Kelly & Martin: Two Unique Musics

I recently heard Claire Kelly and David Martin read at Edmonton’s Olive Series and what struck me, beyond the oft bewilderingly screwy content (& such leaps I mostly relish!) was their emphasis on the textured, rich and entangled sounds of language. Some day perhaps I won’t have to mention this tendency in a poetry book review because all poets will understand that honing their ear is key to their chosen art form. (I can dream).

Claire Kelly’s second collection One Thing – Then Another (ECW 2019) follows her book on walking, enlarging the motions of her body by taking it from New Brunswick to Alberta in the quest for school and work. Canada has become a seriously itinerant society, with many moving for employment or living in one place and labouring in another, but, as Kelly herself noted at the reading, “we don’t deal very well with this reality.” We act as if each person will remain in a self-enclosed landscape and fixed identity without considering that an economic fluidity in this large country has become the new “normal.” In a tone reminiscent of Solie’s snappy urban allusiveness, Kelly sends us from the poverties of one province, through a U-hauled ice storm and into the supposed riches of another, despite the inevitable droughts. I started to sink into the mood by Summer Solstice Blues, which contains the oddities of eagles typing text messages, a librarian whose “eyebrows/tilt like art-deco awnings” and the winter inability to send “bunny-ear air quotes” without freezing one’s fingers off. Kelly has a knack for carving the breath between lines and jabbing jiving rhythms at the reader. Out (r) age sashays between long and short enjambments, ending with the disconcerting domesticities of “penne and spaghettini rattle, like finks,/in high-placed canisters,/magnets threaten to dislodge themselves, to spill all/their secrets onto vinyl tiles.” One of the cleverest pieces in the book is A Millennial’s Poem where Kelly creates a portrait of a generation through reference to multiple brand names like Easy-Bake and Fruit by the Foot, reminding us that kids now know more corporate monikers than species of flowers or animals. Although I would beg the dubbing of the middle piece as a “long poem” when it isn’t even two pages, Westward U-Haul Gothic zips its anaphoric energies through both Wuthering Heights and a range of provinces, each line beginning with the shorthand (for a long trip) “b/c” as in “b/c all day the crows have a hard time of it/b/c a boat unzips a river and I don’t know which river it is”. I wanted more! The prosy film series left me a bit chilly though such experiments are often fun, (for writer if not reader), but Avoiding East-Coast Nostalgia Out West brings us back to the sensorial realities of the prairies, the “hot pot offal of oil patch worker” and “Wheat-farmer sirloin in semi-demi glace.” Her Pillow Smells of the Special contains stanzas that showcase Kelly’s ability to twist melodies, as in the portrait of the waitress who “carries away/Friday night detritus, citrus slices/pierced by straw pikes, puddling ice,/napkins warped by clutch,” her reveries the tawdry repetitions of “rows of taps.” An aura of discombobulation, meandering, elaborating from what seems to be “accessible” descriptors but actually reveal themselves as not quite the comprehensible world you anticipated. Apropos for a  book on dislocation in an era gone surreal with WTFs.

danny and biff's dayDavid Martin’s first book, Tar Swan (NeWest Press 2018) is a daring, baffling, Shakespearean-inflected romp through the history of oil sands development in Alberta, jolting through different dictions and tonalities as expressed (rather perfectly I thought, versus say the more eye-troubling way Bringhurst’s polyvocalities are presented in multiple textual colours) in the varying segments of the page they take up: top, bottom, in couplet or epistle chunk, starting with a measurement “45-30 cm, below/lithic core” as with the archeologist’s speeches or in the plumb centre of the page with the curious character of the swan. Each figure is introduced in their typified posture. Robert C Fitzsimmons, the core player in this book and the first man to unveil a “commercial oil sands separation plant” is said to be posing, “hands clasped, on a boulder by the Athabaska River.” As the long poem unwinds, Fitzsimmons, his thoughts often couched in truncated letters to his wife, Wilhelmina: “Children with trowels/excavate my flesh….I give back the oil wrapped in/ moss….my only Wilhelmina,” eventually goes mad, tormented by the apparent sabotage of Frank, the plant mechanic, and his own knowledge of land desecrations, his insanity conveyed by the interruptive random capitalized vowels and consonants that appear in his rants: ” When I /find This vermin, I will squeeze Out the sum It’s stolen/ from me and watch It dangle-drOwn in the court Of cUrrents.” This passionate bond of rational damage is balanced by the current day archeologist, Wolsky, whose detached eye measures the ruptures as he works to “syphon from sour soil/a bifurcated chunk of high-art….hew a blade/from its cradle, then scrape fat/off a mottled moon-skin.” And bobbing or bopping, the natural yet artistically-shaped witness to these male plunderings is the swan, a “single cygnet” who grew up amid “quickening lichen” and “coke-drowned patch clowns” and who concludingly warbles “but I know skin and bones are far/from their mad embrace without my tar.” Part Blake, part Eiseley with a dash of Ginsbergian deliriums (or none of this. and more), Martin, a trained musician, takes a buried narration and turns it towards the light of polyphony, and its imaginations, where so many transformations live.

