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Faulty Lines: The Poetry and Poetics of Don McKay

mckay covers 1 2

by Zachariah Wells

Camber: Selected Poems 1983-2000, by Don McKay, McLelland & Stewart, 2004. 224 pp.

Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay, by Don McKay, ed. and intro. Méira Cook, afterword Don McKay. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2006. 86 pp.

Strike/Slip, by Don McKay, McLelland & Stewart, 2006. 88 pp.

With the publication of a Selected in 2004, an essay collection in 2005, a new collection and a short critical selection in 2006, as well as an anthology of essays on his work forthcoming this year, the time is ripe for a sober appraisal of Don McKay’s merits and flaws as a poet. I say “sober” deliberately, as most of what passes for criticism of McKay’s work sounds to me more like infatuate paean—or, as in the case of David Solway’s terse and unexplained dismissal of McKay’s writing as “slightness wedded to garrulity” (Solway 148)—intemperate, perhaps envious, griping. In either case, McKay’s sagging trophy shelf and his “celebrated reputation as a mentor to other writers” (Field Marks, viii) appear to occlude a clear view of the only thing that really matters when evaluating the successes and failures of a life dedicated to poetry: the poems. I have been reading Don McKay’s books for several years. My reading of them has not been dictated by any sense of cultural obligation.

I have read McKay’s books because I have enjoyed McKay’s books. More specifically, I appreciate the improvisatory verve of his language, his humour and his refusal to draw a simple clean line between humankind and nature, technology and wilderness. Why then, have I never had much of an urge to re-read McKay’s books? Why do I have a hard time recalling specific McKay poems, or even lines? (Like Bede’s sparrow, they seem to flit through my mind and leave no great lasting impression.) Why, when I think of excellent contemporary poets, does McKay’s name not spring to mind? Why, when I do re-read his poems with a critical eye, do they mostly disappoint me so much?

A telling sign of the overall lack of distinction in McKay’s work is in Méira Cook’s selection of poems for Field Marks. With most good, very good or great poets it is possible to arrive at a general consensus of what constitutes their best, most memorable poems, the majority of the work produced by any poet being, for most readers, of negligible lasting interest. But Cook’s book, coming hot on the heels of a more comprehensive Selected Poems, Camber, only duplicates 21 of its 35 poems from the longer book, which contains a whopping 121 poems. This could be taken as a sign that all of McKay’s work is so uniformly good that it’s impossible to whittle it down to an essential hits list, but this would make him one of the greatest poets ever to wield a pen, which I trust even his most ardent admirers would find a bit too silly to say aloud. Reading and re-reading both of these books, as well as McKay’s latest collection, it seems to me a more plausible explanation that McKay has written few, if any, truly exceptional poems and that any random selection is as good as any other for illustrating his aims and accomplishments. In the following, I don’t mean to suggest that McKay is an untalented or completely negligible poet—but it does seem to me that a significant gap exists between the claims made about his oeuvre and the actual achievements of his verse and prose; that McKay is not, as Mark Frutkin has opined, “in the top rank of poets writing in English today,” but rather, in Richard Greene’s words, “a poet of considerable gifts, which are, in general, badly deployed.” Due to space constraints, because praise of McKay’s abilities can easily be found elsewhere, and because skeptical treatments are few and far between, I intend to focus mainly on the fault lines of McKay’s oeuvre.

In the introduction to Field Marks, Cook writes of McKay’s “environmental poetics, his peculiarly gentle, un-grasping, disowning brand of nature poetry.” (Cook ix) She later enlists the aid of Robert Bringhurst to identify McKay’s break from “the tradition of rapturous, nonspecific, pantheistic nature poetry inaugurated by … Wordsworth.” (Cook xx) This sort of poetry is encapsulated by Wordsworth’s famous lines from “The Recluse”:

my voice proclaims
How exquisitely the individual Mind
(And the progressive powers perhaps no less
Of the whole species) to the external World
Is fitted:—and how exquisitely, too,
Theme this but little heard of among Men,
The external World is fitted to the Mind [ . . .]1 (Wordsworth, 263)

According to Cook, there is nothing of the Egotistical Sublime in McKay; in place of a proclaiming voice and Adamic naming, the poet “discovers” but never appropriates the wilderness world. Gingerly, tactfully, reverently, McKay’s watcher never “becomes” bird.” (Cook, x) McKay himself advocates “listening through language” (“Shell” 55) as an approach favourable to using language as a tool for dominance.

The problem is that the poems themselves betray these statements of authorial intention and critical explication. Speaking of betrayals, let us start with this verb “discover.” In Cook’s essay, the word has a wholly positive connotation, which is echoed in McKay’s afterword when he writes that the “form of a work is something it discovers.” (“Shell” 56) Just as the poet does not impose his ego on wilderness, neither does he impose domesticated form on the wilds of language. But a significant portion of language’s wilderness inheres in its evolutionary (etymological) drift. “Discover” originally had a negative connotation, rooted as it is in malicious betrayal; a discoverer was, to use a more modern idiom, a stoolpigeon. The word carries with it to this day the heavy baggage of its origins; certainly when one speaks of discovery in a North American context, one cannot tease from the word its association with destructive exploitation, the subjugation of both land and the aboriginal peoples who inhabit it. Cook extols McKay’s “poems of ambling, wandering, and meandering, of taking the wrong road and getting ‘there’ anyway … of deviation, digression, excursion in landscape, and incursion in language, [which] represent various ways of knowing without claiming.” (Cook xviii) At best, there is a sort of blithe naïveté about this, as if the Columbuses and Cartiers—not to mention the Franklins, Cooks and Pearys—weren’t such mapless bumbling finders, as if discovery was an act inherently innocent of greed, ignorance and ambition. In an interview, McKay talks about “trying to make the appropriate gesture,” (“Appropriate Gesture” 55) but his poems often demonstrate that a failed attempt can result, against the poet’s best wishes, in a gesture of appropriation.

