I have come to realize that my brain has been trained to read complex, dense, heavily allusive, highly diction-torqued, mind wrenching poems. Work that Carmine Starnino, in his essay on “Steampunk Poetry” points out is referred to by terms like ” ‘hybrid’, ‘plurality’ and ‘elliptical’ – or what Ron Silliman calls ‘third-wave poetics’ and Jay Millar calls ‘retro avant garde’ and Queyras calls the ‘avant lyric’.” Although I primarily desire to be emotionally stirred by poems through a fusion of craft and feeling, my mind, primed by years of study, also wants to trudge through lexical puzzles such as those offered by Phil Hall, Erin Moure, Margaret Christakos, Lisa Robertson and Nyla Matuk among many more. Conversely, with books like And the cat says…by Helwig or The Song Collides by Wharton, I initially find myself irritable, antsy, wanting to reject their simplicity like a “there there” Pollyanna type. Yet part of the reason I write these reviews is to enter books I might otherwise instantly dismiss for a host of reasons. I haven’t always achieved my goal, incapable thus far of writing about Natalie Zina Walschots’ cryptically perverse super heroes or the scientific opacities of Adam Dickinson’s plastic experiments for instance, but I do aim for this continuous challenge.
And so, these undemandingly strenuous poems.
1/And the cat says… [Quattro Books, 2013]
What Shines: The design of the book is darling. It recalls a story I loved about a cat firefighter when I was a kid, with a repeated kitty-outline motif against blue and a yellow title band punctuated by a bird silhouette. The poems are all lyrics, some seemingly about the author, others offering slim glimpses into other character’s narratives into which we are dipped, in medias res. Despite the at times apparently cloying surface of snuggles, chocolate bunnies, cheerful clouds and so forth, the poems are actually striated with shadows: a “shaky love,” breasts that are imagined dying “in my old age, that is all I can hope” and perhaps the most dismally lovely piece, “The Practice of Sad” in which the reader is told to “Drop a single glove in the snow/its mate will remind you forever/of all your other losses.” Simply put, they are more complex emotional zones than initially judged and their sweetly bitter simplicity can offer refreshing entrances into those moments in life that eschew the cerebral for the brief, essential pang. I particularly enjoyed “Hands” and “The Black Dogs in Rostock.”
What Stumbles: As Helwig herself states in “Poem” the poet “sometimes…go[es] too far (in the cutting)/ & it’s diminished.” The poems then are not tender, wrenching shapes, poised in their own rightness, but merely constricted little sketches of what could have been. Often this means that the piece dwindles into cliches like “my broken, tumbling heart” or platitude: “for blessings, for freedom, for you” or “one cry for help, a bit of weeping/briefly” in an otherwise promisingly brutal poem about the mysteriously terrible “Bullethead” who causes bitterness to seep up from the speaker’s “cunt.” Head deeper into that surreal darkness, Susan, I want to yell. Rest here and there on the jetty but then, plunge in unafeard, in more honed forms, terse with that ineffability that threads through all.
What it Echoes: Robert Creeley, Laura Lush, Almodovar’s Woman on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Fiddler on the Roof, Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe stories, Loretta Williams songs.
2/The Song Collides [Anvil Press, 2011]
What Shines: The matte, textured, branched & birded cover invites one into this much more consistent collection in terms of speaker & lyrical story. Helwig’s interspersing of Spanish or German idiom emerges without obvious context for instance, while Wharton’s incorporation of Mandarin softly threads a clear persona throughout his moving sequence of “Big Study” poems about studying in China, with genuine tremolo and vulnerable grace notes. Another highlight is his beautiful two-part piece “Birds, Ledges” which also references a Chinese proverb, an elegy to a mountaineering friend who died in a plane crash many years prior, its poetic relationship to loss encapsulated in the line, “He was talking to me when I suddenly remembered he was dead.” Like Helwig, the somber is busted open in flicks of humour like “Joke,” “That Mountain” and “Tracey Calls”, a piece that lurches into CAPS to emphasize the “darker, weirder, more intrusive kind of fishing” that telemarketers undertake. And I like his tender father poems for his young son or dead birds, even when they veer into sentimentality because I’m a bit of a sucker for such things.
What Stumbles: It’s interesting how Helwig and Wharton both include poems that pay attention to their own flaw-zones as poets. In “Virtue Deficit,” Wharton notes: “Muddied/by lack of self-discipline I/can’t finish a line/or make it to the end of the stanza…without digression” so that the poem can become a “thing done properly,/ done well.” Come to think of it though, this doesn’t happen too often except in pieces like “The Funnel” and “Network,” poems that feel sparse and stray about. More typically, the poem is entirely stark platitude as in “The Distance from the Chair to the Floor” that closes with the tepid realization that “the instant before the fall/can never be regained,” or the poem starts with precision like “streets and lanes/walled, names painted red” and ends with some vague statement as, in the same piece, “clearing a path all the way to heaven” or “while I try to catch blessings/and balance them long enough to count” in another, a poem that also contains the accidental adjectival zeugma (if there isn’t such a thing as zeugmas usually involve nouns, well I just made it up) in the line “dim and stale as old bread”. Dim bread, huh? Worse than Pound’s no-no abstraction “dim lands of peace” methinks. I hesitate to point this out as Calvin is a former teacher of mine, but as we are all each others’ educators, I will 🙂 Speaking of Pound I also recall this dicta: “Don’t imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the art of music.”
What it Echoes: Duke Ellington, Bei Dao, Steve Noyes, Crispin Elsted, Lost in Translation (2003), Gary Snyder, tai chi, St Francis.