Randomly, I decided to pick two books to review from Biblioasis and it is these, one from 2013, the other from 2009, both obsessed by rhythm with differing considerations of context and with forms that seek to be a vehicle for their content.
1/Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway – Alexandra Oliver
I must say, it surprised me to see Oliver listed as a “new voice” on the front of her bee-spackled book, and a “new formalist sensation” on the back, seeing as how she has been publishing and reciting poems in one form or another since around the time I initially met her, when we were mere infants, reciting for the Burnaby Writers’ Society’s Poets Under 25 event in about 1994, and her first book came out, albeit in the UK, in 2007. But such are blurbs, those desperate for attention beasts. Oliver’s poems, crisp, at times sing-songy, Philip Larkinesque, rhyming, mannered, smart, continental and often quite droll, are usually hits in performance, the main place I’d been exposed to them prior. On the page, they are both bop and oops, something that could be noted for any collection perhaps, but because Oliver uses rhyme schemes so regularly, the oopsies are more due to the fact that every kind of subject matter isn’t suited, in my opinion, to a similar scansion & stress (do dee do dee do dee do dee do dee do), than to any lack in Oliver’s ear, which is, mostly, bang-on.
It’s a slim little text, but the poems are so compressed, it’s a perfect length and I counted 11 poems I would return to of about 45, not a low figure really. Among these: “A Child’s Christmas in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” with its well-crafted revelations about the Partizan Santa, Deda Mraz, the list of misdemeanors in “Curriculum Vitae” (O these lines are meaningful to me: “This is how you last,/they tell me, cut the sparking fuse;/a woman doesn’t get too many chances/I wonder if respectable means right:/I’m waiting to be rescued by my doubt,” the villanelle on the death of parents, “Taking Care,” the sweetly ingenious, “The Toy Catalogue of the Afterlife,” “Modern Camera’s” biting Brit-style humour (“This is the setting for blood & ablution/And this button here is the one that you press/when shooting yourself is the only solution”), the rare oft-iambic poignancy of “A Serbian Man in a Bar Said” (“This is the beast you see when you are sleeping: / a stag….the red cloud clears,/then you wake up weeping”) and the super funny death wish of “Final Request” (“Please put me in the muumuu that I bought…the one you hate…I’ve often thought/I’d leave you in a good, embarrassed state…so nothing would be strange.”) Though the pieces are described as “cinematic visions,” they didn’t seem especially marked as suburban movie clips to me, apart from their regular dips into film noir tonalities, but more like slightly sour (but not unpleasantly so) rotund bonbons, accurately shaped, but sometimes a tad too sproingy going down.
2/Meniscus – Shane Neilson
Even though Neilson’s first book is from 2009 and thus not a new release (and so what), I wanted to review it anyway (as I may in the future Elise Partridge’s Fielder’s Choice or Jeramy Dodd’s Crabwise to the Hounds or other gems requiring refreshing in our tiny public’s memory). Meniscus is striking with its textured cover of messy intestine cassette tape feed, the innards chopped into four sections of elegy, insanity, injury and adoration, the 1st and 4th sequences being the most stirring and stick in the gut.
Neilson’s rhythms are usually quite sophisticate and slant; witness the opening lyric, “Recovery” where visits rings with shrinks, went with absent and the piece concludes with the ache of slow epiphany, “I surveyed three barren years/and saw a poem, flaring there.” And the flare of these cuttingly delineated poems is fierce, snared in the deep need to translate a father’s brutality as he snaps his wife’s wrists during a fight (No Ring), thrashes his son in Beaten-Down Elegy (“I cough red /and grab time. The breath again and he’s there, throwing bales/the thump of wet hay on wet hay”) and then, at the end, weakens, along with the paternal lineage of farmers into “one collective sigh” (This is not a Rural Poem). The loveliest lines in the book might be in this segment: “Is there sorrow? If I look it may be/creation” (For my Father).