Notwithstanding the philological inappropriateness of discovery as metaphor for non-possessive knowledge, the poems don’t come near the ideal. McKay may not write with Wordsworthian confidence of the synthesizing genius of the human mind, but if you compare his nature poems with those of a true anti-Wordsworth such as John Clare, the gaps between stated poetics and poem become manifest. For Clare, the animal was never a mere trope, but a marvelous other to be admired, respected and accorded space. He was critical of Keats, of whom he said, “he often described Nature as she appeared to his fancies and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described.” (Quoted in Bate 189)2 Clare’s best bird poems are vivid, spontaneous-seeming play-by-play observations; the reader feels as though she’s looking over the poet’s shoulder as he describes the contents of one nest or another. The emphasis is squarely on the bird; the self-effacement of the poet is an organic (i.e. unintentional, un-self-conscious) by-product of his keen attention: he forgets himself or, more accurately, creates the impression of forgetting himself.

McKay’s nature poems are by contrast distinctly literary, and more than a little Keatsian or Wordsworthian insofar as Idea or Sentiment come to dominate description—it came as no surprise to me to learn that he “could recite whole swatches of the Prelude” (“Appropriate Gesture” 49)—by comparison. In a poem like “How to Imagine an Albatross” (originally published in Sanding Down this Rocking Chair on a Windy Night, it is included by Cook in Field Marks, though not by McKay in Camber), McKay demonstrates that, like the Wordsworth of “The Recluse,” “the Mind of Man” is his “haunt, and the main region of [his] song.” (Wordsworth 262) The title is the first indication of the poem’s concern with cerebration, which is heightened by the opening lines: “To imagine an albatross/a mind must widen to the breadth of the Pacific Ocean/dissolve its edges to admit a twelve foot wingspan.” (Field Marks 25) What is this if not fitting the mind to the external world and the external world to the mind? The bird arcs “thoughtlessly as an idea, as a phrase-mark holding notes,” (Field Marks 25, 26) a simile McKay emphasizes by repeating it sixteen lines later. McKay rarely describes a scene in anything resembling its own terms, but fills land- and seascapes with the bric-a-brac “fancies” of his art- and culture-steeped mind:

This might be
dream without content or the opening of a film
in which the credits never run no speck appears
on the horizon fattening to Randolph Scott on horseback or the lost
brown mole below your shoulderblade.
(Field Marks 25)

As Anne Szumigalski wrote in a review of Apparatus, “Out and about with McKay, I do not feel myself contemplating the landscape he is writing about—I feel myself contemplating his mind as he considers the natural order.” Throughout McKay’s oeuvre, from the earliest poems in Field Marks and Camber to the recent work in Strike/Slip, literary and cultural allusions proliferate and metaphor tends to make objects seem more weird than like themselves, as, say, Elizabeth Bishop does with such precision in a poem like “The Fish.” Granted, this could be McKay’s point: that animals and other non-human things are intrinsically weird to us because they are “other”; but when a deer’s tail is likened to a fridge (Cook xv), we see neither a deer’s tail nor a fridge, but a poet saying they are somehow related. As with so many things in McKay’s poetry, we must take the poet’s word for it.

When McKay writes of releasing “the rage/which holds this pencil in itself, to prod things/until their atoms shift,” (Field Marks 25) I’m put in mind of Wallace Stevens’—another poet whose prime subject matter was the workings of the human mind—

rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
(Stevens 130)

But perhaps even more, to borrow from another Stevens poem, “The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X” (Stevens 288) seems à propos. Stan Dragland insists that “For … Don McKay … wilderness is anything but wasteland in need of stamping with the human imprint.” (Dragland, unpaginated) This may well be McKay’s political opinion or an echo of his own stated poetics, but in the poems, on the contrary, he insistently stamps his heated brand on the scenes and creatures he celebrates. How often in McKay’s oeuvre are wild things described with metaphors drawn from art, text, technology and culture, as in the prose poem “Gneiss” from Strike/Slip; here is the last paragraph:

But close up it is more likely to be the commotion of stress lines swirling within each slab that clutches at the heart—each stone a pent rage, an agon. None of the uniform grey of limestone, that prehistoric version of ready-mix concrete, in which each laid-down layer adds to the accumulated weight that homogenizes its predecessors. Think instead of Münch’s The Scream with its contour lines of terror; then subtract the face. Or you could turn on the weather channel to observe those irresponsible isobars scrawling across the planet. Imagine our ancestors tracing these surfaces, whorled fingertip to gnarled rock, reading the earth-energy they had levered into the air. They had locked the fury into the fugue and car crash into the high-school prom. They engineered this dangerous dance. Better stop here. Better spend some time.
(Strike/Slip 39)

Clutches at the heart, rage, agon, ready-mix concrete, The Scream, weather channel, ancestors, fingertip, fury, fugue, car crash, high-school prom, engineered, dance. The last two sentences are adapted from the poem’s epigraph, drawn from a book called Touring Scotland by Automobile. Do the tropes make us see what he’s talking about? Certainly. But they make us see it in our own terms; they domesticate rock into stone, make it ours, annex it to our experiences and emotions—they make it easy for us to “get,” both in the sense of “understand” and “acquire.” If, as McKay has claimed, “The first indicator of one’s status as nature poet is that one does not invoke language right off when talking about poetry, but acknowledges some extra-linguistic condition as the poem’s input, output, or both,” (Vis à Vis 26) one can only determine, from poking through this poetic creature’s scat, that his “status” is not very high. The first lines of Strike/Slip’s first poem, “Astonished”—also the terminal poem of the selection in Field Marks—is a sort of etymological meditation: “astounded, astonied, astunned, stopped short/and turned toward stone.” Three lines down, stone “might be the symbol signifying eon.” And in the final line, the ocean is “nameless.” (Strike/Slip 3) The next poem, “Petrified,” begins with “your heart’s tongue seized/mid-syllable.” In “Loss Creek” we find “The broken prose of the bush roads”; “raw drag without phrase/for the voice”; rapids speaking; “pauseless syntax.” (Strike/Slip 4) In “Alluvium,” death is figured as having “letters [licked] from your name.” (Strike/Slip 11) In “Pond” water has “been possessed by every verb”; the pond “translates air as texture.” (Strike/Slip 12-13) In “Devonian” “words/tap dance” into wilderness and “slur into is it sand or/is it snow that blows its messages across/the highway.” (Strike/Slip 14) In “Quartz Crystal” stones “call, in the various dialects of gravity” and the poet’s poems are threatened with “depublication.” (Strike/Slip 15-16) I could go on, but all this, just in the book’s first nine poems, should be sufficient to demonstrate that McKay is positively obsessed with language. Yes, he most often refers to it as something to be shucked in order to better attend to the mute workings of nature, but he is so insistent about it that language becomes a sort of occupatio for him: ‘I won’t “invoke language right off,” but…’

