Monday, December 31, 2012

My fave books of 2012

A little rushed this year, but most of these I've already covered at some point. Doesn't include books I'd previously read one time or more.

1) Orhan Pamuk, Snow (2005). Blogged 12 hours ago.

2) Orhan Pamuk, The Museum Of Innocence (2009). Blogged April 24th.

3) Ken Babstock, Methodist Hatchet (2011). Reviewed earlier this year for subTerrain.

4) Carmine Starnino, Lazy Bastardism (2012). Blogged Nov 13th.

5) Leigh Kotsilidis, Hypotheticals (2011). Poems which use scientific exploration not as self-important muddle, but as genuine observation and extrapolation. They don't all work, and a few cute tricks are replayed much too often (the end-line/mid-line full rhymes), though I can overlook flat effects next to the exciting "what are we driving ourselves into" (top notch poem).

Orhan Pamuk's Snow

One gets an idea that a novel may be a bit of all right when three heavyweight writers step to the scale with vastly different readings of it. John Updike liked Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (2005), though he was discouraged by its tonal resignation; Christopher Hitchens panned the novel, imputing to its author a cowardly skirting of contemporary history and moral sympathies; and Margaret Atwood raved about it, though mostly from the gender angle. That all three eminent writers are off base (at least Atwood covered well what she did focus on) is another feather in the lapel for Pamuk, who continues to confound ideologues, whether aesthetic or political or cultural, and astound with complex stories – one might call them postmodern fables – engaged with human dilemmas in prose both practically intelligent and mysterious.

I dislike plot summary reviews in anything but barebones-impetus outlining, so here goes. The narrator (whose story is told by a fictional Orhan Pamuk who will be inserted into the novel after the half-way point) travels to Kars, a crushingly impoverished town in northeastern Turkey, after a twelve year political exile in Frankfurt, ostensibly to attend his mother’s funeral, but really to catch up with a flame (Ipek) from his teen years when they lived in Istanbul. A snowstorm redundantly shuts off  Kars from the outside world, Turkey or otherwise, and narrator Ka gets on as a journalist to investigate a story about girls and women of the town who commit suicide as a response to Ataturk’s  legacy of monochromatic secularism. The girls, you see, have been forced to remove their head scarves at school.

The plot, like any good postmodern romp in the bed of Pynchon or Tarantino, quickly evolves into a labyrinthine series of twists which incorporate past elements but also  further mysteries that take our befuddled guide into zones where he can only record. And it’s this recording, this wise and careful observation, that the above three reviewers seemed to miss. Regarding Updike, of course Ka’s reaction is passive and halfhearted. That’s the point. The novel is titled so, and the snowstorm is a giant sledgehammer of a hint, in order to underscore Pamuk’s intention. (Hitchens makes this mistake, too.) Pamuk, through his main character, but also through the poor (in spirit and physical resources) town residents, reveals how inertia is self-perpetuating, a law of physics. Hitchens wants a heroic attempt through the lens of political morality, but nothing in the novel lets the subjugated off the hook, though Pamuk does succeed in painting them with sympathetic colours. The Muslim terrorist Blue? Hitchens thinks he gets singled out as the strong candidate for our approval, but Pamuk’s point is that – though Blue is imprisoned – the secular military are there to keep power. The spiritually gentle, of which Pamuk has much to say through several remarkable characters, don’t pose a threat, so of course they aren’t going to get the same kind of “martyrdom” as the troublemakers.That said, Hitchens is astoundingly obtuse about the young Muslim students Necip and Fazil. Pamuk's attitude towards them is complex. He gently mocks them (Hitchens misses the point of the stilted dialogue -- some people do talk that way), but he also saves a large piece of his fictional heart for those two, caught up in religious narrow-mindedness, secular indifference and selfishness, and economic and intellectual stagnation throughout the town.

Atwood eschews tonal preferences and political siding for pointless gender speculation on what drives men to write puzzle-within-puzzle-within-puzzle novels. (Because a woman protagonist would be snuffed out before the first plot twist resolution, she concludes. I’m not sure I follow, since a woman author can choose any character – male or female, bold or tentative – she wants as a spokesperson.) But she makes some on-the-mark points about situational gender roles, even if they’re relatively reductive.

Snow’s  scope lends itself to thematic concentration. Unfortunately, the peculiar and consistent concerns of these authors in their own creative writings spill over into their reviews, and were one to consult them before reading Pamuk’s masterpiece, the general impression of the novel might be one of a polished or cracked pane rather than a sun-refracting cathedral mosaic. I choose that metaphor with care because, ultimately, the book is worshipful and spiritually investigative. Its many scenes of ghostly night-walking overseen by the hidden, lurking informers and military low-level collection men, its interior philosophical jousting between sexual need and solitary meditation, its heartbreaking rendering of the protagonist’s last days in Germany and the follow-up questing by character-Pamuk in securing Ka’s 19 poems in a book form that may or may not exist – these and other considerations show the author in a mood both expansive and quiet, and there’s no getting around the incredible feeling of desperation mixed with the occasional balm of understanding that suffuses the novel’s conclusion.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Lorna Crozier's Small Mechanics

I’ve already provided a year-end review paragraph-bite on the poetry of Lorna Crozier, as well as an anecdote on squishing a mammoth moth that touched down on a poem of hers I was reading in Everything Arrives at the Light. So why one more review visit? Because after finishing her latest book, 2011’s Small Mechanics, I turned to the online feedback, and other than Shane Neilson’s spot-on take on the matter, voices were unanimous in their praise. With over 95% of poets, this doesn’t matter since time renders the passing enthusiasms of the heavily-weighted “yes!” camp to an eventual “maybe”, then “meh”, and finally “who?”. The problem here, however, stems from Crozier’s position in the poetry community. In her post as writing instructor at the University of Victoria,  dispensations in that capacity winning her the 2004 Distinguished Professors Award, not to mention her numerous other tributes, prizes, honorary doctorates in unrelated fields, benefit readings, and receiving-end flapdoodle panegyrics, her stature as poet and -- most important to my point – shaper of poets, is unimpeachable. It shouldn’t be. The flaws which accumulate in almost every one of her poems in any of her sixteen books are not subtle, even though disagreements always end up in that futile but partially understandable “matters of taste” concession. Many people enjoy her poetry, too, so it’s not just a case of students keeping their heads down and handing in party-line papers. But when a poet who has grave problems in fundamental areas of composition – including, but not limited to, image, metaphor, tone, rhythm, diction, organic control, voice and vision –  also teaches the young and naive who, to their defense, note the prefatory distinctions of that teacher, the situation is far worse than a once-lauded poet slowly fading into obscurity. Those students, and their students, form much of the reinforced connective edifice that dominates the landscape for another few generations, like mutant, identical Wal-Mart stores in different cities continually squeezing out the hope-against-hope Mom-and-Pop outlets where gems occasionally reside, untouched before the foreclosures or buy-outs.


Crozier’s first poem in the collection starts out with a grammatical error. “Not a living soul about,/except for me and the magpie.” This is, of course, mixing the singular and plural constructs. The enjambment between lines 6 and 7 contradicts the effect she’s trying to reach: “on his tongue before it slides/down his throat.” If she had wanted to emphasize the pause after “taste”, a more believable and sensuous quick-time imagining, a much more effective break would have occurred as, “taste it on his tongue/before it slides down his throat.” Next up: “He’s the bird Noah didn’t send out,/afraid he’d carry the ark’s complaints to heaven.” Why would the magpie feel so compelled? If a magpie refused to mourn Christ at His crucifixion, I’m not sure what motivation it would have to fly to heaven with its complaints. Besides, after refusing entrance into the ark, I’m sure it was more than happy sitting on the roof while the other obedient animals were stuffed into an unbearably stifling indoor situation, not to mention the other birds which obviously suffered even greater problems. Then we come to, “Tonight he scallops from the copse of willows/to the power pole”. The choice of “scallops” makes no sense in this context. Of the five verb variations of the word, none have to do with moving, flying, flitting (etc.) from one place to another. Two lines later: “the bird part of my brain lit up”. Unintentional humour in an otherwise disastrous poem, I admit, offers a little entertainment value, but I don’t think it strengthens the overall impression. The pronoun in “He flips his tail”, a few lines later, confuses the preceding subjects (she means the magpie, not the coyote), as well as making a gender assumption. Next, Crozier describes the magpie’s song: “bringing up the oboes/then the high notes of the flutes.” Has Crozier attended to the timbre and pitch of the oboe? I haven’t yet heard the bird who could mimic the scary low registers of that instrument. Then, after a fanciful interlude which hides its inflated nature anecdote behind a parable, the poem concludes with, “mouthfuls of silence that, if not for coyotes,/the magpie would hear.” Now, this is puzzling. Who is the magpie here? Remember, Crozier inserted herself into the poem’s first sentence. It’s “me and the magpie”. Is the coyote a deflected stand-in for the poet? If so, does that make the coyote-poet the successful protector of the victims of thieves and others who would “pluck/the breath from my body”? The entire conceit seems rather overblown. If one is superstitious (though the Chinese regard the magpie as a “bird of joy”), there’s plenty of advice on how to eliminate the curse of seeing the lone bird by chance. I’m fond of the “Hello, Mr. Magpie, where is your wife?” option, but then, I’m just considering an entertaining game of armchair prophecy, not making a case as a Messiah for poetic expression.


This is a real head-scratcher. The wild grasses are silent, and “the meadow is more beautiful//for all it keeps inside.” But there is no inside and outside with nature. The poet receiving “syllables of seeds” when communing with the “beautiful” has nothing to do with nature’s withholding. It’s not pathetic fallacy at its worst, fortunately, but it’s something almost equally insidious: the poet who, once interpreting nature’s silent bounty, is elevated by an indiscriminate belief that any and all words that record reverent outdoorsy vagaries are due their proper awe. There are a million and one nature poems by awful poets, whether published in respectable journals or gathering dust on shelves. Let’s assess the poems as poems, not as automatic spiritual triumphs because of subject matter alone.