But the punchiest kapows of sound are in the last part on love – “Love like piss on a hot stove,/like Jumpin’ Jehosephat and Snorting Nicodemus” (Love Life), “The hings of or/, the sulk of not…Your back does not balk;/it has no non” (Just Saying), “the syllable – /a lollygag terror, a long slow gurgle…for all the rictus cheer, there is the velvet taint of roses” (Love Poem), and “Love was forgotten/ and bastardized and/flecked and fucked, we/woke and fell and fell/again” (Rebound). And again a moving moment: “I pray that I won’t instruct you in pain” (Prayer). The parts on bipolar states and brain seizures are less communicable I think, possibly too fraught with equivalent media scenarios the mind unwittingly replays. Still, strong utterances here like Bird Men (“Drained/ wallets strain against seat seams….men stretch arms/into albatross wing spans”), There is No Cure, MRI with the body in the machine “a harvest/of grains and tubers/in the long, magnetic season” and Bedside Delirium: Family Visit. An echoing of Pete Trower, Alden Nowlan and Al Pittman while being relentlessly itself, Meniscus sings bleeps & grinds & mellifluous witnessings to loss.
I wrote both of these reviews in draft form while running the air conditioning unit on the set of Arrow, the TV show, occasioning many interesting comments from the cast & crew, including one man who shuddered, “My ex-wife was a poet. Turned me off poetry for life.” Well damn her/him. These books are truly worth the read.
1/ Brecken Hancock’s Broom Broom:
Amid the welter of first releases, glutting, unrecollectable, Hancock’s Broom Broom (with its vertiginous cover of palimsestuous female faces) sticks in the blood like Roethke’s abject greenhouse spells or Sexton’s wicked glittering seances. And grief begot those too.
Initially, while I relished the energy of Hancock’s language, from the playfully grim scenarios of fetal sharks that “scarf/each other to abortion/Yum yum/in Mom’s womb. It’s on YouTube” (Husha) to her quirky familiarity with forms like the villanelle (Sandy) and glosa(The Near Site), and the compelling emotional scholarship found in “Notes to Historia Thermae”, I couldn’t engage with the deeper agony of familial narration fracturing inside these pieces. By “Incubus, Malleus, Stapes” feeling leaks in during an erotically rupturing canoe trip: “Dock, years after these whales/ came to die, to drone of insects./No one knows what becomes of sound/ when all the world’s coquilles/hit shoal,” a delicious ominousness further elaborated in “The crime for which he’s serving life” which concludes with the stark philosophical queries: “I don’t believe in any god, so why am I nodding towards something like a soul? What does one live for?…Is the goal here to eke out another clutch of years?”
And then the Mother enters with the next poem,
a brilliant dark sashaying between numbered accidents experienced in childhood and seemingly more banal, quotidian moments that carry their own sour baggage: “bluebottle fly bunt bunts against glass…Mom’s broom, the vroom vroom of her vacuum…Dad rips up the carpet; goodbye stains.” The brutal maternal momentum is then sustained to the book’s end, with the ponderous wonder of lines like “Grief is a door, strange how feral” (Lag), “Grief isn’t an epoch, it’s a milieu” from the startling The Art of Plumbing, and “Evil Brecken'”s repellent chutzpah punching through in stanzas such as “Fused sex to sex, pixel to pixel/we sit together, shit together/brandish our teats/like handkerchiefs, oink, oink,/muddle in the bristly/bacon of us: wrecking-/ball vulva, this bathetic smile.”
But Hancock saves the most affecting poem for nearly the book’s fierce finale. “Once More,” which prosily alternates between the personal history of Brecken’s mother’s early and tortuous decline, italicized descents into her damaged psyche and the author’s own strivings to acknowledge this long term loss through the support of grief-theorists like Barthes (a fave of mine) and Didion, is powerfully articulated. Hancock’s awareness of her mother’s disconnection from a “decayed language” serves as impetus for her own offering of poems in response to what, even after death, keeps, achingly, echoing.
