Obsessed as I am with elegy I felt I couldn’t compose a typical review of M X T, thus (respectfully) this.
MXT is so pink-existing, a shock of lurid hurting rendered bearable through the architectonics of an arrayed machinery of feeling. Initially, a resistance to the equipment and then, a yielding as diagrams set grief outside the self-mire, arrow & circumscribe
directionalities of chaos. Do we believe in this? Mostly, Dear One, I cling to the emotion caught in the lettered texts, the Dear Ones addressed, those pieces where when she says, “I don’t want a grid, I want arms” we nod assent, absolutely. Mary Oliver flits in; Diane Arbus; Lee Miller, those
painters “in blood” from the “darkest recesses” of their vaginas. As there is little intimate grip on this mourning, few anchors, faces & idioms vague, lost progenitors are contained in places, the ghost Vancouver of childhood, its Jericho Beach, its Aristocrat’s. The juxtaposition sharpens between the desire
for containable, describable processes and the obvious melange of detrital this n that: hashtags, Oil of Olay, Mike Harcourt, The Grateful Dead, cherry Kool-Aid. Any conclusion ineffable,
Dear One, is it
does one need to grieve and is it manifested by this whirl-world slammed by doors & doors of laws & circuit breakers or do such blueprints of utopian withholding give us rituals (of a colder sort) to enable our continuance?
“This endless loop of feeling what does it reveal?” Well at least, Dear One, an alternative to the drop-box stages of supposed grieving, the symbols and frame dimensions and magnetic fields but stone-attempts in a stream-reality of Coleridgean “water, water everywhere, my dead.”
the mourner shrinks a bit. Is it from protection, fear (if “thinking in public terrifies us” how about feeling?” ) or just because “Grief is too bright. Too head-on.” And thus subterfuge is crucial for survival, endurance. Of which tactics I count not only the machinery of elegiac dismantlements but also the arms lengths of certain end-frames for Plath or Pollock or the letter Q (the cento though is essential harvest….)
,strategies that can drain grieving of its salt, or else proffer a balance, a ballast to the keening of “Dear Regret….I am lost…I am hungry to keep you alive.” So very true. And perhaps the only line,
Dear One, any of us needs to write about grief.
Branding helps to identify desire, even in the liminal realm of poetry. If it’s a Stuart Ross Book from Mansfield Press, the reader is almost always likely to be served smart, ironic, funny, surreal, well-crafted, but lacking an emphasis on closure, possibly Jewish in author and/or subject matter, and potentially unconcerned-with-immediate-or-any-meaning poetry. I aimed to only review one or two of these five Spring titles but I found I couldn’t limit myself as I enjoyed most of them so much. My approach here will be simply a discoursing on each, rather than a Shining, Stumbling, Echoing modus. So, here we go.
#1: David W. McFadden’s Shouting Your Name Down the Well Tankas and Haiku
At first, I was a little overwhelmed by the number of tankas and haikus in this orange book, emblazoned with a watery (yes) image of the venerable/self-deprecating author on the front. It seemed to oppose the very ache of these forms: for breath, space, a surrounding white. But the more I read, the more I understood the apropos crowding of these Japanese forms onto the page as they are, after all, North American variants in subject matter and even often in syllabic count, so why should they not be in terms of their spatial presentation too? Though McFadden refers to himself as alter ego, Genmai, in writing these pieces, the two personas have so fused over the past six decades that their voicings are nearly indistinguishable. Some of course are throw aways, like :”I am a king who/has three daughters, a daughter/who has two sisters,” which provokes both a huh and a so what in my mind (reactions that may perhaps be the point), but most evoke the exquisite McFadden panoply of awe-struck (“In the warm dark night/I awaken to the scent /of a plum blossom” – one of many haikus in homage to other writers, this one being Izumi Shikibu), adoration, questioning, consciousness of age and foolishness, and the humble significance of poetry in the world (“What a wonderful/position to be in. Not/caring what I write/but only how I write it/And why, where or sometimes when.) One of my favorites, given my own obsession with elegy, is this haiku: “Dead people aren’t dead/They’ve become permanently/Unavailable.” Kudos to Ross for being such a McFadden Woo-Hooer these past years so we can keep enjoying his seriously whimsical singings.