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Insomnia Bird by Kelly Shepherd (Thistledown Press, 2018)

under the bridge

Kelly Shepherd’s Insomnia Bird (subtitled, perhaps unnecessarily, “Edmonton poems”) is a city in a book, rich with polyphony, cacophony, intersecting texts, facts, quotes, a bric-a-brac of exhaust and feathers. Full of Marianne Moore-style leapings (if not soundings) in which the information, the research is foregrounded, lying on the surface, detrital, truthful, redolent, Shepherd’s collection of collage poems mashes together the quotidian and demotic with the intellectual and the poetic in a feat the mind squirms essentially to take in. I was drawn into the book most deeply from the anaphoric poem Purple City: AfterImages onwards (“You are regret….and graffiti showing a bird with one word – “Listen” – and/ the sweat of the labourers who build the long ritual River/ Valley Stairs, and the funicular, and the sweat of the believers/ who run them…”) Some of the prior pieces fall into a few distracting cliches such as the “heart of the city” or “thunder of hooves,” trees with fingers and the like but also, I think it took a few poems for my mind to click into the particular cadences of the text, which never rest in the pure lyric or a po-mo disjointedness but aim to blur the boundaries between such generic modes. The descriptor-based poems like Edmonton! Deadmonton! Edmonchuck! Redmonton! (“your mountain ash trees full of red berries/and the watery music of waxwings…Your drifting snow and your Office Tower Tales…and the Wee Book Inn and the Sugarbowl”), Don’t Let MacDonald’s into Heritage Days (“I walked home blinking blood…poplar and chokecherry now meringued with frost”) and the ones about magpies and coyotes in which such insights inhere as “Resentful of our own receding hairlines,/we clearcut the hills,” are the most potent pieces for this reader. But the rest have their place in the symphony of things. Indeed, I want to hear this book performed in all its loco layers, ala Robert Bringhurst or the Four Horsemen. It might be, at times, too much textuality for the eye to want take in (especially in combination with all the end notes and epigraphs and blurbs – though I DID appreciate how many women eco-poets are quoted!) but the ear aches to hear the blatting crash of bird and truck, of hammer and train, the poetry cracking through the surfaces more clearly in this fashion, like a yapping dandelion through scrawled-all-over cement. A transplanted BC-er to L’Edmonton myself, I thoroughly relished this raucous homage/lament to a city buzzy with contradictions and yet still humming with beauty.

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Glutton for Punishment: Hardcore Glosas

Glosas are the most conversational form we know in poetry, a Spanish invention re-popularized in Canada by P.K Page’s Hologram (1994), which featured 14 examples of the forty-line in four stanzas poem. Working with any one form as a full-length book is a challenge in terms of texture and variety, energy and resonance but Christopher Doda attempts this feat relatively admirably (if to excess; his collection contains over 40 glosas!) in Glutton for Punishment (Mansfield Press, 2017), a challenge heightened by the fact that Doda has selected only four lines of metal or hard rock lyrics to riff off for each glosa, lyrics that can, at times, be poetically questionable. As a long-term hardcore fan myself, I know all the bands Doda quotes from and some lyrics do, indeed, stand-up as words alone, minus their groin-crushing musical accompaniment. Say Megadeth: “Great nations built from the bones of the dead/With mud and straw, blood and sweat,/You know your worth when your enemies/Praise your architecture of aggression” though many don’t and some are even cringingly icky, as is anything written in adolescence. To wit, Overkill with their ultra-basic imperatives: “Bargaining with gasoline/Take a ride on this machine/Gonna get me some/When it comes.” Hence one of the key distinctions between poetry and song lyrics; in a poem, the music must be contained within and hold its own solo ground, minus further compositional embellishments.

