The last collection of Tom Wayman's poetry I read was approximately a quarter-century ago. None of it entered my bloodstream or memory, except for a ghostly residue of "words for the people". Wayman, the prole poet. But -- and I'm being serious -- who are these "common people" beloved by populist wordsmiths? It always struck me as an uproarious irony that anyone would dare to assume the voice of poet-laureate-of-the-silent/dependable-worker when the latter camp (minus the author's condescending assumptions) is as diversified as the multilingual, multi-experienced, multi-tempered, multi-spiritually attuned, multi-power scaled populace that makes up the entire Oh!-Canadiana. To the book.
High Speed Through Shoaling Water (2007) has the consistency, taste, and fluidity of lumpy porridge. And, the biggest fault of all, it's devoid of raisins. The horrors of bad porridge, sans raisins. No salt, either. No wonder cookbooks sell more than poetry. The ingredients in the latter texts are often lacking or wrong or wrongly combined. Despite my underwhelming experience with this author's much earlier work, the above reaction came as a surprise since I was led to believe (back cover) that Wayman was a contemporary "Beowulf, a Homer" (The Globe and Mail) and "Canadian Neruda" (Prairie Fire).
The first two sections of this transgressively verbose book concerns the speaker, Wayman (no masks for this honest relater) as nature's sober recorder: "I climbed through dense conifers and brush/gradually thinning to subalpine/meadows". The observations lie as linguistically and rhythmically flat as the page that allows the type. And "Alps Alturas: Sixty" says nothing, or rather, as with any throwaway effort, is forced to scramble for an awkward profundity in the closing lines as a way of throwing dust in the reader's eyes after an unconvincing pantheistic sermon. Hence: "around whose shore/nothing is made by hands."
Tongue-scrunching abutments are legion, rhythmic killers only were there a rhythm in previous lines to create a death: "scribbled tasks/rested", "blasts trigger", "aloft into the thermals" are just a few examples, Olympic figure-skating preliminary trials where the fall occurs on a simple test, thus cancelling any chance to nail the triple lutz.
Before leaving the first two sections, a few words on what I consider to be one of among a handful of worst poems I read the last years: "Grove". Its conceit -- trees as "dignified parents" -- is embarassing in its ersatz surface psychology. Groaners abound: "Like all parents", "quietude of these trees" (I suppose this redundancy was a highfalutin way of hammering home the earlier "silence and patience" -- more on Wayman's rampant redundancies later), and the final, "respectfully/wish to raise/to a larger life". Among the twenty publications that accepted one or more of the efforts in this volume is Horsefly, which allowed "Grove". I wonder what else was in that particular edition.
Part three involves social concerns, and here Wayman is on familiar footing. And, if possible, here is where he descends even further because -- on top of uninteresting diction, musical misunderstanding and neglect, line-break confusion, overly reverential emotion -- the plodding, sincere spokesman for the people re-emerges. "Outrider" is a representative manifesto, here: "preservers and shapers of/uninstituted truths/oracles keeping up, keeping pace/singers of another road". So in this nauseating final quatrain one's made to understand, by the most unironic of stances, that there are two distinct sets of forces (political? artistic only? spiritual?) in (Western? world? Canadian?) society -- the other, fashionably new tribe, and the faithful, traditional, underdog clan. Leaving aside the fact that tribes and clans are unsophisticated, crudely antagonistic towards anyone not "like them", one could stampede an army of horses over the argument of the halo-self-placing outrider. "[T]ruths/oracles", "shapers", "singers": it's wonderfully easy to throw up impressive labels, identify yourself (without particulars) with those labels, at once both smug and humble in self-regard. The only reason, it seems to me, this is accepted as "ennobling", is, again, because it's not promulgating a Romantic "egocentricity", but an "inclusive" superiority. Which just means ego, here, is collective, and therefore more dangerous.
"In The Dumper" is a "speaking for the working masses" poem, which contradicts his besieged, lone wolves stance in "Outrider". In this verselet, the quoted eleven lines are from a hard-bitten, long-time employee to a greenhorn. In all my years of blue-collar labour, in companies with or without unions, I never heard anyone talk like this. "Crap" is a euphemism. How many bricklayers, galvanizers, carpenters, construction workers, glaziers, tool-and-dye makers, welders, forklift drivers have you ever met who've referred to pinching a loaf, laying a steaming three-coiler, taking a dump or shit (the latter of which is redundantly employed, to diluted effect) as "tak[ing] a crap"? This may seem ridiculously picky of me, but since Wayman bases his polemic(s) on plain speech, on unambiguous honesty, it's not only right but necessary to call him out on these inaccuracies. And why would the speaker tell the newbie to "bring a paper"? (Wayman misses a good opportunity here for a joke -- with a pertinent point.) Ah, but the irony of "democracy and freedom" in the news was just too tempting to pass up. How that relates to an employer who needs employees to produce rather than goof off is beyond me. But then, as is easily observed by anyone who's lived long enough in the varied work world, there are fair and unfair employers as well as salt-of-the-earth and nasty workers. But complexity isn't a good approach for a "people's spokesman".
There's much more. The unintentional humour in "Love Loss Ballad": "I stand yet again in the self-serve to pump/into the tank"; the constant unrevelatory vagaries, one example from "Young Claus": "His second wife was a classmate/and into weird stuff"; the atrocious redundancies, examples of which could be lifted from every single poem, one of them (two in one line!) being "Autumn Secrets": "swirl out in a cascade". Why swirl "out"? Swirling involves curling, twisting, which by definiton is an outward movement. And "cascade" is an imaginative conclusion the reader should reach if the preceding is clear and effective. Despite the attempts at imagery in this poem, I couldn't see a thing. Naming, and unfocussed suggestion.
Well, it's a day off from that hardscrabble proletarian nose-to-the-grindstone silent (in one hundred and fifty-two pages or so) oppressee witnessing. Think I'll pick up my weathered copy of The Iliad for a spell, for corrective enjoyment, and to make any link, however faint, with what I just read, keeping an open mind of course, just to see what that unnamed writer of the G&M saw in the prolific egalitarian voice of all (or most?) of us that I may have missed.
The author of High Speed Through Shoaling Water has nothing to say, and no way of saying it. Will I read another of his books a quarter-century hence? No way, man.