Monday, November 21, 2011

Susan Musgrave's Origami Dove

Never a fan of Susan Musgrave's thirty year ditch-and-witch imagery, I was pleasantly surprised by her first new book of poetry in eleven years, 2011's Origami Dove.

The emotional alarm systems still go off in all five firehouses, at times ("and then I start weeping/I can't help it I can't/stop" from "Conjugal Visit"), but a maturity based partly, it seems, on the reading of detachment spirituality has given her poems more proportional resonance: "Small flocks of twitchy sandpipers/scoot out on the tide; a pheasant/stutters from the ditch into the trees" and "There's just enough light left/on the river tonight to turn/the water black. You see it flare up/behind my eyes: the obituary of light." The latter quotation is from the very good section two, and it represents a heartfelt merging of unadorned natural movement with personal mood, fate, and conclusion.

Advocacy overruns aesthetics in section four, the last, but I'm grateful for the many fine poems here as a stronger counterbalance.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Phil Hall's Killdeer

"Department of Critical Thought No. 4". Winston Smith would have been terrified of this back cover tag. And when you combine it with the publisher's own appellative aggression -- BookThug -- who would blame him for following Phil Hall's example regarding the latter's own earlier poems, where they were "hidden ... in stumps -- under floorboards -- behind pseudonyms ... in bus station lockers -- under bridges" ?(p.99). Leave the book in its closed state, that is. I'm not sure Hall wants to be identified with "departments", and mindful of two of his main anti-themes -- the awful intrusion of the personal onto the observation, in poetry; the awful declarations of aggressors in politics, personal relationships, chance incidents, poetics -- I'm not sure he wants to be identified on the side of the "Thug" as he or she (literally) presses against the "Book". But then, metaphors are too convenient.

Or are they? The chief metaphor -- with various spinoffs -- in Phil Hall's 2011 Killdeer is the titular victim. The nod to a lyrical trope here is indeed curious since, absent that occasional vulnerable walk-on, the book is much better classified as memoir, poetics apagoge, and cultural retrospective than as poetry. What's funny is that saying this immediately marks one now as narrow-minded. Note, I'm not saying the book is a hybrid -- prose poetry, say, or lyrical travelogue -- but that it could be shelved under poetry, and be eligible for awards in that category, without so much as a shake of the retreating tail. So I'll dispense with a critique based on verse lexicon, as such, and focus instead on the rambling assertions and anecdotes.

"I also handed her poems -- far too many -- a crumpled bundle -- I knew she didn't write poems -- I didn't care

She said that she didn't write poems but that she would read them & write me a letter about them" (p. 21)

This is the language and rhythm of telephone conversations, and rushed and distracted, at that. Hall would likely concur. Poetry as language doesn't seem to hold much merit for him: "these have healed me -- not cleverness or career or language" (p. 101).

I'll get to the defensive self-promotion later, but for now, note the italics. Elsewhere, and in a second hypocritical parade not covered by postmodern ambiguity, Hall relates as to how he doesn't like to talk about writing. Right. Just stuff it all in a book, and then don't ever discuss it, reader or writer. Makes sense. But that would prompt a third hypocrisy, that I'm being rational. Of course, one can't find any rational inflections and conclusions amongst Hall's mishmash, despite the furlongs of literary references and personal exegesis. Uh huh.

The suffocating tone and mood of Hall, the recorder in Killdeer, is so persistent, one wonders if he's progressed much beyond his first published chapbook at 20, of which George Amabile remarks to Hall: "Far from giving me any pleasure this book almost made me puke -- if I were you I wouldn't write another book for 10 years" (p. 28). Immediately on this quote's heels comes, "I was 20 -- that letter broke my stupid heart" (p. 29). As alluded to in the preceding paragraph, it's hypocritical for him to focus here on his emotional excesses (that it happened in his callow past doesn't alter the incongruities -- this book is chock full of Poet suffering the slings and arrows of derision and neglect) while in another section/poem/essayistic context criticize Irving Layton for the latter's reactive closer -- "I turned away and wept" -- to his "The Bull Calf". Hall references his own parallel summation elsewhere -- "I should have shot my father" -- as an absurd reaction, in his words, "the false politics of honesty" (p. 85), but emotional ham-handed tack-ons aren't any worse than the reverse pride Hall assumes in his own flashbacks and poetics statements. Your unhumble correspondent actually prefers the cruder calls: at least I don't have to negotiate contradictory and deadening theoretical ruminations at every turn.

