Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Favourite Books of 2010

A bit of a switch-up this year. Rather than give an accounting of every contemporary poetry book I read in 2010, most of which have already been reviewed in some fashion, I’ll instead list my favourite five books in order and in any genre.

1) W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (1995). Surpassing The Emigrants in breadth, and Vertigo in depth, the late German writer Sebald produced a brilliant meditation on the fascinating trickeries of memory, interspersing archival and passed-on photos with historical excavation, personal sojourns, subjective mood shifts, fictional drama, biographical colour, natural and architectural splendour and decay, and elegiac heartbreak. Much has been made of Sebald’s unassuming gravitas, but perhaps underappreciated (though still praised) is the beauty of the writing itself, here as elsewhere translated into the English by Michael Hulse. Sebald was a hands-on overseer. Lines, sentences, paragraphs, and pages gather in pulses at once heady, hypnotic, and poetically charged with sound and suggestion. Some of the arcane details of Sebald’s masterpiece may be forgotten, but the people featured in these pages will be forever salvaged from the indifference of history.

2) Sean Burke, The Death and Return of the Author (1998). A challenging book-length essay, this densely-packed, intelligently argued, scholarly responsible, clearly linked, and convincingly concluded takedown of postmodern assumptions is a much-needed counterattack to the passively received blather of unstudied core pronouncements by Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida. Using call-and-response quotations, both comparative and contrasting, from the philosophical canon, as well as evidence from novels and -- most importantly -- from the anti-objectivists themselves, Burke highlights the contradictions, simplifications, and outright ironies and mistakes of much of the zeal for castigating authorial stance, meaning, and organic shaping.

3) Michael Harris, Circus (2010). The unfairly obscure Canadian poet Michael Harris produced, this year, his best book to date. Appropriately charged with flair and bounce, his inner-outer narrative of circus people has many layers, with much metaphorical worth. Lyrical acrobatics serve an enjoyable arc, but also use the weave as a stitch-pain in the memory for fascinating suggestions on performer and audience, the collective and the individual, conformity and creativity, and (not least) evil and freedom.

4) James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). A passionate first novel, Baldwin wins on multiple fronts: an about-to-be-coming-of age story; an excoriating study of religious hypocrisy; a wise dip into infidelity and desire; a compassionate look into faith and loyalty, much of it scored with in-your-face as-is dialogue and brave, Old Testament organ-crescendo rhetoric.

5) Dave Smith, Fate's Kite (1995). The veteran American poet’s collection of searching thirteen-liners takes on spiritual concerns, but does it simultaneously with a unique sensual involvement and nostalgia. Just when one thinks the regret-o-meter might be tipping into the red, Smith devastates with a splash of wisdom on present-day experiences. The twists are fascinating, the tones gorgeous and powerful.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Barry Dempster's Blue Wherever

I read Barry Dempster's 2005 The Burning Alphabet earlier this year, and found the turning of the phrase more fertile, the range more engaging, the edge sharper, and the humour more lively than I did in the just completed Blue Wherever, published in 2010. Too many poems in the latter collection follow the same path of rueful first-person philosopher/stocktaker, lightened by self-puncturing. Nature and man (or Man) are at odds, and Dempster is interesting when mocking the Romantic hope involved in their union ("Coyote"), but the repetition burgeons until I wondered why emphasis should replace what any concision in most individual poems failed to provide. Especially towards the book's latter half, the confessional grousing became tiresome. I appreciate Dempster's honesty -- even more valuable in an age when many poets either want to limit our view of them to the sermon above the mount, or the gosh-golly of foibles -- but Blue Wherever could have used a healthy paring and pruning, and then an injection of multiple perspectives or (at least) a wider focus.

Monday, December 20, 2010

matt robinson's Against the Hard Angle; Kate Hall's The Certainty Dream

It took me a few readings to begin to tune my ears and focus my eyes on matt robinson's Against the Hard Angle (2010). That's not always a glowing endorsement since confusion and frustration are often multiplied with greater scrutiny of challenging poems; even when gaining an entryway, a "so what?" emptiness emerges. If not exactly cutting his teeth on Wallace Stevens, robinson has plunged into the abyss of imaginative speculation. Tough sky to float in, and many poets have disappeared into an ever-expanding ether after reading "I placed a jar in Tennessee". Two things intrigue about the poems here: imagination and ideas (and, refreshingly, there are ideas on display, not just nods to memes) are at the service of life experience and emotional observation and reflection; the music is lively, and is unexpected line to line. I'd previously read only one poem of robinson's, his "The Grain Elevators", which concludes this book, and which I'd first read in The Fiddlehead. A fine metaphorical unravelling takes place in phrases both tight and generous: "stress-fractured and cracked like this dun-dull brute tonnage". Another poem, part iii. (flashback: kitchen sink), is an exquisite suggestion of sexual desire, something almost always either avoided or mangled by our contemporary suspicion of feeling, direct participation, and laudatory superimposed thought-farting. I'm sure I'll be returning to this collection often.