Shane Neilson has already unearthed the creepy meaning here for those unaware of  Crozier’s position as creative writing instructor. It must warm the hearts of those students to find themselves being referred to as infants. It just brings out the dark side of matronly oversight. And of course, some parents don’t allow their offspring to grow up, but if those diaper-swaddled cuties ever do, look out.


The comma isn’t a typo. This is a particularly clumsy way of laying out the title-as-first-line poem. “[E]very time we speak,/our words are mist, are rain”. Then, three lines of nature inflation later, “[s]ometimes//our words are snow.” Again, we have a simple parallel error. The first “every” is then incorrect. But Crozier likes to get carried away, and then forgets to pull home the kite after her reappraisal of the wind. Cliches and dull descriptions take over: “the sting of winter”, “everything inside us/freezes shut”. The poem ends as so many bad poems do, in a hopeless grab at spiritual profundity: “our mouths odd//with cold and urgently dry/from the effort of making/no sad sound.”


“[W]ind grieving/in the poplar trees.” Whoops. There’s our Ruskin bustin’. Despite that, the conceit here – a history of a transplanted heart – is handled with sympathy and, at times, vivid transposition. “Often//it skips a beat – grouse explode from ditches.” And later: “Some nights it is a sail billowing/with blood, a raw fist punching.” I especially like the appropriate “b” alliteration.


Here’s the first stanza:

“They don’t show up that often
and when they do, it’s possible
to ignore them like all the other things
that go on while you sleep.”

This is a sleepwalking poet, dictating her nocturnal urges. It’s lifeless even if you were to eliminate the line breaks and read it as prose. Later on, we’re treated to “misforgotten”. Is this like one of the current euphemism-lies, “misspoke”? But at least there’s a connection in logic to the latter verbal indiscretion. How can one forget incorrectly? Or does Crozier mean it’s a mistake to forget? But to forget something isn’t an act of will. That’s why criminals on the stand often fall back on the lie, when Perry Mason grills them on their whereabouts the night of Oct 7th, between 8:00 p.m. and 8:17 p.m.: “I don’t recall”. “In snow’s unmothering abundance” begins the final stanza. The emotions are evoked consistently well after the first stanza, but the main problem with the poem is its layered abstraction. With such an emotional subject, a symbolic nature-ordering works much more effectively when there’s a corresponding vividness involving the reality of that loss. Crozier could be talking about someone specific, but she’s talking about Loss, with the capital L, philosophically. It mutes any dramatic effect and emotional scarring the poem might have otherwise achieved.


“It’s taken the rising sun two hours/to find these hills. It will take less time/tomorrow. Few things you’re sure of,/this is one”. Thousands of years ago, the scientifically unsophisticated lived in terror of sundown. They didn’t know if the sun would rise again the next day. We can smile now, but it’s a good reminder that playing the spiritual victim over another two reduced minutes of sunlight in early December doesn’t get a reasonable person’s sympathies involved for our common latitudinal fate. And when the theme is empty, it’s hard to avoid the follow-up misplaced importance. Thus: “What is winter in you begins/to shift, begins to feel like a hunger.” Instead of describing an actual person, not one of anyone undergoing the same seasonal shifts, Crozier goes, once again, for the lazy abstraction. The second-person murkiness is just a platform for her to wax profound on banal and often-visited tropes. And it’s not like the language resuscitates a dying theme. “The bird lands anyway, the black nibs of its feet/scratching commas on your palm”. But, aha! Now the reader understands it’s not about sharing a common lugubrious moment with everyone else north of the 49th. It’s about the poor poet who, much like winter’s onset, undergoes fallow periods in her career trajectory, where the words will not break through the earth, or whatever trampled-to-death metaphor another would select. The linguistic “commas”, here, is a common sight in the book, and, indeed, among many other contemporary poets. This is no better than the postmodern obsession with talking directly about poetic process in poems. The concern is narcissistic, and the effect is one of indifference, even cold disdain among those who have no idea of, or no concern for, the struggling creative fortunes of poets condemned to a life of being dragged here and there by a capricious muse. This kind of selfishness and self-importance has no equal in other non-word art forms. And why “commas”? Shouldn’t it be scraping erasures? Too bad it’s just an imaginative foray. Such a bird I could really sympathize with.


“Did you know an ant has four/olfactory organs on its antennae;/the female mouse, a clitoris?” So begins the revelation. Why stop there? According to that great source of animal wisdom, wikipedia, “the spotted hyena, which has a particularly well-developed clitoris, urinates, mates and gives birth via the organ.” I mean, if the object is to produce shock, or at least surprise, in the reader, why pull up short on first base? But of course, this is Crozier, and we’re not dealing with facts for the sake of learning in scattered accumulation. Soon comes the real poem, for which the opener was just a table-setting excuse: “Did you know that grass has legs and feet?/That’s why it’s never still/but runs on the spot like a child in an old gymnasium.” Facts are cute, then, but mere triflings when compared with the imaginative profundities that arrive with the spin-off. If anyone can make sense of that gym simile, they’re cleverer than I.


“Lichen” is one more entry (we’re only at poem #9) in the poem-and-poet-as undiscovered-brilliance catalogue. “Something that comes close to holy:/you must fall on your knees/to see it clearly.” This is didactic mysticism at its worst. Listen up, unholy students. And listen reverently. This poem is more than worthy, sings Crozier. The next stanza has some nifty music – “tactile photo of the crab nebula/blazed into mineral” – which transitions immediately into, “like the bright side of a shadow/burned into a Hiroshima wall.” Uh oh.


The moon is given its due as another personified benefactor that has turned its back on ungrateful humans. (We’re not sure why, since there’s no backstory or complementary contrast.) When D. H. Lawrence wrote on the same conceit, he didn’t have a silent, withholding moon as mirror for the “no one, no one, no one will fall/in love” of Crozier’s bathetic ending. He placed a god where the moon lamented, and had him speak. The first-person contrast was dramatic and damning, there was a personality at work, not the Crozier-as-moon sadness which, self-important as always, can’t help anyone with its unheeded wisdom. Here’s Lawrence/Quetzalcoatl: “Get rid of their heaviness,/Their lumpishness,/Or I’ll smother them all./I’ll shake the earth, and swallow them up, with their cities./I’ll send fire and ashes upon them.”. A few lines later: “For the sun and the moon are alive, and watching with gleaming eyes./And the earth is alive, and ready to shake off his fleas. And the stars are ready with stones to throw in the faces of men.” The poem extends to further elements, with further dire consequences. The striking thing to note is the contrast in mood. It’s Old Testament vs New Testament. But whereas a good case can be made for the New Testament in that old argument over which reaction (or initial action) is best in an ungrateful world, in Crozier’s New Testament creation, indifference or a weird passive-aggressive withdrawal replaces compassion. Lawrence’s poem is studded with his usual flaws – repetition ad nauseum, didacticism – but it’s an honest poem, and gives contours and boldness in the face of actual vices which engender that opposition.


And it’s here, patient reader, that I stop, (thanks to the last poem’s title’s cue). I don’t have the time (though I have the inclination) to go through the next 71 poems in like fashion. Many of my arguments would become variations on a redundancy, anyway, since Crozier, as evidenced by comparisons with her previous books, brings similar thematic material, with similar attendant problems, to the table. I sincerely hope that my words have enraged one or more Crozier poetry lovers to respond with their own review(s), because the pathetic attempts at investigation I’ve stumbled across haven’t amounted to more than non sequiturs and mood agreement. One good poem, several others with promising scenarios or realized lines, and one excellent line (from the titular poem) – “The shadow in the empty barn has blood in it” – doesn’t add up to a successful book, but, you know, it’s impossible to subvert a rushing, rising waterline. This is just one sandbag. And I know there’re a few others out there. Nature, malevolent or benign, triumphs in the end. Here’s hoping for an abatement during the current hurricane era.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Triny Finlay's Histories Haunt Us

Sometimes a book’s associations are so alien to the person reading it that the latter can only concede defeat in making a bridge to the work. Such was the case for me when attempting to gain anything from Triny Finlay’s 2010 Histories Haunt Us. The first components that puzzle are the headings for the first five poems. Not a sequence, suite, or connected whole, they comprise five separate poems,but they’re pegged as “Abstract Loss, 1”, “Abstract Loss, 2”, and so on, until 5. This suggests that the poems are separate entities, even though they display a titular connection. The confusion increases after reading each poem since we're treated to a disjointed personal history that could just as well have no title, or even merge with the rest of the book. The first poem is bizarre. It references John Thompson in line one, and is composed in five couplets, so the obvious conclusion is that it’s an English ghazal or bastard ghazal, where the strict rules of the Arabian form, let alone the spiritual yearning and grief-with-joy coexistence is neutered, if not eliminated entirely. Actually, as a flippant Andy Weaver would define the term (and what’s a modern ghazal if not flippant or slapdash – cf. Margo Button’s shameless attempts), this is more appropriately a bastard bastard ghazal since its most important rule – contained couplets – is broken. Rumi? As Alice Cooper sang, “I’m so adaptable for you”. The first couplet is self-contained, as is the second. And there’s the leap in subject between them. So far, it’s the singular bastard. But then, there’s another jump, and the enjambment begins between couplets. And the content, or narrative, is of a piece. So we have a bastard mixed with a bastard bastard. This is like a novice “revolutionary” unsure of how far to go. One of column B, and one of column Q. And the content? Line 6: “Purple orchids slumped like shamed teenagers.” Now I know that our subjective experiences colour all our emotions and thoughts. But this line shows how a past emotional trauma or (at least) unresolved or difficult memory can intrude on the most innocent of sightings. It reminds me of the old game where one tells another, repeatedly, not to think of pink elephants. Even here, in a neutral thought experiment, we can see how the mind is diverted, and how our will can be a puny and wayward force unable to marshall our thoughts. But poetry, if it’s any good at all, isn’t about regurgitating whatever happens to spill into our minds at any and all times. It’s as much about editing and exclusion as it is about what is said. And of course, what is said then has to be ordered or, if that’s too militaristic a choice of words, shaped into something more memorable, apt, and metaphorical. In what world are purple orchids like shamed teenagers? Or – in what world are shamed teenagers like purple orchids? Wouldn’t a shamed teenager show red instead? Would the slumping be that graceful? But Finlay, as the book proceeds, isn’t interested in using images in order to effect comparable associations. The best surrealist poetry could achieve this. Disparate images can  work. But they work in the same way that slivers of dream sequences do, by a feathery tail-link to what came before it. Finlay wrenches the first image into a distorted second comparable, the better to engineer what’s really on her mind: her narcissistic and crushingly depressing 6 x 8 internal world.