2/David O’Meara’s A Pretty Sight
While Hancock’s poems rake into sanguinary memory, instantaneously fixed, O’Meara’s perhaps deceptively quieter cerebration rhythms itself gradually into the spinal column and haunts. Kind of like the book’s subtle hunt of cover, the dog chasing the hare gradually pressing through its night. “Inside my mind, there’s another mind,” O’Meara writes in the sardonic “So far so stupid,” which begins with the wholly contemporary line: “All those selfies I posted/look really great,” an observation (the mind one that is) that may account for the densely laden allusiveness of these poems.
They aren’t just a randomized what’s what of O ‘Meara’s rolladeck of reading though; A Pretty Sight is hinged with its references to philosopher and raconteurs from Ancient Greece: Socrates, Aesop, Virgil, among others, including a lyric on Socrates at Delium and a hilarious dialogue between old Soc and Sid Vicious on the nature of martyrdom: Soc: “And the scabs on the back of your hands/ were they not left by spear tips?” Sid: “That was just a laugh with a cigarette, some game/ we’d play in the Hampsted bedsit.”
O’Meara’s poems resonate with the sophisticated intellectual poise of a Steve Noyes, a James Pollock, or a Richard Greene, though they can take the piss out too, mashing things up with lush bits of description and raw pronouncements that jag the textual flow in a mostly satisfying way. A prime example of this mode is his long rhapsody, “Circa Now”, which veers from Klimt, Freud, and Juno to “khao soi and mango” to “Fuck silence or permanence/Fuck elegy.Fuck time and pain,” before ending with the ennuiesque directive, “Virgil, don’t be our guide; you wouldn’t know the way around now,” amid cellphones and contrails that “rib the sky.”
My favorite poems however (of course attesting to my rather elegiac predilections) are the bittersweet and noble “Terms,” about a teacher dying of cancer who wants his students to remember his beloved novel’s motifs: “the white horse and the pillar of smoke,” “Dance”, whose description of teen sex pops the nostalgia button so acutely: “In back seats, sweat squeaky on vinyl, trying to syringe pleasure into each other’s skin,” the endlessly deferred poem of “The Tennis Courts in Winter,” and the gutting loveliness of “End Times,” its remnant ghosts and in the urn, “tiny, like seashells in the sand…his hipbones.”
As with the previously listed poets O’ Meara resides among, I don’t think he ever writes a “bad” poem, just pieces one is more or less engaged with in relation to how his use of language vivifies his occasionally hermetic subject matter. And o he’s ballsy in his joustings with Rilke: “You must change your life, but first, wait a few minutes” (How I wrote). If you insist. Ok.
Obsessed as I am with elegy I felt I couldn’t compose a typical review of M X T, thus (respectfully) this.
MXT is so pink-existing, a shock of lurid hurting rendered bearable through the architectonics of an arrayed machinery of feeling. Initially, a resistance to the equipment and then, a yielding as diagrams set grief outside the self-mire, arrow & circumscribe
directionalities of chaos. Do we believe in this? Mostly, Dear One, I cling to the emotion caught in the lettered texts, the Dear Ones addressed, those pieces where when she says, “I don’t want a grid, I want arms” we nod assent, absolutely. Mary Oliver flits in; Diane Arbus; Lee Miller, those
painters “in blood” from the “darkest recesses” of their vaginas. As there is little intimate grip on this mourning, few anchors, faces & idioms vague, lost progenitors are contained in places, the ghost Vancouver of childhood, its Jericho Beach, its Aristocrat’s. The juxtaposition sharpens between the desire
for containable, describable processes and the obvious melange of detrital this n that: hashtags, Oil of Olay, Mike Harcourt, The Grateful Dead, cherry Kool-Aid. Any conclusion ineffable,
Dear One, is it
does one need to grieve and is it manifested by this whirl-world slammed by doors & doors of laws & circuit breakers or do such blueprints of utopian withholding give us rituals (of a colder sort) to enable our continuance?
