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)

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