#1 Vancouver: The first event on my Designated Mourner tour (ECW Press, 2014), apart from the initial Grief Forms workshop I offered out of my New Westminster apartment, was held at the deliciously cozy Paper Hound Bookstore on Pender Street. There was an audience of about 13, all people I knew, including my ever supportive parents, a few writers (Jamie Reid, Dennis E Bolen), a couple of musicians, and three visual artists. I had decided I would begin every reading by singing 4 lines, then reciting the other 4 of the first piece in the book, Lung Poem, followed by reading Sonnet on You Not. At the end, for short recitations, I would close with the second poem in the book, Constellation, in an effort to create a kind of “textual resurrection” by reading the other poems from back to front, in essence bringing Chris, my deceased spouse and the subject of the book, “back to life.” For the Vancouver, Edmonton and perhaps Kingston events though, as I was and will be the solo performer, I thought I would end instead with the long poem in 13 parts called “The Nth Chambers of the Heart,” a piece that moves through many difficult registers and narratives of addiction, gentrification, love. Tonight, I recited it with the accompaniment of Anna Kuchkova, dark cellist. Apart from a few sludgy pronunciation moments, I think it went intensely well. I like the luxury of longer poems sometimes, despite their massive energy output, as one can lose oneself in the rhythms, sink into the space outside of repartee, introduction and immerse at depth. Luminous photographs, most of myself and the listeners laughing, though some harshly vulnerable, were snapped by Karen Moe. I sold about six books and went out for pizza afterwards :) #2 Edmonton: I was nervous about returning to the city where Chris died, a place I had lived in for 3.5 years and where I had to flee when he became addicted the second to final time, losing my home, bands, animals, people I had called friends, our reading series, my writers’ group. But I also had hope that it would feel like a semi-homecoming and a fulfillment of one circle of this returning of poems to the world. That was to be in one sense and not in another. Yes, there were poets at the Empress Pub for the Olive Series like Lainna Lane (who took otherworldly photos of my solo performance) and Doug Barbour and artists such as Jenny Keith (who also let me stay two nights at her warm, cat-happy house) and musicians like Russ Drury, also one of Chris’s closest friends. But no other of his compatriots in the metal scene and next to no other writers attended. It was snowing yes, and there were colliding events. Time is just so brief though and one wants, on the road, to see as many people that one knows as possible in the limited hours, especially when those individuals carry emotional resonance. Regardless, I relished the largesse of two sets, one of lyrics, alone, and the other, when I jumped from the stage to the floor, and recited the lengthy piece into the mic, to the dual accompaniment of John Armstrong on Theramin and Izumi Kuribayashi on violin. At times, as with when I worked with the cellist, I felt I had to yell a bit too loudly to rise above the music, but mostly I was pleased with the way they created melodic themes, trailed off at intervals and with how I ended in silence. There were tears from audience members. Lots of embraces. Thea Bowering bought me a Magners cider. Eight books exchanged hands, including one to a teacher I had never met who told me how she still hasn’t recovered from her father’s death 15 years ago. A man, Alaistair, who had just come to the usually noisy bar for a drink, pounded the area around his heart and told me, “I like what you said though it was hard. Keep speaking of grief. You have profound talents. Thank you.” Then more drinks and long talks into the early dawn. #3 Calgary: Snow fell through my Red Arrow bus trip and onwards into the evening. I was fairly jubilant though a little exhausted from staying at my brother’s house and being auntie to his six kids under seven all day prior to the reading :) The reading (after a lovely bowl of soup and chit chat with 12 poets at the Rose & Crown Pub) was held at Shelf Life Books, hosted by the Single Onion series. This was my first group performance and I read last after the humorous hockey poet, Keith Worthington and the generous river-historian poet, Bruce Hunter, following a break where the crowd of about 38 listeners (many this time being writers, among them Nikki Reimer, Kimmy Beach, Micheline Maylor, & Kirk Miles) munched on cheese and grapes while sipping wine and browsing the wonderful selection of titles in all genres. I started with my song-poem, forgetting in my weariness one word and replacing it in the moment – “accept” became “escape” – I don’t know how the one word was lost, the other found, but if I was irritated at myself for failing, I was relieved that an alternative suggested itself so quickly, that perhaps no one noticed and that I continued to sing on-key. I felt very comfortable in this space with these people. They laughed, were hushed, wiped their eyes, were held in the moment. Afterwards, until the bookstore closed, conversation washed all over the room & photos were snapped by Monique de St Croix & hugs were had. One man wouldn’t stop telling me how much he enjoyed the reading, how he had never experienced anything like it and how important talking about mourning is. Anne Sorbie brought me back to her lavishly calm home afterwards, I not only feeling content at having signed nine books but at feeling so much connection with Calgary’s artists. I slept so very deeply as the snow continued to ignore April, all night long.
