Friday, January 17, 2020

Robin Richardson's Sit How You Want

I suppose comparisons of Robin Richardson’s poems to those of Sharon Olds are inevitable. Both writers concentrate on the dance, denouements, and death of sex, but whereas Olds’ take on the subject is elemental, Richardson more frequently details desire and its fallout within relationships. In Sit How You Want, her latest collection, Richardson has thrown a welcome ingredient into the high boil of sexual strife: hard-won, terse, frequently acidic philosophical summations or epiphanies. “Eventuality” links natural and human-made disaster with the troubling aftermath of sex – “nukes/in North Korea aimed like loaded cocks. What offspring!” – but the concluding two lines bring the historical or speculative considerations back home: “Now we’re naked on the pullout, losing interest./We’re no better than the rest.” “Without a Roof” moves from extreme vulnerability (“open/on the operating table, so impeccably pink/pearl you could drape me on a hotel heiress”) to sexual distancing (“He disapproves:/the carefree sovereignty of solitude”) to transformative assertion (“There’s freedom/in what no one knows”).

Even in the short quotes above, Richardson’s heady lyrical scoring delights. She manages, deftly, the difficult trick of creating sustained music through quickly shifting tonal registers and narrative fractures.

More mature than her also excellent Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis, Sit How You Want is top shelf reading, contemporary as a power line, traditional as a post-coital Rothman’s. And nowhere in the volume does she succumb to the “fashionable cleverness in sex”, Dudley Fitts’ criticism of a topic most writers either approach with jokes, or avoid altogether like a neon-flashing landmine.

Friday, January 10, 2020

David Zieroth’s the bridge from day to night

Elsewhere I’ve noted that many of our elder poets resemble boxers who’ve stayed on for one (or more than one) fight too many. The poems keep on a-comin’, but their punches lack strength and accuracy. David Zieroth – a poet who’s written some charming, quirky fantasies and honest anecdotes encapsulating some fine and subtle spiritual dimensions in minute-to-minute mundane action – has recently put forth the bridge from day to night, and it’s a sad book to contemplate for its gloomy self-regard. This is especially troubling since the tone is set against the beauty of Vancouver’s North Shore, emphasizing the speaker’s uneasiness with chaos and mutability. This results in one of any poet’s great sins – retreat from engagement with the sensed world. Zieroth often shows his impatience with the outside world by avoiding it altogether, acting instead as caught fly in a weak cauchemar-web. “first thought” quickly devolves to “all of my thoughts” to “the many limbs of the forest” to “each day the thoughts erect a wall/and tell me not to look/back into the tangled garden”.

Five poems in a row, near the volume’s close, are particularly lugubrious. “grief” details, clinically, the emotion’s effect on the body: “muscles in our organs/draw away from contact with skin/and contract so blood drains/out of toes and fingers foreign/in the face of sorrow”. The language, here, is as dead as the bodily processes it describes. “grief” concludes with, “our wonderer worries that nothing/better might ever be”. I had the same thought about this collection at around page 21.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Best Books Read in 2019

Again, because of time constraints, I've limited the year-end review to specific parameters. Concentrating here on poetry and fiction, I've also excised rereads and books ranked 1-4 on a scale of 5, where 5 (all books here)is exceptional, 4 is very good, 3 is fair-to-middling, 2 is subpar, and 1 is irredeemable. Just including books from rank 4 (very good) would have ballooned the reviews to a number too big to take on.

1) Bernardo Atxaga, Nevada Days (tr. M.J. Costa), 2013. Categorized as a novel, Nevada Days is presented more accurately as a journalistic memoir with surrealistic interludes. Atxaga, with wife and two young daughters, and on a writer exchange in 2007-08 from home Basque country to the University of Reno, sets down an amazing array of adventures, Spanish reminiscences, phone conversations to and from his mother, Nevada histories, and geological explorations, all of them lively and strangely moving, while also maintaining a subdued, even accepting, tone in the face of (often) violent foreboding or remnant evidence. The lynchpin to the book is the rape and eventual murder of 19 year-old Brianna Denison in January 2008, the abduction situated catawampus from the Atxaga digs in Reno, but other highlights (if I can put it like that) include attending the optimistic auditorium carnivals (with frenetic retinue) of presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and (later) Hilary Clinton, the funeral (in deep woods) of an overseas Basque-American army soldier, the historical recounting of a heavyweight boxing match in 1931 between Paulino “the Basque Woodchopper” Uzcudun and Max Baer, poisonous spiders and snakes, encounters with state prison road crews, and a particularly frightening loss of bearings during Atxaga's drive through desert with his family. Costa's translation, as with many of her projects, brings colour, vividness, immediacy, and transparent thought to the fore without undue linguistic awkwardness. I've thought often of this book throughout the half-year since I read it, and themes, if you will, are many and interlocking: awe and non-judgement in the face of overwhelming cultural shock; asserting oneself into whatever experience is undertaken, but not as star or solipsistic focus; elemental bleakness, without the opposing sins of sentimentality and tragic hopelessness; loose ends that can never be satisfactorily tied together; and a relentless low-key tenacity in observation and diurnal confrontation.

