As I was preparing to write this review, I received the latest issue of ARC in the mail with an article by Chris Levenson called “Poetry and Criticism: a symbiotic relationship.” In it he overviews his own editorial labours, concluding accurately that, “Canadian poetry is in danger of slipping back into self-congratulatory chumminess. Those poets who think they are well off without honest, well-substantiated and yes, often unfavorable reviews, should think again.” I read this after hearing from a poet that only “positive” reviews are acceptable to her and that the fact that poems appear in publications or have received awards prior is apparently sufficient to render them immune from all critique. How can this be? I don’t understand why poets don’t consider it an honour to be read by minds that are capable of an intelligent assessment of their work based on long years of reading and thinking about the art form. All art forms that have any value in our society present their practitioners with rigorous standards, classical music say, and refuse to accept hacks or lazy creators. Why can’t we encourage these standards for poetry instead of worrying about who we are offending constantly, or who won’t give us an award or tenure or yet another back pat as a result? Poetry deserves more than either silence or the regular pseudo-blurbing that often passes as reviews. So, even though I know there will be dissenters, and those who will take my considered reactions as some kind of personal attack, I can’t be anything other than honest with the art I respect more than much in life. Possibly poetry matters more than people to me. If I’m to be brutally truthful with myself.
I.B. (or as she is better known, Bunny) Iskov’s slim collection, My Coming of Age (HMS Press, 2018) features pieces that have been published in other small press compilations and/or have been acknowledged by regional awards. The reader knows this because each piece concludes with its kudos, usually an unadvisable approach, distracting one from the poem itself. Sources, notes and other extraneous materials are better set at the end of a book where they prove additional, not core, aspects of the work. Iskov’s assemblage is a truly mixed concoction of the promising and the unappealing. Some poets seem to forget how to write poems of music, freshness and integrity at times, and then later suffer a kind of amnesia that enables them to meld originality with dreck in one short volume. First, the workable. There are pieces here that present variety, form, tautness of diction and often, anaphora. Iskov definitely has an ear/eye for structure and repetition. “Before the Flood” resonates with the recurrence of the word “once,” and “My Coming of Age” presents two tight stanzas on the importance of the Beatles to the young speaker, countering their freedoms with the echoed realities of “even though.” The sonnet, “Ode to my Computer,” is a perfect example of versified wit, the rhymes precise and the twist at the end, “I have reason to compare thee to a rose” an apropos a-ha moment. Also, Iskov’s paean to three deceased friends in “Making Mac and Cheese” is essentially tangible: “water blossomed/into tiny bubbles” and “the evening turned to wine/within me,” an attention to descriptive detail often missing from other poems whose tone veers into the telling, the didactic. I won’t list these pieces but just note that an avoidance of the pathetic fallacy – “trees paint their gowns yellow” – and cliches like eyes that “sparkle” and “wide cherubic” smiles – is recommended. Poets need to remake the language, not regurgitate the tired old. Also, being specific is key. Not “another offensive event” (“What is a Jew?”) but the actual event in all its sensory truths, however difficult. And the image of squirrels that “scamper loose/and blow across the fence”? Well, this reader can’t see that at all, not even in a satisfyingly surreal fashion. Iskov is the founder of the Ontario Poetry Society, an organization that publishes the Verse Afire compilations of poems and reviews. Thanks for your work for the poetry community, Bunny!
Building on River (Cormorant Books, 2018), Ottawa poet Jean Van Loon’s first collection, takes as its subject matter and overarching narrative the life of John Rudolphus Booth, 19th century empire sawmill builder at Chaudiere Falls. Having written a full-length book myself on another kind of pioneer, photographer Mattie Gunterman (Seeing Lessons, Wolsak & Wynn, 2010), I am fully aware of the obsessiveness research can bring and thus, at times, the challenges to both the writer aiming to do justice to their muse and the reader desiring to enter this foreign world. The book is divided into six sections, providing a rough chronology of Booth’s long, compelling, tragic and triumphant life. At first I doubted I would be engaged by this gentle tycoon but Van Loon’s musical ear drew me into the narrative fast, crucial for poetry where the story is even of tertiary significance to cadence and form. You can basically write about nearly anything and reel in a reader if you are resonant. Apart from this talent, Van Loon also has a basic facility with voice, potent in the pieces spoken in J.R.’s and Rosalind, his wife’s syntax, featuring the simple rhythms of the day to day, including the loss of several children. And she knows to keep the collection, for the most part, varied between vocalizations, longer and shorter lyrics, forms like the villanelle, a sequence that snapshots J.R at 40, 50, 96, and work grounded in research, steeped in both internal rhymes and prosiness, intent on an inclusive portrait of the businessman, the father, the empath in the face of his workers’ suffering. At times, the book feels like it might have been stronger with four sections instead of six and Van Loon certainly doesn’t always rout out cliche (“numb fingers stiff with cold,” “shrug off coat,” “skies a shroud”) but there is more to lure here than to repel.
Listen to: “will run it/when it’s built. And well”
“For wages/which I save”
“made lath from scrap”
“a prime white pine”
“I rein in the rented dray”
“bunting all a-flutter”
Building on River doesn’t only inform through musicality, it moves, and especially in the pieces about Rosalinda’s death, her “hands lye-cracked, eyes wood-smoked,” along with “Rainy August,” a poem that perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of communicating grief. More Canadian history needs to be re-imagined in poetry, at least of the kind Van Loon can write.