Monday, December 31, 2012

My fave books of 2012

A little rushed this year, but most of these I've already covered at some point. Doesn't include books I'd previously read one time or more.

1) Orhan Pamuk, Snow (2005). Blogged 12 hours ago.

2) Orhan Pamuk, The Museum Of Innocence (2009). Blogged April 24th.

3) Ken Babstock, Methodist Hatchet (2011). Reviewed earlier this year for subTerrain.

4) Carmine Starnino, Lazy Bastardism (2012). Blogged Nov 13th.

5) Leigh Kotsilidis, Hypotheticals (2011). Poems which use scientific exploration not as self-important muddle, but as genuine observation and extrapolation. They don't all work, and a few cute tricks are replayed much too often (the end-line/mid-line full rhymes), though I can overlook flat effects next to the exciting "what are we driving ourselves into" (top notch poem).

Orhan Pamuk's Snow

One gets an idea that a novel may be a bit of all right when three heavyweight writers step to the scale with vastly different readings of it. John Updike liked Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (2005), though he was discouraged by its tonal resignation; Christopher Hitchens panned the novel, imputing to its author a cowardly skirting of contemporary history and moral sympathies; and Margaret Atwood raved about it, though mostly from the gender angle. That all three eminent writers are off base (at least Atwood covered well what she did focus on) is another feather in the lapel for Pamuk, who continues to confound ideologues, whether aesthetic or political or cultural, and astound with complex stories – one might call them postmodern fables – engaged with human dilemmas in prose both practically intelligent and mysterious.

I dislike plot summary reviews in anything but barebones-impetus outlining, so here goes. The narrator (whose story is told by a fictional Orhan Pamuk who will be inserted into the novel after the half-way point) travels to Kars, a crushingly impoverished town in northeastern Turkey, after a twelve year political exile in Frankfurt, ostensibly to attend his mother’s funeral, but really to catch up with a flame (Ipek) from his teen years when they lived in Istanbul. A snowstorm redundantly shuts off  Kars from the outside world, Turkey or otherwise, and narrator Ka gets on as a journalist to investigate a story about girls and women of the town who commit suicide as a response to Ataturk’s  legacy of monochromatic secularism. The girls, you see, have been forced to remove their head scarves at school.

The plot, like any good postmodern romp in the bed of Pynchon or Tarantino, quickly evolves into a labyrinthine series of twists which incorporate past elements but also  further mysteries that take our befuddled guide into zones where he can only record. And it’s this recording, this wise and careful observation, that the above three reviewers seemed to miss. Regarding Updike, of course Ka’s reaction is passive and halfhearted. That’s the point. The novel is titled so, and the snowstorm is a giant sledgehammer of a hint, in order to underscore Pamuk’s intention. (Hitchens makes this mistake, too.) Pamuk, through his main character, but also through the poor (in spirit and physical resources) town residents, reveals how inertia is self-perpetuating, a law of physics. Hitchens wants a heroic attempt through the lens of political morality, but nothing in the novel lets the subjugated off the hook, though Pamuk does succeed in painting them with sympathetic colours. The Muslim terrorist Blue? Hitchens thinks he gets singled out as the strong candidate for our approval, but Pamuk’s point is that – though Blue is imprisoned – the secular military are there to keep power. The spiritually gentle, of which Pamuk has much to say through several remarkable characters, don’t pose a threat, so of course they aren’t going to get the same kind of “martyrdom” as the troublemakers.That said, Hitchens is astoundingly obtuse about the young Muslim students Necip and Fazil. Pamuk's attitude towards them is complex. He gently mocks them (Hitchens misses the point of the stilted dialogue -- some people do talk that way), but he also saves a large piece of his fictional heart for those two, caught up in religious narrow-mindedness, secular indifference and selfishness, and economic and intellectual stagnation throughout the town.

Atwood eschews tonal preferences and political siding for pointless gender speculation on what drives men to write puzzle-within-puzzle-within-puzzle novels. (Because a woman protagonist would be snuffed out before the first plot twist resolution, she concludes. I’m not sure I follow, since a woman author can choose any character – male or female, bold or tentative – she wants as a spokesperson.) But she makes some on-the-mark points about situational gender roles, even if they’re relatively reductive.

