Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Serious Call by Don Coles, Porcupine’s Quill, 2015, 64 Pages

“…he has outgrown us and deserves an international readership.”
—Carmine Starnino

I have two reasons for writing again about new work by Don Coles – the first, my enormous liking for the spare, compressed poem which opens A Serious Call and the long title piece which concludes it. My second reason stems from Coles’ editor Carmine Starnino’s recent description of Coles as “world-class,” an odd remark given Starnino’s historic opposition to this term and others like it. But after reflecting, I think he might be right; as a category, “world-class” will admit many more members than, say, “the best poet of his generation,” so why not Coles?

This is important because of the danger we run of allowing reputation to lull us into complacency about a poet’s work. If I stop short of liking Coles’ work in its entirety, it is because I continue to see his successes as intermittent, his poems too often marred by faults that trail after him, e.g. unconvincing conceits (“My Death as the Wren Library”), tonal miscues (“Too Tall Jones”), and Coles’ Oxbridge sensibility – that dry understatement and avuncular, donnish persona out of which so many of his poems emerge.

My other objections are filtered through personal biases towards compression, lines rich in personality and driven by strong purpose. Declaring these, my difficulties with Coles’ poetry should be immediately apparent in an otherwise lovely poem about the poet’s relationship with his young daughter. In “Flying,” she sings “Some day I will fly away. Like Peter. Like Peter.” To which Coles responds:

…I had
allowed the call to enter me in a way
she had surely
not intended, which was no particular
way at all, really,
it was just a child’s voice en route to
dreaming
and the call was nobody’s fault, not
hers and
not mine either, at the most it may
have been
a kind of intimation from the flown-free
pale-blue wing.

Any other poet would be hammered for subordinating the drive of his poem through phrases like “which was no particular way,” “not hers and not mine either,” or “a kind of intimation.” His eminence grise lovingly shielded by a cohort of otherwise sensible critics, Coles’ persistent hesitancies and digressions are normally interpreted – and not without some justification – as the natural charm of the human voice. Robyn Sarah describes his hesitations more precisely as an enactment of “a conversational intimacy while guarding a personal privacy.” The problem: this constant recasting of Coles’ thoughts, the structural looseness and never-wanting-to-make-too-big-a-deal-about things, disperses the general force of a poem. The reader may be kept at a safe distance, as Sarah suggests, but the poet’s ability to win a deeper connection and more lasting allegiance through directness and purpose is lost. Nor would it help to argue that the endless backtracking and other vagaries of his style serve a larger, thematic purpose, i.e., his cosmological stance on the lost human soul unaccountably suspended in time.

Often, Coles reserves his strongest effects for the end of a prose or narrative poem, genres where our “expectancies,” as I.A. Richards once observed, are “more indeterminate” than they are of verse: readers are held in check until prose at last spills its magic. Coles’ narratives unfold in precisely this manner. Too often, though, a strong, richly detailed poem drifts off the bottom of the page rather than coming to a strong and satisfying close. “Moonlight,” for example, starts out chock-full of colour and purpose: “A garrulous old cuckold…gibbering under the moon, … his tiny wife … with her legs on either side of his happy teenage apprentice … a young Canadian lieutenant in 1917 “studying the latest configurations of barbed wire from his lookout post.” Surely the Second Coming is at hand. Well, not exactly:

I’ve so often wished I had asked him
much more
about all that, and right now there’s a
blurred
couple of seconds which could be my
chance,
but in the moonlight and the
remembered quiet
I let it go.

As does the reader; whatever power originally animated the poem trails off into nostalgia and resignation, suggesting that the only adequate posture towards life is to be underwhelmed by it. Is the Yeats comparison unfair? Perhaps. Coles’ interests centre on images and narrowly conceived existential ideas, not modernist symbols normally loaded as Clive Scott noted, “with dimensions enough to repossess all the ideas which, as the occasion of the poem, it engendered.” Coles’ images and ideas hardly ever coalesce into anything more than the gentlest of imagistic denouements.

Again, other critics see method in Coles’ mildness. But more revealing than what they have to say about Coles’ poetry is what they imagine the rest of us might say if they weren’t around to correct us. Though you or I might consider Coles’ poetry to be “loose, drifting, undisciplined,” we would be wrong says W.J. Keith. See those “basic words” he says of one poem. See how Coles “skillfully juxtaposes” them to emphasize “a space in time.” Notice how, despite this most overworked of defenses, it never occurs to Keith that our original judgements might actually be pretty apt descriptions of Coles’ poetry.

A more fundamental unhappiness: whatever response Coles might wish to evoke – sadness, disgust, illumination – the reader will recognize its representation, but not feel its reality. Not so in the first poem in A Serious Call. “poem” is of an entirely different order than Coles’ other poems, blending in a way he rarely does both feeling and perspective.

my mother said
last night you came
into my room
with your
quiet face when
you were small

and she said
I was not asleep
I was waiting to see if
it could be long ago

This simple little poem is one of the best Coles has written. The lines are beautifully weighted, the effects impeccably distributed. Nothing is wasted, but neither is everything revealed; Coles gets all that he can ask of a poem without giving too much of himself away. But the best part is that we gain the full emotional impact that the encounter with the otherwise absent parent has on the child, and of the child as a vehicle of memory into the absent parent’s own childhood.

The same can be said, though for different reasons, of “A Serious Call,” the long narrative poem about Coles’ experience looking for work in London, England. Like Coles’ best poems, this one unfolds organically, relying less on the mechanical constraints of formal verse than on irreducible human experience – total, immediate, intuitive. Nowhere can the reader point and say here is where the key to the poem lies. Coles tills his soil with light observations or descriptions, e.g., the Southwark district of London:

Nowadays the area’s rampant with
wine bars
patronized by rich youths who got that
way
shifting currencies in nearby highrises…

and then nourishes the ground with a rich admixture of literary allusion and anecdote, e.g. his new job at Grattan’s bookstore and the pleasant discovery that he and his new friend/manager John Rolf (JR) get to spend most of their time reading books at the back of the shop.