#2 Jason Camlot’s What the World Said
Nice stark cover with its blocks of aqua & green colours and the title a slam into your eyes, preparing you somewhat for the bam of language you are about to encounter. A book of elegies, or as the back blurb says, Kaddish, for his father, Camlot’s poems range through a forest of forms from the anaphoric litany (“What we did” with its lines all starting with “we” or “Thirty-One Awakenings”) to imperative heavy pieces like “Study” and the brilliant “Rules for Sadness” which truly engages with the absurdities of grief and its societal reception (“Don’t eat a bouillon cube as if it were a caramel square/Tinkering: not allowed/One must not carry fistfuls of cotton balls for no reason”) to the letter poems that all start “Dear Death,” and include some of the most superb moments of emotion in the book, such as “You never answered my stupid questions/And now you take my book from me?” or “cut the pages/of the little bird’s/tiny heart/and try to read/what’s written there.” Although I understand only bits of his poems involving Gehenna and Sukkah and Minyans, not being Jewish (many of these pieces appear to be suggesting that, compared to his father, Camlot lacks certain “required” Jewish qualities; he calls himself a Jew-tard, for instance), but it didn’t matter as the meanings remain generous and the textures of the lexicon are so delectable: his WC Williams’ homage “Etrog”, or “at the meshuggener-nebbish-nudnick minyan this morning, I found a/pubic hair in my siddur” or “Sneer at duct-taped weekly siddurim…/Hammer your coins into the tzedakah box.” Only really “Four Domestic Poems” fell flump for me with its silly surrealisms such as, “My friends like to eat houses and apartments,/ cats and dogs,” but most are potent, giddy, elaborate, scholarly in the most ebullient sense, imaginative and stirring.
#3: Dani Couture’s YAW
Since reading Good Meat (2006), I haven’t been a fan of Couture, though I couldn’t quite recall why. Something about her lacking-music lines I think. YAW, with its eroded cover image of a ragged basketball net and two folded chairs, has fortunately shifted my level of interest. Couture seems to have grown in bounds as a writer and is much more compelled by form, tonalities and imagery than prior. YAW is only a skinny book, barely the length a trade publication “should” be in this country, and perhaps this is part of its strength too. Few poems seem tossed off. Again, there are litanies here (“Hail Mary”, “Fact Check”), lovely long-limbed couplet pieces, infused by the spirit of John Berryman (“This elegy is not for you, but for the halo of your life: the things left behind – YES!) and strong descriptive chunks that echo Bishop’s persistences of seeing: “This town is all small towns” (Memorial Gardens) or “To the right, a flock/of golden eyes, gullets filled with filched grain” (Double Hull) – a perfect moment of sound and vision. I loved Acre too. And Algoma. And Ends with its tragic-obvious closing statement: “One day it will be as if you were never here at all.” The book gets more powerful as it goes on with weak instants like “Predictions, Sunday” that finishes its brief dichotomous sketch with the flat “Both guide us into the storm,” falling away and more in-depth, fully felt poems taking their place in the reader’s ears and heart.
#4 Gary Barwin’s moon baboon canoe
I admire Barwin for his performative abilities as a poet and musician, his loopy sense of humour and his humble intellect. I really enjoyed his collaboration with Derek Beaulieu called Frogments from the Frag Pond for its experimental but still deeply-moving approach to Basho’s haiku. That said, I felt drawn in and spat out of many of the poems in this sleek green book with its inexplicable bird on the cover. Maybe it’s because I was reading the other Mansfield titles at the same time, and especially the Camlot, Couture and Brockwell, with their rich lexical textures, that Barwin’s pieces seemed skimpy, insufficient. I just don’t know what to make of poems like “carrying big boy,” with its lines that ug-clomp on the page, “Had to carry big boy/We were in the forest/He could go no further…Autumn/Hair tangled/Leaves/Deer-coloured” or the similar plodding incomprehensibility of “woman expects/tornado the father/baby the still eye” in the piece “tragic story.” Barwin has a scrumptious imagination though and in poems such as “belief case” (night holds the earth by its black handles), “civilization” (we use our mouths to carry birds) and “coffee shop” (in a cheese sandwich/I am the absence of ham….the stars sparkle with butter and expectation) it glows with its union of child-like wonder and adult craft. But others, like the titular piece, just left me wondering what cortexical drug the poet was on 🙂 (“moon, baboon, canoe/moon, shoelace, canoe/baboon/baboon). I appreciated the way the book is split into five numbered parts and particularly part two, whose entirety is a gorgeous Brueghelian set of scenes called “woodland road with travelers,” along with part four, again a lyrical poem in segments, “seedpod microfiche.” Barwin is poignantly essential when speaking about nature, and the one poem that truly departs from the overall rhythm of the book, namely the anti-invocation “eclogging” (Nature, I hate you) with its entangled echolochaic lines like “the unrelenting entropic cadenza of your rococo filibustering/your cantankerous obfuscations…) may be the best of the bunch. I like this book more than I thought I did, actually.
