Having endured an excess of grief over the past three and more years I am compelled by poetry that deals with this process. Overt books of poetic grieving (American & Canadian) include Margo Button’s The Unhinging of Wings, Donald Hall’s Without, Anne Carson’s Nox, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy and for the most part, Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires. There are many others in which grief struggles, is surmounted, is subdued within other subjects and modes. Letter from Brooklyn and The Small Nouns Crying Faith are two such books of poetry, the former more overtly lyrical and the latter concerned to fracture a language that betrayed and must be complexified to even approximate the discombobulations wrought by grief.
1/Letter from Brooklyn (ECW, 2013)
What Shines: Jacob Scheier’s mother Libby, a fine poet herself, died in 2000 of breast cancer and many of the pieces in this nostalgic, tautly-landscaped book, commemorate this tragedy. Of 32 poems, 10 mention his mother’s illness and loss and in most, she is not the initial subject but ghosts into the text as the proximate dead do, speaking to our yearning to weave them into the subjects of everyday life from topography to love to sport. The poems are not afraid of a cock’s “sad pug head” or breasts being sewn back on chests or peeing morphine “like a crystal river” or startling revelations like the lines: “Something in me is ruined, which is refreshing: I had thought/everything that could break in me had done so some time ago.” At their brightest, the poems combine a terse, edgy voice that fucks itself into tenderness and memory. And soaring even above these human tendencies are heart-wracking poems such as “My Mother Dies in Reverse” with its spine of child-hope and “Biking Down a Country Road in South-Western Manitoba” where the father breathes dust into his son who is left looking “at the nothing all around/and crowding in.”
What Stumbles: The cover could be more eye-snagging, colour-wise though the design of sketched buildings and trees grew on me. Essentially, I wanted the grief to etch itself more regularly on the poetic vista and thus would ditch pieces like the Occupy ones that book-end and provide the central pow for this slim collection, along with the poems on the double rainbow guy, Scheier’s beard, redheads, taking girls bras off, and a toss-away piece called Nature. While I snickered at his ironic jab at the Canada Council when he says he won’t write screwing ditties as the funding agency “no longer gives grants for poems about that sort of thing” (and I do appreciate the specks of humour throughout the book!), I groaned at easy-peasy allusive similes like “you admit it, shrugging freely now, like Rand’s Atlas.” A little more honed and focused and this book might have lodged in my gut with greater blam blam.
What it Echoes: Irving Layton, Bob Dylan, Volver (2006), Frieda Kahlo, Terms of Endearment (1983), spumoni ice cream.
2/ The Small Nouns Crying Faith (Book Thug, 2013)
What Shines: I have been reading Hall for quite some time, at least from 2000’s Trouble Sleeping on, and have been struck on more than one occasion by his randomized, tune-threaded yet humble-pie recitations. He both compels and perplexes me, as does Erin Moure for instance, in Canadian poetry, or Jorie Graham and John Ashbery in American. With this book however, I began to understand his modus and not in any simplistic sense. While in Kildeer, his last book, the narrative of sexual and physical abuse was announced in a more narratively elaborate manner, in this one, the cruel commonness of such behavior is mainly lodged in one plundering segment from “Fletched” beginning “When I was 5” and ending with “words have their smells they hit home.” This blunt bedtime rupture is surrounded in the book by fragmentation, unmoored utterances, loosened quotes, odd coinages like “piss-mire,” estranged nouns like “wirb” and stuttering incoherencies as in “ight und tter tter.” I used to be frustrated by such experimentation and I still am if I feel it’s mere game. It isn’t with Hall. It is technique born from grief & pain. It is survival (and refusal of such grandiose pronouncements too).
What Stumbles: While I love Hall’s interspersings of poetics in lines such as “I go &&&&&/my ear at some hive listening to flight thicken” or “I have scraped against another lack I didn’t know/has to be sung of” and the beautiful brutality of “Music doesn’t care wasn’t there at the end won’t pretend it was,” of course, as a poet who believes deeply in the resonant necessity of the lyric, I resist his absolute opposition to a poem that sketches a healingly coherent scene. He begins a piece so exquisitely with the sun that is “long and russet off the lake” but before many more lines interrupts to spit, “why do I still write shitty little poems like this.” Further, forms are just “stupid traditions” and “scansion-pride can only imitate and lie.” Why does it have to be so either/or? There are capacities for slumber and startling awake in both experimentalism and structure.
What it Echoes: The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Radio Flyer (1992), Zukovsky’s “A”, Elgar, Egon Schiele’s Self Portraits, Roethke, snowshoeing down dark, truncated trails while nibbling on endless twists of sticky licorice.