There are far too many other examples to use as evidence, and it’d be piling on to a pile-up, anyway. But I’ll include a few all the same, since quoting is necessary.

“What Is Cut Or Negative”


“After the bliss of the baby came the flies.


They cruised through a hole
in the screen and gathered,
a buzz of watchful parishioners.”

What is the relationship between the flies as parishioners and the newborn baby? It was a blissful occasion, after all. Here’s where a backstory, a meta-explanation, is necessary. Because without it, confusion is amplified. It turns out that the author’s lover left soon after their child was born. But even with this knowledge – (and surprise! autobiography is elevated) – questions persist. Why are the flies parishioners? Are the parasitic dregs the man who flees? But if so, it’s a poor association, since flies stay in order to feed, and in any case they gorge on garbage, not the actual fruits (of a relationship). Is it self-castigation? Flies as mind, feeding on the mind’s garbage? Or (what I believe, and what fits the orchids-as-teenagers link) is it just one more slapped-on cheap metaphor for attempted shock value, to underline that the writer is suffering, and that that fact alone validates and excuses emotional falsity and moral assumption?

Hysterical poems inevitably include lists since the catalogue of whatever’s-on-hand nouns increases the force of the simple assertion at the list’s outset. Hence, “Prestidigitation”, wherein “[f]or my next trick I will devastate all insects.” (Maybe that fly-parishioner was the departing lover.) And a few lines later:

“And balconies
potted plants
flimsy window screens
patio doors
knives in blocks
heavy televisions


But if orchids can be teenagers, then any of us are allowed to complete the puzzle by equating patio doors with admen, potted plants with yesmen, and knives in blocks with stab wounds by troubled lovers. There’s no end to this kind of imprecision. If leaps are going to be long and wild, there needs to be some accountability.

And speaking of leaping, after this latest poem, the long and final section commences, and it’s – yes – a series of 26 bastard bastard ghazals. The book’s opener was just a tease. I’ll let those who truly value ghazals fulminate on these stabs and feints. But this isn’t modification. It’s belittling. Why are these narcissistic burblings set in a cheapened ghazal form? Well, Finlay has some roots in New Brunswick, and Thompson thundered and blundered in that province. A bad boy romantic, he was an attractive possibility for poets who loved the authoritative subversiveness he represented while disguising its responsibility in the incompleteness of the Canadian ghazal. And Finlay is up to the template here. (xxii) starts out with “vaguely, just vaguely, from my point of view: into/ the book about red, for the world about flight, about red/running out, or growing wings, volcano-like, monstrous.” Monster, flies/flight; incomplete conceits. That is, until the melodrama later in the same poem. Why, then, a ghazal, which lives in association? This is a ham-handed, slow link. Now, each of these 26 pieces have, in the book’s back-page notes, a listing of the corresponding authors who gave birth to these efforts. But with any good allusion, the entire point is to disguise it artfully so as to elicit a guess or surprised and pleased recognition from the reader. This is like providing the answers in bold text right next to the blank crossword. Just because it’s “hidden” after the poems doesn’t make it a mystery. Associations should be there to be discovered for months or even years, not garnered in a casual glance at the back matter after completing the poem sequence the first go around. And “red/running out”? Mary Wollstonecraft gets the nod, but Katia Grubisic also would like to raise a hand. It’s funny because it also reveals a young poet anxious to be seen as having read the canon (intoned in a slow baritone). Let’s face it: these ghazal-lites, or rather sham-ghazals, have nothing of the regenerative, let alone sacred, in them, despite the closing, stuttering last two hysterical depictions, and the last-gasp insincere positive sop-throw, “The truth is, it stings, it sings to me now.” The truth is? That reminds me of businessmen who say “frankly” to preface their imprecisions.

Triny Finlay, after two books, is a creative writing teacher. I remember when a mentor was a forbidding presence, the gulf between student and master so wide that it caused the former to either quit in logical hopelessness or get on board with manic ambition. But this kind of authority can only lead to a confused student union, and a discipleship with more fervency than talent.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Barry Dempster's Dying A Little

Dying A Little (2011) is Barry Dempster’s fourth volume of poetry in three years, at least two of the collections, including this latest effort, lengthy. There are three reasons --  among others, I’m sure – poets turn the compositional/publishing spigot to full-on 83 bar firehose.  They’re assaulted, usually at the height of great career powers, by images and integrated visions, the poets serving as faithful conduit, rarely editing anything in the process. Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus is one example. They’re cynically gaming the academic publish-or-perish system to stay “relevant”. Or they’re doing what most poets do, writing a lot of verse, the difference being that their internal editor and assessor is asleep or is ignored because of grandiosity or immodesty. Reason number one doesn’t apply to Dempster. And I believe in the sincerity of his attempts, which leaves that last option as my best guess. But whatever the genesis for the poetic logorrhea, the result in the reader is often one of irritation and impatience. The impatience is increased in that Dempster, in Dying a Little, is going over much of the same material – mortality – he’s been concerned with in his more recent works. This is even more disturbing in that Dempster is just 60 years of age. The reader can be fairly safe in assuming an even greater intensification of his singular obsession in the next (5? 12?) books.

It didn’t have to be that way. Dempster is an interesting man with a lot of interesting things to intuit and submit about sexual entropy and the approaching pit. The trouble, once again, is that, despite various scenarios, anecdotes, and fantasies, the tape is stuck in a recurring loop.

Dying A Little owes its impetus from the author’s friend, Cathy Stanley, who died at 50 from breast cancer. Dempster uses this as a launching pad for similar meditations on mortality – his, his father’s, friends, the general ruck of humankind. His recent Blue Wherever similarly uses his father’s death to include others, but in both books Dempster spends as much or more time on lamenting nature’s plan as it plays out in him than on anyone else. When at his best, Dempster leavens the mortal forboding with deliciously dark humour, as in “Headline: Dying Without A Will Can Be Devastating”, where “[h]e thinks of leaving his fingers/to the secretarial pool, his eyes/to the back of  someone’s previously/unimportant head.” The final four lines, not recorded here, increase the surprise with more humour, but this time wedded to a painfully bleak and universal human predilection. Stunning stuff, and I could read this kind of confessional bite for hours. But – again, blame in on entropy, if you want – we only have so many bullets in our chambers. After a terrific opening in which six of the first seven poems are various and exciting, realized and dramatically gripping, the poems tend to blend one with another into a kind of self-pitying soup. The indignities of aging, the meaninglessness of going on, unbreachable sexual and emotional understanding between those in a relationship, the rush to get on with our lives while ignoring those around us: all of these concerns are universal, certainly, and rendered in honest and sometimes imaginative ways, but repetition in theme and mood takes over, and the crafted delights turn labourious, even strained. In “Bonfire”, “[t]he neighbours are burning again tonight,”, an unfortunate syntactic choice (“heaps of what used to be a tree” in the next line doesn’t erase the unintentional laugh). Later in the same poem, “[n]ight sweating,/cinders trickling down columns of //darkness” is an overblown reaction to a (usually) festive communal activity. If Dempster would get out of his own head and emotions occasionally, and use his formidable intelligence to fashion an emotional line incorporating others’ perspectives, the bulk of his efforts wouldn’t pile up in “nothing/but a ring of blackened stones”, but in a fascinating mix of oppositional ideas, or even complementary though off-key comparisons.

Dempster is becoming another John B. Lee of Canadian poetry: a talented maker of poems who might leave behind (in optimistic irony to his poetic persona) a lasting impact but for the heaps of wet branches tossed every few minutes onto a furious base fire. It’s more frustrating because, unlike Lee, Dempster actually has the severity and restraint to sustain his best poems from the first to last word.

Patrick Friesen's jumping in the asylum

After reading Patrick Friesen's mawkish 1999 "carrying the shadow" (blogged a few years back), I hesitated to pick up anything by him for quite a while. After a few chance readings of several of his newer poems from two journals -- poems markedly improved in severity and rigour -- I decided to pick up his 2011 offering, “jumping in the asylum”. George Amabile, in the back cover promo, calls these poems “jazz improvisations”. It’s a good descriptor. Friesen has forsaken the clipped yet flabby line in favour of unpunctuated shifts between remembered image, commentary, and philosophical questioning. At their best, lines create a near-seamless engagement with unexpected turns of thought, past and present impressions achieving a liquid curve by a quick neural flip to another line, or phrase within a line. But Friesen can also stay with moments and ride them so that sensations aren’t a showy noodling, a splash of disengaged elements the reader is left to puzzle over, and it's a good challenge to a current suspicion of the benefit of integration in a post-post world. As such, “anna and rose” sets the memory in a haunting, charming this-happened-even though-no-one-remembers elegy: “those who crossed this field the horse that stood in the/shade and rubbed its hide against the bark/anna holding generations in her lap singing her childish/songs before she put away her stuffed lamb”. The next stanza pulls back to observe the observer and what happened: “sunday there was nothing all day but time and green stains/and the breathless bride on the steps”.

