A more detailed record than last year of every poetry book I read in 2009. Only 44 books were read cover-to-cover, at least once, this year, down from last year’s 83. That’s because I read more novels, essays -- poetic, but also political, historical, environmental, cultural -- plays, and pre-WW II poetry. In no particular order:
Catherine Owen, The Wrecks Of Eden. I reread this recently after my first encounter with it in April. On my last pair of contact lenses before heading into town for a refill, the words blurred, and I read the following, from “First lines ”: “or a moose skirmishing in my ear”. (The actual version is “or a mouse skirmishing in my ear”.) That 1/32 inch umbrella arc I imagined between “o” and “s” is indicative of how my imagination failed me throughout this collection. A phantom woodbug’s leg pops up, and a cat’s toy becomes an ornery half-ton antler-lowered charging salt-licker breaking free of my hearing. Writing of extinct species is a monumental problem: how to infuse believability and particularity into lifelike elegies for animals, birds, and insects one has never seen, and will never see? Even more problematic was a poem on arguably the most seminal environmental (and wo/man-made), cultural extinction on record: Easter Island. I simply couldn’t formulate these worlds. Imagination can’t do the entire work of reality, no matter how arresting some of these images turned out.
A. F. Moritz, Early Poems. (already blogged). Spurred on by an impenetrable wall put up between the poems in Rest On The Flight Into Egypt and my own understanding, I devoted a lot of time to this volume last December-this January. Usually, such an effort doesn’t pay off, but behind the prominent allusions and surreal reworking of merged fantasy and history was a seeming cohesive visionary framework. Moritz’ first four books of poetry, compiled here in one volume, pare those allegorical signposts down to common elements. Ideas remained on the page much of the time, but when anecdotes or recognizable landscapes were drawn -- in what would have been a short road to boredom and redundancy in the underworked fingers of a lesser talent -- Moritz shone with profound insight in a number of startling poems.
Jay Ruzesky, Painting The Yellow House Blue. Conversation with oneself which goes on and on and on. Line breaks were so arbitrary and distracting that, by the second half of the book, I read quickly so’s to make the prosy chat (however intimately felt and translated) more seamless. There are an awful lot of Canadian poetry books in this period (1992 - 1996) which seem transcriptions of stream-of-consciousness talk. However witty some of these poems are, the efforts don’t rise above the slightness of their reminiscences of mild teenage confusion. And another failing of the time (and continuing to today): the vague meaningless moods which try to effect suggestive profundity, as in a waitress “pictur[ing] herself/on a Greyhound bus moving/like a pike in the/windows of buildings/steadily on toward/some former life” from “She Draws a Calendar”.
Adam Getty, Reconciliation. “Unpainted” has provoked the strongest anger in me of any poem read this year. Especially the last stanza. But even this early passage is infuriating: “It was as if the box/of earth I sat on,/dwarfing the purples and blues on unknown flowers/(probably toxic -- /all brightly colored, naturally occurring phenomena/are), had become/a blocky mountain or pedestal overlooking the psychedelic earth”. Yes, it’s probably toxic, (actually, why “probably”?). Fruits and vegetables, even back in the ‘good ole days’ were/are treated with toxic oil derivatives, the meat with hormones and steroids, those animals we ingested themselves having ingested offal and filth, and having their own hormones altered by fear. The grass was sprayed -- walk into any cheery garden retailer, even today, and count the octosyllabic words and triple Xs. Potential melanoma dozed and was pricked through layers of epidermis by midday sun when we were eight. So what? That doesn’t cancel imagination’s beauty, but more to the point, it doesn’t make a reverential authentic pleasurable experience suspect simply because it seemed joyous. Getty makes a hierarchy of the elements (where’s the missing fourth -- fire?), water getting the number #1 slot, serenely authoritative and original. But it is that much maligned element, air, (in this poem, as well as in popular unthinking parlance -- “airhead”, “airy nothing”) which is responsible for the creative force. Fire emboldens air’s creation and makes intelligent distinctions, and water/earth (in comprehensive Ayurveda, having the same properties, not the false and hierarchical dichotomy as Getty relates) refines and completes the process (be it the growth of a poem or a potato). But without air, nothing happens. “Always/obscured”? No! One can have a transforming experience, later doubt or forget it (consciously, at least), and then deny the veracity of all present moment transformations. But that says more about that one’s present confused state than the original experience (or “non-experience”, if you want to frame it in the reverential negative tradition). When the present doubts the past, then we have the postmodernist nonsense with the unreliability of all language, which, in certain circumstances is justifiable, but which solidifies into a religion with them. (Even free verse lyricists like Tim Lilburn subscribe to this view.) Yes, happiness can be a trick of the memory (Irving Layton), and is even impossible out of the present moment (Jean Klein). It can be distorted by both fading of original experience and the filtering mutable psychology of the seer. But though the memory of the original experience is faulty, the first imprint is often not also a memory. The powerful impression is not “psychedelic”, a mirage. Else why is Getty at such great pains in Reconciliation to transcend drab existence? Is the memory only cellular, anthropologic? There has to be a vivid memory of an actual transformation, a transformation in the present moment, or else the longing wouldn’t be powerful and persistent. I loved the book’s closer, “The Maid Of The Mist”, in which Getty’s oracular flourish is finally matched by a corresponding scope. A sameness of tone pervades the book. I think the long poem would suit Getty’s painstaking, patient, searching, thoughtful narrative underbelly probing procedure better than the numerous shorter pieces where the conversational, flatter tone is cut off without much chance for propulsive development.
