Saturday, March 14, 2020

Another Hiatus

Regular or casual readers of this blog, I've decided to take another indefinite hiatus. I have several competing writing interests on the go, and despite the technological wizardry our excited futurists provide, none have yet managed to move the diurnal needle from 24 hours to, say, 24:30. Thank you all for reading, and many blessings.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Phoebe Wang’s Admission Requirements

A. E. Housman, in his poetry, was consistently despondent. That emotional tenor was balanced wonderfully by a savvy musicality that acted as bouyant counterpoint. No such luck while reading Phoebe Wang’s collection of poetry, Admission Requirements. The despondency on display in poem after poem over the course of one hundred pages is unrelieved by any variation in alternative mood and, more importantly, by any prosodic stickiness. The words evaporate.
Another reason these poems don’t remain with the reader is the narrative verbosity. That phrase may sound redundant. After all, narrative tends toward explication, plentiful description including mundane detail, and a pile-up of supporting list-like metaphors, extended or ragged. But Wang’s efforts have the demerits of bad narration in verse: prosiness without vivid or arresting .... well, stories.
A familiar – indeed, insistent – approach is to lay out a desultory geographical scene, one often static, though ostensibly real, as in a Russian peasant painting composed in March. A building, unpeopled, sits darkly by a river, there’s a forbidding escarpment, and the poet/narrator ends the consideration with a bleak-but-fuzzy takeaway: “I long to lie atop rapids/that can outrun change, lashed/to that promise of future returns.”; “no matter how far we trudge/on the tide flats, that temporary country,/the rooms we covet remain cut off.”; “There’s no end to the work I began alone/making meaning where there’s none.” The final-lines quote from the last citation is in “The Pre-Existing Structures”, a particularly dour poem which also contains, “I look for some great/design, and find only carillon regularity”. I could always use some carillon regularity, or, more specifically, carillon transcendence. But then whatever we hear is a reflection of our current emotional state, indeed our spiritual condition. I immediately recalled Hart Crane’s great poem, “The Broken Tower”, which contains these brilliant lines: “shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway/Antiphonal carillons launched before/The stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray?”.  One immediately feels Crane’s polyvocal pain and joy, his wise encapsulations of different moods and flavours. With Wang, even a carillon is flat, affectless. And the language enhances that state. Contrast Crane’s “shadows” with – again, in this poem – “ Here shadows aren’t perturbed/by questions of their source and agency”. The nouns come from a numbing sociological primer. The final line from Wang’s final lines also “make an inadvertent memory universal and prescriptive”, to quote Mary Kinzie’s warning on the dangers of assumptive transference.
Despite the above aversions, I like the gambit Wang shows of using geography, especially architecture, as a means of tracking emotion. But the metaphorical equivalents are poorly, even haphazardly, handled. (The sky is, in different poems and by turns, a “grey parachute”, a “split screen”, and an “allotment”.)
It’s usually a mug’s game to guess future talent based on book one, but Wang’ll have to harness the nuts and bolts of craft before having a chance at transmitting any aesthetic wonder from her interesting approach.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Alden Nowlan's Collected Poems

In the past few years, as many young and not-so-young poets exhibit their narcissistic doldrums or ideological accusations in volume after volume of insufferable verse, it's timely – and about time – that Alden Nowlen's Collected Poems (2017) arrives 34 years after his death. Biographically and aesthetically dense, editor Brian Bartlett's lengthy introduction takes pains to present Nowlan's personality, life, and poetry in human terms, whether the concerns are spiritual or social. He also lays out the Collected in the appropriate manner: all of Nowlan's volumes are titled in the index, and appear in chronological order, against the (sometimes operable) maddening tack of presenting a Collected thematically.