I’m not saying that this kind of egocentrism or anthropocentrism—or heaven forfend, interest in language!—is a wrongheaded approach. On the contrary, the business of art and metaphor is, as both Northrop Frye and Wallace Stevens have suggested in works titled “The Motive for Metaphor,” to make the world outside our minds make sense to us, a process which necessarily involves a kind of violence to the thing-itself through the medium of language. No, the problem is that McKay and Cook seem to be more deluded about the truth and beauty of this violent appropriation—and less clear or honest as to its nature—than Wordsworth or Stevens or Irving Layton, who queried: “How to dominate reality?” and answered himself, “Love is one way;/imagination another.” (Layton 46) McKay and his apologists are in denial about human nature (a common affliction of liberal intellectuals delineated in Steven Pinker’s masterwork of popular-opinion debunking, The Blank Slate) and consequently about the nature of art, which leads to untenable assertions in poetics and self-despising soft spots in poems, resulting in poetry which is adequate to neither the “otherness” of the wild nor to the “selfness” of the mind. It’s hard, in the light of McKay’s poetics, not to see the attempted subversion of the guidebook clichés that end “Gneiss” as self-reproach, as the poet not having stopped long enough in his touring, not paying sufficient attention to see the rock in less human terms. To put it another way, the raison d’être of McKay’s poems is to re-iterate his poetics, rather than to be poems. They are a kind of versified theory, and as such are more analogous with technology and the academic pursuit of knowledge than with the wisdom of wilderness. How much less persuasive—how much more “vestigial,” to borrow McKay’s own distinction (Vis à Vis 28)—they are as homage than, say, the ingenious artifice of Les Murray’s Translations from the Natural World, or the precisely described eroticism of Peter Van Toorn’s “Dragonflies, Those Bluejays of the Water.” McKay badly wants to be a “nature poet” of an un-Romantic but what he writes is not, even in his own terms, nature poetry.

McKay’s wishful thinking might help to account for the real shortcomings of his poems, which are not thematic, but reside in the “habits and tricks,” as McKay himself puts it, that are both what endear readers to his verse and what prevent his poems from fulfilling the potential augured by their more happily conceived moments. Prime among these distractions is the poet’s persona, the self that speaks in the poems, which Cook describes approvingly as a “self-effacing … off-handed, likeably self-mocking, endearingly modest poetic presence.” (Cook xi) The off-handedness of the McKay persona, like Al Purdy’s but more exaggerated and ubiquitous, is so self-conscious that it can never really be “self-effacing” in any meaningful way; as Greene observes, this “is an obvious contradiction, and a pretentious one.” (Greene unpaginated) We are constantly reminded of just how modest this character is and can therefore rarely forget that everything we’re reading takes place on the proscenium stage of his braincase.

One of the manners in which we are thus cued is irony. Irony for McKay, to borrow Michael Schmidt’s useful distinction, is more often stylistic than thematic; which is to say that irony is something perpetrated by the poet rather than by the anthro-indifferent workings of the universe, as in the characteristic poems of Hardy or Larkin. Awe, astonishment and wonder are keynotes of McKay’s poems and poetics. But they are moods he constantly subverts with jokiness; he is always “rais[ing] a fine/ironic eyebrow.” (Strike/Slip 40) It is as though the poet does not believe in what he’s saying, or as though some culture-self is always waiting around the corner to kneecap the wilderness-self. When Cook says that McKay employs “humour (joke, parody, irony, satire) to deflate pretension,” (Cook xxiii) she stumbles upon, but passes by, a crucial question: whence this swelling pretension that needs such constant pricking?

Humour is a substance McKay adds liberally to his alembic to neutralize an equally substantial quantity of sentimental earnestness. The clichéd phrase “clutches at your heart” from “Gneiss” is but one example of this predilection. In “Finger Pointing at the Moon,” a poem from Another Gravity included in Camber, strains of trite pseudo-wisdom founded on a base of abstraction begin to seep in, and then take over, the poem. First, the “back-drag” of waves becomes a “drum kit from the far side of the blues/where loss begins to shuffle.” The presence of the word “loss” is a predictable enough, if not necessarily fatal, flaw in a contemporary poem, but then

I think each memory is lit
by its own small moon—a snowberry,
a mothball, a dime—which regulates its tides
and longings.

“Memory,” “small moon” and “longings” are all stock tropes drawn from the common props closet. And then finally

I think we come here so our words
can fail us, get humbled by the stones, drown,
be lost forever, then come back
as beach glass, polished and anonymous,
knowing everything.

This is nothing but egregious quasi-spiritualism, and rather sloppily executed at that. How can something be “lost forever”—bad cliché, that, reminding us of “My Darling Clementine”—but still “come back”? No wonder McKay feels the need to drag “your no-good Uncle Ray” and “lavish/sixties shag” (Camber 195-6) into the poem, to puncture the sententiousness that would otherwise wash upon a reader’s eyes and ears without distraction. Failing to evoke a sense of awe, McKay tends to spell it out for his readers; then, seemingly embarrassed by his strained efforts, he makes fun of himself for it. Bearing in mind Yeats’s distinction that “rhetoric is heard” whereas “poetry is overheard,” there is far more rhetoric—even if it is a sort of anti-rhetoric—than poetry in the typical McKay poem, which seems to pitch its lines at the back row of an audience whose presence he can’t ignore. As Greene puts it,

At best, this is a failure of nerve: the poet feared his ironies would be concealed unless he advertised them. At worst, the whole poem [“Fates Worse than Death” from Apparatus, reprinted in Vis à Vis, Camber and Field Marks], not just the “dumb fucker” epithet, is a piece of intellectual dishonesty on the part of a poet who loves the exaltations of language, but knows it is more fashionable to pose as a debunker of the big claims of art.
(Greene unpaginated)3

Part of the wide appeal of McKay’s poetry must be that, while having the surface sheen of erudition and deep thought, the poems rarely make a reader think for herself. Reading a McKay poem, we feel smart because we recognize things from our own reading, but we aren’t made to challenge any of our deeply-imbedded assumptions. We read, we are charmed, we forget, we move on.

