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.
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.
Every year I write about the cottonwood seeds
& perhaps they all begin like this.
I don’t remember anymore now my life
Has become this poem in endlessly revisited segments
In which each time, I seem to recompose Spring.
Sitting beneath my tenuous patio umbrella
I note their slow cream drift, the mesmeric
Entry & exit and that knot at the core of fluff,
A transported hope.
How productive they are!
Zagging across asphalt, skimming the tips
Of pine trees, minuscule loam seekers
While I am generally lacking words today
Or feel that those words have little place
To land maybe – some self-conscious human angst –
As those tight & soft ships just take to their moment & go.
Bonnie Nish, Catherine Graham, catherine owen, family history, Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, Karma Press, Love and Bones, lyrics, Marrow Reviews, poetics, poetry, tributes, Wolsak and Wynn
Poets are regularly obsessed by various kinds of ancestors, whether poetic or personal (though the two can be indistinguishable). These two vastly different books, one by a nascent writer and the other by a seasoned one, both entertain ghosts, their poems marked by the process of entering memory through family and text, in order to re-vivify and thus, honour the past.
#1: Bonnie Nish – Love and Bones (Karma Press, 2013)
What Shines: The stark cover, depicting a diaphanously-skirted woman rising up a flight of grim stairs draws the reader into Nish’s first book of lyrics. The poems, some laced with haunting refrains repeated at the start and close of the piece: “This morning my fingers/do not move as fast as they did a week ago/to find the keys of memory,” are elegiac in tone and fraught with the ache to commemorate and contain. Poems like “When someone forgets to say Goodbye” are chillingly moving, evoking as they do the emptiness that besets the incomplete griever who cannot locate solace, even in the covering of “snap dragon roots with old tea leaves” so aware the speaker is of the mortality of all. Others whirl with tenuous literary sexiness such as the longer piece, “Chaucer and Hass” where the lovers bounce about in the jouissance of Old English dialect or sting with remembered parental dismissal like the poem, “On Being Ashley Judd,” a focused address to a mother who never found the speaker beautiful though she finally realizes that true beauty is about “surviving in the world/when your mother couldn’t stand the sight of you.” And there are lines that ring with generational sonority: “passing traditions without a word/passing the heavy parcel from lap to lap/watching silently for our stop.” Nish’s strength of feeling for her ancestral stories is clear.
What Stumbles: What often besets a first book of poems: many pieces descend into the sentimental through over-writing or cliche or that typical tendency to tumble into abstraction. Such images as “dreams are airlifted into the stomach of a cave for safekeeping” or “A dragon bursts through our minds/her body disintegrates into a ring of fire” or “a single finger tracing mountaintops along bellies” may hold deep personal significance for the author, but they don’t translate well on the page to anything the reader can enter tangibly or without a disjunctive jolt of disbelief. At times, these leaps can feel strained to the point of unintentional humour like the image of “dirt” in the speaker’s pockets that “haunts [her] still,” or the “celery crunch of time” that “plod[s] down the hallway.” One understands what the writer is trying to convey, but it’s not quite there yet, mostly because the verbs needed tighter, more visually precise, honing. With continued practice, Nish’s narratives of the past will become ever more potent.
What it Echoes: Evelyn Lau, Allan Ginsberg, Chaim Soutine, a banquet at a wake, Rebecca Levant’s Nostalgia album (2006), Life is Beautiful (1997).
#2: Catherine Graham’s – Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects (Wolsak & Wynn, 2013)
What Shines: Graham’s fifth collection has been widely praised and, for the most part, justly so. The gothic, textured, ornately spare cover design is gorgeous and the experimental entrances into Dorothy Molloy’s poems are fascinating. I adore form and fiddlings with it and Graham shows what can happen when one reads a deceased poet’s work so deeply that their spirit in a sense infiltrates, shaping not only the content, but more importantly, the structure of the work. While PK Page got away with writing a whole book of glosas, it’s not a form that is truly conducive to comprising an entire text and Graham, by removing the traditional skeleton and yet keeping the ectoplasmic energies of it, thereby creates a stronger, more organic book. I loved “Chthonic” with its dark fairy tale world where “the lilacs have risen to solo in the corner orchestra of green,” “Hat Rabbit” which contains my favorite Molloy fragment “grief trees,” the HD-like “Crown Island,” “The Calling,” “The Fix,” “Where Blue Lives” and the e.e. cummings’ invoking “My Skin is my Grave” with its “high grotesque” figure of “Mister Death.” I have not read Molloy but I sense that her voicing’s conjoining with Graham’s wholly respectful and trembling honouring is complete. The best poem, however, is the first, non-Molloy one: “To the Animal He Met in the Dark,” with its richly impeccable grieving.
