I have enormous respect and admiration for Stuart Ross. When Canadian poets were churning out a volume every year or two in order to get and stay onboard the burgeoning Canada Council Grant train, Ross was getting his poems out through pamphlet and wits alone. Foregoing the prevailing poetic fashions throughout his three-decade writing life -- the pendulum swing from rational chat to overburdened professionalism -- he persisted with his vision, consolidated it, and now, with this year's You Exist. Details Follow., deepened and fine-tuned it. This is a remarkable achievement. Hyperbole? Ass-kissing? I don't know the man, never met or corresponded with him. But think about it. Even most of the surrealist fathers, for Christ sakes, -- Desnos, Char, and Aragon -- severed their ideological ties with Breton within three to ten years, and not because they were hankering after the next poetics fad (Desnos and Char in particular were as courageous and full of integrity, in work and life, as any poet at any time), but because they honestly followed their own inclinations of suiting aesthetic to public reception and political context. Surrealism, then, wasn't the bloodbrother and bloodsister bond some would have it. So I'm even more intrigued by Ross' steadfastness to surrealism, what its advantages are for his vision.
At first pass, one would think there'd today be as many surrealist poets lined up in a publication-proposal queue as there were stove inspectors to interrogate the beleaguered housewife (played by Terry Jones) in that bureaucracy-gone-mad Monty Python sketch. Surrealism's raison d'etre, an artistic revolution to engender one of similar intensity in politics, economics, religion, and the military, like any revolutionary attempt, was born of necessity. Confident, fist-thumping Reason, it was widely intuited by artists in many genres, played a big part in the run-up to WWI. Bizarre juxtapositions, anchored images indefinitely placed, narrative vacancy, dream irresolution, all were stylized (not as automatic writing as is often misunderstood) into fugue or caprice in order to explore imaginative territory not available from (for example) the prominent French realists of the late nineteenth century.
During Rimbaud's brief brilliance through to Dadaism, European countries competed one with another for Imperial victories in Africa. The transition to surrealism, then, wasn't quite the shock one may suppose, and since those many conflicts without full-scale war track a path in some ways eerily similar to what the Western world has been undergoing since Ross began writing, where have all the surrealists been? Dali may have died in '89, but the nature of the mode suggests (though many others deny this) an ever-renewable resource, something, unfortunately, our earth-bound realities make a metaphorical impossibility. Well, anti-rational (when it suited their purposes, that is) postmodernism in all its sub-schools tried to assert itself into the picture but was so hung up and hung out on its own narcissism, lack of passion, careerism and abstract wrangling that its collective vision amounted to scoring cheap points for fellow like-minded academics in a disgusting display of hermetic smugness.
Enter Ross. OK, fast forward to this year's Ross since the preamble has already ballooned beyond my intent. The titular poem was composed, we learn in the back notes, in several stages during his reading of a John Ashbery poem. Here are lines 19-25 (the poem runs for seven pages):
"The straggling professors of trouble
are astonished by the headlines.
They don't know who to phone.
They await further orders
from a double-parked sun.
Soon all will be rubble,
heaps of slag."
Now it would be tempting here to point to my first paragraphs with the obvious links to Reason not understanding and indeed paving the way for the "heaps of slag". But it could also be a commentary on our own imaginations which decompose in the very next moment of forgetting. Possibly of more importance, it could also gently (or not so gently) make fun of the rational reader ("the straggling professor") for trying to parse any of this. I'll take my cue from that last suggestion and speak intuitively the rest of the way.
The reader, indeed, is advised to relax. For two reasons. As I say, conclusions or meanings, if any can be set in shifting stone, should be entertained after the initial experience. As in any surrealistic verse, it's the unfiltered dream that's paramount. But for surrealist poems to work, a reader has to be able to access that REM state. I've read little in the way of others' dream anecdotes, but from my experience, dreams were much more vivid and plentiful throughout my childhood, teens, and twenties. This fascinates me here because the bulk of the poems in this (for poetry) lengthy book concern childhood dreams, visions, fictions, or memories (or, of course, all of the preceding). This suggests that Ross' intent here isn't, as is the case with so many poet-diarists, indulgent autobiography, but a comment on memory and the changing emotions those memories create, ending only with that last mahogany or marble bed.
At his worst, Ross' poems have the dashed-off pseudo-hyperkinetic feel of one hand knee-slapping (or one vocal chord laughing):
"I come as a horse,
a fragile stepping-stone
loosening my pants by the painted river.
The reservoirs hold
a god of burning roses."
The above, from "Blotter", is image run amok, or running in muck. A little goes just a bit longer into that long way, but most pinball games can become irritating even when geometrically inventive.
Ross does something commendable in this volume. Despite the fast in-play shuttlecock, and the shuttlecock feathers, he manages to transfer feelings -- sadness, ironic insouciance, anger, affection -- to the reader without sacrificing the inevitability and charm of the dream or the sincerity of the particular emotion(s) evoked. I'd love to provide more and specific examples, but I feel like winding this up. But one last poem, a poem that hit me like a ton of feathers and bricks. It's towards the end of You Exist. Details Follow., and the poem is "Lineage". I always hesitate to give too much away in poems I love. It's always best that readers, if my enthusiasms are echoed, discover those delights with a first, full reading, so I'll simply say that it deserves a place with many other good and great surrealist poems: visionary, surprising, imagistically alert and suggestive, nimble, coherent, dreamlike (in this case nightmarish), and unforgettable.