“As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.” Kurt Vonnegut
I do love this quote. And no I’m not about to express rage and loathing for any particular literary work. But I do have a certain feeling of ire rise in me when it’s all so danged OBVIOUS! The patronage linkages, the nepotistic networks, the I’ll caress your back and you’ll stroke mine system. One publisher publishing another publisher’s New and Selected, though why I ask, in general, is this book necessary at all? Are New and Selecteds ever necessary except say, when a poet is HUGE (haha) and their lauded work has all gone out of print and a recuperation of some of its traces seems required by history? I used to want a New and Selected because this, apparently, is what we are supposed to desire after years of publishing. And then I realized it was an absurd urge as not only would selections from my prior books NOT hold together as a satisfying read because each book was its own particular vision but also, who cares? Who wants my old work that badly? And to review poems that appeared twenty years ago is a rather pointless endeavor. OK so I’m not going to review Jay MillAr’s book “I could have pretended to be better than you.” 95% of it is musically-dull, goofball-thinky word-stuffs about what poetry is or isn’t or this and that quotidian thing. Another chapbook might have been made of five or six of its decent pieces but really, I like it when publishers stick to publishing. The other two books out this Anvil Press season are by long-term buddies: Stuart Ross and Mark Laba. Ross is also the editor of the Anvil Press poetry imprint that published Laba’s book: Feed Dog, and so it’s all rather incestuous and suspiciously obvious. But then again, aren’t we all supposed to say, Well duh and Who gives and You should keep your mouth shut or else people won’t like you 🙂
But, well, I will carry on anyway, because poetry, damnit, matters and how Canadian poetry’s presented to the world matters and because who says you shouldn’t sport armor to deal with a sticky, tricky dessert that is always threatening to explode its emptinesses all over you while asking, “Are you full and satisfied yet?” That said, I have nothing per se against Ross or Laba’s surrealist (and at times either archly emotional or very funny) verse, just the towards the overtness of the back-slappery going on in this trio of Anvil books that, unfortunately or not, can get in the way of assessing the texts themselves. I just want us to be, as poets, as publishers, hmmmm, less….small.
Mark Laba is the opposite of Stuart Ross in one key respect: Ross publishes copiously and Laba scarcely at all, this book, The Inflatable Life, being only his second volume in seventeen years. Unlike many poets such as Robyn Sarah, I don’t believe that quantity has anything really to do with quality, in and of itself. Some write little; some write a lot. Some of the little is crap; some of the lot is crap. Some write much and publish little. Or write little and…yeah, you get it. Just because you publish a book every ten years versus two doesn’t mean the former book will be better than the latter one. It doesn’t mean one poet spent all those years honing their masterpieces while the other simply shit them out lackadaisically. Maybe the former poet was just teaching a lot. Look at the poems. That is all. I haven’t read Laba before so I can’t say if this book is more this or that than the other, but I can say that Laba is much more, to my sensibilities, a surrealist for its own sake. In “Skeet Shooting,” Laba writes, “Because after all, this isn’t poetry,/it’s a shooting gallery” and there could be some truth to that, imagery literally popping and banging about all over the place in a crashing mash, a paean in part to Wallace Stevens whose poetic world elaborated in marked contrast to his daily life, a vaudeville of the brain, essentially. I really liked the silly drawings in “Tolstoy’s Leech Farm” and relished at least four poems: “Phil’s Wall Unit Emporium,” (the earth is just a big wall unit,/an entertainment hub of love and horror), “The Bruised Sunset” (one of the few that seems to stem from some personally engaging memory and includes the stinging truth of the fact that he -we – are “always willing to sacrifice someone else/so I can continue to enjoy the rustling leaves,/the purity of poetry”), “Moonlit Lung Serenade” (a piece that joyously butchers Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl and includes BOTH Mr Peanut and Odysseus) and “Season of the Corn Dog” which begins “Trotsky was shtupping,” incorporates the lines “History is written/by those with pincers” and concludes with the sharp realization that “Losing is for the young,/but broken compasses and bloodied lobster bibs/are for the brave.” I wonder, if Laba wrote as much as Ross, if he would be able to trust the poem to take him other places than the cut-up can. I don’t know. Maybe, for him, this is enough.
So, Stuart Ross’s work has indubitably deepened over the years. The humour is still there in Motel of the Opposable Thumbs but one can be moved too, especially by pieces about his now-deceased dog, Lily, as in a simple sketch like “Three Times” in which peeing, walking and feeling breaths ride “up and down” become a holy trinity of care and attention for another living being (many of the poems for Lily are delightful actually and I love how Ross includes her in his poetics when he states in another piece, “Lily and I decide/whether we like a poem just by its tone/and the words it uses, the images/the juxtapositions; we don’t really/care what the poem “means”.” HUZZAH!) Or by the poem “You three, with stones upon your heads” (soon to appear in the memoir anthology Locations of Grief: An Emotional Geography from Wolsak & Wynn, 2020 [- unfortunately, due to his inability to consider editorial alternatives without insult, the essay is no longer appearing in this anthology]. There you go, an overt plug for a book I edited, on MY OWN BLOG!! Shameless!), in which Ross addresses his dead mother, father and brother and admits, “I/ can’t go on writing poems about you./I’ve discovered they don’t bring/you back…..They don’t/even win me prizes.” Ahhhhh the honesty in admitting the presence of both the occult and the ego that combine in the creation of art.
Ross has the uncanny ability to write a piece that seems easy, like little is going on but the listing of random prosy details: “I have never had a root canal, but/my friend Mary just had one” but that incorporates some line, sometimes at the end, that provides a moment of weird insight, a zing of seeing the world differently, as in the close of this piece where he states as if it is obvious: “The best way/to avoid a root canal is to replace/your head with a sparrow” (Important Information for your Dental Health). I like his Conniption Sauce (after John Ashbery, who may have schooled me in how to read Stuart Ross!) but feel there are too many “after” this or that writer poems, or centos, or even dedications “for” other writers in this book. It starts to feel like the poet is running out of essential steam and grabbing wildly for inspiration straws at some points. The poems about the mini Phil Halls though is a blast, as is Forty-Nine Cents, and the Motel Poem (though it goes on a tad too long), but I most adored his New Year’s pieces, “Alterations” and “Various Records” as well as “Poem beginning with a line by Dean Young,” (or ditto but with Sarah Manguso), “Motel of the Opposable Thumbs,” and the final poem, “Subtitles” because they all feature interpenetrations of memory, grief, loss and the re-finding that can happen in poems as when the father, in one line, is “long dead” and in the very next one, “He sits on the edge of his twin bed,” or the parents, now just a gleam in his eye, are mirrored in the “tiny light” he turns on above the sewing machine to do alterations to reality and feeling. Surrealism without emotion, for me, just doesn’t cut it (why I’m a fan of Jason Heroux who often hits the odd imageries of feeling perfectly!) and Ross is there now, in that place where all the strangeness, in the service of commemoration, makes the most essential kind of sense.