Sunday, August 24, 2008

rob mclennan; John B Lee; Martin Espada

Accuracy is one of the many qualities which, when nailed, makes poetry the highest form of word art. From accuracy comes clarity. And only with clarity comes communication.

The postmodernist stance not only doubts the possibility of clarity, but despises it, calling its virtue a useless anachronism at best, and a lying egotistical habit at worst.

rob mclennan has fun with words. I envy him his blithe composition. How does his verse translate to the listener? In our hypersubjective world, all we can do is "try to understand what the author is saying from his or her own perspective" to quote the frequent mantra from the "anything goes" crowd. Anything is valid. Or is it? And what is being said?

trickles down

mistaken array
of stars

& giants made,

w/heat marks,

(from " 'discipline as famous' " in Aubade.)

I can't do anything with that, not as enjoyment or understanding. (And I'm not singling this out inappropriately. This is one pea in a whale pod.) It might have significance to mclennan, but it's lost on me. But it's a win/win situation for the "language as relative experience" crowd. If you get it, you're an important initiate; if you don't get it, then "get with the program, man". It's the listeners' fault, then, for not being sensitive enough to forego "ego" and freefloat with the words. And what an attractive formula that is. Responsibility is permanently sidestepped.

I can't find a context in many, if any, of these verselets. Call me "square", "narrow-minded", or pick another epithet, but poetry, to me and a few others, is grounded (even when airborne) in reality or convincing imagination.

And I'm a sucker for tone in poetry. If I find the tone passionate, engaging, or at the least honest and unique in some way, I'm likely to overlook (though not necessarily forgive) many other transgressions. Tone and voice hook me. I can't find any recognizable human tone in these offerings (Aubade and bagne). Most read like they were threshed through a processor with malfunctioning syntactical tics.

But, relatively speaking, we live in a relative world, and I trust and know that others than a few sympathetic relatives must enjoy and "get" it.


I'd read a few scattered efforts by John B. Lee before, mostly in online zines and lit journals, and wasn't much impressed. He's churned out many books, though, so I thought I'd pick one at random -- (The Pig Dance Dreams) -- and root around for nuggets.

I was pleasantly surprised. Thematic consistency isn't easy in a book of poetry clocking in at 95 pages, and Lee succeeds, with experienced images and with a surprising mix of historical and imaginative material.

"The Connection" is my favourite poem, a recollection of horror not yet impinging upon the innocence of a boy: "We hang the hog from a lynching tree/for being what he is/ .... "and cannot manage the connection/...."

Images are crisp, and are not afraid, akin the pig, of getting dirty: "her young already glutted/flung like wineskins in the heatlamp". That last simile works, but it's unfortunate that Lee chooses to use the as/like comparisons in runaway glee. Many others are not only distracting by their puzzling connection ("while each corn stalk shook its tambourine/like a narrow-hipped girl/learning the tune of summer."), but weaken the image, which standing alone would be much more powerful. I use the intensifiers in irony; the only explanation I can see for their rampant lushness is that Lee perhaps isn't quite confident with letting the images work as is. Pity.

I'll be picking up more from Mr. Lee (John, not Dennis, but that's another story for another time).


American poet Martin Espada's City Of Coughing And Dead Radiators combines Latin American underground history with contemporary, personal New York street life. He reminds me by contrast, because of subject matter, of so many poets who fail to transcend racial roles and stereotyping, victim-identification and a complacency to continue in that role. Espada challenges circumstance, and though at times he elevates his (but mostly others') experiences into hard-fought victories, those experiences are believeable. From "Day of the Dead on Wortman Avenue": "Halloween in Brooklyn/ .... bedsheet ghosts pounded doors/that opened on a leash of chain,/then banged shut to shield hermits/with white hair and burglarized faces,/stunned at night by the slapped-mouth madrigal/...."

There are too many other gripping lines and scenes which work from beginning to end (lyricism welded to narrative), but I'm typed out for the day. Off to Vancouver till Monday night.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Patrick Friesen's "Carrying The Shadow"

Patrick Friesen's verse in his 1999 carrying the shadow reminds me of Hilles' Nothing Vanishes. The latter declaration is false in both books. I've had an easier time with lines being etched into my brain and spirit by cliched sportscasters than by the efforts of these two gentlemen.