Nowlan has sometimes been accused of composing off-hand homilies and anecdotes lacking prosodic sophistication. Though Nowlan at his worst is, at times, indeed indicted on that count (the man simply wrote too much, and there's nothing like a doorstopper Collected to bring that point home), his seemingly dashed-off personal studies often reveal much more than a fleeting first reading may lead a reader to see. For every “Letter to a Young Friend”, in which “[a]n aging freak,/for whom there was no choice, wishes you strength/to bear it should you find that which you seek”, there are many more succinct, emotionally devastating, direct entries like “The Factory Worker's Poem” where “I am as limp as a puppet/from which the ventriloquist/has withdrawn his hand” or fearless investigations into personal weakness from “Hide and Seek” wherein

if I believed
in God
would ask
him to
forgive me

for being one
of those
who know
how to hide.

Another misconception, by some at least, is that Nowlan's unruly personality spilled over into his poetry so that not only wouldn't he write a more or less 'accomplished' poem, but that he couldn't. Here's a wonderful sonnet, perfect in its execution, and wise in its understanding of others, and oneself in relation to those others. This is “Golf”, in full:

My friends believe in golf, address the ball,
however bent, to an appointed place.
Newtonians, convinced no orb can fall
out of the numbered course of time and space.

But I, from clumsiness or pity, drive
balls out of bounds and into woods and traps,
my knees and wrists vindictive in their love
for dark and tangled places not on maps.

“Golf's not your game,” they say. But I persist.
“Next one goes straight ...” I promise. Oh, they're fooled
right cunningly by my secretive wrist
that treacherously lets the world go wild.

Let them attack the green. As for myself,
I pitch into the darkness, like a wolf.

There are too many facets of Nowlan's poetry, too much diverse subject matter, too many astonishing nuances and ambiguities within lines of poems – indeed, within phrases and even words – to do justice to them in a short review of a Collected by a major poet, but the beauty of Nowlan's Collected Poems is that we now have that evidence in a one-stop book which, at least for this reader, deepens and stamps with awe the experience each time the poems are returned to.

Friday, February 21, 2020

I Tweet, Therefore I Am

For some, life is most vividly experienced in the pages of a book, or, to update the gathering repository, on the metastatic lucubrations of the interweb. Take the backlash on poetry reviewers.

Jacob McArthur Mooney, a subdued contributor in the tempest-in-a-shot-glass backs-and-forths over a decade ago during the arguments re negative reviewing, has, last week, scattered his twitter buckshot about like Rooster Cogburn coming off a three-day bender while attempting to ride a bronco down a sixty degree rockstrewn wet creekbed in interlocking shade and chasing a single hare. This reaction to his reaction of a reaction of two reviews proceeds into the deep canyons and crevices of twitter's deep web of stertorous borborygmi, exploding dragonflies, and cloudy oysters disguised as literary argument.

The origin for this Chinese puzzle is Alden Nowlan's Collected Poems, released in 2017. Shane Neilson wrote an essay-response to two of the resulting reviews, one each by Trevor Cook and Richard Kelly Kemick. This appeared, with the title "We Shall Know You By Your Reviews", in the Miramichi Reader, and is available for perusal online. In it, Neilson takes to task each reviewer for what he calls the sins of a new reviewing phenomenon, the moral scolding by New White Male, whose response is always through the lens of the supposed power imbalance which inheres with the evil White patriarchy. Neilson is singing to the choir here as to this reviewer's stance, though, before turning to Mooney, I'll take minor issue with the label in Neilson's premise: the New White Male is not always New, not always White, and not always Male. Some now forgotten female academic waited, gutlessly, until Irving Layton was addled in his eighties before skewering him in a particularly petty, poetically ignorant, illogical, stumbling, personality-driven, exhaustive review of his entire corpus. There were many others, but that takes care of parts 1 and 3. As for 2, Mooney's own champion as counter-example to Nowlan (gawd, I can't believe I'm juxtaposing these names), Gwen Benaway (I'll come back to his twitterism later) covers that, along with, lately, 3. Now to the tweets.