Snow’s  scope lends itself to thematic concentration. Unfortunately, the peculiar and consistent concerns of these authors in their own creative writings spill over into their reviews, and were one to consult them before reading Pamuk’s masterpiece, the general impression of the novel might be one of a polished or cracked pane rather than a sun-refracting cathedral mosaic. I choose that metaphor with care because, ultimately, the book is worshipful and spiritually investigative. Its many scenes of ghostly night-walking overseen by the hidden, lurking informers and military low-level collection men, its interior philosophical jousting between sexual need and solitary meditation, its heartbreaking rendering of the protagonist’s last days in Germany and the follow-up questing by character-Pamuk in securing Ka’s 19 poems in a book form that may or may not exist – these and other considerations show the author in a mood both expansive and quiet, and there’s no getting around the incredible feeling of desperation mixed with the occasional balm of understanding that suffuses the novel’s conclusion.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Lorna Crozier's Small Mechanics

I’ve already provided a year-end review paragraph-bite on the poetry of Lorna Crozier, as well as an anecdote on squishing a mammoth moth that touched down on a poem of hers I was reading in Everything Arrives at the Light. So why one more review visit? Because after finishing her latest book, 2011’s Small Mechanics, I turned to the online feedback, and other than Shane Neilson’s spot-on take on the matter, voices were unanimous in their praise. With over 95% of poets, this doesn’t matter since time renders the passing enthusiasms of the heavily-weighted “yes!” camp to an eventual “maybe”, then “meh”, and finally “who?”. The problem here, however, stems from Crozier’s position in the poetry community. In her post as writing instructor at the University of Victoria,  dispensations in that capacity winning her the 2004 Distinguished Professors Award, not to mention her numerous other tributes, prizes, honorary doctorates in unrelated fields, benefit readings, and receiving-end flapdoodle panegyrics, her stature as poet and -- most important to my point – shaper of poets, is unimpeachable. It shouldn’t be. The flaws which accumulate in almost every one of her poems in any of her sixteen books are not subtle, even though disagreements always end up in that futile but partially understandable “matters of taste” concession. Many people enjoy her poetry, too, so it’s not just a case of students keeping their heads down and handing in party-line papers. But when a poet who has grave problems in fundamental areas of composition – including, but not limited to, image, metaphor, tone, rhythm, diction, organic control, voice and vision –  also teaches the young and naive who, to their defense, note the prefatory distinctions of that teacher, the situation is far worse than a once-lauded poet slowly fading into obscurity. Those students, and their students, form much of the reinforced connective edifice that dominates the landscape for another few generations, like mutant, identical Wal-Mart stores in different cities continually squeezing out the hope-against-hope Mom-and-Pop outlets where gems occasionally reside, untouched before the foreclosures or buy-outs.


Crozier’s first poem in the collection starts out with a grammatical error. “Not a living soul about,/except for me and the magpie.” This is, of course, mixing the singular and plural constructs. The enjambment between lines 6 and 7 contradicts the effect she’s trying to reach: “on his tongue before it slides/down his throat.” If she had wanted to emphasize the pause after “taste”, a more believable and sensuous quick-time imagining, a much more effective break would have occurred as, “taste it on his tongue/before it slides down his throat.” Next up: “He’s the bird Noah didn’t send out,/afraid he’d carry the ark’s complaints to heaven.” Why would the magpie feel so compelled? If a magpie refused to mourn Christ at His crucifixion, I’m not sure what motivation it would have to fly to heaven with its complaints. Besides, after refusing entrance into the ark, I’m sure it was more than happy sitting on the roof while the other obedient animals were stuffed into an unbearably stifling indoor situation, not to mention the other birds which obviously suffered even greater problems. Then we come to, “Tonight he scallops from the copse of willows/to the power pole”. The choice of “scallops” makes no sense in this context. Of the five verb variations of the word, none have to do with moving, flying, flitting (etc.) from one place to another. Two lines later: “the bird part of my brain lit up”. Unintentional humour in an otherwise disastrous poem, I admit, offers a little entertainment value, but I don’t think it strengthens the overall impression. The pronoun in “He flips his tail”, a few lines later, confuses the preceding subjects (she means the magpie, not the coyote), as well as making a gender assumption. Next, Crozier describes the magpie’s song: “bringing up the oboes/then the high notes of the flutes.” Has Crozier attended to the timbre and pitch of the oboe? I haven’t yet heard the bird who could mimic the scary low registers of that instrument. Then, after a fanciful interlude which hides its inflated nature anecdote behind a parable, the poem concludes with, “mouthfuls of silence that, if not for coyotes,/the magpie would hear.” Now, this is puzzling. Who is the magpie here? Remember, Crozier inserted herself into the poem’s first sentence. It’s “me and the magpie”. Is the coyote a deflected stand-in for the poet? If so, does that make the coyote-poet the successful protector of the victims of thieves and others who would “pluck/the breath from my body”? The entire conceit seems rather overblown. If one is superstitious (though the Chinese regard the magpie as a “bird of joy”), there’s plenty of advice on how to eliminate the curse of seeing the lone bird by chance. I’m fond of the “Hello, Mr. Magpie, where is your wife?” option, but then, I’m just considering an entertaining game of armchair prophecy, not making a case as a Messiah for poetic expression.