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It is all too easy to sink into monotony when one form dominates a collection and Doda doesn’t entirely avoid this droning pitfall, especially in the pieces stuffed with repetitions of “I” lines: “I am my happiness,/the democratic imperative. I am the infinite/space between recto and verso,” nor in the sense that many poems tend to inhabit abstract, wordy spaces, perhaps potent in front of a double kick and screamed out, but on the page lying flat as a crushed mosher: “the gift of solemn obligation could not/Abide with me. The means of purity hurt/more than it did. Let me, O word, disembark.” Um, snooze? Fortunately, the sequence is rich with other glosas that not only play off the original four strings of the impetus song’s bass line but vivify, enlarge, move. My favorite is “By Order of Management, Uppal is Banned from the Stereo,” which sketches a wonderfully silly and fully alive scene between husband and wife as they dance to Ministry before nursing “caesars at brunch” where “Lunacy has a shape, my love, a genre.” Knowing Priscilla has died since makes this recollection even more poignant. Another vivid elegy is for a man called Wayne in “Caledon Field Party, 1987” a “starved Shaman,” while the most powerful of the “I” pieces, to my mind is the Blakean-visioned “Portrait of the Poet as Psychopath”: “I am a beauty queen in second place…I am an organic farm built in a wasteland.” Sell your Dreams, Azazel (which draws from Rammstein’s German), a tribute to Metallica’s dead bassist Cliff Burton (d. 1986), the anaphoric repetitions of “let my life be” in Atheist’s Grace, the fusion of Phyllis Webb and Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine’s sentiments in Coincidence and the piece that should have ended the book, Flat Obelisk, with its meditative ice, are some of the strongest, horns-up poems in the collection.

But O I grow weary of the standard book length in this country! Let there be more tiny, pocket-size, punchy texts! 15-20 of these glosas, carefully selected and presented in a well-crafted design (I love the black and red skull cover but it would have looked even better writ small) could have made for a much more glorious headbang. And yet, regardless, I applaud Doda for his willingness to take formal risks in such disparate comminglings. A most metal nod your way sir!

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On the Count of None

The reader indubitably knows what they are getting in a Stuart Ross Feed Dog imprint from Anvil Press – choppy pieces, usually brief, that veer in their surreal varietals and frequently end abruptly like sausage links of jello hacked with an angelic chainsaw. Form resists pattern; what something means, or even sounds like, seems a moot point in the face of the imagination’s slackened chorus of willy-nilly leapings. Now I’m an Ashbery aficionado as everyone knows but that doesn’t mean I don’t think he composed some utter toss-away bits, particularly in his later volumes, and Chisholm’s book certainly contains a few of these WTF and WHY snippets. Frankly, I have NO idea what the criteria would be for the inclusion of a piece like “Your New Home,” a teensy ditty in six short lines: “You, invaded./As wise as rust,/as red as Confucius./Lessons in articulation,/Outfits,/designer infants.” Such sketches aren’t even surreal, they merely exclude the reader entirely from any connection (except presumably the Christine it is dedicated to), all referentiality personal and essentially uninteresting. No hooks here; just a shrug of stuff. This blah instance is however countered by an even shorter piece, “Yours,” in which the surreal actually melds with its ally, feeling, to produce a simple paean to another poet’s somatic cadences. Without an echo of emotion, as found say in much of Jason Heroux’s work, the surrealist poem often just lies there, yawning “so what?” in neon banana pants.

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Although Chisholm’s book didn’t stir the heart-ducts much, it does contain a perfectly satisfying sequence of horoscope poems, the known format providing a striking container for a host of odd prognostications or advice, such as, “Cling tightly to your old-fashioned mahogany values” (Leo) or “The key to your happiness is in the mouth of the zoologist” (Scorpio), and there are other compelling poems: particularly the ending of “Heist” (the stillness that overtook us/was borrowed from a book), the anaphoric two-pager “The Delicate Thing,” the energetic onomatopoeia of “Bleat,” the edging-on revelation “The Thing About Me,” the repetitions of perfect in “The Precise Order of Things,” and the random list of “Rendered.” These are, indeed, as the back blurb proclaims, “flabbergasting” poems. But what else would you expect to emerge from the pen of a glockenspiel player in a Hawaiian dream pop band?

