In 1985, Alice Munro wrote of John Metcalf, apropos his reviewing style that, “Praise from him you feel is real gold…he won’t tell you he likes your writing if he doesn’t…he is one person who can tell where the soft spots are…what’s fake, what’s shoddy…it won’t matter what compliments you’ve been getting from other quarters.” Not that I’m comparing myself to the masterful Metcalf, only that I’m hoping to eventually be so well understood as a reviewer, as someone who is never aiming to do harm, but only to be such an intelligently critical assessor of the art form that what I write is not taken personally, but professionally, in relation to the growth of the poetic genre, not to the diminishment of the poet’s self. At the very least, for readers to trust me to be as honest as possible in my delving into a work.
And so honestly, I didn’t know what, initially, to make of Heather Cadsby’s Standing in the Flock of Connections (Brick Books, 2018), as the poems, mainly lyrics in varying configurations, are disorienting to say the least. As a reader, it feels we don’t get to know, through the poems, any particular individual, nor any substantial scenario, but are dipped into the subtle acid baths of words, in media res, and scarred a bit as we are asked to swim brief, discombobulating laps, then yanked out and thrust in again moments later. This is not because the content of the pieces, per se, is terrifying, but due to the emptiness one senses amid the firing synapses of this smart and chilly poet. Perhaps this line from “Mentionables” comes closest to summing up Cadsby’s modus operandi: “A frozen freedom to be this uninvolved and continually inventing.” Hey, I’m an Ashbery aficionado; I can handle the abstract pronouncement, the shifting through psychic space at vertiginous speed. And Cadsby, in her strongest pieces, draws us into a world where the vague word, “thing,” is sometimes the most accurate approach to the randomized happenings that befall us: “the thing about getting back together/is what was removed and then lost/when the door closed. That time/when singular things happened/and we didn’t know we were waiting.” One could fault such writing for telling rather than showing, but that is possibly the very point, that the earth is apocalypsing into its internal signifieds as the external signifiers dissolve, thinginess is replaced by thing, touch by a touchscreen. And pow, are the linebreaks bang on! “8th Floor Lookout” is an even more powerful evocation of essential isolation, parrying as it does between the fearsomely tangible, “hawk…thrashing squirrel…pecked at its head….some boys played grabnuts,” and the abstract terrors of “compromise…context…parallel observations” with the close pointing at the eternal and Biblically-rooted human activity of “casting first stones.”
Cadsby is a fatalist. She unflinchingly hammers in what we sense about our end times, that, “There’s just this: sleep and hurry,” that one can’t rest anymore with an image of pastoral birds because there’s also “birds hitting windows,” our pursuits are “small and selfish” and our mothers are “dead with their mouths open” (terrific titles for the latter two pieces by the way, namely, “The whole play consists of stage directions” and “At the hospital window I saw a dove. It was a gull.”) However, she can also utter gorgeously apropos dicta such as: “The language of grief is that language of hope” or a compelling statement of poesis like, “Prose poem is a genre worth some failing.” Cadsby’s potencies definitely lie more in the lyric than the prose poem, these personal/ambivalent tweaky tunes that often trail off as if an ending would be a redundant further and final blow. Cadsby herself admits to overtly fighting with the non-lyric, stating in “the cause of my rosacea” that: “There are times when even the thought of a prose poem makes my face/ raging red.” Being the elegy-addict I am “My Michael (1996-2009)” moved me immensely in a way the others mostly didn’t, cracking me out of mind and into tear ducts with the contrast between the “careful boy” and the recklessness of the accident that killed him, leaving “silence as the missing link.” As with almost anything I initially recoil from, not in a somatic fashion, but in an intellectual resistance to the less-emotive, not-especially-luscious, even anti-rococo of it all, I eventually, by steeping myself in the universe of the text, comprehend the latent potency of this particular style. It’s necessary, Cadsby’s dry, weird, de-composing, saying it like it is now.
I’ve been reading and admiring Russell Thornton’s work for ages now, since we were both briefly workshoppers in the same odd band of poets in the mid 90s, a collocation including Tim Bowling and my ex-husband Chad Norman, this quick collision of minds intent on at least aspiring towards a poetry of intensity, meaning, feeling, in which moving your audience to emotion wasn’t considered a crime, an imbecility, an offence against academic fashion. Before I address myself to the mostly reverent, gentle, feral poems in this tight collection, I have to note the absence of a vital nod to Robinson Jeffers in The Broken Face (Harbour Publishing, 2018), both in the title’s echo but more explicitly in the titular piece where Thornton paraphrases Jeffers’ 1924 poem, “Roan Stallion,” without giving credit. Jeffers’ lines: “Tragedy that breaks man’s face and a white fire flies out of it.” Thornton’s: “There are blows that break a man’s face, and a white fire flames out.” Now I’ve written poems, songs and a Masters’ thesis based on Jeffers’ work, and so I don’t want to see this liminal master neglected further than he has been already in the past few decades. An oversight? There are, after all, MANY other poets mentioned as influences in the Notes section. I’m hoping that’s all it was but, to my mind, the omission is a significant and lamentable one.
Ok, we know what we’re going to get with Thornton and that’s not a bad thing. He stands for classicism, sonority, homage and language singing its most transparent, fierce desires for connection. His poetry tells stories but the emphasis is on the image (the “surprise of snow,” “the basket of the stars,” the “cold iron rain”), simile/metaphor (blackberries like “prayers that grow in empty spaces” or shoppers at a checkout as “wedding guests awaiting a bride”), the description of small but key moments in his relationship with his children, as when they dance at the mall or wake in the night with bad dreams, and repetition, which lends many of these poems an aural, even spiritual, resonance, a hieratic energy, a sense that, like Jeffers, Thornton wishes to speak of the eternal things only, not those that are temporal, context-bound, that pass away. The pieces that rang out most in my heart were, in fact, those that uttered pedantic words like “Open” or the stunning chant of “When the Rain Comes” with its recurring refrain of “I will tell it, and tell it, and tell it, and tell it.” Like Patrick Lane in certain respects, Thornton is engaged, in part, with how the patriarchy has damaged men, as boys, and as fathers, though, for Thornton’s part, he seems much more intent than Lane was on rectifying errors with his own children by spending time with them and paying his usual close poetic attention to their worlds. Although he sometimes strains too painfully to effect a parallel as in “Tiny Crabs” when his urge to connect a beach scene with the wordy notion that: “It was as when someone dies and you/spend your life pretending to be him/or a person you have imagined” trails off into a sensation of “say what??” mostly Thornton is incredibly adept at writing poems that appear essential and stirring as the “creek gliding clear green and rippling white against rocks.”