And – we were reading only books
that we wanted to read.
If Grattan’s didn’t have a desired title
(and sometimes
it did thanks to the Everymen), we’d
mention that title
to the ‘travellers’ who regularly called
on us from
almost every one of Britain’s major
publishing houses.
The travelers knew perfectly well that
our Southwark clientele
wouldn’t be queuing up for these
privately picked titles,
but they also knew that the titles
looked just as significant
in their order books as those exotic
dictionaries did…

That works for me. Why? Well first of all, it’s wickedly funny. But Coles also reins in his signature interruptions and keeps his narrative relatively clean, his subordinate clauses performing their traditional functions of modifying principal thoughts and adding details which pique and sustain our interest. See Coles and JR, cigarettes at their lips, “lounging, books in hand…

…in broken-backed but creatively-
cushioned
chairs in a small room at the rear of the
shop with,
for warmth on wintry days, a spool-
shaped electric heater
on a low, round, wooden table between
us.
Also regularly seen on that table: four
booted feet.

This telescoping effect also works nicely later on.

So, amid the quiet and the smoke – flap
of a turned page.
Discreet flare of a match. Realignment
of a boot or two
On a low, round table.

Smoke wavering up from a beer-slogan
ashtray whenever
a stray gust
arrived from a doorless front-of-shop.

Starnino has said a reader must be alive to the “shades of meaning” which occur from line to line in Coles’ poetry. There are many kinds of “meaning,” of course, but I think he’s mostly right. But I also think when Coles later acknowledges “there were/great books which we failed to find among our Everymen” that he is after bigger game – and none bigger than Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

For Natasha, the two nights,
grand St. Petersburg ball and follow-up
wolf-hunt, are wand-touched,
are inhabited by adoring glances and
moonlit whispers, by
sights and sounds we want to believe
will charm and protect her
forever, but – Tolstoy spares us nothing
here – life chooses
for her instead a heartless near
seduction, a confused first love,
and eventually an unremarkable life
long marriage.

Never mind world-class. “Sparing us nothing,” Tolstoy enters that much smaller arena reserved for exclusive masters of the genre. Following close on his heels: George Eliot, summing up in the death of Dorothea at the end of Middlemarch the fruits of an unspoken, generational legacy.

…for the growing good of the world
is partly dependent on unhistoric acts;
and that things are
are not so ill with you and me as they
might have been,
is half owing to the number who have
lived faithfully a hidden life,
and rest in unvisited tombs.

“A Serious Call” is a poem for readers of both fiction and poetry. Part of its appeal for me is the time I spent working through Tolstoy and Eliot, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Hardy’s poetry, and Camus’ essays. I’d like to think others will take the same journey if they haven’t done so already, perhaps filtering Coles’ poem through their experience of those books. Failing this, our avatars remain the two young men in Grattan’s discovering that more is actually needed than great books or even very good readers.

When the sentences
keep arriving and the realizations go on
stacking up,
the half-guesses that something, which
just might be joy,
might possibly be waiting at the end of
them, and might even
last a decently long time – there’s this
need for
something else.

Or some one else.

Yes? We began to circle yes.

Beyond the consumption of great writing is the need to share it aloud, Coles suggests, in lines “listened to by the other one,” depending “on who was the first / to be prompted by a newly arrived sentence cluster.” All this is beautifully unpacked by more of Coles’ own lines: “…to know / that there is no way he was going to move past this cluster / its unexpectedness, without getting some backup …” It’s not just our “expectancies” that drive narrative, but also, as Coles clearly intimates, our desire, by poem’s end, for the unexpected, for the surprising.

My surprise is what I had not expected from Coles: that he should reflect back on a human relationship and that for once I should really care. “A Serious Call” works because, as the product of human relationships and endeavours, it is harnessed by competing forces – one force joyfully skittering along the surface of Coles’ reverence for great books, underpinned by a deeper, more unifying force within the lifelong relationship of two men.

The poem ends, as all deep friendships so often must end, in elegy – but not before Coles remarks on a note he received from his friend asking him “to explain, a few minutes’ calm and untroubled / thought at the start of each day directed towards / one or another of a small number of friends, among them / me.”

That note ended with him
expressing the hope that one day
someone might find
a name for what this non-praying,
prayer-less, thought
was.

Coles’ and JR’s shared delight in great books and our experience of their growing mutuality quietly coalesce into something more special than even books: the knowledge that the greatness of books, the reputation of poets or novelists, are secondary to what readers share. Nor is the object to say who among us have “outgrown” their readers or been unfairly denied the world’s attention, but to expand on George Eliot’s remarks and ask if the “unhistorical acts” upon which “the growing good of the world” depends might include our grand, unheralded poetries.

This review is also currently available at Canadian Notes and Queries http://notesandqueries.ca/reviews/david-godkin-don-coles-a-serious-call/

Thursday, December 17, 2015

On Shaving Off His Face by Shane Neilson

Okay, forget “accessible”.  All I want is to be alert enough to what’s on the page to eventually understand or more deeply feel “something”, to find my sea legs in the bump and swell of busted rhythms and disparate images so I can say, “You know, this ain’t bad; from here it’s actually pretty smooth sailing.”

For sure there’s no end to roiled waters in Shane Neilson’s latest book: fracturing our attention along elided or conflated syntax embedded with strong, associative images in rapid fire, tightly compressed succession. “Rigid, stoic, mask: broken bone face/gun-shot face, son-dead face.” Eventually these and others images coalesce into a larger metaphor for the poet’s personal experience of violence and loss.  Unable to reconcile his son’s pain with the medical system of which he is a part Neilson retreats into something larger than ambivalence: despair. Even the smallest manifestations of love seem futile in the face of pain and disease.

