Friday, October 30, 2009

Desk Space

Just been included in Evie Christie's entertaining . The window actually allows a mid-afternoon peek at the side yard spreading out from the giant fir, but the slate clouds and massive branches made it appear as midnight.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sue Wheeler's HABITAT

Sue Wheeler is one of many poets whose name I've happened across from time to time over the years, without anything more registering than the nominal impression. This is inevitable in contemporary poetry, when the numbers of published poets far exceeds any possibility of keeping up with most of them, even by reading one representative slim volume.

And when I picked up her third poetry collection, Habitat, published in 2005, and read the back cover's description of a poet who "bends her ear toward the language of the natural world", I thought that perhaps it would be better if she remained -- to me -- a floating name in the muddy sphere of poetic referencing.

I also thought it an unpromising endeavour to engage with the book's contents since the concerns stated therein -- Nature, with a capital N, and intoned with holy hush -- have been the province of so wide a swath of poets, from beginner to emerging to established, from coast to coast, from rapturous exhorters to quiet observers, that I've found the ground has not only been walked on, but crushed, extracted, turned over, and turned fallow.

But the seeming conformity of content can ironically be seen as a dangerous concentration: when a million poems about hummingbirds, fir trees, and sheep have already seen print, it takes a very good poet to say something new in verse number million-and-one. There's nothing new in content anyway, after all, unless one includes contemporary news. But that's a danger of another kind -- believing that what's new now will have lasting significance.

But I'm beginning to ramble. One reason for the lengthy intro, though, is that these many thoughts, and others besides, were all put into play before I read the first poem. And it speaks to biases I believe many of us have when picking up a book and deciding to read it or not. It's fascinating to me since I've often been let down by a book I'd initially thought I would enjoy, as well as been surprisingly delighted by a book I'd been doubtful about. Habitat falls into the latter category.

Wheeler's observations are underpinned by long, loving, patient study. "This is my church and my clock,/where crocuses rise at Valentine's/and the March full moon forsythia/houses the ghosts who have lived on this upland" from "Who I Am" reveals Wheeler's attitude as one who accepts her surroundings with the complex emotions they invoke rather than one who glazes over them with sentimental inaccuracies.

I also love Wheeler's strong two-ply focus on the hopefulness embedded in "December" where an observation of a hummingbird leads to "how little hope weighs,/rowing the air with its hollow bones" (fantastic!) while also noting with subtle chiding, a critique of sentimental separation in the preceding lines' "Another Emily might have sketched him/into a foreground, backdropped by the cedars/out past the barn."

This habitat, unlike the worlds of many other environmentally focused poets, includes people, and includes them as sympathetic participators, not cardboard cut-out rapacious brutes or complacently cut-off techno-cynics. I like that very much indeed. People aren't spared severe-eyed treatment, though: "We tightroped/the white board fence, one foot, one foot,/above his history lesson" ("Cotton").

There are many lovely sounds scattered throughout Habitat, sounds which serve a greater purpose, but (some of) which I'd like to set down here, anyway, knowing they're missing context: "its thousand lime-green chandeliers. Into this ballroom of bloom and promise" ("Sing a Song of Blackbirds"); "frog caught in a snake's jaws" ("Weeds"); "January, that black and white documentary" ("The Primrose Path").

There are faults, to be sure. Cliches pop up occasionally: "hanging on for dear life"; and "Truth is the scatter of moth wings" recalls the preciousness of Robert Frost's "when Truth broke in" (at least Wheeler's capitalization can be excused for being a sentence-beginner). But I've delighted in reading, rereading, and letting the images and thoughts from Habitat fill my own world.

