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

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 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

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:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Here's a lovely poem by my dear friend David Scott who passed away suddenly earlier this month. Friends and family rejoice in the life he led and the love he showed to us all.
Morning Coffee
Clear as water,
Dying, being born, always.

What was it you asked me this morning?
Coffee, toast, teetering on our knees.
Yellow headed blackbird singing
Somewhere in the marsh beyond the trees.

The nonhuman informs the human,
Filled as we are with the reality of the other,
Why not rest an elbow on the moon,
Or bathe our many eyed bodies
In the wild yellow firepots of the sun?

What was it you asked me this morning?
Something about death,
Something about dried leaves?
Pale blue of the spring sky exquisite;
Slow unfurling of the new, green leaves.
Bright grass shooting up through dead yellow.
Run off water dank and fertile beneath the trees.

The reality of Death comes in its own time;
Its thought has no substance, no body.
Coffee, on the other hand, is delicious,
Filling the mouth with the taste of earth,
The taste of flowers.

And that wren singing in the poplars,
Tiny. Fierce. Wild.
Who knows what she’s up to?
Puffing herself up, throwing out trill notes,
As if she were the original, the primal being,
And you and I shadow figures
In the roaring of her throaty dream.
by D.W.E Scott

Friday, December 28, 2012

Two reviews...

Peter Sanger, John Stokes’ Horse (Gaspereau Press, 2011) Paper, 123 pp., $21.95

A dead giveaway a book of poems is not working is the struggle to return to it after only a few passes. My specific difficulty with Peter Sanger’s John Stokes' Horse stems from his failure to live up to the expectations he sets up in poems. “Don’t pity this dreamer,” he says in the opening of “The Green Knight”, “He might be digging/his grave while a grave/executioner standing/beside him tests/a blade against air. But no-one stands beside him.” It’s a riveting image this executioner poised with his blade above the poem’s main figure, conjured up from an imagination that becomes softly ironic, strewing our path with images of flowers in the midst of impending death:

chrysanthemum petals/spilled onto
his hands while silk
is unfolding,
untarnished, unstained, uncovering…

We are, in effect, set up for a deepening, possibly larger, ironic twist, of the poem’s drama and its theme. It never comes. We’re left with lovely images and the undeniable tenderness of the poem’s execution without any resolution of the enormous interest generated in the fate of the poem’s principal subject. Instead, we end up with something decidedly less interesting:

greeness, phosphorescent
as plankton, a voice
saying this
is the final chrysalis.

I’d like to suggest that nothing is “final” until both the poet and reader say so. The same lack of finish that occurs here occurs elsewhere in Sanger’s poetry. In “Gardener”, for example, we’re never entirely satisfied with Sanger’s elegy to a dead friend because Sanger’s memory of her never transforms into someone who, for a moment at least, is dear to us as well. What we’re left with (paradoxically) is the requisite detachment that too often crosses our desks of a poetry that believes words alone, without intention or purpose towards its readers, are enough. They aren’t.

In this instance, it’s all the more regrettable because of Peter Sanger’s clear ability to give us the full content of his thought when he is determined to do so. “November Blossom” is a perfect example of this, one of the best poems in the Imagist tradition that I’ve read in some time.

November is like. Rattle
of leaves in fall
is like nothing so much as
rattle of leaves in fall

or the strange bird in spring, buff
breast, blue back, cheek patch
yellow, perched in a glaze
of sky and earth.

I love Sanger’s direct assault upon our notion of metaphor at the outset of the poem, positing the limitations of simile in the opening line “Nothing is like.” The paradox is that Sanger then  juxtaposes colour and rhythm to stretch the powers of metaphor so successfully that we do indeed feel as if we are in the presence of the thing the poet is trying capture. Conjuring up fully resonant images is not just the province of painters, Sanger seems to say, but the rightful territory of poets, too. Work swiftly, work methodically, “Cast it off,” Sanger enjoins the would-be drawer of birds, and Hey, if that’s not enough let me show how a bird can actually come to life, this time in verse:

Cast it off

to fly among blossom,
three blossoms and two, painted
by brush strokes like raindrops,
tipped pink into plum,

where all through winter
it rides its weight
up by down, empty
on one sprig of air.

The reader can see the bird, better still can feel the bird tripping from branch to branch in a way only possible in poetry. It is the best poem of the lot because it is a complete poem and only complete because Sanger commits himself fully to an act of perfect verisimilitude. If nothing else Sanger deserves our support for this poem alone. More please.