Adam Getty, Repose. “Song For The Fallen Leaf” is a lovely turning dream ballad, drenched by the slow waters of … well, repose. Heavily indebted to early Yeats. Also, touches of Blake: (“fearful symmetry” -- “servile symmetry”). Rereading Repose after a ten month absence, I’m exhilarated. I was wrong regarding Getty’s strengths perhaps being exclusively the long poem. He’s hooked multiple musical instruments to his previously a capella plaintive voice, and he plays them with sure hands. Rhythms, surprising waves, rather than the isochronal, slight variations on a hidden lake. And that voice! It’s been freed. I love gritty, mood-moribund poems as much as the next steelworker, but, unlike early Bly and Kinnell (and their supporters), if the subject matter is bleak, I especially want it to sing and dance with multiple colours and rhythms. The contrast between subject and procedure highlights either pole. Too often poets fall into the trap of joining content and form in like manner, forgetting that effective meshing doesn’t always mean homophonic faithfulness. “Hamilton” owes a left thumb, if not a left lung, to Blake’s “London”. Hide the theft better! We can see your hand in the cookie jar! Perhaps the five intervening years between his first book and Repose have seen Getty incorporate lessons from the Romantics who -- not just Blake -- often get an unfair rap for talking of “feelings”, for being effeminate. But the masculine sounding Percy Bysshe Shelley, no less than womanizing, channel-swimming, civil war fighting Byron, turned a brave and cold eye on (then) current politics, psychological depravity, and social unrest. Of course, they also churned out longish masterpieces, so maybe there’ll be a social tour-de-force poem from Getty yet. Yes! Listen to this rhythm from “Reply To A Caseworker”: “If I was pissed I let one fall, meant/to see it splatter.” The accented beats are loud, unflinching “fuck you” retorts to the boss. Anyone who’s worked in a soul-destroying job or twenty knows this isn’t just wish-fulfillment, but commonly plotted, creative sly responses to thwart inhuman productivity. I like Getty’s patience combined with the confidence (personally and stylistically) in this book. “Snapshot” is wonderfully condensed; gone, here and elsewhere in Repose, are the even-paced long walk of pronouns, connections, participles, and articles that often marred his first book. After reading the title poem, I wonder whether I was completely off base in my critique of “Unpainted” (was it ironic?), or whether Getty has done a 180 spin. Memory is now a prod for fond reveling. And the focus here and in much of the volume, against that in “Unpainted”, is that memory belongs to a constantly voiced “I”, an I with a distinct, compelling personality, thankfully.
Mary Dalton, Merrybegot. Slang, vernacular, lexical curiosities steeped in regional history aren’t ushered into this Dalton volume to act as a pick-me-up, but are inseparable from the thought-and-feeling processes of the speaker. Wonderful name-calling! Similes and direct, compressed metaphors that can bite your head off, or at least the head of the one they’re directed to. Sexual description is always a minefield of potential embarrassment, especially now in our ultra-self-conscious postmodernist precautionary mode. Here’s how a suggestive line or two can still infuse power into what should always be a primary topic of poetic exploration: “Our quilts the most rumpled. …. Our sweat on his shoulders.” (from “First Boat”). And when much of our poetic characterization favours the contemplative, the regretful, the sad, the diseased, the shamed, the stuck, the guilty, the fearful, the alienated, it’s more than refreshing to encounter not only exuberant sketches of individualized characters, but to have those people celebrated rather than as a target for mocking, anger, or ironic distancing.
George Bowering, Kerrisdale Elegies. I first read this shortly after it came out in 1984. Recently rereleased by talonbooks, I tried again since it’s often been called Bowering’s best. Well, the audacity of a reviewer who pretends to deal with a 127-page sequence with short sound bytes. Joyce’s Ulysses deserves as much respect as Homer’s epic, and Rilke’s Duino Elegies should get no greater supplicatory scraping of the knees than …. But, to continue. “The ones who left dont need our voices.” This is a book of elegies? “Taking that pitch/and standing still in the batter’s box is nowhere.” What if the pitch is a ball, unhittable? And a batter who takes a pitch is not a passive observer “standing still”. Whether a pro or not, the batter is all coiled tension and concentration when the ball sails over the plate. The best decision is often a non-decision. But of course, even in the “emotionally naked” Kerrisdale poems, “subtle irony” can always and still be used as an excuse to any argument. (What would Rilke say about that?) Baseball metaphors are as stale as my attic-hidden science-experiment high school gym bag. Or maybe it’s just Bowering’s and Donald Hall’s obsessions with the baseball-poetry connection that bores me when reading page after page of pretentious prosy fragments. ”Only by watching the birds fly do we know/there is sky between the trees.” Oh, yeah, sensei Bowering! Substitute “I” for “we”, and I’ll buy it. After all, as Bowering says, “someone/has to pay for it.” Not I, alas.