More of the same here: "someone rescued me from years of ass-kissing

I longed to be a writer before I felt driven to write

I got a degree in writing -- & I published a first book -- way before writing became my compulsive practice" (p. 27).

In all seriousness, who, other than he and some of his friends, cares? This is what's given confessional writing a bad name for the past thirty years. Nothing transcends the hermetic particulars. Not the language, not the sentiments, not the commonplace revelation. The pun in the following line's, "Since then I have always learned to put the art before the course" doesn't cover up the solipsism.

Hall drops more names in Killdeer than periods. "See The Captive Mind (1953) -- in which Czeslaw Milosz chronicles the gradual corruption of the minds of artists by totalitarianism in central Europe" (p. 79).

Milosz makes it clear in indefatigable character studies that those minds weren't corrupted as much as they were ensnared, and necessarily two- or three-faced by opposing forces of political opportunism and ideological tenacity. To compare postmodern parlour games in Canadian learneries with the world of Poles drenched in blood and hazardous message-code is obscene.

The only parts of this book of poetry I enjoyed were those parts where poetry was actually on tap, and allowed to breathe. Unfortunately, the deer only popped up every ten pages or so. "The fawn nuzzled the doe -- wiping grass-flecked slobber along her withers" (p. 69) sure beats "Hope becomes the expectation of finding next an intricately imperfect process that might prove all of one's own imperfections worthy & irrelevant" (p. 49).

And after reading, "The bad sequence's mother is the Canada Council for the Arts -- she sings to the child in the womb a song of research & travel grants -- prospectuses -- itineraries" (p. 89), I'll note, with interest, Hall's obvious refusal of the 25 Gs, should he get tapped for the win.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Anne Simpson's Is

The back cover of Anne Simpson's 2011 Is informs us that the author "illuminates what it means to be alive". Heady stuff. The book is also "[r]ich with muscular craft". If jacket photos weren't de rigueur, one could almost imagine a poets' union of middle linebackers or hod carriers. It's past time this hoary adjective was deprived of its steroidal cachet. There. Now on to the poems.

"before blue before blue deepening and unwinding inside blue before bluegrey before the envelope of morning before opening the crisp envelope of morning ..." (p.2)

Shouldn't this note-stretching proceed in reverse chronology? I'm probably missing the significance of the syntax, but if amazement is the feeling of the recorder (and the wish for the receiver), it seems a peek through a microscope would do the trick more effectively. I can't get a deep view of all this "blue deepening".

"sounds not yet sounds darkens before darkness and light before light beginning and ending ending and beginning." (p. 3)

I guess this is the illumination of "what it means to be alive". Or maybe it's just abstraction multiplying like Nut's fart in a chromosphere.

"You are day divided from night, night from day, minute from minute, hour from hour. Time begins, sliced into now" (p. 5)

Goddammit, can we get on with infanthood, already? The first chapter of Genesis and the beginning of The Iliad are boring, too, but at least they recorded basic elements and specific people, respectively.

"You are dark inside dark, and within this dark, intricate contraptions of darker darkness" (p.6)

Any smartypants outdark that?

"Before tinkering. Before the ululation of a siren. Before scarlet. Before latches. Before eyes. Before ... " (p. 7)

Ah! The world. The little fucker is finally with us.

"You are spaciousness." (p. 8)


"You are depth and more depth, earthing and earthed." (p. 9)

And never forget you are a child of the universe which is unfolding as it should. (Apologies to the lyricists of that gawdawful song.)

"a woman untucking a cotton shirt a man undoing a belt" (p. 13)

Wait a sec. What happened to Deep Blue? Are we having flashbacks, or is this number two already? Pp 14 and 15 shrinks the same poem (15 set tinier than 14), with two and four columns respectively. I don't think we're supposed to read this, and in any event if I wanted to read it again, the original p. 13 is the right option: I don't have a magnifying glass at hand.

"Break into break up break down break out break off break ... " (p. 16)

At least Quartermain's cliched variations had some wit.

"Aftershocks of noise -- a gas main, propane tank." (p. 17)

I'm lost. Is that the point? Is there one? Perhaps I've been in this mitotic funk and fug too long.

"syllables of spun light" (p. 18)

Here we go. The linguistic nature tropes. Soon we'll encounter "glottals of mud bubbles". And if our little lump of protoplasm was real, wouldn't the latter image be more accurate that the former preciosity? Or have we moved from the placental stew to the gas main to yet another universe?

