One of the potential joys of touring is connecting with other poets across this immense land and sometimes, receiving copies of their books, texts one might otherwise not have read and that frequently prove to be enjoyable, enlightening surprises. Among other places, I was gifted with books in Calgary by Bruce Hunter, Barrie by Bruce Meyer, Hamilton by Ellen S. Jaffe and Kingston by Elizabeth Greene. Books of lyrics that address a wide range of topics, a concern with history, family, the land and love course through them all. Foregoing the Echoes section, I will attend to the Shines & Stumbles of each of these memorable collections.
#1 Two O’Clock Creek: Poems New & Selected (Oolichan Books, 2010)
What Shines: A selection from five of Hunter’s previous books, along with a smattering of newer pieces, this is a thick but not overwhelming representation of his poems of memory, desire and historical nostalgia. Reminiscent of the best of Al Purdy or Pete Trower, there are poems in this collection that move with their undercurrents of embedded patriarchal violence such as Savage Stones, a poem about his brothers who, despite all their homemade weapons, “bagged nothing/but the nodding green Goliath/of a goose-necked streetlamp,” or Deep in the South of My Country, shuddering with the cruelty also expressed by Patrick Lane or Raymond Carver, of a town where scabs have their houses “air-conditioned” with “bricks through every window.” His ghostly love poems like Preparations and The Night You Died, are also powerful, rhythmic with lines like, “This dry heave, the heart,” and “poetry is the heart’s reckoning with reason.” Hunter is unafeard of the “clarity of ruins,” of finding them beautiful.
What Stumbles: The risk one can take in any selected tome, of the sensed repetition of the author’s preoccupations: the land, the characters (some of whom float out of an approachable context), the historical details that can feel like a flattened litany at times. More of an issue for me is the form of a lot of these pieces that are almost consistently erratic in their stanza lengths, so one will have three lines, one eight, the other six, the structure following the content more often than any aesthetic or aural requirement. This is Hunter’s style however, and once one gets used to it, pattern emerges, and lingers.
#2 Testing the Elements (Exile Editions, 2014)
What Shines: A slender, sleek book with an attractively stark cover of snow and a man’s feet walking the tracks, Meyer’s umpteenth 🙂 collection of poems is a consistent one. Arranged according to Earth, Air, Water and Fire with an opening poem and a final sequence, these pieces are similar to Hunter’s in content but vastly different in form, attending to structure and even working with challenges as that found in Fox in the Fallen Snow in which each four line stanza end-rhymes with itself: “Take up the night as a blanket./Wrap it around your body, yet/show me your nakedness. Set/love against death. Do not forget.” He also writes pretty successful villanelles (On the Exhumation of Neruda’s Body), palindromes (Loonie) and sonnets (Syllabub). Some other favorites include: R.M.S Titanic “tragedy comes down to silence or love,” the three-part piece, The Frogs “what we cannot save remains part of us,” and Homage to Charles Darwin “I look for the impossible in everything I see.”
What Stumbles: The Earth & Water sections are strongest, the Air part weakest and I wished that the last sequence, The Movie Being Filmed Across the Street had somehow been worked into the element segments rather than being a separate part as it then feels like a bit of an add-on. Unfortunate, as it contains engaging pieces like the titular one (with the added words “From my Hotel Window”) and the startling meditation on Hitler’s dog. Mainly well-crafted, only a few poems such as African Methodist Episcopal Church would have benefited from a few less similes, with four starting with “as” on one page. Overall, Meyer’s work delighted me with its risking of the sentimental, a wager that most often rhythmically wins.
#3 Skinny-Dipping with the Muse (Guernica Editions, 2014)
What Shines: I had never really read Jaffe before and this emotional, familial, spiritual collection stirred me. Her poems about sensual affections in older age, in the section called Love Stories, are particularly essential. Pieces like About Time, In the Kitchen, Springing, Longing, Fish Dreams and In Mexico, among others, draw from the seemingly simple material of domestic routine, the creation of art, connection with nature’s mortality and the frailties of personal relationship to make poems fluxing between the conversational, “it was snowing – no, it was raining/and I was going to meet you at two/or was it three?” and the philosophical, “what I’m wanting is less like wanting than ever before,” turning so many moments in life into “opening[s] for grace.” I also liked her poem In Cuba: Museum of the Revolution with its dark contrasts between human pleasures and pains and Amazing Grace for Bronwyn Wallace, that evokes a deep “love that goes beyond/the spell of death.”
What Stumbles: The cover with its dipping-into-water feet is striking but would have been more so without the press’s logo and name emblazoned across the front in yet another colour. As with Hunter’s collection, I felt that Jaffe has pieces that would be strengthened by re-considering the form or by trying another ending at times as some trail off as in Her Story that closes with “She is” or No Words whose entirety is the vague: “sea-sharp/indigo silence/breathe out/breathe in/rush of welcome/and then…” Yet, more typically, Jaffe takes on topics that few other Canadian writers dare to like the Holocaust however and thus, makes her poetic task a difficult, and admirable, one.
#4 Understories (Inanna Publications, 2014)
What Shines: Overall, Greene has written a beautiful book (including the petalled cover) that smoothly fuses details of her life from her son’s birth to her dying mother to the vanishing vistas of aging, with allusions to the texts she has read and taught over the years from Eliot and Euripedes to Olds and Plath, and to places she has traveled through like Florence, or lived in like New York. As with the best of Frank O’Hara, Greene is able, much of the time, to make us care about the people who inhabit her poems, from Arthur, who grew gardens of “apples and quince, roses and hosta” to trans-gendered Terry who came out as a woman “at 79…[and] wore swishy dresses, lime green or ice blue, with frilly necks.” The book begins with a bang. What I like about Poetry sketches a poetics in which the poem is ambivalent in its potency, giving the reader the freedom to “enter…or…walk away.” Pregnancy and its effect on familial dynamics is explored in poems like Raindrops Lounging on Magnolia Buds; Heaven in Bits engages with aging and its recollections from a museum in Santiago where the speaker witnesses, “pots the red-brown of eclipse”; Last Week enters Sylvia Plath’s death, and Planet of the Lost Things traces fleeting neighbourhoods: “I’m still turning corners to failed coffee shops/dreaming egg and anchovy sandwiches”. These poems sing with the sense of a full life, including its bitternesses, its unfulfillments.
What Stumbles: Greene sometimes has difficulty ending a poem, concluding with a platitude such as “that’s the best I can do with what I’ve got,” or the cliche that it’s “turning sand into pearl/over and over/makes the artist” or the grandiose statement: “Dark ages end; justice returns./After disaster, legacy.” Her openings almost always lure one in though with their confident placement of philosophical or temporal invitation: “I thought miracles were supposed to be easy” or “Thirty-three years later I regret.” Again, maudlin subject matter is risked, and mostly, effectively tilted towards the transcendent.