Friesen's poems, in this collection, are maudlin. But why put them down with one withering adjective? Here's the text. Make up your own mind. (These are all poem endings, and mark a frequent compositional ploy -- wringing tears and steaming hearts -- in verse which bases its entire projected appeal on a reader having a hanky and a bucket nearby.)

"ask the lilac
where beauty is
ask the willow
for its tears"

"already I remember
and the world dies
a little more"

"each stone here
on this ground
the astonishing centre
of forever"

"there is room
for you
in heaven"

"nothing to say
but the words
struggling to be true"

"the door's open
there's light
for your feet
I'm ready
for you
at last"

"I look both ways
down the dark hallway
so familiar so strange
the sigh of a breath
and the stars in my eyes
flicker from far
as I turn
in the doorway"

"mulling my way
toward heaven"

"my fingers delving
into hidden places
feeling the loneliness
and the secrets there
it's in my hands
the stone's relief
how light fingers
the words"

"we wipe our eyes
and tug back
the umbilical
never goes slack"

"and the sun boils down"

"when it's still
you can hear it
scratching at the door"

"what we adore and kiss
beneath the snow"

"how my ear hears
a trifle differently
the same words
and so wants more or less


"gasping at the beauty of the sudden fall
arriving then arriving arriving"

"and I'm here for its skin
for its breath and cry
learning the ecstasy
of its solitude"

"I want to sit with you
I want to stroke your hair"

"a last look
into my children's eyes
and the hand oh god
of my beloved"

Again, these are the endings to eighteen different poems. After you've read the first three or four, do you think you'd get a premonition, even a knowing, of that great tearcloud in the sky positioning itself over your head for all the rest of them?

I've heard it said that there's a change in young people's reading choices these days. Books are often rejected if a major persona (in a poem) or character (in a short story or novel) is unsympathetic. If this is so, it means that heavy-handed, fuzzy moral prescriptions are more important than negotiating honestly the complex, difficult, and often troubling reality we live in. In other words, art is replacing religion as the soother of jangled nerves in our problematic world. Matthew Arnold's dream, then, is coming true, but not in a humanistic sense, but in a sentimental (and therefore false) one. Of course, it just seems to be poetry that's affected and infected; the short story and novel still have lots of punch and pepper and fire and believeability and sensuousness and anger and bluffness in them. I should also exempt the poetry from many other nations. (I've been reading some exciting contemporary American poetry lately, and I'll give some brief reviews of it down the pike.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Robert Hilles' "Nothing Vanishes"

Robert Hilles won the GovGen Award for poetry for his 1994 collection, Cantos from a Small Room. I can only gather that Nothing Vanishes, four books (and only two years) later, was perhaps inspired (in title) by a desire to keep his name in circulation. That, and the post-plaudit-party enthusiasm.

The book is awful.

Page after page contains the same morass of anecdotal filler. At least there's no pretension towards egregious profundity, but that didn't stop book-blurbers from seeing profundity in its (so Canadian) "small intimac[ies]" (Lorna Crozier).

The popularity (if any such exists) of this type (and it is a type) of poetry collection stems from its sentimentality, its compassion, its unpresumptuous daily recounting of life's little joys and sorrows. Of course the critic who points this out is criticized as a "curmudgeon", a "sourpuss", and the like. Hilles seems like a decent, nice guy, but that means absolutely zero when valueing poetry (or at least it should). But in Canada we've turned unassuming morals into a backscratching industry. It's the feel-good train gathering steam. "Hey, what's wrong?! It gave me a warm feeling."

Well, let's examine the poetry a little. (By the way, the Canadian "nice": what does that mean? Gentle, self-deprecating, secretly more than a little smug, quiet, dependable, "getting along", and above all, inflating the background into an "important and spiritual" foreground.)

Gentleness. That's the monotone in Nothing Vanishes. There is absolutely no variation in the poetic narration. A considered and open reminiscence. There's nothing wrong with that voice, but is it churlish to ask for a hint of variation in a book running at 35 poems in 95 pages? After the first five or so efforts, I found the tone of quiet engagement changing my own mood from slightly sympathetic to irritating, and finally to a humorous flip of its gathering and unaware narrative self-parody. Examples fill the book; I'll quote at random:

"We get younger
and do not ask questions
believe the contrary
and let the sun explain
what it can each day."