This is a real head-scratcher. The wild grasses are silent, and “the meadow is more beautiful//for all it keeps inside.” But there is no inside and outside with nature. The poet receiving “syllables of seeds” when communing with the “beautiful” has nothing to do with nature’s withholding. It’s not pathetic fallacy at its worst, fortunately, but it’s something almost equally insidious: the poet who, once interpreting nature’s silent bounty, is elevated by an indiscriminate belief that any and all words that record reverent outdoorsy vagaries are due their proper awe. There are a million and one nature poems by awful poets, whether published in respectable journals or gathering dust on shelves. Let’s assess the poems as poems, not as automatic spiritual triumphs because of subject matter alone.


Shane Neilson has already unearthed the creepy meaning here for those unaware of  Crozier’s position as creative writing instructor. It must warm the hearts of those students to find themselves being referred to as infants. It just brings out the dark side of matronly oversight. And of course, some parents don’t allow their offspring to grow up, but if those diaper-swaddled cuties ever do, look out.


The comma isn’t a typo. This is a particularly clumsy way of laying out the title-as-first-line poem. “[E]very time we speak,/our words are mist, are rain”. Then, three lines of nature inflation later, “[s]ometimes//our words are snow.” Again, we have a simple parallel error. The first “every” is then incorrect. But Crozier likes to get carried away, and then forgets to pull home the kite after her reappraisal of the wind. Cliches and dull descriptions take over: “the sting of winter”, “everything inside us/freezes shut”. The poem ends as so many bad poems do, in a hopeless grab at spiritual profundity: “our mouths odd//with cold and urgently dry/from the effort of making/no sad sound.”


“[W]ind grieving/in the poplar trees.” Whoops. There’s our Ruskin bustin’. Despite that, the conceit here – a history of a transplanted heart – is handled with sympathy and, at times, vivid transposition. “Often//it skips a beat – grouse explode from ditches.” And later: “Some nights it is a sail billowing/with blood, a raw fist punching.” I especially like the appropriate “b” alliteration.


Here’s the first stanza:

“They don’t show up that often
and when they do, it’s possible
to ignore them like all the other things
that go on while you sleep.”

This is a sleepwalking poet, dictating her nocturnal urges. It’s lifeless even if you were to eliminate the line breaks and read it as prose. Later on, we’re treated to “misforgotten”. Is this like one of the current euphemism-lies, “misspoke”? But at least there’s a connection in logic to the latter verbal indiscretion. How can one forget incorrectly? Or does Crozier mean it’s a mistake to forget? But to forget something isn’t an act of will. That’s why criminals on the stand often fall back on the lie, when Perry Mason grills them on their whereabouts the night of Oct 7th, between 8:00 p.m. and 8:17 p.m.: “I don’t recall”. “In snow’s unmothering abundance” begins the final stanza. The emotions are evoked consistently well after the first stanza, but the main problem with the poem is its layered abstraction. With such an emotional subject, a symbolic nature-ordering works much more effectively when there’s a corresponding vividness involving the reality of that loss. Crozier could be talking about someone specific, but she’s talking about Loss, with the capital L, philosophically. It mutes any dramatic effect and emotional scarring the poem might have otherwise achieved.


