Friday, April 23, 2010

D.C. Reid's "What It Means to be Human" - a review

The question was one that D.C. Reid, encouraged by poets such as Patrick Lane, took to heart: As poets make very little money, why not write what you want to write? What otherwise might be a counsel of despair has the beneficial effect of liberating the poet from the uncertain or overwhelming expectations of his audience. But it also presents a danger: that your writing becomes so particular to your own needs, so indifferent to the interests of the prospective reader you rob yourself of the capacity to cultivate an audience.

All of which is not to say that D.C. Reid’s latest book of poems What It Means to be Human is unworthy of an audience. Far from it. His book is at least as deserving as other “difficult” books of poetry on store shelves these days. The degree of difficulty is another matter. Not only is Reid’s book obliquely associative and imagistic, eschewing direct metaphor in favour of symbols, it’s all wrapped within the loose frame of a novel. The reader is constrained both to pierce Reid’s fragmented poetic language and piece together the strands of plot and character: Mary, unhappy in her relationship with her husband has an affair with his brother, Avie, who in turn has an incestuous relationship with their daughter Chloe.

The night, the spill of it
from tree to tree almost gently,
the touching of sea anemone,
their fat sex mouths
The metronome irritation of the clock and its penguin sense of time

Eyes swim from eyelids to ask the question, what?, and o?, and,
yes, I am here, familiar

The ceiling then seen in double sight
so the veins of its making
jump, and moving the eye so it sees
one way valleys other way hills
The press of Cleo into Avie’s head and he thinking: You must go
for I am trapped by my head too full of your hair,

the small of your back. My hand so close and…pointless, for you
belong to yourself

and me, too, though I don’t want me

Landscape her shoulder, heave of mountain ranges of blanket
across the bent up knees, the valley, the flat beyond

Only the black iron keeping watch at the end of the bed, the
curlicue lion-head on the post around which night conspires

Do clothes lose their lives when thrown off? Do they gag on hooks?
“The dumbness of male embrace” illustrates Reid’s effort in each new work to do something different than the work before, in this case, he says, to be less lyrical and “go after the image at the expense of rhythm”. A “constant struggle throughout the book”, Reid adds, was to achieve that new move while simultaneously employing the fore shadowing and post shadowing techniques of the novel. This leads to a bigger problem in my view: how to secure the illumination these shadowing techniques provide while subverting conventional narrative structure i.e. filtering the story through the disparate, fragmented consciousness of five different characters.

For the reader willing to painstakingly assemble the clues from one poem to the next the story in What It Means to be Human does eventually emerge. The difficulty is that too often the effort to follow the story interferes with our appreciation of the poetry – good poetry, as it turns out, as in this poem voiced by Mary, the mother, “Think of the reason a person doesn’t blink”:

When we might for a second be fearful, standing in the dark,
waiting for the baby to breathe

and knowing it will,

yet in flight between the lighted door way,

gold pouring around

your body.

In the moment between thought and its intention, a paler form of

the breath and you

left still, hand on the knob.

These are the internal landscapes that make up the uneventful
existence that time, as has been observed, lies

between unexistence

and death. A great beast might lie upon its heart.

Few devices are as under developed and over interpreted as enjambed and fragmented lines, here executed with more skill than usual (i.e. through indents and line breaks that replicate the act of breathing and recreate the suspense necessary to the poem’s intent). The images are also very strong, but Reid manages something equally important in this poem and the one before: he finds the human moment, imbues it with emotion, passion or compassion, and then completes the moment with a resonating thought (the great beast or darkness that lies at the heart of life) or a question (how can we reconcile guilt and desire when life is largely meaningless?).

Like Tim Lilburn’s work, the metabolic rate of Reid’s poems is pitched very high, the effort to meld the poetry’s imagery and the narrative prodigious. The challenge remains how to convince readers to meet the writer half way by putting in the work necessary to unravel the story and understand the poetry. The answer might have been to forgo the story altogether (the least original or interesting part of the book) and to settle instead for that synthesis and cohesion we normally look for when considering a book of poems as a whole. Reid is too good a poet for us to require more of him than this.

(What It Means to be Human, Ekstasis Editions, 2009, paper, 127 pp. $21.95)


Anonymous said...

I quite enjoyed your interview with Leonard Cohen.


David Kosub said...

Thanks, Garth. Me, too, though I'm a little embarrassed by how retro my attitude towards poetry was back then - that and my "morning drive" radio voice.



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