Friday, December 9, 2016


pride fight, by Meghan Harrison, chapbook, 2016, 20 pp

We’ve all been there. That dark cubby hole above the local pub or the small recess at the back of a mostly charmless café. Hunched over the microphone or circling it in suspicion: the performance poet, by turns moaning or shouting their disdain for the audience or past lovers. They’re cheeky, wear too much retro punk and menace for my taste, but display enormous energy, linguistic verve and biting humor. A case in point: Meghan Harrison’s poem in Pride Fight whose opening line is its title:

I know it’s the economy
but I want
what everybody wants:
enough money
to stop worrying about money
and a beautiful man
on his knees.

Eavesdropping in on someone’s unhappiness over a lover is not always very interesting - except where the prevailing metaphor is a surprising one; in this instance, the alienation stirring within capitalist economics: “Naïve and wire-stripped I wanted/to fuck you in those fields/ but you’ve already/commodified your experience/of fucking someone else in a field.” Love has product value only when you’re a determined onetime buyer, get first dibs and when a kind of a justice prevails: “I’m trying not to imagine/the suffering of whoever/made the clothes that/I’m imagining us taking off.”  Poetic form itself can’t escape the anti-capitalist gloss:

The pastoral
is a construction site,
the late-shift workers' radios
burr the air with
the stacked purring
of someone else’s money.

In all you have to like Harrison’s competence in things like internal rhyme, sustained metaphor, and the kind of skeptical, even cynical energy (not always a bad thing) she brings to her poems. If I have reservations, it’s that these and other qualities tend to flag through the rest of the chapbook. Keep an eye (and ear) open for this poet, though. She’s a winner.

Helices by George Swede, Red Moon Press, 2016, 118 pp

Many will find George Swede’s newest collection hard not to like – if only because haiku and other similar forms are almost guaranteed an immediate allegiance for being short, pithy and sweet. I’m less easily won over by the form than I am by the content in Helices. Like David Zieroth, Swede possesses both the knowledge and courage to tackle tough subjects.

sandcastle my carefully constructed self
the fantasy that is me central singularity

as deep
as the snorkel

a grain of sand
in my umbilicus
the theory of everything

between what
I think and what is
pink flamingo

Swede’s poems gain by the deep typographical space between lines (not possible here because of my own limited space). Unlike many poets, Swede also has the capacity to present bare images that do more than squat on the page and dare you not to like them. Just being an image is not enough. You have to feel a crackle between it and everything else surrounding and intermixing with it - through the poet’s use of diction, syntactic placement and attention to sound. Here’s the opening of “Rhapsody”

As the wind sways the tops of the trees, a sudden
urge to break free from the gnarled knuckles
and knees, the sunken skin, the exposed blood

            in the camouflage
            of beached driftwood
            bones from the sea
I don’t often comment on packaging but I will here. At 4” X 6.5” the book’s densely packed pages fit nicely into the back pocket. I’d like to see others do the same, but I’d urge people to buy or rummage through the library for Swede’s poems themselves - taut, authoritative little poems that occasionally come with a smile.

Sunday idleness…
from somewhere
in my DNA
a growl she finds

The Names by Tim Lilburn, M&S, 2016, 65 pp

Okay, I admit it. I’ve been a little hard on Tim Lilburn. Lilburn long ago took a gamble on the reader’s attention by exercising his penchant for ontological speculation. Very bright, very caring poets I know say Lilburn is impenetrable either because they don’t share his passion for the hermeneutical musings on divine presence by 13th century theologian John Duns Scotus or because he has yet to provide us, implicitly or explicitly, a strategy for unpacking the chthonic, subterranean thickets he perp walks us through. I know because I’ve asked.

What Lilburn has done in his latest collection is lower his sights a bit to trade in prejudices shared by a broad swath of Canadian poets. The most overworked of these is the notion that otherwise nondescript members of one’s family have something to tell us about what it means to be completely human. Says Paddy Lilburn “The government is bad so we live here/Half dug into a cliff of The End of Things/Precipice of crowbelly cloud and Serbian wolves.”

Hughie of wounds
Four or five years after the war, mortal shrapnel; they’d
Called his brother, my father, out of the lines in Italy
To consider what stirred in the pillow’s cup;
Hughie and Ita, a beautiful TB-ed London woman, they moved
To Vancouver in `46, then back to Liverpool, had a son named (I think)
Pat, still likely there if not himself dead.

Lilburn is not above working another common bias: that a poem to be good should end declaratively, running counter to my experience that most personal discoveries in life and literature are incremental rather than epiphanal. Thing is, Lilburn does it so well.

In Normandy, Holland or any southeast Saskatchewan bar, heart,
Truck gliding into a ditch north of Corning, 1971,
Wheat delivered, licence renewed, beautiful,
Beautiful, their heavy-wind-in-poplar speeches,
Their sweeping movements in my half-lit, plush underage theatre; how they
Bent my breath.