“You might be as pleased as I was to learn this was the preamble to a defence of Alden Nowlan against a reviewer who noted he was problematic in 2019. It's like a Rex Murphy column's comment thread came to life and turned its attentions on Canlit.” -- JMM

Anyone not well-versed and up-to-speed on the tactics of progressive priests would obviously be baffled by the simile. Remember, Neilson is critiquing the two reviewers, Cook and Kemick. There are many ways to approach a review of the prodigous output of a major and complex Canadian poet, but Cook and Kemick both saw fit to emphasize Nowlan's “latent chauvinism” (Kemick's words), and “vulgar content” (Cook's words). In other words, what Mooney slyly doesn't tell his followers is that identity politics were introduced methodically into the springboard and guts of the review. A reviewer commenting on these reviews would be remiss and cowardly if he or she didn't bring up the political slant. But when you're serenly confident that your side has not only won the argument vis-a-vis moral purity vs hidebound 'soft' racism, sexism, or the other ten or so reflexive -isms and -phobes, there's no need to even entertain flat out contradictions, lies, and spiritual hypocrisies prevalent in that 'approach without reproach'. Even more baffling is this facile confidence when what we're discussing is the complexities of a worthy poet, where quality is almost always tied up in ambiguities, ambivalencies, and, most certainly, moral shortcomings. (We'll leave aside poetic personae, though some wokesters are so ideologically brainwashed or cynically power-mad, they'll even leap on those fictions as evidence of evilthink.) It's a testament to Nowlan that he had the guts to reveal his inner life honestly, however unfashionably and unsexy it unfolded. But poets now must either take on the roles of saints, or present as victims who would certainly be saints if it wasn't for the cis-gendered, heteronormative, White patriarchal colonial male.

“Stuff like this is a symptom of the decline in paid poetry reviewing. Who, demographically, has yime to write 1000 word reviews of 40-year-old Alden Nowlan poems for no-ish money? What are their aesthetics and politics? Do they fear the contemporary? What axes do they grind? Etc.” -- JMM

At a time, and increasingly so, when poets are desperate to get any reviews of their poetry at all, even embarrassing ones in a huge backlog of 100% guaranteed raves from Michael Dennis, the few intrepid souls – and Neilson is certainly among them – who take significant time out of their busy lives to think and write creatively and honestly about all kinds of poetry releases, often for free, should be afforded, if grudging respect or thoughtful debate is too much to ask for, at least silence. Most poets cry about not getting reviewed. What they really mean is that (in most cases) there were one or two reviews (and what more can you hope for when book publication far outstrips demand?), and the reviewer didn't recognize their obvious brilliance sufficiently.
You may notice, dear reader, that I've ceased to spend any time on Neilson's essay, or the words of the two original reviewers, or of Nowlan himself. That's because Mooney thinks his dismissal of Neilson by scary, ominous, but not-quite-clear labels is enough. No content necessary. “[D]emographically”, “40-year-old Alden Nowlan poems”, “no-ish money”. Astounding. Neilson shouldn't have written in support of Nowlan because he's ... well, in the so-distant past, who really reads him any more? So much for every single poetry great. Once they've got a few reviews written about them, especially by the likes of Cook and Kemick, then it's on to that younger “demographic”, because that's what the community is currently reading, and if it hasn't come out in the past ten years, and especially the past year, it's not worth remembering, and certainly won't cross-help with promotion. One may think I'm exaggerating, setting up a straw man. But Mooney has admitted that he doesn't read any book more than once. Firstly, that immediately disqualifies him for the reviewing of any book (not that he's interested in reviews, anyway, the few he's penned having more to do with advancing the community than detailing a poem's inner workings). Secondly, how revealing that a poet who's also at the forefront of poetry promotion doesn't care to read a book more than once. The passion is for politics, for reflected feel-goods, not for poetry. As to no-ish money, again, I can only commend any reviewer or commentator who spends time discussing poetry in the public sphere out of a sense of mission first, not bucks. Of course it's good to receive a small cheque for one's work, but if that's your inspiration, you're not too good at economics as it relates to the value of labour. “What are their aesthetics and politics?” Why is that important? Of course non-ideologues are wise to you by now, because as good children of Foucault, every exchange is really only about power. Who has it, who doesn't have it that needs it. What a grim, cynical, simplistic philosophy. But “we shall overcome”! You might want to go back and take in the many different upbringings (and bourgeois lifestyles) of those French structuralists who want(ed) to stick it to the man. And hell yes, I fear the contemporary. I'm formulating a long essay on that very topic right now, although fear isn't the exact word. More like sadness. Now, as promised, back to Greenway.

