Monday, October 20, 2008

Ken Babstock's "Airstream Land Yacht"

Ken Babstock's third collection of poetry, Airstream Land Yacht, (2006), opens the scope of his concerns while also plumbing those obsessions for more depth. Whereas Mean was a wonderful, visceral first volume, Days Into Flatspin heralded a stark change at the halfway mark towards a self-aware, objective commentary on what would have remained experiential, rapid present-moment takes. I don't think that second half works (for reasons I've tersely touched on in an earlier blog post), but it promises to be the start of what may continue to be an important development in Babstock's procedure, the intermarrying of stark, powerful observation with a considered intellectual grappling with "what it means" (to use --sometimes unavoidable, as here-- a precious and facile phrase).

Airstream Land Yacht succeeds wildly on both counts, sacrificing little of the immediacy of his observations and emotional states when unsentimentally circling their flowering mental irresolutions, and sacrificing little of philosophical depth when outlining: "Paint cans with gummed lids,/ buckled, and shut like bad clams" from the poem "The Largest Island Off the Largest Island".

I love this book on so many levels. Babstock's musical joy, always apt to his subjects, hasn't diminished, and in fact is more impressive since he's upped the ante with the taking on of layered meaning and stylistic breadth. It's obvious that his is an active and curious mind, poetically searching, experimental in the best sense of that word, and I'm excited to see what he does next.

Friday, October 17, 2008

John Steffler's "Helix"

It took me quite a while to warm up to John Steffler's poems in his selected Helix (2002). The pruned remains of Wreckage Of Play I found unremarkable musically, and often too cutesy in tone ("Us Plumbers"; "My Latest Invention"; "The Glass House").

The middle section, the prose segments from The Grey Islands certainly lived up to its moniker: I found this particularly hard slogging, the hermetic diaristic somber distancing making me incurious about the stories of its inhabitants.

Things picked up spectacularly with the selections from Steffler's later volume, That Night We Were Ravenous. "The Sea Gangs In --" has some lovely sonorities: "buttered with morning light, throwing its lace hem at your bachelor's boots", among others, a delight to read -- and a bold adventure -- with the inevitable comparisons to a poetic imagistic subject already rife with canonical high points.

The closing selections from New Poems are likewise accomplished, showing a maturity, a confidence of tone as exemplified by "Sour Fire" with its closing surprising irony: "This man squatting alone by a sour fire,/ bitten by flies,/ telling himself he's getting close to the truth, / is not me."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fraser Sutherland's "The Matuschka Case"

After reading Fraser Sutherland's preface to these selected poems ("The Matuschka Case") wherein "the poems represent the core of my poetic preoccupations over several decades", I was more than a little disappointed to enter the first and eponymous entry. It is very prosy, a news tidbit actually, with a bizarre other-life-manifesto as the last-line payoff (unless I'm completely off-base, and that last line is ironic). Even as prose, it's clumsy in segments, particularly: "it seems to me,/is not the sexual satisfaction part of it".

Imagine my surprise, then, when I continued and found delight after delight. Sutherland is a man after my own heart, someone who not only eschews the single theme, but who is more or less equally adept at the difficult achievement regarding various emotional and intellectual content.

There are too many poems to illustrate these differences in a short review, but a few are worth mentioning:

It's a bold choice to write a poem about the great German lyricist Georg Trakl ("Georg Trakl Visits Chaffey's Locks, Ontario, One Day In Fall"), with its inevitable attraction of comparison and contrast, but Sutherland's own effort is a delightful tribute ("in the goldrip maples sundered angels,/ their leaves bleeding bread./ Stripped trunks were purifying agony,/agonizing purity.")

Another bold poem is styled as a repugnant first-person sadist, ("Phoning"), a particularly welcome addition in contemporary poetry, where many authors (first-person or not) beseechingly attempt to convince us of their spiritual attunement. And the tone of conversational ease is perfect in affecting the contrasting horror.