“This endless loop of feeling what does it reveal?” Well at least, Dear One, an alternative to the drop-box stages of supposed grieving, the symbols and frame dimensions and magnetic fields but stone-attempts in a stream-reality of Coleridgean “water, water everywhere, my dead.”
the mourner shrinks a bit. Is it from protection, fear (if “thinking in public terrifies us” how about feeling?” ) or just because “Grief is too bright. Too head-on.” And thus subterfuge is crucial for survival, endurance. Of which tactics I count not only the machinery of elegiac dismantlements but also the arms lengths of certain end-frames for Plath or Pollock or the letter Q (the cento though is essential harvest….)
,strategies that can drain grieving of its salt, or else proffer a balance, a ballast to the keening of “Dear Regret….I am lost…I am hungry to keep you alive.” So very true. And perhaps the only line,
Dear One, any of us needs to write about grief.
Gotcha, the young man keeps replying, like a rubber band pinging into my
brain, Gotcha, and so I know I am alone in the world where only the homeless
people are majestically polite, one denizen of a shopping cart calling out to me
“Excuse moi Ma’am, but do you have the time?” as he wheeled his precious
refuse mobile past my lockup on Mars. Everything’s named by what’s not there,
I mumble to myself and you yelp out – put it in a poem! – by which you mean
consign it to a dark corner of the billabong where it will eat its own reptilian
wisdom for eternity. Sorry I didn’t understand your directive to bury myself
in sand and garbage juices while strutting proudly as representative of Lucid
Communication, Inc. And on the train back home there are six German
Hula hoopers and one is excited by a lemonade stand, dude, and maybe even
fried eggs, while the chick drawls at her mate, “You feel me man? It’s just
one of those things. If I wake up, I’ll go. And if I don’t wake up, I won’t be awake.”
I love experiments with genre for the most part as in French novellas like Blais’ Three Travelers that read like long poems or Mike Blouin’s latest I Don’t Know How to Behave which blends reportage with screenplay and other tactical genres to create a powerfully engaging narrative loop da loop.
Books that combine genres as with these two texts, both offering essays & poems, are a little trickier. Mainly because, as a reader, I am quite particular as regards the genres I read at different times of the day (I am OCD Crow recall…:) and, desiring to read poetry first thing in the morning, I don’t want to encounter an essay yet, nor do I really enjoy my reading of essays in the early afternoon interrupted by the distinct reading mode often required by a poem.
Despite this resistance, I still relished both of these vastly divergent (or are they) memoirs.
(& yes I have cast away my original format of shines, stumbles and echoes entirely, and replaced it with an organic elaboration instead of the works at hand)
1/ Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013)
The title, the cover image of the tough-lovely author, all very enticing. Courage is crucial for a writer, being vulnerable before their material, regardless from where it emerges, but craft is essential. I initially associated Dawn with a spoken-word circle and thought perhaps many of these pieces would be from the “here’s my blunt woes” rant school. Instead, pleasantly, I read that Dawn was inspired at first by Kate Braid’s book Inward to the Bones, along with other published poets, and then saw that the initial piece in the memoir is a glosa called “Oral Tradition,” based on lines by Irving Layton (even better is her reverse or scattered glosa based on lines by beth goobie). Phew says what some would sneer at as my elitist self and others understand as the relief underpinning the realization one will be reading a writer with some literary education (and I don’t care where it’s found, the streets or an institution or family.) And then the fourth page in, oh glory, the wonderful insight-line, ” Grief is an underdeveloped language and so your body is tasked/with mourning.” I am there.
Of course the content is powerful, full of feminist, lesbian, sex-worker rage and also longing, which makes it complex and ambivalent at times and thus very real. But what interests me more is how something is told because that is the sign of art being made. And yes there are regular injections of art here to keep the most discerning reader hypnotized, from the boyfriend dilemma of the essay-story, “Melhos Place,” to the anaphoric trip-trop of the early lyric, “Sex Worker’s Feet,” and the poignant essential critique of the problematic grief rituals in our culture, especially for the liminal, the rejected, titled “How to Bury Our Dead”
: “Our lives are worth the fruit baskets and raisin cakes. We are worth calla lilies and pink roses. We’re worth stone markers and scattered ashes. Hymn and song. Wine and ritual. Surely we’ve all earned hours of storytelling. And most certainly, our lives are worth the tears.”