“It’s taken the rising sun two hours/to find these hills. It will take less time/tomorrow. Few things you’re sure of,/this is one”. Thousands of years ago, the scientifically unsophisticated lived in terror of sundown. They didn’t know if the sun would rise again the next day. We can smile now, but it’s a good reminder that playing the spiritual victim over another two reduced minutes of sunlight in early December doesn’t get a reasonable person’s sympathies involved for our common latitudinal fate. And when the theme is empty, it’s hard to avoid the follow-up misplaced importance. Thus: “What is winter in you begins/to shift, begins to feel like a hunger.” Instead of describing an actual person, not one of anyone undergoing the same seasonal shifts, Crozier goes, once again, for the lazy abstraction. The second-person murkiness is just a platform for her to wax profound on banal and often-visited tropes. And it’s not like the language resuscitates a dying theme. “The bird lands anyway, the black nibs of its feet/scratching commas on your palm”. But, aha! Now the reader understands it’s not about sharing a common lugubrious moment with everyone else north of the 49th. It’s about the poor poet who, much like winter’s onset, undergoes fallow periods in her career trajectory, where the words will not break through the earth, or whatever trampled-to-death metaphor another would select. The linguistic “commas”, here, is a common sight in the book, and, indeed, among many other contemporary poets. This is no better than the postmodern obsession with talking directly about poetic process in poems. The concern is narcissistic, and the effect is one of indifference, even cold disdain among those who have no idea of, or no concern for, the struggling creative fortunes of poets condemned to a life of being dragged here and there by a capricious muse. This kind of selfishness and self-importance has no equal in other non-word art forms. And why “commas”? Shouldn’t it be scraping erasures? Too bad it’s just an imaginative foray. Such a bird I could really sympathize with.


“Did you know an ant has four/olfactory organs on its antennae;/the female mouse, a clitoris?” So begins the revelation. Why stop there? According to that great source of animal wisdom, wikipedia, “the spotted hyena, which has a particularly well-developed clitoris, urinates, mates and gives birth via the organ.” I mean, if the object is to produce shock, or at least surprise, in the reader, why pull up short on first base? But of course, this is Crozier, and we’re not dealing with facts for the sake of learning in scattered accumulation. Soon comes the real poem, for which the opener was just a table-setting excuse: “Did you know that grass has legs and feet?/That’s why it’s never still/but runs on the spot like a child in an old gymnasium.” Facts are cute, then, but mere triflings when compared with the imaginative profundities that arrive with the spin-off. If anyone can make sense of that gym simile, they’re cleverer than I.


“Lichen” is one more entry (we’re only at poem #9) in the poem-and-poet-as undiscovered-brilliance catalogue. “Something that comes close to holy:/you must fall on your knees/to see it clearly.” This is didactic mysticism at its worst. Listen up, unholy students. And listen reverently. This poem is more than worthy, sings Crozier. The next stanza has some nifty music – “tactile photo of the crab nebula/blazed into mineral” – which transitions immediately into, “like the bright side of a shadow/burned into a Hiroshima wall.” Uh oh.


The moon is given its due as another personified benefactor that has turned its back on ungrateful humans. (We’re not sure why, since there’s no backstory or complementary contrast.) When D. H. Lawrence wrote on the same conceit, he didn’t have a silent, withholding moon as mirror for the “no one, no one, no one will fall/in love” of Crozier’s bathetic ending. He placed a god where the moon lamented, and had him speak. The first-person contrast was dramatic and damning, there was a personality at work, not the Crozier-as-moon sadness which, self-important as always, can’t help anyone with its unheeded wisdom. Here’s Lawrence/Quetzalcoatl: “Get rid of their heaviness,/Their lumpishness,/Or I’ll smother them all./I’ll shake the earth, and swallow them up, with their cities./I’ll send fire and ashes upon them.”. A few lines later: “For the sun and the moon are alive, and watching with gleaming eyes./And the earth is alive, and ready to shake off his fleas. And the stars are ready with stones to throw in the faces of men.” The poem extends to further elements, with further dire consequences. The striking thing to note is the contrast in mood. It’s Old Testament vs New Testament. But whereas a good case can be made for the New Testament in that old argument over which reaction (or initial action) is best in an ungrateful world, in Crozier’s New Testament creation, indifference or a weird passive-aggressive withdrawal replaces compassion. Lawrence’s poem is studded with his usual flaws – repetition ad nauseum, didacticism – but it’s an honest poem, and gives contours and boldness in the face of actual vices which engender that opposition.


And it’s here, patient reader, that I stop, (thanks to the last poem’s title’s cue). I don’t have the time (though I have the inclination) to go through the next 71 poems in like fashion. Many of my arguments would become variations on a redundancy, anyway, since Crozier, as evidenced by comparisons with her previous books, brings similar thematic material, with similar attendant problems, to the table. I sincerely hope that my words have enraged one or more Crozier poetry lovers to respond with their own review(s), because the pathetic attempts at investigation I’ve stumbled across haven’t amounted to more than non sequiturs and mood agreement. One good poem, several others with promising scenarios or realized lines, and one excellent line (from the titular poem) – “The shadow in the empty barn has blood in it” – doesn’t add up to a successful book, but, you know, it’s impossible to subvert a rushing, rising waterline. This is just one sandbag. And I know there’re a few others out there. Nature, malevolent or benign, triumphs in the end. Here’s hoping for an abatement during the current hurricane era.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Triny Finlay's Histories Haunt Us

