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.
David 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.