Alexandra Oliver’s Hail, the Invisible Watchman and Michael Fraser’s The Day-Breakers (Biblioasis, 2022)

Two new poetry titles from Biblioasis, as distinct as can be envisioned, apart from their attentions to the specificities of sound, reassure this reviewer that a variety of approaches to the motivations behind poetry persists. Alexandra Oliver’s Hail, the Invisible Watchman points to the validity of artifice in craft beyond emotion’s call (an Eliotian acolyte perchance?), while Michael Fraser’s stunning collection The Day-Breakers attends to how feeling exists within diction, inside an era’s particular lexicon of pain and triumph.

Oliver effects a style unlike any other Canadian poet, a chilly (and chilling) facility with iambic pentameter (and other metres) along with end and internal rhyme, her stanzas carved like marble centaurs on James Merrill’s mantlepiece. Having first met her in our early twenties, I can almost vouch that this compositional modus was sprung from the alien womb of Zeus’ thigh, a pre-fab talent from the get-go. The three sections commence with gothic titles as befits the Miss Havisham aura of many of Oliver’s pieces, from Young Politician at a Rotary Club Tea, where a woman whose “selfie arm is spangled” runs for council, understanding “darkness to the letter,” to The Song of the Doyenne who has a smile bearing “the uniform crispness of linen” and the haplessly voyeuristic fellow in the Bacon villanelle who wonders if he’s still a “catch” for a virtual schoolgirl though the changes in him “drive [him] to despair” (yes Oliver gets away with cliches as they are always grounded in the monologic context of the typified thinker 😉 That piece was oddly (though crudely) moving, as was Schoolteacher Report with its projections of gendered inevitability (“They know I know what they will all become”) and Mrs Beryl Armstrong, 86, Beats Closing Time at Longo’s (“Outside, a boy takes out a violin/but all I hear is someone digging dirt”) but one, in the end, doesn’t open an Oliver book to be stirred per se.

The middle segment called The Blood of the Jagers is a playlet in poetic entrees and although the era is identified as 1977-2018, the pieces have the feel of Tolstoyian ditties written within the TV show Madmen or an Edith Wharton novel peopled with mannerist characters out of Larkin or Parker. Oliver is a master of the punchy satirical pronouncement. To taste but a few there’s: “nothing matters, so we’ll leave it there”; “I know I’ll be that free when I am older – /as splendid as a Murano chandelier/and engineered for fortunate encounters”; and “drained empty by her bloom and her own black flower.” Her allusions are always exquisitely peppered, not merely clever melanges of this and that, and her structures impeccable. Yet I feel her tonalities fit best in the last sequence, an unfolding of fourteen sonnets on the short Canadian novel Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson. Possibly so as its sharp artifice is designed to respond to literature rather than what could ostensibly be life (however disguised) and so the pairing seemed more apropos, the conversation matched. As Oliver writes in Any Real Love in the voice of Mrs Broom, “your artlessness will lead to your disaster,” an admonishment she needs not, her poetry being so far from the perils of artlessness, so dedicated to the secure realms of the challengingly artful.


Having never read Hetty Dorval nor, much more seriously, ever thought about the plight of Black-Canadian soldiers in the American Civil War, I asked myself in the process of writing these reviews: “What makes these poems powerful enough to transcend my ignorance?” With Oliver it was the sonnet’s perfections, say, and with Fraser’s powerful collection it came down to the era-accurate lingo he draws on throughout, a patois of injustice and transformation, diction that sings its strangenesses into the brain and brings us far down the path from indifference. Of course he includes a glossary in the back of the book but much of the time I didn’t care about definition, content to let the sonorous syllables ring in words like: bister, chizzly, daddles, hantle, pawky, spoosh and yee-yawed (some words are curiously left undefined too like boodle and yaggered).

Kin to George Elliot Clarke in Whylah Falls or David Martin’s Tar Swan (or the TV series Deadwood!) Fraser finds the diction to invite the reader (or even more essential, listener) within the turmoil, bloodshed, death, the left-behind like Frances Jane Scroggins Brown who longs for her lost husband so much her “mind’s at the end of its row” and the war-damaged such as James Jones who “joined the 55th Mass/cavalry barely old enough to squirrel corn/whiskey.” The poems (almost impossible to isolate certain pieces for applause as they are all part of the wrenching narration, with only Go Down Moses failing in form with its awkward descents of letters, and the book’s only typo), are also solidly crafted in stanzaic walls like barricades or shields or even trenches against the past (but still current) enemy. And the tone flows so accurately from the first poem with its zaps of hyphenated energy when “Master Lincoln’s words flutter horse-back/manes and snow-bogged train rails” to the final line with its melancholic seepage: “they say Massa/Lincoln, our own Massa Lincoln, he dead.” Thus, with this Heart of Darkness haunt, Fraser concludes his witnessing of a grim history through poems that remind us of why we read poetry after all.


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