Sometimes a book’s associations are so alien to the person reading it that the latter can only concede defeat in making a bridge to the work. Such was the case for me when attempting to gain anything from Triny Finlay’s 2010 Histories Haunt Us. The first components that puzzle are the headings for the first five poems. Not a sequence, suite, or connected whole, they comprise five separate poems,but they’re pegged as “Abstract Loss, 1”, “Abstract Loss, 2”, and so on, until 5. This suggests that the poems are separate entities, even though they display a titular connection. The confusion increases after reading each poem since we're treated to a disjointed personal history that could just as well have no title, or even merge with the rest of the book. The first poem is bizarre. It references John Thompson in line one, and is composed in five couplets, so the obvious conclusion is that it’s an English ghazal or bastard ghazal, where the strict rules of the Arabian form, let alone the spiritual yearning and grief-with-joy coexistence is neutered, if not eliminated entirely. Actually, as a flippant Andy Weaver would define the term (and what’s a modern ghazal if not flippant or slapdash – cf. Margo Button’s shameless attempts), this is more appropriately a bastard bastard ghazal since its most important rule – contained couplets – is broken. Rumi? As Alice Cooper sang, “I’m so adaptable for you”. The first couplet is self-contained, as is the second. And there’s the leap in subject between them. So far, it’s the singular bastard. But then, there’s another jump, and the enjambment begins between couplets. And the content, or narrative, is of a piece. So we have a bastard mixed with a bastard bastard. This is like a novice “revolutionary” unsure of how far to go. One of column B, and one of column Q. And the content? Line 6: “Purple orchids slumped like shamed teenagers.” Now I know that our subjective experiences colour all our emotions and thoughts. But this line shows how a past emotional trauma or (at least) unresolved or difficult memory can intrude on the most innocent of sightings. It reminds me of the old game where one tells another, repeatedly, not to think of pink elephants. Even here, in a neutral thought experiment, we can see how the mind is diverted, and how our will can be a puny and wayward force unable to marshall our thoughts. But poetry, if it’s any good at all, isn’t about regurgitating whatever happens to spill into our minds at any and all times. It’s as much about editing and exclusion as it is about what is said. And of course, what is said then has to be ordered or, if that’s too militaristic a choice of words, shaped into something more memorable, apt, and metaphorical. In what world are purple orchids like shamed teenagers? Or – in what world are shamed teenagers like purple orchids? Wouldn’t a shamed teenager show red instead? Would the slumping be that graceful? But Finlay, as the book proceeds, isn’t interested in using images in order to effect comparable associations. The best surrealist poetry could achieve this. Disparate images can  work. But they work in the same way that slivers of dream sequences do, by a feathery tail-link to what came before it. Finlay wrenches the first image into a distorted second comparable, the better to engineer what’s really on her mind: her narcissistic and crushingly depressing 6 x 8 internal world.

There are far too many other examples to use as evidence, and it’d be piling on to a pile-up, anyway. But I’ll include a few all the same, since quoting is necessary.

“What Is Cut Or Negative”


“After the bliss of the baby came the flies.


They cruised through a hole
in the screen and gathered,
a buzz of watchful parishioners.”

What is the relationship between the flies as parishioners and the newborn baby? It was a blissful occasion, after all. Here’s where a backstory, a meta-explanation, is necessary. Because without it, confusion is amplified. It turns out that the author’s lover left soon after their child was born. But even with this knowledge – (and surprise! autobiography is elevated) – questions persist. Why are the flies parishioners? Are the parasitic dregs the man who flees? But if so, it’s a poor association, since flies stay in order to feed, and in any case they gorge on garbage, not the actual fruits (of a relationship). Is it self-castigation? Flies as mind, feeding on the mind’s garbage? Or (what I believe, and what fits the orchids-as-teenagers link) is it just one more slapped-on cheap metaphor for attempted shock value, to underline that the writer is suffering, and that that fact alone validates and excuses emotional falsity and moral assumption?

Hysterical poems inevitably include lists since the catalogue of whatever’s-on-hand nouns increases the force of the simple assertion at the list’s outset. Hence, “Prestidigitation”, wherein “[f]or my next trick I will devastate all insects.” (Maybe that fly-parishioner was the departing lover.) And a few lines later:

“And balconies
potted plants
flimsy window screens
patio doors
knives in blocks
heavy televisions


But if orchids can be teenagers, then any of us are allowed to complete the puzzle by equating patio doors with admen, potted plants with yesmen, and knives in blocks with stab wounds by troubled lovers. There’s no end to this kind of imprecision. If leaps are going to be long and wild, there needs to be some accountability.