Could be accused of sentimentality but the pure impulse and the knowledge of rhetorical power here saves all utterly.
I felt the book could have been organized differently than Outside, Inside and Inward – maybe I thought the distinctions were unnecessary or that some narratives in Inward like “The One Thing that could have kept me in Fort Erie, Ontario,” might have served more as frontispieces as it isn’t really important to the reader when per se the writer composed the section (“the past couple of years” Dawn explains in the preface) but how it satisfies a narrative arc. Even the occasional didactic moments didn’t end up bugging me (“It took many women to teach me this lesson: how love can open you…”) as the textured interplay between the styles works and the subject matter is so rare in terms of its public expression and therefore vital.
2/ Shawna Lemay’s Asking (Seraphim Editions, 2014)
Initially, what could be more different than Dawn’s memoir of sex-work in various locales and a rise into lesbian consciousness? Lemay’s essay-poems mostly take place in art galleries (and not on the stairs, naked :), suburbia, the library and at cocktail parties where the author ponders paintings, the state of contemporary poetry and her life as a wife and mother. Her work is also relentlessly poetic, literary, and meant to be read on the page, not as a rallying cry but as a sigh into beauty over a cuppa tea.
But that doesn’t mean Lemay’s experiences are always safe and comforting while Dawn’s are constantly trembling on the edge. Again, it is craft that conveys the importance of the material to the reader. Lemay’s technique is to be much more densely textured but still retain, for the most part, a lucidity. Her goal is to express beauty and to bewail those who spurn the topic, those for whom beauty has become “unfashionable…problematic, suspect.” Both Lemay’s and Dawn’s books are in a sense texts of mid (or nearing mid) life re-assessments, Dawn’s unfolding from the years of sex-work and her emergence as a writer and political being, Lemay’s of her place as a “seer” poet and obsessive ekphrastivist (to coin a term) now that she has been doing this for “decades” through bouts of “inadequacy…questioning…struggle.” Her fragmentary directives in “To a Young Poet” (“I would advise you to write your own manifesto…I would advise you to comb your hair”) along with her bursts of querulousness about whether her or any art will survive, books will endure, whether she can keep speaking to the ostensible silence (the whole ache for/fear of awards behind this anxiety),and the “shabby neglect and betrayal” (Compensations) one suffers, are all signs of this era in an artist’s life.
Having thrilled to Lemay’s previous collection of solely essays, Calm Things, I was a little disappointed in Asking, just a tad. I think because the pieces seemed less focused in their structure throughout the book: Conversations almost wholly strong, Writing Prompts (how I resist that last word!) mostly grabbing me in the aforementioned Young Poet piece and the sharply honed “Seven Remembered Still Lifes,” “It must have been Weird” an interesting query about how the internet has altered our attention span for art, and the final section, “Conventions of Ekphrasis” getting slightly repetitive as one starts to feel more the author’s passion than our own engagement as readers (always a risk with obsession!). Ahhhh, the delicious sensation of stroking this book’s encaustic-feeling cover though, and looking at its juxtaposed lavish bloom and eroding chair.
More books should be written like Dawn’s & Lemay’s that serve as passageways for exploration, attention and transformation in whatever realms their authors move.
In which I experiment with urban-angst-style breathing, inversion video effects and audio amplification of huffs, puffs and the train passing by.
The strange thing is that right after I made this film the Skytrain actually shut down for an hour and I saw many people suffused with anxiety in front of my window, waiting on the tracks as they fixed the system.
Ahhhhh, art & life.
A sunflower in a ram’s skull transcends decay…and the heat.
Originally posted on The Relentless Adventures of OCD Crow:
Slow black maggots sludge over the ram’s skull O’Keefing the living room,
Bodies feeding on bone.
Sweat like sad glitter cast upon my skin, limp before the fan, an etiolated
Ghost. O tropic stick,
Muggy unbearable zone, humid brutality, summer of sick!
Even the ink
Perspires onto the page, creates only damp, empty poems.