Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Philip Roth's Indignation

Philip Roth’s follow-up to Exit Ghost, 2008’s Indignation, sees the workaholic turn up the heat while dealing with the same obsessions: sex, alienation, and death. Especially death. For those who’ve yet to read the short novel, beware of reviews – online reviews, anyway – that sabotage the narrative through giving away important plot points, including one structural surprise, that can be anticipated to some extent, but nevertheless have to experienced on first reading for best effect. The New York Times’ Kakutani is the worst culprit for this. But whereas the protagonist of Roth’s preceding novel was seventy-one, Indignation’s intense first-person narrator is just out of his teens and trying to complete his first year of college. The outside world is always present – the ramped-up Korean War – as are Marcus’ parents, though the young man, at Ohio’s Winesburg college, has left them back in New Jersey because of his admonitory, overbearing father.

I’ve only read eight or nine of Roth’s twenty-nine (+?) novels, but I’m sure there’s a lot of standard fare here. College life, sexual awakening, the exotic shiksa, rebellion of all sorts, self-definition. Unlike others who felt the structure was both shoddy and clipped, I thought the transitions and amalgamations of the larger worlds (college, war, politics of both) were handled intelligently and, just as importantly, raised a number of points which transcended Roth’s irritating propensity for didactic verbosity (though at times that didacticism was handled humorously and with purpose, as in the central set-piece between a smug and patronizing Dean and a nervous yet defiant Marcus). I’d develop this line of thought a little further, but it would come at the expense of narrative explanation, so I’ll just plug the book and leave it at that.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jerzy Kosinski's The Devil Tree

Jerzy Kosinski’s career makes a farce out of the notion of artistic progression. His first novel, 1965’s The Painted Bird, is the most talented and realistic literary horror novel I’ve yet read. His last, 1988’s The Hermit Of 69th Street, is a dislocated series of private pleas and belligerent defenses. 

His second novel, Steps, is a series of thematically linked vignettes, and the revenge the protagonist was unable to formulate and enact in The Painted Bird was dramatically rendered in that novel’s follow-up.1973’s The Devil Tree is also structured in brief episodes, but as a fractured narrative. Unfortunately, the back-and-forth between shocking action and lacerating interior criticism doesn’t work organically, or with any narrative momentum. Repetition dulls the more lurid effects, and one already gets the sense that Kosinski has played his best hands early in his career.

I believe it’s at least partly circumstantial. By 1973, burrowing into self-exploration had morphed from a psychedelic game into a painful picking at scabs. Kosinski’s forte – psychological revelation under extreme and sudden violence – had given way to this much different obsession, and Kosinski couldn’t find a way to successfully transform the two directions in a unique vision. Worse, Kosinski’s amoral anti-hero, Whalen, had already been done more convincingly by a number of authors before the 70s, including Camus and Dreiser in different modes.

But the fearless chronicler of hypocrisy, upper-class coldness, and perversion still knocks it out of the park in several episodes, including one in which Whalen’s father fires his loyal servant of twenty years for changing the blade in the master’s razor one day too early.

As for the charges of plagiarism directed at the Polish emigrant, it’s no wonder revenge played a part in most of his stories. After surviving World War II, only to land in a free country rife with jealous orchestrators of the unfounded, cowardly attack (though some of those pipsqueaks also originated in Poland), Kosinski could only lash back in his art. Unfortunately, his most open attempt to settle the record came when his mental health had already plummeted. Though he had been fighting his demons longer than the first of the personal literary attacks took hold, his last novel was a narrow, emasculated response to his accusers. The Devil Tree’s original epigraph, also appearing in the novel’s last pages, is scarily accurate when turned on Kosinski: “the devil, getting tangled in its branches, punished the tree by reversing it”.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Philip Roth's Exit Ghost

Christopher Hitchens' review of Philip Roth’s 2007 Exit Ghost is funny and brilliant.