Shannon Stewart, The Canadian Girl. Rooted in the flesh, Stewart’s concerns highlight the hypocritical gentilities still rife in sexual attitudes. Like Mary Dalton, Stewart doesn’t apologize for discussing sex and the decaying flesh. In fact, half the point is to rub the reader’s nose in it, or more exactly, the noses of those Mrs Grundys who not only haven’t retreated but who have become more powerful by clever, intellectual association. (The other half of the point is to rejoice.) Unfortunately, Stewart doesn’t show Dalton’s concision. Power is deflated by expositional filler, especially in the first part of the book, so that various phrases and lines are unnecessary and cumbersome. As a first book, this is typical, but Stewart shows an intelligence and capacity for the strong image, metaphor, and pithy conclusion frequently premised on curious and fascinating fantastical scenarios. (How many poems -- or poets -- can make you feel sorry for the fate of a fart?)
John B. Lee, Totally Unused Heart. Rampant similes in Lee’s The Pig Dance Dreams (which I blogged last year) are still prominent in this volume. From “My Wife at the Window Watching”: “slow flurries falling/ … in the dark/and people are pausing/like chess moves/under street lamps”. Haunting, stimulating association! But why not up the ante? I think, here, of David Solway’s excellent “The Powers Of The Pawn” from Chess Pieces. I realize that Lee’s poem has a different focus, but a good poem should be as specific as possible. The pausing king suggests much different meaning than the pausing queen. It’s frustrating because, as I noted for a few poems in The Pig Dance Dreams, Lee can craft stunning metaphors. My own supposition is that his successes are so hit and miss (mostly miss) as a result of his prolific desires. 61 poems, many two pages or longer, score this trade volume, which now total 30 +. That’s a lot of composing, and, dare I say, not so much time refining. It also doesn’t help that this was published under the aegis of Black Moss Press, whose editorial negligence is disgraceful. (More on that later, reviewing another poet.). A terrible simile enters the ledger in “At Heaven’s Pleasure”, “the tip of a purple star has pierced the pavement/like a ghost with a headache”. Ugh! How can a bloodless emanation have a headache? Surprising effects don’t cover for fallacies. It’s OK if you don’t have a book (or more) out next year, John. There are many other poets to read and reread in 2010. The poetry readership will manage just fine.
Patricia Young, Here Come The Moonbathers. I enjoyed Young’s More Watery Still (blogged last year). I can’t say the same for her most recent volume. In MWS, the images are (wait for the eye-rolling word!) beautiful, but more importantly, apt for the sunny emotions combined with mild nostalgia. HCTM is much more ambitious, but she’s not up to the task. The tone often strains to profundity by way of cute, cross-narrated detail, and it’s a combo I have problems with. Connections may be clear for the author, but whether one story is a direct metaphor to the other (within one poem), subordinate to it, purposely fragmented so’s to “illuminate” by randomness, part of a larger allegory I’m deaf to, or just gives up in vague intonations in lines such as “my eye cocked/toward Paradise” (from “Deluge”) or “[t]his one’s whole life a backdrop behind him --” (from “September Train”), I felt a huge shift between the immediacy and honesty of More Watery Still and the laboured, congested efforts here. Literary and cultural references make frequent appearances, narrative detail is at times exhaustive, but this makes for bulky, toned-down poems. Humour, thankfully, hasn’t disappeared, and the reader is treated to “Tormenta”, about border authorities trying to threaten while handicapped by a language barrier. And Young tries out many different forms, including, but not limited to, pantoums, free verse, prose poems, disjointed dialogue-splashed anecdotes, long stanza structuring in a long poem, couplets, and a longish sequence. But what could have been a cause for celebration of diversity becomes, instead, a symbol of a lack of focus and necessity. Speaking of a lack of necessity, some of the poems relating reminiscences of mild angst reminded me of those of another Islander, Jay Ruzesky, reviewed earlier in this long listing:: “Wait and wait while inside the inn our father drinks beer.” (from “Camp-Out”). As Young’s speaker says in the book’s long closer, ironic or not: “i became distracted/i am distracted still.”