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Trauma Head (Anvil Press, 2018)

Kin to Sylvia Legris’s amazing collection, Nerve Squall (2005), a long poem whose jagged animal-madnesses mimic the discordant symptoms of migraine, but taken, as required, to a deeper extreme, Elee Kraljii Gardner’s Trauma Head truly fuses form and content. At times inversions, backslashes, mirrored words, quirky typographies, blank spaces and even neologisms can seem but tricks in other texts, but in this book they are essential ruptures of the flow and lucidity of language, or re-makings, afresh or of necessity, from at least partial somatic devastation. Best read in one sitting to receive the full effect or impact of the passages from attack and diagnosis to gradual healing over the course of a year, this poem draws on clinical discourse, charts, technical utterances, spurts of Greek and the auralities of such poets as angela rawlings to reconstruct the mind’s senses under the wreckage of an arterial tear. The defamiliarizations of syntax and diction reflects the discombobulations of the body as it seeks to make sense of its alterations in access, routine, feeling.

There is no real need to yank out parts here to identify them as more or less potent or crafted because this agonized saga is one difficult channel with its constituent and required limbs of sludge and flooding. Though I must say I felt most moved by the “enter the disruption/” segments with their lengthy lines in prose-esque paragraphs, announcing such surreal/real instances as “petals of the many-sided tree and inside corners arise from tears,” was compelled by the numerical gauges at the bottom of pages that accord (for instance) a level of 3 to Body and a marker of 2 to Bed, and appreciated the dialogue that erupts between actual reports from Gardner’s file and her own poetic interpretations. The book closes with a brief but beautiful meditation-essay on the return to the world after injury and illness, a soothing, stirring gorgeousness of “the seal’s whiteless eyes” as the healed and yet now changed narrator tastes “the river, the salt, clouds, all the recipes of blood.”

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Some of us and most of you are dead

US critic Brian Henry writes about the terminal form, one invented in the 20th century by Australian poet John Tranter. He notes that “the terminal as a poetic form is vastly open to possibility. But because the existence of a terminal depends on a prior poem, it has the ultimate limit: the single poem. Thus, the terminal raises various issues about poetic form, conservation, usurpation, influence, and composition that no other form can raise” (https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-poetic-form/terminals). Interesting. And a challenge. A form that raises questions NO other form can raise? What about the glosa? Or the cento? One drawing from four direct lines of another poet and the other ENTIRELY composed of lines from other poems. Wouldn’t those forms equally (if not more so) allow such queries to rear their influenced heads than this form that ONLY takes its end words from the end words of another’s poem?

I must admit, being the form junkie I am, that I had never before attempted a terminal poem, even though my always-to-remain-unpublished MS “A Crackhead’s Book of Forms” claims to contain ALL the forms known to humanity. And so, when I first sat down to read Peter Norman’s collection (A Buckrider Book, 2018), I was a bit perplexed about the form: why anyone would write it, what it could reveal content or cadence-wise. So, of course, I had to write my own terminal poem as the only way to learn is to do. I based mine on the exact end words of John Ashbery’s piece Homeless Heart (apart from altering the word “cir/cumstances” to “cirrus” to keep the word on one line – a perfectly valid alteration as Norman himself points out in his useful NOTES section that not only names each “starter” poem but shows the changes in words or sounds on occasion.) And thus, I present you with my own process, the piece:

Terminal Poem on Ashbery’s Homeless Heart

Everyday she accomplishes her work,
whether the clouds are cumulus or cirrus.
It is no use to chastise her, a
failure of successes, a woman caught
between her gender and her task, her predecessors
the rich who cut down trees to build boats, a situation
she is not to blame for, her guilt covered
by her own errors, the way, each morning, stumbling
towards routine, she re-inscribes her life on an inner blackboard.

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Now what did I learn about the terminal form by writing just one poem? I learned it is a form that requires one to re-read the “starter” poem a number of times during the composition, thereby sinking the work in at a deeper level, that, of course, as with any limitation, I was guided towards writing content that likely wouldn’t have otherwise emerged, and also, that a terminal poem, for me anyway, is very easy to write. You don’t have to remember metre, the number or sequence of word repetitions or any other kind of stricture than just “use the end word” (or a variation thereof). I wonder how Peter Norman feels about the form after composing an ENTIRE book of terminal poems?