Few poets have benefited from as small and specialized a readership as Lilburn. His critical acolytes too often engage in what R.P. Blackmur once described as “flag waving”. It reminds you “what you ought to feel” - or where Lilburn is concerned, what you are expected to think or know. What is rare, or perhaps overlooked, is the movement of Lilburn’s heart as well as his head. As it is revealed above. More please.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

My Shoes Are Killing Me by Robyn Sarah, Biblioasis, 2015, 65 pages

“Something’s missing”

Robyn Sarah once wrote “A good poem always knows more about itself than even its author does. If parts of it seem baffling, the cue is not to be afraid, but to ask the poem what they mean.” What parts of Sarah's poems in My Shoes Are Killing Me mean cannot be considered separately from her larger themes of time and memory and her habitual insistence upon the Now: to feel the weight of each moment in her life and to convert this into poetry so that readers feels it in theirs. These include historical moments felt by many Canadians over their radios in “The Dominion Observatory Time Signal (`The beginning of the long dash following ten seconds of silence’).” More compelling are softer, less ironic moments, “the last/unevaporated dewdrop in the grass/among the little shaggy heads of clover” and, of course, Sarah’s moments with her favourite people:

children outside in pajamas
in the endless twilights
parents on the front stoops
calling door to door, one to another
time of no hurry – a life of moments
we didn’t cherish enough.

Moments with children are what we most often like about Sarah’s poems. Missing from this collection are regrets that sometimes emerge alongside her solicitude for children, notably those in her oft-cited poem “Maintenance.” Intriguingly present are sharper feelings of rebellion against the inescapable indenture ordinary things have upon our lives: Sarah's reverence for children may remain intact, her salutary vision of things does not; joy in the everyday is disrupted, windy trees, canopies filled with birds and “garage sales all up and down the block” producing instead a “homesickness… for the days/when all this mattered, for the way it mattered.” By this Sarah signals an even more extraordinary shift away from her usual complaints about a retreating natural world, pushing aside “the end of summer’s endlessness,” for something larger, more unsettling, and as insidious as a snake.

a movement
in the corner of the eye
of something dappled and sinuous, fleeting,
cornucopia of smells wafting in
through the summer screen door,
and something was missing now
from what used to be enough,
when did we first notice
it wasn’t enough?

What is missing from what used to be enough but no longer is? And who are the “we” who once enjoyed what had been enough but who failed to see it was not? For all our familiarity with Sarah’s themes of summer ending, the wasting aspects of time and of death, we're cut adrift from questions like these. “We seem to have left,” she writes, “all familiar ground”

That’s the limb
I happen to be out on – the blue man
in the green world, who when asked
by the green man what he was doing there,
replied, “Me? I’m from another story."

“Another story” reinforces an emerging theme of something missing in the stories Sarah’s poems used to whisper in her ear, the “cue” to its baffling nature interpolated with other “familiar ground” routinely tilled: time and memory, now spread up against the backdrop of the artist’s own declining time, “It was the beginning of knowing/we were running out of days”:

and sometimes I thought I could hear
a different wind stirring in the trees,
and sometimes I thought one could learn
to find Enough again,
to let what-used-to-be-enough
(summer’s cup running out)
be enough – given a few more years.

As I've suggested above, it’s hard not to consider questions of what is “missing” or “enough” without reflecting upon a central concern Sarah shares with other poets: their sense of time and the diminishing opportunities to fill time with a sufficiently meaningful and fully developed body of work able to withstand time. The ultimate litmus test is how well the poet’s sensibility has been trained on the full scope of life so that it can be contained in her work and always within sight of what is most telling about the poet and reader’s shared experience, that which is most human. In other words, that which, by any one’s estimation, should be more than enough. But is it? Has Sarah hit on something beyond the blueness of the blue man?

We never really find out. The book reinforces Sarah’s reputation as one of the finest lyric poets this country has ever produced and yet her unwillingness to exploit this very compelling thread is what’s missing from the book itself, reducing the poems to unquestionably well-crafted mood pieces, when so much more might be achieved by following that thread to deeper, fresher truths. Instead, the shift away from the normal bucolic quality of her work towards an area of thought she plainly might pursue but chooses not to, renders the book’s overall achievement incomplete.

It’s an impression that only deepens as Sarah pursues another area of thought which she also abandons and with which she concludes her book - the poem “Belief,” containing Sarah’s ambivalent philosophical stance on free agency. “Two mysteries” pertain, she writes: “a dry, curled leaf boat…pushed to and fro by imperceptible stirrings of the air” and “a single leaf, nodding and nodding as if by its own volition, on an otherwise motionless tree.” “More than a word,” she finishes, “I would as lief be/one of these leaves,” suggesting a re-evaluation of what it means to be someone who uses words, a potential repudiation of language in favour of greater existential certainty - and a final inability to choose. Too often poetry is what we do when we can’t make up our minds about the world.


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
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
couple of seconds which could be my
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
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-
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
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

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


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