#5 Stephen Brockwell’s Complete Surprising Fragments of Improbable Books
I confess that I have never had much interest in reading Brockwell and no idea why. I guess one can’t read everyone. This book made me realize I have been missing out. The cover, of stained folio pages with the title in trembling cartoony font, is appealing, as is the way the sections are organized, each array of poems from these supposed manuscripts beginning with a creepily quaint illustration. So “from The Prime Minister’s Nursery Rhymes for Insolent Children” has the picture of a woodblock girl skipping rope under it, her dark hair whipped up like flames. The Virgil for this book is purportedly the “angelic stranger” or daimon, Karikura who appeared to the befuddled geek author to give him these scratchings from incomplete texts. As funny as this device can be (for instance, when he critiques Brockwell, who has written “gorgeous sunset…beyond words” as being a fool suitable for a slagging), I didn’t feel it was a necessary one. Maybe there needed to be more of these pieces than five for me to become absorbed by the “voice.” Regardless, Brockwell manages to be poetic, political, humorous and sharply formal in many of these poems. Some of my favorite sections are, “from The Big Book of Confessions & Apologies by Self-Aware Addicted Persons,” “from Cantos of the 1%” and “from Pindaric Odes to Elementary Substances.” It is truly impossible to summarize this book. I don’t want to. It is too wildly-leaping and yet beautifully-grounded for that. Instead I want to close this extensive omnibus review with Brockwell’s lovely poem (resonant of both Al Purdy and George Elliot Clarke) “Water” (without the sweet visual of its gradated line breaks, sorry):
Best of all things has always been you, water,
trillions of your tilted flying Vs in
each human, fish and worm, each suck or sip
of breast milk, juice, ale, wine, tea and morphine,
each pre-and post-coital fluid (spit, sweat, tears
et cetera – to the uncertain greeting
of the egg and seed).
At least one molecule of you in me
passed through the body of some great person,
in the urine of Josef Stalin, say,
on an October morning in his youth;
it may be one I am passing on now
as a drop of saliva flies from my tongue
over this paper.
Better yet, one of your numberless flowed
through the Norman tongue of Pierre Trudeau
paddling down the Lievre in buckskin
or trudging through a blizzard on the Hill.
May that one lodge in a dormant neuron
of an untapped cortex of my brain,
singing of glaciers.
You try to draw it out,
But nobody cares.
You point first to a cloud,
Then a bird and they wonder
Why your finger is outstretched.
You just want the moment
To know its worth, craving
Singing and colours
And the patterns
Of light or shadows over everything.
You are simple, really,
The kind of person who
Has only ever desired one
Easy, difficult task.
You cannot die before
The others, you think,
As who will write
Their elegies then.
You must keep going
Forever, though few
Turn towards you
As you made this pact
With the river, or a flower
You met in childhood, or
The night’s unsayable constellations.