“This is how very contemporary-facing books like Gwen Benaway's last one can win our grandest national poetry prize and get maybe 1 substantive review but apparently this Collected Alden Nowlan now has eight (8!) and counting. It's not a coincidence.” -- JMM

What does winning the GG matter? Seriously. Because one or two or three poet-judges anointed Benaway's book (often times it's through compromise) means that it has to be sprung to the top of the “to read” pile for the rest of us? Isn't the 25 Gs enough of a reward for now? Shouldn't those who “lost” have a more legitimate argument for review seeing as to how they need the attention more than the immediate cachet, and positive advertisement, such an award confers to Benaway? Mygawd, Nowlan's garnered eight reviews of his Collected! The socialistic imbalance! Formalism's winning. Call Zhdanov! I'm having fun teasing with the hyperbolic political references, but I kinda like doing that once the opposition has already set those terms, even though Mooney's too coy to come out and actually go into more concrete detail about it. As to Benaway's politics? Well, I haven't read her book, and wasn't that impressed by her reading of several poems from it on youtube, but I did note her smug (much giggling in the audience) and often repeated (throughout the first few minutes preamble) frank hatred of cis-gendered heteronormative colonial patriarchal men -- “shitty White cis-men” were her words, and stated theme of the book. She followed up that promising opening by saying (exact quote): “my own personal shitty White cis-men, but I think they're all pretty much alike”. How much self-hatred does a White man have to harbour to not only give her the time of day after that, but to actively promote her book? Between two of her poems, she said that if you (any, or collective) cis-White men wanted “to get me, you can probably track me down pretty easily in these shoes, but I have a knife in my bag, so fair warning”. But of course I'm just being overly sensitive about that, it's just a joke, right?, lighten up. If a White man said the same words, with the reverse labels, about a First Nations transexual, not only would the poetry community permanently shun him, he'd be charged with hate speech. Uh, yeah, I, for one, am probably not gonna review her book any time soon, but that's OK with Mooney, he doesn't want carefully assessed reviews, he wants promotion.

“Anyway, Alden Nowlan is fine. Read the books that call you.” -- JMM

In other words, “Ha ha, just kidding about everything, you can read Nowlan if you want to.” I don't know what I'd do with my literary choices without Mooney's permission.

““Aesthetic excellence" doesn't have any meaning outside of the value system and relative merit weighting of the critic.” -- JMM

Only someone disingenuous or historically stupid would say such a thing. Every poet, in his or her own way, argues for, or reveals their own version of, aesthetic value, unless you're either cynical or completely uninterested in poetry while professing to write it. There are both objective and subjective standards that anyone can use. Both are important, but the former wins out. All one can honestly request is to know where the critic or reviewer is coming from. Sometimes, those aesthetic hierarchies will become muddied, even shift. Such a statement from Mooney exonerates a reviewer from making an evaluative judgement on any poem, book, or artist. All's relative, and all assessment has its own equally valid terms. We're already forehead-deep in those kinds of reviewers. They're more properly called descriptive blurbers. If there's any evaluation, it's always, always positive.

“The value of those voices lies in their ability to confront, expand and deny received aesthetic systems. Valuing them only for excelling within them isnt enough, it's just colonialism in the end.” -- JMM

The verbiage above sounds like the hurried student cribbing straight from a cultural studies prof.

You'll have noticed, still, that Nielson's essay, the two reviewers who stimulated his response, and Nowlan himself have faded away in a miasma of social justice jargon, thanks to Mooney's using those entries to stoke his own obsessions. But I'll quote here what may seem, at first glance, a rather innocuous sentence. Here are Neilson's final words, which occur in footnote (3):

“Embarassing too to point out that the best we can get from the New White Male (and many of his “modern” ilk) is thematic criticism utterly devoid of a discussion of metaphor, metonymy, sound, you name it.” -- SN

Doesn't that just about say it all? Instead of contending with the many delights contained within this fat Collected, Mooney would rather wave it off in a “whatever”, and instead promote a hate-filled poet who fits the most important bill in current poetry – identity politics.