That said, and granting many of the damning points made, I liked the book quite a bit more than him. First the agreements:

The sassy shiksa still drives Roth/Zuckerman to lusty agony (emotionally only, that is --the protagonist is impotent after prostate surgery), though Roth's eros-thanatos dialectic has been debased. No one gives a damn about literature, especially not the young upstarts talking half the day on their cell phones -- grumpy old man makes visit to New York city after decades-long absence. Jamie’s dialogue with the “seductive” Zuckerman is stilted and unbelievable. And the conversations – all characters expatiate joylessly – are boring and repetitive.

Yet Roth paints a few bulls-eyes, as well. Hitchens, surprisingly, adds no word on the largest concern in the novel: the traffic between respect for privacy and the desire (right?) for the public to go after, and discover, secrets, whether they’re cheap and dubious or pertinent and spiritually revelatory. Zuckerman, in this light, and despite his morose obsession with writing and (as the novel progresses) desperate plea to Jamie to resuscitate his soggy organ, attacks the public’s insatiable appetite for trite journalistic detail concerning their faddish heroes. The irony is that Lonoff, Roth’s mentor, has been forgotten, anyway, but as Zuckerman has it, that’s not the point. Dignity doesn’t depend on whether or not the public cares for the degraded presumptions, only that they were made against the dead’s inability to defend them. One can see more than a little fear in Roth’s own life and work here. Zuckerman’s hatred and envy of the young, strong, and charismatic Kliman is palpable.

The Amy Bellette character – with brain cancer in its final stages – is well done and quite an achievement. She’s drawn sympathetically, hard to do while unflinchingly dwelling on her physical ruin and mental collapse.

Roth also aces class hypocrisy, having Zuckerman catch Jamie’s complaint about the use of the word “underprivileged”.

“SHE: I don’t like that word.

HE: Why?

SHE: Well, what does it mean? Under privileged. Either you have privilege or you don’t have privilege ...

HE: You were yourself  so privileged. One might even say overprivileged.”

Jamie had earlier struck out in rage and disbelief during and after George Bush’s election night second-term win. Yet she’s the beneficiary of old Houston money – (her father was friends with Bush Sr.) – which put her in the connected schools right up the line, which then allowed an acceptance of her neophyte effort in the New York Times despite the fact she always seemed to be too afraid (after 9/11) to work at all.

And on that always prickly and complex class speculation, Roth, in a curious structural choice toward the end of the novel, crafts a sedate and admiring introspective eulogy on the late George Plimpton. The aristocratic New England editor and essayist wasn’t slumming, as many (Mailer included) criticized, when the author of Paper Lion and Out Of My League tried his hand at exhibition play with the pros of football, baseball, boxing, and golf. (I’ve read, and delighted in, all of his sports ventures and would select The Bogey Man as Plimpton’s best.) Remarkable that one so privileged could create such a sympathetic picture of the borderline roster players in all those sports. Roth’s point is that Plimpton’s talent and compassionate observational powers were so advanced he could overcome those charges with in-depth adventures in class contrasts, not hypocritically sucking up to the disadvantaged nor boasting about the stars.

But how does that tie in to Roth’s main narrative? Well, it’s a damnation of Zuckerman (and by extension Roth) since – PLOT SPOILER! -- the writer is reduced to sour personal defense among his own kind -- fellow writers -- which can only be “won” by having the first-person narrator denying Jamie in his own alternate narrative in Exit Ghost’s final page.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Anis Shivani's My Tranquil War and Other Poems

“What should the war do with these jigging fools?”, said Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. And he was the good guy! The fool’s representative? The poet. It’s important here, and subtle, as is much in Shakespeare (easily overlooked during bombast or mellifluous speech), that the poet is present, yet Brutus speaks about him to Cassius. And why not? The poet is known to the Imperial generals, but is not important enough to bother with. This is also the status of the poet (and artist in general) today, as Anis Shivani well knows.

In My Tranquil War and Other Poems, published in 2012 and ten years in the making, the Pakistani-American’s rhetoric is longer and wider than a Houston freeway. (There’s a you tube car cam video showing a driver’s entrance into the squalid asphalt-and-concrete maze that is Houston that’s at once frightening and banal, fixed states that Shivani also implants in a cumulative overdose throughout the volume.) The numbing fear and enraged impotence one is assaulted with, in poem after poem, is the result of increasingly sophisticated international political systems married to an amazingly naive liberal ideology.