Edited: Zach Wells, Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets. “What’s left out?” is usually the first question asked of an anthology. It’s a strange reverse take, especially in this case, since the title doesn’t include “The Best” before “99”. Hey, I would have liked something by George Faludy. But the initial question should always be “what’s in?”, and what’s in is very fine, indeed. A various, quality-saturated volume, surprising when considering that 99 poets (actually 100 since one poem is co-written) are included. Absolute favourites are hard to pinpoint, but perhaps my three top picks would be Eric Ormsby’s frightening “Childhood Pieties”, George Johnston’s moving “Cathleen Sweeping”, and the piece to which the volume owes its name, Margaret Avison’s gift-packed “Snow”. Lest these three point me out as a fossil (if praising the work of 50 years ago makes me such), I was both surprised and delighted to discover recent poems (and some poets) unfamiliar to me. Peter Norman’s “Bolshevik Tennis!” was delightful, especially so as a political sonnet immediately brings to mind message-stuffed solemnity. Here, Norman’s stripped-court conceit is fun, and the reader doesn’t have to choose different sides of the missing net to laugh. And there’s also a funny existentialist poem! I haven’t perused a thirty-pound tome of them, lately. David O’Meara’s “Postcard From Camus” lifts the philosophical weight from that polarizing author with the paraphrasable defence, “it was the sun!” Wells’ notes on the poems include intelligent historical context, but are also highly personal, and in that spirit, I’d challenge his take on Adam Sol’s “Sonnet With The Morning Paper” in which he claims a “suckerpunch” at the turn, “[b]y toying with the reader’s expectations”. The hints are more than subtle, though, in the development: “stealing morning” (the first word bringing out the homophone in the second); “enmeshed in … wire”; “raucous tribe”; “conspire”; “spooking”; “mesh fences”. As for “enmeshed”, a few duds were nestled in amongst the firecrackers -- David McFadden’s “Country Hotel In The Niagara Peninsula” and Mike Barnes’ “First Stab” -- but in a book covering one hundred years of sonnets, limited to Canada, from traditional subjects and form to any subject in forms at first hard to identify with the grand(ma)pappy (isn’t being politically correct cute?) of them all, Wells has worked hard to provide a living repository that colourfully fills a neglected alcove in our national literature.
Frank O’Hara, Selected Poems. Since O’Hara’s approach is flauntingly autobiographical, I’ll take the liberty of choosing to run from the circular New York school, large though it was (and is, in its present reincarnation), since friendships or cold shoulders are mysterious and need not be defended. When a poet litters his work (or fast-typed sheets) with references from and to the circle his world encompasses, it shouldn’t be a sign of disdainful impatience if the reader outside that milieu turns away in boredom and confusion. I’m not up to speed on the Impressionist painters, Hollywood B-movie stars and starlets, and O’Hara’s personal friends, and I don’t find that the poems often transcend their circumstances. Yes, I realize that the poems’ exuberance can be seen as blowing fresh air into the Eastern seaboard guilt-and-silt corpus, but they evaporate after the initial fizz. And one assumes that this Selected is chosen as a reasonable representation of his best.
Sharon McCartney, The Love Song Of Laura Ingalls Wilder. (already blogged). A creative fantasy on the people (but mostly the inanimate objects!) in the popular Wilder (and Lane) Little House On The Prairie series, McCartney’s sequence breathes life into neglected corners of pioneer life. It’s unfortunate that with such a wide cast of “characters”, the tone is often similarly rueful (though sonically joyful), but it acts as an excellent counterpoint to the wish-fulfillment, the sentiment masking the grinding hardships of prairie life during the Depression period.
Tom Wayman, High Speed Through Shoaling Water. (already blogged). Abysmal in its condescending “working”man moral assumptions, in its political naivety, in its uncrafted blather, and in its unintentionally hilarious preciousness, this interminable volume quickly sinks to the bottom of the lake. The cover sure was purty, though.
Allan Safarik, All Night Highway. As foreshadowed in the review of John B. Lee, some poets are undermined by specific publishers who, either by ineptness or unconcern, release works filled with typos, misspellings, and with little if any other actual shaping, sequencing, or critical correspondence with the poet. This shows to damaging effect with Black Moss Press’ publication of this Safarik work. I feel for Safarik. I’m not high on the book: it’s of a piece for the period (1996), which is to say prosy, anecdotal without pointing to anything beyond its personal occasion, and slapdash in construction. There are exceptions, however. From the title poem: “flutter/on my liver when I tried/eating the hamburger steak/Blood leaking from the bandage/on the cook’s bad hand.” Safarik’s lack of respect for punctuation, though, puts him in league with the publisher, and compounds the problem of lack of clarity. “[H]otest”, “Connie Chun”, “Michael Jordon” (the last two from the same poem), “flash light”, and other boo-boos (not recalled here), worse for making meaning, such as it is, unintentionally ambiguous, pepper the pages. If the publisher, editor, and poet don’t care, why should I?