Ugh, I must say it bothers me when the standardization of texts means that pieces often don’t get printed in their original forms. So that, for instance, the first poem that really “got me” in this book, “I know I am (or, Think Basic),” which was supposed to feature couplet stanzas, has to be broken randomly and messily in places, due to the format, leaving bits of unintended triplets and quartets on the page. And ESPECIALLY when the form is END WORDS, the shifts throw the whole pursuit off. Regardless, there are some true zingers in this collection. Namely the neatly-rhymed sonnet, “Excavation of the Pointless,” the wonderful eco-piece “Scoured Shore” whose segments begin with the alluring line, “Waves lick rock and turn it dark,” “Through a Portal Darkly,” which successfully mingles an archaic scene with modern diction: “But knowing’s always virtual./We knew fuck all, my dearest. Word. That’s life,” the brilliant “Cannibal,” a terminal poem composed using end words from one of Norman’s own prior pieces: “This feast is base. No way to make it noble:/me the cannibal, exhuming victim me,” “Chairman in Crisis,” “The Luxury to Which you are Entitled,” and the stirringly melancholic, “Lost Beyond the Reach of GPS” where the narrator turns “into a cul-de-sac, uncertain where I’ve come,/or even where it is that I came from./The only certainty is eyes and windows.” Yes, sometimes I was bored and just plain disbelieved the material; it felt like an exercise, not an entrance. But that is inevitable in any exploration of form. Kudos to Norman for extending the entree into an entire oeuvre of sorts, his words always reaching towards the words of others, as a real poet’s should.

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We like Feelings. We are Serious.

by Julie McIssac (A Buckrider Book, 2018) is possibly destined, at least in part, to become one of the essential poetically feminist texts, though in style it is actually more prosaic (despite its form-experimentations) than say Diane di Prima’s memoir Recollections of my Life as a Woman or Jowita Bydlowska’s sordidly insightful novel, Guy. Sometimes I wish we could say to hell with generic categories because to call some of this collection poetry makes me question a certain laxness in craft at times while to name it nothing but itself allows me to attend more to the valid shock of its contents. As an avid poetry reader for many many years, I continually realize that I am hungry for forms of many kinds and not just “saying things in words on a page.” Why I was perhaps most drawn, poetically-speaking, to McIssac’s “Haibun Dribs & Drabs/Scars & Scabs” section as it innovates Basho’s ancient form, filling it with contemporary content in the manner of Thom Gunn in The Man with the Night Sweats, sonnets rich with tragic details of the AIDS era. “White Smudges,” for one, turns a boyfriend’s masturbation (our jerking off “culture” being one textual preoccupation) into a symbol for the absence of gender-connection in a relationship: “there is no shame in masturbating, but why should I clean it up,” concluding with the form’s haiku: “In a cramped one-bedroom apartment/white smudges become/a blame machine.” The first piece in the collection plunges us fast and hard into the personal bond women are likely to feel with the author: “every loss I have ever felt has registered in my brain, marked my body, and influenced all my relationships.” Pow! I am in. Repeated drawings of a woman inserting a tampon, visual evidence of feminist archives, as well as the resulting forms of interview, notation, speeches, and harangues, then meddlings with the sonnet as grocery list, a long dramatic monologue on an obsessive masturbator (his fascination with his co-worker’s shoes – or “steppie sharks” – reminding me of Bonnie Bowman’s brilliant novel, SPAZ) and pieces of First World Context, all called “It Could be Worse,” provide incessant shifts in perspective, voice and focus, most of them shuddering with underlying infuriation, such as we all should feel over how so much of who we truly are, as woman, has been quashed by the patriarchy. Along the way, McIssac’s book made me question my resistances and pruderies, as has been the case with memoir writers like Trisha Cull and Lynn Crosbie. It is a book of unabashed brute protest, irreverently sticking its cunt in your face.  I did wish, as with the powerful long protest poem, Inventory, by Dionne Brand, that the language had been sharpened a bit more by metaphor and aurality so that the author is not just doing, as she orders in one poem, occupying “this form with your content,” but, at the same time, I was utterly jolted and thus held less tightly to the reins of my genre-hopes. McIssac’s father’s death by fire, as chronicled in parts of the final Fire Poems and especially the elegiac essay, “The First Poem: Destruction” is full of rage against always-unjust loss, a tragedy that extends beyond the death, to someone else inheriting his journals, to the stupid things that people say after someone’s passing. Although a seeming departure from prior material, it’s not. Grief often leads to the uncovering of other required ires and it is as if the annulment of the Father tore open wounds of being Woman in the World, enabling spillage, these compositions in menstrual blood that ensued. The collection ends with a sequence of scenes that all conclude with one word: blackout. “…knowing that this/writing came from the body/ Blackout.” Yes. It’s true. As Penelope Spheris yawped, “Good rock & roll breaks all the rules.”

3 whups

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