Friday, January 25, 2019

Aaron Giovannone's The Nonnets

The cult of personality was outsized during Canadian poetry’s centennial heyday. Pick your favourites or denounce them – and there were many – but you couldn’t go three volumes down a bookstore shelf without encountering a front cover mug shot of an author setting his face (and they were mostly men) to the appropriate takeaway – tough, bemused, bewildered, laughing, or grim. Al Purdy gets blamed, unfairly, for starting the angle. (Most of his covers were faceless.) You could also point the finger at Frank “I do this, I do that” O’Hara. But they didn’t get the ball rolling. After gathering snow, that ball finally froze, motionless, at the edge of a sewer drain during the 90s when personality meant transparently autobiographical jokey or tender anecdotal blathering. Enter the brilliant new millennium. Personality, if present in any recognizable manner, was sublimated, or at least at the service of craft and narrative force. But the cult of personality never went away. New practitioners were clever enough to mask their foregrounded selves with greater layers of irony and wit, disjunction and ambiguity. Tone was fluid, which, in practice, meant provisional, confused (and confusing), overriding. We now have a spate of current CanPo titles that tweak 90s jokey or tender into jokey and tender. Aaron Giovannone’s The Nonnets is among those collections.

The Nonnets refers to Giavannone’s own form, nine-line poems which split evenly into three stanzas. Any other formal constraint, though, is an add-on, if present at all. For example, the author employs rhyme, end or internal, at times. As for organic development, that’s either not on the menu, or is subverted. Since an example is impossible without full quotation, and because the poems’ brevity allow it, here’s one entry, in full (all poems lack titles):

I say, I’m late for a meeting.
This is the meeting.

Just to be here’s amazing.
I’d like to thank the many people
who believed in me.

That was your first mistake.
A silver maple with twinkling leaves.
Just kidding. There’s no tree.

This poem’s fairly typical in procedure. Introduce one scene, sever that completely in the second stanza, then refer obliquely, even obscurely, to the first stanza in the wrap-up. The language is banal, the sentences or sentence fragments are short and often declarative, the poem references itself implicitly (and in other poems, explicitly, with the “Dear Reader” address), the tone is floating. The effect on the reader is of being in the audience where a magician keeps hinting that multiple and endless rabbits will, eventually, be pulled from hats. Unfortunately, in all but several poems, there are an awful lot of hats and very few rabbits.

When Giovannone drops the casually practiced and ineffectual comic shtick, his efforts can stick. He’s much better when at his most directly vulnerable. Here’s a terrific nonnet, fifth from the final poem:

on the highway’s shoulder.
Hazards flash in the gallery of pine.

Is anyone here afraid of bears
or of that blue pickup
parked at the edge of the woods?

Because we’re alive, we’re growing
a moustache, at least its wispy beginnings.
Dead, we will be too.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Stevie Howell's I left nothing inside on purpose

I left nothing inside on purpose, the title of Stevie Howell’s 2018 collection of poems, is taken from a note in the window of a Mercedes, in a ridiculously optimistic request for preservation of property. Howell’s header uses that naive note ironically, realizing we – I use that collective pronoun seriously – can’t shut out disaster, whether we’ve money and good health, or, in the speaker’s case, little of the former and even less of the latter. The title also refers to the fearless revelations of the speaker, impatient with the poses and tertiary peccadilloes that comprise so much of the tea-cosy-and-grey-sky school of poetry.

Voice is a particular challenge in this volume. The tone, I feel, left plenty of room for various inflections, tempi, and dynamics, yet I didn’t feel this an arbitrary exercise. The poems have to be read aloud – all of them – and I found myself stopping and starting frequently because of the constant indentations, caesurae, ellipses, one-and-two line stanzas, short phrases, and sporadic period disappearance. The effect is halting, but not tentative, and certainly not flat. Though sentences are paratactic, they don’t fill the page with numbing, unresolved repetition, the latter a cheap ball-peen in the postmodern toolkit. Actually, the ‘flat’ tone emphasizes the terse and not infrequent tragic maxims that follow the earlier strategy. And those harsh conclusions are earned by the (now) heightened earlier content. This is difficult, even impossible, to relay accurately here because of the typographical misrepresentation which would result. And unlike the often arbitrary indents and erratic spacings other poets use in an attempt to impart complexity, Howell’s efforts in layout are instructive. So I’ll just pick a few quotes from various poems that can be rendered here with fairly close representation, realizing that, in this volume more than most others, excision doesn’t do justice to her work.

“A dream of diaphaneity by the calcified. Life requires 3 people to make a//tragedy. & for the tragedy to be performed. A 3rd person can’t come between a couple unless//you let him, & he wants to.”

“That I can close my eyes & make you//mine on loan is a miracle////God help me –

“a retired train station, too. A maze of different platforms makes you panic – you might miss your ride into oblivion.”

The bravery on display doesn’t just result from exposing the extremes of mental and emotional states – (“I refuse to describe the tangible world in signs anymore. Since Google killed/the lyric, all we have inside//(states, not traits)”) – but on laying out spare relational settings (objects in a room; mundane images) and somehow managing to link the humble beginnings to interesting, even profound, observations, and all this through transitions that, initially, seem maximally disjointed.

