote’s delectable sounds in “the saguaros are too green/for the angular, never-setting sun” ;and 3. Rabbit Season with its promise to “perform a slow libidinous rumba for your/lonesome aching heart.” The collection concludes with an array of Vermeersch’s light verse of which I am particularly fond of Little Fatso with his Doomsday Machine.
Risky variety is crucial, and if more comminglings like this existed perhaps we could overcome our obsession with the “first book” and how all should both evolve for the writer’s skills as they publish text after text and, at the same time, how so often their literary “reputation” stales after two releases as, well they’ve had their fifteen seconds, and we’re onto the next one, if not even as readers, but as gold star givers. Snooze. The cover of this hardcover (wow, still amazed) is wonderfully bright and goofy with its cyborg/cyclopian bunny and I wish there were a few reproductions of Vermeersch’s fantastical art within, like those found in Gary Barwin’s recent New and Selected. Without doubt, as with with the concocted Paid Advertisements at the back, this collection will indeed gift you with “Fuller, Stronger, Active Cranial Tentacles in Just 5 Minutes!” 🙂
Rarely does a New & Selected come along that doesn’t feel like even a slight chore to read – either due to its unnecessary heftiness, or to the inclusion of obvious and banal juvenilia, but Barwin’s mondo tome is a sweet and easeful beast. This doesn’t mean I relished every poem/sound/visual that appears on these sleek pages, only that wow, is it a smooth read for so much divergence and variety, a generous feast of multiplicities rather than a slog.
“What happens when we open the barmy adore of words…?” Barwin asks in a later, uncollected poem, and he answers it in all his discombobulatory collections with a plethora of scales and syllables, lexical arrests, animalifications, slippery signifiers and plosive pronouns – a jazz-brained, tooth-scarred, Dada-O Hara-Cornell-Ashberian ragged escarpment of everything and the kitchen sink (or would that be the skitchen kink) too. The only unwieldy (at times) part of this New and Selected to read is the introduction by editor Alessandro Porco and not because it doesn’t offer most excellent facts, interpretations, and trajectories relating to Barwin’s life & work – mainly because I was chomping at that proverbial bit to read the pieces instead and would have preferred the placement of this essay to serve more the role of an illuminating postscript. Barwin is beyond explanation anyway. His stuff just is and if you need elaboration of the why prior you may not be his reader.
I first encountered Barwin through his collaboration with Derek Beaulieu, Frogments from the Frag Pond, their transformation of Basho, and it’s still my favourite of his books, emphasizing all the astonishing playfulness of the language-animal in imaginative reversals such as: “the pond leaps, surrounding the frog like a raincoat.” Ludic amusements are available in rampant assemblages throughout this collection, from a reprint of the early “phases of the harpsichord moon,” reproduced in its typewritten glory, to “Martin’s Idea,” prose chunks about a prescient talking dog, to a surreal and strangely emotional tale called “Defrosting Disney” in which Mickey Mouse is given a heart transplant with his maker’s ticker, the teller a “spelunker” of a surgeon, and the more profound absurdity of “Sesame Street’s Count is my Grandfather,” a perfect example of Barwin’s ability to expose Jewish forms of consciousness to those who come from alternate sensibilities, the Count “chanting the numbers….the empty chairs at the Seder” and the speaker reminding this humble puppet that “I see you, Count, a survivor.”
There are beautiful poems here amid lesser sillinessess like “Moon Baboon Canoe” ( I reviewed this book in 2014 and wasn’t a massive fan, but somehow these loopy moments make more essential sense when set amid the overall gist of Barwin’s oeuvre). Lovely pieces that stand out are the visual poems: “how i watched until the moon was caught in a tree,” a simple sequential sketch of letters, words and phrases becoming snagged on a line, as well as the baton-patterns of “Door Sonnet” and the coloured panel “Birch Murmur” where the M and U sounds meld with the dark bark slashes. Also, the six-part poem “Seedpod Microfiche,” a lullaby to minutiae and consciousness (“seedpod is the nape/of springtime on the map of trees”), “Needleminer” with its ghost blackbirds and delectable sentences such as “Like a suitcase marsh wren, adipose bulrush, like an occipital coffee/cup golf cart, a constellation of grackles,” and “Dark Matter Punctuation” that gives those silent marks an “erotic bleat of the saxophone” voicing. Powerful too are Barwin’s pieces for Carmel Purkis with its pitchforks and birds (“civilization”), for Kathryn Mockler where a nipple, twisted, opens up a compartment and “WTF inside me was hope” (“Combination”) and “Invisible Deer,” a melancholic yet funny paean to lost ecologies and aging, the speaker closing by running his “hands through cloud material” so he will know what it is “like to be old.”
Barwin is an irreducible force as a maker: musician, artist, poet, fabulist and all around bon vivant of being fully alive. This New & Selected presents the range of his energies in as zingy and vivid a way as possible upon the limited field of the page.
“Poetry is a lie/dummies insist is faithful” (Counter-Earth). I am nearly at the end of Lindsay’s second collection when I read the line that seems to sum this book up. Its tone anyway, possibly its underlying motivation. Sardonic, cynical, sly, bereft, gutted of hope. Or is it. Steeped in the abyss of Auden’s famed line: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Ahhhh but read on….”it survives in the valley of its making where executives would never want to tamper….a way of happening, a mouth” (In memory of W.B. Yeats). Essential detachments. Unique modes. Latent potencies. Not the void. Phew.