Unlike Against the Hard Angle, Kate Hall's first selection, 2009's The Certainty Dream, uses experience -- and imagined, removed, or general experience at that -- as an excuse to become entangled in philosophical conundrums. The nouns here are poured into a thematic mold (mynah, blackbird, crow, fish, boxes, houses), and one sees (or, as Hall would have it, imagines in confusion through sight) with an ontological excavation project rather than as glory or illumination or reverie. I use the word reverie with knowing irony since Hall's book is concerned with daydreams, nightdreams, or lucid just-waking-up states, but though suffused throughout by altered consciousness, the cohesive force of the book is one of frustrated logic. It's a neat trick, if one can pull it off, to conflate the irrationality of dreams with the impossibility of knowing anything with certitude, and for all time (more on that later), but the Cartesian focus of the book, despite its occasional attempts at levity, is both boring and poetically bankrupt.

As already alluded to, Rene Descartes gets the epigraph to the book's longest poem, the seven-part ten-page mid-book "Suspended in the Space of Reason: A Short Thesis". The mind-body split was outdated and mistaken even when Descartes proposed it from his re-formed beliefs. Without belabouring the history here, the procedure supports Hall in running the table for doubt as elevated thought and observation as conditional and, thus, ripe for an optative academic discourse-snore on ambiguity and perspective. It would help, intellectually, to hoodwink the reader into association by surface comparisons -- "All this is spoken in gestures/I am too tired to perform"; "I try to imagine all the fish suddenly going/belly-up but all I can worry about is/the dirty mirror" -- but this is poetry, not pure speculative pondering, so particularities, experiences, plausibilities have to enter at some point. And this is where even the philosophical framework and cornerstone crumble (the poems as musical journey never had a chance to leave the station): "Pascal's Wager" has to restate the famous hedge in an epigraph, for some reason. The poem then begins:

"We have a stainless steel pepper grinder.
When the kitchen light is turned on
there is another bubbled room reflected in the bulbous top.
This is the problem: duplicity is always shining
forth from ordinary objects.

Pascal developed his famous equations because he was losing
at cards and dice. We like to play games but only if
we get to keep our shirts."

As for the last sentence, I guess Hall has never read Dostoyevsky's novella, The Gambler. As for the rest, where does duplicity arise? From the objects?

Pascal's wager is of course a cowardly, insincere gambit. But worse, it's shallow reasoning. If God does not exist, we can lose much more by believing in him. We can lose the power of personal responsibility, individuated joy, and honest revelling in apogeal wonder.

"I waitress at a restaurant with limestone walls.
What I've learned is this:
some people like a lot of pepper and some people don't.
You can never tell."

First note the elevated forerunning after the ellipses. Then note the pallid attempt to give a believable setting for the argument. There's no life in the poem. The people are props, the objects originate in the mind and soon fade away, as do all objects merely projected, and the interaction is nugatory.

"God could be hiding inside the pepper grinder
and there you are, shredding him to bits
on top of your farfalle. ....
What are the odds? You can never be certain."

Another reference, or dreamed (remembered?) anecdote, involves being a croupier to others losing their shirts. But this is a faulty analogy, fatal in a poem which puts all its eggs in a fruitful speculative investigation. Gambling isn't about a one-off wager on the existence of God. It's an ever-repeating variation on win-loss probabilities that seeks to defeat the "game" in a large sample run. Of course, roulette or craps, as referenced here, are negative-expectation games. That is, they're mathematically impossible to win at. (Full marks to Descartes here, and Hall acknowledges as much in a different context in another poem.) But many wagers, over the long haul, are favourable to the gambler. Certainty, as conceived of in Hall's dreamworld, wouldn't be something to arrive at, or at least strive for, it would kill life as it cancelled mystery, and more fundamentally, is impossible anyway. We're all gamblers, every day and in every minute. Why the woebegone reaction to it? Actually, I'm much more in tune with someone railing against the fates, however preposterously (Dostoyevsky again) than I am with someone mildly disturbed by and in that state, and depicting it at an emotional remove. Or perhaps I just don't get the "subtleties", all the more powerful by being ushered in with clever ideas-in-dreams couching.