John Wall Barger, Hummingbird (Kingsville: Palimpsest, 2012). Paperbound, 75pp., $18. 

Anyone who writes with the flourish and intensity of John Wall Barger deserves to be read and re-read. His ability to linger over a scene, to ruminate over its history and give himself over to the poetic impulse is complete and genuine. That capacity reaches its apex in the title poem of Hummingbird, a wild subterranean journey into the underbelly of modern Mexico that takes as its model similar descents in the works of Homer, Virgil and Dante:
…I turn to face Octavio Paz,
eyes broad & generous, he takes
my hand – where are we going? I ask,
he smiles, leads me back to market,
now a blueprint of hell, mobs of urban nomads,
lawyers, fishermen, scabby-headed urchins
converge on a man in a straw costume
panting, bleeding at the mouth…

Barger not only asks questions, but in the intemperate fashion of Dante and Virgil before him tries to participate in the assault unfolding before him, only to be held back by his guide on the journey, the much loved Mexican poet Octavio Paz. Unlike his predecessors, however, Paz remains silent and promises nothing beyond what other artists, Seamus Heaney and the great Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, among them, are pleased to teach Barger going forward.  No idealized Beatrice or souls of the dead await John Wall Barger by journey’s end, only a communion with great poets there to invigorate Barger’s art:

…blind Akhmatova, powerhouse
            bandaged in alpaca, with cane & jar
ploughs her way through these sleepwalkers,
I sing with her of firedogs, blindfolded horses

Together  Barger and Akhmatova “sing arm in arm of auguries/dead friends” until

            exposed, I wake outside my spiral shell
into my real life, the one that’s been waiting
on the El Rosario where slain warriors
return as hummingbirds, where this world
touches the other…

The swell and roll of images, permeating and driving the poem forward, remind me a little of Lowry’s Under the Volcano (also referenced in the poem), a drunken immersion in the chaos of modern Mexico that doesn’t hesitate to link Mexican culture and deadly contemporary politics - witness Barger’s encounter with a murdered Mexican in the street “sneakers blown/off, fly down, temple gashed, eyes open/stomach soft as a broken wing.” Barger’s poem is effective because of its commitment to the brutality of images and to a carefully conceived rhythmic strategy that meshes with that brutality. Comparatively short lines, enjambments and deep indents drive the poetry forward, give it a wonderful immediacy borne up by an abiding, fearful curiosity very much in keeping with Barger’s predecessors and the subterranean narrative tradition out of which he is writing. A fascinating poem, and well worth the journey.


(Edited verisons of these reviews originally appeared in The Malahat Review, October 23, 2012)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

I'm rather flattered by Shane's response on the subject of blogs, but I agree with much that Jacob had to say, too. Blogging's a slog when you have to produce something of value each week to an uncertain audience. Reviews seldom generate a response, unless they come with a crashing thumbs down, in which case the poet's friends are sure to chip in.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Louise Glück: American Poetry's "Silent Soldier"

There’s a moment in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (Ecco, 1994) when Louise Glück describes her father’s decision not to become a writer; Daniel Glück lacked, she writes, “the adamant need which makes it possible to ensure every form of failure: the humiliation of being overlooked, the humiliation of being found moderately interesting, the unanswerable fear of doing work that, in the end, really isn’t more than moderately interesting.”

Glück herself understood from the beginning the stakes were that high, the risks vertiginous; over the years her desire to prevail has become apparent in the fierceness of her own writing and in the measures she’s used to gauge her progress. From the age of “four or five or six” the poets Glück read were “my companions, my predecessors.” “When, as a child, I read Shakespeare’s songs, or later, Blake and Yeats and Keats and Eliot, I did not feel exiled, marginal. I felt, rather, that this was the tradition of my language: my tradition, as English was my language. My Inheritance. My wealth.”

The disposition of that wealth has been fairly consistent ever since. Across ten poetry titles Glück’s poetry has been routinely singled out for its chthonic power, spare lyricism, and iron loyalty to poetry as a particular way of understanding and expressing the world. Glück’s luminous, occasionally abrasive devotion to the lyric is only outdone by a seemingly congenital instinct to quarrel with her earlier impulses, a “swearing off” of her past work as a kind of subtle reproach to what she might be doing in the present. The key points of resistance are the ones you’d expect, the themes and “fundamental preoccupations” observed in a previous book of poems. “(Y)ou see as well the poems’ habitual gestures,” she writes, “those habits of syntax and vocabulary, the rhythmic signatures which, ideally, give the volume at hand its character but which it would be dangerous to repeat.”