Allan Safarik, Blood Of Angels. With tongue only half in cheek, I’ve long thought there should be a moratorium on certain words in poetry. “Angels” would be at the top of the list. Appearing in the title of this later Safarik book (2004), I was immediately on guard for spiritual soft soap and/or soft focus (usually one and the same). Despite Safarik’s failures in All Night Highway, they could at least be compensated for (to a degree) by an occasionally engaging narrative. Here, with the reliance on interior detail and suggestion, the author’s limitations in diction, rhythm, colour, syntax, and metaphor are more exposed. From the opener, “The Sowing”: “warm sun on the earth, cold water thirst/Wind shaking laughter in the trees”. This says nothing unique or vivid about the natural surroundings, but does say quite a bit about the poet’s wish-fulfillment or current mood. Surroundings should change or spur mood, not act as chintzy backdrop to enhance the poet’s persona. And this is a “spiritual” book, a supposedly questing one. Here’s the conclusion to “Storyteller”: “now it shakes every hand/offered as if the hand of God/on judgment day.” This is using a biblical parallel to affix an ineffability as divine balm. “Winter’s Tale” should be prefaced by a Shakespearian disclaimer. We actually arrive at “lingering death” in line 8, and the superfluity “Then the thought came into my head” as line 15. Mr. Safarik has written a book which seems important to him; I can’t join him on the pew or on the meditation mat.
Edited: Allan Safarik, Vancouver Poetry. (already blogged). This is a finely selected edition of poetry from Canadian Confederation through to the World’s Fair. Safarik takes many chances with obscure poems and poets, and what makes it more remarkable is that quite a few of these “outsider” efforts are winners. There are clunkers and fillers, to be sure (it’s hard to avoid the Simon Fraser-TISH-UBC dominance of the 60s to 80s), but the good, or at least curious, robustly competes with the mediocre. Safarik’s intro is also caring and well-researched, framing a historical perspective for each selection.
Karen Solie, Short Haul Engine. “Signs Taken for Wonders” is the best in the book, a wonderfully mobile delayed analogy. I also like “Anniversary”, a clever, humorous take on love’s ambivalence. Solie has many interesting things to say, and it almost always starts with a rural or grubby urban observation, reminiscent of Ken Babstock. Scattered phrases are needlessly heightened, but this is a first book, and it’ll be interesting to see how things proceed in her next two (which I haven’t yet read).
Robert Duncan, Bending The Bow. (already blogged). Garnering a lot of blog hits to my first review of it (and a few spirited antagonistic defenses), this Viet Nam diatribe checks off many irritating procedures at the near-start of the postmodernist era: typographic epilepsy, messages encoded in faux-profundities, fragmented accusation, theoretical wankery. One effort, “My Mother Would Be A Falconress”, is remarkable, and BTB is then all the more frustrating since it shows how theory and group, collegiate excitation and doctrine can destroy what otherwise could have been a fascinating poetic career contribution.
Adam Sol, Jeremiah, Ohio. Poetic book sequences and book-length narratives now seem to be the norm rather than the exception in contemporary CanPo. A lot has been written lately about the whys, and there’s been some interesting debate (Zach Wells, Michael Lista, Stuart Ross) on the phenomenon. Of course, it’s not a new development -- Ondaatje’s The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid helped things along. I side with Wells and Ross on preference. Many sequences rest on the page-turning what-happens-next desire, and when individual poems don’t have that “prop”, the lack of self-containment often shows. But onto the poems. Sol largely manages to avoid the aforementioned pitfall, concentrating on well-considered and idiosyncratic diction and dialogue, and sending its protagonists on a spiritually exploratory (in Bruce’s case) and surprising peripatetic journey through the contemporary US of A. The ending, in tone and circumstance, reminded me of the great movie, Midnight Cowboy. Keeping with the conclusion, it takes a sure hand to craft sorrow from spare experience quickly enacted, and Sol’s to be applauded for the consistent quality here and throughout.
Edited: Tom Wayman, Going For Coffee. After slogging through Wayman’s dismal High Speed Through Shoaling Water, I decided to read this much earlier anthology of work poetry. If you remove Peter Trower’s efforts, the book is a cypher, a staggering non-achievement since this is a round-up, with many poets, not a vanity press release from one non-talent. Of course, under Wayman’s tutelage, “work” poetry becomes an excuse for “hey, everyone, I’m oppressed and this is my chance to stick it to the Man!” The many qualities that make for good poetry -- scratch that, make that “for poetry” -- are at shop-floor level. Self-pity seems to be the major criterion. Work fails as a topic and as a procedure.