Today I am just mushing the Shines, Stumbles & Echoes into one critical rumpuss because I can; it’s my blog 🙂
Let’s start with the back cover blurbs. There is a reason these little nuggets of gush are getting a bad (or maybe have always had) a negative reputation. Quite simply, they should not be used to over-praise a book, and certainly not a first book, to the paradisial realms, but instead to provide a precis of what one might find within, so with a quick glance one might more readily determine whether or not to select said text for purchase/borrowing. Not this: “Astonishing accomplishment….for any book….absolute authenticity and honesty….Nobody else does this…a new place for the expression of emotion…A thrilling new voice in poetry.” And that’s just the worst of the spewing three. Who can live up to these types of encomiums? Terrifying, really. One is set up to expect genius, epiphany, complete world overturning and thus instead gets lacklustre, ho-hum, falls-flat tedium.
The second issue here is that, mostly, these are not poems per se. They are anecdotes, skimpy-prose tales of this creep and that lesbo, this dog and that marshmallow. Nothing wrong with that; writers like Billeh Nickerson, Dina Del Bucchia and Dave McGimpsey have proven (no less Frank O’Hara et al), with smaller or larger skill sets, that these types of snippets can be funny, sardonic, ironic, cutting, deadly entrees into pop psychology, gender concerns and the landscape of the everyday. But there is a dearth here of much beyond a personal listing of familiar-quirky characters like neurotic nana, Larry the lech, the blithe ex, the ditzy mom, and Hot Nikki the dyke. I like when Bennett becomes punchy with her language or daring with her metaphors: “Beak deep in the red-purple…Eyes like a tooth-crack chunk” (Crow Comes Through), “the spider plant, evangelizing shoots” (The ideal poem), or even this colourful, contrasting moment-image of two girls outside “a wetland crowded/condensed as milk. Pitcher plants/down moths and mosquitoes/as we roast spiderdogs, popping pink/and turquoise jet-puffeds” (Singing Sands) – though I do wish it weren’t the essential entirety of the poem.
I just don’t appreciate the feeling I receive from so many pieces that they are a mere sketch towards something Bennett couldn’t be bothered to think/hear through. To be generous, two clues to this sketch-mode being her planned modus operandi however do exist. The first is in the title poem where she describes canoodling as an intimacy that is “fresh, thin, easy to break.” The latter two descriptors are definitely accurate for many of the anecdotes in this book. We could deduce that this is because much of the material is about the tenuous, whether with relations, in sexuality, or throughout friendships. Thus, the mode of composition is equivalent to the fragile or superficial content. I mean when your mom defriends you on Facebook and this means you are “cut out of the family” (In #2K 11), it does’t get more 21st century absurd-glib than that.
The other bit of evidence as to intent is in the opening poem called Epigraph whose totality is: “You have a poetic sensibility,/my father says. Maybe/when you clean your room,/you will find it.” Bennett could just be scouring her memory’s domicile in Canoodlers, tipping out the scraps of gunk and preparing for a renewed excursion into vaster, deeper realms of poetry. I hope so. Because the super-flop endings of many pieces: “off we’d go, in search of more eggs”, “Drunk, he will look for my mother”, “What would you be if you were not a stick at all?”, the confused similes (legs thin as gulls, teeth that should have a “grip on the earth more like the hobbit’s feet” and clouds full as “milk-filled breasts”), along with the bland cliche-yuks: “bellies full to bursting” or “If you were a crow, I’d be a crow too. And then, when we/got together, it’d be a murder,” sure wore me out as a reader with regular sighing.
When Bennett hones her recollections with form as in the litany Because the Juices Run Pink: “Because of saturation points. Be-/cause of satiation. Because you have to open yourself up, expose your/organs to a hand” her voice powers up. When she envisions insects taking over the world and a “giant vacuum, schlumping it all skyward” my imagination-sensors are tickled. And when she elaborates a narrative over several pages as in A Week in the House of What Repute, utilizing repetition and wham-bam verbs to make us care about what Karl & Natalie are doing, then intrigue and engagement rises. And she has an astute ear for dialogue. I sense the influence of wonderful prose stylists like Heather O’Neill in Lullabies for Little Criminals or early Annabel Lyon in her Oxygen days.
So, there’s something here. But certainly not the “extraordinary” as one of her MFA teachers yodels out.
Yes, this is MFA writing for the most part, daylight stuff.
But I have hope 🙂 And the cover is superb with its bright hues, swallows, pillars. Even the contents page is aesthetically pleasing. I won’t apologize for being demanding. Poetry is pretty much everything to me.
