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.

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