Hard to get away with “time” and “beauty” and “death” repeatedly, though. Not that Friesen overwrites as much as he frequently wants to step back from the image to explore meaning, though his open-ended manoevres are usually less than enlightening. Just one example, from “room 205”, where “gazing at the sandstone shine/of st. mary’s in late light/bags of rain hanging over the steeple and caught in some/contradiction of time//somewhere in the city you made a voice somewhere in the/blinding snow”. Vague rambling isn’t laudable open-mindedness. The preceding image is obliterated, and any inferred or implied meaning from that image is lost with it, as well. That brings up one danger of  run-on, free-form lines: rhythm needs to be strong and various, challenging yet pleasing. Friesen frequently pulls it off, but like an accomplished soloist trying to trade riffs with Coltrane, quite a few transitions are also less than fluid, sometimes awkward --  “it is the shaking day call it that the day when all you/ever knew is shaken into what you know”.

The other danger of the improvisatory approach Friesen has taken up in “jumping in the asylum” is apparent in the gathering sameness of style and effect. Sticking with the jazz comparisons, Lee Morgan could create a sinuous, complex, tasty long line on his trumpet, but he could also slow it down and soften it with a sustained, subtly lilting exhalation or a slow and staccato pattern. Friesen’s like the energetic listener who hears a breathless solo and can’t wait to get on his instrument and play his own version (or new creation) without pause through the night and into the next day. The poems rarely reach the second page, but it’s the tempo and emotional effect that matters here, not each poem’s length. Though the style is repetitive, kudos to Friesen for twinning melancholy and swift association. Can’t say I’ve encountered that combo in quite this way before.

I look forward to Friesen’s next release, and because of this volume, I look for any book or more of his I’ve missed in the last few years.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Mona Fertig’s The Unsettled

The quintessential West Coast poem has the author-narrator reclining on a bamboo rocker while gazing across the Juan de Fuca Strait’s expanse, haze or fog acting as all-purpose counterpoint to the setting sun. As a representative image in The Unsettled, Mona Fertig’s 2010 collection of poetry, it’s unfair to link it so. But as metaphor for vague longing or disturbance vs spiritual satisfaction (if not realization), it’s an apt image throughout the book. Then again, there’s “Quiet lights thread along a distant road across the bay” from a poem in the middle movement.

Fertig’s loosely-linked diary ruminations accrue in five sections. The opening series of poems depict a personal journey to, in, and from Mackie House, a heritage home that seeks out and accepts artist-visitors for overnight (and longer) stays. Her trip links the House’s more lurid histories – suicides, hauntings – with a personal fear of the unknown. It’s a fantastic idea for an extended suite, but Fertig drops the ball. The hauntings are a tease, the personal demons unexpressed and undifferentiated (a mother bear and her cubs appear several times like dazed refugees from an overpopulated Yosemite). Stupefying cliches follow in their wake: “[B]lack as night”, “dim light is still depressing”. After another desultory patch, the break between subsection 18 and 19 (out of 22) clumsily splices the scene into “After two weeks in residence/it is time to leave.” Three lines later, “I am glad to be back on Salt Spring.” And in the longer final subsection, “Chief-White-Buffalo-Man-Many-Feathers/from the Okanagan Nation” gives the House emergency cleansing. Would that the reader was so fortunate. Fertig’s final lines: “I try to settle on words for this journey./But find only/mystery and relief.” And here we have it. The journey has nothing for the reader. It’s a poet (any person, really) talking out loud to any stranger who’ll listen. The connection, the concern, is a closed circuit. I would have loved to have found out something about those ghosts (which would have been real mystery), and about the other people living in the area, the wildlife surrounding it, and a fearless self-appraisal in relation to it all. Don’t blame me for setting the bar so high. The structure of the series invited it. Fertig’s real relief: the Chief was able to eradicate three lingering negative spirits that followed her back to Salt Spring. So much for living with ghosts.

Sections two and three are ostensibly a clear shift – the narrator follows, somewhat uneasily, a young homeless girl as she tries to survive outdoors in the mild climate that attracts other uprooted souls from the harsher environs of Canada. But again, Fertig’s investigations only serve to show she’s sensitive. Barebones, obvious rhetorical ponderings punctuate the poems here: “Where will your spirit wander then?”  At this point, the curious reader may be forgiven for wondering what’s up with all the italics. Has my computer been taken over by a random insurgent text from unquiet ghosts upset by the last paragraph? Alas, it’s both much simpler and more puzzling than that. For whatever reason, Fertig seems to believe that emphasizing certain phrases baptizes them with a kind of permanent poetic dew, encasing the chosen words in a fixed freshness and profundity.

Section four is a rather superior admonishment to a wayward husband. The connection couldn’t be more unconvincing. The viewpoint shifts after several poems from third- to second-person. The suffering wife, in a poem entitled “Tsunami”, undergoes “the tidal wave of grief”. Proportion? Why tamp down an emotion sure to gain its rightful share of sympathetic readers? And poor hubby. I’m not implying anything, understand. (And the relationship could be purely fictitious. Who knows?) But with unsolicited, unimaginative, high- and heavy-handed advice like “Look at the ocean and the stars./See the power in the wide oak”, I’m guessing his scary and desperate boat trip to the great beyond was a last, unsuccessful attempt to get away from “a goddess” who “still fits you like a glove”.

The last section is supposedly a paean to Salt Spring Island itself. Local history was incorporated in a clumsy and distracted fashion. There were some decent attempts to contrast the older boomers with their more restless offspring or with recent transients, but the images didn’t leave much of a residue, and for a 5 1/2 page closer, with its ambitious fifteen-repeater “This is Paradise,”  kicking off each verse paragraph, there was too little euphoria and too much flotsam.

The Unsettled is Fertig’s thirteenth book of poetry, the last five arriving via her (and her husband’s) own press.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Carmine Starnino's Lazy Bastardism

I’m a day late. Last night I’d prepared my opening paragraph to Carmine Starnino’s latest book of poetry criticism, Lazy Bastardism, by predicting that just one of the twenty-four essays would garner most of the buzz and counter-arguments. That essay, “Steampunk Zone”, a general commentary on current poetry trends in this fair land, comprises nine pages of the 263 page tome total, yet Jonathan Ball has already seen fit to come out of the reviewing gate with a hypocritical, nitpicky, shallow, singularly-obsessed snippet-reaction to it. I might come back to it on this blog in the next few weeks or so, but be prepared for a similar focus from poets anxious to defend their new and glorious turf (Michael Lista says there’s a “revolution” currently underway in Canadian poetry), from both the self-styled avantists as well as the more traditionally inclined creators.

So let’s discuss that brief essay in some detail. Starnino’s general thesis is that poets today are excited to dismantle those boring old catch-alls – tradition vs experimental – by combining elements of both into an “anything goes” amalgam. He further contends that, though the results are often stimulating, the reasoning behind the intentions and structural time-bending mixes of those poems are often hard to come to terms with for their questionable rationale and unclear vision. Starnino: “[A]fter a point, after celebrating the explosion of poetic techniques, I have to ask myself: what are all those techniques for, exactly?”. Indeed. And because I love cross-form (and genre) comparisons, here’s Ted Gioia writing about jazz movements in the past half-century:

“This is the jazz world we have inherited, a happily-ever-after in which anything goes, everything goes, and pluralism (not freedom or atonality) is the single guiding principle. There is no sign that this will change anytime soon. Indeed, it is almost inconceivable that it could change. No one in the jazz world believes in the Hegelian force of history any more, even if they pay it lip service...The reality, which everyone can plainly see, is that jazz styles are more like Paris fashions, which must change with the season, but not with some linear sense of inevitability, more just for the sheer fun of it.”

  There are many fascinating and wonky parallels to be gleaned from Gioia’s essay, of which this is but a tiny sample, between 60s experimentation and the experimentation currently underway in both jazz and poetry (Starnino broadens this new “movement’s” scope to include poetry coming out of England and the U.S.) Poets previously enamoured with closed forms and narrative threads are incorporating disjunctive shifts and loose structure; others previously happy to pen their obfuscatory poetics in poems are even more intent on explaining those creations in prose manifestoes and exegesis, using “rational” bridges in their special pleading. Jazz and poetry are also similar today in that both obsessions, always minority reports in the music and word arts respectively, have lost fan numbers in the past half-century. What intrigues me about Gioia’s essay, as it pertains to Starnino’s argument, is that jazz didn’t have to retreat or consolidate on the experiments of the 60s and 70s. It could have gone in any number of directions while still, legitimately, calling itself the avant-garde. But it didn’t. The revolution (not the laughable “revolution” that Lista trumpets) that Ornette Coleman kickstarted became, in Gioia’s words, 

“a venerated tradition in its own right. Part of the allure of this music was its outsider status, its exclusion from the power structures of society, which it was supposed to oppose. Yet someone like Cecil Taylor can point to his Guggenheim Award and MacArthur fellowship, and has played at the White House. (And look at how many other avant-gardists, from Anthony Braxton to George Lewis, have won the so-called MacArthur "genius grants.") Ornette Coleman has had more books devoted, in whole or part, to his career, than almost any other living jazz musician. Universities, foundations, festivals all open their arms to the former revolutionaries. Anyone else might delight in such acceptance and rewards. But those most closely aligned with the Free Jazz movement can only ask "Where did our revolution go?" “. 