“Consider the Pain Face:
love on your lip, love sliding sideways
to make a silly face of pre- and post.
Profess systems of belief, of research: 

corollary, corollary, sing. Agreeably sing
of pain as shadow cast by this edifice: 

the love face.” 

Now we’re in new territory, where syntax and images conflate: a “silly face” for a child with hard science; a ratiocinative concept jammed up against song; love relegated to an isolated fragment at the end of the section. It’s all functional: pitting a rational, systems-based world against the human and throughout it all our moral obligation to examine pain, to know it in all its detail and dimensions, to feel its unwavering presence; to think of pain’s power and our futility in soothing it as troubling as the power and futility of death. 

“Pain’s place is pictorial, a hundred thousand
atlases of your face: tear-stained, unfathomed

by intense algorithms of validated claims.
See the Pain Face. Underneath is no face.” 

Whether it’s his careful linking of images and ideas or fragmenting them to underscore human or institutional frailty Neilson is at pains in Book l of this collection to avoid giving the whole game away. Even his most difficult poems become a conduit rather than impediment to thought and feeling, however. And in both uses of image the charge comes from the progression or “push” towards something larger, a symbol or revelation that is definitively personal and almost always powerful and compelling. 

“Your face a firefighter entering a burning building, a fire-eater
swallowing gasoline, a Hindenburg erupting against the sky. She touched
your face and felt the pressing why, the need of space filling immolated
distances, the urge to erase fire. Were you beautiful? Remember yourself
as an effigy to burn and forget.”  

Equally compelling are verbatim remarks by Charles Darwin from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals and which preface Book ll. The passage is absorbing less for Darwin’s clinical examination of human pain and expressiveness than for Neilson’s ironic use of it within a book of poetry on the same subject. Says Darwin: 

“Our early progenitors, when suffering from grief or anxiety, would not have made their eyebrows oblique, or have drawn down the corners of their mouth, until they had acquired the habit of endeavouring to restrain their screams. The expression, therefore, of grief and anxiety is eminently human.” (Italics Neilson’s). 

Tautologies like this are absurd prima facie. More striking is how Darwin’s dissection of his progenitors’ screams and expressions of grief and anxiety - in language wielded much in the way a surgeon wields a scalpel – becomes uncomfortable, even painful for the reader.  Neilson’s promise:  to explore pain and to make it as real and as trenchant as he can for the reader.   

Do the poems which follow the Darwin passage fulfill that promise? Before you can answer that you need to understand the risk Neilson ran in using the piece at all. Remember William Carlos Williams’ inclusion of a newspaper report in Paterson? His risk was that readers would condemn him outright for using “unpoetic” materials. Neilson runs a different risk in that his inclusion of Darwin’s prose might be deemed more interesting than Neilson’s verse, a handy substitute for ingenuity in the absence of poetic inventiveness and imagination.  

Along the way Neilson runs into the same difficulty Williams ran into in Paterson: ensuring his theme and rhythmic structure possess sufficient momentum to carry the reader to the end of the book. Riffing off the photos and histories of mass killers Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook), Jared Loughner (Tuscon) and Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) may not be your cup of tea. A bigger problem is for so much work to have gone into compressing the language of their pain into the language of poetry only to feel it mired in over-worked diction and pallid rhythms.   

“The scapegoat of face as ineradicable as hate.
For all the faces in mourning...” (Lanza) 

“The killer’s face slides into a smirked pudge of abraded, ventilated skull.
Nowadays all faces profess angry health…” (Loughner)

“Oh the happiness I could have had mingling among you hedonists. You could have been great. I could have been great. But what you did to me…” (Cho) 

What is the value of re-working and collapsing the words of killers into poetry as Neilson does, if the tone remains as breathless and flat, the rhythms as punchless and unvarying as the originals? 

“clean the slate, brute-restraint, ravenous rape, Descendants of Satan, single second wasted, the innocent Children, band aid to patch up, wanna perpetrate endless sessions of crucifixions, 88, by destroying we create, pain you can never feel but with our hands, donation money to turn the situation, reverberate throughout.” 

Now that’s painful. Compare this with passages from Neilson’s first book of poems Meniscus, where the undisputed quality of the poetry ends precisely where Neilson’s larger experiments in structure begin.  

Bird Men

No portals, and little
wisdom. Men jump from ledges,

hitting the sidewalk asleep
and dreaming of remote
 

perches. They grip metal
rungs and arch backs in practice,

perfecting pre-flight posture.
Trinkets fall from pockets, 
 

cell phones trill on belts
tightened against this leathered  

morning and handkerchiefs
billow in the wind. Drained

wallets strain against seat-seams
and the cries of the birds sound 

softly. Men stretch arms
into albatross wingspans,

then hit earth with a thud.
Like crows that fly

from barren nests in search
of gallows to rest on 

or cardinals that shed scarlet upon
the corpses of brethren, men balance  

on railings and teeter. 

This poem is every bit as hard hitting as the ones above it. What you won’t see is the careful winnowing the poem underwent between its magazine publication in 2003 and book publication in 2009 and how instructive this is of the kind of care which seems to be missing from Book ll of On Shaving Off His Face. A care for the dexterity of rhythm. For bell ringing audio effects. For the kinds of connections between image and thought that unify the poem and make the reader eager to read the next one. 

Too hard? Maybe. Neilson has worked diligently; his determination to wrestle hard experience into evocative, thought-provoking poetry is unflinching. And the structure of these poems is certainly ground shaking if not breaking. But then so is a lot of poetry by poets who work diligently toward the next epiphany in poetic form, only to find the path well-worn and very tough going.  

Happily, Neilson recovers in Book lll by combining the purposeful drive and rhythmic interest of the best poems in Meniscus with the condensed, associative quality of Book l. 