Heather Spears, Required Reading. Based on actual court trials on the murder of young Reena Virk by bullying teenagers, the subject matter deserves great crafting and long consideration to do the material justice. Unfortunately, the entire project is troubled from its outset. Spears, in her intro: “I was to make a presentation of the drawings with poems, and was booked to do so even as the trials dragged on. I realized I had no poems, so they were written in haste.” This is the perfect illustration of how content trumps craft in many poets’ concerns. Spears could have just said “no”, respecting her own talent, the reception of the audience for the poetry, and the memory of Virk. Instead, these poems read as transcriptions, jotted notes on the physical appearances of those in court along with poorly structured reenactments of the murder and its aftermath. Spears defends the lack of psychological and emotional depth in her work by stating she respected Virk and her grieving friends and family enough not to insert material into her book which went beyond her capacity. That’s fine, but what we have, then, fails as either poetry or hard-hitting journalism.
Earle Birney, Ghost In The Wheels. By any considered measure, Birney is a major figure in 20th century Canadian poetry. In the 1940s, when the release of a book of poetry was rare, an event, Birney burst onto the scene with David and Other Poems, the title piece widely acknowledged today as a classic. This characterized Birney’s career, that of quality forerunner. The excellent verse-play, The Damnation Of Vancouver, came out in 1977, the same year as this Selected, and Birney also provided criticism, two novels, he taught, edited, wrote essays, and changed personas (organically) as successfully as his work under different hats. GITW is Birney’s own selection, and it represents his eclectic technical desires and experiments. Lines leap with images; there’s a quick and restless physical sweep to much of it. Allusions are thick. Unfortunately, so is the meaning, often. It’s not that one can’t follow the history, but rather that those stories - many times -- aren’t skillfully integrated with the rhythms. Birney tackles nettlesome subjects, and does so with a genuine curiosity, as well as an insouciant, irreverent dash. I’ve heard and read for some time how Birney’s works are “dated”. Whenever people use that word, I note how explanation is usually either missing or a variation on “it doesn’t speak to me, man.” But if Birney’s dated, so, too, is much written before WWII. Instant classics are desired, but, following logically from that mindset, are quickly discarded. That works in pop music, at least.
Carmine Starnino, This Way Out. (already blogged). An entertaining, aurally exciting work. More bold in content and thought than his previous three volumes, and a vision is emerging, clear of polar simplicities. Reminiscences are lovingly etched, and also point to contrasting moods between past and present. There’s a wonderful lack of fear in accurately depicting the spiritual kernel of the past, while still maintaining a skeptical distance from hazy or nostalgic epiphany (contrast with above comments on Getty’s Reconciliation, and note Starnino’s title poem.)
Anne Sexton, The Complete Poems. Confessionalism has received an increasingly dismissive reaction, well-deserved, to the cheap wealth of narcissistic verse populating contemporary poetic procedure. Robert Lowell has often been fingered as the chief seminal surge, but Lowell hated the term as it applied to him. Lowell’s poetry uses personal torments in order to depict universal problems, he also uses those torments to extrapolate them for historical or socially contemporaneous issues, and in any event, he strictly and openly alters the “truth” of his biography in order to point to a larger story. Sexton is less ambitious, but she, too, transcends the personal, speaking boldly to a number of specific issues, using “I” as dramatic representative for psychological violence and depression. The confessional tag is also used as a put-down for Sexton since her late poetry -- harshly compromised by her increasing downward spiral of pills and drink, as well as a lack of sharp editing by others -- is voluminously unfocussed and unworked, and does often succumb to self-pity and a constricted world view. But her first several books are often shocking in content, execution, and voice.
Roy Miki, Surrender. (already blogged). A self-important exercise in the contemporary theory of language suspicion, the theory subbing as poetry.
David McGimpsey, Dogboy. The following quatrain is actually what’s good about McGimpsey’s 1998 follow-up to Lardcake, a volume of which I had good things to say: “I used to have a girl/Who went by the stage name of “Monique”/But she left me when I told her/I was kind of in love with her shoes.” (from “One Man Band”). “Good”, because the passage aces the modern propensity to toss away everything for a “better” reproduction: mashed potatoes, shoes, and relationships. There’re no hierarchies, no priorities, no values. But the lines are flat, and the poems, in toto, become redundant to the point of weariness. (Dogboy is long, and the self-flagellating loser persona schtick gets especially old since McGimpsey has covered the same territory -- more effectively -- in his first book.) A section on baseball is included in the first-person television-besotted satiric thrust. I’ve already mentioned my boredom with Donald Hall’s and George Bowering’s baseball poems, and these do nothing to change my perception of this mini-tradition. The sentiments in “Spit, Robbie, Spit” are obvious, and’ve been voiced more effectively by sports journalists.
Peter Richardson, A Tinker's Picnic. Unfortunately, I leant this book to a friend a half-year ago and it hasn’t as yet been returned. This could be good news or bad. She could be busily and secretly organizing a lobby push for the Nobel Prize for Mr Richardson, or she could have inadvertently dropped the volume down a storm drain. If it ever comes back, and if ants haven’t devoured the contents, I’ll report on a few of the poems therein, but Richardson’s strengths lie in concrete vivacity of speaker, others, and situations, so a sketchy round-up here wouldn’t do the book justice. I’ll just state that there are quite a few small gems in this first effort.