As this is my 8th cross-Canada book tour, I have a growing network of people who tend to be regularly present, as hosts, as friends and as audience members. In Cobourg, it has been, for several tours now, writer Linda Hutsell-Manning and her husband James Manning, a couple who put most youth to shame with their relentless involvements in the arts, marathons, gardening and even running a B & B. As usual
I felt instantly comfortable in their home, settling down to a lunch of squash soup and stories, after a three hour trip on the train from Ottawa where I had enjoyed a lengthy chat with a German lady named Brigitte. Even though she misunderstood my pronunciation of “elegies” as “allergies,” she still ended up buying a signed copy of the book, seemingly thrilled to meet a “real author” while returning from a week of taking care of her grandchildren. All afternoon I relished the quiet surroundings of their frog pond before my Grief Forms workshop, one of the few attended by a man, a gathering full of colourful, laughing, challenge-taking Cobourgians who make the evening sweet.
The next day, I try to prepare my reading by the pond, reciting Circular again, the madrigal, wondering if I should add it, when a hawk swirls about my head. Some kind of affirmation. I do. Then I write a poem that begins, “You wish you could sink/under the muck/and re-invent yourself/like the frogs do every winter.” 7 p.m. The 66 Meet on King Street is packed as usual with the CPW writers, all sipping tea or wine, listening to the mellifluous opening guitarist. Introduced generously by Allison, when it is my turn to read between two engaging locals, I feel confident, strong. My voice seems richer tonight, resonant and I am able to actually deliver humorous anecdotes between the darkness without sensing I am diminishing the latter by resorting to the former. The flow feels organic, despite or perhaps because of the clapping that happens between every piece. I am able to gather myself, breathe, be human. The audience is wholly present, possibly as many of them have experienced loss before. The compliments burst out after and one woman is ebullient, overwhelmingly generous, deciding to not only buy my latest but also the four other titles I have with me. This is a rare occasion. Salmon steaks were had prior; later, its dessert wine before the fire and much animated conversation with my hosts. They are even driving me to St Catharines the next day on their way to visit friends. I always feel so fortunate here.
St Catharines has always been an erratic place for me, sometimes I read to full rooms, at times to no one than the other poets, or in a back yard rather than at a reading series. This time, I arrive too early to head to my host, Greg Betts’ home, and so I plonk myself down at The Works burger joint with all my luggage. I eat a Goat Cheese Chicken wrap (the man beside me is ordering the “Born to Brie Wild” burger), drink a cider and eavesdrop on conversations for a few hours. I go to the used bookstore and buy Sven BIrkets essays, Maxine Kumin poems. Then I head to Matay, the artsty coffee house, to eat cookies with an Americano, read and eventually, change into my recitation gown (I call it my Super Hero of Grief Costume) and walk down to The Office where the other performers and I will dine with the hosts. As I stride down King street, a Native woman sitting outside a bar drawls, “Hot Stuff,” at me. Ah well, you have to take what you can get as a poet 🙂 Within minutes, it begins to pour heavily but I get to the restaurant intact, all eventually showing up for soup and fries and conversation about art, what else?
is well-attended but a complete demographic contrast to Cobourg. There, most were over 50. Here, the majority are under 30. I don’t know if that makes a difference in the response to my mortality-based content or the fact that I just can’t get into delivering light repartee tonight. Several of the other readers are highly dramatic and/or funny in a pop-sensibility way and this perhaps accounts for my need to distance myself from that urge, to be accessible or to even connect. At any rate, I recite the pieces without the mic (which is broken), on one side of the podium, fortunately having turned down pages of the book, rather than relying on a list of planned pieces. I feel very serious and this is ok. Though I know it may mean fewer book sales (it does, though who can really measure this in the end), and that I may diminish the audience’s ability to relate to me. A silence does appear to gather around me later. Though it could have nothing to do with me. Reading poems can make one self conscious of reaction, hopefully not ever during the event, but sometimes, given human frailty, after. I did appreciate the support of Adam Dickinson (his noting that the poems never tip into the sentimental) and Priscilla Brettt. And of course, Greg’s magnanimous couch, a game of Sorry with Jasper, his genius three year old, and all the ragged pancakes I and the mesmeric Sandra Ridley could manage in the morning before I grabbed my bus and train to Kingston.