“Lithe, sleek, the discharge clamours past
the synapse that seeks to spark a resonant
wave. Reap the curve of the scythe:
the cortex a sundowning effect,
the crescent blade cutting past what we dream
and know how to be…”  

Readers can’t help themselves. They want to be touched by emotion directly, something not always possible when poets occupy themselves exclusively with what poems are made of instead of what they do. At bottom Shane Neilson’s most emotionally evocative poems in this book about pain are those which have as their immediate touchstone his own pain. 

“I’ve watched you die, and die again, in dreams.
My son, they say in dreams we meet.
That promise met, and one cry. I rhyme in dreams 

meant not for me. But not you either! The seams
are sweet excite, the clench of arm, Humpty’s empty seat.
I’ve watched you die, and die again, in dreams. 

Humpty on the balancing beam, a father’s eyegleam,
the king’s horses and the king’s men lofty and great.
That promise met, and one cry, I rhyme in dreams.”

(From “The One True Cry.”) 

Now that’s love. No longer inadequate in the multifaceted face of pain. In language that contrasts powerfully with the language and tools of science: “sweet excite, the clench of arm.” “I’ve watched you die, and die again in dreams.” Compressed. Rhythmic. Eminently readable; above all else,  eminently human.

On Shaving Off His Face, by Shane Neilson, The Porcupine’s Quill, 2015. Ed. Jim Johnstone. $16.95 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Lake of Two Mountains by Arleen Paré

“There is something down there and you want it told.”
-Gwendolyn MacEwen

Sina Queyras once described how Canadian poet Tim Lilburn in order to “come to terms with the land” dug a 7 x 7 foot space in the ground and covered it with a thin roof and bales of hay” and then “went under and lay, listening.” Said Queyras, we may not like what we “see or hear” there, but “the visceral account of his being, his total engagement with it, is hard not to admire.” Add to this is a “sense” that Lilburn’s work “asks you to come to it” and that “some seem to have difficulty with this.”

Never mind the significant step the reader has already taken in buying Lilburn’s book in the first place or that readers rarely draw closer to a poet's work unless compelled by its quality to do so. What they really sense is Lilburn not asking, but demanding and that it is the obligation rather than the invitation to know the poet better that rankles.

By contrast Arleen Paré in her GG winner Lake of Two Mountains does us the enormous favour of meeting us half way in our attempt to understand what she is trying to say and to appreciate the manner in which she says it. No need to press our ears to the earth. No murmurings in the dark. Paré comes to us fully equipped and in the open air.

Hence my surprise when Paré cites as a major influence on her book Lilburn’s collection “To the River” and the poem “Slow World,” along with Don Domanski’s All Our Wonder Unavenged. Said Paré in a recent interview “I am just undone by those two collections.” More unsettling than Domanski’s is Lilburn’s impact on Paré. I say this because of Lilburn’s mostly peremptory tone and a crowding of images and ideas on to his page that hardly ever permits the reader’s thoughts and feelings more than fleeting intervention.
 


Still, her remark about Lilburn’s influence is sufficiently interesting to explore it more deeply, promising, as I must, to devote most of my attention to Paré’s poetry itself. Like Lilburn, Paré’s writing is absorbed by wilderness. Also like him, she demonstrates (as Queyras quotes Lilburn) that “wilderness can be enacted in language, but as it is enacted, language begins to seem less and less like language.” Okay, a huge statement; for now my only reservation is the constant banging up against materiality that is so much a part of Lilburn’s approach to nature and entirely missing from Paré’s.  

In fact, Paré echoes Lilburn more in homage to him as a poet than out of any Bloomsian sense of him as rival or mentor. Here, for example, is Paré’s opening to “Armies of Frogs.”  

The lake is a woman who no longer
looks in the mirror. She lets her beard bristle,
forced to overhear strangers rowing their boats

And here is Lilburn’s opening of the fourth strophe of “Slow World.”

The river is a man who’s just ducked into a doorway,
who’s changed his name and lives in the crawlspace.
The river has worn through itself and is turning up its hands.

The personification and only slightly disguised iambic pentameter are present in both. The lines in each are weighted about the same, the images equally provocative. Now here’s Paré’s poem “More”

vision doubles
the lake’s surface calmed
trees displaying roots into roots
their upside-down selves

tree selves downside-up
in the water where their roots
touch their roots   a surfeit of calm
redoubles the lake

All similarities stop at the water’s edge: Lilburn is not big on “displays” of any kind in poetry; his water theme is more timbrous and muscular than Paré’s, “full of the meat of its smell and heaviness/Tree – a crackling huff of old light.”  Where “vision doubles/the lake’s surface calmed” in Paré’s poem, Lilburn’s feel for waterscape is darker, more troubled, “No flavour in the way the water bends, nothing in the mirror.”

Lilburn's and Paré's poetry actually owe a great deal to Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poetry, Paré’s in obedience to MacEwen’ s tone, Lilburn’s in defiance of it. Like Paré’s poem, MacEwen’s “Dark Pines under Water” from her 1969 GG winner The Shadow Maker is worth citing in its entirety:

This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream. 

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.

MacEwen’s poem locates its depth in nature, just as Paré’s does. The difference: Paré’s immersion is of a more immediately sensual, less metaphysical kind, “Sun grips your bare shoulders/Your forearms, held overlong in the water/start to dissolve/turn into lake.” Similarly, Paré has a confidence in the transparency of nature that is missing from MacEwen and Lilburn. Compare Lilburn’s line “Further in the water a deeper bark/the lack of light so strong you cannot look at it,” to Paré’s “Under Influence.”

The past develops under water,
film fixing invisible forms
the way deams reveal
what was already there.

Nor do Paré’s poems seem, as Lilburn said of his own above, to be “less and less like language” - a remark not as crazy as it sounds given post-modernist speculations on language as an impediment to meaning, and the belief others have about the extra-linguistic capacities of words; but language is first and foremost a conveyor of meaning; how formidable its ability is to alter or shape our core being, for example, remains unclear.

