Reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography recently, I came across one of his methods for deciding what stays and what goes in any particular recording. “I edited out anything that broke the album’s mood or tension,” he says, wanting the final creation to be more vision than summation. Now, the risk of publishing a volume of poems that span over 30 years, even when it’s a Selected or Collected, is the feeling of mish-mash, an unsatisfying leaping between disparate subject matters that don’t quite gel, and possibly, if some of the pieces come from a much earlier era, the sense that they had their day and it isn’t now, whether in content or style.
David Haskins has been writing poetry a long time but hasn’t published much of it, due to a variety of work and personal factors. Thus Blood Rises gathers a host of poems that arch over time, place, thought, relationship, emotion and ability. I found myself wishing (again!) that publishers didn’t have a page quota for books in relation to block grants. Because not all books need to be 75 plus pages. I personally would pay the same for a book that was 30 pages where most every poem felt it was supposed to be there. These are the books one remembers, carries around in one’s pocket, cherishes.
It’s a lovely design and size for pocketing. The cover of The Phantom Hunter in the blues and greys of a snowy mountain recalls a boy’s adventure story and the diameters are narrower than many a Canadian poetry book. And there are a plethora of strong pieces here. Especially the ones on politics and grief. I had the pleasure of including David’s journal piece on the death of his wife in my volume of memoirs called Locations of Grief: an emotional geography (Wolsak and Wynn, 2020) and he evinces a rarely translatable empathy for both strangers and his beloved. There are eight sections in this book. Of these, the strongest poems are in Part 2: the wild among us, Part 3: cranial teapots, pelvic bowls, Part 5: naked again he writes and Part 7: beneath the civil skin. Thus, the pieces on nature, politics, Canadian poets, and loss. The first piece that struck me joyfully was “Forgiven” about Haskins’ sister’s passing and how a butterfly, “Sheltered from the huzzah of wind” appeared, leading to his realization that he didn’t want to ever “kill beauty to keep it.” A poem or two later, the piece “Punting on the Cherwell” instead left me with a cliched taste in my mouth as I read such phrases as “practiced athlete/true line/certain grace/silent passage/grinning Cheshire cat” and the unfortunately archaic contraction of “‘neath.” The volume is undoubtedly editorially uneven, as one spanning such immensities would be, if one wants (or needs) to make up a sufficiently lengthy work.
So, poems I loved: the solid three stanzas of November (apart from the tired, “gulls wheel,” I thought the rest potent with the “cold boring through their sheen” and the knowing that they “take what comes/the provident drizzle, the empty sky”), Spring Rain (the essential doom of “Nothing is enough. The water keeps rising”), the stunning perceptions of violence in Are there No Fish in Guatamala?, The Reason (a roundel variant that could have benefitted from tightening in the third stanza but whose first two stanzas are amazing with the repetitions at start and end of “I am the cancer wanting more” and “If not for me they would earn no wage”), How to Write a Canadian Poem (though it’s super dated, stemming from the 80s ;), along with Poetry Reading and Earle Birney, two pieces about renegade poets, the first of which, Milton Acorn, Haskins can remind one of (also evoking Robert Bringhurst and WS Merwin at times!), Holding On, Dementia (on his father), Things I do to Miss you (a poem also in the Locations anthology), Burning Chair (Oh the ow of the final two lines: “Once again I must turn the earth, find a place/below the surface, suited to receiving salvage”), a Tinge of Blue, and a poem in the travel sequence about Machu Picchu at the end, Dead Woman’s Pass (“I receive my souvenir passport stamp/and wait with the rest for the sky to brighten”).
Haskins concludes Blood Rises with the line “I am defined by what my imagination eats.” And this collection, though a bit overly-filling at moments, is undoubtedly one man’s powerful life feast.