Hall's first poem in the book is a response to Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird". Stevens' poem has rightfully been praised as a supreme imaginative angle on art, perception, and reality; Hall's poem restricts the view to a private grumble about the uncertainty of that perception and its meaning. What a travesty.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

David Donnell's Watermelon Kindness

Nope. Just managed to overhear the "whatever's in my head" run-on till page 40 of 130 pp. And despite the self-pride of "I don't know", "I think", and other variations of it could have been, I seem to recall, maybe it was like this (in order to mock even the idea of responsibility?), it was still a little disturbing that -- as a poet -- he got the bridge from which John Berryman jumped wrong by a few thousand miles.

David Donnell's Settlements

I hadn't read anything by David Donnell until two weeks ago, but the excellent Alex Boyd blog piece on trivial subject matter by Canadian poets wherein he used a Donnell poem as example, combined with his name turning up in this year's GG longlist, piqued my curiosity. To get a sense of prior work, and to see how it may have changed over the past quarter-century, I turned to his GG-winning Settlements (1983).

One of the poems, "Geese", is for John Ashbery. Easy to make the link. Ashbery's stream-of-consciousness often bores me to numbness, but at least he takes you on a partial journey, entertaining for up to half a poem. Donnell, here and elsewhere, just likes to talk, like a weary (or more to the point, wearying) barfly on the upward trajectory of drink. The connective tissue is so slim, the poem(s) immediately fall apart, and more resemble a collection of bone fragments than a living body. Quoting here doesn't do justice since the full impact of the ADD irritation isn't borne without the entire poem. And I'm not replicating fifty or more lines here. In any event, if interested, just pick up a copy and turn to most any page.

Brahms gets two drive-by checks in two different poems. Interesting. I'm not a Brahms fan, finding the sonorities (though warm) indistinct and pulseless. My two favourite composers, Shostakovich and Haydn, were rhythmic dynamos, and I believe parallels on the latter two men to poetry I prefer are appropriate.

Like most conversation, the rhythms in Settlements are of the flat, occasionally subdued inflection, mode. I suppose the pull is for the curious juxtapositions: "Her underwear lying on top of my corduroy pants looks like/a surreal image of my connection to the country I grew up in and left foolishly" (from "Lakes").

But however curious the obstreporous barroom raconteur, there comes a time, fairly early in the evening, for the other patrons to look at their watches and consider other options. I made it, though, to three poems from the back before crying "Uncle".

Donnell is fond of the list poem, not surprising in one who likes to count without momentum or linkage.

He also likes to offer instructive, unembellished sentences devoid of interest, purpose, or investment: "South American sailors are religious and wear gold earrings." (from "South American Sailors"). But it's not all driver manual English. The lyrical sentence, seventeen lines down, ups the temperature and pleasure a quarter-degree: "Day breaks and reflects in the water like a long blue dream." Yes, a long blue dream. Evocative. Blue. Dream. That is long.

Donnell considers himself funny. "Skirts are interesting I like skirts skirts are great./Maybe I'll wear a dress on Monday./I've got fairly interesting genitals myself./A loose dark red dress with a tweed jacket in case it gets cold." (from "What Men Have Instead Of Skirts").

But it's not all fun and games. Donnell wants it both ways. There's a strain for profundity in several poems (though the humour in most poems is just as strained, as well). This is also from "Lakes": "Ideas are simple./Work is simple./I associate Jane with the country and simplicity./Karen with the city." Ideas and work are simple if you've never thought or worked. And if this long poem had worked, there would be no need for the explicit connection, which would have cancelled any joyful discovery in a crafted symbolic unfolding. But there was never any depth to uncover, so the reader gets a trite dichotomy unsupported by anything in the poem's full frontal.

Again, this won the Gov-Gen for poetry in 1983. How it got categorized as poetry in the first place is the riddle.

Up next: Donnell's "Watermelon Kindness" (2010).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Steven Heighton's Patient Frame

Steven Heighton has never been afraid to tackle weighty topics in his poetry. 2010's Patient Frame is no different. Poems on the My Lai massacre, sexual abuse of boys by catholic priests, and a murder by a white supremacist are augmented by other historical and contemporary studies, often in first-person supportive reminiscence or measured accusation, depending on the focus. Despite the scope exhibited here, I preferred, by far, the personal reflections: "Home Movies, 8 mm" is a heartfelt observation and speculation on memory, and goes beyond the common path of pat elegy into personal regret for past impatience; "Herself, Revised" is another intelligent consideration of growth and moving on containing the sublime lines, "intent on life--/so implied in its stretching crewelwork/of seconds".

The casual conversational asides ("you see"; "But hell,/someone around here ought to know.") are at times unconvincing, but Heighton's best poems (in his five-book corpus) are among the best by anyone in this country, past or present.