Lilburn appears to be aware of this and a great deal more and explores it all in his poetry. Paré is more content to use the language as it strikes most of us, as a medium and an instrument to be employed well. Here, the GG Jury’s description of Paré’s title poem as “a poem of sustained beauty” of “bullfrogs, sunbeams or religion” and “anything that passes through [this shape-shifting] landscape” is nominally accurate and almost entirely inadequate to appreciate Paré's real achievement.

Take for example Paré’s faultless gift for synesthesia in “Distance Closing In”

shallows pummelled     the world
hisses with rain    iron-blue smell
and pewter light ringing


or her re-enactive use of rhythm crossing the lake in “To Oka”

the waves smashing     the boat’s low
wooden sides     pitching and yawing
half-way  the motor starts coughing
almost capsizing   this rowboat
especially unsuited for deep-water crossings

or something you don’t see often, visual rhyme

                                    ever-present
especially near shore    the danger
something like anger

Arguably, Paré’s most powerful poems in Lake of Two Mountains are those devoted to monastic religious life, as in the Frère Gabriel poems. I initially wondered if Paré shared Frère Gabriel’s view of nature as an expression of God: “When wind rises. Snow/falls/When sap varnishes the flanks of cold trees. Every season, God.” But could God actually be suspect? You bet.  

He sneaks in through catechism’s call and response:
Who is God?
God is love.
How long is eternity?
However long it takes a dove’s wing to wear away the marble-hard
world.

But maybe God is also more than one thing:

Once a month, Sister Zita fire-drills a bucket of flames on the
unsafe escape. God tends the flames. Day by day, He replaces black
snow-melt with spring. The wolves at the chain links are flame-eyed
with want.

No sentimental pantheism here. Overlooked by those who have mumbled on about the “prayerful” nature of her poetry, Paré’s poems are contemplative in a way that prayer is not; they aspire to many truths, not a single unifying truth; her metaphors probe that strain of solipsism which infects the conceptions too many professional priests have of their own devotional life. Witness the pinched, claustrophobic existence of Frère Gabriel:

He must pray. To his mother in Laval-des-Rapides, he bows his head. To his father underground, he dispenses his thoughts. To Thomas Merton, he cites each authentic word. He blows on his hands. He strives for bios aggelikos, but he is one monk among two hundred. Mistaken prayer, he cannot sheer himself from this life. 

Few critics mention that Lilburn started out as a Jesuit priest or wonder about the influence this has had on his poetry. The influence his book To The River has had on Paré is as a poet, his deployment of images far more spare than we are accustomed to in his own GG winner Kill-site (2003) and nearly always adequate to a fresh insight or a new angle on things. Paré’s is all of this, too. At the same time her approach to poetry is more classically balanced and unified, without the aberrant or idiosyncratic features which mark the avant garde.

To her central controlling image of the lake she adds something else missing from Lilburn: a pointed social outlook.

Mid-century, the chorus frogs abandoned the lake:
harsh cold, the Seaway, fertilizers, tailings,
a factory upstream. Their skin tinged
a greyish-green tan,
their rapturous piping, utterly lost.

Most impressive of all is that Paré has hit all these notes and done it well in only her third book of poems. I liked her first book Paper Trail very much, but Lake of Two Mountains is a quantum leap in both sensibility and technical command.

A final word on Paré’s homage to another poet: “Last Day”, a variation of a glosa of Archibald Lampman’s “Thunderstorm”, does more than honour the late 19th century Canadian poet; it is a measure of Paré’s acuity and depth as a contemporary poet and the evolution of Canadian poetry away from its early indebtedness to Keats and Milton, as seen here in Lampman’s poem:

And now from heaven’s height,
With the long roar of elm-trees swept and swayed,
And pelted waters, on the vanished plain,
Plunges the blast.

For Paré and most of her colleagues poetry has rightly evolved into something more suitably subdued, more personal and for that reason more directly human. The difference is how quickly and profoundly Paré’s indebtedness to her contemporaries and to the past has evolved into a distinctly able and compelling poetic voice.

you race rain for the cottage
where you lived as a child
quirk of the storm       sluicing you
onto this particular porch
side door locked
new owners away       you brace
the umbrella’s inadequate shield
wind shoves
against you     rain streams
down your cheeks
directly upon you
the hurrying
centres of the storm unite.

Lake of Two Mountains by Arlene Paré, Brick Books, 2014. Ed. Sue Chenette. $20.00

Friday, October 9, 2015

Leaving the Island by Talya Rubin

Geeze poetry can be tough. And who knew a thirty-something poet from Montreal could tell me something about tragedy. So young and fresh-faced on the inner cover. So dark at the heart.

Those were just some of my feelings as I emerged from the pages of Talya Rubin’s first published book of poetry. Whether it’s scrambling over the rocky face of Scotland’s St. Kilda Island, reflecting on her anorexic years in Montreal or tracing the thread of a very personal existential journey through Greece, Rubin provides a powerful, ruminating text that gives no quarter: 

Do not reconcile yourself to the hopelessness of your situation, or you will be defeated. Look neither up nor down, neither straight ahead nor behind you. Imagine you have eyes all over your body. It is not your responsibility to choose which ones to see out of. 

Rubin doesn’t run from thematic exegesis, she invites it. The principal tension throughout the book is between the desire for community and the final insufficiency of place. Driving it all, the threat of extinction, personal and communal, as in her opening title poem “Leaving the Island” 

We’ve all gone now, left the place to the sheep
and the gannet, the puffin and the wren

For decades only a mailboat of whalebone and oak
came and went from here. Then the tourists 

arrived to see if we were more than myth in the Outer
Hebrides.