What they don’t tell you about grief.
Did they tell you anything?
Funerals were mute on what now with their innocuous sandwiches, reminiscences
from the pulpit, rhetoric-coloured memories, embalmed flowers.
Perhaps then a small moment of weeping.
And after, the weeks, months and so on?
What they don’t tell you about grief is almost everything.
There are no packaged stages; no set timelines.
In that doubled darkness – the loss, this silence – you continue your piecework
of a life – most do at least – and the years are supposed to pass into forgetful
happiness – O yes, they tell us this – that “time heals all wounds” – a lie
of course, not that it gets worse, harder, but in some way no one shares with you,
it does – there is no protection from forever after awhile – and so every day
starts with that sad, hungry gong – gone always, always gone – there is no
consolation for this – the grey light begins and with it,
what they did not tell you about grief.
I have done it seven times now. Crossed this land for poems. Once from coast to coast, the other times the usual lunges from BC to a few spots on the Prairies, concentrating mostly on Ontario and perhaps leaping briefly to Montreal. I don’t even ask why I feel this urge anymore though once in awhile a comment such as, “Seems like an awfully long trip for poetry,” will make me want to justify the time, expense, intent, energy.
The word promotion certainly doesn’t suffice. Yes, I think that books of poems sell better, are more effectively distributed, when one reads from them to a listening audience. Otherwise, unless they win some of those coveted awards, and even then, they tend to sink fast into vanishing. But that is not the reason I get out on the road. I suppose the core of it for me is the feeling of completion. One writes in solitude, submits one’s work various places, if fortunate, has a press decide to release it, and then what. Recite from it, not just a few times at a couple of launches, but at least at a dozen relatively far-flung venues. Meet people, have conversations, let the poems find their particular breath. Be there for the whole shebang journey. And for poetry, the oral, singing, spell-making genre, being present in as many ways as you can, is key, vital ritual.
This new book of elegies is especially tough for me to contemplate touring. It is essentially private (always a strange, discomfiting, occasionally exhilarating feeling when it finds book form), emotional, intense. Hard to repartee throughout. Risky for vulnerable days. But I don’t feel I have any choice in the matter. The books urge me to get outside of myself and go for it. Transcend for art. Otherwise, regret, silence, a kind of shame. I can’t imagine not touring a book anymore. It costs in various ways. One time terribly. But I am excited still. That mystery. That full circling.
I discovered Rob Winger only a few months ago, when I picked up a copy of his first book, Muybridge’s Horse, initially wondering whether I wanted to read such a hefty tome of poems, then delving in, then swimming pleasurably through the sensory, haunting experimental narrative of this early photographer’s fraught and fascinating existence. So I was looking forward to Old Hat. Of course, it is nothing like his first book, nor should it be, apart from the fact that Winger still has an ear for language and a brilliant intellect.
What Shines: When I think about what I want from poetry, the first thing that comes to mind is, “I want to be moved.” Such a desire is frequently interpreted as wanting a pretty poetry, a sentimental poem, but it is nothing of the sort. No, I want to be moved by the poet’s ability with sound, form, image, diction, craft in other words, and that indefinable something that takes a poem beyond just a conglomeration of abilities into a realm of the sublime stirring. There are many poems like that in Old Hat, despite, one might say, its emphasis on the allusive intellect as it re-articulates systems, re-freshes definitions and re-invents ontologies. “What we thought” contains the emotive blast of lines like, “the needle hits its vinyl edge/then goes to sleep in its silent, salted cradle,” Winger’s gorgeously vernacular environmental piece, “Southern Ontario Stereoscope” and eco-poetic jab, “Re/Covering Champlain Trails” are bang-on depictions of disappearances and re-collections, and once you get past the Lucky-like spew of the jargon-riddled section, “Lect (Progressive Poems), there are powerfully non-gushy parental pieces like “Pascal’s Wager,” decaying rural blues poems such as “Road Re/Signed” and nostalgic romps through the beauty of animal erosion like “Re/wards and Private Rooms.” And the opening line of Lament for Rube Waddell, “We misread you, hayseed,” is simply stuck in my noggin. Yup, this is smart poetry that can grab you subtly by the gut, shift it to your mind and make you ache in vital ways.