Shivani’s first poem, “Harold Bloom’s Old Age”, acts as a transitional introduction. Composed as a sonnet (appropriate that it’s a Shakespearean sonnet, though with a twist), the turn achieves what every good sonnet should: a surprise. But surprise isn’t quite the right word. The tack-on couplet can be seen as a sarcastic swipe at Bloom’s footnoting self-importance, but there’s a further shock, and a queasy aftershock ( a 7.2 to a lingering 3.8), that Bloom’s ordered world is gone, and has been gone for over a century, “as each day I’ve murdered my sad Macbeths”, a terrifying modern abstract metaphor for suppression of grief based on collective guilt. We can still plunder the canon, but we resurface (or should) with an awful reminder that the same humanism, however talented, has today been neutered, (often justifiably) derided, or (most often) ignored.

Political poems are notorious for their propensity for propaganda or sentimentality, the worst of them combining both features in equal measure. (Read any essential Bush Jr. poems lately?) But contemporary examples exist. Robert Bly wrote some angry and affecting anti-Vietnam poems when he bothered to temporarily jolt himself out of a decades-long search for spiritual mentors in forest ponds. But almost all options have been pulled from under the poet’s aesthetically pleasing rug. Anger either gets you ridiculed by the academics or profiled by Homeland Security. Arms-length irony has long been an ineffectual boring reflex. Humanism (again), is naive if not hypocritical, and has also been co-opted, anyway, by the phony-holy purveyors of priestly consumerism. So what’s left? Well, as I remarked in a different post while quickly running through the origins of surrealism, as a preface in a review of Stuart Ross’ You Exist. Details Follow., it’s always puzzled me why that mode hasn’t undergone a renaissance. But on further thought, it should have been obvious: post-poststructuralism has shattered and dispersed a creative and passionate response into a Chinese doll of meta-meta-meta pay for academics and their ambitious students who couldn’t give a flying fuck about poetry.

Shivani, despite his pessimism, is no quitter, though. A disjunctive rage, for as much in what’s in view in the mirror as out the window, persists. In “Modernism on File: Writers and the FBI”, “What had happened to the ‘pure and lyric dreamer’ in the futuristic forest?” gets as much thought as “[t]he direct object of those readings was to unearth seditions”. A little more consideration shows those seditions overseen not just by the FBI, but by the “critic-spy” (wonderful double meaning, politically, here). And, as is adroitly deployed throughout this volume, black humour surfaces, this time briefly, like a hangman slipping on a wet platform while holding the noose: “Just because paranoids have real enemies does not mean they cannot also be paranoids”, which is also, of course, another take on an established joke that I shouldn’t have to repeat. (The original is still funny because it’s true. Many tin foilers are still laughable, but some have become prophets.)

Liberalism’s naivety has always been a bigger cause for anger and disgust, with me, than its see-saw partner, imperial consolidation and defense, if for no further two dozen reasons than its infuriating sanctimony, intellectual bankruptcy and cowardice, entrenchment, sentimental persuasiveness, rampant advocacy, and sickening superiority. Not to mention (did I just mention it?) its blithe optimism and complacency. And on that latter flat note, Shivani’s hilarious and timely poem, “Billy Collins Confronts a Herd of Mexicans Caught in a Trap”, is part ironic fable, part suburban nightmare, part liberal mystery. It’s a full two pages, but here’re a few snippets from images and psychological poses which are captured wittily and with exquisite voiceover bafflement: “standing at the edge of my unmade bed in clarified mystery”, “I like to arrest the world in its act of entrance,/before it makes a case study of me”, “Perhaps the return of my next-door neighbor’s cocker spaniel,/delivered from the place lost dogs survive in limbo”, “Perhaps my editor, shown from afar, missing her tempo.//’Stand back!’ citizen Collins was ordered.”, “I would not have my answers.”, “What kind of a morning was this?”