Beauty is not the operative power here - “slender necked majestic birds, mythical white” and a “sky so thick with gannet you resemble white ash” quickly give way to images of brute necessity. “Birds all hammered on the head and thrown down to sea.” Here and in later poems the confrontation between nature's fierceness and human ingenuity is laid out in harrowing detail.

Men suspend themselves and poach you from your sea stack nests
dangle from cliff faces, their only implement a long stick

with a noose at the end to scoop you by the neck and snap it there
above the depths.

More than a hundred years later these long departed presences on St. Kilda, Scotland give way to the spectral figures of their descendants seated in the café of a colonial Australian town also named St. Kilda. 'Outside, skinny pairs of women walk by...always going to the beach or coming from it/in their neon colours, their electric smiles." Inside the cafe, dreams of escape from an island morph into a malaise of failed desire.

The men at the table don’t even look up.
They talk until the piece of furniture they sit at
floats out to sea; their vessel, their only home.
The hair on their heads the one thing visibly receding
and the horizon, that too, drifts away.

But more than anything the speaker’s own capacity for feeling – or lack of it - is at issue here. The sole antidote to spiritual exhaustion is the discovery of new places, new beginnings. “This island is calling your name," one poem ends. "This is where I will begin," ends another. On the Greek island of Santorini, Rubin is shown how to carry water to the donkeys in the field, what herbs in the garden to water and what to do when the household gas gives out. “This is how you will live,” the owner tells her.” But always her new beginnings bend towards extinction.

The walls are peeling, but paint is expensive these days, and the rain will wash it away eventually, and the walls will collapse eventually, and this island will reclaim itself eventually and there will only be donkey paths and no small bells will ring, because that will be the day the donkeys own this island and nothing will hang around their necks.

At best any optimism Rubin possesses occupies a middle ground. In perhaps too obvious an allusion to Eliot, she writes, “I see things, fragments/that add up to the future.” Like Eliot, Rubin’s default is instinctively tragic. Human interactions are perfunctory displays of tolerance and non-emotion.  Places are temporary and almost always under existential threat. Outside of death, solitude is the only perennial.

For readers who like their poetry served a la cart and lightly flavoured Rubin’s true saving grace will be her enormous capacity for poetic expression. Yes, her themes are substantial, but it’s her technical ability that sees us through: her attention to the interweave of diction and syntax, using the simplicity and directness of monosyllabic lines to describe brute existence on St. Kilda:

No tree to cut to build a boat, a chair, a bed
peat and straw instead and mud and rock

Her quiet pacing and willingness to let her readers hover a bit over an image before introducing another.

We left our Bibles open and handfuls of oats on the floor
Locked our doors behind us.

And an ability to collapse whole histories into just a few lines.

but the white Polaroid edges
can barely contain us in the frame.

My father is behind the lens,
one foot already out the door.

The poetic sojourn into someone else's culture is as old as Homer. Too often these have become an excuse for avoiding the complexities of our own, a short cut to seriousness without the disadvantages that come with self-knowledge and self-declaration. Talya Rubin avoids these pitfalls through a large, empathetic imagination and an ability to immerse herself, without presumption, in places not common to her - or our own - daily existence. We are all better for the encounter.

Leaving the Island by Talya Rubin, Signal Editions, 2015. Ed. Carmine Starnino. $18.00

Wednesday, September 23, 2015



This month, we re-launch Speaking of Poems. Our exclusive focus: reviews of new work by three Canadian poets. Up shortly, Talya Rubin's Leaving the Island, Shane Neilson's Shaving Off His Face, and GG winner Arlene Paré's Lake of Two Mountains. Stay tuned. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015


Under the Pudding Skin: A Conversation About Bruce Taylor (previously published in Maisonneuve)

Two poetry lovers discover a “master versifer” in Taylor’s new collection, No End in Strangeness. 
David Godkin: What do readers look for in a poem? There are many answers to that question, of course, but I would say our most basic expectation is competence. We want to feel that we're in good hands, that the poet has control of his or her materials and that someone on the other end of the line is actually talking to us. It's readily apparent when these qualities are missing, but when they are present, as they are in Bruce Taylor latest book No End in Strangeness, it's an occasion for celebration.  
Bruce Taylor himself is less well-known here in the West than he is in the East, where he has twice won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry and the E. J. Pratt Medal for Poetry. And while I have some reservations about his work and how far he is prepared to take it, it's a shame we don't know more about him. He has a great deal to teach us about the formal properties that make up a good poem. A case in point is the first of two breathtaking stanzas from "Marbles":

Once I had jars of them, a fascinating glut,
and, not knowing our time was short,
I spent whole mornings lifting them up to my eye,
trying to climb inside them, where the swirling
capes and scarves were, shapes unnerving & nonsensical,
a lemony helix, a lick of flame, propellors of begonia petal,
hem of a flamenco skirt, some spearmint leaf,
a vibrant line, a swirl of purplish fumes, and those
that looked like little model planets, streaked
with milky gases, and the ones that were perfectly clear
but so dark you could barely see in, soaked
in a crimson so deep that it damaged your heart.

Now I don't know how you spent your time growing up, Mathew, but when I was a kid a game of marbles was a way to escape the world of adults. Marbles embodied everything adults tried to protect us from: colour and chaos, the irrational and the joyous, etc. Three things strike me about how the objects are treated here. The first and most obvious is the enormous richness of the imagery and Taylor's sure-handed use of consonant rhyme, e.g. "a lemony helix, a lick of flame, propellers of begonia petal." The line is a complete delight; together with the rest of the stanza it's fuelled by a rolling, irrepressible energy, underpinned by a proposition I wish more poets would take to heart: that language is to be enjoyed and that to be enjoyed it has to be engaged.