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.
Sometimes I feel almost struck silent by the recent Canadian poetry titles I am sent for review. Not because they are poorly written; no they are mainly well-crafted. Not because they don’t have subject matter to entice; they usually range widely in their research interests. But often because I experience little prompting in me to say much about them at all and this irks me. I don’t just want to re-iterate content as so many “overviews” do these days; I desire to reach a place of wrought critique that encourages the reader to want to pick up the book and wrangle with it themselves. However, neither of these titles, I must admit, encouraged such an impulse. Thus I am doing a dual dance of stumbles here first. My main two stumbles were, for Rosnau, an unfortunate array of typos, including “stich” (not stitch) in the first poem, “a the needle” in the next one and, further on, “an artists speaks on the radio,” and “another form OFF loss.”
This is not pointless nitpicking. This pointing-out emerges from the anxious argh that there is no true poetry editor for this press (I have been told) and that thus the poet must find her own or do it herself and, as such, errors more readily slip in. It matters even more in poems than in other kinds of writing however, and is less excusable, given the smaller number of words. And for Weiss, it was the tendency to overwrite, again not addressed editorially. While there are uses of words like “teeth baring down” for “bearing” that could be intended, lines like “Inside such a one: /a kitchen full of longnecks she never/could make disappear” (Canadian Girl in Training) seem impossibly clumsy and other pieces are composed of too many subject/verb footfalls: “I wait/I danced/I was/I have/I will/I will not/I will stand” (Mata Hari, Crossing Over). Perhaps they would have been better constructed as prose poems. But even then, a greater tightness would buff up the shine here. It’s such a shame when one senses a piece of the finished book puzzle is missing and this mars the text as a whole.
Not that I didn’t enjoy individual poems.
What Shines in Laisha Rosnau’s Pluck: The cover of an owl swooping in on the “P” of the title is eye-drawing as is the orange on blue colours. Having recently been teaching the incantation, I appreciated the negative version of such repetitive chanting in “Accumulation” : “this too has past,our past has passed, the kids fly past, I’ll pass, thanks”. I also liked the marital conversation of “We were reasoning wildly,” “An Affront” that ends with the determination: “I will not write any more boring poems,” “Shield, Too” and “Late” with its funny, maternally angsty line, “I am desperate for something other than embroidery/and pie.” And I especially relished the Gluck echoed poem, “Migratory Paths” and the reeking of lake kids in “Strung” where Rosnau strikes an exquisite chord of pang and joy.
Echoes include: Bronwyn Wallace, Maxine Kumin, The Hours (2002), Mary Pratt’s paintings.
What Shines in Adrienne Weiss’s There Are No Solid Gold Dancers Anymore:
Weiss’s garishly designed book (apropos given the gilded-era nostalgia within) is rife with a cast of deceased queens, from Diana to Mata Hari to Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Weiss is proficient at subtle forms like the couplet in “A member of the wait staff delivers a glass of ice to Oprah,” its juxtaposed lines emphasizing the variant classes, concluding with chilled, unbalanced precision: “How beautiful I felt in my/alabaster blouse….to resemble an angel guarding her hull./And in the glass, I swore I saw Oprah scull/then glide on an improvised raft of sliced lemon/a knife for an oar.” Masterful. “The Future Comes Anyway” is moving with helplessness and, of the Wizard of Oz pieces, I think “The Straw Man” (again couched partly in occasionally awkward couplets) evokes the glittering vaudevillian loneliness best, including superb auralities such as, “a ratty obelisk against a rainbow-less sky.” Further, “The Midway” and “Heads or Tails” almost satisfyingly evoke a fusion of Frank O’Hara and Philip Larkin in their sketches of doomed detrital landscapes. And the last poem, which closes with the near-title: “magnificent things that surely will come.” We can only hope this is the case. There is much talent here, undoubtedly, but it needs torquing.
Echoes include, apart from the above-mentioned: Gene Autry songs, 80s game shows, sub sandwiches loaded with everything including the olives.