Forms are matched to subject and tone in effective conjunction throughout the collection. “An Address to Walt Whitman after Reading the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass” is a galloping long-limbed rhetorical filibustering stump speech that, though it overreaches in its national condemnation, nevertheless is reminiscent of the Master in its sweep and drive, its spill and out-of-bounds passion. In “When Dean Young Was Young” (I love the title’s additional meaning, and don’t take it as an abnegation of identity, but as a considered acceptance of confusion) the channel-surfing images and caroming non sequiturs ape Young’s brilliant creativity, though don’t approach his impulsive enjoyment. Djuna Barnes gets a formal, terse appreciation as a multiple transgressor brought up to date as ironic icon. And the personal Cold War fatwa victim, in a wonderfully inventive and funny “Salman Rushdie Detained (and Deported?) by Homeland Security”, is the cause for further confusion among the birdbrain minions of obtuse bureaucrats, who, in first-person Keystone Kops holding-cell officiousness, regale the unfortunate author with, “Is there not/for Christ’s sakes, a fatwa against transporting barrels of/homemade secretions, which you call the poet’s muse, prose-/writer though you may be. Acchoo! Bless you!”

There are many other audacious successes throughout My Tranquil War and Other Poems, successes in packed content within severe formal constraints, as well as sonic repetitions and variations both within each poem and with the originating subject across multiple poems. I’d like to choose, and close with, one of them, “Ghazal: War”, an incredibly wise consideration of the book’s two intertwining themes. The classical ghazal signature, in the final couplet, is sobering in its self-laceration, but also condemnatory of us all, master or  slave.


We think of the thirties, expectant in the squiggly room of war,
as unrepeatable: never again that prearranged doom of war.

Hamadryads lounge in kilts – there, soldiers cleaning guns –
the obscene sceneliness inspires Parnassian boom of war.

Among kings and kingpins, logomachy is the timely art;
they say no sensuality overwhelms the wordy perfume of war.

In the narrow straits, the oil tankers have been quickly reflagged,
the reticulum of allegiances rewoven to the womb of war.

The secretary of state, in her hour of fame, brings the charts.
Her periphrasis disguises the revealed nom de plume of war.

O known and unknown soldiers, Samadhi, in sleep, is yours:
eternal sleep, where seraphs fly on the witch broom of war.

It is never too young to die for the homeland, never too gory.
At home, weaklings are enlivened by the purple plume of war.

You, Anis, logrolling joints, stare into the abyss of your Hallux.
In the closet sits your effervescent self, the bloodless costume of war.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Brian Busby's A Gentleman of Pleasure, and The Heart Accepts It All

The first book listed in the blog title is Brian Busby’s biography of John Glassco, the second a Selected Letters of the same Quebec writer.

Busby is an indefatigable investigator and compiler of Glassco’s life and work. His findings, in A Gentleman of Pleasure: One Life of John Glassco – Poet, Memoirist, Translator, and Pornographer, were made more difficult by his subject’s mischievous lies and diversions, as well as Glassco’s discretion, which caused the late writer to delete and burn material which would be likely to compromise him personally in some way. It’s especially understandable he’d protect himself from puritanical condemnation since a darker element of this often-experienced (among writers) story concerns laws prosecuting homosexual behaviour during the years of Glassco’s sexual awakening. But I was surprised to learn that Glassco’s caution was also sparked by a concern for others condemned, in ignorant and stupidly judgemental hearsay, for the writer’s lifestyle by association. Surprised, because Glassco comes across as a self-regarding pleasure hound, one unabashedly in pursuit of the sexual conquest, the next drink, the slot of endless days bathed in diversion and aesthetic enjoyment, whether of sights and sounds, or the words – in writing or reading – that would honour them.

The especial joy, though, arrives in The Heart Accepts It All, Selected Letters of John Glassco, where Busby edits a pruned but revelatory archive of personal correspondence which captures Glassco in a wide variety of moods and subjects. I was particularly delighted to learn of Glassco’s brilliantly perceptive off-the-cuff criticism of contemporary writers and books. (It shouldn’t have been as much of a surprise, however, since his Memoirs of Montparnasse displayed  wise and lively arguments during the dialogic disquisitions in that book.) D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover gets raked over the coals for the English novelist’s “projection of himself into a woman; his real love-object is Mellors”. Now, I don’t agree with it, but his case, made with more development than I’d care to type out here, is nevertheless forceful and (to my mind) original.