Peter Richardson, An ABC Of Belly Work. “Packet” is a wonderful poem, typical of a favourite Richardson procedure. Holding his demanding infant after broken sleep, the scene plays out in fantasized allegory with a drunk being welcomed back to his home of beery, cheery confreres. Babies and the old or otherwise compromised: helplessness but not completely so because not abandoned. This latter sentence stops me since it reveals another Richardson strength: not succumbing to grandiose, out-of-experience conclusion. Yes, many people are helpless, without hope. And in another circumstance, in another character study, we might see that. But poems of experience and assimilation don’t lend themselves to easy, sweeping conclusions, that lazy trick of the psychologically and technically simple. Similarly, “Rogues” juxtaposes the noises from air cargo removal to memories of “a flagpole cord knocking against metal/as she and I try to get our kiss right,/solve the riddle of its stolen quality.” This poem brings back a flood of memories of my own memories when performing brain-somnolent drudgery. Henry Miller once said he preferred unskilled physical labour to intellectual routine (though he turned out to be a money sponge), since it allowed him all kinds of time for reverie and creative gestation. And here’s another passage from “Rogues”, eliciting the sounds inside the plane: “knocked loose now by the rattletrap//thrashing of wind in an aircraft’s turbines.” A deft metaphor surfaces in the anguished “At Hotel-Dieu”, the speaker’s fire alarm battery replacement acting as impotent warning. That poem is sandwiched between two humorous evolutions. Humour is always welcome, especially in today’s English-written poetry world of hushed profundity and self-regarding gloom. But Richardson’s lightness and comical bite acts beyond its release of laughter: satirical-personal, or social, pokes are played with a subtler density than at first surmised. Whether the reader laughs in recognition of the larger point, or at his or her own clueless expense, the levity proves that wit, lightheartedness, even “low” humour can, at its best, be more meaningful than groove-repeated sober respectability. Recounting his rebound fling, the speaker of “Ten Week Shiatsu Affair” confidently concludes, “Who cared if it was doomed to failure?/I was learning about Earl Scruggs,/his string of chart-topping Ozark tunes.”
Peter Richardson, Sympathy For The Couriers. (already blogged). The best book of contemporary poetry I’ve read all year. There are many excellent poems in SFTC, and very few fizzlers. More accomplished than his first two volumes, Richardson successfully matches his ambition with stimulating multiple voices and experiences. The narration cuts many ways. Don’t forget to add the (often) seemingly benign narrators into the mix of those observed and assessed.
Lorna Crozier, Everything Arrives At The Light. (already blogged, sort of). One of the belaurelled Canadian doyennes responsible for creating more time for the next generation of back yard landscape theopneusty-peddlers, and proving Blake’s “the cistern contains” and “standing water” proverbs, Crozier’s EAATL is a paean to her own spiritual observational powers. This is not only not poetry, but would be poor prose if offered without the ragged line breaks. “Light” is important, and Crozier wants us to know it. Unfortunately, the lock-and-loaded students will continue to ride roughshod over blank paper with confessional superiority or negative witnessing.
Stanley Kunitz, The Testing-Tree. “My conviction is that poetry is a legendary, not an anecdotal, art." These words of Kunitz’ serve as a cutting moral reminder to those who mistake personal intuition and fact for poetic authority. Kunitz died a few years ago, just shy of his 100th year; he waited roughly 14 years between releases of new work. Can you imagine how many books some of our present dynamos will pile up should they cross the centenarian tape? Kunitz’ work in TTT is pared, highly emotional, searching and anguished, scarily honest, set in a deceptively carefree form (he favoured conversational trimetre rhythms by this period, yet there was nothing negligent about the finished product). The title poem, in particular, is a standout.
Terence Young, Moving Day. What’s with Vancouver Island poets and the concentration on memoirs of the teen years? Like Patricia Young and Jay Ruzesky, T Young explores personal memories, mildly vexing or mildly serene. We get brought up to date, as well, but things aren’t any more revelatory with a poem about the joys of stolen naps, and a fantasy of the ball-and-chain domestic life-as-house sailing through the sky. There’s little tension, here, formal or not, in the poems’ construction, and the lines serve only to hurry along the narrative.
Kildare Dobbs, The Eleventh Hour. (already blogged). Abstract sexual depiction is like a report on virtual sunbathing. You get not the idea of heat, but the filtered-through-allusion-and-irony idea of heat. The last, brief section bursts out of its protective sheath, but there may not be many receptive minds to impregnate, by then.
Lionel Kearns, A Few Words Will Do. (already blogged). Culled from Kearns’ long career. The nature lyrics are ruined by clichéd abstraction; the people poems are drably formed, but emotionally affecting and without trowel-slathered bathos, especially impressive considering their grim subject matter; the language-persona poems are a clever idea on the exhausted and wrong-turn fussing over the inadequacies of language.