What Stumbles: I wanted to see at least one original glosa prior to the “dismantlement.” It would have been interesting to trace how the form eroded, striated, enacted its essential erasures. Some of the fragments from Molloy seem unnecessary, especially when they are one or two words like, “my blouse” or “bats.” I did find the italicized lines distracting, obviously necessary but still a bit of a stubbed thumb in the text at times. Lots of pieces didn’t grip me at first but over the course of a few readings they began to seep in until I could scarcely shrug them out of my blood. That’s always a good sign.
What it Echoes: Louise Gluck, The Hours (2002), HD, Roethke, a seaweed & rice dish, Ted Hughes, painter Sam Shearon, Plath, Carol Ann Duffy, Three Songs without Words by Steven Gerber (2011).
1/Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form (1965, 1979):
Fussell takes a topic that makes most of us (even poets!) yawn, ie. poetic scansion/form, and turns it fascinating, contextualizing the writing of poetry through why it’s important to know how to read a poem. Drawing from John Hollander, Fussell speaks of the poet’s “metrical contract” with the reader and how, if the poet follows some essential rules of structure then the poem can yield more lasting pleasures & intensities for both writer & audience. He talks about being in charge of one’s rhythm, and about how a knowledge of enjambments, caesuras and metrical stresses increase enjoyment and the ability to appraise. In a tone some will feel is old-fashioned, Fussell rails passionately against the “illusion” of free verse, proceeding to show how the strongest free verse continues to be metrically pattered. “For the texture of a poem must be dense,” he proclaims; & somewhat later: “The art of poetry is the art of knowing language and people equally well. It is an art whose focus is in two directions at once: toward the inert technical arcana of syllables and sounds and syntax and metaphor as well as toward the animated actualities of human nature and human expectation.” Ooooh, the “technical arcana of syllables” – isn’t that just so delectable? I love Fussell for such lines and also for how he reminds us at the end of the book that our dearth of readers for poetry today comes mainly from the fact that we are not taught the conventions of poems that enable us to actually read a poem. And if we don’t know how to open a poem we aren’t likely to be able to enjoy it, memorize it, re-enter it in times of need. This text should be a mini-bible for all poets.
2/ James Longenbach’s The Resistance to Poetry (2004)
The question of accessibility and apparently trying to make more people like and want poetry (along with other art forms) seems to be a continual concern of sorts in North American cultural realms. Well this book reminds us that opacity, dense texture, elusiveness and atypical rhythms are all part of the deliciousness of the poem and that reductionism for the sake of “appealing to the masses” is simply not necessary. Longenbach describes poems made from the language of “self-questioning” and “self-resistance” and revels in the disjunctions and multiplicities of poetry itself. He explores the paradox of desiring both to communicate and to elude and how, at its best, such a tension can produce poems that don’t shy away from strangeness but accept “true wildness”. Using poets like Ashbery, Graham & Bidart as examples, Longenbach shows us how we need to read poems “more for their manner than their matter.” He calls the sound of a poem its invitation; the aim of a poem to not be immediately useful, or cost effective, or rational but to be liberated, mysterious, transcendent. To let a poem exist in its own land is a sign of respect. No matter how troubling, how anxious it makes us. What we want from a poem, he raves beautifully, is sononorous wonder, not comprehensible disposability. “Poems reawaken us to the pleasure of the unintelligibility of the world.” And thus poetry is not marketable, readily sold. It will be found by those few who are willing to suspend themselves between sound and meaning. This book is consolation for the poet who has been writing a long time and who, as is inevitable, can sink despairingly in certain dark hours.