Busby strikes a judicious and respectful balance between adoration of his subject, and wart-exposure. And it’s a difficult task because the complexity of the excellent, unfashionable, oft-overlooked writer offers no easy answers, or even thematic lines. At once selfish and compassionate, a connoisseur and decadent, Glassco demands exploration from many angles, and these letters (and the biography which sets the table) afford the reader a chance to appreciate the subject through searing wisdom, heartbreaking loss, and humbling experience.

Elizabeth Bachinsky's The Hottest Summer in Recorded History

“Living in houses lets me know
what it is like to live
in houses. The very best houses
(yours) have art on the walls
that I can look at and know
what it is like to look at real
art. Something real made
by someone real ... “

So begins “Other Poets’ Houses”, a poem, one of the few, in Elizabeth Bachinsky’s 2013 The Hottest Summer in Recorded History, not addressed to a relative or poet-friend. Frank O’Hara staked his claim on the personal-messaging persona, but though O’Hara is wildly overrated (and poorly imitated), he at least varied his output with unique conceits and creative idiosyncrasies that outran their insular affections. The lines quoted above have the affection of banality meeting dullness against a background of grey. Ah, but the tone!, one might interject. And it’s true, the voice, as the poem wanders from room to room, works inward in a faux-naive mix of subtly inflated wonder and sadness. So if it’s an improvement over the (sincere or ironic, or sincere and ironic) “know/what it is like” opening, it’s a case of pick your poison and hope for a Hail Mary pass completion later in the book (if it’s not too rude to ask of it in the next poem). That irritating tone, though, prevails. Actually, one of two. Cute/sassy, or cylinder-misfiring serious.

To the former, which make up a majority of the poems (these are, after all, private letters to friends): “Occasional Poem for bill bissett, August 21, 2011” is a verbose, even-toned loving rumination on ... well, on bill’s personhood and work, “THE GREATEST/POETRY because I loved how the words were all over/the place and spelled wrong”. She was fourteen – (there is little change in persona to vary  the recording monotony of the “I” throughout the book) – at the time, but as the meandering anecdotes pile up like potato peels nudging towards the garburator, the reader notes her continued admiration for “MAGICAL” bill who “gave me a Halls/cough candy, which was great because fire is stressful/and Halls are so soothing”. I realize the tone is in loving mimicry of the holy simpleton which is bissett, but how about those words “great” and “so stressful” for precision.

And that’s what’s most frustrating about Bachinsky’s poetry. The direction is all over the map. Precision and worthy material, one concludes after reading Hottest Summer, are so yesterday, but she’s also been praised for gritty realistic narrative in her earliest (and best, though still prosaically deadening) Home of Sudden Service. There is no hybrid poem that reconciles this. Or if there is to be a way around it, through it, the skill required would have to be on an obverse vertigo-inducing higher level.

Six split-up poems, or texts, or answering machine tape messages, or phone blurts, are interspersed throughout the volume. The acknowledgements enlighten us that “David” is poet-friend Dave McGimpsey. I won’t repeat much of the recording, but I’ve overheard wittier conversation while queuing up at a 3 a.m. 7/11. And if wit wasn’t the point of those six pages, what was? Well, like George Bowering’s various poem-memoirs, it’s a present to that friend, and to a lesser extent, to a narrow circle of literary knockabouts. Others can bugger off if they haven’t closed the book at the first “4:50 pm: David – Davey in the hizzy. How you, darlin?”

But it’s not all cut-ups and back rubs. At some point, when collecting this material, Bachinsky may have tallied up the suitors and realized the resulting MS needed a slight tug in the opposite direction, gravitas by way of a canonical name-check. A pre-email ghost. “The Mountain” (after A.M. Klein) belongs to that smaller subset of cylinder-misfires. In invoking Klein, the lyrical stakes are raised, and one hand after another – King-high, two twos, ten-high – spreads out in a losing procession: “cover and canopy of youth” (cover and canopy?), “grows dark”, “suddenly spill”, “made bright”, “still/rests in the leaves”.