Catherine Owen, CUSP/detritus: an experiment in alleyways.
Shannon Stewart, Penny Dreadful.
Sachiko Murakami, The Invisibility Exhibit.
All three reviewed for an upcoming edition of CNQ.
Jeff Derksen, Transnational Muscle Cars. (already blogged). This volume could easily have been sliced by 90 %, and not only would it not have bled, but it would have benefited from spikier associations. Redundant banner-ads (yes, modern architecture is ugly -- yes, advertising gurus should be ashamed of themselves -- yes, big business is evil) aren’t any more clever or lasting when couched in cute, altered anagrams or word-substituted blues songs.
Sean Virgo, Selected Poems. “Sin” is a terrific poem, an unspooling of lust at the pale sermon, where all eyes are on a different god(ess), and “[t[he muttering priest goes unheard.” Unfortunately, this long Selected -- from Virgo’s first four books of poetry -- is henceforth stuffed with oracular Native transcription (not transmutation, as Virgo would have it). Actually, I’d think Natives -- now, First Nations people-- would be more offended by an assumed transmutation. Spiritual merging is a true effrontery in that overworked accusation of voice appropriation. The tone is short, flat, solemn, oracular, declarative. There’s a lot of dreaming, in and out of human and animal and elemental states. Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy becomes a wimpy Eurocentric lack of imagination, or at least that’s the proud implication. In “Trouble Song”, “I did not ask for this,/I looked for many things/That were not secret.//Your spirit comes/Out from your heart/With white tent wings.” The terse lines begin to mimic hyperventilation in (at least) this reader. Even if transmission of dreams through inexperienced (in the reader) cultural and religious linguistics were possible, the poems still have to work as poems, not bare prophecies or faithful image-linked transcription. And, in any event, as D H Lawrence said in a review of Melville’s Typee and Omoo, we can’t go back to a past conscious state. For better or worse, we always progress (the word not used as a value comparative, here), and whether the desire for union with pre-rational Native spirituality, in BC life or in Rousseau’s philosophy, is fetishistic or genuine, the enterprise is doomed at birth. Respect? Of course. Reenactment? No. Virgo stopped writing poetry after this release, concentrating on fiction which (as he says elsewhere) allowed him more room for his narratives. But narratives don’t have to be Spenserian in length. Every day, I appreciate more the value of the lyric, and I find it sad that many poets can’t seem to reconcile and join other modes into that great voice bedrock.
Sue Wheeler, Habitat. (already blogged). Less than enthusiastic about reading this collection (the back synopsis praised its observation of nature), I thought it might follow competently or falteringly in an overcrowded field. Instead, Habitat proved that overcooked subject matter can still evoke surprise, in both practitioner and reader, of this fine art if the images are fresh, the personal connections are seamless, and the metaphors unusual and sharp. An excellent -- and to my knowledge, overlooked -- volume.
George McWhirter, The Anachronicles. This recent effort from McWhirter traces his usual strengths and weaknesses. To the former: felicitous soundplay; impish humour; occasional satiric bite; a rollicking narrative. To the latter: shaggy-dog narrative in the worst sense -- too much shagginess, not enough bones to chew on; allusion included more for accumulation and not concison; clumsy connections, in lexical elegance and metaphor; superfluous witticisms. Historical characters are brought to life, a difficult achievement in long, poetic sequences, but I still would have preferred paring and more concentration on an aphoristic approach the material seemed to encourage.
Zach Wells, Track & Trace. If there are more than a handful of Canadian poets currently writing better music in which the poems are meant to be heard as cadence, dynamic shift, and sonorous repetition and variation, I haven’t chanced upon them yet. I could fill a lot of space here with examples, but that would be longer than a trailer, and would defeat the surprise, the discovery in the context of an entire poem. But here’s a few: “Tender tight fists of fiddleheads/fronding into bitter-leafed ferns.” (from the opener, “What He Found Growing In The Woods”, a fine metaphorical study of birth and death); “chunks of trunk thunking like dud munitions” (from “Nimble & Poise”); “[t]he sudden stink of mussel mud drifting” (from “Mussel Mud”). In fact, mud stink is a sensory motif wafting through T&T, decomposition as difficult beauty, the rot in life not only natural and inevitable, but strangely transcendent, at times. I’m not partial to Wells’ anaphoral poems; the procedure distracts from the back end listing, and the insistence dulls rather than amplifies. And there’s still a straightjacketed concision, at times, which strangles feeling. That those feelings are strong and honest makes this a greater frustration. I was delighted by the often subtle meaning, only apparent in elementary form after several readings, and that the meaning cohered in a curious winterized vision, creatively enacted in Seth’s specific sequence of drawings.
Les Murray, Learning Human. A large Selected, even this book doesn’t capture Murray’s incredible range of tone and subject. I’m awed by the lexical voluptuousness, the evocative mind- and land-scapes, the brave biography, the Hughesian micro-sensitive nature reverence.