I'm curious as to why Wheeler seems to be a relatively minor voice in contemporary CanPo. Perhaps the sequestration of Lasqueti Island, her long-time home? Not enough connections, and hence traded talk, resulting in the same kind of story for others as outlined in this review's beginning: the floating name syndrome? Whatever the case, I'd like to think that if her book, in competition (yes, competition) with other poets' books, should fall into the hands of more readers, her stock might increase, perhaps in leaps.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Michel Houellebecq's PLATFORM

I've been reading some contemporary novels lately. Most of my fiction perusal has been limited to the "ancients" -- the 20th century and before. Curious as to what's been getting praised -- or at least discussed -- amongst the newest releases, I turned to a novel of "greatness", "brilliance", "stunning achievement", by an author deigned by a New Statesman reviewer as "the sharpest and most perceptive chronicler of our era". Who could resist? It's not as if we'd heard blurbs this wildly laudatory before, what?

Platform, a 2002 release by Michel Houellebecq, explores, in first-person, the personal and collective guilt in the way of Western consumerism, complacency, and -- ultimately -- nihilism. The comparisons between the authorial and narrative "Michel"s are easy to make. It's unnecessary and redundant to outline the story here: for those in the dark, a succinct synopsis can be found rather easily in many on-line reviews. But I'd like to make a few comments which haven't been touched on, surprisingly, in any of the many otherwise excellent takes on the book.

I have a big problem with the credibility of the narrative voice in any work of fiction when that voice seems incongruous, even false. I don't mean only in the simple narrative sense (contradictions in stated belief or detail within the novel, which also occurs in Platform), but in a a deeper, more abiding imprint. Houellebecq is not subtle in his lacerating comments. He spares no one, including himself (or, er, the "other" Michel). He's a drone, an antisocial bureaucrat with zero ambition, charm, warmth. Yet this hard-hitting realistic chronicler of Western decadence is to be believed when Valerie, the sexy, intelligent, rich, ambitious, curious, emotionally generous, uninhibited, shapely twenty-eight year old not only lusts for the lifeless protagonist thirteen years her senior, but initiates the pursuit, and incredibly, after a brief cold front when Michel isn't up to the task, falls hard (on the bed, and in spirit) upon their first meeting back in France. Now, even in a more plausible coupling, any woman spurned, or even given the noncommital cold shoulder, isn't going to pursue the possibilites, no matter what the man does after that. Unlike the book's Michel, who had previously only hooked up with four women in his life, and only then when drunk at a bar, I, and many of my male friends, acquaintances, former work associates, others' penned accounts, and long and frequent observations of the mating ritual, have seen this point (not pardoning the pun) driven home forcefully.

But, apparently, Michel is the only man in Western society for whom realized uninhibited lust-coupledom is possible, and which can cover up his other glaring insufficencies. So much for realism.

Psychological acuity in some of Platform's characters is effective, lively, and occasionally wise. The predatory Robert, the hapless Lionel, the cynical Jean-Yves: all of them speak to social parallels, easily filled in imaginatively by readers who've surely stumbled across close counterparts in their own lives, but they're also given a unique gravity or stamp.

Aside from this character recognition, though, and in addition to the narrative credibilty issue, two other problems emerge.

Houellebecq's story of global sex tourism is simply a hinge on which to enact a supposed extemporization in the mouths of his characters. Three Arabs (and this HAS been mentioned in at least one review I've read) are ushered onto the platform to decry the barbarism of Muslims and of Islam itself, but the reader isn't priveleged with any first-hand dealings with actual Muslims, unless you count the brief mention of three with "turbans" who engender the terrorist atrocities at the resort in Thailand. In a political tract, this would be suspect; in a supposedly imaginative novel it's an unacceptable failing. (I'd be interested to know just how much the timing, the prophecy, with the Bali bombing might have played in giving Platform a media jolt.)

The other failing, and I'm very surprised it's gotten no play, at least amongst the reviews I've seen, is the writing itself. There is, at times, a deadpan, bitter humour in the book: Michel remarks, after ejaculating between the pages of a popular romance thriller that "it's not the kind of book you read twice, anyway". And a few of the beach descriptions capture an imagistic imprint, if not the flavour, of the topography. Also, it must be said, Houellebecq can't be at fault for Frank Wynne's clumsy translation, unless he personally approved it, (though I don't know the quality of Houellebecq's English.) Those caveats aside, there is little else to please this reader, at least, in the overall spread of the writing. Metaphor, arresting image, simile, syntactical quirks, narrative compression (editing), even local phrases of verve and concision, are notable by their needle-in-haystack appearance. The book has been compared to Camus' 1942 L'Etranger, but that classic had real ideas (not journalistic asides), deployed with force and passion, in a style and arrangement thrilling to experience.