If McKay is a master of anything, it is of sublimating his faults as a poet and thinker into virtues: if he fails, it is because he is human and therefore finite and possesses only the limited resources of the English language in which to sing all the magnificent mysteries of the infinite universe. A noble sentiment, but unfortunately, it seems often to be an excuse for McKay not to try very hard; if one’s bound to fail, why bother, eh? The most fundamental of his faults is his all-or-nothing adherence to randomness. Dragland insists that “McKay is no romantic,” (Dragland unpaginated) but recall his beliefs in the value of aimless wandering (“lonely as a cloud,” perhaps?) and accidental discovery and in the highly romantic notion of form being something that a work “discovers” for itself (perhaps in the same way that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” regulates a capitalistic economy?). If a poem must find its own form, then presumably the poet is, conveniently, off the hook for any faults in the final product. Shane Neilson has already taken McKay to task for line-breaks which are “random and disconcertingly weak,” (Neilson unpaginated) but this is not the only stress fracture in McKay’s prosody. He quotes Herakleitos to defend his chosen mode of vers libre: “The hidden attunement is better than the obvious one.” (“Shell” 56) In his book Poetic Design, Stephen Adams makes much of such “hidden attunements” in McKay’s work, highlighting embedded iambic pentameters in the poem “Softball.”(Adams 172-3) And it’s true that at his best, McKay’s rhythms are the strongest, most persuasive elements of his poems and his free verse lines don’t often sound, as so many others’ do, like chopped prose. But his eschewal of the discipline of metre, far from eliminating the padding evident in unskilled formal verse, seems to invite the superfluous in to stay. Consider a short poem from Another Gravity reprinted in Camber:

Song for the Song of the Coyote

Moondogs, moondogs,
tell me the difference between tricks
and wisdom, hunting
and grieving.
I listen in the tent, my ear
to the ground. There is a land even
more bare than this one, without sage,
or prickly pear, or greasewood. A land
that can only wear its scars, every crater
etched. Riverless. Treeless. You sing to its thin
used-up light, yips and floated tremolos and screams,
sculpted barks like fastballs of packed
air. Echoes that articulate the buttes and coulees and dissolve
into the darkness, which is always listening.
(Camber 167)

The poem is fourteen lines, which calls to mind the sonnet. But as any serious student of prosody and poetic form will tell you, just because a poem has fourteen iambic pentameter lines and a set rhyme scheme doesn’t mean it’s a true sonnet; by the same token, a poem that breaks or bends many of the strictures can still be, essentially, a sonnet—a version of a poem finding its own form, but not without guidance from the poet. This poem doesn’t try to follow any of the sonnet rules, but it has nonetheless the flaws of an eleven-line poem trying too hard to stretch itself into an orthodox sonnet. What is there in the first five and a half lines that can’t be jettisoned for the betterment of the poem? What jumps out at me from the first incantatory repetition of “moondogs” is a white poet playing somewhat naively at native spirituality and the typical Romantic gambit of looking for symbolic meaning in the natural world. As McKay himself puts it, “The romantic poet (or tourist, for that matter) desires to be spoken to, inspired by the other.” (Vis à Vis 27) In the fifth line, “ear to the ground,” however literal it is in this context, is an egregious cliché. I see no reason why the poem couldn’t start with “There is a land” and be much the better for it. The lines that follow are far more interesting, even if unstructured by syllable, stress, syntax or sound and broken quite arbitrarily.

Consider this reworking of the poem, purged of its false start and tightened into more sharply-drawn stanzas and lines:

Song for the Song of the Coyote

There is a land even more bare
than this one, without sage, or prickly pear,

or greasewood. A land that can only wear
its scars, every crater etched.

Riverless. Treeless. You sing to its thin
used-up light, yips and floated tremolos

and screams, sculpted barks
like fastballs of packed air.

Echoes that articulate the buttes
and coulees and dissolve into the darkness,

which is always listening.

Notice now the rhymes ending lines 1, 2, 3 and 8. Because of the enjambments in lines 1 and 3 and the stanza break after line 2, the rhymes don’t jingle-jangle (presumably the reason, if he had any, that McKay buried them within the lines in his version), but, especially when picked up again in line 8, create a subtle aural resonance miming the dissolving echoes of lines 9 and 10, an effect created also by the assonantal end-rhyme linking the “sculpted barks,” through the first syllable of “articulate,” to “the darkness” into which they, with a lovely alliterative touch, “dissolve.” And notice also how the enjambment of “wear” emphasizes the word’s ambiguity. Until we make the turn into the next line, the verb is indeterminate; it could be either intransitive or, as it turns out to be, transitive, but still carrying with it the ghostly double of the other sense. This isn’t to say that my re-working of the poem is how it should be, but to demonstrate how much in McKay’s poem is surplus and how much more he might have done to sculpt his language into significant shapes—how much room he leaves for improvement—without deadening the spontaneous improvisatory qualities of the poem while creating a work of art more in tune with his own stated intentions. It seems odd that McKay, whose doctoral dissertation was on Dylan Thomas, one of the craftiest form-forgers in the history of English poetry, should cleave so willfully to a wishy-washy poetics of dubiously organic form. Another poet with whom Cook associates McKay is Hopkins. (Cook xx) Like Thomas, who was influenced by him, Hopkins is a masterfully inventive manipulator of inherited forms. As American critic Paul Lake has said, “Hopkins, like Coleridge, knew that it was rules or laws operating on chance—not chance alone—that gave nature its designs.” (Lake unpaginated) A comparison of almost any McKay poem with almost any Hopkins poem is enough to burn any specious bridges built between the two poets by reputation-engineering critics. Just as Hopkins’ deliberate pattern-making is a formal reflection of his reverence for the natural world, McKay’s slipshod neglect of pattern discovers (in the old sense of ‘betrays’) his touristy dilettantism.