Books of this sort must be a blast to write and compile. Friendships consolidate and literary paths are cleared. But the reader outside the hand-holding inward-facing circle shrugs and moves on. Not that that matters to the community, of course.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Dean Young's Embryoyo

William Logan, in a review of Dean Young’s Elegy on Toy Piano, blistered poems that “want[ed] so badly to be loved, after a while you’re willing to buy them a ticket to Lapland just to be rid of their shining, eager faces”. Either Embryoyo, Young’s 2007 follow-up, marks a U-turn, or Logan’s irony meter was in the shop. The quasi-surrealist’s clown frown is deep under the smeared, garish make-up.

Young’s diction in Embryoyo is often as childish as the surface attitude: kerBOOM, boom boom, wussy, Mommie, horsie, thingie, Ka-ching. Childish, but the diction is also nostalgic, the narrator putting himself into a pleasant trance of “bras”, “brassieres”, “nipples”, “breasts”, before the inevitable descent: “wing”, “winged”, and “forewings” are foredoomed, pleasure and escape a mocking and incomplete memory. “Pineapple” makes an appearance in two page-facing poems, without connection. Brain, boredom, wolf, gold, butter, corpuscular, and cat get repeat test drives. One could make some obvious links; one could also get submerged in a Young no-no, that fool’s gold of rational hyperconstruction.

Nods go to Gertrude Stein and Artaud and Mallarme, sneers to Blake and Lowell. Narrative interest sharpens in the first lines – “You’re not going to like this” – only to feel the guillotine in the next. (And the following lines roll in the bucket, too. Young’s poems can’t contain all the mind’s splatter.) It’s not a child’s attention deficit disorder, but a contemporary mimesis of a mind’s shifts and severed strands, or at least a mind influenced and accelerated by modern habits and circumstances. Without extensive quotation, it’s hard to get a sense of this, but Young will often interrupt the interruptions with savvy metaphysical sadness, as in “Bunny Tract”, where “bunny/knows exactly what to do, flee then stop/and disappear but friend, our work is dark/in a darker world of not leaping in the sun/much”.

Though linear argument is destroyed at every turn, Young wants it both ways, as do many of our best absurdists. “The Plural Of Crisis Is” is a terrific political poem, skirting its anger with bewitching, waylaying syntax: “No one’s/shocked except the bless them young/even if all they do is pierce themselves”. And his ars poetica, “Leaves in a Drained Swimming Pool”, is chockablock with zingers – “Irreverence is irrelevant’s revenge” – before it, too, collapses into a sea of hilarious and altered cliches.

In “Sean Penn Anti-Ode”, a manipulated adage – “Life, boys and girls, is ordinary crap” – is a tangled Dream Songs riff from Berryman, and there are quite a few touching inscriptions from Young on the elder’s tombstone. Young’s time-and-death notes are always interesting, sometimes profound.

The harsh criticism of frivolity with unearned and opaque comic tone -- from Logan, Adam Plunkett and others – is puzzling to me, since it speaks to a lack in these otherwise excellent critics to see paradox in light humour. But perhaps it’s an indication that many are simply uncomfortable with poetry that – on its surface, at least – seems perversely wayward. They just haven’t looked deeply enough.

I’d sum up, but that would be an organic boo-boo. If you get the volume, read “Search Party”. It makes my early “best-of” poem for the year. As the bad jokester Young himself might say, “what a find!”

Friday, February 7, 2014

Indoor Nature

(First published in subTerrain, issue #66.)
Morris entered the busy diner at noon, coughing and agitated. He grabbed a coffee and a ham and cheese on rye, then was beaten to the last empty table by a quartet of skateboarders. Annoyed, he started for the door and around the corner back to work, but spied an open chair across from a man just finishing his soup while reading a book. Perhaps he’d leave soon and Morris could eat the sandwich in peace, away from vulgar idiots at his nine-to-five, or well-dressed soup-sippers with manners and self-assurance.

“Mind if I join you? All the other spots are taken.”

The man paused, tablespoon of minestrone mid-air, while peering over his book. He then glanced about and, after corroborating Morris’ assertion, indicated the chair opposite without a word. He returned to the thin volume, pupils tracking horizontally like the bars on a slow-starting computer.

