Poetry derived from research, whether into scientific principles (Adam Dickinson’s The Polymers), pop culture referents (Kimmy Beach’s The Last Temptation of Bond) or mythological/historical figures (Susan McCaslin’s Demeter Goes Skydiving/Kate Braid’s books on Glenn Gould or Emily Carr) is a fairly common mode of composition in Canadian poetry. When it works, it introduces the reader to unexplored realms, submerging them in the very “matter-ing” of the author’s obsessive pursuits. When it doesn’t, research-based poetry sinks into an even more private, solipsistic context the reader is not truly invited to enter as the material fails to be effectively conveyed, and even transcended, through form, aural richness or detail. This trio of gorgeously designed collections from Anvil Press present us with both the beckonings and the turned backs of the poem as research site. & P.S. I plan on getting to the marrow (to my mind of course) of each of these books quick n dirty today!
1/Mari-Lou Rowley’s Unus Mundus:
What Shines: Rowley is a consistently inventive poet, drawing on her background in science writing and the strongest poems in this latest collection evidence this active engagement with lexicons, history and form. She burns from her anaphoric invocation, “Prologue…In the Beginning” where each line begins with “Before” through her “Space/Time Dialogues” between such unlikely conversants as Digges & TuPac and to the end of the “CosmoSonnets” sequence (my favorite section) with its yummy geek words like quinzhee & bogongs and lines like “particle energy measured in electron volts,/the untidy oblate geometry of love” which beautifully fuses theory and emotion. The “Feral Verses” that close the book are also aurally scrumptious and brilliant in their entanglings of literature, ecology and apocalypse: “gardens of promise/goblets of toxin” or “bottle of obsolete cream/a dream of beauty.”
What Stumbles: When Rowley descends to earth, not eco-earth but human-planet, the poems can get a little silly as with “Cicero in the Back Seat,” “Boys on Bicycles” and the flarf piece, “Garden Variety Porn.” Nothing wrong with goofy but I didn’t want it after the singingly intellectual entrances of other sections. I enjoyed the Animalus pieces that thread Latin nomenclature through vivid observation but at times I felt their forms could have been tighter, more honed. Regardless, Unus Mundus is vital as the product of delving and lengthy research, not a flippant dipping.
What it Echoes: Dennis Cooley, Gustav Holst’s The Planets (1914-16), Loren Eiseley, Alice Major, Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers (1959), Thom Gunn.
2/Jennica Harper’ s Wood:
What Shines: “Real Boys” Harper’s pieces that draw on the ineffable sexuality of Pinnochio and his relentless melancholy in relation to his incapacity to become the flesh-child he thinks Gepetto desires. Especially poems like “Plans” and “Where it goes” tremble with poignancy, evoking the untransferable, nearly untranslatable nature of wood to human, immortal to mutable: “Last night Father told me he wishes to be burned to ash…/I dreamt of the box burning up around me. I wouldn’t catch.” I wanted more of these poems though. “Liner Notes,” the subsequent section that melds an elaboration of the song “Crimson & Clover” with a narrative of a young love-torqued caregiver and her disabled charge was also moving. But Harper is at her most potent when she works in form like the sonnet, “Fever,” the sestina, “Ring in the Grain” and the couplet poem about a miscarriage, “The Loss.” Even when I found the subject matter lacking as in the Sally Draper poems, when she plays with rhyme in the piece “Upwardly Mobile” for instance, where the character becomes “a secondary character in [her] own life. A wife…bringing coffee to men, again and again” the poems rise above content into melody.
What Stumbles: She is trying to do too much in this book, particularly weakening in the sequence about Houdini and his wife Bess. Yes similar preoccupations with relationship, fatherhood, fertility and loss are present but Harper didn’t give herself enough space to truly take the reader into her fascination with the escape artist’s spouse. And sometimes the concept, as in the section, “Papa Hotel” where she imagines her father as actors from Jack Nicholson to Peter Falk, is more interesting than the poems, which here, fall frequently into flattened prosiness, like the lines, “But/inside it feels nice, the air is thick and warm, and there’s only enough room/for the two of us.” I wanted more Pinocchio! 🙂
What it Echoes: If Harper had sustained the Pinocchio sequence into a book-length sojourn (as I had perhaps anticipated too much with the title Wood) then it would recollect The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Sharon McCartney or Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie or maybe Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid. There is so much going on in this book I can’t really sum it up with many other applicable allusions.
3/Marita Dachsel’s Glossolalia:
What Shines: The fact that Dachsel created a whole text from her absorption in the lives of Joseph Smith’s wives and the historical complexities of polygamy. Taking that kind of risk I think is important, even if a wholly successful result is usually elusive. The shifting texture of language between the insertions of the Doctrine and Covenants with their Biblical imperatives and lexicon of “abide and cleave” is potent set alongside the looser, more realistically truthful rhythmic patter of many of the wives such as Hannah Ellis with her drone of “I live a boring life in a boring house/with my boring boring.” Just the names of these wives are poetry. I mean Delcena Diadamia! Naming them and giving them voice is a vital task, particularly bold in pieces like “Maria & Sarah Lawrence” where the two sisters married to Smith provide counterpoint versions of their wedded experience: “I’m the one/who will/who won’t/be remembered.” I also liked Rhoda Richard’s monologue that centers on the metaphor of the nest. And these euphonic lines: “loss, a lure, caught/shredding what they once knew true.”
What Stumbles: While many of Harper’s poems might have made for stronger stories, Dachsel’s poems add up to a play along the lines of Top Girls by Caryl Churchill or Les Belles-Soeurs by Michel Tremblay. Their endings often peter out so a poem that is sharp at the start such as Nancy Maria Winchester: “I didn’t know how to mourn,” becomes lacklustre by the finish: “the man I married, the woman/I hoped to become.” If they were part of a dramatic production then viewer could weave the weaknesses into a more powerful vision perhaps than this reader is capable of doing with her hunger for more perfectly witnessed-to lyrics. Also, the erasure poem, Lucy Walker, was a terrific idea but the found words don’t add up to anything especially compelling: “remain/follow/change/change/receive/comfort/return/calm” (Part One). And at times, when the women descend into contemporary lingo like “God, just the thought of eggs make me want to hurl,” the poems become too eager for accessibility. Yet, as noted, Dachsel has taken on a task easy to falter at, something I definitely discovered in the process of writing my book on the life of the pioneer photographer, Mattie Gunterman (Seeing Lessons, 2010), and has risen to the imagination’s quest for entrance at a depth into the psyches of invisibilized others.
What it Echoes: Apart from the noted allusions, how about Hildegard von Bingen, BIg Love (HBO show), Paint your Wagon (1969 film), The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago (art installation, 1979) and a straw pie cut into infinitesimal slices.