His essential inattention is reinforced by the eccentricity of his approach to metaphor, which I touched on above. McKay will often reel off a string of metaphorical possibilities, as in this passage from “Precambrian Shield”:

Would I go back to that time,
that chaste and dangerous embrace?
Not unless I was allowed,
as carry-on, some sediment that has since
accumulated, something to impede the
passage of those days that ran through us
like celluloid. Excerpts from the book of loss.
Tendonitis. Second thoughts. Field guides.
(Strike/Slip 8)

This has the feel more of postmodern attention-deficit disorder than of keen attentiveness. McKay’s focus is rarely sustained throughout a poem; the attention he pays, both to the object of his attention and to the making of the poem, is desultory. As Richard Greene has observed of the poem “To Speak of Paths” (from Apparatus, reprinted in Camber), “The metaphors are not only mixed but, as occurs repeatedly in his poems, actually jumbled.” (Greene unpaginated) Cook defends the weirdness of McKay’s scattershot metaphors as evidence of “high tension” in his poetry: “Because of tension created between objects of comparison, between focus and frame, ‘high tension’ poetry promotes startling metaphoric effects, encouraging imagistic torque not readily legible in more habitual phrasing.” (Cook xiv) But if “startling” is all that needs to be done to “reopen… the question of reference,” as McKay puts it, then strangeness is all that’s required: “With a metaphor that works we’re immediately convinced of the truth of the claim because it isn’t rational.” (Vis à Vis 69) This isn’t entirely incorrect, but it fails to account for a metaphor that doesn’t “work,” but is equally non-rational. Aptness, far more difficult to achieve and ultimately more durable in its ability to startle us awake, can be forgotten.

McKay’s poems are full of contradictions, as I’ve said. A rebuttal to my criticisms above could be that, as per Emerson, consistency is the hobgoblin of my little mind. Perhaps McKay aligns himself with Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” But McKay’s self-contradictions mostly lack the brazen self-awareness of Whitman’s; he is constantly drawing our attention to them by apologizing for them, which makes them on the whole much less interesting than they might otherwise be. Far from containing multitudes, McKay contains his own inward-gazing particularity. As a general rule, McKay’s contradictions aren’t between one statement and another, but between statement of intention and formal execution, which strikes me more as an inadequacy—or “a failure of nerve,” to recall Greene’s phrase—than as a fruitful failure. But roughly halfway through Strike/Slip I found a contradiction far more interesting in the form of a poem entitled “Stress, Shear, and Strain Theories of Failure.” This is the poem from which the book takes its title, which refers to “a high-angle fault along which rocks on one side move horizontally in relation to rocks on the other side with a shearing motion.” (Strike/Slip 75) This is an unusual poem for McKay, not because of subject matter, but because of form: although irregularly-rhymed and –metred, the poem is, as it announces itself, a sonnet. Here it is:

They have never heard of lift
and are—for no one, over and over—cleft. Riven,
recrystallized. Ruined again. The earth-engine
driving itself through death after death. Strike/slip,
thrust, and the fault called normal, which occurs
when two plates separate.
Do they hearken unto Orpheus, whose song
is said to make them move? Sure.
This sonnet hereby sings that San Fran-
cisco and L.A. shall, thanks to its chthonic shear,
lie cheek by jowl in thirty million
years. Count on it, mortals. Meanwhile,
may stress shear strain attend us. Let us fail
in all the styles established by our lithosphere.
(Strike/Slip 33)

In his afterword to Field Marks, McKay claims that he does not “identify it [form] with those marvelous prosodic structures (sonnet, terza rima, glosas, pantoums, cyghanned) which have collected in the multicultural ragbag of the English tradition.” (“Shell” 56) Fair enough, but reading a sonnet like the one above, I wish he was not generally so thorough in divorcing those marvelous structures from his own methods. In this poem, the wit feels integral rather than digressively apologetic, the internal rhymes complement the end-rhymes and the ragged pattern corresponds, in miniature, to the more-or-less predictable, but often dramatic, movement of tectonic plates. This is a poem in which McKay seems to have learned a lesson from Hopkins in design, in which he makes room for both the order of Apollo and the “natural energies” (“Shell” 57) of Dionysos, which divinities, as Nietzsche learned and taught, are more aspects of each other than mutually exclusive opposites. The poem finds its form within a frame that doesn’t leave room for McKay’s characteristic doodling outside of the lines. Unlike so many of McKay’s poems, there is nothing in it I want changed, every word and formal choice feels necessary; even the abrupt truncation of “San Fran-/cisco” isn’t done just to force a consonantal rhyme, but fits beautifully with the subject matter. The memorability of that final sentence is enhanced by the last line’s being an alexandrine, thumping its iambic pulse into blood and brain. Will this poem represent a strike/slip fault in McKay’s poetics, or is it an anomaly, a rare eruption from an otherwise underachieving volcano?

Works Cited

Adams, Stephen. Poetic Designs: An Introduction to Meters, Verse Forms, and Figures of Speech. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1997.

Bate, Jonathan. John Clare: A Biography. New York: FSG, 2003.

Cook, Méira. “Song for the Song of the Dogged Birdwatcher.” Introduction to Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2005. ix-xxv

Dragland, Stan. “Be-wildering: The Poetry of Don McKay.” University of Toronto Quarterly (70: 4, Fall 2001). Online at http://www.utpjournals.com/product/utq/704/704_dragland.html

Greene, Richard. Review of Apparatus. Books in Canada. Online at http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0771057636/702-9937935-1798446

Lake, Paul. “Only Connect: A Conversation With Paul Lake.” Interview by Joan Houlihan in Perihelion (5:2, 2005). http://www.webdelsol.com/Perihelion/p-profile13.htm

Layton, Irving. A Wild Peculiar Joy: The Selected Poems. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2004.