Too dark? Sutherland can shift gears delightfully. "Whitefaces" is a hilarious portrait of the crushing boredom and "purity" of the Scots/Calvinist lineage. -- ("They add bleach to their wash") -- again, another wonderful antidote to too-often humourless contemporary musings.

The collection has a seductive interplay between lyricism and plain statement, hard-headed world-weary wisdom and emotional reaching out. I'm not privy to the internal machinations of CanLit careers, with their attendant communal support or neglect, but what strikes me as the reason for Sutherland's underrating may have to do with his refusal to toe a particular thematic and/or stylistic line. Pity. He should be more well known.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

New Financial Plan

The passionate financial critic Jim Willie writes:

"If you had purchased $1000 of Delta Airlines stock one year ago, you would have $49 today. If you had purchased $1000 of AIG stock one year ago, you would have $33 today. If you had purchased $1000 of Lehman Brothers stock one year ago, you will have $0 today. However, if you had purchased $1000 worth of beer one year ago, drank all the beer, then turned in the aluminum cans for recycling, you would have received $214 today at redemptions. Based on the above, the best current investment plan is to drink heavily & recycle. It is called the 401-KEG Plan."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Eric Ormsby's "Time's Covenant"

Trying to write a three hundred word review of Eric Ormsby's selected Time's Covenant is somewhat analogous to being a tour guide on an eighty mile-an-hour bus, shouting out the ornate virtues of a fast-receding Italian church.

Ormsby dazzles with a surfeit of intricate soundplay, both symphony and delicate sonata. I won't list examples since I wouldn't know where to start -- or end -- but the careful insinuation of sound and sense is simultaneously a balm and an excitement in a world of flat newsspeak and inarticulate snippets.

The only cavil I have with Ormsby's oeuvre, taken in its entirety, is his distancing voice, his habit of, and predilection for, describing the object rather than engaging it with more volatility. (The biggest exception here are the wonderful recollections of life with his grandmother.)

(That bus was really speeding; make that a one hundred forty-nine word review.)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Evie Christie's "Gutted"

Evie Christie's Gutted is a wildly uneven effort, and for a first book of poetry, there's nothing wrong with that. She takes chances with emotional rawness, even with unprocessed feelings at the expense of giving a voice to those she jabs. But powerful expression doesn't have to be "objective" and fair, and (especially) as a corrective to our (still) contemporary preoccupation with the suspicion of final statement and confident disclosure, the interactions have worth whatever their fine-tuned accuracy.

The chief negative in the book is a succumbing to the worst tendency in confessional writing, which is not the often commented upon "narcissistic outpouring", but the closed-off communication. With poems "An Honest Woman", "If Things Had Been Different", "Hearing From Jennifer", "Porn Stars and Pharmaceuticals", and "I Found this Eviction Notice", I felt as one often does when entering a room and inadvertently overhearing a heated intimate conversation between two people, or rather one which is dominated by a single person on a cell phone. It's not a feeling of discomfort, which Christie is right in wanting us to enter into as well, but that the one who overhears isn't pulled along no matter how edgy it is. To be short, the personal doesn't become the universal. Some may argue that they can get into it because they "relate" to it, but this is conflating emotion and common backgrounds with the artful shaping of that same subject matter.

But the risk of ellipticity is offset and, at times, gloriously trumped by quick and wise realizations such as the wonderful metaphor closing off "There is a Place in Trois Rivieres": "and I'd like one more/drink, maybe something with a sword and a cherry."

Another strength of Christie is her merciless close-ups of bored suburban housewives: "and in the morning hair down from awesome heights/(girded sternly by bobby pins and banana clips)." Too many poets gloss over specifics, often (I feel) because they don't have any direct experience of the matter at hand, and so toss out a phrase as part of a bleached tapestry. Thankfully, Christie sticks with those specifics. I'll take (at times) confused particulars over a smug game of no-loss six-thousand-ambiguities any day.