The academic adulation here is most telling. Cultural revolutions are formed in the streets, not in the universities. And that – the link with the learneries – is perhaps a good segue in which to note a subset of the hybrid poem: the scientific exploration. Starnino is up to speed here with Adam Dickinson’s “Anatomic: Semiotic Bodies, Chemical Environments for which he plans to subject himself to exhaustive chemical testing.”. A few sentences later Starnino expands on this concern with typical questing insight: “[T]he easy availability of [steampunk] procedures has led to a growing uncertainty about how to discuss such linguistic lab work, or even whether anything meaningful can be said at all.”. Isn’t scientific exploration just a modern variant on the general postmodern strategy of complicating the work for the lay reader so that any self-defense or justification can be headed off before the horse is mounted, let alone headed at the pass? And at the risk of being called out for creating “false binaries”, that tired and superficial argument for those with nothing more to say, I find it troubling that poetry’s practitioners are climbing, with greater regularity, into bed with scientific concepts and procedure. Call me a fossilized fool, an intransigent traditionalist, but I always thought that poetry’s subjectivity was in direct conflict with objective analysis and cool-headed facts. Or if that’s an oversimplification, with abstract and tentative conclusions about those experiments. (Scientific mental masturbation, then, without the payoff.) In any event, as Gioia would say about jazz’s current predicament, the “steampunk” era is here to stay. And just like jazz’s impasse, the overriding concern seems to be “fun” Here’s a note to poets everywhere from my arrogant self. We’ve passed from an ironic age to a tragic one. Young men and women, more than us old-timers, should have more emotion and urgency and recognition about that fact. Until they can put that steampunk recombining into a much more serious and focussed vision (irony is still welcome, but self-congratulatory irony should be out the window) , the communal congratulations will occur in a vacuum. And no, just because the greater unwashed shun any poetry is no excuse. Otherwise, who do you want to write for?

Of course, in his haste to defend his own work,-- the real reason he wrote his review -- Jonathan Ball happened to ignore the twenty essays on individual poets which make up the elephant’s share of the book. Oh, actually, no. Here’s his response , in full, on five of the poets reviewed: Atwood is taken to task for her “lazy languishment in simplistic political prose-with-line-breaks, McKay for devolving into self-parody, and Moritz for sham artistry”. Now, first off, Starnino’s harsh critique of Atwood is pointed at her most recent poetry production. He has much affection and respect for her earlier writings, so it’s ridiculous to conclude that Starnino "dissects their [Atwood included] development and the larger significance of the poetic trends they represent". To encapsulate Starnino’s cogent, forceful reservations about Moritz into “sham artistry” is to not only misrepresent Starnino, but to dump on Moritz with lazy bastard dismissal. Again, Starnino has respect for Moritz’ more earthy images and approaches, as do I (in an earlier blog post on Moritz’s four-book Early Poems). Did Ball read these essays, or just skim in order to get to “Steampunk”? And to characterize McKay as “devolving into self-parody” is to, again, overlook the evidence put forth that McKay’s poetry has developed its concerns even as it's consolidated the self-insertion. Starnino’s reviews are always involved and many-sided, but when a reviewer of a reviewer is just looking at one horse in a race, a hasty tail-sticker application gets one around the track much faster, and with far less effort. Here’s his critique and disagreement with Starnino on the accomplished, entertaining, unfashionably non-academic, non-doctrinaire, vulnerable Peter Trower: “boring”. But of course this doesn’t actually critique the review at all. He answers none of the claims Starnino makes for Trower, and again doesn’t acknowledge the full spectrum of criticism. Starnino has some harsh formulations about Trower’s weak points – sentimentalism, all-purpose diction, flat psychology (I’d disagree somewhat by saying psychologically narrow), tonal instability, dire inaccuracies, inconsistency, tiresome word-clusters, overearnestness, character caricatures. Does that sound like a critic in unbalanced high praise? But, then, this perfectly represents the problem with reviewing a review of over twenty poets. Most will not have read much of the poets indexed here, so one can only go for grand statements in reaction. And of course, Starnino’s approach helps this reaction since he’s concerned with schools and trends, linkages and popularity movements, and more importantly, with how influential verse promoters create the next generation’s poetic focus.

Time to divulge, then. I’ve read, widely, thirteen of the poets investigated herein. On Atwood’s The Door, I strongly agree, as an essay elsewhere will confirm. I don’t agree with some of his assessments of individual poems – “The Year Of The Hen” I thought particularly bad – but the overall tenor of his views I’m in sympathy with. Lazy and self-concerned, politically facile, emotionally pallid. It’s only one good example for an argument that best-before dates should be put on more coverings than milk cartons and meat plastic.

I was delighted with Starnino’s investigation of Margaret Avison. I’m far from up-to-speed on how poets of an earlier age, especially deceased poets once highly regarded, are now viewed. My suspicion is that, absent wide and discriminating discourse, many just may be slightly undervalued. It’s for this reason alone that I’m always delighted to see this category of poet reviewed at all. And Avison certainly merits such investigation. Starnino focusses on her Christian conversion and intensification and wisely points out that Avison accomplished something rare: a theological superstructure which never pushes her own views onto her agnostic or atheistic readers. In fact, Avison exemplifies the best in individual Christians: an unsentimental and fearless regard, and in compassionate recording, of the neglected we see every day in our casual travels. Considerations of space in the original placement of these reviews may have precluded a lengthier microscopy of individual poems which, if true, would be too bad, since Avison’s symbolism deserves it. But Starnino does an exceptional job in the space allotted to give more than a glimpse in how Avison’s control of syntax and word choice, symbol and structure, enliven , in Starnino’s intelligent comparison between a zealous Christian’s prayer and a poet’s agitated phrase-search, the belief “that words have buried fecundities – asleep until activated by faith".

Starnino’s discussion of Earle Birney concentrates on his later and larger Selected, One Muddy Hand. I haven’t picked it up, but I’ve read Birney’s smaller (by 25%, according to Starnino) Selected, Ghost In The Wheels. I felt about that volume the way Starnino characterizes the later effort: “It’s everything you want in a Birney selected, as well as everything you didn’t know you wanted.” The truncated version of Birney that Starnino contends is the one studied in universities, no doubt propelled by the success of “David”, doesn’t begin to introduce the otherwise uninformed reader of Birney’s technical scope or subject range. Always restless, Birney bequeathed a word-legacy of shaggy lyricism, impish narrative, and wacky concrete entries that belong more to the wine-in-hand dell than the coffee-in-hand desk. Starnino defines Birney as a “proto-Purdy nationalist” long before Purdy’s celebrated 1965 The Cariboo Horses ,but it should also be noted that Birney wasn’t the “Canada first” nationalist that Purdy was predictably lauded for. If anything, Birney was a regionalist, in thrall to his surroundings, wherever he happened to be, in or out of Canada. Purdy was a regionalist, too, in a sense, but Birney’s affection for his immediate world never lost its temporal joy, and his ironies rarely turned inward, a frequent and tiresome feature of Purdy’s “geographical” obsessions.

I haven’t read any of the work of the nineteenth century monarchist James Denoon, but part of the joy of reading about him comes through in a unique biography , part of which includes a touching approach, in Denoon, to poetic impulse in a time both more sympathetic and unsophisticated towards a poem’s arrival. Jonathan Ball’s view of this essay is made up of one word to describe its subject – “loser” – which is apt if one is looking at poetry as a hobby horse race over which a human director, regaled in the splashiest silks, steers towards a nebulous finish line. But as Starnino’s essay points out, Denoon’s verse “offers up the meagrest of aesthetic satisfactions but is worth a thousand facts.” As in his big-picture summation of Peter Trower’s poetry, Starnino holds a sympathetic place for authentic verse that doesn’t  attach high claims within it or, shortly thereafter, about it. I both agree and disagree with this. Much of contemporary poetry has the worst of both worlds: an inflated, overburdened approach to ephemeral subjects. I wouldn’t mind a lot more overreach, but a reach with actual substance instead.

The lengthy essay on John Glassco is a highlight of Lazy Bastardism. In part a sympathetic biography about a troubled figure ala James Denoon (those two personalities couldn’t have been much different, though the tones are eerily similar), it also serves as a launching point for a larger argument against literary tastemaking, only, I hasten to add, when those tastes are overpriced and sour. Glassco, Starnino contends, got caught up in the shifting winds of what constituted the latest and greatest. TISH’s George Bowering, as Starnino points out, hit an Ontario university for four years in the late sixties, early 70s. In all areas of life, public and private, formalism and tradition were out, man. Squaresville. Glassco was shunned, his unprodigious career destroyed. The reason, it seems to me, Starnino focussess so much on Glassco’s physical transformations (or regressions) is to emphasize obsessions and themes in Glassco’s poetry (the dilapidated barns, i.e.) as well as the idea of poet as nothing more than image or presentation. This is part of the younger TISH group’s means of condemnation. It must have driven them mad with glee and revulsion to catch a photo of a tired Glassco, full of weighty hauteur and, once inside the book’s cover, careful line-making. But as Starnino says, it’s others (call them traditionalists if you like) who are having the last laugh on Bowering’s boys (women seemed to get short shrift in their polemic jockeying). Because after all the posing and sword-play with piss, it’s only the poems that matter. And I’ll take just about any twenty or fifty poems of Gustafson or Glassco over anything popped out by Bowering or Davey or bissett.

