When asked to select titles to review from the Brick Books catalogue, I oddly chose a duo of texts that echo each other in several ways: they are rife with nature/seasonal poems, their core sources resonate in the predecessor voices of Zwicky, Domanski, McEwen and other philosophico-spiritualist-earthy type consciousnesses and they represent the quieter camp in Can Po in which the turmoils are mostly quotidian (not to diminish these daily quandaries and domesticated squalls) and the imagistic thread is of the anthropomorphosized world. Reading Donald Hall as I think about these books, I first come across his notion that, when hoping for a suitable reviewer, “someone who hates everything you write is useless to you; so is someone who loves everything you write.” Now it seems to me that the latter is what we have grown used to in reviews. Either the review is merely an overview, ie. “what is in this book,” or it is a blatant gushery designed to curry favour of various sorts or from fear that a critical word will cause the potential success-tide to turn against one, often in academe, which is the birthing-room for most poetry these days.
It is no secret I take issue with such reviews. Or the blurbs that frequent the backs of books announcing the poet in question to be essentially the saviour of the poetic universe, as with the words used on the rear of McCarthy’s volume: “incomparable,” “extraordinary,” “exquisite” or Anne Simpson’s pronouncement on Leifso’s that she writes “fearless poetry.” I live in the first world and am thus not quite sure what “fearless” poetry might be in its truest sense (for instance, will I be sentenced to death for writing this poem?) but I am quite certain that poems about domesticity and the seasons, even when they admit “Oh fuck, not all of this is true” are not really deserving of that epithet. My concern is that we don’t just want the poetry to speak for itself, we don’t trust the reader, we gush because we don’t even feel anything. And poetry demands more from us. Blurbs should tell the potential reader what they are likely to find in the book; reviews need to give us ways to enter the text and tell us where it is lacking or shining and why, and are, in the end, more for the reader to increase their knowledge about the art form and thus be able to cut out more of the dreck themselves, than for the poet who will frequently simply shut their ears and retort: “ah well what does she know, she who has never won a big award anyway?” 😉
And thus, onwards (you see this is what I love about my own review blog versus the book reviews I write for periodicals – I can rant a bit when I feel like it!). Julia McCarthy’s All the Names Between is utterly attendant to the natural world, the shifts between seasons, geology, the stars, birds, plants and so forth, in a very dreamy, almost somnolent at times way that can lull the reader into a near hypnagogic state that can be alternately pleasant and possibly problematic in its abstractions, its intangibles of statement. In one poem, Lumen Naturae, McCarthy writes, “And I’m listening or praying or writing a poem/which are all the same thing.” Which could be the crux of the issue here if one thinks that hearing and speaking to god and composing, with craft, a work of art are the exact same act. They are associated, undoubtedly, but blurring those lines can lead to lax verse, weak form, and there is some of this tendency in evidence here. McCarthy is obviously well-read in both poets such as Rilke and in the sciences (as the End Notes testify with their appealing definitions of biophotons and regolith) but the poems can sink into a surreal anthropomorphic zone that leaves one shaking one’s head in bafflement. I am all for defamiliarizations but they still have to be conceivable in an inconceivable realm (as in Marianne Moore’s imaginary gardens with real toads in them, or reversed) and, to this mind, “crows/flying like knives” that eventually engage in the unlikely task of “sawing all the names in two,” the season thinning “like hair,” the stones standing “open as mouths” (after the ungainly neologism of “Lazarusing” which would lead to the cave open as a mouth, not a stone, no?), the precious image of the “grass changing its brown dress/[while]the tips of trees are opening their eyes/like periscopes” or later, woodpeckers typing “on brown keyboards” and the awkward verb “childrening” rearing up to hurt the ear and linger in a way I’m sure no poet really wants. We have all made these errors of judgment. And what is “blue as poetry”? Too much woo-woo of abstract musing here for me. A little more editorial eye-ing was needed, as is particularly evident in a short poem such as Transmigration where the “like” version of a simile is used five times in six lines (like water/like snow/like paper/like branches/like a stressed syllable). I mean surely not. This strategy is not, could never be the strongest, clearest, most potent approach to this subject matter.
But McCarthy does have an ear (and as everyone knows who reads my reviews, this ability is what I seek first). The initial poem concludes with the lovely line: “the forest tightens for the night,” a decent example of how a surreal naturalistic approach can work well, the i sounds emphasizing the action and the for lifted from forest also accomplishing a similar aim. Or the start of A Red Singing where “they drift in like snow or so it seems/but I suppose it’s like moisture on windows,” a delicious ringing of o sounds that draw one in (an effect unfortunately marred in this piece by the trees having fingers and the form being so recklessly sprawled about the page). The Fourth Bear’s solid prose-poem structure with the notion of “lairing beneath your words,” Where the Unseen Gathers with its use of words like “equiluminant…subatomic…gravitational,” the movingly taut Soliloquy of a Field Mouse whose opening is resonant of Roethke or Merwin: “What moves the reddened wood/of my blood” and whose imagery of claws of water is strangely unsettling, and the final piece, Afterfeathers, strong in assertions of belief in “chemicals awash in the sea…and especially carbon…patron saint of space….I believe we’re outnumbered” are all reasons to read this book. McCarthy feels on the edge of truly entering the intensity of what stirs in her own night.
Wild Madder, by Brenda Leifso, is much less prone to the surreal twist of image than McCarthy and her poems are thus more tangible, steeped in the quotidian triage zone of motherhood along with their kin preoccupation with the seasons and their seeming disinterest in most anything other than free-verse forms. Two quotes from writers I’m reading may assist here. One from Wallace Stevens is his insight that “the role of the poet is to deepen experience.” Yes, absolutely. And Leifso’s material, while at times feeling humdrum, for instance, kids’ everyday recklessnesses, a dying cat, flowers, snowshoeing and a husband reading The Lord of the Rings to their sons pre-bed, has definitely been entrenched more deeply in our readerly consciousnesses by her focus on detail like the dog who “ticketyticks into the kitchen” (nice i sounds!), the chickadee saying “fuck it….all the world fluting through her feathers” (both from Three O’Clock, October), the mesmerizing lullaby of First July, Then August, with its repeated line: “will you remember” and its sharp depictions of “tiny underwear/with dinosaurs/crisping on the line,” a child’s “complete and bony joy” and the walls alive “with hum,” and the weird epiphany of Argument that envisions trees as bitchy, the alder that “fucking hates crowds” or the “kyphotic lodgepole pine,/who told me every tree on earth would be relieved/when the human race died.” The risks of imagery are fewer so the errors are too, though Leifso also falls into the tired notion of trees having digits (and worse, in Warm December, a tree “chattering with her spindly hands”). However, if you are into verse about being in the world at that particular time of life (if one is fortunate) in which young energies surround one, relationships are shifting in daily ways amid the unreeling of seasons, and mostly only the deaths of pets provide a sense of the tragic, then Leifso captures many of these moments acutely and beautifully. I will leave you with another Hall quote to ponder in relation to all this: “Under the assault of busy fact, poetry may become more of a refuge than a strenuous art.” Hmmmmm. Hall was hardcore indeed.