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.