McKay, Don. “The Appropriate Gesture, or Regular Dumb-Ass Guy Looks at Bird.” Interview by Ken Babstock in Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation. Roberts Creek: Nightwood Editions, 2002. 44-61

–. Camber. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2004.

–. Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay. Ed. and intro. Méira Cook. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2005.

–. “The Shell of the Tortoise.” Afterword to Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2005. 51-8.

–. Strike/Slip. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2006.

–. Vis à Vis. Kentville: Gaspereau Press, 2001.

Muir, Edwin. The Estate of Poetry. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1993.

Neilson, Shane. Review of Poetry For Dummies: A Reference for the Rest of Us. The Danforth Review (Volume, Issue and date not specified)http://www.danforthreview.com/features/essays/poetry_for_dummies.htm

Solway, David. Director’s Cut. Erin: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2003.Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Szumigalski, Anne. Review of Apparatus and Land to Light On (Dionne Brand). Quill & Quire, March 1997. Online at http://www.quillandquire.com/reviews/review.cfm?review_id=3363

Wordsworth, William. Selected Poems. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994.

1 Cook’s Wordsworth, who “might recollect in tranquility images of “tree” or “bird,” [whereas] McKay painstakingly describes” (Cook xx) specific species—a poet too enthralled by Big Themes to pay any attention to minute particulars—is a gross simplification. Passages of “The Recluse” are studded with the names and habits of specific species. In particular, Wordsworth’s treatment of the swan pair (“They strangers, and we strangers; they a pair,/And we a pair like them.” (Wordsworth 248)) chimes with McKay’s preoccupation with otherness and sameness between humans and other animals. If anything, Wordsworth, in this passage, shows himself to be more “disowning” and “un-grasping” than McKay when he says the swans “require/No benediction from the Stranger’s lips,/For they are blest already” (Wordsworth 249)—a sharp contrast to McKay’s bestowals of blessings in his ongoing “Song for the Song of [X]” series.

2 The difference in sensibility was mutual, as Keats felt that in many of Clare’s poems “the Description too much prevailed over the sentiment.” (Quoted in Bate 189)

3 I tend to think the truth lies somewhere in between. In The Estate of Poetry, Edwin Muir wrote

The smaller and more select the audience for poetry, the more the poet will be confined. The smallness of the audience cannot but discourage him, and in doing that diminish his imaginative scope: all this no doubt within limits. Those who now write poetry know that they are writing for a few, since few people will read them, and this must influence without their knowing it the poetry that they write. I do not mean that contemporary poets sacrifice their integrity for the shadow of a select reputation, or that when they are conceiving their poems they ever think of the audience. But they are aware of what is possible, given their small audience, and what is not. (Muir 23-4)

That was in 1955, and if anything, the situation is even worse today. For McKay, who has spent his career immersed in the spheres of his limited audience of fellow-poets and -academics, it seems to me almost inevitable that an awareness of “what is possible … and what is not” should have seeped into his practice. If one operates under the ingrained assumption that one’s audience is wise to the tricks of the trade, one is far less apt to risk afflatus and more likely to seek refuge under the cover of ironic deflation.

Zachariah Wells is a writer, editor and passenger train conductor from PEI who lives in Halifax. He is the author of Unsettled (Insomniac Press, 2004), a collection of Arctic poems, and two chapbooks, most recently Ludicrous Parole (Mercutio Press, 2005). A regular contributor of reviews to Books in Canada and Quill & Quire, he is also a contributing editor to Canadian Notes & Queries.

2 comments May 31st, 2006

Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen

Book of Longing

Title: Book of Longing
Author: Leonard Cohen
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Year: 2006
Pages: 232

Review by Stephen Morrissey.

Leonard Cohen has excelled at all of his creative endeavours, as a poet, a novelist, and as a songwriter. Whether he is compared to his singer-songwriter contemporaries Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, or compared to Margaret Atwood—the only Canadian literary contemporary equal to Cohen in terms of fame—he is among the most creative and accomplished writers Canada has produced.

Cohen’s Book of Longing is made up of poems written over the last thirty years and includes on almost every page original drawings that he made of himself and other subjects. Book of Longing is not a major book in Leonard Cohen’s body of work. Some of the poems are very good, but it is mostly a collection of odds and ends: it includes poems written in the 1970s; some newer poems; song lyrics from one of Cohen’s CDs; some poems that might have been better discarded than included in this book; and some prose poems that didn’t fit into his previous books.

One reason this collection isn’t one of Cohen’s best efforts is that the poems communicate a psyche that is relentlessly self-preoccupied and self-absorbed; I don’t know whether this is because these poems are not his best work, or because they are an accurate representation of Cohen’s psyche. However, I suspect that some of these poems would have been removed had there been more work to choose from. For example, in “Titles”, Cohen writes,

I had the title Poet
and maybe I was one
for a while
Also the title Singer
was kindly accorded me
even though
I could barely carry a tune
For many years
I was known as a Monk
I shaved my head and wore robes
and got up very early
I hated everyone
and no one found me out
My reputation
as a Ladies’ Man was a joke
It caused me to laugh bitterly
through the ten thousand nights
I spent alone
From a third-storey window
above the Parc du Portugal
I’ve watched the snow
come down all day
As usual
there’s no one here
There never is
Mercifully
the inner conversation
is cancelled
by the white noise of winter…
(159)

A poem will almost always reveal something of the psyche of the author, as Cohen’s is evident in this book. The problem with Book of Longing is that the psyche in the poems quickly becomes tedious because anyone’s psyche–even Leonard Cohen’s–without crisis or a sense of urgency to discover something beyond itself, or some greater understanding, is not interesting. As a result, we get poems like “The Remote” in which Cohen writes,

I often think about you
when I’m lying alone in
my room with my mouth
open and the remote
lost somewhere in the bed
(97)

The unfortunate side to Cohen’s self-preoccupation is that issues that call for depth are trivialized and deflated by his juxtaposing something trite with something important. This produces a charming self-deprecating humour, which is disarming on the surface, but which can also slip over the edge into smugness.