--from "We Get Younger"


"Mushrooms line the table
and she cuts through some
and washes others and she
offers me one and I look at it
for awhile and then
put it in my mouth,

--from "Nothing Vanishes"


"You play monopoly with the children
and I fold the clothes
you just finished washing."

--from "Invisible World"


Verse like this often gets criticized for being flat and boring, undifferentiated from unfiltered speech. But this is actually doing a disservice to unfiltered speech. What would our reactions be (and I have no fear of using a collective "our" in this instance) if we heard these same monotonous outpourings from a neighbour or acquaintance or stranger? Speaking as one numbed listener, my mind would wander, though, ironically, in this volume, I concentrated through to the back, possibly out of a hoped-for belief that there'd be a perverse twist at the end which would put the earlier text into comic, or at least ambiguous, relief. But no such luck. The tome's finale ends with "So when I touch you or come to you/with a flower in my mouth,/think of smallness." (from "Smallness").

Verbal surprise, the dramatic juxtapositon of words and sounds within a line, fine-tuned diction, an unorthodox metaphorical statement, emotional spontaneity and variation, organic shaping relating to content and/or meaning, the crafting of vertically charged internal feet, rhythmic variation which match different moods (oops, no variation of moods to base it upon): any and all of it is absent in Hilles' work, at least in this particular volume.

But of course I'm being unfair. The author seems like a nice man with nice thoughts. And that's all that seems to matter.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Essays on Faulkner's "Light In August"

I just finished reading a collection of critical essays on William Faulkner's Light In August. It's still my favourite novel. Some scattered comments on a few points from a plethora of authors.

The essayistic lynchpin is probably Cleanth Brooks' "The Community and the Pariah" which posits a contrast of outcast vs community norms. Brooks' critical approach is one I'm partial to: a subjective one that sets up its own contrasting views to ones overlooked or dismissed by a previous consensus, challenging that consensus, and doing so with conviction. And his argument itself is interesting.

I had read several essays previously on Faulkner's seventh novel, but hadn't encountered this line of reasoning before. Brooks argues for a Faulknerian support of community standards, which at first glance shocked me. How could the author -- who allowed the entire town to part like the Red Sea for the chillingly prophetic Storm Trooper creation (the book was published in 1932) of Percy Grimm -- side with communal solidarity over individual rights and creativity, flexibility? But as I thought more about the examples from the text itself -- the Armstids' unquestioning generosity towards Lena; the sheriff's bending of the rules in allowing Lena a space to give birth; the townspeople's setting of food baskets at the disgraced Hightower's doorstep -- it brought to mind the complexity of Faulkner's characters, and of his thought. Even though the town becomes inflamed in their collective pursuit of Joe Christmas, it's Grimm's unequivocal, evil, machinelike energy that spurs them on. The crowd is seen as weak rather than evil, weak because of the all-too-common human failing of unquestioning adherence to belief systems (Calvinism and racial stereotyping, in the novel) and which acts not out of passivity, but out of reflex.

Ironically, the most harmonious character in Light in August is the unthinking yet accepting and positive Lena. She, like the deathward Hightower, Burden, and Christmas, is an outsider, but her aura (ha, I can use that word since Faulkner uses "lambent" and "luminous") is one of transparent goodness. It's her contrasting affect that brings out the corresponding goodness in the community, just as Hines' and MacEachern's destructive rigidities affect Christmas, which in turn affect many other people. The community may be the necessary "anchor", but they await transformation by individuals, for good or evil. Lena or Grimm.

And I feel there's also a support, a metaliterature one here, for the seminal influence of individual creativity over the stagnations and complacencies of the community. Brooks looks at the obverse of communal morals, but I wish he fleshed it out a bit more.