2) Leslie Thomas, Dangerous Davies The Last Detective, 1976. I usually read about one crime novel a year, foregoing more because of the genre's limited engagement with character complexity, attention to writerly panache, and off-beat or meticulous description. My own take on plot is that it should only be the focus for the lowering of coffins, but I'm not your typical genre reader. Lately, though, I've been delighted with a new (to me) discovery: comic crime. I should have been more intuitive long ago, what with many comic movie adaptations of crime novels. Thomas' Dangerous Davies series of four begins with this book under review, and it nails so many elements, and with an astonishing ability, of what I look for in a 'literary' novel: individual vision; quirky, finely delineated, believable characters; moral complexity; descriptive prowess; emotional versatility; authoritative (and appropriate) information; lexical surprise (and general stylistic brilliance); and, yes, though it's not always needed, especially in those 'literary' works, an interesting and surprising plot. Davies is the 'last' detective because he takes on moribund (actually, buried) criminal cases that have gone 'unsolved' for decades. Somewhat of a physically maladroit Clouseau, Davies nevertheless proceeds with an underappreciated doggedness and guile, eventually (with the sometimes-help of his Babe-in-Arms bar room philosopher friend Mod) putting 2,418 and 654,774 together to solve the case. Steeped in Brit vernacular, and punctuated with the wit of black comic dialogue and situational physical highjinks (though with a touch more wistfulness than bite), the novel packs more 'meaning' into its wild yarn than a warehouse-filled remaindered stock of ponderous literary fare.

3) Patricia Beer, The Estuary, 1971. This slim poetry collection is a (pardon the pun) high-water mark for Beer, balanced skilfully between classical structures and interpersonal history. Marriage, severe illness, local history, house interiors – whatever the level of emotional charge, Beer creates a proportional art that avoids outsized declaration or obscure dullness. Rereading rewards one with layered ‘facts’, but also fresh perspectives without easy accusations, or even a sense that taking sides ultimately matters. Her imagery recalls Patrick Anderson’s approach of mating common nature word choices – rain, sun, shadow, grass – with unusual adjectival juxtapositions which act as both compliment and contrast. Classical allusions are expertly inserted into contemporary stories, sometimes dramatically, sometimes humourously.

4) John Updike, Rabbit is Rich, 1981. The best novel of Updike’s tetralogy – more mature than Rabbit, Run, much more believable and less politically simple-minded than Rabbit Redux, and less cynical and fatalistic than the final Rabbit at Rest – received generally high acclaim when it came out, though now, like so much else earlier than ancient 2000, it’s been downgraded in certain academic quarters because of its perceived sexism and middle-class complacency. The last charge is hilarious when considering the ambiguously considered wife-swapping, the long and final (and brilliant) encounter with protagonist Angstrom’s first-ever fuck, and the many family decisions Angstrom makes in regards to the car dealership. The first charge misunderstands, in a sadly common recurrence, the difference between the author’s views and that of any of his character’s, and, even were he to be ‘guilty’, has little if anything to do with the aesthetic force of the work. And that the often “too much sex” charge is even given credence is itself puzzling. There’s too little sex in most novels, or, if a major factor, it’s often written as a craven or jejune or obfuscatory sandbagging exercise. Updike depicts sex, in many encounters, as joy, disappointment, lust, boredom, disgust, tenderness, and mortal reminder. You won’t get that kind of all-encompassing wisdom from sexual experience when it’s relegated to a ‘cleaned up’ academic room visited every hundredth page. Aside from sex, Updike’s other great themes are money and natural efflorescence and decay. For someone personally sheltered from many of life’s economic difficulties, his knowledge of money’s complexities – from many characters up and down the class ladder – is deep and on-the-ground convincing. Many reviewers and critics have lauded – rightly so – Updike’s facility and expertise with language. But they stop there. What makes it so? A large vocabulary is often cited as the, or a, chief reason. But Updike’s not so very different, in that regard, from many other excellent writers. He can write long, elegant, sinuously gorgeous sentences, but what really stands out is his stylistic virtuosity. Dialogue, descriptive passages, and philosophical musings are seamlessly interwoven without losing any narrative or meditative thrust. Nature metaphors are exceptional, often, as in classical or jazz music, with repetitive thematic material turned over like jewel light from different angles, or, to keep with the musical analogy, in tonal variations.

