The quantity of Canadian book-length poem sequences and narratives has exploded lately. Steven Price's Anatomy Of Keys and Stephanie Bolster's White Stone are just two of the volumes that make fictional left and right turns from the biographical arteries of the historical figures which engender those authors' concerns. Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid is an obvious antecedent, still influential, if for no other reason than belonging to the academic canon. But whereas Ondaatje's popular creative slant on the outlaw was cinematic in procedure (highly influenced by the great Western, "Once Upon A Time In The West", directed by Sergio Leone), the contemporary reenactments of this encompassing approach focus more on character complexity and depth while using that depth to both mirror and comment upon the social entrenchments of the time and place. Billy wanted to splash images in the collected mindscape (as opposed to Hopkins' inscape) in an attempt to imprint those visuals in the readers' memory, and since the language and psychological means Ondaatje employed were consistently ill-formed and shallow, the cinematographic impatience acted as unidimensional dramatic seduction rather than revelatory dance. ("Once Upon A Time In The West" transcended its images to make profound statements on historical inevitability, accomplished and physical vision, honour, and greed.)
Sharon McCartney's The Love Song Of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2007) is in the best bracket of this tradition. Not content or interested in transcribing Wilder's and Lane's (the creators of the Little House books) narrative, McCartney uses the source material as a way to explore silent -- no, rather, repressed -- connections. I was very surprised to stumble onto the math of the list of individual voices: only 13 of the 54 poems have a human speaker. As for the rest, we hear from animals, but also from bugles, churns, even the appendages of the various characters -- "Pa's Penis", "Mr. Clewett's Feet". Now this is a hilariously cheeky way not simply to circumvent, but to defrock the sometimes stuffy remonstrances of Ruskin's pathetic fallacy. I often sympathize with the latter admonition when reading of "crying rain" or "angry sun", but when the poem's procedure exists as a first-"person" horse assessing a life-long relationship, the only pathetic attribute should be the one ascribed to the smug poetic churl beefing about "expropriation" and "wild fancy".
That said, the danger here is that it's not easy to enter into the interior passions of fires and boards and horses. From the latter, "Lady, to Prince", a more serious psychological fallacy occurs. Horses, after breaking, are not unhappy unless they're mistreated. And "the world must be benign" also misunderstands equine emotion: after the biological fears of fire and falling, the horse's most pervasive problem is boredom. Hence, in those that succumb, withdrawal, cribbing, and crankiness.
Of course, McCartney is using not only the Little House books as jumping off points. Her speakers' generational, sweeping histories are coloured and delineated for deeper purposes, as well. But jumping off into what? There are many exciting analogies, even mini-allegories. "Uncle George's Bugle" is soaked in nostalgia, but also present passion, a transcending sexual play, simultaneously hilarious and sad: "to be tongued again,/ .... a new melody/piercing the unpopulated woods."
It's a credit to McCartney that she's able to imbue such feeling into inanimate household necessities and structures. Unfortunately, the aggregate personalities accrue towards either stoic resignation or grumpy resentment ("Wolf in Moonlight" is a gorgeous exception, overrunning with power and stance). With a seeming prairie-stacked cast of original actors, I would have loved to have experienced more emotional variation. And the author has the talent to have brought that out.
Still, I'm cavilling more than my overall feelings warrant. There are many passages of effective sound mated with sense: "zigzagging, ears flat, a panicked glance/backward" (from "One of Pa's Traps"); "a sip of port with each sigh,/his respite from rote insipidity --/no pain" (from "Mr. Clewett's Feet"); "I can't bear a weakness/as debilitating as rust, blistering my blade." (from "Pa's Ax").
I never watched Michael Landon strolling down the hill with branch across shoulder to carry twin bucket scales of familial justice, nor did I read the (I'm assuming) antiseptic takes on pioneer life as prairie romanticism as penned by Wilder and Lane (O.E. Rolvaag's Giants In The Earth would make for a dour corrective), but I can't see as how those prior creations would be more interesting than McCartney's . It's all fiction. In this case, as in any other, for that matter, imagination and craft beat moral prescription.
Friday, March 6, 2009
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