Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ken Babstock's Days Into Flatspin

What a breath of fresh air!

I read Babstock's Mean a while back, and was thrilled with its authorial confidence, vigour, and lyricism. It's a feast of sound. A bold syntactical shaping of the tricks that time plays to our subjective confusion.

Wanting to savour the mood of that first offering, I delayed in reading the follow-up, Days Of Flatspin. Just having read and reread, many times, this latter effort, I feel it's a mixed bag, and definitely below par when contrasted with Mean, but that still puts it on a much higher plane than most other contemporary Canadian poetry tomes, whether a first collection or a fifteenth.

There are many highlight pieces in the first half of Days Into Flatspin , but "Regenerative" is perhaps my favourite:

Highly suggestive, circling back through imagination from the brutally stitched witnessed opening of the dog's wound, and rendering an eerie yet plausible history of the dog's fate, the language is gorgeous and precise, filtered through a tight lens to capture a quick event with astonished non-judgement.

Several other poems attain a similarly vivid impression, blending harsh image with a kind of sliding internal "inscape", to use Gerard Manley Hopkins' term for tattooed imagination linking the real with the ephemeral and lyrical. Also similar to Hopkins' achievement (in kind, if not degree) is Babstock's simultaneous internalizing of concentrated experience, both brief and simultaneous, from which a larger realization can either be epiphanic or fearful, depending on the specific fast-flowing presence of the speaker. This is complex in both experience and art, and that Babstock even dares to attempt it is bold; that he succeeds -- to the latter detail -- in any degree is a measure of his poetic worth.

I felt the last half of the book dragged. The precious "we", which I always cringe at, and which is unfortunately rampant in modern Canadian poetry, crops up in a number of poems. This presumptive choice of pronoun attempts to both link disparate and individual experiences into a pseudo-spiritual elevation, and it (in my mind) attempts an even greater transgression: that of pandering to the reader's better nature through subtle didactic concinnity.

The third-to-last poem in the collection, "To See It For What It Isn't Until We Have To Go" is a kind of obverse Wallace Stevens poem: the experience failing to translate to the bliss of transformative imagination. One of the many strengths of Babstock is the overwhelming strong passages of "show me, don't tell me", but here as well as in several of the back-end poems we have a creeping philosophizing, not patronizing, but annoying all the same. And the language suffers for it, as it usually does when abstractions reign: "....So, habit seeded by hours soaked/in indirection, ennui, when seeing meant//seeing an object recede, like a thing one loved/that couldn't love back or even mimic the act/of attention, and so to draw it near//....".

The poem's last stanza runs: "Do we get a little precious about it? Yes, and why/not, if we fail to inflate the love in order to take/in more, we're left with what it was." No, Ken, if you (not "we") fail to inflate a love, or a desired object, it means you won't agonize as much from idealized and unrealized desire. What goes up comes down. "Left with what it was" is its own deep love and realization, always unfolding.

One area where this second Babstock collection outshines the first is in its more varied mood and voice: the grim or athletic intensity gives way at times to a calm acceptance, a stance from different living things and even inanimate objects (the delightful "The 7-Eleven Formerly Known as Rx"), playfulness, and occasional distancing, which contrasts more effectively (at times), by zooming in and out, with the living quickness of the moment as well as its overarching effect or import.

I'm looking forward to reading his "Airstream Land Yacht" next.

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