Part of the Simon Fraser coterie, Lionel Kearns has been overlooked by his more aggressively promotional language-obsessed poet-friends and colleagues. Clicking his bio, I see that, before this 2007 selected, A Few Words Will Do, Kearns' last book of poetry was fashioned in 1982. Some poets have cored a hectare of dogwoods in their published endeavours in that time, not to mention (love that contradictory phrase-cliche) tried the patience of even their most sympathetic followers. So I was initially kindly disposed towards Kearns in my first encounter with his work.
Interspersed throughout the volume are quite a few concrete creations. I admit to an extreme bias against concrete poetry of any variety; I find it a one-off amusement, lacking in scope, depth, and (though at times witty) humour. The concrete display in A Few Words Will Do does nothing to alter my experience. (I tried re-reading them after a week, to no greater benefit.)
The book is loosely arranged in three sections: nature poems, with ruminations on time; people poems; poems which give language different characters as a way out of its self-consciousness.
The first section is the weakest. Though the initial poems rework some often-used imagery to decent effect, the abstractions are left hanging like dance partners halfway through a series of prom songs. "We carry time/in our heads,", "aware at last that we grow old", "swirling into centres of imploding nebulae", "Time is not some/thing to possess": all these are taken from what (perhaps?) is Kearns' early days (his poetic career has spanned half a century), and the tendency toward profundity is hopelessly out of kilter with original statement and the aesthetic means to contain it.
Things pick up when Kearns concentrates on people living through miserable circumstances. Sentiment is checked, and the stories, though frequently deadened by prosiness, at least effect, through curious narrative, a meditative possibility, a quiet questioning, through their unfortunate protagonists.
The last, long section infuses some quirkiness and semblance of life into the by-now exceedingly boring dead-end of language hand-wringing. "This poem", as most of them proceed, is alternately a "space-based laser", a "ruined structure", or a "professional". Others are singular emotions or attitudes: depression, blind, a consumer product. The reader is challenged, but the poem itself isn't let off the hook, either: "[it can] censor/an offending passage at a distance/of a thousand miles".
Unremarkable in syntax, sonic possibility, or (for a long career perspective) depth of thought, Kearns' A Few Words Will Do nevertheless discovers an emotional observation of mutability, and engages the reader with the latter's own reflected time-travels and -travails.