And speaking of leaping, after this latest poem, the long and final section commences, and it’s – yes – a series of 26 bastard bastard ghazals. The book’s opener was just a tease. I’ll let those who truly value ghazals fulminate on these stabs and feints. But this isn’t modification. It’s belittling. Why are these narcissistic burblings set in a cheapened ghazal form? Well, Finlay has some roots in New Brunswick, and Thompson thundered and blundered in that province. A bad boy romantic, he was an attractive possibility for poets who loved the authoritative subversiveness he represented while disguising its responsibility in the incompleteness of the Canadian ghazal. And Finlay is up to the template here. (xxii) starts out with “vaguely, just vaguely, from my point of view: into/ the book about red, for the world about flight, about red/running out, or growing wings, volcano-like, monstrous.” Monster, flies/flight; incomplete conceits. That is, until the melodrama later in the same poem. Why, then, a ghazal, which lives in association? This is a ham-handed, slow link. Now, each of these 26 pieces have, in the book’s back-page notes, a listing of the corresponding authors who gave birth to these efforts. But with any good allusion, the entire point is to disguise it artfully so as to elicit a guess or surprised and pleased recognition from the reader. This is like providing the answers in bold text right next to the blank crossword. Just because it’s “hidden” after the poems doesn’t make it a mystery. Associations should be there to be discovered for months or even years, not garnered in a casual glance at the back matter after completing the poem sequence the first go around. And “red/running out”? Mary Wollstonecraft gets the nod, but Katia Grubisic also would like to raise a hand. It’s funny because it also reveals a young poet anxious to be seen as having read the canon (intoned in a slow baritone). Let’s face it: these ghazal-lites, or rather sham-ghazals, have nothing of the regenerative, let alone sacred, in them, despite the closing, stuttering last two hysterical depictions, and the last-gasp insincere positive sop-throw, “The truth is, it stings, it sings to me now.” The truth is? That reminds me of businessmen who say “frankly” to preface their imprecisions.

Triny Finlay, after two books, is a creative writing teacher. I remember when a mentor was a forbidding presence, the gulf between student and master so wide that it caused the former to either quit in logical hopelessness or get on board with manic ambition. But this kind of authority can only lead to a confused student union, and a discipleship with more fervency than talent.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Barry Dempster's Dying A Little

Dying A Little (2011) is Barry Dempster’s fourth volume of poetry in three years, at least two of the collections, including this latest effort, lengthy. There are three reasons --  among others, I’m sure – poets turn the compositional/publishing spigot to full-on 83 bar firehose.  They’re assaulted, usually at the height of great career powers, by images and integrated visions, the poets serving as faithful conduit, rarely editing anything in the process. Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus is one example. They’re cynically gaming the academic publish-or-perish system to stay “relevant”. Or they’re doing what most poets do, writing a lot of verse, the difference being that their internal editor and assessor is asleep or is ignored because of grandiosity or immodesty. Reason number one doesn’t apply to Dempster. And I believe in the sincerity of his attempts, which leaves that last option as my best guess. But whatever the genesis for the poetic logorrhea, the result in the reader is often one of irritation and impatience. The impatience is increased in that Dempster, in Dying a Little, is going over much of the same material – mortality – he’s been concerned with in his more recent works. This is even more disturbing in that Dempster is just 60 years of age. The reader can be fairly safe in assuming an even greater intensification of his singular obsession in the next (5? 12?) books.

It didn’t have to be that way. Dempster is an interesting man with a lot of interesting things to intuit and submit about sexual entropy and the approaching pit. The trouble, once again, is that, despite various scenarios, anecdotes, and fantasies, the tape is stuck in a recurring loop.

