Oratorical immensities, unafeard cadences, textual integrities that meld into spiritualized quests: modes of writing often absent from our frequently ironic, clever, solipsistic, void-torqued poetic landscape in Canada. When one thinks of taking risks as a poet, the mind turns quickly to subject matter, self-revelations. But this is not the kinds of risks I think are lacking for the most part. Instead, what absents itself in much Canadian poetry is the speaking voices that assume a stance, a position, a relationship to their role as poets and take chances with the rhetorical toolkit, the deeply-felt pronouncement. I suppose we don’t think we have a tribe anymore. That we are not speaking to anyone. But, as Robert Hass said recently at the Ecopoetics conference in Berkeley: “whether it’s true or not, imagine it is and hopefully this will make it so.” These two poets, among others in this country, such as Don Coles, AF Moritz, Richard Greene, and Anne Carson live in that realm of imagining effect through myth, persona, and mainly, cadence. Why can’t we acknowledge ourselves as legislators of rhythm and perception and stand within our poems through their time in the world? Steven Price’s 2012 collection “Omens in the Year of the Ox” (Brick Books) and Russell Thornton’s 2013 book “Birds, Metal, Stones & Rain” (Harbour Publishing) enter their oratorical possibilities, singing outside or at least through, fear.
#1: Steven Price
What Shines: Price is the near-perfect contemporary bard, offering his readers form poems and freer-verse lyrics, constantly shifting his modes of approach to his subjects, drawing from the blues to invocations, curses to chants, prose pieces to elegies to invoke material leaping between Greek drama, Shakespearan rhetoric, Bach Requiems and mythic landscapes. He is never monotonous. Words spring into the throat: embrangled, aglar, whorpled, vugulate, cantled. He makes pronouncements: “Nothing is steadfast” or “for the world is not suffering only/and living is not how we think it to be” and because his ear is so potent and his form sure, we trust his stance. Price regularly employs repetition, whether anaphora or the recurrence of such touchstone words as “dark.” He is moving, especially in a poem like “Icarus in the Tower” which made me weep, as well as in “Raccoon in Ditch,” “The Crossing” and “Arbutus” where he puts the question of the image to us: “if grief were given shape, if grief/were given shape would it grow like this/in a horror of limbs, and headless.” He risks one long line being followed by multiple four-beat lines and singing the Blues as a middle-class Caucasian man. Price’s poems are rarely personal but imbued fully with his wholly-hearing and resonantly-conveying personhood.
What Stumbles: Although I appreciated the texture created by the inclusion of forms like the Blues and a list of curses, along with his recurrent sequence of Choruses, I found these the weakest poems in the book. They simply felt more like fun or philosophical exercises than compelling works in and of themselves. Yet, would I excise them? Not sure.
What it Echoes: Shakespeare, Euripedes, Billie Holiday, Yeats, Bach, Anne Carson, Breughel.
#2: Russell Thornton
What Shines: Having long been an admirer of both certain individual poems of Thornton’s and of his quietly-oratorically poetic presence, I approached this book hoping to like it and did, less for its subject matters, mostly personal unlike Price’s, cycling through the ghosts of his grandparents, his fractious relationship with his father, his troubled adoration of his West Coast landscape and his awe towards his children and mainly his two to three year old daughter and more for its aural resonances. Which is what I attend to. If a poem’s rhythm sinks into my blood and says yes, then frankly, the its content becomes almost irrelevant – it is the music I am moved by and recollect. Thornton has the Bible in his veins, has Greek drama, has Robinson Jeffers. He doesn’t give us difficult, textured words like Price; he gives us words we have been conditioned not to use in poems: beauty, love, heart, desire, mercy. He risks sentiment, especially in the pieces for his daughter, and mostly, wins through his cadences. Even more so than Price, he is bold with repetition, able to confidently mirror a shifting burden in the statements: “I carry the weight of it/I simply carry it, with eyes/that carry light. I carry it.” And he can write a surreal, stirring line, evocative of Lorca or Zeller such as, “my eyes are the bandages of my eyes.” He risks metaphorical speakings – “the spray is” or “the silence is,” elaborating enclosures that coil within their ecological bonds, their genetic bondages. From the whimsical history of the Marine building and an elegy for his grandparents to a piece on his infant son’s gas or his toddler daughter’s dubbing of birds “boohewun,” Thornton, without shifting into different forms, is able to convey the variety of a life lived in the presence of continual awareness. My favorite poem, and one I’ve heard him recite several times, is “Nest of the Swan’s Bones,” a stunning, startling invocation to what is destroying nature, the last stanza containing the humble, lovely fragment, “and yet I try to sing.”
What Stumbles: It’s inevitable that in dealing with such subject matter, the familial will sink into the dreck of excessive, maudlin sentiment at times. This occurs in a piece about a Greek girl, “Dora,” “Aphrodite’s Mirror” and one on his grandparents, “A perfect day” which has the potential to stir, but flattens out at the close with the weak pronouncement, “It was a perfect day,” the lax commentary coming after a bewildering comma. Rarely does Thornton’s ear fail him but in the poems where the “I” repeats and repeats, his honed hearing can dip into dangerously over-travelled territory, the dizzying terrain of familial land binding the reader beyond the option of further entrance.