Monday, December 20, 2010

matt robinson's Against the Hard Angle; Kate Hall's The Certainty Dream

It took me a few readings to begin to tune my ears and focus my eyes on matt robinson's Against the Hard Angle (2010). That's not always a glowing endorsement since confusion and frustration are often multiplied with greater scrutiny of challenging poems; even when gaining an entryway, a "so what?" emptiness emerges. If not exactly cutting his teeth on Wallace Stevens, robinson has plunged into the abyss of imaginative speculation. Tough sky to float in, and many poets have disappeared into an ever-expanding ether after reading "I placed a jar in Tennessee". Two things intrigue about the poems here: imagination and ideas (and, refreshingly, there are ideas on display, not just nods to memes) are at the service of life experience and emotional observation and reflection; the music is lively, and is unexpected line to line. I'd previously read only one poem of robinson's, his "The Grain Elevators", which concludes this book, and which I'd first read in The Fiddlehead. A fine metaphorical unravelling takes place in phrases both tight and generous: "stress-fractured and cracked like this dun-dull brute tonnage". Another poem, part iii. (flashback: kitchen sink), is an exquisite suggestion of sexual desire, something almost always either avoided or mangled by our contemporary suspicion of feeling, direct participation, and laudatory superimposed thought-farting. I'm sure I'll be returning to this collection often.

Unlike Against the Hard Angle, Kate Hall's first selection, 2009's The Certainty Dream, uses experience -- and imagined, removed, or general experience at that -- as an excuse to become entangled in philosophical conundrums. The nouns here are poured into a thematic mold (mynah, blackbird, crow, fish, boxes, houses), and one sees (or, as Hall would have it, imagines in confusion through sight) with an ontological excavation project rather than as glory or illumination or reverie. I use the word reverie with knowing irony since Hall's book is concerned with daydreams, nightdreams, or lucid just-waking-up states, but though suffused throughout by altered consciousness, the cohesive force of the book is one of frustrated logic. It's a neat trick, if one can pull it off, to conflate the irrationality of dreams with the impossibility of knowing anything with certitude, and for all time (more on that later), but the Cartesian focus of the book, despite its occasional attempts at levity, is both boring and poetically bankrupt.

As already alluded to, Rene Descartes gets the epigraph to the book's longest poem, the seven-part ten-page mid-book "Suspended in the Space of Reason: A Short Thesis". The mind-body split was outdated and mistaken even when Descartes proposed it from his re-formed beliefs. Without belabouring the history here, the procedure supports Hall in running the table for doubt as elevated thought and observation as conditional and, thus, ripe for an optative academic discourse-snore on ambiguity and perspective. It would help, intellectually, to hoodwink the reader into association by surface comparisons -- "All this is spoken in gestures/I am too tired to perform"; "I try to imagine all the fish suddenly going/belly-up but all I can worry about is/the dirty mirror" -- but this is poetry, not pure speculative pondering, so particularities, experiences, plausibilities have to enter at some point. And this is where even the philosophical framework and cornerstone crumble (the poems as musical journey never had a chance to leave the station): "Pascal's Wager" has to restate the famous hedge in an epigraph, for some reason. The poem then begins:

"We have a stainless steel pepper grinder.
When the kitchen light is turned on
there is another bubbled room reflected in the bulbous top.
This is the problem: duplicity is always shining
forth from ordinary objects.

Pascal developed his famous equations because he was losing
at cards and dice. We like to play games but only if
we get to keep our shirts."

As for the last sentence, I guess Hall has never read Dostoyevsky's novella, The Gambler. As for the rest, where does duplicity arise? From the objects?

Pascal's wager is of course a cowardly, insincere gambit. But worse, it's shallow reasoning. If God does not exist, we can lose much more by believing in him. We can lose the power of personal responsibility, individuated joy, and honest revelling in apogeal wonder.

"I waitress at a restaurant with limestone walls.
What I've learned is this:
some people like a lot of pepper and some people don't.
You can never tell."

First note the elevated forerunning after the ellipses. Then note the pallid attempt to give a believable setting for the argument. There's no life in the poem. The people are props, the objects originate in the mind and soon fade away, as do all objects merely projected, and the interaction is nugatory.

"God could be hiding inside the pepper grinder
and there you are, shredding him to bits
on top of your farfalle. ....
What are the odds? You can never be certain."

Another reference, or dreamed (remembered?) anecdote, involves being a croupier to others losing their shirts. But this is a faulty analogy, fatal in a poem which puts all its eggs in a fruitful speculative investigation. Gambling isn't about a one-off wager on the existence of God. It's an ever-repeating variation on win-loss probabilities that seeks to defeat the "game" in a large sample run. Of course, roulette or craps, as referenced here, are negative-expectation games. That is, they're mathematically impossible to win at. (Full marks to Descartes here, and Hall acknowledges as much in a different context in another poem.) But many wagers, over the long haul, are favourable to the gambler. Certainty, as conceived of in Hall's dreamworld, wouldn't be something to arrive at, or at least strive for, it would kill life as it cancelled mystery, and more fundamentally, is impossible anyway. We're all gamblers, every day and in every minute. Why the woebegone reaction to it? Actually, I'm much more in tune with someone railing against the fates, however preposterously (Dostoyevsky again) than I am with someone mildly disturbed by and in that state, and depicting it at an emotional remove. Or perhaps I just don't get the "subtleties", all the more powerful by being ushered in with clever ideas-in-dreams couching.

Hall's first poem in the book is a response to Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird". Stevens' poem has rightfully been praised as a supreme imaginative angle on art, perception, and reality; Hall's poem restricts the view to a private grumble about the uncertainty of that perception and its meaning. What a travesty.

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