Ok here goes the proverbial can of worms: middle aged, white male worms to be precise. If you do a Google search for those beasts these days, a host of article titles pop up, among them – “Should White Men Stop Writing?” “The Case of the Disappearing Poet” and “Goodbye Old White Male Poets.” Now obviously these creatures are still getting published (though getting read is a whole other ball game for us all!) but the question is should they? Maybe they should take a break and give balance, representation and other racial and sexual identities a chance. Would this work? Is our internal bias still prone to giving the dominant voice a continued dominance? Is it possible to be age, gender and colour blind in the assessment of art? So many tough questions. I’m about to review poetry books by two of the above-categorized humans and I just wrote a review of another one prior to this. Is this because this is the poetry I like? Or just the books that are being sent me? Why, if a press has such a limited number of poetry titles they can release each season, would they choose two by white men? Should they have to consider this or is just “what they like” good enough. Or “what they found to be the best in quality.” And if so, is this true or is this bias? It’s very very complicated. I personally would love to float around in a world where we were all invisible and art sprung from our auras in the most pure of ways but that’s obviously fantasy. Is the poem now less of interest than the identity politics or the subject matter? Is this a tragic or a necessary transition? I do so want poems read as craft, singing, form and not just as the human behind them. And no human should be told they can’t create art, ever (though obviously they have, over and over again). But how will there be justice for both art and its creators when we are not transparent, bodiless, history-less beings?
Enough questions for now. Are these collections any good? What does good mean? (you see soon I will have to descend into silence as taking any stance is too improbable when every utterance can be incessantly questioned). Well, white middle aged male subject matter in this day and age could be construed as somewhat dull. There are wives and children and jobs, a smidgen of travel or the noticing of others here and there, the inevitably decaying body, dying parents and an overall tone of perplexed ennui – “I have it all or did or could have,” the poems mumble plaintively, “but what did it or does it mean?” Leaping from this partially serious razz, let’s address the collections at hand, both apparently second ones (though Unwin’s bio disagrees with the back copy, saying he’s really the author of nine books so huh?) from poets in the above category who both transcend and don’t the listed subject matter.
Peter Unwin in The Infinite Parade (fantastic cover by the way with its eroding urban landscape) assumes a variety of personas related to domesticity and aging. Certainly more empathic than those “choleric, Scotch-spotted” skirt chasing “white male British authors from the sixties” as one poem goes, Unwin is able to imagine himself a wife (The Pros & Cons of my Husband), a clicheed kid-killer (The Fatal Skin), the old (The Lost Wallets of the Elderly) and even indiscreet furniture (Consider the Bedside Table.) In between these are musings on fatherhood, crows and the pathetic vulnerabilities inherent in contemporary society whose citizens’ “heads are in the oven along with the frozen lasagna” because “someone mocked [them] on social media.” It’s a desperate, sardonic world where the punchlines never quite climax, many lines are uppercase as if pounding home a vital fact while they wither in their content, the stanzas are both solid and formless, and no one “even had time to get cancer anymore.” Geez, now I’m depressed. All the speaker will receive after these indignities will be to fetch “the Big Guy a glass of wine at one of those book events,” which one can liminally attend perhaps but never be the star of (again? ever?). “Poetry Town” is grim. “The Lesson of the Master” speaks of a “dedication to the intricacies of art” that precludes all real intimacies but hey, it results in weird turtle obsessions and an “aluminum walker” anyway so why bother trying to preserve oneself for delusions of greatness. Boy, now I’m even more sunk 😉 Eeyore verse this is, with a wink of course, but also a secretive shot of mythical absinthe. The best pieces resonate with the dryly humorous narration of a poet like Szymborska or Zagajewski or Larkin, a refusal to take serious what is mortal to the point that “only the dead/have things to worry about” and those anxieties reside in the relentless re-reading they must have to do of those “Blockbuster family saga novels/that people leave behind at the cottage.” I enjoyed Lost (with its Bishop echoes), The Blue Train, The Harbour Woman, The Language of Crows and a range of lyrics that poke mercilessly at poets who are “dead broke and brilliant” and often too busy boinking. As Unwin states in a poem called Get Real, “with everything that’s happening/do you really think it’s the right time/to have a meaningful conversation…?” Nah, I guess not.
Michael Lithgow (whom I believe I encountered in Vancouver in the 90s?) circles similar content to Unwin (domesticity, fatherhood, the home, the road and mortality) but in a very different fashion; his poems are more sedate, moody, serious, and moving, especially in relation to scenes of Downtown Eastside poverty and his own father’s death. There are nil jabs at poesie here. Variations on doom are few. Nature for one, is usually cruel (red in tooth and claw?). Songbirds have lice (The Difference between Us), ducks are “dark burrs” (Weakening), the loon has a “broken and crude” cry (Artist Statement for Found Sounds at the Lake). There’s no respite in humans either. “Everything has an invoice” and the once-fun of cigarettes has now turned to cancer (You Can’t Take these Summers), the neighbours’ “private agonies and pleasures” seep “through the plaster” amid the “hectoring sound of [his] irrelevance” (Different Sounds. And most poets can, alas, relate) as “little bits of [him] are perishing everywhere” (Mechanics.) Not one bit droll. And yet I relished the sonorities, the tones, and the poised and multitudinous stanzaic structures in these elegies for everything. I did. Lithgow oxymoronically captures the falling in each entity, harnesses the vertiginous qualities of being human in an endlessly shifting universe. “Floating here/is a full-time job” he states in A Falling of Things, a man who is held aloft by history, responsibilities, a knowledge of loss, loneliness. Among the mentioned poems, I also deeply appreciated What Revolutions I have Left to Live, so honest with its commentary on boredom and the hunger he “once had for upheaval…tremors of instability” that even now he senses “augur beauty,” Vancouver, a very familiar land to me, from Pigeon Park to Spanish Banks and the Eliotian Tremors on the Road with its “exhaustion in April.” And he also quotes one of my core poets, Robinson Jeffers, from Continent’s End! Who We Thought We Were As We Fell is by no means a cheerful collection. And should it be? Of course not. Middle aged white male poets suffer too 😉 And I recall a poet once apologizing for the “dark, depressing nature” of the poems she was about to recite and I reminded her, “You don’t have to say sorry. We’re all adults here.”