(p. 19) : the paratactic list. Hurrah! A "poetic" rendering of a Titanic-like drama. In 13 ragged lines. My blood pressure: unchanged. E. J. Pratt is spinning in his grave like the Tasmanian devil.

"You imagine all that lies below: dank palaces under the ground." (p. 25)

She might imagine it, but I can't. But being "poetic" means taking it on good faith. Things are mysterious on page 25, and no lie. But it's a mystery, alas, not worth wondering about. As for imagining: imagine what Gwendolyn MacEwen could have done with this passage. Or Patrick Anderson. You could've seen the flux and dazzle of partially obscured, vivid shapes under the surface. That murk wouldn't have been announced with stock vagaries. Instead, strange word combos colliding. Awe or danger invading the mind that reads it.

"Crocuses, murmuring secrets to earth." (p 28)

If vegetables and flowers are going to be anthropomorphic studs and soothsayers, I suppose this is better than Lorna Crozier's carrots fucking the earth.

(p. 30): Bees are back. I sense a dramatic arc. "Broken necklace of bees in curled, damp grass." Not bad. And the rhythm of the pentameter makes sense.

"Is" (p. 33) is anaphoric five-and-dime rhetoric gone mad. I can't imagine this read aloud. Hushed? Excited? Solemn? The "is" of "Is" in Is is repeated as line and phrase starter 26 times. None of them are illuminating. Grandeur is not realized, not broached, not in the same solar system with these words just because we're supposed to be lulled into cheap awe by the "gathering force" of the repetitions.

(p. 37): Possible explosions on ship. Sentences cut like fingernails. In fact, "Cut-glass water. The ting of a fingernail against it." (p. 37). Terror as Morse Code. Easier to handle. Not important, anyway. Set up for poetic image. The world is dangerous. But there is always beauty.

(p 41): The plot, of a kind, thickens. Courtroom drama. The bad guys act cool under questioning. Serviceable journal reporting, albeit in court reporter shorthand, a la Heather Spears' Required Reading. Wonderful possibility for psychological complexity, inductive rage, physical detail. But we're left with that frequent three-quarters blank page. Of course, poetry is distillation. Distillation is so successful the distillery is bottling nothing but air.

The fisherman is "settling into his dreams. Into all he's given, dazzled with sea gleam." (p. 42)

(p. 43): a list of marine birds. Simpson wants us to know she's studied the library's pelagic thrust. Undoubtedly carved some walks on sand and pier.

(p. 46): "Sun shot through leaves, leaves, leaves."

I know of no other phrase as precious as "shot through" unless it's "shot through with light". The triple exit makes for a nice unintended irony, though. Oops! Two lines later: "Sun shot through trees." The sun is dangerous enough. Do we have to duck it from its assault behind natural hiding places?

(p. 48): "Someone's hand, a sweeping gesture in a window."

Suspense. Suggestion as importance. Letting the reader fill in ... what?

"The woman doesn't think herself old until the girl moves through her."

The paranormal is apparently one of the hottest selling sub-genres, lately. Robert J. Wiersema would be envious. It takes him over 300 pages to have the sympathetic dead enter the sympathetic living.

The poem "Life Magazine" (p 50) is, so far, the book's most pukeworthy effort. "Two monks doused Thich Quang Duc with gasoline, set him on fire." Why doesn't she just insert the news headline? Wrapped up seven clipped sentences later. Pain as idea. As opportunity for ... "Afterwards, his heart. Untouched plum." It takes a peculiar talent to not only suffocate a poem with a final line, but to take a dull meat-cleaver to it.

(p. 52): "Stink of gas and burning flesh." I believe "stink" is slightly redundant, and takes the immediacy and shock out of "burning flesh". But maybe that's just me. I just finished a YA novel written at a level of effectively-transmitted sophistication far above the faith Simpson shows for her reader. This, and the next five poems, takes another six disposable snapshots for that fifteen-years running overcrowded album: the poetry photo album. Sensitive (yet Olympian-cool, Olympian-frosty, even) poet scans war/family/art photo (sometimes painting), puts herself in place of tortured/sad subject, and concentrates on the traded chiaroscuro. The dead get a quick sigh (never a shudder), are put away, and we're left with horror-as-aesthetic, just another game to play between (in this case) cellular gobbledegook and placemats for the Titanic. Ralph Gustafson's "The Newspaper" (from the poem sequence "Phases of the Present") has a narrator looking at a war photo, too. The genius of the poem -- in artistic fashioning too detailed to describe here -- is that it implicates the narrator, transparently the author, and that the "face/Down" is both historically accurate and a blistering denunciation of Western complacency. In one of the six "photo" poems, Simpson includes the picture taker, but it's thrown into the remove unconvincingly, a tacked-on idea that isn't integrated with anything else in the wandering study in how-to-look-at-a-photo. John Berger's novel G has a similar style, in places, but you feel you've been there, or at least could be there, even if he hasn't.

