I’ve read Stuart Ross for years and been impressed by his vigorously energetic surrealism while at times perplexed by his resistance to closure, in an aural if not content-based sense. But I’ve not truly been moved by his poems in the way a wide range of the pieces in his latest, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent stirred me. Ross is taking emotive risks in a way he hasn’t as readily in the past (age? life experiences?) and the result is much more satisfying poetically than prior. From the very first poem, “Pompano,” Ross fuses a Frank O’Hara-mode of simplicity that unfolds a moment into acts of vision – both quotidian and transcendent – with an almost Elizabeth Bishop-ian metaphysical quality of feeling. His parents are here; a grandfather at a sewing machine; his dead brother; his partner’s cancer; childhood books and his enduring affection for Dave McFadden’s poetry.
But these recollections are rarely sentimental, or else perhaps they glory, unabashedly, in their sentimentality to the point where it is cause for rejoicing rather than cloying. And the collection’s texture is maintained by the flux between lyric poems, prose chunks, pseudo-questionnaires with their strangely poignant disjunctiveness (“Do you feel remorse for the hurt you’ve caused?/My beak is handsome & I remain focused”) and form poems like the exquisitely linked haikus of “A Pretty Good Year” (“Here is the moment/there it goes. Now: another/Your eyes are constant.”) A poem like “Discrete Portions” combines nearly all the ingredients of a potent Ross poem without being (as some occasionally seem) at all programmatic, ala exercise pieces. Surreal and absurd, containing a reference to the poet himself and his moods or behaviors (“Laurie will tell me this is depressing, I/shouldn’t be so hard on myself”), featuring an unpacking rhythm, a consciousness of family and history, and an open-ended closure (“Each flake/had several choices to make”), “Discrete Portions” is like a Joseph Cornell box full of whimsical figures from Marc Chagall, and tinged with the philosophical scope of Wislawa Symborska’s oeuvre. Wondering why there is a chickadee rather than the titular sparrow on the cover is likely pointless. It’s Ross. Let go.
Kilby Smith-McGregor’s first collection, Kids in Triage, begins with a quote from Wallace Stevens, whose sharply somatic obscurities have obviously influenced her style, though a more au courant baroque allusiveness, kin to Lucie Brock-Broido (whose work I mostly adore) also threads through this opaquely engaging volume. These poems are diversely erudite in a way one has become familiar with from the poetry of Anne Carson to Robin Richardson: integrated, ornate, at times a little too “with a nod and a wink” chilly. “Wake up Remembering Oranges” is a powerful villanelle that swims in a mood of displacement and alienation, despite the attempted life rings of lists, as doe a plethora of her poems, desire, attachment, ownership seeming to slip away into a lacuna of referentiality, a scholarship in loneliness.
Smith-McGregor has a saving ear though. “Kneeling in pleated skirts,” “Racist comic; naive rapist; hand-coloured film strip expulsion. Resist.” or the delicious initial part of Matchbook:
“Cry me a little match girl, matchless/ before the boy who crushed through keyholes came confessing….Love, she’d struck, who’d never hoped/to read like that, and be written.”
And then there’s “Morphogenesis” for Alan Turing, a particularly brilliant sestina that uses man, logic, code, god, broken and sequence as its end words and concludes with the imperative phrases, “No snow but sand…dust’s profile in code.” Kids in Triage masterfully detaches to observe minutia while offering an emergency room full of the results of detachment: “the mess of you, exception and rule.”