Monday, August 18, 2008

Robert Hilles' "Nothing Vanishes"

Robert Hilles won the GovGen Award for poetry for his 1994 collection, Cantos from a Small Room. I can only gather that Nothing Vanishes, four books (and only two years) later, was perhaps inspired (in title) by a desire to keep his name in circulation. That, and the post-plaudit-party enthusiasm.

The book is awful.

Page after page contains the same morass of anecdotal filler. At least there's no pretension towards egregious profundity, but that didn't stop book-blurbers from seeing profundity in its (so Canadian) "small intimac[ies]" (Lorna Crozier).

The popularity (if any such exists) of this type (and it is a type) of poetry collection stems from its sentimentality, its compassion, its unpresumptuous daily recounting of life's little joys and sorrows. Of course the critic who points this out is criticized as a "curmudgeon", a "sourpuss", and the like. Hilles seems like a decent, nice guy, but that means absolutely zero when valueing poetry (or at least it should). But in Canada we've turned unassuming morals into a backscratching industry. It's the feel-good train gathering steam. "Hey, what's wrong?! It gave me a warm feeling."

Well, let's examine the poetry a little. (By the way, the Canadian "nice": what does that mean? Gentle, self-deprecating, secretly more than a little smug, quiet, dependable, "getting along", and above all, inflating the background into an "important and spiritual" foreground.)

Gentleness. That's the monotone in Nothing Vanishes. There is absolutely no variation in the poetic narration. A considered and open reminiscence. There's nothing wrong with that voice, but is it churlish to ask for a hint of variation in a book running at 35 poems in 95 pages? After the first five or so efforts, I found the tone of quiet engagement changing my own mood from slightly sympathetic to irritating, and finally to a humorous flip of its gathering and unaware narrative self-parody. Examples fill the book; I'll quote at random:

"We get younger
and do not ask questions
believe the contrary
and let the sun explain
what it can each day."

--from "We Get Younger"


"Mushrooms line the table
and she cuts through some
and washes others and she
offers me one and I look at it
for awhile and then
put it in my mouth,

--from "Nothing Vanishes"


"You play monopoly with the children
and I fold the clothes
you just finished washing."

--from "Invisible World"


Verse like this often gets criticized for being flat and boring, undifferentiated from unfiltered speech. But this is actually doing a disservice to unfiltered speech. What would our reactions be (and I have no fear of using a collective "our" in this instance) if we heard these same monotonous outpourings from a neighbour or acquaintance or stranger? Speaking as one numbed listener, my mind would wander, though, ironically, in this volume, I concentrated through to the back, possibly out of a hoped-for belief that there'd be a perverse twist at the end which would put the earlier text into comic, or at least ambiguous, relief. But no such luck. The tome's finale ends with "So when I touch you or come to you/with a flower in my mouth,/think of smallness." (from "Smallness").

Verbal surprise, the dramatic juxtapositon of words and sounds within a line, fine-tuned diction, an unorthodox metaphorical statement, emotional spontaneity and variation, organic shaping relating to content and/or meaning, the crafting of vertically charged internal feet, rhythmic variation which match different moods (oops, no variation of moods to base it upon): any and all of it is absent in Hilles' work, at least in this particular volume.

But of course I'm being unfair. The author seems like a nice man with nice thoughts. And that's all that seems to matter.

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