Safer to repeat her objections to other people’s poetry, notably the finished rigidity in poems by Sharon Olds and Linda McCarriston, which Glück is at pains to avoid in her own poems. Glück dedicates herself to the idea that closure, thematic and aesthetic, weakens the poem and that the strongest poems defer fixed interpretation. This general openness is aided in turn by her sustained preference for the unsaid over exhaustive elaboration, by a partiality for silence. “I love white space, love the telling omission, love lacunae, and find oddly depressing that which seems to have left nothing out.”

Glück’s anxiety about closure and her emphasis on the role of silence in poetry are intimately linked to a third article of faith: that the human self, open to experience and constantly changing, constantly reinterpreting its own life narratives, remains the best material for writing great poetry. Where ordinary human beings habitually uncover, validate and reproduce habits of mind in their behaviour, the gifted poet undertakes a more signal, complex operation ending in self-redefinition: key assumptions about the self are upended, and along with them central assumptions underlying the art. If the poet is very lucky, her work changes, deepening and becoming more subtle.

Silence plays a pivotal role in that operation: no longer is it simply a technical strategy for withholding information from the poem, but a necessary condition for changes in the ground of the poet’s being that prepare her for the fresh poetic act:

“I began, thirty years ago, to chart periods of silence in the same way I dated my poems. And I have repeatedly seen silence end in speech. Moreover, the writing that begins after such a siege differs always from what went before and in ways I couldn’t through an act of will accomplish.”

A two year period of silence in the late 1960s stands out for the assault Glück felt upon her impulse towards poetry. In that time “of great panic and helplessness” she wrote nothing, she later tells graduates at Williams College; she could not remember “a time when I had been fully alive;” her “life seemed over.” Silence had been imposed upon her; she had not sought it out but in its sway her gifts, she felt, had atrophied. 

Eventually Glück would learn to draw silence closer to her, to help clear away the detritus of an earlier self and to make way for a new voice.

“...the long silence, like the silence in the valley
before the mountains send back
your own voice changed to the voice of nature.

This silence is my companion now.
I ask: of what did my soul die?
and the silence answers

If your soul died, whose life
are you living and
when did you become that person?

(From "Echoes, Averno, FSG, 2006)

Silence answers Glück’s question with a question, pressing her to better understand the shift towards a new self and its contents. If the past is dead, the silence seems to say, the demands of the present remain indefatigable.

The life and death debate around silence is cast in startlingly militaristic terms, the “siege” upon her sensibilities cited above and the “involuntary relinquishing of a self” that is all too reminiscent of the stripping away of self that occurs in marine boot camp. Conditions such as these are always imposed first upon the young. Sensing her personal authority under assault early on and her childhood eventually “closed to her”, Glück assumes the only posture remaining to her: she girds for war. Her mother, at best a failed ally, fortuitously “leaves her cross bow in the high grass”:

“A golden bow: a useful gift in wartime.

How heavy it was – no child could pick it up.

Except me: I could pick it up.” (33)

The Spartan tone, the long pauses between stanzas and the end stopped lines convey the quiet self-assurance required of the good soldier at a time of utmost engagement. War is hell, but it is also a metaphor: Glück’s bow converts into poetry, brandished over the years with precision and necessary ferocity, but like Excalibur producing other, more sanguine properties.

“…The bow
was now a harp, its strings cutting
deep into my palm. In the dream

it both makes the wound and seals the wound.” (33)

What softens the military analogy is Glück’s insistence that the changes within a poet’s life required to create anew cannot occur through an act of will. Learn despair instead, she tells us. Only through despair can a self emerge that “will not be willed back.” Moreover, “Flight from despair forfeits whatever benefit may arise in the encounter with despair.”

Like the bloodied and sometimes beaten general who returns from war, Glück’s last agony is for those going forward to fresh wars. “It is very strange to stand here, wishing you desolation,” she tells her Williams College graduates, but what succeeds the first gift of life is “the essential secondary gift of knowledge, a sense of the significance of the original gift, the scale of our privilege.”

Riding out into life poets dream of love and of a blessed future; returning, what remains is a gentler, more chastened understanding of the outer world as it engages, and so often clashes, with the inner world.

“To such endless impressions
We poets give ourselves absolutely,
Making, in silence, omen of mere event,
Until the world reflects the deepest needs of the soul.”

(From "Omens", Averno, FSG, 2006).
A collection of Louise Glück’s poetry is scheduled for release this fall.


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