Morris read Margaret Atwood’s back cover quotation, which shielded the man’s face from further distraction: “I am very pleased to have been able to help with the inception of this important prize. Poetry is at the heart of language; it’s good to see it given the recognition it deserves.”

Peculiar, thought Morris. Why the defensiveness? He remembered similar reverential entreaties from instructors throughout elementary and high school. What put him off was that poetry didn’t need the special treatment. He couldn’t stomach most of it – precious or ill-written – although a few stray lines from those texts still echoed in the distance. What was it Keats said about dying? “To take into the air my quiet breath.”

The man put down his book, arose, and lined up for a pastry.

Morris couldn’t resist. He twisted the rectangle. ‘The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology. A selection of the 2001 shortlist.’ He read the list of names, then discovered, from the inner flap, that the poets were divided into international and Canadian categories. Was this like the Canadian-born quota for our national football league where half the team had to be homegrown? What if this Don McKay chap was better than the other contestants in the international category? With these and other questions of self-protection snapping in his neocortex, Morris turned to the brief McKay section.

“Now I need
a scrap of night to wrap up in and sleep who
knows how many eons until something –
maybe dotted, maybe ragged,
maybe dun – unfolds. Something quick.
Something helpful to the air.”

Something, something, something. Well, if Don McKay doesn’t know what his something – present or future – is about, thought Morris, I’m no more enlightened by the poem than that guy next table reading a sofa ad. I get it. The narrator is yearning. Yearning is good and noble. Well, not always. Not when aspiration, confusion, desire and diversionary hope are mixed up and equitable.

He pushed the slim anthology into its approximately original position before the man spun around with his nanaimo bar. Morris’ series of trailing coughs resembled an old gas lawnmower that wouldn’t fire after many violent cord-yanks.

“You shouldn’t be spreading your germs in public,” said the man.

“I don’t have a cold, it’s nothing contagious. I’m an auto detailer. Lotta paint fumes.”

The man frowned while inhaling first the bar, then a tart.

“You like it?” Morris pointed to the book with an oil-creased finger.

“Yes. It’s not often you get to read Amichai, Celan, Murray, Howe, and our country’s finest between the same covers.”

“Do you write?”

“I teach. At U.B.C.”

“And you think McKay is one of our best.”

The man pushed back in his chair and smiled. “It’s not just me. He’s widely admired.”

“Could you be specific?”

“You’re into poetry?”

“Not much.”

Laughter from both.



“Humour me, Harold.”

“I like McKay because he’s not afraid of approaching nature with personal quirks and levity.”

“Hmm. I don’t know. When I’m in nature, so-called, I lose myself. Where’re these personal quirks then?”

“Losing yourself doesn’t mean your personality vanishes. And the observer is part of nature, too,” said Harold.

“Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but overhear,” said the sofa ad peruser next table. “I have to agree with Morris here. McKay once criticized the Romantics by saying they started with contemplating nature, but ended up celebrating the creative imagination itself. Aside from confusing nature and the artifice needed to mirror or distort it – is Picasso to be exempt from his gently poisonous stance? – McKay, ironically, is all about landing in those birds’ nests, chirping and twittering about his own possible transformations.”

“McKay’s on Twitter?” said Morris.

“But surely, Keats is completely consumed by possible transformation in many poems,” said Harold.

“Yes, but the opposites – life and death – are squeezed together, their meaning charged with elation and danger. What, exactly, is transformation, then? May I?”

The sofa ad man then picked up the Griffin anthology and leafed through it before finding a desired poem. “Les Murray’s ‘The Tin Wash Dish’: ‘Lank poverty, dank poverty – ‘ “.

“Whoa, wait a second. I don’t have time for a poetry reading now,” said Harold. “Sorry, but I must be going.”

The reader and Morris prevailed in their requests, however, and sofa man finished his reading with a pleasing combo of stentorian brio and inflective awe.

After scattered applause from the clientele, Harold accepted his book, nodded to both men, and exited.

Morris thanked the reader and returned to work, preoccupied, the scent of the poem seeding his pores: “Rank poverty, lank poverty,/chafe in its crotch and sores in its hair,/still a window’s clean if it’s made of air/ ...”