Lately, I have felt somewhat discombobulated by many of the books of Canadian poetry I’ve been reading. Especially given the year end lists in which several collections I had mentally dismissed as dull, superficial and reeking of “MFA initiality” have been accorded momentary “best of” status. Partially I started to doubt the possibly extreme nature of my poetic standards, and also, of course, I continued to feel dubious about the deep readerly ability of many so-called critics.
What was truly strange perhaps was how much more compelled I was by Paul Vermeersch’s mostly recombinative text in which poems echo Ted Hughes’s Gog, are entire erasures of other poems or are utter centos without an “original” word from the supposed “author” to be found, than I was by the three books he edited of supposedly unique material for his Buckrider Books imprint. Not that these books aren’t well-written, smart and topical or that I can’t pick out wonderful poems. I especially relished pieces from Jesse Patrick Ferguson’s engaging MR Sapiens like the Jeffers-haunted “Catch and Release,” “Wasted,” “Kitty Corner the Tim Hortons” or “Three points on a crest of time,” and was snagged pleasurably on Claire Caldwell’s semi-premature debut text Invasive Species (and yes I think my first book at 26 was semi-premature too) in poems such as “See also: Arctic Shrinkage,” “There is Nothing Left of Your Great-Grandfather,” and her stirring long piece about the death of a whale, “Ostogenesis,” while marking “Carnivores” at least as a favorite in David James Brock’s more meanderingly-detached, Everyone is CO2.
But when I got to the end of these books I decided I had very little to say about them. No urge; no irk; no ache. Which is odd. My overall sensation was, “Good writing, but I am feeling little so I will just let these go and move on.”
And what I moved onto was their editor’s lusciously designed aviary of a book. I cherished much of his previous collection, The Reinvention of the Human Hand, and even wrote about its central poem, “Ape,” in one of my essays called
Elegiac Displacements & the Trans-Elegy in Contemporary Canadian Eco-Poems where I note:
“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.”
And I continue to laud a significant number of pieces in his latest despite being weary of the “trendy” gestures scrubbing out, snitching and slapping together has become in the ironically “self-displacing” world of Canpo. We could look at this practice in perspective with what Mary Kinzie comments on is the general gist of poem-making anyway, in which one is always creating “experiments on the past…recombining already invented substances in such a way that they are transformed.” Or we could remind ourselves it isn’t a new mode of composition (ahem Pound etc etc). Or we could realize that there is no other honest type of writing now than that which “rubble-izes” other texts and shows their spectres in both their relentless impact on the writer and their eventual societal redundancy. As Emma Healey states in a recent Globe and Mail review of Ken Babstock’s necessarily perplexing babble-gookery in On Malice: “three of its four sections borrow their vocabularies either piecemeal or wholesale from other texts….by forcing these texts and his themes to speak for each other, he creates a voice that’s neither new nor the original authors’…a chorus of ghosts and glitch programs.”
Unlike Babstock however, whose aim seems in part to be reader repulsion, 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. But I still wonder how say my adoration of Charles Wright might be affected if I found out that his poems are actually pastiches and don’t emanate from his potent authorial vocalizing. And is this my failure.