5) Shen Congwen, Border Town, (tr. J. Kinkley), 1932. This classic Chinese novel was banned during the Cultural Revolution. It’s unbelievable because Congwen’s focus is on the socialists’ supposed dream: manual labourers unencumbered by, and unconcerned with, intellectual concerns and counter-measures. A traditional story of two brothers competing for marriage to the daughter of a poor widower who operates a riverboat all day, the novel lacks even the undertones of political allegory or critique, instead steeping itself in the surrounding natural elements, those acting as metaphorical emotional forces in (mostly) the naïve and yearning young woman. A terrifically crafted and subdued tragic tone is maintained throughout, and if the ending lacks surprise, the climax matches the fatalistic cues and forebodings at every turn in the story.

6) Daniel Cowper, Grotesque Tenderness, 2019. (Reviewed for an upcoming issue of Hamilton Arts & Letters.)

7) Marjana Gaponenko, Who Was Martha?, (tr. A. Spencer), 2012. Another novel in a long line of exceptional European depictions of the guilt- and depression-ridden residues left behind after two, three, four generations of WWII experiences (Erpenbeck, Tokarczuk, Sebald). Unlike the other novelists mentioned, Gaponenko’s tone here is light (with pensive, even profoundly tragic, underpinnings), humorous, witty, farcical. It’s quite an achievement to make that complex tone register against the arthritic psychological backdrop of an old man having a determined adventure outside his formally steadfast mundane existence before cancer shoots its final tendrils into him.

8) Nicholas Bradley, Rain Shadow, 2018. (Reviewed in subTerrain issue #83.)

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Utopian Literary World of Michele A. Berdy

In her August 14th article in The Moscow Times entitled “If I Were Queen of Translation Reviews”, Michele A. Berdy prides herself on her tone, a “rant”. It’s actually closer to a myopic, supercilious, ungenerous clusterfuck (ironically) against the very translators and (especially) original authors she professes to champion. But it’s especially ungenerous towards the potential readers of those works.

After an off-topic, current hard-times ground state that’s supposed to lend justification for the “rant” – I suppose, in hopes that sheer outraged tone is to override any points that may be challenged – Berdy begins with rule #1 of “Those Banned From Reviewing” with “Someone who doesn’t know the language of the original. Duh, right?” Actually, duh, wrong. Her only reasoning is that “I mean, would you ask me to review a translation of book (sic) of Chinese poetry if I didn’t know Chinese?” The answer: it depends. I want the reviewer, above all, to be a passionate and knowledgeable reader of poetry, and to write well. Knowing the source language is certainly a help, but often not a prerequisite, and highly dependent on the review’s context. Who is it written for? What publication is it in? What are the writer’s particular reviewing parameters, either self-imposed or determined in advance by the editors/publisher? Is the review a retrospective on a work or works, or, especially, on the author? (In the latter case, even a glancing knowledge of the original material isn’t needed.) And why stop there? By extension, her draconian measures should encompass transfers of jargon, argot, idiom, and dialect. Imagine the audacity of a transatlantic English speaking reviewer presuming to opine on the untranslated Irish brogue of Paul Durcan!

Further, if reviewers (and publishers) acceded to Berdy’s dicta, readers wouldn’t even know of many original works in their conversant language of the received translation, let alone come across opinions, story outlines, broad judgments, and on and on. Scholarly work, including tonal faithfulness and nuanced assessments of word choice? Sure, but most reviews don’t have that as a mandate, and a good thing it is. How many reviewers, often working for free or for a pittance, even if they are fluent in the original, are going to spend hours tracking down the context and probability of use for a now archaic phrase that has a muddied philological history? And how many of that reduced number are (e.g.) fluent in both Burmese and English, know the back catalogue of the original author (another of many of the Queen’s requirements), and are intimately familiar with the political and cultural milieu in which, say, the particular novel takes place? Would you give double-digits-to-one odds that the number is close to zero? I would.