Another long essay is the following one on Michael Harris. Unless I missed a brief reference to it, Starnino was a student of Harris. In fact, Starnino elsewhere (an interview? another essay?) states that were it not for Harris’ pedagogy and example, he probably or most definitely (can’t remember which) would not have followed the path of poetry’s demanding obsessions. This is by way of bringing into the open that fond tutelages have a way of colouring  the subjective tendencies of those on the receiving end. Now, that in mind, Starnino does an outstanding job of diving into the deep end of Harris’ creations to come up with more than a few odd and forgotten (or never seen) treasures. Many critics of the friendship or acolyte angle also don’t take into account that a lot of what the admiring student first sees in the teacher is an honest grappling with that instructor’s worth. It’s the talent that comes first, then, not the friendship. Harris, like Glassco, isn’t an overly fashionable poet. Synchronizing publication with the sightings of Ogopogo rather than a friend’s obnoxious parade of leftist vote-promoting Facebook you tube links, the elder poet virtually disappeared from poetry’s screen until 2010’s incredible Circus. As against some critics’ disparagement of the poems’ “anachronistic” gaze, the poems have nothing to do with the current steampunking of verse, and everything to do with the circus as timeless high-wire multiple metaphor . But Starnino keeps his analysis close to the ground with a series of investigations into the Harris corpus, crawling and zipping from line to line. Redundant of me to weigh in on the close reading, and twice removed from the core citations, anyway. But if one is going to criticize Starnino (all well and good), it would be delightful and revealing if it were done, just once in a while, with this level of scrutiny in mind rather than the drive-by adjectives and the school-defending macro byte.Who am I kidding? It would be good if criticism of detailed exegesis were to be entertained on any reviewer or critic instead of the supposed beef he or she has with certain types of poetry. Speaking of disagreements, the biggest one I have anywhere in Lazy Bastardism comes out of this (mostly quoted) paragraph in the Harris’ essay: “But this also reflects the culturally synoptic condition of most Montreal poets, who are constantly forced, on a daily level, to shift between different registers and syntaxes and thus are more open to cross-influences than they might have been had they lived in Toronto or Vancouver or Calgary. ... The city itself, in other words, lures our poems out of the verbal ghetto  of what Solway has called ‘Standard Canadian Average’ “. Now this is an argument that is both ignorant and needlessly defensive. I’ve lived a half-century in Vancouver. It is now slightly over 50% Asian, and many of those immigrants have retained their first languages. But it’s not a new development, and it doesn’t pertain to one dialect or ethnicity. Growing up as a wee ankle-biting critic-in-formation, my friends were Fijians, Italians, Slavs, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, and Sikhs (as well as a few pasty-faced Brits and Scandinavians). I’m sure I picked up some hidden nuances in all the different cadences, syntactical emphases, cuss-vocabulary expansion, and emotional variance. And I’m sure many in Toronto could say the same since it’s a multicultural pot of stew. So Montreal’s situation in this regard is hardly unique. Yes, our English arts tradition is complicated by our other official language, and the special status of that language (official or not) has different ramifications than other comparisons to any other language which has minimal recognition in the greater communities of other cities. But Starnino here is speaking of how all of us navigate between the many languages (or one other language) on the street, and how it influences us –“constantly forced, on a daily level”, again, is how he puts it – in poetic formulations at the subtlest pre-poem configurations. I happen to think Montreal has long been the English poetry hotbed in Canada. It needs no special pleading for its presumed neglect (moreso in Starnino’s A Lover’s Quarrel as well as David Solway’s critical excoriations).

The short review of James Langer’s Gun Dogs is instructive as to what it conveys about the critic’s thoughts on a number of contemporary poets. This is one of the exciting discoveries of much of Starnino’s criticism. He doesn’t simply pick a poet’s book out of a hat when he wants to write a review. It’s usually indicative of a bigger trend or feature in what others are also doing. And Starnino’s point is harsh, perhaps a little too much so, but think on the number of Canadian poetry books published in the past five years that have the perfectly weighted levers, the expertly calibrated vise-clamps, the musically delightful whistle-releases, and then ask yourself if you can recall any or much of what it signified. There are a few affecting poems in Langer’s collection – the nostalgic rumination while driving, the visceral snow journey (I didn’t peek, the remembrance is genuine) – but much of it struck me as elaborate exercises in verse craft. Too much Carl Czerny, not enough Franz Liszt.

Next up is a short, moving prose eulogy on Irving Layton. The public Layton has so overshadowed the real one, the one who penned “Boys Bathing”, “For Mao-Tse-tung: A Meditation On Flies And Kings”, and “The Graveyard”, that those of us who’ve enthusiastically consumed his work --  the great, the good, the indifferent, and the bad – can be forgiven for rolling our eyes at the off-topic pettiness of Layton’s detractors. Yeah, his bluster and bluff were annoying at times. So what? As he said in similar sentiments, he needed to perform so in order to overcome the quiet indifference, as well as the quiet, unsleeping hatred of art in this snow-fed country.  Of course it was easier to craft that persona than for others since his personality naturally aligned with the bombastic and satirical, the hearty guffaw and the inelegant face plant. It was both put-on and deadly serious. Yet in the end, who cares? As Starnino says, to “measure his achievement by the shock it produced, however, is to measure it by the smallest imagination of the time.” One needs no further proof of the flavour-of-the-day enthusiasms of poetic continuance in this country to learn, as I did with dismay, that Layton’s poetry, upon his death, was out of print.

The essay on Don McKay, like many others here, covers a lot of ground. It even climbs a few trees and peers into a pair of binoculars and sees .... McKay posing beside a bird. Others have provided similar critiques regarding McKay’s approach. I haven’t heard the comparison before, but McKay strikes me as an aviary-concentrated version of Al Purdy. Like Purdy, McKay’s subject seems to be the object, but is really the subject. In metaphysical terms, this would elevate McKay’s focus within many spiritual communities.—the watched is only as worthy as the recognition of who watches. But McKay, again like Purdy, is a very invested subject. I don’t agree that the observer necessarily pollutes what he or she sees. That kind of choice (or compulsion) can add a worthy dimension. But to constantly return to the personal reaction can only result, eventually, in two outcomes: the poet-observer has to create ever-changing personas, often in a joking-hysterical sense, to juice the narrative and to spice up the ostensible object, and worse, the mind, represented well in McKay’s jerky, flitting lines, becomes the ultimate destiny, the final result of the birding quest. I can’t remember the flights of many birds. And I can’t remember any of McKay’s poetry. I suppose it’s a hit with some among the poem-as-process crowd, though. I admire Starnino’s patience, though even the in-depth investigator has to admit that “it sometimes seems that the best way to read McKay’s new book is to skip.”

A.F. Moritz has been reverently applauded from quite a few corners throughout his career. I suppose it didn’t hurt that none other than Harold Bloom praised his poems when not many others outside Canada could even name another poet here besides Atwood. Moritz is fascinating. Shunning the prevailing strains of poetry being written and promoted in Canada, he took the French symbolists as his cue. I’m sure there are other influential threads that connect Moritz to other forebears – I’m no Moritz scholar – but his grand surrealist time-stifled episodes, his insistent high-toned mythscapes,  were unlike anything produced in Canada at the time. Others have introduced elevated and somber cataclysms, fable and metaphysical conundrum, into their verse since then, and have admitted to being influenced by Moritz, but this is singular stuff. One’s vision has to be seriously inclined to it. Starnino’s main objection to Moritz’ offerings can be summed up with (not his words) “too much mystical approximation, not enough recognizable referents”. I think he’s a little hard on Moritz. One thing I admire in the latter is a visionary unity or cross-sense between images and ideas. Once you’re familiar with the apocalyptic or barren landscape of a Moritz-world poem, the metaphors can be quite arresting. That said, I still, somewhat like Starnino, prefer his poems of concrete bluntness and wickedly good social denunciation.

Starnino’s essay on bpnichol was interesting from a biographical slant, and for a historical assessment within various cultures in and out of poetry. But because I can’t get into nichol’s poetry – there’s no starting point to even proceed – I’ll leave off any other commentary. Whatever is said about or against nichol, it seems that his supporters are just going to come up with “almost all of his subversive stuff is hidden or destroyed”. Yeah, well, you work with what you’ve got. Concrete poetry ain’t my thing. After the joke or “epiphany” is recognized, what next? View it again in a decade in case you’ve forgotten it? I know. He produced comics, too. And other brics and bracs. But if this is a major influence among the avant-garde in Canada, I’d like for them to recommend to me twenty other authors I need to read immediately. Serious outreaching.

The essay on David O’Meara is a little too thematic for my liking. I usually enjoy unique or focussed thematic approaches, and Starnino is usually very good with them. But the approach in this case – poet as traveler whose world is altered by his new surroundings – is not only an oft-used entry into poets of a different era and country, it also deflects a concentration from other elements in O’Meara’s work. One can’t cite influences here without immediately mentioning O’Meara’s debt to Don Coles. The former’s supple and unobtrusive lyrical phrasing, musically striking in many lines, even surpasses his master at times. Coles has a slightly different angle, anyway, being more concerned with narrative threads and mesmerically open-ended questions.

Eric Ormsby might be the poster poet for what many criticize in Starnino’s criticism: formalism ratcheted to the tightest screw-thread. Ironic, perhaps, but what Starnino criticizes in other poets (Langer, in this book) could be applied as well to Ormsby. The latter’s work is all about musical effect. With a poet so pitch-sharp, it seems niggardly to cry about a lack of content, and I know that Ormsby has finally begun to (as he jokingly relates to the author of this essay) write about people. But for all the wondrous wordplay invested into landscapes and ironing, I’d be a lot more excited by Ormsby’s work if he could (or would) turn his talents more than occasionally to matters of psychological complexity and emotional dilemmas. His prose work would suggest this would not only not be a problem, but would result in something that could blow many of our content-driven poets out of the water. What music, though! Sometimes subtitles aren’t needed.

The essay on Karen Solie is highly laudatory. She’s good, but not that good. I find her work too clever by a quarter. When on the mark, the social castigation is convincing. When on the pulpit, the conclusions are too easy, the psychological preoccupations a little too readily dropped into pre-formed slots. And with each book, the terse, tough asides become irritating. All that aside, she’s written some lasting (a prediction!) poems, and Starnino is right to describe how that has a chance of happening. She also has – again, as Starnino relates – something indispensible in these years of a telephone book’s listing of poets: a unique voice. Call it a style if you prefer, but though needing work to affect it’s “spontaneous” delights, it’s  that rare quality that justifies the reviewer’s cop-out of “going by intuition”. To echo earlier comments, there are a lot of poets who can sing on-key and with consistency, but we tend to remember the poets that have something unique to say, and a unique way of  saying it.

