Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Margo Button's Heron Cliff

Margo Button's Heron Cliff (2007) was published by Signature Editions in Winnipeg. The author thanks the [Vancouver] Island poets (acknowledgement section), as well as her three main or sole editors, Marlene Cookshaw, Brian Bartlett (cousin), and John Barton. The 32 page sequence which concludes the book, "Blue Dahlias", in an edited version (for contest parameters) co-won The Malahat Review's Long Poem Prize for 2005. The Malahat Review is, of course, one of Canada's most respected literary journals. Other poems in this collection were accepted (in slightly different forms) in other leading CanPo publications.

I go the introductory, seemingly surroud-sound, route for a reason which I'll elaborate on later. But first, another set-up before moving to the poems. On Dec 31, 2009 at this forum, I said I'd be providing fewer negative reviews since I'd come to my senses by saying "no" to reading entire books of bad poetry. When the first three bites of an apple are rotten, there's no point in being a masochist by devouring the rest and adding to an already flowering gut-churn. And if I haven't read a book at least once front-to-back, I don't think it fair to offer even a mini-review of it. Also, life is short, and there're a lot of them thar other words still waiting to be courted and fawned over. But as I turned the pages of Heron Cliff, my exasperation increased with my incredulity, and morbid curiosity and disbelief propelled me to the end.

As soon as page two in the book (the first and title poem) appears this sequence or stanza:

"Friends wonder why I remain in a house
tainted by suicide. The long dance
I perform: allemande left, allemande right,
dos-a-dos with the dead."

Button's first book, The Unhinging of Wings, dealt (supposedly) exclusively with her son's death by suicide. I haven't read the book, so won't say any more about it. But a mother's understandable obsession with such a horrific event, and the compassion it should generate among anyone, reader or acquaintance, doesn't cancel the fact that the same reader is not affected in the same way, and (unless the poems are outstanding in ways beyond their emotional impact) that reader also holds the understandable position that other subjects and metaphorical directions -- if not outright obsessions -- would be warmly received. And as the page-matter accumulates like dead wreathes, the same graveside visitation is made again, and again, and again.

As the repetition grows, the circle of grief closes tightly, and the reader (certainly this one) is excluded. Personal grief needs a colurful array of lyrical feathers and/or a jackhammer powerhouse of rhetoric to surmount the perils inherent in trying to bridge the secret journal with the international journey.

But what's even worse than this is that Button not only flips to the suicide segue from natural indicators in autumn's moribund images, but -- like Evelyn Lau's latest poetry collection, reviewed here a half-year ago -- uses other shocking human events as a set-up for the main meal, which is ..... you don't need me to finish the sentence.

The following is taken from "One Cry":

"From the cliff house, I hear a siren,
watch a rescue team scurry across the sand
to a cluster of people
out of their element"

Eight lines later, we have:

"I cosy up to/someone else's death."

But we're not finished. Same poem, different event:

"One day in Mexico I saw a yacht explode
-- swirling flames in the bay"

and in another five lines:

"a cry keens around the cove,
vibrates in me like a tuning fork."

Now it may first be pertinent to point out that these are dead lines, and are representative of much of the book. This is journalistic jotting combined with diary anguish. But however cathartic this may be for the poet, the reader is again mislead and manipulated (though all art is manipulation, there're good and bad ways to formulate that). The reader realizes that the drownings and explosions aren't there for their own dramatic autonomy or poetic possibility, but are simply plot devices in allowing the higher waves and flames to catch and (the author's hope) overwhelm.

But there are still greater transgressions. Amplifying the same procedure is "Gardener Teapots". The subtitle marker? "Sept. 12, 2001".

Well, nothing like telegraphing the subject, especially when the bland anecdote successfully disguises the parallel for sixteen lines. So much for suspense.

"Gardener teapots ....
.... made in Russia
under Peter the Great,
lugged by camel caravans
over the Silk Road to Pakistan."

Oh, the proud beneficient trade corriders! But it's almost time for the money shot and the Hallmark denouement:

"-- birds in the air, fish in the sea,
and the world did not end
yesterday in New York.

When the pots broke,
menders salvaged the jagged bits,
bound them with copper lugs
and sealed the cracks with tar
so they could again brew tea."

3,000 murdered and transatlantic turmoil, but hey, the sun will rise again! I'm only surprised that the suicide wasn't directly introduced at some point in the poem.

The blithe arrogance of writing this the day after (even if it were written years later, the date stamped makes it plain the emotions and conclusion were born Sept 12) is mind-boggling.

On to the book's final poem, "Blue Dahlias", which, again, co-won a prestigious CanPo prize. "Blue Dahlias" is supposedly "ghazal-like", according to the back cover. But this is mistaking form for emotional creativity and integrity within difficult subject and tonal shifts. The poem fails miserably at this, and the failure is magnified because Button hasn't learned how to write an adequate floating, quasi-free verse poem, so why should a quality ghazal-like poem be a reasonable goal?

"The big bruiser orders me to move my car
parked in front of his house. Says he's a cop.

So? I'm a poet. A raging granny too.
It beats depression or medication."

Oh, the insouciance! Unfortunately, I don't believe either of her self-identities.

"According to Zen, one must learn the spirit -- kokoro --
of each plant and rock before placing it in the garden."

According to poetry, one must learn to choose the right word
and then surround it with flavourful words in just the right places
so the garden sustains both planter and picker.

And according to Zen, those who speak, know not, especially when it's third-hand.

"Poets should be poor and lead simple lives."


There's the cleaning and polishing, the insurance,
the alarm system, the misgivings. All that weight."

This is the cringe-worthy spectacle (not uncommon in literature) of Oak Bay-touring retiree gaining Romantic frissons by imaginary slumming. Thomas Merton is often admired, seldom emulated. "All that weight", indeed.

"I yearn for landscapes reduced to essentials.
The Arctic. The desert. The soul."

When people speak of getting back to "essentials", it usually means they wish to shrink from the world's confusion and complexity. We're all guilty of it to varying degrees, so in a strange twist, I'm grateful for the reminder, unintentional though it may have been.

Why bother to kick a book like this, goes the usual argument. Surely, if it's as lousy as you depict, oblivion will do its just work. Because the sheer weight of the stuff these days makes it truly difficult -- even for one on the lookout -- to discover much of the good stuff. And just as problematic, reputations do sail along for quite a while on the unearned boost from friends, family, and event community pointed out in this review's preamble. The teeter-totter analogy, introduced in a different context in Heron Cliff, comes to mind.

Margo Button has produced a book that seems to have exorcized a lot of personal demons. I'm very happy about that. But an appropriate close may be to quote her herself, again from "Blue Dahlias":

"I treasure the copy of Moliere's Comedies, published in 1760.
Doesn't mean it's valuable, said the antiquarian."

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