Dying A Little owes its impetus from the author’s friend, Cathy Stanley, who died at 50 from breast cancer. Dempster uses this as a launching pad for similar meditations on mortality – his, his father’s, friends, the general ruck of humankind. His recent Blue Wherever similarly uses his father’s death to include others, but in both books Dempster spends as much or more time on lamenting nature’s plan as it plays out in him than on anyone else. When at his best, Dempster leavens the mortal forboding with deliciously dark humour, as in “Headline: Dying Without A Will Can Be Devastating”, where “[h]e thinks of leaving his fingers/to the secretarial pool, his eyes/to the back of  someone’s previously/unimportant head.” The final four lines, not recorded here, increase the surprise with more humour, but this time wedded to a painfully bleak and universal human predilection. Stunning stuff, and I could read this kind of confessional bite for hours. But – again, blame in on entropy, if you want – we only have so many bullets in our chambers. After a terrific opening in which six of the first seven poems are various and exciting, realized and dramatically gripping, the poems tend to blend one with another into a kind of self-pitying soup. The indignities of aging, the meaninglessness of going on, unbreachable sexual and emotional understanding between those in a relationship, the rush to get on with our lives while ignoring those around us: all of these concerns are universal, certainly, and rendered in honest and sometimes imaginative ways, but repetition in theme and mood takes over, and the crafted delights turn labourious, even strained. In “Bonfire”, “[t]he neighbours are burning again tonight,”, an unfortunate syntactic choice (“heaps of what used to be a tree” in the next line doesn’t erase the unintentional laugh). Later in the same poem, “[n]ight sweating,/cinders trickling down columns of //darkness” is an overblown reaction to a (usually) festive communal activity. If Dempster would get out of his own head and emotions occasionally, and use his formidable intelligence to fashion an emotional line incorporating others’ perspectives, the bulk of his efforts wouldn’t pile up in “nothing/but a ring of blackened stones”, but in a fascinating mix of oppositional ideas, or even complementary though off-key comparisons.

Dempster is becoming another John B. Lee of Canadian poetry: a talented maker of poems who might leave behind (in optimistic irony to his poetic persona) a lasting impact but for the heaps of wet branches tossed every few minutes onto a furious base fire. It’s more frustrating because, unlike Lee, Dempster actually has the severity and restraint to sustain his best poems from the first to last word.

Patrick Friesen's jumping in the asylum

After reading Patrick Friesen's mawkish 1999 "carrying the shadow" (blogged a few years back), I hesitated to pick up anything by him for quite a while. After a few chance readings of several of his newer poems from two journals -- poems markedly improved in severity and rigour -- I decided to pick up his 2011 offering, “jumping in the asylum”. George Amabile, in the back cover promo, calls these poems “jazz improvisations”. It’s a good descriptor. Friesen has forsaken the clipped yet flabby line in favour of unpunctuated shifts between remembered image, commentary, and philosophical questioning. At their best, lines create a near-seamless engagement with unexpected turns of thought, past and present impressions achieving a liquid curve by a quick neural flip to another line, or phrase within a line. But Friesen can also stay with moments and ride them so that sensations aren’t a showy noodling, a splash of disengaged elements the reader is left to puzzle over, and it's a good challenge to a current suspicion of the benefit of integration in a post-post world. As such, “anna and rose” sets the memory in a haunting, charming this-happened-even though-no-one-remembers elegy: “those who crossed this field the horse that stood in the/shade and rubbed its hide against the bark/anna holding generations in her lap singing her childish/songs before she put away her stuffed lamb”. The next stanza pulls back to observe the observer and what happened: “sunday there was nothing all day but time and green stains/and the breathless bride on the steps”.

Hard to get away with “time” and “beauty” and “death” repeatedly, though. Not that Friesen overwrites as much as he frequently wants to step back from the image to explore meaning, though his open-ended manoevres are usually less than enlightening. Just one example, from “room 205”, where “gazing at the sandstone shine/of st. mary’s in late light/bags of rain hanging over the steeple and caught in some/contradiction of time//somewhere in the city you made a voice somewhere in the/blinding snow”. Vague rambling isn’t laudable open-mindedness. The preceding image is obliterated, and any inferred or implied meaning from that image is lost with it, as well. That brings up one danger of  run-on, free-form lines: rhythm needs to be strong and various, challenging yet pleasing. Friesen frequently pulls it off, but like an accomplished soloist trying to trade riffs with Coltrane, quite a few transitions are also less than fluid, sometimes awkward --  “it is the shaking day call it that the day when all you/ever knew is shaken into what you know”.

The other danger of the improvisatory approach Friesen has taken up in “jumping in the asylum” is apparent in the gathering sameness of style and effect. Sticking with the jazz comparisons, Lee Morgan could create a sinuous, complex, tasty long line on his trumpet, but he could also slow it down and soften it with a sustained, subtly lilting exhalation or a slow and staccato pattern. Friesen’s like the energetic listener who hears a breathless solo and can’t wait to get on his instrument and play his own version (or new creation) without pause through the night and into the next day. The poems rarely reach the second page, but it’s the tempo and emotional effect that matters here, not each poem’s length. Though the style is repetitive, kudos to Friesen for twinning melancholy and swift association. Can’t say I’ve encountered that combo in quite this way before.

