Ben Lerner, in his caustically ironic book-length essay, The Hatred of Poetry, claims to repeat the beginning of Marianne Moore’s 1967 version of “Poetry”, the phrase, “I too, dislike it” over and over in his head each time he is confronted with a book or public reading, including when he faces his own, now seemingly paltry and insufficient work. It’s odd. Even when poetry is truly your life’s core passion there remains this sense of frustration, aggravation at its persistent ineffability, as if you can always sense a vast intention that fails in any poet’s poem. One doesn’t want to feel beset by this reaction, but at times it overwhelms. As for myself, having read so much poetry over so many decades, I find I get irked quite easily at tired idiom, obvious cliche, lax form, or anything really that implies a lessened effort in the attempt to uniquely and powerfully convey. Which is always flawed anyway. Still.
Ok. So Aidan Chafe’s debut Short Histories of Light (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018), beautifully designed in silky black, with French sleeves and a repetition of fixtures on the cover, is a collection of lyrics mostly focused on hypocritical familial undercurrents, the torments of mental illness and its impact on patriarchal power structures and the suffusion of Catholicism within everyday environments (and even poetic forms). I already reviewed the book’s final section, “Sharpest Tooth”, [Sharpest Tooth: a chapbook by Aidan Chafe (Anstruther Press, 2016)] , so this review attends to the four sections that precede it, of which the strongest is the 2nd, “Psych Ward Hymnal.” Beginning with a found piece of definitions of depression that very nearly becomes a visual poem, so incredibly weighted the word appears, repeated in caps, on the page, this sequence deals with Chafe’s father’s mental illness and hospitalizations (another Vancouver poet who has dealt with such wrenching subject matter is Kevin Spenst). Particularly powerful is the David Foster Wallace pantoum, “Hell has Nothing to do with Fire” (“Nail a clock to the wall/Numbers that connect to nothing”), the poem “Chief Broom”, which fuses religion and mental illness when his grandma asks if he “can see Jesus/in the plastic fruit” and plays seriously with the language of recovery: “i’m cured, they say/i tell them i feel curated/then i’m released:/wingless/into that cold, complex/night,” the final stanza imploding from its hospitalized couplets and into the chaos of supposed freedom, and the titular long piece in parts, that is both hit & miss in its tenuous metaphors (for the former see: “I know what it means/to hold a frightened child -/like balancing an egg/on a tiny spoon” and for the latter – “I watch cashews parachute/like sawdust to the floor”). In other sections, I loved the creative litany of naming in “Diary of a Redhead,” “Vegastriction”‘s depiction of a homeless man – “his prickly smile stinging” – and “Commute” whose descriptive lines encapsulate the urban whirl perfectly. I found the section “Calculations for Catholics” the least effective part (likely as it is such a challenging ideology to make poetically engaging -as I am finding out to my own chagrin in a current project!) But the line in “Why God is a Father” – “only a man can cause/so much pain for a woman and call it a gift” is truly thought-yankingly wow. Short Histories of Light is like a series of small doors into compelling, if preliminary, revelations that I hope Chafe will continue to lyrically enlarge as his writing life unfolds.
Short Takes on the Apocalypse (Biblioasis, 2016), Patricia Young’s 12th collection, contains poems that springboard rampantly off quotations from writers on subjects as wildly varied as vegetarianism, divorce, film and paintings. When an entire book engages with quotations, each piece leaping from an overtly worded impetus, one wonders at times whether the author feels the need to have their material further validated by such secondary/intermediary means or if, instead, a vaster conversation is their aim. The method being so consistent, at least the content is diverse, a narrative-based array of Biblical and Classical re-envisionings, personal accounts, and entrees into artistic engagements. In forms from palindromes to pantoums, Young pirouettes her prose-style tonalities onto the page, complete with sly little winks towards almost everything in existence. Among the punchiest pieces are “What it was like Living in a Spaghetti Western” that starts and ends with “overcooked meatballs,” “Coachella Festival”‘s litany of absurd band names, the long couplet listings of “A few Questions to Consider”, about where characters go when one is done writing about them: “do they have gills…does flab settle on their bones…are they plant-eaters, are they bee-stung,” “Chagall’s Lovers” that concludes compellingly with “I’m talking to you the colour red,” the clever clicheed carnival of coupledom that is the foolery in “The Course of True (Animal) Love” and the zig-zag loopiness of “Petunia’s Pop-Up Alphabet Book” where A to Z is capped on a dash through one little girl’s necessary weirdnesses. O, and “Literary Soiree”, that attempt to contrast the strange binaries of Old and New Poetry, and perhaps sums up Young’s continued preference for what some might dub the former, with its symbols, its “mud hut of desire.” Regardless, Young continues to be one of the most experimentally buoyant, content-wise, of those stubbornly enduring narrative-based poets in Canada.
And so, Ben Lerner finalizes his disquisition by announcing: “All I ask the haters…is that they strive to perfect their contempt, even consider bringing it to bear on poems where…it might come to resemble love.”