It'll be interesting to see how the "shock" of contemporary views stated in Platform play out with the shifting evaluative reception of the novel in ten years, twenty years, or more.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Exciting New Blog

Zach Wells has provided a selfless service for the poetic community with his new blog Poets and Microphones (side bar). Selecting only the unselfconscious, pose-pooh-poohing, career-tamping, Freudian-phallus-negating aficionados of the surpassing line dance, his captures observe spiritual seriousness and quietude amongst our fervid monks and monkettes as they're caught, unawares, expatiating on matters important and publicly muted.

Here's hoping there are more such event-abasing poets in our midst, and that they too can be teased into coming out of their protective shells for our benefit.

"Misty Banks At Eighty"

My carunculated chin, slow wag
Of hazy epiphanies, sags, the patch-
Work grid of veins blue onionskin. Caught
In a poking sun through frosted
Window, I stretch the black hairball-spotted robe
Like a shroud over my V-necked hair shirt
To freeze out memories of a Romantic
Bodhidharma in China blocking the man who,
Six weeks in wind and banked snow, pounded
The door of the fierce Indian spike of stone,
And, no answer, no answer, cut off
His own arm and set it by the locked latch.
"Come in", from within. Nine years facing the
Wall, patient as sun on stricken birch leaves
Quivering in concert under the hawk's
Erasing curve.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


This 2003 volume contains 21 poems over 125 pages, and the last 6 or so are one-pagers. When I first encounter a twenty-page poem, I immediately think "epic", or at least "narrative excursion". But what we have here, as in other language-foolery, is a drawn-out, indulgent, in-house wank that could just as easily have been reduced by 90% without losing any blood from its severed limbs.

"But Could I Make A Living From It" is representative. At 16 pages of found prose, monotonous quotes, cliches altered by consonantal substitution of one word to affect an ironic "gotcha!", "profound" anagrams, and bland maxims of capitalist-consumerist critique, the poem's fractured splinters make the chest-lodged ash-stick of a Louisville slugger a better option.

Parataxis is revered by McCaffery's borrowed authority, and this book is full of it. Hypotactic clauses are, after all, "authoritative" by their subordinate "defensiveness". Egalitarianism, in grammar and cloudy content, is the way. But the way to what? Paratactical syntax quickly becomes numbing when it's the only option. I'm surprised Derksen doesn't see the irony in the frequent emotional and intellectual bankruptcy of "this-this-this" speech and thought. Clauses -- subordinate and strong -- are effective means of showing the power trade-offs and natural gradations inherent in all kinds of ideas and emotions. Or is proportion and level of feeling to be discounted, even mocked, in toto? For all the superior scoffing at language misuse (Roy Miki's Surrender immediately comes to mind), there is a conspicuous absense of any positive countervailing substitute, in language or idea. But I guess that would be hard to relate in a strangled theory-governed (more irony) equanimous sentence deployment.

In another interminable run-on, lines of pop and blues music are set down with, again, one or two words replaced in an attempt at witty denunciation on contemporary greed and (architectural) vulgarity.

More a sermon on the evils of consumerism couched in "subversive" shredding of hand-me-down banalities, Transnational Muscle Cars would have worked better as graffiti sprayed at the bottom of a billboard emblazoned with leisure suits or banking come-ons.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

BC Arts Funding Cuts

90% of the budget chopped. From BC Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman:

"When you think about a child arriving in school with an empty stomach that isn't going to get the education they require, you have to decide, 'Is that a priority, or some other thing?' You make the decision on behalf of the child."

Those artistic cons! Dickens'd be putting the boots to those mustache-twirling creeps!