I look forward to Friesen’s next release, and because of this volume, I look for any book or more of his I’ve missed in the last few years.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Mona Fertig’s The Unsettled

The quintessential West Coast poem has the author-narrator reclining on a bamboo rocker while gazing across the Juan de Fuca Strait’s expanse, haze or fog acting as all-purpose counterpoint to the setting sun. As a representative image in The Unsettled, Mona Fertig’s 2010 collection of poetry, it’s unfair to link it so. But as metaphor for vague longing or disturbance vs spiritual satisfaction (if not realization), it’s an apt image throughout the book. Then again, there’s “Quiet lights thread along a distant road across the bay” from a poem in the middle movement.

Fertig’s loosely-linked diary ruminations accrue in five sections. The opening series of poems depict a personal journey to, in, and from Mackie House, a heritage home that seeks out and accepts artist-visitors for overnight (and longer) stays. Her trip links the House’s more lurid histories – suicides, hauntings – with a personal fear of the unknown. It’s a fantastic idea for an extended suite, but Fertig drops the ball. The hauntings are a tease, the personal demons unexpressed and undifferentiated (a mother bear and her cubs appear several times like dazed refugees from an overpopulated Yosemite). Stupefying cliches follow in their wake: “[B]lack as night”, “dim light is still depressing”. After another desultory patch, the break between subsection 18 and 19 (out of 22) clumsily splices the scene into “After two weeks in residence/it is time to leave.” Three lines later, “I am glad to be back on Salt Spring.” And in the longer final subsection, “Chief-White-Buffalo-Man-Many-Feathers/from the Okanagan Nation” gives the House emergency cleansing. Would that the reader was so fortunate. Fertig’s final lines: “I try to settle on words for this journey./But find only/mystery and relief.” And here we have it. The journey has nothing for the reader. It’s a poet (any person, really) talking out loud to any stranger who’ll listen. The connection, the concern, is a closed circuit. I would have loved to have found out something about those ghosts (which would have been real mystery), and about the other people living in the area, the wildlife surrounding it, and a fearless self-appraisal in relation to it all. Don’t blame me for setting the bar so high. The structure of the series invited it. Fertig’s real relief: the Chief was able to eradicate three lingering negative spirits that followed her back to Salt Spring. So much for living with ghosts.

Sections two and three are ostensibly a clear shift – the narrator follows, somewhat uneasily, a young homeless girl as she tries to survive outdoors in the mild climate that attracts other uprooted souls from the harsher environs of Canada. But again, Fertig’s investigations only serve to show she’s sensitive. Barebones, obvious rhetorical ponderings punctuate the poems here: “Where will your spirit wander then?”  At this point, the curious reader may be forgiven for wondering what’s up with all the italics. Has my computer been taken over by a random insurgent text from unquiet ghosts upset by the last paragraph? Alas, it’s both much simpler and more puzzling than that. For whatever reason, Fertig seems to believe that emphasizing certain phrases baptizes them with a kind of permanent poetic dew, encasing the chosen words in a fixed freshness and profundity.

Section four is a rather superior admonishment to a wayward husband. The connection couldn’t be more unconvincing. The viewpoint shifts after several poems from third- to second-person. The suffering wife, in a poem entitled “Tsunami”, undergoes “the tidal wave of grief”. Proportion? Why tamp down an emotion sure to gain its rightful share of sympathetic readers? And poor hubby. I’m not implying anything, understand. (And the relationship could be purely fictitious. Who knows?) But with unsolicited, unimaginative, high- and heavy-handed advice like “Look at the ocean and the stars./See the power in the wide oak”, I’m guessing his scary and desperate boat trip to the great beyond was a last, unsuccessful attempt to get away from “a goddess” who “still fits you like a glove”.

The last section is supposedly a paean to Salt Spring Island itself. Local history was incorporated in a clumsy and distracted fashion. There were some decent attempts to contrast the older boomers with their more restless offspring or with recent transients, but the images didn’t leave much of a residue, and for a 5 1/2 page closer, with its ambitious fifteen-repeater “This is Paradise,”  kicking off each verse paragraph, there was too little euphoria and too much flotsam.

The Unsettled is Fertig’s thirteenth book of poetry, the last five arriving via her (and her husband’s) own press.