Notice something else, too—the opening line: "Once I had jars of them, a fascinating glut." Simple enough, I suppose, until you pause to consider the careful balancing of those stabilizing monosyllabics in the first half of the line against the four-syllable spill of the word "fascinating," followed by that nice Anglo-Saxon punch at the end. This is only a small example of how Taylor uses rhythm to support meaning and provide aural pleasure. I'm a sucker for this way of using language, impressed by how simple the effect is, knowing it's not easily done. Taylor does it incredibly well.

A third thing I'll point out is how beautifully and unobtrusively Taylor helps us understand what's on his mind. Take a look at what happens, for instance, after the first line. "Once I had jars of them, a fascinating glut/and not knowing our time was short/I spent whole mornings lifting them up to my eye." The line communicates both the loss of youth and our general mortality, but more significant is the way the ideas are merged together, i.e. the end of playtime and our adult sense of impending death conjoined in that single phrase "not knowing our time was short." It's a lovely double entendre, a formal poetic device that Taylor delivers with enormous artfulness and discretion.

Mathew Henderson: I'm glad you picked this poem to start us off, as it was one of my favourites. The second half of the poem offers a penetrating glimpse into the poet as a child. "But nobody I knew ever bought one, they were just / there to be fought for, gambled or procured in trade" captures perfectly the child's acceptance of the world around them. Taylor concludes with "each one a pure / vitrified yearning, a lens through which to enlarge / whatever was scarce and untouchable, / treasure, the future, the body of a girl." What a fantastic ending: the playfulness, wonder and gentleness of the poem suddenly falling away to end in this vulnerability. I won't point out the wonderful control of form and sound that Taylor uses in this poem, because I think you've done a great job and I would simply be adding more of the same. I want to mention that although Taylor is, as you said, best known in the East, and though I grew up on the East Coast, this is my first time reading him, so it was really a pleasure to discover both enjoyable content and a deft hand to lead me through it.

I like your description of what a reader is looking for in a poem. I would add that a poem should also feel like a genuine effort at communication. That is to say, a poem should have a purpose. Too often I read poems that do nothing more than showboat the poet's intelligence or skill. Certainly, Taylor demonstrates his skill in these poems, but packed into the rhythm, rhyme and structure of his poetry is genuine feeling. I get a very clear sense, as you certainly did in "Marbles," that Taylor is writing with purpose and direction. For instance, in the first poem of the book "Nature," Taylor describes the almost panicked restlessness of childhood:

Stand still, and tufts of moss
would fur your thighs
and little plants would cover up your eyes
and where you were,
a soft green pelt
would root and spread and grow.
Which goes, I'm almost sure, to show
that standing still is not
the way to g
o.

Here Taylor guides us with his rhyme and calls to mind the chants and songs of childhood. The meter of the poem seems to tumble gracefully between hard rhymes, reminiscent of a child's warning song. The next stanza, however, is where the poem really comes together for me:

And nature, what is more, is not
a set of laws,
or scenic vistas
or a goaty little god,
but something ravenous
that walks abroad.
A wind-borne pestilence, a thin
old hen that pecks you on the glasses.
Ticks that pick their way
across your skin.
A black squirrel gnawing at the soffits,
desperate to get in.

When I first read this I was struck by the shift from the vegetative images of the previous stanza which were unpleasant, to be sure, but not nearly so menacing as that "black squirrel." Naturally, the form here matches the content as rhymes and rhythm both become tighter, steadily reminding the reader of the very ravenous, inevitable force that Taylor describes. It is worth mentioning too that, though the poem is written about childhood, the poet is no child. Rather, the consistent and controlled rhythm reveal a man whose own desire to reflect and find meaning in the small things of youth, marbles and mould gardens is just as unstoppable as the "ravenous" force we meet in the final stanza.

DG: Yes, I like the "Nature" poem very much, too. And I agree that what we have in Taylor is a mature poet, not a child. At the same time, I can't help but be struck by the palpable debt Taylor owes to children and to how their literature influences some of his better poetry. An obvious example is the way Taylor's clarity and directness reminds us of the way children are often unexpectedly open and direct about the world and people around them.  Less obvious are the obverse qualities children occasionally possess: their obliqueness and their unwillingness to give everything away, a shrouding of intention and knowledge often recreated in nursery rhymes, songs and chants by children's authors, such as Lewis Carol and Dr. Seuss. We see this in "The Slough":

What's under the pudding skin, down in the slough
where the weed-pods root whose heads poke through
to goggle and bob in their seedy hats,
pithless and punch-drunk, chewed by gnats,
knocked flat by a damp, disagreeable breeze,
gusts of bad weather, abrupt as a sneeze
and stilt-birds sunk to their bamboo knees
in whatever is under the slough?

Here is a thoroughly "adult" poem informed by the properties and power of kid's verse (e.g. end rhyme, iambic tetrameter, nonsense). Poems like "The Slough" and "Nature" show him at his best as a very precise observer of the objects that make up his world, minus his opinion of them (another quality in all but the most precocious children, in my experience). Taylor does not describe things so much as allow them to grow on the page, without the abstract intrusions that so often infect contemporary poetry. Taken further, this ability to see clearly and create a concrete, kinesthetic poetry reaches its nexus in "Little Animals", a poem about another keen observer—Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek, the "father of microbiology"—and about what he finds "down in the grey/and mazy darkness of the pond."

glittering clattertrap City of Madness,
with its glass ladders, and lemon-green
spirals and a sky traversed by
delirious weirdos, one
like an angry emoticon, with two long hairs
embrangled on its scalp,
one like a revolving cocklebur,
and another like an animated spill
(as if an accident could live!)
and crescent moons and popeyed gorgons, things
with knives for hands,
frenetic writhers, tumblers, bells
on stalks, a sort of great loose
muscle flinching and contracting,
diatoms like crystalline
canoes serenely gliding
down a coast of brown decay, and suddenly,
what looks to be a throbbing bronze
Victrola trumpet
rocketing around as if it won the war!
And you can almost hear the fanfare
as it plants its small end in a clump of muck
and starts to stretch itself,
and stretch until it is
as long as an alp horn,
as long and quivering as a plume of smoke,
as long and quivering and dreadful as a cyclone funnel,
working the furious hairs of its mouth to suck
its lessers down its throat

It is a thoroughly adult enterprise at this point, undertaken by a mature poet who has married the naive wonder of the child with the sophisticated control of a master versifier. The lines are an unmetrical unleashing of energy that still manages to observe the principles of good metrical poetry: powerful images and forceful rhythms modulated by the judicious deployment of stresses and rests.

