“Few poets are capable of evolving even a single unprecedented tone: the depressing corollary of this divestment has been a marked atrophy of skills within the reader” [Louise Gluck]. True, but today, I want to expand on the notion of tone beyond poetry itself to the review. It’s as if, yes, we only want the one-note overview of praise and absolutely, the prevalence of such blurbs in our literary culture has led to a marked atrophy of skills, a dearth of terms, vocabulary, and modes of assessment of texts that are vital in the creation of an engaged, awake and passionate readership.
That said, it’s tough critiquing poetry in this climate in which not only is this relentless back-patting the norm (and finger-wagging if you choose to be tougher), but the focus is on “saying things that need to be said” regarding sexuality, race, and other modalities of identity, and this content often appears to silence an assessment of craft. When things are important to state they need to be considered as not just commentary or conversation but as art requiring a thoughtful crafting. These reviews, without ever wanting to shut any writer down or up, in their absolute right and need to be heard, are always first and foremost going to attend to auralities, form, style, tone, diction, technique and other key means through which poetry is created, and the only ways that poetry becomes a true source of emotive and intelligent communication. Thus.
David Ly’s Mythical Man is a first book and feels it. Nothing wrong with this – it’s rare for an initial foray to be close to everything it wants/needs to be – and mostly means that the breadth and depth of options for the poet’s compositions in terms of allusions, language or structure may not have been fully considered. The core content of these poems revolves around the protagonist’s experiences of being gay and Asian in an often callous pick-up culture with its engrained racism, an indifferent family in which he has to remind his grandpa he won’t be getting a girlfriend “Again” (Nod and Be Polite) and the growing but superficially inclusive acceptances of our social media society in which, “Nothing really happens unless there are pics” (Post One).
Mythical Man features recurring titular pieces, the most powerful being II, where the end lines point out the futility of aiming for absorption into another person when these yearnings are just “distractions/from the real magic/that makes us/powerful on our own.” Also, several fascinating poems, divided into three parts each: Snap, Filter and Share, engage with the lies of selfies and the glossy representations of love via the screen, each concluding with a hashtag and the word “like” repeated numerous times to underscore the homogeneity of virtual approvals. Potent too are cutting lyrics that incorporate crude lines from the Grindr app, such as “Force this White Bitch to Serve your Oriental Noodle!!!” aching collisions of the pain of racial cliches and the continued presence of desire, with “Stubble Burn” also slamming that complex theme hard into the reader’s mind. I like the poem “Granville & West Georgia” (being a fellow Vancouverite) too, but I do have to question some of Ly’s descriptive choices here. Do pigeons ever “cluck”? Is the London Drugs there really “dilapidated?” (dirty? stained? litter-strewn maybe but certainly not in ruins!). Birds “hopscotching across/dried speckles of their own shit”? Sure, that’s fanciful poetic licence. The others are settlings-for.
Unfortunately, such lexical laziness impacts on many of these poems, from the recycled idioms of “resting bitch face” and “silver fox” to tired modes of expression like “plastered to our backs,” a “pulsing” bass, “we go our separate ways,” “kiss the tears,” the “wedding band glimmers” and your “skin starts to crawl,” along with simply vague words such as “reality, construction, equates.” There is so much tenderness and sensuality in these pieces, along with essential ennui, threads of anxiety, and brave unpackings of toxicity that the language, rhythms and forms need to be honed a bit more assiduously to be armed for the vital tasks of truth-speaking within queer sensibility (or not), such as is the case with poets like Ali Blythe, Henri Cole, Marilyn Hacker or D.A. Powell. In subsequent collections, I look forward to Ly taking those lyrical reins in hand and running, with more honed intent (as befits this fearlessness!), “towards the beasts.”
The third release from Robert Colman, Democratically Applied Machine (love the retro-industrial cover design!) shows undeniable evidence of just how much crafting work he’s put in over the last few years, turning these pieces into “aural attention engines” (my term 😉 so that, whether one relates to the subject matter of blue collar labour/a father struggling with dementia, one listens, thrills to sounds, and keeps engaging with the page. You can’t “just say” in poetry. If craft, form and aurality isn’t present, the most vital “message” dwindles into banality, creating a cringe in the experienced reader.
As Philip Larkin notes, “the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.” Colman’s poetic style combines Larkin’s resonant reserve, an occasional regality of tone ala Thomas and the rhythmic sonorousness of Wilbur. Tom Wayman may have cornered the concept of work poetry and Richard Harrison recently wrote a stunning book on his aged/deceased father but these topics are inexhaustible when you attend to form and sound. Part of this promised renewal here is how Colman’s poems on machining shops converse with his time with his father in England, as he himself searches for traces of his past, including the Cornbrook Chemical plant where he worked in the 50s. The traditional inseparability of men from their labour and the impact this work has had on their bodies and psyches is the core of Colman’s focus.
Divided into four parts, two on the manufacturing industry and two on his father’s illness and their sojourns together in landscapes of memory, Democratically Applied Machine explores forms from the sonnet to the sestina and prose poem and, less successfully, the erasure and cento, forms that, frankly, are tricky to make meaning from, though the concluding cento, “Watching,” comes close, particularly in the titular stanza, drawing from Ryan, Lux, Collins and Ashbery: “What a life he would have lived without them/in this democratically applied machine./He hid behind books, and/thunder lay down in the heart.” From the first piece, Colman has the reader’s ear. Whether you know the Gerhard Richter painting or not, you are snatched inside its atmosphere, the final stanza a echoing rush of evocative assonance: “see/glean/clogs/cobbles/vowels/spinning/pitch” along with the consonantal ring of “mule/steel/lathe.” The assembly of manufactured objects is compared to birthing in “Interview with the Machinist,” one of his strongest poems on blue-collar labour, along with “From the Front” in its depiction of a fiber laser as having a “fierce hiss,” “Choosing her Trade” where the “adjuster’s wink” is “crimping the sunk IN tray,” and “After Lowry, After Cornish” which draws work together with art and the homeland in the raw nostalgia of lines like “This shop is no longer akin/to working the coal face” and “dust & lime a tickle of history.”
I must admit that I wanted more pieces like these and fewer like “Part” or “Brittle that seemed too slight, cursory, cut off. Then again, who can truly enter the machine? The detached tone is perhaps part of the intent here. Alzheimers also creates an ineffable state, a violent or aloof removal from the present, the once-familiar. Added to this harshness is the sense running through many poems of a general silence, the depressed inability to fully express the self, question marks, lacunas and partial knowledge in which happiness “includes books you read me/and the rest we both groped for blindly” (Son to Father). The most unforgettable section in the book is the last one, Hold, in which psychological abstractions melt into tangible specificities as father and son perambulate from pub to field to teahouse in the north of England and facts become a “ricochet” (The Painting) in his father’s brain, while his son asks himself “is knowing more precious when tenuous?” (Old Friends). The composed sketches of “Slipping Time” are brilliant, and throughout, pieces such as “Walking Longshaw,” “Fickle Gods” and “Market Day” feature language rippling and flexing at its most buff and lovely. “Sepia teen soldiers,” “fresco secco vines,” “the allure of air baffles you out to the garden wall,” and O, the wicked trochaic metrons and assonantally-rhythmic sashays of “Saturday is adult nursery, bric-a-brac, yesterday’s/tack – Victorian smut, Bakelite dud lamps, train/ sets and epaulets.” And yes to “fuck this loss” (Protest). Call loud, I say, preserve preserve.