Saturday, May 15, 2010
The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009 - a Review
We’ve all encountered them: anthologies that ascribe to their poets the broadest thematic or artistic scope possible, or assume for their selection a cultural importance wildly out of proportion to the merits. At most, I can think of two or three anthologies that can make plausible claims to aesthetic omniscience, notably The New American Poetry 1945-60. Edited by Donald Allen, that tome did American poetry the inestimable favour of pulling together largely unknown and disparate materials from across the country by poets such as Ginsberg, Levertov, and Ashberry whose reputations had languished unfairly beneath the shadow of Bishop and Lowell. The same importance has been attached to Gary Geddes’ and Phyllis Bruce’s Fifteen Canadian Poets which in 1970 established three generations of poets as the extant canon of Canadian poetry for the next quarter century. But for the fact that few took notice, The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse also did a good job at representing poets from the previous era and for accelerating Canada’s claim to “a national literature.”
The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009 is no less ambitious, managing to dust off a few shibboleths about Canadian poetry that have the unfortunate effect of distracting us from the essential qualities of the poems themselves. Among the bromides: the inevitable “heart-wrenching” decision about whom to exclude, the desire that Canadian poetry take its rightful place among world literature, and the usual injunction that readers take note of the striking “unity” of the book they’re about to enter. Editors of anthologies routinely outdo each other trying to identify a “grand unified theory” into which twenty-five poets or more conveniently fit and Molly Peacock and A.F. Moritz are no exceptions. “Each one of the poems” in this volume, Moritz asserts, “gives a descent into reality and then a lift…a release from the customary. Every one of them (my italics) remembers at all times that the motive of the journey is to enlighten and to deepen our lives,” the latter sentiment being what you’d expect, I suppose, given this is art we’re talking about. Still, how committed these poets are to “enlightening” us I suspect is a matter of degree rather than of kind.
But Moritz continues: Each poet in this anthology is a “nature poet” understood in the way Jan Zwicky understands a nature poet, as “someone who would resist the suggestion that the world is a human construct, a thing that depends upon a human speaking or knowing to exist.” Yet humans constructing the world in their own image seems to be at least part of the point of several poems here, including the first poem by Atwood “Ice Palace”. Far from insisting upon the universe as a wholly objective entity outside the realm of the subjective, Atwood suggests the world is largely dependent, rightly or wrongly, upon the shaping power of human language:
Another ice palace. Another demiparadise
where all desires
are named and thus created,
and then almost satisfied. Hotel
might be an accurate label.
A preferred strategy might have been to talk about the virtuosity and intelligence of the poems themselves rather than tie them together thematically or aesthetically. Because whatever hyperbolic statements Moritz is pleased to make about Canadian poetry his principal strength is a good eye for very good poetry, assembling a collection of poems that depart significantly in quality from the previous year’s batch. Where the inaugural 2008 edition of The Best Canadian Poetry contained poems that were, with few exceptions, unrelievedly dull and unrepresentative of the very best those poets could do, the poems in this anthology are consistently interesting, most of them thoughtful and lively and some, like the poems I discuss below, edging close to the extraordinary.
Ken Babstock continues to set the pace in Canada for writing striking individual poems. A case in point is “Autumn News from the Donkey Sanctuary”, a serious poem that’s also a lot of fun as Babstock projects his thoughts onto the activities of donkeys and mules ensconced behind a UNCHR animal enclosure, e.g. “Cargo”, a donkey who has “let down/her hair a little and stopped pushing/Pliny the Elder on//the volunteer labour” and Odin who “has made friends with a crow//who perches between/his trumpet-lily ears like bad language he’s not/meant to hear”. The first clue to where Babstock is taking us can be felt in the poem’s structure: Unrhymed, periodically enjambed tercets that provide a measured cadence to lightly sardonic observations about animals and humans. For Babstock, it’s the contrasts between humans and donkeys that count:
…These things done
for stateless donkeys,
mules, and hinnies – done in love, in lieu of claims
to purpose or rights –
are done with your
generous help. In your names. Enjoy the photo.
Have a safe winter
outside the enclosure.
The poem is not, as Moritz puts it, about the “horrors of routine”, but about the extraordinary need we humans have for personal safety and even safer abstractions, contrasted with the simpler needs of animals: love, birth, the warmth of proximity, a good feed on “scotch thistle” and “stale Cheerios.” It’s a paean to love and freedom, remarkable both for its tenderness and insight.
For Lorna Crozier, animals – or for that matter nature in its entirety – have always been the joyful, troubling Other against which human beings endeavour to locate themselves. In “Mercy”, Crozier again demonstrates her enviable capacity for capturing immediate, palpable experience, in this instance the force of a hurricane wind descending upon her town: “It batters the town/slams a sheet of plywood against the curling rink/shoves me down the alley in my slippery shoes.” Not content with mirroring nature’s ferocity in horrific images of coyotes hanging from clothesline poles, Crozier transforms these images into a compelling question about the ambiguity of our relationship with nature:
Beauty graces them, even now, death graces them.
Is it a curse to love the world too much,
to praise its paws and hooves,
its thick-furred creatures, each life a fear in me?
The wind saves nothing on this earth.
The coyotes hang like coyotes from an ugly tree.
Their throats don’t make a sound.
Carmine Starnino is easily one of the best poets in the country, with enormous formal skills, though often a little impersonal, sometimes cold. Great technical choices are made, but too often they’re only choices, not impulses flowing upward from the poem’s centre or out of any internal pressure from within the poet himself. “Pugnax Gives Notice” is different, as organically perfect a poem as I’ve read in some time.