Or .... wait. Maybe a drop from the ocean of billion-plus gallons in the form of Olympic overrun could be used. Er .... too late to call that one off. Chicago's lucky, at least. And BCTV for a three-week fake orgasm.

Monday, October 12, 2009

From the "Language Log" Site

"Here's why I bothered to write anything at all about a pathetic little 500-word radio sermon: I am so sick of seeing stupid writing advice handed out by pusillanimous pseudo-experts on language — dim-witted vicars like Angela Tilby, pontificating authoritarians like E. B. White in the chapter he added to The Elements of Style, and all the English teachers who have (while hypocritically making free to constantly using adjectives in their own writing) poisoned the reputation of adjectives down the centuries (see the first chapter of Ben Yagoda's delightful little book on the parts of speech, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It).

These people are wasting educational time and effort, and helping to drive students into a state that I have written about before, characterized by "vague unease instead of a sense of mastery," and feeling "less sure of themselves, yet no better informed," so that their writing ability is "probably being harmed rather than enhanced" — in short, a state of nervous cluelessness about language.

Repeating the falsehood that adjectives are bad in general makes people less able to see what is wrong when they really are over-used."

Amen! I love riproarin', seductive adjectives. Hemingway is the bees' knees, but I'm a sucker for rhetoric, too, rhetoric that nae has to be smothered in direct Presbyterian relating. (Would that last sentence have been better enacted by tacking an "ism" onto the middle word, and expunging "direct" and "relating", or, similarly, by choosing a more "accurate" stand-alone noun?) Literal-minded, fussy, unfunny, colourless, scrimping, legalistic, noun-as-holy-intonation marms. Or, if you're allergic to adjectives -- marms.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Lionel Kearns' A FEW WORDS WILL DO

Part of the Simon Fraser coterie, Lionel Kearns has been overlooked by his more aggressively promotional language-obsessed poet-friends and colleagues. Clicking his bio, I see that, before this 2007 selected, A Few Words Will Do, Kearns' last book of poetry was fashioned in 1982. Some poets have cored a hectare of dogwoods in their published endeavours in that time, not to mention (love that contradictory phrase-cliche) tried the patience of even their most sympathetic followers. So I was initially kindly disposed towards Kearns in my first encounter with his work.

Interspersed throughout the volume are quite a few concrete creations. I admit to an extreme bias against concrete poetry of any variety; I find it a one-off amusement, lacking in scope, depth, and (though at times witty) humour. The concrete display in A Few Words Will Do does nothing to alter my experience. (I tried re-reading them after a week, to no greater benefit.)

The book is loosely arranged in three sections: nature poems, with ruminations on time; people poems; poems which give language different characters as a way out of its self-consciousness.

The first section is the weakest. Though the initial poems rework some often-used imagery to decent effect, the abstractions are left hanging like dance partners halfway through a series of prom songs. "We carry time/in our heads,", "aware at last that we grow old", "swirling into centres of imploding nebulae", "Time is not some/thing to possess": all these are taken from what (perhaps?) is Kearns' early days (his poetic career has spanned half a century), and the tendency toward profundity is hopelessly out of kilter with original statement and the aesthetic means to contain it.

Things pick up when Kearns concentrates on people living through miserable circumstances. Sentiment is checked, and the stories, though frequently deadened by prosiness, at least effect, through curious narrative, a meditative possibility, a quiet questioning, through their unfortunate protagonists.

The last, long section infuses some quirkiness and semblance of life into the by-now exceedingly boring dead-end of language hand-wringing. "This poem", as most of them proceed, is alternately a "space-based laser", a "ruined structure", or a "professional". Others are singular emotions or attitudes: depression, blind, a consumer product. The reader is challenged, but the poem itself isn't let off the hook, either: "[it can] censor/an offending passage at a distance/of a thousand miles".

Unremarkable in syntax, sonic possibility, or (for a long career perspective) depth of thought, Kearns' A Few Words Will Do nevertheless discovers an emotional observation of mutability, and engages the reader with the latter's own reflected time-travels and -travails.