I could go on -- there's another 36 pages, and I've read them -- but this has become unwieldy.

It would be funny if it weren't tragic how the forces of "write only what you know" have scared off much serious speculative work in poetry -- political, historical, religious, sexual -- yet it's A OK to give an authoritative inside-out biography of a cell. I suppose the takeaway here is "regression rules".

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Meredith Quartermain's Recipes from the Red Planet

Meredith Quartermain's 2010 Recipes from the Red Planet, published by BookThug, didn't make it to this year's Governor General's poetry award shortlist, which must be somewhat equivalent to being repeatedly passed over in a shorthanded pick 'em pick-up indoor soccer game. Most other potential players, at least, never had a chance, locked out and deaf to the proceedings. The funniest part of that story? Recipes from the Red Planet is clearly a better book than its more celebrated home team competitors, so the McCaffery-led cabal couldn't even get that right.

I'd read one previous book of poetry by this author -- Vancouver Walking -- and though footnotes on local history also appear in this latest collection, they're far fewer, and have passion (in drips if not surges) filtering through their veins, as in "On my way to the overpass".

Gone, too, are the boring walkabouts and schoolroom lessons. These are replaced in Recipes from the Red Planet by language and rhythm that churns and declaims. The tone is relatively narrow, but is convincing and confident ("winding around me its magnetic flux of elastic vibrations -- until I threw off Bellerophon and kicked in the Helicon which they now call the horse fountain" from "She would"). I don't like "magnetic flux", but I'm not an overbearing stickler for detail when the voice and its sounds are this much fun.

The lessons, though mixed with sweeter medicine, keep a comin', however. Quartermain, through her narrators, has a big problem with authority of many kinds. And those authority figures -- whether bosses, politicians, mythic beings, or local heroes -- are invariably male. The ladies are persistent, tough, clever, or (to reach back into a more tilted patriarchal past) forgiveably winsome. And when a specific brute isn't handy, a generalized one will do, in the guise of unthinking (by creator and receiver) advice. "Directors Change Directions" is just one example of the latter tendency: "Don't touch. Don't skateboard. Don't talk with your mouth full." (Ah, to make a poem completely out of cliche and homily. To alter another popular phrase: "try this at home, kids, because anyone can do it!").

But "Directors Change Directions" and "Maximal" aren't just about guy-knows-best (or brainwashed woman-knows-best), they are list poems. Credit Quartermain for sticking to her belief in the poetics of her male masters. The so-called patriarchal dominant and subjective clauses must be powered over by the matriarchal, all-inclusive steamroller. Samuel Beckett wrote apparently levelling sentences, but there are exquisite shifts and ironical shenanigans going on within those units in Molloy, for example. Most other mortals haven't approached that kind of sophistication, though, which just goes to prove that theory which promotes "only one way" is both narrow-minded and exclusive of nuanced (ironically so) vertical evaluation, whether paratactic or (the form of most speech and thought) hypotactic. The anti-authoritarians don't or won't see their own attempts to dominate. The paratactical straightjacket limits syntax, rhythmical range, dynamics, mood, reverie, thought, and time signatures in all sorts of ways, and what results from the Oulipian, supposedly democratic arrangement is a temptation to flatline. Hence, the list.

A list, by nature, has no coherent beginning or ending, no arc, no reference within the structure. (All language has some kind of structure, even in brain-damaged individuals.) So all endings are arbitrary. Many of these poems could be fifteen lines shorter or fifteen thousand lines longer without helping or harming the finished product stylistically or structurally. After you've click-clicked through a few, the lists -- and the paratactical hopscotching -- start(s) to run away from the voice like the engine of a train separating from the other rolling cars.

At 119 pages, Recipes from the Red Planet feels like too much ice cream after too little protein, but since the diction and playfulness are an improvement over her previous starvation diet in Vancouver Walking, the meal is often enjoyable if not filling.