First books often get somewhat ignored if they are from smaller presses that also get slightly dismissed. We are a country of a few grand publishing houses whose productions are generally taken seriously (M & S say or Anansi), several edge presses that rise to the top every so often (Book Thug or Gaspereau among others) and a smattering of small presses whose books emerge and seemingly evaporate for the most part (Black Moss for instance). The two first books out from Kim Clark – Sit you waiting – and Bruce Kauffman – The Texture of Days, in Ash and Leaf – fall into the latter category. Caitlin Press has had its “hits” but is generally an under-recognized house while Hidden Brook Press, as very much a regional publishing company, has little distribution beyond the borders of Ontario.
That being said, I want to dive into these two first books and let you know why you may want to seek them out.
Kim Clark’s Sit You Waiting
Where it Shines: Clark is at her sharpest when delving into the surreal realms of travel as in her longer poem “Three Days on a Train in and out of Dreaming” which, evoking stones & light & the fleeting habitus of travelers, shapes a compellingly aural beauty. I also loved lyrics such as “27th & Main ” for its taut evocation of an urban scene, especially in lines like: “the Colorifics spicing up/last night in tuxes, with bongos/and Patsy’s smoky voice/on the croon,” lots of sonorous Os there, and the narrative plunges of “Solstice Seven” that delicately presents some of the struggles of living with MS, life itself rather than the disease surfacing most poignantly. Clark’s not afraid to take chances with form, sound and subject matter. The book itself it also gorgeously designed with its scratched-out shot of a train station on the cover and its attention to paper and font.
Where it Stumbles:
I was mainly irked by Clark’s tendency to sprinkle her poems with homophonic cutesiness, splitting words like “luxurious” into luxuri/yes or November into No/Vembers. Perhaps this awkward severance is apropos as an echo of the challenges of living with a body that won’t always obey one’s dictates, but I found these instances an irritant. Also there are a few line breaks that fail like “rem/iniscence” and an occasional end cliche as in the conclusion “to hang/on/for dear life.” Also a tighter structure, thematically speaking, would have strengthened this engaging collection. This is not to nit pick but to remind all writers how easy it is to fall into lax habits at times or fail to see the larger vision of one’s entire work.
What it echoes:
John Coltrane, George Bowering, Molly Peacock, rob mclennan, Tarkovsky.
Bruce Kauffman’s The Texture of Days, in Ash and Leaf
Where it Shines:
Kauffman’s style is instantly recognizable throughout this book of poems written between 1994 and 1997 and finally published in 2013. He definitely has an ear, musical phrasings shaping his forms and subjects, so that the orality of language itself becomes the content more often than not. While this tendency can lead to sentimentality, somehow such words as “truth” “destiny” and “love” work with Kauffman as his genuine interest in intense feeling surfaces everywhere. Elegy is his forte and in poems such as “for my father” with moving, teetering-on-the-abstract images like “I was lost in the/ memory of an/ open eye,” he sketches an emotional sequence of loss. At its best, the book sings with Rilkean immensities.
Where it Stumbles: First, book design. The photo on the cover by a 16 year old internationally acclaimed photographer is exquisite but cluttered in an inset and the font and paper could have used more sophisticated presentation. Second, Kauffman’s poems can be talky and pedantic at times, trying to impart life lessons (though never from a hubristic spirit), an intent that will regularly lead to a dearth of vivid detail and a preponderance of cliches like “the winds of change”. At the other extreme are the romanticized banality of over-the-top images, as in lines that evoke a bloody pen whose mistress is “my life.” When aiming to express powerful emotion, one always takes the risk of writing the unbelievable sensationalized rather than the deeply sensed feeling. I would also have liked to seen a consistency of presentation between the use of “I” and “i,” the latter use now seeming dated.
What it Echoes:
Leonard Cohen, Robert Creeley, Giorgio de Chirico, the Twilight movies.
There you have it. Two first books your ear could need to find.