Re-reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as I seem to do every few years since the time I actually WAS a young poet, I was struck again by his firm assertion that “works of art are of an infinite solitude and no means of approach is so useless as criticism.” Quite possibly for the poet this is true, in that often, by the time the book finally emerges, it is years since it was composed and so a critic pointing out that this is a cliche or that is a weak line break is irrelevant to them or they can just shrug it off from inside their carapace against dismantlings (though, likely, they shouldn’t). But I do continue to believe that reviews are necessary for any readers who are interested in a vocabulary, perspective, literary wisdom of sorts on how they might enter a certain book or how it has utterly fallen short of current standards or how they may weigh the merits of one text versus another beyond whether one has been stomped on by a gold star and the other hasn’t (often our shortcut to thought in this culture). At any rate, for whomever needs it (or not), here goes:
Julie Bruck’s How to Avoid Huge Ships is imminently recognizable as a book of Canadian poetry. I say this not disparagingly but just in the recognition of what a vast chunk of poets appear to do best here: solid narrative-based lyrics in shapes rather than forms that deal with subject matter from childhood to dying parents, sprinkled with light cultural allusions (Martha Stewart, Google Earth, Balanchine, Malkovich) and closing with a clink of subtle music. The poems are well thought through for the most part, precisely constructed and, especially when Bruck writes of her parents, stirring. In fact, I wished that all these parental poems would have been together in one section or perhaps even constituted a collection of their own. A piece like “Palliative” that unfolds its Latinate meaning, “to cover,” is particularly moving. The three quartets provide a structural equivalence to the author’s disruptive dream in which her dead mother has been “slip covered” although “Inside, she was unravelling.” And then the resonant sounds in the last two lines where a desire for return leads the speaker to the belief that she has “zipped her up” for “because I miss her so, I hid her.” Many aspects of grief are dealt with in a sensory manner here as in the pieces, “How I left you” or “Size 9. 5 AAAA,” poems that address the “stuff” a deceased person leaves behind: “Your scarves…those primitive skates mounted on a pine board” or her ungainly, over-sized “soft slippers….ox-blood T-straps” that, like her mother herself, matched nothing else “upon the earth.” The tactility of being alive is also recounted sharply in a piece like “Peeling the Wallpaper” with its deliciously repellent descriptors of the glue, “varnishy-yellow/and dried to the consistency of old mustard” or “Two Fish,” a philosophical morality tale in which difficult questions of nature vs nurture are posed, one forgotten fish “distorted as in a fun house mirror” while the other’s “fish lips” keep “foraging with little clicks.” Other potent parent poems include “Fledgling” with its startling line: “What am I waiting for – a parent/ to return and throw up into my open beak?,” “Full-Length” on the loss of control as one ages and “His Certainty” whose long lines contain a compression of deceptions of love and history where “Everyone is supposed to be happy.” At times, as with “After Lorne,” the final recognition doesn’t appear to evolve organically from the rest of the poem. I wished Bruck had kept us inside the hospital pharmacy scenario instead of closing hurriedly with the aside, “Outside, darkness falls on the extravagant city.” And in “Let Evening Come,” the casual use of the word “crackheads” feels disparaging to those struggling with drug addiction. How to Avoid Huge Ships remains most powerful when it lets those large water crafts bump a bit into the uncertain moorings of our minds and hearts.
Our Latest in Folk Tales, a first book by Matthew Gwathmey (even his name is rhythmic!) contains an eclectic, eccentric, electric mix of pieces on entities from St Ambrose to the Blue Beetle of DC comic renown and the 90s to microwaves. Honestly, I cared very little about most of the “matter” of these poems, ranging from prose blocks to chopped-up lyrics, halved by lacunas, but what matters here is the way Gwathmey is unafear’d to bee-bop it, rock it, rampage in bombastic lingualities across the page. One of my faves – “A Kitchen Argument” – invokes the rhymed triplet form to make epic the baking of a peach grunt in which strange, quotidian disagreements can dominate and the final line, “We seldom spoke about the grade of the eggs” unfolds all kinds of portentous suppressions in my mind. Furthermore, “Turning Thirty” is also a jolly romp; “Love is a Ship of Fools Crashing into Revivalist Shores” can be a very o yes to my ear kind of poem as Gwathney metres and alliterates galore, providing us with a mysterious yet apropos zing of a couplet in: “I can decode any emergency you transmit./And don’t you ever forget, I undressed the salty fish”; and the titular poem bips us with the oddity of archaic cookery imperatives to “frack the chicken, unbrace the/mallard,/unlace the coney” in a delightfully disturbing list. There are too many list-style poems in this book though methinks. We have the “Love is” ones, the Madmen vs the Beetle sequence (alas I was utterly lost here, not being a geek girl, and having only worked in film on Marvel shows), the “what to” this & that pieces and the “On” one thing & another lyrics. Yet that irk didn’t stop me from relishing “What to Listen to” as it tells us to “recant with all those slacker anthems” or nodding to “On Depression” with its sluggish swell of sad sounds. Seeing as how I adore the music of poetry more than the meaning in the end, Gwathmey’s first foray will keep ringing weirdly in my mind, though I still wish I’d tweaked more to many references. I may be getting old 😉
As for Susan Gillis, her collection Yellow Crane affected me most profoundly of these three offerings, in part due to her fusion of scholarship and the sensory and also because of her evocative long lines that reach their haunting patrician arms across the page in the manner of another memorable, underrated Canadian poet, Anne Compton (no not Simpson). Yes, there is some lax language here and there in these pieces, things just typically “springing” to light, or being “very small,” beauty only “coming” forward, when the verbs might have been torqued to allot for a deeper pool of energy, and certain lines do feel unnecessarily ungainly (“The wind that pushes the clouds that makes the shadows is high”) but, overall, this is a book I will be re-reading and will likely continue to derive a mood from, a sensibility, a vaster connection with the linkages between literature and the “spilled slag…thick with pine trees” world. Inspired (as in breathed into) by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz – invoking a darker, redolent, sojourning European intensity more poets could benefit from persuing – Yellow Crane returns to signature imagery throughout the book: the light on hay, an obelisk and the titular pivoting steel machines (though I could do without the occasionally recurring word, “blue,” a colour that appears to be the core touchstone of so much Canpo by women). The long poem in parts, “Obelisk,” is truly invigorating. It melds nature, poetry, delectably expansive footnotes on texts and films and the landscape and history and politics without ever being dull, pedantic or contrived. There are bears and rusted hulls amid ghostly references to Stevens and overt ones to Du Fu and Cicero, a veritable ecosystem of thought and sensation. Gillis is adept at transfixing the reader within a slow moment of beauty, as in the lyric “Morning Light” where “the buildings opposite turn gold, then back to brick” or there is a “red slash through a black truck on a white sign.” At times, say with “Salamander,” resonance starts sliding into the prosaic but then rights itself fast with auralities like “it gushed rain, then a/bittern flew up from the marsh” or the fusion of the banal word “panel” with the romantic “heart” that soars the maudlin into the rupturing: “how I would like to find that panel in my heart that opens, and open it.” The dying of a father spectres through Yellow Crane, attached to the “blood machine” now, in the past holding her “like a sparrow to his chest,” or possibly appearing symbolically in the angular yellow crane that the speaker observes, cannot truly access, will miss “when the building is finished.” Gillis writes, “I can’t bring myself to do anything” at the close of the stunning piece, “Fieldwork” but she has indeed done just the right amount of feeling, reading and drawing the aching threads together in this memorable book. Somehow I don’t think she will find this critique useless, Rilke, though I love you regardless.