Some of the poems included in the book are song lyrics that were recorded on his album Ten New Songs (2001): “Alexandra Leaving,” “Love Itself,” “Here It Is,” “By The Rivers Dark,” “Boogie Street,” and “You Have Loved Enough”; one of the best of these songs is “A Thousand Kisses Deep”:

The ponies run the girls are young
The odds are there to beat
You win a while and then it’s done
Your little winning streak
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat
You live your life as if it’s real
A thousand kisses deep.
(87)

Cohen’s best song lyrics have a depth and complexity not found in many of these poems. Cohen’s songs are well known for creating an atmosphere that moves the audience; this is something at which Cohen excels. Most song lyrics rarely achieve the sophistication of lyrical poetry; instead, they require music to carry the emotional content of the words and by themselves are rarely interesting to read. Cohen’s song lyrics have the rare quality of being able to stand alone as poems, and this attests to Cohen’s talent as a writer.

Overall, there are some good poems in Book of Longing, but it is not a great book of poems. The book’s importance lies in Cohen’s authorship; it is an addition to his impressive body of work, which is extensive and shows a life-long dedication to poetry and writing.

Stephen Morrissey has published seven books of poetry, as well as chapbooks. In 2004, Les Editions Triptyque published La bête mystique, a translation of Morrissey\’s The Mystic Beast. His new collection of poems, Girouard Avenue, is forthcoming. Visit the poet at www.stephenmorrissey.ca.

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4 comments May 29th, 2006

yWriter by Spacejock and Papel by BeingArthurDent.co.uk

Thought people might be interested in these:

snipyWriter

What is it? free story writing software

When designing a software program you break big problems (tasks) into little ones. Then you break those down into smaller and smaller problems until each can be tackled easily. Of course, you don’t want to lose sight of the overall project, so you give yourself explicit outlines for each piece of code. Then it’s just a case of coding each of the little pieces and hooking them together into the finished application.

Despite the mystical arty aura surrounding the process of fiction writing, at the end of the day most books can be written in a similar fashion: Break each novel into chapters, break each chapter into one or more scenes, and give each scene a goal, some conflict and an outcome.

Complete details on the Spacejock website.

logo

A new software tool designed for authors of fictional stories is now available.

It’s called Papel (Spanish for ‘paper’) and runs under Windows, allowing you to write creatively and intuitively without logical tasks interfering with the flow of your ideas.

It’s small, it’s fast, and best of all it’s Freeware. Papel is not a ‘try it and see’ advert for a bigger version you have to pay for: it’s a complete and fully working application. It doesn’t require registration, and doesn’t contain nag screens, adverts, adware or spyware.

Complete details on the Papel website.

Add comment May 24th, 2006

fake Paul by Kimmy Beach

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Title: fake Paul
Author: Kimmy Beach
Publisher: Turnstone Press
Year: 2005
Pages: 116

Review by Jenna Butler.

Fake Paul, by Kimmy Beach, traces the dark nature of obsession from the clubs of London to the streets of New York. Set amidst the larger cultural craze that was Beatlemania, this collection follows the development of the narrator’s teenage crush on Paul McCartney from simple innocence to full-blown self-destruction.

There is no preamble in this collection; Beach simply throws the reader right into the melée with the tragic death of a fan at a Beatles concert:

in the first balcony
a girl dreams herself
floating down to you before
she can be stopped
she throws one leg over the railing
her friends grasp at the edges of her skirt
tear at the hem as they try to catch her
swings her other leg over
and slips off the tarnished banister
(“Bass Guitar Frenzy” 7)

It is instantly and horrifyingly evident how violent thousands of young women’s obsessions with the Beatles actually were; indeed, the progression of the book reveals just how many women self-destructed during the Beatles era through various forms of obsessive behavior directed toward the band members themselves. The reader’s introduction to this disturbing world is made all the more troubling by the revelation that many of these women were hardly noticed for their behavior at all. They risked everything, perhaps even their lives, on the off-chance that their actions would be seen as those of devoted fans.

It’s not surprising, then, when the narrator herself begins to obsess about the Beatles. Indeed, after such a defined pop culture net has obviously been cast over the young women of England, it seems predetermined that the narrator would grow up to possess obsessions similar to millions of other female fans. The phenomenon Beach presents is that of a cultural trap for the unaware, and she lays it masterfully in the space of a mere handful of pages.

The narrator’s obsession with the Beatles manifests itself all too soon, with the discovery of a Beatles record forgotten amidst the detritus of a late-night party. The young woman is instantly drawn to the photograph of the band on the sleeve, and the very instant she picks out Paul McCartney’s face, a teenage crush begins. The reader instinctively recoils from this as from the memory of the book’s beginning: another woman’s obsessive love that ended in disaster.

It is the poem “Raw Hamburger” that offers the greatest warning of the horrors to come. The narrator accidentally discovers her grandmother’s concealed hunger for raw hamburger meat, but far from being disgusted, the narrator instantly understands this need to carry secrets:

I love the carnivore in her
the secret raw meat eater
inside her neat blue apron.
(“Raw Hamburger” 13)

This seems harmless at first — the grandmother’s guilty pleasure; the speaker’s easy acceptance of it. In the context of the narrator’s later obsession, however, and her burning need to keep that obsession a secret, “Raw Hamburger” is a clear early warning.

From an adolescent crush, a simple secret, the narrator’s obsession moves to the erotic. She visits the places Paul McCartney frequented, searching for physical traces of him that she can possess. The search culminates in a visit to Paul’s home in the company of several other young women. Where some hang back, reluctant to take their crushes beyond the point of decency, the narrator attempts to rummage through Paul’s garbage. Unable to access the singer, she tries to satisfy her obsession through McCartney’s leavings. Here, too, for the first time, the reader is exposed to the narrator’s disdain for anyone whose desire for Paul is not as demonstrative as hers.

