Friday, February 15, 2019

Dan MacIsaac's Cries From the Ark


It’s been estimated by some environmental scientists that, each day, about a hundred species of bird, beast, or insect vanishes from this globe of water, dirt, and asphalt. Of course, we don’t know the exact amount since most endangered species aren’t headline news like the Malayan tiger or ivory-billed woodpecker. Rather, most species are microscopic, tucked away (e.g.) in Amazonian jungles, unknown to us, and are indispensable for the survival of many other creatures since they start the feeding chain. Scientists have been urgently trying to find and classify those species before they’re gone, so that at least we know what we’ve missed, as this will at least shed light on the interconnectedness of ecosystems in those areas. It speaks to the dire predicament we’ve found ourselves in when a concession of extinction is made even before finding those species.

Dan MacIsaac’s inaugural poetry collection, Cries From the Ark, celebrates and elegizes the eponymous critters, and, with that as a base, speculates on past life forms, and how they came to extinction, whether through human or natural challenge. The book is divided into six sections: animals; Biblical personnae; birds; anthropological digs and myths; insects; and anthropology updated.

MacIsaac’s concentration on many members of Noah’s roll call is a welcome reprieve from the environmental grandstanding or abstraction that hampers a particular subset of advocacy verse. Some of the animals the author depicts are in a peculiar bind: their numbers and habitat aren’t at the tipping point (yet), so they haven’t gained sensationalistic press, but neither are they home and clear from current and various stewardship malpractices. The British Columbia Kermode bear is one such animal. Here’s MacIsaac’s “Spirit Bear”, in full (sub-heading: Ursus americanus kermodei):

At the river’s black mouth,
the white bear waits
for the swimmer.

He crashes into shallows,
seizing the quick fish,

glisten of silver
along cinder lips.

A cedar twig
cracks.

He lunges
for the far shore
murky with hemlock.

He vanishes –
froth spattered
on dark rock.


This is near perfect in its execution and vibrancy of images, and captures the grace, patience, strength, and ferocity of the bear with close observation, neither overstating the event nor interposing distracting, subjective layers. One such poem is worth a thousand hand-wringing self-regarding prosy salvos.

Elswwhere, the author accomplishes a wider perspective than the recording of events. In “Dandelions”, “my child, grown older,//will blow parachutes/of spun seed/over alien country.” A humble – even clich├ęd – ritual becomes sexual necessity, and the poem ends with, “love seems most/like the lion’s tooth.”

Consistently on display is an ear attuned to both appropriate rhythm and sound patterns. MacIsaac’s go-to notes are paired assonants, which emphasize importance of theme, and they often link to similar sounds in later stanzas. Internal rhymes also figure, and have a similar effect: “From a deep cirque of thorns,/the tribesmen goad the herd”.

Humour is sparse, but natural. The opening of “Red Pileated Woodpecker” is illustrative: “Headbanger,/mohawked,//with a buzz-saw/guffaw,//flaps over/the mosh pit”. But humour gives ground to the author’s sober insistence that what we call ‘nature’, or ‘the environment’, is not some cute concept to be proselytized in sentimental urgency, but a dynamic force, frightening in its potency, and often, like the “Bison: Wallowing”, “sweating out ticks/from its soiled hide/into the suety ooze.”

Friday, February 8, 2019

Dani Couture's Listen Before Transmit


Dani Couture’s latest volume of poetry, Listen Before Transmit, obsesses and moves over time shifts between present and future, by way of spatial relations. The present is personal, the future is abstracted. Both are dire. It could be labeled pre-apocalyptic lit. Teasing out those shifts could have been a fascinating exercise, yielding many insights, but the speculations would have to have been grounded in a convincing present reality. This is a problem throughout the collection. Too often that present isn’t a developed panoply of imminent environmental disasters, but a focus on the doomed individuals: death by accident (“It was/a black spot on their left shin after having/mown the lawn. During an eclipse,//they looked at the sun without their/daughter’s pinhole camera.”, from “Black Sea Nettle”), vague suggestions of mass capture and, perhaps, deportation (“The helicopter nears. Tonight, even the air is filled with bodies.”, from “Another Earth”), female subjugation and overcoming (“Jet propulsion will eventually erupt/and cause a break between her legs, at which point she will take off.”, from “Pioneer 14”).

Another problem is tonal choice. The most effective registers for apocalyptic speculation, near or long term, are solemn and scarily plausible or angry and accusatory. The voice, here, is distanced, cool, at times even ironic. Cool then becomes cold, and the inevitable fall-out leads to pretentious lines like, “The electric lever of passive care plasma fuels/or sometimes doesn’t” (from “A Casual Defence”), or “T minus the time it takes you to forget/your intention” (from “Minus Time”), or “An issue with constant values/and constant invalidation of facts.” (from “Flyby”).

Mary Dalton’s blurb recognizes the “uncertainty, estrangement and disconnection”, but also comments on “a countermusic in the book that strengthens the hold these poems gain over the reader”. I didn’t hear it. Similar to the failure of Dennis Lee’s Yesno, the author might listen, but fails to transmit any joy in the present world that should serve as the bedrock for the rage or grief that would necessarily follow from ‘the end of the world as we know it’. The collection’s closer, “Transit of Mercury”, ends with, “So when I say I miss you,//it’s not to you, but through to the palm trees/on the throw pillow that are not actual palms.//But I enjoy the idea of their shade/when the sun hits them right.” The only enjoyment is in “the idea”, which perhaps accounts for the joyless and dull phrase, “when the sun hits them right”.

In Listen Before Transmit, Couture has bitten off far more than she can chew. It’s more convincing as a personal fear of death than as a speculative take on different apocalyptic scenarios.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Jeramy Dodds' Drakkar Noir

Who doesn’t enjoy entering a funhouse of mirrors at a county fair or city exhibition? You pay your five-spot (or get discount tickets), glance at yourself in the convex madness for a few minutes, and exit back into the brilliant sun or tragic snow.

Now imagine yourself as you open the pages to Jeramy Dodds’ latest poetry collection, Drakkar Noir. You chuckle a few times during the madcap shifts and distorted riffs, but you can’t exit, not if you want the whole experience. So you read the rest of the book, and the relentless one-note antics turn from humourous to annoying to numbing.

You’re led to believe the intention is to “bravely chas[e] after the new gods of our post-electric reality” which will reveal “the truth about what the hell is happening to us” (from Robert Montgomery), yet as soon as the carnival packs up, the contorted images disappear, and are remembered, if remembered at all, as adolescent jackanapes after a bender on chloroform.

Dodds isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to yoke comic absurdity with the whole nine yards of the contemporary information freeway. And he offers the add-ons of wordplay: homonyms, double entendres, rhyme replacements mid-phrase, arcane pairings. But a funhouse doesn’t refer to what’s outside of it, to “what the hell is happening to us”, it refers only to itself, and is giddy with what it sees, precisely because it ain’t real. Or of any import. Here’re a few examples:

“After a brief period of mourning, it was afternoon./This mirror is selfie-proof”.

“My daughter starts dating a dwarf./They attend a Bergman retrospective;/she gets home after midnight, every night./My child is nine” ... “He was wearing one of my shirts, taken in:/ ‘Time Traveller Caught with Miner,’ ” ... “ ‘Will you be heading to the beheading?’ ”

And so on.

Stay for the first few punch lines. Then cut your losses and get out.