Berdy royally waves away anyone who would presume to review translations without knowing the source language, but how about the many translators who actually go German-to-English with no more extensive vocabulary than ja and nein? This happens frequently, and in poetry, not ‘just’ non-fiction tomes, with lauded results.

There are many other ‘prerequisites’, in the article, from Her Highness, but from what I’ve outlined here, the procedure is already unworkable and needlessly restrictive.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Patrick Warner's Octopus

Pick up a copy of most any poetry collection these days, flip to the back, and you’ll note the weighty thematic encapsulated in a bumpf so precise (yet paradoxically vague) you’d think you were about to dig into an epic novel were it not for the thin spine. There are several reasons for this: it makes for a more coherent outline in order to gain grant money from our government overlords; it presents as serious content, most often allied with current hot button topics and with others in the poetry community (in which the ‘transgressive’ poet always seems to join the winning team); and it’s easier to get away with individual poems that are mediocre since each is meant to be taken as a small piece in a narrative whose sum is (supposedly) much greater than its constituents.

Patrick Warner is a throwback in that he writes poems meant to be enjoyed and assessed within the parameters of each offering, attuned to the desires of present-day consumers of songs, who enjoy and assess them as singles, not oases in DVD deserts. Octopus, from 2016, is his fifth collection, and though themes and obsessions can be observed, volume to volume (as they inevitably will in any poet, good or bad), his focus is much more on intricate rhythms, sound patterns, dynamics, narrative surprise, vocal idiosyncrasy, apt and piquant diction, subtle irony, moral dilemmas, and a rare humour that combines the black with the compassionate.

Warner enjoys going for walks and looking at the earth, foregrounding his observations, rather than using them, as is usual in ‘nature’ poets, as metaphorical standbys for the spiritual malaise of the speaker (or author, let’s not be coy). In that, he’s aligned with Bly, Kinnell, and, closer to home, Peter Norman. But, unlike the aforementioned poets, Warner isn’t averse to including disparate comparisons within a poem. Take “Cold July” (dedicated to the late Elise Partridge), the first stanza of part one of which is recorded below:

I have seen it a beaver-dammed
lukewarm dribble, but this summer the brook’s a river,
deep and cold, running steeped tea
and a skim of froth around lichened rocks,
roaring like an air-conditioner.

The next poem, “Downpour”, is even better on the same front: out of a cistern, “oblong doilies;/crocheted antimacassars; gobs of/cuckoo spit; and here where two stones/make a whirlpool, a round lace pastie/ringed by seven clear bubbles – a rotary phone’s finger holes.”

Fun in contemporary poetry has been attempted through sheer will of personality, whether made up or natural. Blame Purdy, sure. But his followers are ultimately culpable. Flat or mild jokes – OK for stand-up comics, dire for repeated poetry readings – dominate the mode. Warner is having none of that. In “Guerilla”, the fun is one-hundred percent language driven : “Adios to my pueblo, my adobe abode, my white-washed hacienda of the mind”. It continues, through eight sestets, in the gathered and regrafted tropes of a scion of a Spanish conquistador, his revolution one of spiritual, not military or political, movement.

Painstaking observation, care in expression, emotional heft and complexity. Those attributes don’t have a chance next to the various popular social positions most are shouldering within to get positive ink and communal support. That is, until time, the ultimate judge, immune to hype, has its say.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Dan MacIsaac's Cries From the Ark

It’s been estimated by some environmental scientists that, each day, about a hundred species of bird, beast, or insect vanishes from this globe of water, dirt, and asphalt. Of course, we don’t know the exact amount since most endangered species aren’t headline news like the Malayan tiger or ivory-billed woodpecker. Rather, most species are microscopic, tucked away (e.g.) in Amazonian jungles, unknown to us, and are indispensable for the survival of many other creatures since they start the feeding chain. Scientists have been urgently trying to find and classify those species before they’re gone, so that at least we know what we’ve missed, as this will at least shed light on the interconnectedness of ecosystems in those areas. It speaks to the dire predicament we’ve found ourselves in when a concession of extinction is made even before finding those species.

Dan MacIsaac’s inaugural poetry collection, Cries From the Ark, celebrates and elegizes the eponymous critters, and, with that as a base, speculates on past life forms, and how they came to extinction, whether through human or natural challenge. The book is divided into six sections: animals; Biblical personnae; birds; anthropological digs and myths; insects; and anthropology updated.