Peter Trower is given a fantastic overview. A biographical preview is often provided with these essays, and in Trower’s case there’s no exception. Like the preamble on Glassco, this serves as a later explanation for why (in this case) Trower has been so neglected, especially relative to many other no-weights in the same writing community scribbling at the same time. Starnino doesn’t answer that question with any conviction, but I can. Trower was a joke in the academic self-important TISH community when he first struggled to get published. A country bumpkin. An embarrassingly over-emotional reveler of self-story. An irony-free interloper devoid of meta-concerns. Of course he was shunned by the dominant poetic cult of that time. Trower’s world --his style, diction, concerns, feelings-- were a slap in the face to those of Bowering et al. Trower didn’t need to write silly, self-defensive poetics missives in response to Irving Layton’s hilarious send-up of the different birds in Canada’s cuckoo land, as Layton characterized Bowering in one of the three prevailing schools. Trower just kept his head down and wrote more poems, when he had the time and clarity away from his own demons and the physical repetitions and soul-crushing realities of logging. (That so much beauty could come out of that harsh world isn’t surprising. Death and sex/love are always more delineated and immediate in close quarters.) Trower wasn’t interested, and in any case would have been naively out of his league, in literary fencing with the “community”. Even Al Purdy’s championing of Trower’s work had little effect, outside of Trower getting a one-book gig out of Mc-Stew. No, the “stocky, shy stout-hearted” poet was so far out of fashion and time (“time’s flies”, said Timon, in this case referring to Bowering), no amount of phony rehabilitation or alternate canon-making was going to alter anything until the altered SHIT was altered into the permanent remaindered-cum-pulped bin of the heart. Starnino finally tries to explain the neglect with reason –  Trower’s fervency has “helped peg him as a poet from whom no great difficulties are expected, and thus unfit for masterdom”. I think the neglect is far more mendacious than that because Trower –the man, his work-- is a vibrant challenge to the dominant, still-with-us twaddle that goes by the name of poetry in the Greater Vancouver community.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Raymond Souster (1921-2012)

Raymond Souster died two weeks ago. I'm not sure how that registers with Canada's poetic community. The few words I've overheard from other contemporary poets about Souster's poetry have indicated either faint scorn or mumbled indifference. And for a poet easily positioned by the arts media as a "people's" favourite for his plain recordings of traffic -- from both street and mind -- Souster seems, like every other poet in this philistine country, to have been up against it for eager listeners. When the unofficial poet laureate the past seventy years for Canada's largest city is a literary ghost, it's a curious commentary on the poet's role in public discourse.

But the neglect among poets is a little more troubling. I suppose Souster's personality has a little something to do with it. A shy and modest man by all accounts, he not only refrained from tooting his horn and touting his lines, he actually downplayed his accomplishments and preferred the background. At the same time, he spearheaded the pre-Canada Council  mimeographed mail-outs, eventually co-founding and leading Contact Press, doing the publication and distribution, paying for all of  it, and even organizing events where he introduced some of our internationally revered figures to the game. So he was hardly invisible.

The only theory I can come up with is Souster's timing. His poetry is in line with the times,  and (indeed) one of his two best books is entitled The Colour of the Times (1964). His poetic sensibility was formed in the lean thirties, and any poet who didn't get blown away on a shifting wind was -- the same as every poet in England -- writing about deprivation, human frailty, metaphysical bafflement and/or anger, social injustice, and hidden graces. But Souster's tentative, plainspoken realism was an awkward fit since his best work was hitting the street just as postmodernism was touching down, and would also have little in common with the later Canada-Council-juiced confessional anecdotes of scores of other poets who would, at first glance, appear natural cohorts. But their sensibilities were quite different. Souster used a subtly shifting narrator as his "I", and in any event, was much more outward-looking than the other book-a-year authors. If a hobo was puking by the curb, Souster's focus was on the hobo, while the confessionalists turned the camera back on themselves in reactive fascination. (The postmodernists, in this scenario, would have doubted the veracity of any feelings attributed to the hobo, as well as to the emotions of the recorder. All three -- hobo, observer-poet, meta-observer would be subsumed by the meta-meta-theorizer as a computer algorithm kicking in at the beginning of a physics experiment with inanimate objects.)

But like those other prolific plain speech poets of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, Souster wore out his welcome just as he was hitting his stride. I finally stopped reading him altogether with 1977's painful Extra Innings. The sentimentality, always prevalent though sometimes endearing (even affecting), had hardened into a bathetic tic. The diction, narrow yet at the same time flabby, became particularly unthinking. And the bite and drama, the range of experiences once entertaining and fresh, had disappeared.

But there's another Souster in those first few books that doesn't often get discussed, at least not in a public forum. The Toronto diarist may have been mistaken for the stereotypical meek banker, but four years in the RCAF during WWII either created or gave definition to a tough, weary-wise discrimination which either leaks or declaims in a wide range of poems from this period. (Francis Mansbridge was wrong. Souster may have had a narrow stylistic range, but his cast of subjects was both wide and deep.) The Lawrencian "Old Man Leaning On A Fence", the amusing and succinct prophecy of  "Girls Playing Softball", the black and sad wisdom of "Ties" (perhaps his finest poem), the epigrammatic surprise of "Thrush", and the hilarious social jab of "Ten Elephants On Yonge Street": these and more show a poet with much to say, and a personality to make it new (in the best sense), all the more remarkable since, yes, his technical adventures were indeed limited and often clumsy.

Souster won't compete with our best in any latter 20th-century anthology, but he's much more than a community footnote. In a perverse reverse, it often seems it takes the death of a poet, even one of advanced years, to finally get others (poets and general readers alike) to revisit the used book store and the library for a thin slice of his total work (though his recent Collected will hopefully go a long way to make this an easier pursuit). It takes an enormous amount of sifting, but there're more than a few flecks of mica to be found.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Stuart Ross' You Exist. Details Follow.

I have enormous respect and admiration for Stuart Ross. When Canadian poets were churning out a volume every year or two in order to get and stay onboard the burgeoning Canada Council Grant train, Ross was getting his poems out through pamphlet and wits alone. Foregoing the prevailing poetic fashions throughout his three-decade writing life -- the pendulum swing from rational chat to overburdened professionalism -- he persisted with his vision, consolidated it, and now, with this year's You Exist. Details Follow., deepened and fine-tuned it. This is a remarkable achievement. Hyperbole? Ass-kissing? I don't know the man, never met or corresponded with him. But think about it. Even most of the surrealist fathers, for Christ sakes, -- Desnos, Char, and Aragon -- severed their ideological ties with Breton within three to ten years, and not because they were hankering after the next poetics fad (Desnos and Char in particular were as courageous and full of integrity, in work and life, as any poet at any time), but because they honestly followed their own inclinations of suiting aesthetic to public reception and political context. Surrealism, then, wasn't the bloodbrother and bloodsister bond some would have it. So I'm even more intrigued by Ross' steadfastness to surrealism, what its advantages are for his vision.

At first pass, one would think there'd today be as many surrealist poets lined up in a publication-proposal queue as there were stove inspectors to interrogate the beleaguered housewife (played by Terry Jones) in that bureaucracy-gone-mad Monty Python sketch. Surrealism's raison d'etre, an artistic revolution to engender one of similar intensity in politics, economics, religion, and the military, like any revolutionary attempt, was born of necessity. Confident, fist-thumping Reason, it was widely intuited by artists in many genres,  played a big part in the run-up to WWI. Bizarre juxtapositions, anchored images indefinitely placed, narrative vacancy, dream irresolution, all were stylized (not as automatic writing as is often misunderstood) into fugue or caprice in order to explore imaginative territory not available from (for example) the prominent French realists of the late nineteenth century.

During Rimbaud's brief brilliance through to Dadaism, European countries competed one with another for Imperial victories in Africa. The transition to surrealism, then, wasn't quite the shock one may suppose, and since those many conflicts without full-scale war track a path in some ways eerily similar to what the Western world has been undergoing since Ross began writing, where have all the surrealists been? Dali may have died in '89, but the nature of the mode suggests (though many others deny this) an ever-renewable resource, something, unfortunately, our earth-bound realities make a metaphorical impossibility. Well, anti-rational (when it suited their purposes, that is) postmodernism in all its sub-schools tried to assert itself into the picture but was so hung up and hung out on its own narcissism, lack of passion, careerism  and abstract wrangling that its collective vision amounted to scoring cheap points for fellow like-minded academics in a disgusting display of hermetic smugness.

Enter Ross. OK, fast forward to this year's Ross since the preamble has already ballooned beyond my intent. The titular poem was composed, we learn in the back notes, in several stages during his reading of a John Ashbery poem. Here are lines 19-25 (the poem runs for seven pages):

"The straggling professors of trouble
are astonished by the headlines.
They don't know who to phone.
They await further orders
from a double-parked sun.
Soon all will be rubble,
heaps of slag."

Now it would be tempting here to point to my first paragraphs with the obvious links to Reason not understanding and indeed paving the way for the "heaps of slag". But it could also be a commentary on our own imaginations which decompose in the very next moment of forgetting. Possibly of more importance, it could also gently (or not so gently) make fun of the rational reader ("the straggling professor") for trying to parse any of this. I'll take my cue from that last suggestion and speak intuitively the rest of the way.

The reader, indeed, is advised to relax. For two reasons. As I say, conclusions or meanings, if any can be set in shifting stone, should be entertained after the initial experience. As in any surrealistic verse, it's the unfiltered dream that's paramount. But for surrealist poems to work, a reader has to be able to access that REM state. I've read little in the way of others' dream anecdotes, but from my experience, dreams were much more vivid and plentiful throughout my childhood, teens, and twenties. This fascinates me here because the bulk of the poems in this (for poetry) lengthy book concern childhood dreams, visions, fictions, or memories (or, of course, all of the preceding). This suggests that Ross' intent here isn't, as is the case with so many poet-diarists, indulgent autobiography, but a comment on memory and the changing emotions those memories create, ending only with that last mahogany or marble bed.

