Why two books are paired up for these reviews is at times obvious, and at others a little more mysterious. I’m not really comfortable with the duo being fused due to content but worse is the feeling I’m having with these two books, that they have chummed together because the authors are both relatively middle aged suburban white men, each at the somewhat beginning of their literary vocations, Sailing to Babylon (Governor General Award nominee 2012) being Pollock’s first and Little Empires Colman’s second book of poems. Then again, pondering the titles, perhaps they sought to be co-reviewed because they both evoke realms and sources of power accessed then lost, diminished by modernity. Either way, though the style and rhythms of these poems differ, they each feature a cast of questers, Glenn Gould and Henry Hudson for Pollock, and, less famed, the white collar working man and husband along with figures like Alice Neel’s son and Dr Tsien Hsue-shen for Colman.
#1 – Sailing to Babylon (Able Muse Press, 2012)
What Shines: Pollock is a deep scholar. Not only as evidenced by his erudite and impassioned collection of essays on Canadian poetry, You Are Here (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2013), but within this carefully honed array of poems. Nothing in this selection feels like poems from a first book, each piece crafted with the tools of long thought and line-listening.While I appreciate certain poems over others, none of them can be marked as throwaways. Heedless of the admonitions of antithetical poets like Billy Collins, Pollock presents us with unabashedly nostalgic and personal poems such as “My Grandmother’s Bible,” “Amelia Island, Florida,” and the terza rima epic closing piece, “Quarry Park,” in which images sear out: the Bible’s “English plunges into [his] heart like a small black bird” or the ocean becomes a “snowy analog TV/which broadcasts the fourteen-billion-year-old news,” while Pollock walks through an evocative forest with his son pungent with the “pendulous catkins of the paper birch/ the air aromatic with the sex of trees/and quiet as the transept of a church.” My favorite piece in this sleekly-designed text is “Glenn Gould on the Telephone” which does what Pollock achieves most stunningly, transcribe prose into poetry, drawing on narrative to turn it music, whether in sonnet, couplet or the condensed patter of a “My Last Duchess” styled soliloquy. One can learn much from Pollock about how to shape story into song.
What Stumbles: At times, the poems can feel suffocatingly carved out of any reference to the real, becoming too clearly acts of artifice. Not that the reader doubts Pollock’s sincerity or skill and of course the poem is, as Karl Shapiro among other critics have addressed, indeed that incessant engagement with its criteria, but a hyper-strict form, especially one of length, can produce moments that seem forced. Take the terza rima lines, “he’ll/fall into the road and break his crown/if I’m not careful, so I run ahead/and catch him by the jacket, and we’re blown” etc. Even though crown/blown are not perfect rhymes, Pollock has still based his narrative on this pair of words, shifting reality into nursery rhyme for me here, perhaps a resonance he hoped for, but for me a detraction from the Virgilian familial eclogue I was steeping in.
What it Echoes: Philip Larkin, TS Eliot, WB Yeats of course, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Stan Rogers, Dante necessarily, Hans Holbein the Younger.
#2 – Little Empires (Quattro Books, 2012)
What Shines: Colman’s use of language is much more textured than Pollock’s in its desire less to tell a crisply formal tale but to sharpen an echo in the blood that thieves a greater richness from the potentially quotidian landscapes of a day job, recession, domesticity, a longish marriage and other bric-a-brac of the banal. Take lines from the prose poem “The Bees” expressing a fragment of existential crisis and release from an air-conditioned office: ” displaying a bit of dazzle, some of that razzmatazz frozen/ within him some time ago – the part of him that could ignore the hollow thrum of his ghost, its string-thin voice repeating me, me, me.” The rhythm is the propulsion beyond the content, enabling the sense of transcending to strengthen. When I initially wrote a blurb for this book, I lodged a Prufrockian character at its core, but now I think the male voice trudging, tromping or even riding a belled bicycle through these pages is more rooted in the beauties of the “human voices” around him and that they do not drown but save him. Particularly the presence of Colman’s wife, in her daily berry-eating, coffee-drinking, strolling, Sex in the City watching, and arm-stroking warmth, lifts these poems into regular tenderness that is rarely sentimental, mostly torqued with the simple, powerful knowledge that “being new gets more difficult/but is hardly an arduous task.” And I love his moments of skittish humour in the poem about finding a book with an inscription to the lost, “Cha, I love you and I always will.” In terms of design, the narrow format with its blue spine and colourful cover painting is particularly eye-stunning.
What Stumbles: Though the book is only 91 pages, if poems such as “The Keyboardist” or “Love” among others had been cut, it would have made a tighter testament. Some forms can’t seem to decide what they want to do, randomly moving between stanzas of four, five, two, and three lines. Further, the book is in four parts,separated by Roman numerals, but the reason for division isn’t really clear. And sometimes, Colman ends on a weak note as if he doesn’t trust his own sounds or images to bear their beautiful weight. Going from metaphysical moments like “mineral sweetness” and “geometrically magnified” to the last line “A sharp taste we ask/to linger” or a scene of berries, Mary Oliver and the ear bone to the bland supposed revelation, “And yes, sometimes it’s true/I forget to see” is disappointing. But then perhaps I value the punch of a punctum-ized ending too highly.