MacIsaac’s concentration on many members of Noah’s roll call is a welcome reprieve from the environmental grandstanding or abstraction that hampers a particular subset of advocacy verse. Some of the animals the author depicts are in a peculiar bind: their numbers and habitat aren’t at the tipping point (yet), so they haven’t gained sensationalistic press, but neither are they home and clear from current and various stewardship malpractices. The British Columbia Kermode bear is one such animal. Here’s MacIsaac’s “Spirit Bear”, in full (sub-heading: Ursus americanus kermodei):

At the river’s black mouth,
the white bear waits
for the swimmer.

He crashes into shallows,
seizing the quick fish,

glisten of silver
along cinder lips.

A cedar twig

He lunges
for the far shore
murky with hemlock.

He vanishes –
froth spattered
on dark rock.

This is near perfect in its execution and vibrancy of images, and captures the grace, patience, strength, and ferocity of the bear with close observation, neither overstating the event nor interposing distracting, subjective layers. One such poem is worth a thousand hand-wringing self-regarding prosy salvos.

Elswwhere, the author accomplishes a wider perspective than the recording of events. In “Dandelions”, “my child, grown older,//will blow parachutes/of spun seed/over alien country.” A humble – even clichéd – ritual becomes sexual necessity, and the poem ends with, “love seems most/like the lion’s tooth.”

Consistently on display is an ear attuned to both appropriate rhythm and sound patterns. MacIsaac’s go-to notes are paired assonants, which emphasize importance of theme, and they often link to similar sounds in later stanzas. Internal rhymes also figure, and have a similar effect: “From a deep cirque of thorns,/the tribesmen goad the herd”.

Humour is sparse, but natural. The opening of “Red Pileated Woodpecker” is illustrative: “Headbanger,/mohawked,//with a buzz-saw/guffaw,//flaps over/the mosh pit”. But humour gives ground to the author’s sober insistence that what we call ‘nature’, or ‘the environment’, is not some cute concept to be proselytized in sentimental urgency, but a dynamic force, frightening in its potency, and often, like the “Bison: Wallowing”, “sweating out ticks/from its soiled hide/into the suety ooze.”

Friday, February 8, 2019

Dani Couture's Listen Before Transmit

Dani Couture’s latest volume of poetry, Listen Before Transmit, obsesses and moves over time shifts between present and future, by way of spatial relations. The present is personal, the future is abstracted. Both are dire. It could be labeled pre-apocalyptic lit. Teasing out those shifts could have been a fascinating exercise, yielding many insights, but the speculations would have to have been grounded in a convincing present reality. This is a problem throughout the collection. Too often that present isn’t a developed panoply of imminent environmental disasters, but a focus on the doomed individuals: death by accident (“It was/a black spot on their left shin after having/mown the lawn. During an eclipse,//they looked at the sun without their/daughter’s pinhole camera.”, from “Black Sea Nettle”), vague suggestions of mass capture and, perhaps, deportation (“The helicopter nears. Tonight, even the air is filled with bodies.”, from “Another Earth”), female subjugation and overcoming (“Jet propulsion will eventually erupt/and cause a break between her legs, at which point she will take off.”, from “Pioneer 14”).

Another problem is tonal choice. The most effective registers for apocalyptic speculation, near or long term, are solemn and scarily plausible or angry and accusatory. The voice, here, is distanced, cool, at times even ironic. Cool then becomes cold, and the inevitable fall-out leads to pretentious lines like, “The electric lever of passive care plasma fuels/or sometimes doesn’t” (from “A Casual Defence”), or “T minus the time it takes you to forget/your intention” (from “Minus Time”), or “An issue with constant values/and constant invalidation of facts.” (from “Flyby”).

Mary Dalton’s blurb recognizes the “uncertainty, estrangement and disconnection”, but also comments on “a countermusic in the book that strengthens the hold these poems gain over the reader”. I didn’t hear it. Similar to the failure of Dennis Lee’s Yesno, the author might listen, but fails to transmit any joy in the present world that should serve as the bedrock for the rage or grief that would necessarily follow from ‘the end of the world as we know it’. The collection’s closer, “Transit of Mercury”, ends with, “So when I say I miss you,//it’s not to you, but through to the palm trees/on the throw pillow that are not actual palms.//But I enjoy the idea of their shade/when the sun hits them right.” The only enjoyment is in “the idea”, which perhaps accounts for the joyless and dull phrase, “when the sun hits them right”.

In Listen Before Transmit, Couture has bitten off far more than she can chew. It’s more convincing as a personal fear of death than as a speculative take on different apocalyptic scenarios.