And then we have the hysterics (if an academic essay can be imagined as hysterical in tone) of Leslie A. Fiedler. I assumed, after reading the essay, that the author was a (pre) deconstructionist feminist female, since it jumps through all the simplistic Faulkner-bashing hoops of "misogynist", "disrespectful", and the like. (The note at back lets us know Fiedler is a man.) You have to hand it to him. He helped engender an industry. I'll just respond to a few quotes of his:

"Not content with merely projecting images of the anti-virgin, he insists upon editorializing against the woman he travesties in character and situation." -- Leslie Fielding

Ah, no. As I like to retort to people who accuse Irving Layton of being a misogynist: he was a misanthrope. An equal-opportunity "hater". Isn't this, ironically, what feminism is all about: levelling the playing field? (Satirical mode is on for the benefit of the terminally obtuse.)

Faulkner depicts specific women as predatory, promiscuous, hysterical, pale, sexless, corrupted ..... because many women ARE. The argument is then made: "well, why doesn't he equal things out more by depicting a wholesome woman?" Three answers: he does (Lena in Light In August, just to take the most prominent example in the book under study); secondly, the narrator's voice isn't necessarily his (and his characters certainly don't all adhere to his views); but more importantly, it isn't the duty of an author to weigh, in a fussy nod to political correctness, the good with the bad in equal measure. Faulkner wrote about human failings. His men, collectively, are damned far more than are his women characters. And his minor characters are filled with goodness, too many to list here, and many of them are strong, no-nonsense women, filled with compassion and wisdom. But to rework the phrase of Tolstoy: normal people (women, in this case) don't have stories. Or, to rework it further, happy people don't make for great fiction, since (with them) there's a lack of drama, conflict, resolution, striking spiritual development or regression, and self-realization.

"He reminds us (again and again!) that men are helpless in the hands of their mothers, wives, and sisters." -- Leslie Fielding

And the point is .....? This would confer upon women a power which Fielding doesn't grant to Faulkner's depiction of them. Rather, the above is a condemnation on the weaknesses of some or many MEN. (Faulkner, like Shakespeare, particularizes and never generalizes, but you can't build a reputation in university circles without a thematic angle.)

"[Faulkner's women] are unforgiving and without charity to other members of their own sex." --Leslie Fielding

Nonsense. One wonders how closely he's read Faulkner's novels. There are numerous examples to the contrary in Light In August. Even in Sanctuary, Faulkner's darkest novel, and one which particularly incenses Fielding, many women are shown helping, through no direct expectation of reciprocal benefit, other women, including the understandably undeserving Temple Drake.

No time to write more fully about Hightower, Bunch, Burch, Burden, Christmas, Grimm, Grove and others. So many individual scenes of remarkable depth and complexity in Light In August.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

From The "Stranger Than Fiction" File

From Del Mar turf correspondent Brad Free: "who would have thought that a horse named Richly Endowed would ever be gelded?"

Susan McCaslin's "At The Mercy Seat"

You can make a good case for poetry being "difficult" or "complex" to assess: metaphoric aptness and accuracy; imagistic surprise; emotional layering; musical patterning; allusions. And on and on ....

Elementally, though, poetry is individual words, one after the other. It's easy to assess and categorize words. Whereas Patricia Young's "More Watery Still" is filled with concrete nouns ("huckleberries", "pipe", "knapsack", "butterflies"), Susan McCaslin's At The Mercy Seat is bogged down in abstract nouns and intransitive verbs ("mood", "listening", "intends", "thought", "strictures", "will", "become", "nobody", "speech", "silence", "world", "try", all from the volume's one page opener: "White Meditation").

It seems to be par for the course that poetry beclouded in abstractions tends to go in for soft moralising. This book is no exception, and the above-mentioned poem ends with the expected mild lozenge: "When the world speaks/try not to get in the way."

Of course, abstractions are often necessary. It's the degree and appropriateness that matter. A poem saturated in concrete detail can be very affecting with a distancing overview, sometimes ambivalent to what's just been experienced by the writer and reader (I'm thinking of some of Ken Babstock's fine philosophical conclusions or suggestions which come out of the experience, rather than being pasted on to a previous bromide).

Not surprisingly, McCaslin's best efforts avoid the unsensed word choices. "Fistfalls of Dark in the Suburbs" has a lyrical quality lacking in much of the rest of the book; I could experience its content AND rhythm, and though the "your" addressee was still a bit simplistic, the mood and emotion at least flowed, with conviction, from the event, not the disembodied lecture.