Fortunately, Mooney, as said, has given me permission to engage with Alden Nowlan. I've been sitting on his Collected for too long. Time for a soon-to-be-released Nowlan review #9!

Friday, February 14, 2020

Pino Coluccio’s Class Clown

Pino Coluccio’s Class Clown is a competent volume of poetry. I mean that in senses good and bad. The iambs bop along like a crisp military parade; the rhymes arrive with metronomic regularity. But admirable prosody can only take a poem so far. Especially with the staggeringly fecund repositories of hard formal verse, a poem – even a stanza – set to that tune better have a twist or ten in its concomitant content. In Class Clown, the concerns (regret, aging, loss, failure) have been handled – from Hardy to Larkin – with far more nuance and complexity. The poems’ sonic wellsprings, then, emit only surface echo, and are quickly folded back into their sources.

Surely, the reader may say, there are many exceptions and surprises. This is only apparent. Take “A Toronto Bike Courier Foresees His Death”, the last stanza of which is repeated below:

I tallied every big what if.
It was a quick and easy math
to pedal from a beta’s life
towards an alpha’s metal death.

Tough fate, no? But the click-and-clack pattern works aside the neutral tone to create an emotional effect as tragic as a ripped cuticle. This is mild entertainment, accomplished, more wit than passion, ultimately a series of exercises plotted and filled in. The narrator, despite various personae, houses a consistent personality, and is of the light ABAB world-weary wisdom-dispensing type. The theme is the trampled one of regret for risks, even modest actions, not undertaken in youth, and, with that, a depression over old age and an unlived life: (“To a happy past and sad,/and to one I never had.”, from “Bow Tie”). A book to appreciate, not one to get you to think too much or to feel too intensely.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Arleen Pare’s The Girls With Stone Faces

Arleen Pare’s The Girls With Stone Faces is a loving, creative, historical tribute to, and adoration of, Florence Wyle and Frances Loring, Canadian sculptors and lovers. Throughout the poetry collection, the focus is on the artists’ work, a welcome approach where much creative biography instead teases out speculative explorations, psychological fantasies that illuminate more the authors' obsessions than the mysteries of the artists under study. Pare enjoys the symbolism of both women shaping and refining their visions through the transformation of gross materials into spiritually revealing products which retain the earthiness of the source material. “How much a pink marble mouth/must lift at the left corner,/almost into a smile”, the concluding lines to “Technicalities of Neoclassical Sculpture in the Beaux Arts Tradition”, is particularly effective and suggestive. Much of Pare’s other material, though, is less subtle. From the same poem: “Point, line, and depth: these form the dimensions of sculpture”. The short sentence fragment and the frequent space-pauses create an additive effect which work when outlining the sculptors’ tools of the trade, and how those resources are marshalled for work. Elsewhere, however, the clipped approach irritates by leaving either a scattered or faux-heightened effect, i.e., “The northern lights. The thought of. Violet/and shape-shifting green.”

The biggest flaw in The Girls With Stone Faces is the project itself. We’re inundated with poetry collections that have a unifying theme or narrative. In rare cases, a gifted poet can carry the subject along by exploring many facets (different voices, complimentary interlocking stories, tonal shifts, a resulting speculative future, etc.) of the material, but in almost every instance, an elevator pitch, grant-friendly proposition like this will include a lot of weak and redundant poems. Pare’s volume is no exception. Here’s one example I’ll include for illustrative purposes because of its brevity. In full, this is “The Mothers”:

there were mothers
one for each girl
Frances and Florence
each in their place
there was no poison there
at least
not enough