What Stumbles: I must say, as wow as all this allusive, ironic, slickly executed poetry out there is, whether it’s Solie or Babstock, Starnino or Richardson, or in a more experimental vein, Fiorentino or Beaulieu say, I grow tired at times with a sensation of trickery, not fakery so much as just a succession of masks and masks being laid out in place of a less conceptualized, minutely argued and cleverly dissected face. Winger does the bp Nichol slashing of words well, in his case RE rather than ST, but I wanted him to relegate the game to one section as it seemed a detraction on occasion from certain poems like “Re/Cess pool, Be Kind, Re/Wind.” And then some pieces set themselves up as social critique but then seem to flip into the unnecessary surreal as when “Freon fracking shudders the freezer’s mantle” (such an awesome ear!) shifts to “Our linoleum thunderheads won’t break/until we turn our strawberries to cardinals” which perplexed me (nothing wrong with that of course) but I felt it weakened the otherwise potent direction of the poem. Nothing really stumbles, it just, once in awhile, irks.
What it Echoes: Philip Larkin, Robert Priest, Samuel Beckett, Georges Braque’s Cubism, Mahan Mirahab trio playing intellectual Iranian jazz, an automotive manual re-contextualized as the Bible, Canadian-made sushi with nails in it.
P.S. And the cover design is stark cartoony, with a word-based design something like Graham Gillmore’s uttering-art, stitched & slanted, prepossessingly intriguing with its pinky-reds and blacks on matte. I like it.
The philosophical, spiritually-tinged female voice in Canadian poetry, apart from a few exceptions such as Jan Zwicky or Margaret Avison, has been mostly marginalized. There is a general resistance to the didactic pronouncement, to the abstract pondering, to the nostalgic word “soul,” to the realm of love addressed beyond the physical. Yet these two poets persist in their visions regardless. As Bowering states in her book trailer, while specifics can be important, she is more interested in the “feeling [that] has been conveyed” because it transports the experience of art and enables the connection with the listener. Tucker, in her quiet reflectivity, also quests for that mood of musing and its beauties.
#1: Soul Mouth (Exile Editions, 2014)
What Shines: Bowering has written solidly, for decades now, in a range of genres, always returning to poetry. Soul Mouth is a series of lyric poems about the stories we tell of ourselves and others from the surreal freshness of early childhood on. She inhabits the detached sensory impressions of newness vividly: the bees in their glass honeycomb from “Museum,” the “water green eyelids” of “Crow,” the “tendrils of ferny feeling” that adolescence brings when “a boy would push his tongue inside my mouth/and bring me close to wisdom and to death.” I love her horse pieces for PK Page, her unabashed ability to pronounce our “souls” and the deeply resonant lines in “Satin Flower” that perfectly encapsulate post-mourning: “Now that grief no longer/climbs the night stairs,/I can say that the heart/goes on its distant loping anyway.” The third section “The Storytellers on their Carpets” departs from the personal tangibles of earlier poems to powerfully engage with such figures of myth as Ariadne and Midas: “what a pity you did not write a poem instead. /Everyone knows a poem has no intrinsic worth.” This impossible reduction is positive and implies the river of making can continue on its course, singingly.
What Stumbles: I like the haunting swash on the cover but not really the font, outside or in, nor that after so many books, Bowering still seems to be required to ask for a trio of blurbs on the back, a practice that should be reserved for the apprentice poet, or at least not for one publishing over twenty years! When one reads too many of these pieces in a row, the relentlessness of the “I” chimes a little too loudly, perhaps just reminding the reader that contemplative poems need reading in a contemplative fashion. On occasion, the diction gets lax as with the word “find” in the lines: “ask that the birds find something to eat/ask that the young find each other.” The incantatory, anaphoric repetition of “ask” is sufficient without “find” repeated, not to mention a surplus of “that.” And while Bowering describes the frequent use of end rhyme in the first two sections as hearkening back to youth’s nursery rhymes, sometimes it works as in “when I wore my hair like a pall/and didn’t know how lovely I was at all,” and others are less effective like “put your tongue out to the rain/and claim.”