Lindsay’s assemblage begins with a piece that closes by quoting Donald Britton’s line: “It’s all a terrible lie” and, of course, as befits the Double Self-Portrait concept concludes with the titularly-eponymous poem (possibly the most compellingly “honest” piece in the book) that absorbs the Britton (who also recurs in the central poem, “Repro Ditto”) and spits out the regurgitated last line again: “especially since it’s all a terrible lie.” I get it. I do. But I must say it’s depressing, such bonging insistence on futility. Not in the way speaking of death or grief or even bloody accidents can be, but how listening to shoe gaze music is, or watching endlessly falling leaves that, instead of feeding the soil, instead sink into a bath of acid, or seeing someone staring blankly at a wall and when you ask if they are ok they mumble some incomprehensible response like, “Eating is control in a sport that rewards those who accrue transparency towards/the light source” (Mine Light). Say what? Anyone who knows me understands I’m obsessed with John Ashbery -who is often obscure, weird, opaque. But, somehow, there is always life-juice in his work, a bit of an underlying giggle or swoon, whereas many of Lindsay’s poems have already argued themselves out of traces of longing, echoes of fervency, as if having spiritus is simply gauche, uncool, maybe even irresponsible. Charles Simic once said, poetry is “an exchange of a particular kind of energy” and the transference here is dispirited, “this cold reading” (Survivors), full of drizzle and shadows and fucked-up Freud and shot Lorca and alone bodies. His passion for Jeff Wall’s art is, however, an omnipresent thread, giving this reader a sense of the potential jouissance lying in wait.
After all, I also reviewed Lindsay’s first book, Our Inland Sea (Wolsak & Wynn, 2015) and noted it was “intelligent, ironic, rueful, full of urban ennui.” All still true in Double Self-Portrait. But the jubilant word play has lessened, the lexical energy been a bit flat-lined. It’s still bouncing however in poems like The Revelry of Others (“I will forget to send them a Christmas card/and build a gilded guilt out of it. The worst the introvert heard/was an invite’s bing-binging, the doorbell’s ding donging”), the “ooooos and wooooos grew in intensity….the lake’s glass eczema whispering” (Oooos and Wooos), Travel and Leisure with its crucial lines “There are many poems about bees/failing to be bees in the liberal world/because of new chemicals and sound” or the essential repetitions of Stupid Machine with its sensory recollections of “What you are hearing….what you are smelling.” There are other poems that stir beyond the belly-button level anxiety of the excessively traversed ego and its discombobulated raiment, but I didn’t find enough to feel super yes about this collection. Well written, occasionally subtly funny (“Kiss me,/ I have opinions” Kiss Me, Man-Child), but too deep in the muck of the 21st century’s downer-wagon where the closures often drop you fast and “sarcasm’s shitty shield” (Between Wars) is all too frequently deployed.
The Only Card in a Deck of Knives, Lauren Taylor’s first, is equally brainy (though in an entirely different way – more to contextualize than quash) with overt admonishments (akin to Lindsay’s) that we readers should not entirely trust the narrator (though this feels more like an acknowledgement of fluidity rather than a doom-warning), as one should not rely on the body (so readily wounded, disabled, violated) as a permanently sustainable vehicle. Though the body is necessarily paramount when one has been rendered ultra-conscious of it due to a disease like LAM, an eventually fatal lung condition that is suffered, according to Google, by a “small percentage of women of childbearing age.” Turner doesn’t have the luxury to only write about the pastoral directnesses of “light, weather and nature” (Stop Bringing me Here) but must daily confront the oblique, insecure, trammelled and still potent bounds of flesh and its complex fucking, flawed love, medical incursions, maybe maternal yearnings and possibly a more imminent mortality than many. As with Julie McIssac’s erudite and erotic collection, We Like Feelings. We Are Serious. (Wolsak & Wynn, 2018), Turner’s book is also unafeared of those feared lexicons of cunt, cum, fuck, and nor does it recoil from such admissions like, “I am terrified I built my poetry on the backs of violent men.”
Turner got me from the get-go. The opening poem, Engaging the Core has taut, Latinate-dictioned, six-line stanzas, and lines that fuse emotion with biology: “Hieroglyphics of porous marrow/pocketed with secrets, your ferment indiscretions” and overt orders to the self: “This is your waltz. Sway to it.” With alternating literary traces of Plath, Lisa Robertson, Sexton, Chase Twichell, Karen Solie and Robin Richardson, this startlingly titled book with its primary reds of scratcher-tats cover is an exegesis of everything the flesh codifies or doesn’t in its feminized erosions and triumphs. Between Push and Shove unpacks with an elegant, understated vitriol what a woman “should be” – “A woman should dress like a window to be impressive but not one to look through.” Further, the prosy accounts of Appendix 1 Quit Dying to Die are unyielding in their peelings back of the veneers of bulimia, addiction, mental illness, tumours (“Always there’s this difficulty of occupying a body”). Violence against women rears up in many pieces like Rooted too Long in a Single Spot, a poem that recollects the murder of Kitty Genovese and expresses regret for the misuse of such survivor terms as “brave, or traumatized, or broken,” concluding in the most powerfully ironic line in the book – “I could plead for better, but you know I can’t speak.” Then too, there’s the chunk of textbook scenarios divided by italicized segments on X that comprise A Masculine Division and which provide a stirring critique of a medical system that has long ignored female pain, hystericized it, invisibilized it, drawing on the tragedy of murdered artist Ana Mendieta to exemplify how often we are instructed to step over blood: “No man is permitted to weigh my bodily trauma by his lack of empathy.” TRUE! Heavy stuff, that’s right, and this is perfectly okay, adult readers, as mostly the intuitive tweakings of diction and form keep it all palatable as art first. Tenuous balance that fusion of craft and saying core things and more often than not, Turner manages to turn the body’s burdens into transcendences of sonority that both mean (to argue against Archibald Leich’s proposition in Ars Poetica) AND be.