MH: I was going to mention "Little Animals" as well; it's interesting that we seem to be hitting on the same poems. This was my favourite poem, new or old, in the book, but I will say that I was frustrated by the slower pacing of the early sections. I think my frustration is due to Taylor's control of momentum. From the very beginning of the poem he hints at the rush of menacing energy that will come in later sections like the one you quoted and the one that I will quote a little later. We catch the sound of Taylor revving up in early sections like this one:

So, here was a man who looked
at pieces of his world and found
more worlds inside them,
which is the natural order: worlds
where dainty worldlings
dwell, and each one
is a world as well, some
milling in the streets of Delft and others,
pulsing through pondwater.

The repetition of "world" and the steady "w" sounds in this section give the sense that the poem is speeding up, rushing toward something, but, just a little after this, we find the rhythm and subject slowing considerably:

But for now there is only this excellent one
by Clifford Dobell to enjoy,
and I have neglected to mention
the best part, which is the bookplate pasted
on its inside cover, ornately framed
in the Art Nouveau style
,

While the section is interesting in isolation, and Taylor in no way loses control of his rhythm, both the content and the pace of these lines falls flat and slows down when compared with the preceding and forthcoming sections. It should be mentioned that this very effect matches the "pulsing" of Taylor's "worldlings," and I believe that it is intentional; Taylor is too fine a hand with pacing and flow to have accidents. Still, the momentum of his quicker sections was so affecting that the shift back to more measured verse left me disappointed. Though Taylor does use similar pacing in his other poems, most of them are short enough that the effect is a quick pulse between rhythms. The length of "Little Animals," however, draws attention to the alternating pace. My issue here may be that, in some of his longer poems, we can too easily see the poet as artificer at work behind the words.  And yet, this poem was one of my favourites. See the ending, which closely mirrors the selection you quoted earlier:

you will see what is eating
these holes in the world, what chews
at the black straggle
and clings to those rafts of algae,
and cries up from the pages of a
strange old book, and hangs
in the damp sycamores
hollering for sex, sex, sex,
and probes in the dark muck
with its snakelike head,
if that thing is its head,
then opens its sudden mouth
with its wheel whirling hairs
and starts to pull one
world after another
into its throat.

Again, like in "Nature," Taylor builds a steady rhythm to drive the reader forward. He does this here, in large part, with the repeated use of "and," combined with the repetition of "s" sounds. We cannot help but begin to feel that, as the poem reaches this point, we are returning to a place we have already been, reaching an inevitable conclusion. This is how I want a poem to feel, and Taylor really does have a talent for endings. By the time I get to the last three lines, I've forgotten that there was ever a lull in the long poem's action, instead of remembering the pauses, I'm launched into the white silence represented by the empty half page following the poem.

DG: It seems we've gotten well down into the weeds in our comments and neglected to provide some general evaluation of Taylor as a poet. But before I talk a little more about that, I want to add to what you've had to say about Taylor's talent for endings. Generally, I agree with you, though Taylor endings are sometimes weak, particularly when he abandons his strategy of reserving judgment about the things he observes and feels compelled to make obvious statements about life and nature. In "Life Sciences" he telegraphs this impulse early on by offering one interpretation of his poem as a "yielding to weak sentiment / or a salesman's trick / slapping a coat of moral uplift / on this nihilist trade." 

Frankly, I would have preferred that he'd stuck to that trade and spared us the undeniably true but pedestrian proposition that inside each of us is something "fearless which adores its life," and not ended the poem with an appeal to a generalized love of children. This was designed to disarm our nihilistic arguments, it seems to me, rather than engage with them.

Still, so much of this is mere caviling when measured against Taylor's undeniable strengths: his ability to have fun with the language, his facility with rhyme, with metrical and non-metrical forms, his wide ranging diction and a conversational tone that drew me in immediately and that is no less serious for being gently delivered. Notwithstanding what I said about his resistance to abstraction, there are also some wonderful moments (all too few, in my opinion) when Taylor gets metaphysical on us, providing us with a discreet, sure-handed development of ideas—notably his treatment of the death figure that opens the portion of "Little Animals" you quoted:

nor is it Death
that incises those lines
in our cheeks
and lays his corrupting touch
on a Dutch girl's breast,
or calls up to us
from the cool earth
under the ice-covered pond —

Are there poems that don't work? Sure. More often than not, they're poems lacking in development, such as "400 Jobs in Murdochville" with its rather conventional observation about human perseverance or "Foreigners," with its cultural cliché. There's falling off in momentum about half way through the book. This is due, I think, to the increasingly declarative nature of Taylor's thoughts. But he recovers nicely in poems like "Really There," which tackles the question of the efficacy of language with depth and intriguing ambivalence and "I Will Meet You There," a teasingly elusive narrative that offers us a different and rather surprising take on the love poem.
Above everything, it's the ease of these poems and Taylor's style overall that makes him so readable in my view, accomplishing something I wouldn't have thought possible in the turgidity that makes up so much modern poetry, i.e.  poetry as page turner. No End in Strangeness is a book that hits far more often than it misses. A real pleasure to read and easily recommended.

- See more at: http://maisonneuve.org/article/2012/02/3/under-pudding-skin-conversation-about-bruce-taylor/#sthash.YNZEavUJ.dpuf


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