Reviewing any anthology is a tricky proposition, stuffed as they are with such rangings of work, or in this case, “poetries,” often selected on the basis of thematics or geographies by editors already aware that many final choices as to inclusion or exile are political and/or personal. And that, like translating in a sense, compiling anthologies are impossible acts, better than not attempting to do so but always likely to be found lacking in one vital way or another, according to their particular reader. So with this proviso in mind, herein my perspective on this Ottawa anthology edited by the capital city’s (and perhaps Canada’s) numero uno creator & disseminator of words.
What Shines: rob mclennan has been running above/ground press for 20 years. This in itself is a phenomenal feat. Living with the man, Warren Dean Fulton, who has run the smaller but still essential Pooka Press, also for nearly two decades, and having run my own tinier presses, Wet Sickle and Above & Beyond, for briefer amounts of time, I am well aware of the challenges, economically, time-wise, artistically and psychologically, it being often a depressing aim to create the handmade or short-run or underground in this star-based consumerist society. So kudos.
In the introduction by Gil McElroy, he uses the metaphor of the early computer game of Pong to zag back and forth between mclennan’s preoccupations with language-based verse, experimental texts and fragmentary lyric, along with his concerns to present the writings of both local Ottawa poets and national as well as US poets, established and new. As US poet, Marthe Reed notes: “Of particular value is the work he does through above/ground of facilitating connections across the border, putting Canadian and U.S. poets face-to-face, as it were,” while Cameron Anstee points out his “willingness to publish new writers alongside writers who have been active for decades.”
While this 230 page anthology with its starkly-interpretable cover
may seem unnecessarily hefty, it represents only a small portion of the texts mclennan has midwiferied into the world over the past ten years. For instance, when he was poet laureate at U of A in 2007, he produced a special series of chapbooks by authors who were residing in Edmonton, myself among them, none of which he chose to excerpt or reproduce in their entirety here.
The best of collected in this volume thus represents a winnowing of texts that most crisply represent mclennan’s personal aesthetics, among them his compatriots Monty Reid, derek beaulieu, Stephen Brockwell and Robert Kroetsch. The selection from the sadly deceased Kroetsch, “Further to my Conversation” was certainly one of the strongest sections in the collection, along with the one poem from Stephanie Bolster, Lisa Samuels’ intricate “The Museum of Perception” chapbook, “My City is Ancient and Famous (Sprawl)” an urban-eco sequence by Julia Williams, and Helen Hajnoczky’s quirkily narrative, “A History of Button Collecting.” The poem I relished most in the text was Stephen Brockwell’s “from Pindaric Odes to the Objects of Science, by Wilhelm Scheif” with its memorable opening line “Best of all things has always been you, water,” the paean concluding with a stark image collusion: “May that one lodge in a dormant neuron/of an untapped cortex of my brain,/singing of glaciers.”
What Stumbles: O the usual feeling of omissions. Where was Phil Hall for instance? And William Hawkins was pretty bad. There are also two typos I marked on pages 149 and 194. But these are just peccadillos. While occasionally I sunk into that dreary swoon epitomized by Anstee’s Lear-like lines: “words & words & parts of words/& parts of others’ words,” mostly I relished the variety, and the sheer effort, such magnitude being gathered into another kind of resolution here in this anthology, and a relentless opening.