Now in the context of the book as a whole, this poem isn’t egregiously bad because it keeps the narrative clicking along. But divorce it from its nesting place on page 21 and thrust it into a journal, or read it to someone on its own, unenhanced by its backstory or surrounding associations, and it sinks like shares in a junior mining start-up after the CEO appears in handcuffs on an MSNBC perp walk video clip. Nothing even slightly interesting happens in those twenty-four words, whether in diction, rhythm, lyricism, structure, voice, emotion. Again, you could become as near an expert on these two lives as is Pare, but that in itself would only (and only possibly) create some biographical interest. A poem’s responsibilities lie elsewhere. I harp on this point because the book-length study is now endemic in CanPo. Poets defend the project-book with the argument that the ‘process’ is more important than the individual poem. But a poem is an individual unit. (Pare’s poems are separate entries, each with its own title.) Poets try to get around this by eliminating titles and linking ‘entries’ by double spaces, a series of dashes, ‘part thirty-eight’, or epigraph interruptions, to name only a few ploys. There’s a long history to this, of course. But for every Whitman, there’re a thousand Olsons.

Pare could have pared and sculpted a lot of clay from this volume, and the reader would have been left with a half-dozen fairly good poems. And maybe that’s more than could have been expected anyway, given the subject’s constraints.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Carmine Starnino's Leviathan

Carmine Starnino’s Leviathan explores familiar ground for the poet, that of paternal identity. Here, it’s not only the father that’s studied, but also the father’s son, also a father. Other men – strangers – fill a few pages, perhaps also fathers. An easy synopsis would indicate that the poet is determined not to repeat the mistakes of his forebears while co-raising his own children. But that surface narrative’s been ploughed through so often and thoroughly, another chapter could be akin to showing up in Barkerville in 2019 with pick and pan, expecting to find more than a flake or two of gold.

“San Pellegrino” is the cornerstone poem of Leviathan. Nearing four pages, an unusually long effort in the Starnino corpus, the narrator-poet commences in perhaps the blandest opening line of verse you’ll chance upon in a while: “I sit here facing a glass of water. I have a family: a son, baby daughter.” But over the breach of that first line, the poem explodes: “Life’s harder. Harder, and sadder. My father/has stage IV lung cancer.” Again, though, here the reader may pause, fearing another in an endless line of poems about parents with terminal illnesses. (Entire books have been fashioned thusly, making one wish that an inanimate object could suffer the same fate before sputtering to page fourteen.) Starnino doesn’t bury himself in a lugubrious elegy, however. Though the ostensible focus is on his father – (“Epic snorer, inveterate jaywalker, and, when he lost his temper,/a spanker.”) – the poem’s more a study of the narrator’s ontological polarities: Apollo vs Dionysus. The father embodies the latter, and the speaker’s seeming distance, even antipathy, towards the elder’s actions are belied by a loving anguish not far from the surface. The speaker, by the bare fact of writing such an elaborately detailed poem, counters with reason, but the two states can never be fully integrated, which explains the lack of resolution in the closing lines: “[I] will sit here, staring deeper and farther/into this glass of water until that point everything becomes clearer.” The speaker is still caught in reason’s attempt to make order, to provide a final explanation, but, ultimately, he’s too intelligent to think it possible. In an ironic twist, then, it’s Dionysus that prevails, after all, despite the father’s many indiscretions and faults.

Elsewhere, the same dichotomy is teased into a conflicted admiration for disordered vitality. “The Factory Lifer” is a dispassionate study of a “Piss-eyed/nicotine wreck/perving over secretaries.” No one, perhaps, but a fellow traveler in that world is going to commend one who, after being glanced at, would “draw a thumb/across his throat”, but fascination remains for the outsized energy, the pure ‘fuck you’ attitude, the fate that awaits a man whose upbringing, genes, work opportunities, and lack of natural reflection dooms him to a life of depraved alienation. By contrast, Starnino’s images and descriptions are coldly, exactly rendered. The poem’s a minor gem.

Quite a few poems concentrate on the speaker’s love for his children, the most successful being the collection’s opener, “Shadow Puppet”: “The point is to make/something/from the laying on//of nothing”. The narrator’s lawn also receives metaphorical attention in several poems, the best, “The Manly Arts”, being a humorous and well-executed ars poetica: “getting high/on the scent of order it exhaled”.