At his worst, Ross' poems have the dashed-off pseudo-hyperkinetic feel of one hand knee-slapping (or one vocal chord laughing):

"I come as a horse,
a fragile stepping-stone
loosening my pants by the painted river.
The reservoirs hold
a god of burning roses."

The above, from "Blotter", is image run amok, or running in muck. A little goes just a bit longer into that long way, but most pinball games can become irritating even when geometrically inventive.

Ross does something commendable in this volume. Despite the fast in-play shuttlecock, and the shuttlecock feathers, he manages to transfer feelings -- sadness, ironic  insouciance, anger, affection -- to the reader without sacrificing the inevitability and charm of the dream or the sincerity of the particular emotion(s) evoked. I'd love to provide more and specific examples, but I feel like winding this up. But one last poem, a poem that hit me like a ton of feathers and bricks. It's towards the end of  You Exist. Details Follow., and the poem is "Lineage". I always hesitate to give too much away in poems I love. It's always best that readers, if my enthusiasms are echoed, discover those delights with a first, full reading, so I'll simply say that it deserves a place with many other good and great surrealist poems: visionary, surprising, imagistically alert and suggestive, nimble, coherent, dreamlike (in this case nightmarish), and unforgettable.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Debate And Switch, Part 2




We've convened inside this converted New York speakeasy in order to further fuel the indignation of the American people. I'm channeling the questions from our concerned audience for our two presidential candidates. Mr Bombney, you won the last canasta hand, so you're first. Could you give a condensed essay on the incorporating of disparate elements of job growth, Chinese competition, and personal inertia?

I'd be delighted to, Sandy. The Chinese people are hard working, and their clever satraps have tapped into a national and practical gestalt whereby the minions control their collective fates by a steady and hopeful application of elbow grease and illusion. Our procurement -- that is, the consumerist expectation of the American people -- from this exchange will help that 72 per cent chunk of our GDP rise by the trillionful. Mind boggling in its efficacy is the model, elegant in its non-variation.

Jobs grow when government grows. I'm proud of the fact that jobs have increased in every month I've been in office for the segment of the population that really needs it, multi-level bureaucracy. There's been too much of Mr Bombney's consumerist bible-school economics in our national debates. I promise to grow the [aside: apparently?] non-consumerist public payroll by leaps and bounds, or by decrees and rounds, if you will.

Energy. How can we get more of it from within? Mr President.

The jig's up. We're an apathetic lot who needs the beneficent helping hand of me and mine in our infinite capacity so we don't self-combust from that last chocolate wafer. We're one more Krispy Kreme from joining those rotund unfortunates my wife has been busy reforming. On the unrenewable front, more wind energy R & D. I'm a good source of infinite wind, but unless and until we, as a scientific carrot-and-stick paradigm follower, can discover how to milk my insincere rhetorical hubris like the swelled dugs of a Jersey derrick, I'm afraid it's a continual series of Hail Marys for crackpot start-ups in the basements of Frankenstein warriors.

Who needs R & D? We've got North American sovereignty. Canada's pipeline solves most of it. And I hear the sludge of North Dakota and the shale lodes in Colorado will keep our Hummers humming for the next two hundred years. The middle of the Earth is a caramel nougat!

We interrupt this program to rejoin CNN for its usual programming in an attempt to recapture our falling Neilsons since our instapolls have discovered massive channel-changing in the swing centers of Ohio and Pennsylvania. So -- it's a Kardashian documentary you won't want to miss. To those few who are outraged by the unexpected change of plans: it's all entertainment, folks. Thanks to our contestants, and thanks once again to the American viewers for allowing us to sell you the best in ear wax cleanser and dodgy insurance.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

New Reviews -- and a World Premiere play!

My review of Ken Babstock's Methodist Hatchet is out in the newly published #62 edition of subTerrain. And since my long blogging absence, subTerrain #61 contains my review of Robert J. Wiersema's personal memoir and Bruce Springsteen odyssey, Walk Like A Man. I'd also like to put in a good word for Jon Boilard's "Storm Chaser", his terrific short story in #61.





Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We’re here at historic Denver University, where the students are as high as the altitude after discovering – post-acceptance – that their $100,000 tuition extraction won’t get them an interview as a clerk at “Organic Beans ‘R’ Us” after the four year parade of cultural sensitivity training. High on forgetting about it, that is. Speaking of forgettable, here are our two contestants tonight. A Mister Mitt Bombney  from Detroit by way of Massachusetts, and a Mister Barry Obummah, residing president of these divided States. Gentlemen, let’s begin. Mr Obummah, you won the pre-debate dwarf toss. You’ll go first. The first question is: just what is this thing we all call the economy anyway, and why should we care about it so much?

Good question, Jim. Well, the economy is largely about creating these instruments called CDOs, CDs, CDSs, reverse swaps, equity balance holdings, first issuance guarantees, golden parachute rewards, instigation perks, in-house bonuses, all based on cross-board mutual benefit printing of paper sent to the banks at zero per cent interest and which the federal government acquires at, likewise, no risk. We should care about this because – hey!  manufacturing has crossed the ocean like rats from a burning bridge, or, just to mangle metaphors even more, because the people expect coffee and sex – or failing that—food and entertainment for their daily grind. How’m I doing so far, Jim?

Instapoll on my ipad says your lead has just dwindled from 50% of committed voters to 34% of voters who’ve been committed. Mr Bombney, response?

Damn tootin’, Jim! I’ve moved up without even moving my mouth! Need I say anything? OK, here goes. Our economy is based on value of service for value of reception. Supply and demand, that is. The people supply their labor and expertise, and we, all of us, are rewarded in the collective pool. I – just to use my own contribution – set up a financial equity racket – er, market – which people invest in since they have no clue what to do with their hard-earned money, and who are worried about the future. I hire some people to my project, who pay taxes and go to church, and they do my work. Then the people, after the various marketing games, buy our products, in which they assume all risk, and we make, on average, 42% of their rolled-over bottom line on mark-ups, front- and back-end fees, administrative fees, hidden fees (I gotta eat!) advertizing expenses, breakage rates, annual fees, and volatility/adjustment fees, all at NO risk. Of course, the game has morphed into something even more awesome these years since with our wealth, we can game the system even more with the microsecond proprietary buys on sweeping trades all day long. This adds to our bottom line and makes America stronger for what makes America stronger – people who believe in the American dream and who go on to create and develop small businesses just like ours. The economy is important because without it, I wouldn’t have a chance to become president of the Unites States since even I can't turn a dollar into a billion . So it's promises made for those wonderful donors. But you can't trump being the head bureaucrat while touting one's entrepreneurial boned-up feed days.

Next question. Mr Obummah, today is your anniversary. Any message to newlyweds or to those looking to raise a family in these hard economic times?

Abortions for everyone! But seriously, anyone who wants to keep their kids, we need you. The Democrats need your future votes. Well, that’s kinda silly, I guess. I can’t really speak to those people yet, and when it’s possible, I’ll be dead or at least out of power. So who cares.

Mr Bombney, how do we reduce the deficit?

Smoke and mirrors, Jim. I will reduce it by increasing the budget for the military. I’ll also slash services to the bone while reducing the tax burden for businesses who’ll just pocket the money we give them since confidence in the economy won’t perk up by my numbers I seem to have little idea of where they come from. A trillion a year for the troops overseas is about right. And that’s why we need to develop more oil and gas right here in our backyard. Maybe there’ll be another Pennsylvania black gush, like in that Beverley Hills pre-show. Always liked granny’s grittiness. That’s what America is all about. Grannies making lye soap in the kitchen. Thrift, hard work and inventiveness. That reminds me –

Sorry, Mr Bombney, but we must move on  --

Not so fast, Jim. You know, I like you. But when elected, I’ll fire Big Bird AND you. China will not finance PBS, even if it does subsidize everything else about this country, including  my paycheck. Our phony  unemployment figures  and job future, well – those federal reports come in handy.

Mr President, anything to say?.

You  know, I may not have a teleprompter in front of me, so I’d just like to say, blah blah blah – and blah blah. It’s cool to go off-topic and converse with the American people in down home terms, unafraid of having that damn scroll get stuck mid-sentence pitch on some godforsaken dump in Louisiana where the yokels with guns are a-teeming yet quiet, and there's that one nasty camera crew who catches the slip. I’d reduce the deficit by continuing with the stagnant policies of big government that have marked my tenure here so far. Tenure – now there’s a word for you university types. When I moved up the ladder in Harvard, I got that tenure shit down straight up. Mystery grades, and no one can vouch for me, but those Chicaga connections. Man, every day was like Willie Dixon in one joint, Muddy Waters in the next, and Otis Rush across the street. It’s who you know, babe. I can organize that shit. And it’s my community. Where was I? Yeah, tenure. Kids, don’t worry about those staggering university debts. Uncle Barry gives you the out till you’re twenty-six. It’s called deferred gratification. Er, make that impossible gratification. See, those jobs are just gonna get farther into the rear view mirror. So your debt will continue to climb. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it don’t matter since I don’t care about the second term. This Jesus fawner can have my job. I can’t go out for a cigarette these days without some image flak coming up to me and telling me the next line to correct some other mistake I was supposed to have made. Hell with that shit, man. He can have it in January. I’ll chill and resume my poetry career I dropped out of in my freshman year. Obummahcare! Yeah, the insurance companies' dream. Students and patients. Etherized upon a table. Or some such.

Last question. Mr Bombney, how will you get people back to work in this country?

The American people are vigorous and full of ideas. They just need someone to convince them the entrepreneurial spirit won’t get crushed by government oversight and negligence. Of course, I have no idea how that inventiveness will be rewarded since the suburban build-out everything is predicated upon in this country is now at an end. But me? It’s great being a big part of the bureaucracy. I’m risk averse.

Thank you, gentlemen. And thank you, America, for listening, and Denver University for providing the pretense of having this cloaked as an intellectual discussion.