What it Echoes: Alex Colville paintings, Italo Calvino, Plato’s Symposium, William Stafford, blue-eyed Soul music, pastries with dark raisins embedded in them.
#2: Bonsai Love (Harbour Publishing, 2014)
What Shines: Tucker also writes in several genres, publishing infrequently, but with an unwavering lexicon of belief in the numinous world. Like Susan McCaslin or Avison, again, Tucker is unafeard of the word “God” or “heart” and more importantly, the spiritual perspective she has drawn from years of witness and practice. Thus, the loves of which she writes are not only temporal, and certainly not relegated to the modern. These carefully pruned, both archaic and ritualistic “trees” are songs of praise and hope, laced with Neruda and Jung, Osoyoos Lake and jazz. They are not “about” a particular person per se but relate instead to the gigantic adventure of adoration within a questioning mind and a yearning body. The most potent pieces are the ones that inhabit a strong form: her three ghazals, the gloss on Robert Bly’s lines: “The light opens my hands; I have no claim on you,” the taut erotics of “Fruition” which closes “We want ripe fruit in the full shade/We want tanned limbs and colour and sugar and wine,” and equally “Eating the Fruit” with its “perfection of emptiness.” I also loved “Osoyoos Lake,” “Reading” and “The Jazz Path.” And O! “Congress of green eons” !
What Stumbles: I still haven’t decided if I like the cover: a ceramic Andenne Bisque girl beneath a glass dome with tiny trees, or not. Visually it appeals but it seems to diminish the poems within to suffocated fripperies trapped in a hermetically-sealed globe. Of course there are poems in this book that fall into that little trap, using similar words over and over, such as “stone/breath/water/light/silence” without producing much of a resonant effect. Many of the pieces float in a necessary insufficiency though some drift off into cliches like the close of “I know what I know” in which words are envisaged laxly as “stairs/as swords to cut the city free/as wings.” And “Scab Picker” veers into the icky pointless for me, the speaker tearing off the wound’s “Tupperware-tight seal.” Poems need often to be re-read to allow them to seep in at depth but this, in our age of flit, is not a negative. Yeah, ok, I like the cover.
What it Echoes: Denise Levertov, Song of Songs, Cezanne’s Apples, Shawna Lemay’s essays, Bessie Smith, ice cream that melts & freezes endlessly.
When I first saw this photo of myself, snapped in a New Westminster studio, on a down-pouring day, a picture taken of me sitting awkwardly on a long stool, gripping one booted foot and with an expression of maybe huh? or perhaps what? or possibly, you were saying? or even just, I am still making but I am weary right now, I was initially taken aback.
No, I still am.
Because I knew Gabor was trying to get me not to pose, to be natural, to be in between moments of self-consciousness, and he had captured this. And because I am happier posed.
I show “the world” as much honesty as possible in poems, crafted truth of course, but still, I yield without cringing. But in photos, I want to be more idealized; I want to control perception, especially in public and unforgiving mediums. Regardless, here it is. In all its odd combination of hardcore and goofy, corset and zebra socks, tattoos and 70s hair.
And that face, taken in an instant where I trusted the tough light and the photographer’s vision. Ok, this is one artifact of me, not trying to be anything else than just human.
Always, your family lived by water,
each summer spent their days on a smallish
sloop, beer & sandwiches in the hold,
on the deck, layers of inflatable dinghies
ready to become ideas of paradise, pumped up, pitched
into the cold Elysium of Okanagan Lake.
A picture of you at 15 in the boat’s plastic seat:
ball cap, white Marvel shirt, a grin of such innocence,
as if, wholly, you were innocent, smiling like a child
first learns to walk, hesitance spreading to ecstasy,
no knowledge that you were in midlife already,
that in less than 15 years you would be dead, the day
was so bright; everything held the sun.
[for Chris Matzigkeit, 1981-2010]