Robert Priest has been a masterful maestro of text and music for over 30 years in Canada, producing many recordings such as “Feeling the Pinch” (2012), composing songs for other artists including “A song instead of a kiss” for Alannah Myles (1992), performing at a wide range of venues and publishing in a variety of genres: poetry, children’s literature and the young adult novel. His latest two forays, a book of verse about “society-altering” figures such as Terry Fox and Elijah Harper, called Rosa Rose (Wolsak & Wynn, 2013) and Previously Feared Darkness (ECW, 2013), a collection of playful & political lyrics, are taut and singing additions to his solid body of work.
#1: Rosa Rose
What Shines: The colourful cover, featuring a quartet of illustrated heroes from Mehta to Armstrong, by artist Joan Krygsman, is eye-drawing and the black & white depictions are carried on within the text in a mode that movingly enhances the rhyming paeans. Priest comprehends the necessity for repetition, chant, onomatopoeia and imagery in children’s verse and always steers far from the didactic, preferring to stick to biographical moments in the lives of these key figures that illuminate instances of justice, forbearance and triumph. My faves are his pieces for Muhammed Ali with its aural contrasts between the “Bam bam bam” of Ali’s boxing and his pacifist refusals of Vietnam’s “Blam blam blam”, his crafted extensions of sound and meaning in the lines for Gandhi, “To the sea/to the sea for salt/to the sea where salt is made,” his poem about honouring the connections between generations, “To the End’s End’s End” and his funny ditty about a life saving oinker, “Lulu the Pot-Bellied Pig,” which emphasizes that non-human animals can also be heroes and so can trees, as the powerful visual poem, “A Tree will take the Heat for You” underscores. An essential minstrel for the wide-eyed wonderer in us all.
What Stumbles: The sequence of verse is mostly tightly edited, with a little something for every child: the eco-enthusiast, the burgeoning poet, the budding social activist. Priest might only have shaped stronger poems about Einstein than “Chasing Einstein Round the Table at High Speed,” and perhaps have made a little more from his word play piece about water purity, “Well Well.” Other than those poems, the rest of these songs of recognition and praise are necessary and memorable.
What it Echoes: Dennis Lee & Shel Silverstein of course but with more politicized chutzpah.
#2: Previously Feared Darkness
What Shines: The title (Priest has some of the best in the biz). The cover with its spotlit bubbles swallowing the lettering into dimness. Priest’s combination of a consistency of stylistic word play, fascination with the prose poem and persistently aural politicking found in books from 1988’s The Mad Hand (a most influential collection) to 2008’s Reading the Bible Backwards with an always renewed approach to contemporary issues translated through a deep bee-bop idiom and an allusive tracery that stretches from Harper to Conrad. “And Poetry Started to Rush Out” begins the collection with a crucial whoosh that finds its counterpart past the initial political jabs with the tribute to Milton Acorn, “Acorn’s Oak” which asks for a tree to be planted where “Acorn broke the law/when he shouted I shout love.” The philosophically-tinged humour in lines from “Leonard’s Koans” is then potently echoed by lines from “Micro Poems” that close the book like “I can see into the present” and “The only true poetry is the longing for poetry” and of course the Meme Splice pieces also resonate rapidly off each other, one side of the binary often more powerful than the other in its slippages, with irony being the memorable displacement rather than iron (“I have several ironies in the fire”) and forest more than force (“she was a forest to be reckoned with”). I think that Priest is most brilliant at the engagingly playful yet utterly serious prose poem. “Book of Jobs” and “Poemem” both assail mass tendencies towards conformity in relation to religion and statistics with a punchy unfolding of satire: “Experts claim that the public will heartily reject this poemem. They will not read it in droves.” And “What is the Word for Word” along with “Just a Wee Bit about Fucking” are the most erotic and yet funny poems I have read in a long time. O yes, “We want to word until our lips are sore. We want to stroke one word against another until the friction almost hurts.”
What Stumbles: Well, of course Priest sometimes takes it all too far. It’s hard to resist playing with language to the nth degree and on occasion, as in pieces like “Give us the Floor” or “Rights Left” an original premise of sound and meaning is perhaps taken past its fullest power, a tendency also evidenced in the visceral rants, “The Waistland” and “Asshole Sky” where the metaphor is dragged beyond its Ex-Lax catharsis into a realm of the runs-off at the mouth. But you see, just his willingness to be both a juggler of language and a speaker of truths is worth a read through all of Priest’s diverse oeuvre.
What it Echoes: jazz (“I give you a brass version of grief”), medieval banquets, nursery rhymes, Edward Gorey, The Song of Songs, Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum.