Poetry on the Buses in Vancouver, BC: A sampling of poems from 2006
& also a further array from 2002 🙂
Poetry on the Buses in Vancouver, BC: A sampling of poems from 2006
& also a further array from 2002 🙂
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.
“The poet speaks on behalf of the least tangible, but possibly deepest awareness that we possess. But it is an awareness so elusive, so fitful in its arrivals, that we mainly live in forgetfulness. Poetry is the one reminder, the line of connection….it need not be dictated by a Muse, but it does not, ever, arrive out of daylight consciousness….I understand it as a power, a matter of awe.” [Sven Birkerts]
I am fond of the idiosyncratic voicing, traceries of atypical allusions, of the hewn but rendered-new form and the demotic stance translated through strange dreamings. I don’t want to sense grad-school-shaped elisions and trickeries, sleek surfaces buffed to a meaningless shine, little titters of anecdotal lyrics. Nothing sticks and settles in the mind-blood there. And even when the whole collections don’t strike me, there is something in me that utterly forgives (if I can assume that god-posture for a moment) if I hear a reconfigured tune, even faintly and erratically. And I do hear this song in both these collections, however variantly composed.
#1 – As If a Raven – Yvonne Blomer (Palimpsest Press, 2014)
What Shines: The risk of it. Writing birds as if they are being named for the first time within Genesis, making the Biblical so overt in this time of poetically-secular resistance (and I too shrink from it, even as it is partial foundation for my own literary, at least, rhythms & references). The extension of this preoccupation throughout an entire book. Which makes it difficult to call forth segments of it to exclaim upon, though Pigeons (“O, small coo calling”),the aural texture of Jacob’s Ladder (“Double-crested, strange-billed, floppy-footed: oaud oaud it alleged, beak on the bearing of hills, of still water”), Audubon: Still Life, a short palindrome (“What was nest has been skimmed”) and the Yeatsian Raven’s Skein which brings potency back to this lyrically-weary bird in the first two brief phrases: “All night stars. Tenebrous, the switch forgotten.” Lots of leaps into Keats’ “sparrow pecking” here (“if a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel” [July 1817 letter]) as Blomer’s ear begs us to listen to the litany of cries, their “humthrob” and “krok kroa kark“. I haven’t had the chance to hear her read many of these poems aloud (“Have you been hunting?” with its haunting repetitions was one) but this is where their power must swell most effectively. I love the open-beaked raven cover too, despite it not being in matte. And the paper.
What Stumbles: It’s hard to write about birds (and particularly crows/ravens) with a freshness of perception in Canadian poetry, especially after such inundations of them from Tim Lilburn, Robert Bringhurst and especially, Don McKay. Then there’s Ted Hughes’ Crow. And so one has to work harder as a writer and reader to flit over such mountains. At times, the Biblical resonances overpower, for instance in the corona “The Turtle Dove” which does Song of Songs to excess with hard-to-swallow rhyming end couplets such as: “oh turtle dove, oh brooding, oh nesting/in this, my heart, the beat of all is cresting.” And sometimes the endings just clump down: “dig feet, their beaks in, and feed”, a skimpy deliverance after the promising crash of the opening: “After death all that is/is absent.” But there is a ringing consistency throughout the collection that makes these moments only minor slippages in the transcendent aviary.
What it Echoes (apart from the above listed): George Herbert, Margaret Avison, Carl D’Silva (ornithologist artist from Goa) & Cantus Arcticus, Op. 61, an orchestral composition written by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara in 1972.
#2 – All the Daylight Hours – Amanda Jernigan (Cormorant Books, 2013)
What Shines: Again, the idioms, rhythms, allusions Jernigan interweaves are not those of the clone poems MFA departments often spew out, but gleamings of long scholarship, quiet intellect and the pursuit of uncommon musics, many of them born too of meditations on the included woodcuts by her husband, artist John Haney. I was initially struck by the sonnet “Lullaby” with its lovely alliterative opening: “My little lack-of-light” that flows into “solstice fish” and “solstitial kingdom” and the closing pronouncement, “You shall make your consolation all your life.” The first half of the book is particularly lush with sources from Orpheus to Lear and Prospero to Yeats, the references never just sitting on the surface of the poems but organically emerging from them through aural echoes. I adored Reflection (“The swan slipped under the bridge – a palmed card…a surreptitious movement/but scandalously bright”), the sequence for St. John’s, NFLD called When the Weather Comes and especially i.Arrival (“We arrive abruptly. The highway coughs us up/in bog, among the flat black pools that brood in peat” – yes! what an ear!!!), Desire Lines or Poems for Terra Nova National Park, the exquisite end rhymes and sly humour of Routine (“On Friday nights you swept the shopfloor clean/Against the wrack of publishing, the sanity of routine”), Love Letter with its deep consciousness of craft, affection rendered more powerfully through attention to prosody (“you’ll notice how the daylight pools/in the formal hollows of those o’s”) and the anthologized extended sonnet Encounter with the reversal of mother and fetus, the former “adrift in space” like Leonov and the latter able to “pull” her in. Sonorous, moving, significant.
The further into the collection I read the slighter some of the pieces seemed such as Poem with the Gift of a Timepiece, Grandfather Clock, Nursery Rhyme and Rings. Mostly I think because they are occasional poems and somehow did not successfully translate their context. Another like Love Poem felt like a sketch towards a deeper entry and I wished it had not been content to reside in the sentimentality of “our son…reaching out for “Mum” and “Dad”. But there are so many gifts here, even the cover with its colourful slashes by Pierre Coupey, that I am not inclined to gouge too readily.
What it Echoes: “New Formalists” like Anita Lahey & Richard Greene, Ralph Gustafson, a Chateaux Margaux Bordeaux wine paired with an endive salad, a still of Martha Graham dancing, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
When I arrive in Kingston on the train, Bruce Kauffman informs me that a water main had recently burst right in front of his downtown pad. And indeed, water is chugging down the street and continues to do so until 4 a.m. despite the ministrations of jackhammers. I don’t care at that point, only desiring to head to a movie and chow down on massive amounts of popcorn to distract me from the tour coming to a close and my exhaustion. On the bus getting to the station, I had ridden beside a woman named Helen who told me (the whole way) about the funeral she was returning from. Everything is resonant, connected. And yet, I am overloaded with death. We pick an enjoyable film, Le Week-End, a bittersweet comedy about a couple celebrating their 30th anniversary in Paris only to find they are beset with a range of ennuis and turmoils. Afterwards, Bruce cooks pasta with sweet potato slices and we talk, as we always do, about poetry, the life of art-making, its compromises and freedoms.
The next day, after Cheerios and a stroll in sunny Skeleton park, Bruce & I head to the Wolfe Island ferry terminal, to be met by a group of younger writers, the musician Paul, the older poet and drummer, Anne and even a dog, all of us crossing over to the cemetery where I will undertake a reading of lyrics and the longer poem, “The Nth Chambers of the Heart” to guitar accompaniment. The weather is so luminous and I feel wholly jubilant to be near the water, tombs, and with people who are so attentive and respectful, perching on mossy roots, reclining on blankets. Paul plays Joni Mitchell, then his own compositions about divorce, mortality. I begin singing The Lung Poem leaning against a lichened headstone, recite a range of chosen-in-the-moment lyrics and then move over to where Paul is standing to start the 14 minute piece he will accompany me to.
There are breezes, chickens clucking, dog barks, and even at the end, a braying donkey to chorus with. Unlike when one is inside, these distractions don’t matter. All flows and seems organic. I think possibly that the dark cello accompaniment in Vancouver likely worked more effectively than the theramin/violin in Edmonton or this acoustic guitar in Kingston but it’s hard to say when one is focused on reciting, not listening. Regardless, I feel ridiculously happy (so many hugs!) as we all traipse to the local pub for fries and mussels and nachos and wine, talking for hours in the gradually subsiding light as a flamenco-style band plays the Gypsy Kings & Segovia. The next
day I enjoy an interview with a local linguist, then a wonderful Grief Forms workshop at the Geneva Crepe House before dashing to my train to head back to Toronto for one more night. I had decided to treat myself to a hotel room as my plane is leaving relatively early the next day, but after nearly missing the last airporter, then having to wait hours for a shuttle, I wasn’t so sure I should have bothered. However, compensation came in the form of the Best Western Plus putting me up in the honeymoon suite, complete with heart-shaped jacuzzi. And did I ever sleep well in the giant’s bed.
After a few days at home in New Westminster, I take the PCL bus & BC Ferries to Victoria to stay with one of the more incredible poet-couples in this country, Steve Noyes and Catherine Greenwood. A dinner with host Yvonne Blomer of soup and wine and then off to Planet Earth Poetry, the only venue I regularly read at in this part of the world, this time with GG winner, affable Julie Bruck. The open mic is shorter this time, less tedious, and by the time I get up to read I feel sharp, energized. It is one of those readings in which I am again able to repartee, introduce and bang out the poems relatively flawlessly. I am held in the audience’s eyes and ears it feels, and this sustains my recitation. I sell and gift books at the close, drink bad Chardonnay and sleep solidly in a small but nestling bed. The next day, it is again bright and the workshop exquisite with rhythm, birdsong and dark chocolate. This gathering is followed by smoked salmon and bagels in Steve & Catherine’s glorious back yard. And more conversation of course, blissful, delicious ramblings.
I am so fortunate is all I am brimming with. This death that has caused me so much pain is being balanced by a giving back, by the sense that I can connect with others at an intense level, that I and they are less alone as a result. I don’t feel I could ever ask for more than these moments. So thank you to all who were there.
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.
I had never read in Barrie before. I had certainly never performed in a clothing & knick-knacks store prior to May 3rd. But every tour, I try to add a new town, a different type of venue to my set of performative experiences. On the GO Train, crammed in with my luggage, I was met by Bruce Meyer’s wife, Kerry, who schlepped me and my bag still loaded with books to the venue, Imago, a quirky store run by the ebullient owner, Sandra Roberts, a place full of vintage clothes, copies of her high-fashion magazine, Pie, and even plastic penguins sporting bow ties. Surprisingly to me, there were maybe 10 people there, nibbling on the crackers and cheese, sipping wine and chatting animatedly. Bruce read first in his affable, elaborating way, engaging the group admirably and when I read, I definitely felt an intense level of attention and interest, some eyes brimming as they listened. Having a greater intimacy with the book by this point, I ended up extending my reading and selecting poems in the moment, rather than just sticking to my list. A rare Q & A period followed, a few book sales (I even traded a copy of Designated Mourner for a sweet hoodie!), conversations, photos and yummy sushi afterward with Bruce’s warm family prior to a night at the noisy but comfy Travelodge.
Hamilton is always lovely in its own way, even when I am fraught with grim, as happened the day of my reading. The evening prior, my host, the thoughtfully gentle Ellen Jaffe, had picked me up from the train station, and had held a dinner for me at her cottage-style home, of veggie ragout with rice, salads, buns and mince squares, of joyous conversation about vocations with guests from the poet Dave Haskins to a ballet promoter, a radio personality and even a ukelele musician. Guitar strumming on the record player. The orange cat Buffy slithering around the legs nestled beneath the round table. Despite these delights, I had a hard time sleeping and woke gloomy as sometimes occurs when I am far from my own routines. After a yoghurt and bun, I tried to stomp out my sorrows down Locke Street and it worked, through wine at a pizza place, through the windy sunshine and through the purchase of a a novel about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and a silly kids’ book called Crabby Crab I bought after a conversation with the proprietor at Epic Books.
A meeting with my publisher Noelle Allen at Wolsak & Wynn about the next book also helped and then the crowd of 40 plus began to spill into Homegrown Hamilton for the lineup of five writers, including Susan McCaslin, Don McKay and Lisa Moore, and I focused on preparing for my recitation, asking, as I always do, to “transcend myself for art.” Due to the length of the event (I read second), I stuck to five poems and they seemed to flow smoothly, although the introduction by a host who called my book “Elegies” instead of its actual title and who decided to announce I was an art model, made me initially awkward. I also find I actually prefer singing the opening Lung poem without a mic as then I can utilize my own breath space to greater advantage. Tonight, my voice feels like it is cracking and straining a little though I oddly, at the end, get more compliments about my singing than prior. Listening to the other readers was an immense joy and having conversations with book buyers afterwards, including Lisa Moore who bought me a wine, and seeing a homeless man put what small coin he had into the donation jar before stumbling out on his rag-wrapped feet into the dark.
I should have learned by now that high expectations for any place are rarely wise as often large crowds and generous book buyers are a fluke or a trick of timing, never to be anticipated. Sometimes it is the small towns that offer immensity and the large cities that seem skimpy. In this case, I arrived in Ottawa a week following Versefest, right after April poetry month, and perhaps not an auspicious moment to be launching a book. Plus, this book contains material all don’t want to expose themselves to. And so on and so forth. At any rate, I was thrilled to be staying with Rod and Liz again, in their colourful home, complete with the pleasures of Rod’s lemon cake and conversation and Liz’s paintings and the chance to head to yoga class with her. I also slept, which always improves my spirits.
Yes, the audience was a little lacking at the Ottawa Art gallery for whatever reason. But it was hosted admirably by Max Middle, Jill Battson’s poems were a dastardly blast, and I had the chance to recite some pieces I hadn’t yet tried out including the one about why I would/wouldn’t try crack, nearly one of the most difficult poems in the book for me to read without screaming. And there were reactions: “gut wrenching,” “moving,” “beautiful delivery.” Plus this was the only funded reading on the tour, both travel and the event itself, an absolute life-saver that way. Warren sent gorgeous flowers from Chilliwack. Photos and video were shot; posters given. Then chips and wine enjoyed afterwards at the British-style hotel pub. There are never total loss readings on tour anymore. Were there ever? Not if the mind’s adventuring realm remains open.
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.
What they don’t tell you about grief.
Did they tell you anything?
Funerals were mute on what now with their innocuous sandwiches, reminiscences
from the pulpit, rhetoric-coloured memories, embalmed flowers.
Perhaps then a small moment of weeping.
And after, the weeks, months and so on?
What they don’t tell you about grief is almost everything.
There are no packaged stages; no set timelines.
In that doubled darkness – the loss, this silence – you continue your piecework
of a life – most do at least – and the years are supposed to pass into forgetful
happiness – O yes, they tell us this – that “time heals all wounds” – a lie
of course, not that it gets worse, harder, but in some way no one shares with you,
it does – there is no protection from forever after awhile – and so every day
starts with that sad, hungry gong – gone always, always gone – there is no
consolation for this – the grey light begins and with it,
what they did not tell you about grief.
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.