Here I note that her editor was Ken Babstock. I don’t normally comment on a book’s editor, publisher, or designer, preferring to let the poems speak without the support system, not that that system is unimportant – far from it – but that those details can easily veer into the ‘business’ of poetry, important for sure, but also dangerous in that false conclusions, or at least banal ones, can be drawn from the links. In I left nothing inside on purpose, though, Babstock’s influence shows. His latest book, On Malice, now four years in the rear view mirror, uses flatness and disjunction to mirror emotional reactions to history as impersonal insult. Howell has learned well, and has added her own deft touches, dependent on no one.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Catherine Owen's Dear Ghost,

Catherine Owen’s previous poetry collections have stuck pretty closely to an all-encompassing thematic: life in the fast lane of a metal band; grief over, and elegies to, a dead lover (twice); studies of other artists (Egon Schiele and Robinson Jeffers). In her latest collection, Dear Ghost,, the focus is on herself (though there’s also an extended section on others), including artistic excitement during childhood and work experiences in the present. Unlike many other poets who rework the same source material until every mundane detail, post-wringer, is rank and dry, Owen has had a varied and interesting life that can withstand (with caveats) the frequent dead-ends and narcissistic concentration that overwhelms lesser efforts in the autobiographical mode.

This is Owen’s best volume. Always bold and engaging, she shows a deeper vulnerability here that works lyrically to hold the emotion while also, paradoxically, setting it free. The excellent “Against Billy Collins’ Refusal to Read Poems called ‘My Grandfather’s Binoculars’ ” ends, after a curious exploration giving the lie to Collins’ typically facile and jokey remonstrance, with, “the small ships drift by and I want to mark their names,/to enter their fierce ceremony of water for awhile.”

The same problems apparent in her earlier work also surface in Dear Ghost, , though their evidence is more scant. Questionable (or outright wrong) word choices intrude. Thoroughbred horses aren’t “shot” when they break down, which softens much of the sting and (otherwise) complex rage of “Just the Way Things Are (He Said)”. And, with “The Window Washer”, I have a hard time with the verb wherein a wind “bashes him into his bucket”. These are faults of overwriting, or, more particularly, raising the stakes for a falsely heightened dramatic effect.

Owen publishes too much (volumes, and poems within volumes), but her best poems, and there are many here (“When I Love Film the Most”, “Residual Lingerie”, “The Dildo Craftsman”, “Swallows’ Nests of Isla de Janitzio, Michoacan”, “The Combination”), dominate the more negligible efforts with their intense lyricism and sharp observational capture.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Jeff Latosik's Dreampad

Pick up most any poetry journal or magazine from the past 50 years and you’ll meet at least two, possibly 50, poems of mild observation, event or anecdote – the crushed roadside raccoon, the carrot steaming in the pot, grandfather’s rheumy eyes. One reaches the end of the poem with unbearable ennui, and hastens to the next page, fingers crossed for a more enlightening guide.

Quite a few of Jeff Latosik’s poems start out on (not metrically) similar feet. Moving through a house, playing guitar, sliding a hand inside his parka, checking a bump on his knee. These are openings to poems from his 2018 collection Dreampad, but Latosik has an interesting and inquisitive mind which is able to branch off in many directions from such humble sources. Time and space are the author’s primary considerations. Nothing ever ‘begins’ in the usual generative sense, anyway, and Latosik’s observations are fascinating to follow as they link to concurrent and disparate thought patterns, time loops, and speculative outcomes based on shifts in spatial possibility. This may begin to sound like sci-fi tomfoolery, but only to the unimaginative, obtuse, or stubbornly prosaic. There is much to latch onto here, and, far from the emotional plastic landfill of an Adam Dickinson, Latosik’s ruminations often run parallel with wise sadness, cautious acceptance, and transitive joy.

The anecdote’s usual goal, in a standard poem, is a set-up for the reassuring – or, at least, hopeful – epiphany, boring and solemn as an Oral Roberts telethon. The religiose comparison is also apt in that the reader is asked to join the writer, through an emotional sales job, in hazy communal faith. Latosik undercuts all that malarkey. “To know that no one and nothing is coming” begins “Oath of an Unaffiliated Boy Scout”. How’s that for immediate black irony? But progression is still possible, through reversal: “To know it will take many years but might not”, “To know there’s no bedrock but still agree”, and “To live, for as long as you can, in the difficulty”. There’s a church I could get used to attending! But what’s a church without good music?

Latosik’s wayward thought processes wouldn’t seem to be suitable for formal designs, but, moreso that in his first two volumes, Dreampad is notable for internal rhyme, close-shouldered assonantal comparisons, and chiming unrhymed gerunds. As well, he relaxes into a more personal mode, which helps to relieve abstract congestion that tended to mar some of the poems from his first two collections. Here, to illustrate, are just a few passages, but there are many standout poems throughout: “[y]ou’re met,/ as ever, by the range of choices your qualm half fits,/a cache of wants crushed on a touchpad of options/that feel as though they’ve been free-floating//and present forever.” (“Troubleshoot”); “But what I am now can’t/be made real to whoever was once lying there.” (“Silverado”); “It wasn’t a place, but you could go there.” (“The Internet”); “spike the microphones in the grass/so no one sings; and spin again the giant carousel/I must step off to just see anything.” (“The Bright Note”).