He’s done with it, the tridents and tigers,
the manager’s greed, the sumptuous beds
of noble women who please their own moods.
He’s done with dogging it for the crowds,
the stabbing, the slashing, the strangling,
the poor pay, the chintzy palm branch prizes.
Make no mistake. Pugnax is a real fierceosaurus.
Winner of 26 matches, a forum favourite.
Yet his yob genes have, it seems, gone quiet.
Fatigue has called his soul back to his body.
Circles under his eyes; he sleeps badly.
Late night cigs lit from the dog-end of the last,
cutwork of the clock nibbling him small.
In the barracks around him his friends snore,
lucky returnees of the last hard hacking,
dead to the world, free of a weapon in the fist.
Priscus face-down in the crook of his arm.
Triumphus flung open, caught on a bad turn.
Verus collapsed, whacked, against the cot.
Flamma, doomed by down-thumbing shadows,
lies in a stain of his final shape and size.
Pugnax loves them all, chasers and net-fighters,
fish-men and javelin-throwers, carefree
despite punishing practices, screaming orders,
despite limbs trained to turn lethal for mobs
unable to bear the thought of two men
clinging to life, but here it’s only the thock
of wooden sword against wooden sword,
the racket as they fall on each other’s shields
in joy. Pugnax’s heart breaks for them.
Understand, he has inflicted pain and felt pain,
but now wants to go native, move into a flat,
experiment with fashionable clothes,
dawdle at the baths, tame his nights with tea,
be spellbound by the smell of soap, find a wife.
Our boy dreams of joining the crowd,
shouting himself hoarse as some bonehead
gets knocked down and the blade pushed
though his chest, stapling him to the ground.
At intermission, he’ll watch as the blood
is raked over with sand, thinking chore thoughts:
yard work, paint jobs, weekend projects.
Like most of the poems in this anthology Starnino’s poem is restrained typographically, preferring formal stanzas of varying lengths over heavily indented lines or fragments. He also shares with the other poets in this book a desire that the reader walk away with something by poem’s end, a thought bathed in irony, a tragic image or a resonating feeling, something to spark the intellect or roil the gut. Most believe these to be the sine qua non of good poetry and they’re right, but not, as I suggested above, easily apparent in the 2008 anthology or of a great many other books of poetry.
Something else lacking in most poetry today are poems that are mindful of their traditions. Robyn Sarah’s “Echoes in November” breaks a virtual taboo by post-shadowing the “corresponding breeze” that flows through Wordsworth’s The Prelude and echoing the implicit question about “essences” that permeate and arise out of Pound and Williams:
Correspondences are everywhere,
things that shadow things,
that breathe or borrow
essence not their own;
and so the yellow leaves
that, singly, streak
in silence past a black
have the elusiveness
of shooting stars…
The images are well drawn and the pauses at the turns arrest our attention lending weight to each successive line. But more interesting is what Sarah does with metaphor, not just positing the similarity between “streaking leaves” and “shooting stars”, but transforming our act of reading, in particular our overdependence upon visual similes, to produce an extraordinarily haunting effect:
and so it sometimes happens
that you pause
in kitchen ministrations,
knife in hand
above the chopping board,
savouring, raw, a stub
of vegetable not destined
for the pot,
and faintly tasting
at the back of the palate
the ghost of a rose
in the core of the carrot.
These poets are well known to us. Others are less familiar (to me at least), but judging by their contributions here are equally compelling. A poem noteworthy for its compression and precision is Michael Johnson’s ode to metalworking “The Church of Steel”: “Shavings have scissored/my palms, worked straight through/my hands, made my skin a bloody bloom.” Prose poems are not easily done and tend to leave me cold, but Eric Miller’s “Portrait of Hans Jaegger ll (1943)” is different, delivering a personally felt portrayal of the late 19th century bohemian and anarchist Hans Jaeger as seen through the eyes of an ambivalent Edvard Munch: “But Jaeger conceived in the artist what was most central to him, what belonged at last to him. And we see our helpers in just this light, as when sun mollifies fallen pine needles and illuminates, as with final looks of mercy, the flanks of birches.” Readers will really love Cora Siré’s “Before Leaving Hué” a narrative about people in this Vietnamese city who repeatedly enjoin the poet to “visit Thúy’ before you leave Hue’”. Siré is currently working on a novel, which is not wholly surprising: she has a novelist’s genius for detail and strong predicates:
Under the hammer of Hué’s morning sun
my xich lo driver pedals the labyrinth
of streets and alleys, past shadowy shops
where raw silks hang inert, dazed by the heat.
We skid on the puddles and pebbled ruts
and I gesture, “Let me walk the rest” but
he cycles on, eyes glazed, body bent by
psychic will that I visit Thúy today.
I could have easily selected any one of a half dozen more poets to talk about. Karen Solie’s “Tractor” I mentioned in last week’s post. She’s joined here by other exceptional poets: Sharon Thesen, Jan Zwicky, Peter Norman, Dave Margoshes and Steven Heighton. Tim Bowling, one of the few poets in last year’s edition whose poem I really liked, I liked again this year. In summary, a really fine anthology, distinguished not by any over arching Canadian Zeitgeist, but by accomplished, eminently readable poetry.
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Intelligent poetic discourse." Linda Rogers