Declaiming before the world, unquiveringly; nullified if there is not an outside-the-self; rise above for art is the once-more mantra; the poet does not matter, not in her particulars; the person, in that moment is irrelevant; just transcend the angst-past, the aching day, those scars, that awkward-always burden of unreal image; the garb is a shell; the nude a construct; the naked an ideal; a poet’s voice, stance is but a form of witnessing; let me be; let me be channel; in that instant, project & resonance & transfix; there must be a raw to it all in the smooth; a singing of inner; the poem is waiting for you to be completely absent within your entirety of presence.
* there is a fear in academe of the emotional & sensorial and because poets frequently work in the university or other zones of higher learning these days, such modes of reading/interpreting poetry in which the intellectual is privileged always over the feeling as conveyed by sound now predominate.
*what do I mean by the feeling conveyed by sound? well, feeling that is simply, naively produced without considerations for the music of diction/form/style is a raw emoting better suited to the diary. it is not converging with its art. it cannot be art-full and so will fail to wrench, shudder.
*there is an opposition to emotional art because one apparently cannot discuss/interpret or analyze it within the realms of higher learning which is where poetry is mostly read these days – as part of a curriculum, not a life.
*emotional scholarship seeks to channel the ravages of existing in the world through the many peepholes into grief, anger, sorrow, memory, adoration, ecstasy available in and provided by the works of thinkers who have transmuted and re-presented theories of such (at times undesired) practices of living. in this manner, it aims to vivify intellectual approaches and balance the tipping-off points of feeling.
*when one’s personal experience is transmitted through a close attention to all the manifestations of craft then ideally, a fusion of human pain or joy occurs alongside the cooler abilities “recollected in tranquility” as the famous dictum of Wordsworth’s goes – to produce a work that affects at a somatic level without sacrificing art’s priorities. in fact I don’t think a poem – for instance – can impact at that essential depth without such considerations being paramount. the latter (craft) doesn’t have to exclude the former (emotion) as it very often does.
*why is there so much “heart-less” poetry written in North America, showy in terms of allusiveness, form, style, but detached, determined to remain aloof, alien from the guts of what happened, what impelled, what perhaps spurred the words to emerge in the first place. no, scrape the abjection off and deliver the sanitized product instead.
*sensorial formalism aches precisely for a commingling of intensities. the carving of tears into a language-sculpture in which moistness lingers on the surface of stone. that necessary paradox. the un-fearing of body, death, the individual agony without disdain for a fine honing and an (eventual) rehearsed delivery into the world.
A book of poems is the chronicle of a haunting
There’s a sense of virtuosity without necessity in many contemporary poems
Experiment is from the surface; innovation from the depths
Poetry is not about making a living – it’s about making a life
Poetry must make sensory what has become automatic anomie
Poetry is the rhythmical record of a race
Poetry is a wildness around the garden of prose
Poetry is irreducible to the bottom line
The primary known of poetry is the unknown
Poetry is an undeniable intimacy with language
Poetry has lost its secret toil, the sweat of strange silences
Poems: don’t dissect them, spelunk them!
Poetry should be a waking pill for the spirit and the senses
It is the pace, the cadence, that (literally) counts in a poem
Poetry: words that chant afterwards in the blood
Form: coherence that transcends the age’s chaos
Poet: a person who is led around their world by a rhythm
A poet is someone who refuses estrangement from the world
Poetry: the next best thing to silence
You cannot teach the writing of poetry, you can only teach a writing
of poetry, an act that often leads to cliquism, homogeneity, staleness and,
at worst, self-censorship.
The poet’s three T’s: texture (diction), tempo (rhythm) and intensity (form)
All poems are elegies for childhood
The poet thrives on an abundance of nothingness
The poet transfigures echoes
Poetry: moving brutality
A poet creates most potently in an environment of nostalgia and exile
The poet: unformed and continuously arriving
Poetry elaborates out of ghosts
Poets are scavengers of the imagination
Poetry: sex between the psyche and spirit
Poetry: the ear’s vision