Aside from the narrator’s obsession being dangerous (she is involved in altercations with police and security guards), it is also ultimately isolating. Perhaps to protect herself from behaviors she knows to be out of hand, perhaps because the obsession has indeed consumed her, she separates herself from other similarly-obsessed women when justifying her actions to herself and, later, to others. She desperately wants Paul to believe that she is not one of the groupies who hound him: “those girls are crazy” (“Would you feel me?” 22).

In the space of a few short pages, the inevitable happens. A young woman (not the narrator, although the parallels are evident) becomes pregnant by Paul. After following him from London to New York in an effort to have him recognize the child, she is trampled to death in the street by a crowd of fervent admirers attempting to watch Paul on a television display in a local storefront. She is cast away – abandoned, pregnant, and dying – in the wake of a Beatlemania that has grown out of control.

The death is quickly forgotten as the wheel of popular culture grinds relentlessly on. The narrator herself is subsumed, beginning the long internal process of secret self-destruction, injuring herself to secure artifacts that once belonged to Paul. Here, too, the reader begins to sense that her obsession is transferable – first to the wax head of Paul McCartney fantastically pilfered from Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, and soon after to the man she meets who plays Paul McCartney in a tribute band.

It is during the concert when the narrator first meets “fake Paul” that she realizes how lost she has become during her search to unearth every detail about McCartney’s life. Just as the band onstage is only imitating the Beatles, the Cavern Club and the area in which it is located are reproductions, too. In a moment of clarity, she recognizes that she is desperately chasing things and people that have passed out of reach:

we dance at the side of the stage
walls rattle
noise and the stink of too many people
too much ale
music too loud
I am so high

     so deep

underground.
(“The Cavern Club” 72)

The isolation and the ease with which the narrator’s obsession transfers culminate in her attraction to the “fake Paul” from the tribute band; not as the man himself, but as a substitute for the real Paul. Instantly, unavoidably, she is consumed again:

I’ll dance by myself at fake Paul’s side
of the stage      never take my eyes from
him even when he’s not singing
     there!     he winked at me
I didn’t imagine that.
(“Tribute Band” 79)

Of course, it is only a matter of time before “fake Paul” recognizes her obsession with him for what it is: that of a woman concerned only with the surface of things, with his role as Paul McCartney. Disturbed, he pushes her away, seeing in her behavior nothing more than that same possessiveness displayed to some extent by all of the fans of the tribute band.

By the time the narrator realizes that she has given herself away, that she has allowed her secret to be discovered, “fake Paul” is already distancing himself from her. Desperate, feeling yet another vestige of Paul McCartney drifting out of her reach, she turns to the self-destruction of the exhibitionist:

mirrors slashed with red
I Love You Paul!!
fingertip-shaped drops smoking on bulbs
blood kisses on glass.
(“Smear” 99)

Far from having the desired effect, however, her actions only serve to further distance “fake Paul.” Echoing the abrupt manner in which she is cast from the club where the tribute band performs, the narrator is also cast from “fake Paul’s” life. Her isolation is complete, her obsession now baseless. At last, she vocalizes her loneliness and her absolute fatigue at being forced to live her life around the obsession:

I say nothing
release me
you win.
(“A Paul Dream Last Night” 106)

She finally acknowledges the despair behind her behavior: that she is really nobody special after all, to Paul McCartney or to anyone. She is nothing more than one of those “frenzied girls who couldn’t get in / mittens thudding on windows / screams condensing on dirty glass” (“Voice after the show” 113). With no more ragged beliefs left to hold her up, there is nothing remaining for her but self-destruction and death.

It is the ending of the book, though, that really drives home the bleak superficiality of Beatlemania. The tribute band packs up its gear and costumes, just as the Beatles themselves did after each gig. They fold away their Beatles personalities with their clothes, preparing to return home to wives, children — lives beyond the personas they inhabit during their day jobs. And just as the Beatles did, as popular culture required them to do in order to maintain their fame, the tribute band has its own collection of castoffs. Beach leaves the reader with the terrible, saddening conviction that the narrator’s obsession and death are nothing out of the ordinary in the world of popular culture. The narrator’s self-destruction, like the trampling death of the mother of Paul McCartney’s baby early on in the book, will soon be tossed aside and forgotten. There will always be someone new willing to take her place.

Jenna Butler is an educator and poet who makes her home in Edmonton. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including CBC’s Alberta Anthology, and has been widely published in journals, anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the founding editor of Rubicon Press.

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Add comment May 20th, 2006

Inventory by Dionne Brand

077101662X.01.LZZZZZZZ

Title: Inventory
Author: Dionne Brand
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Year: 2006
Pages: 96

Review by Jenn Houle.

Dionne Brand’s most recent collection of poetry, Inventory, is not for those who prefer to tune out the more discouraging aspects of the world in which we are currently living. Or maybe it is especially for them. Her gaze, directed at and into the modern era, is unflinching and extremely critical. Attempting to inventory “the tumultuous early years of this new century,” Brand begins with the unequivocal statement: “We believed in nothing” (3). From there, the reader is led through a series of statistical deaths and atrocities. Her delivery of these is akin to the incessant and ubiquitous news banners of the modern media: a relentless catalogue of global suffering, loss, war, cruelty, disaster, and pain. One of the key characters in the collection is a woman who sits at the television all year, weeping, watching global events unfold without a break, without allowing her attention to the carnage she is witnessing to waver. In the first section, regarding media, it is established that:

we believed in nothing

the black-and-white american movies
buried themselves in our chests,
glacial, liquid, acidic as love

the way to Wyoming, the sunset in Cheyenne,
the surreptitious cook fires, the uneasy
sleep of cowboys, the cactus, the tumbleweed,
the blankets,
the homicides of Indians,
lit, dimmed, lit dimmed

lit in the drawing rooms,
the suicides inside us.
(3)

The image of these once-upon-a-time-believed-to-be comforting narratives burying themselves in the chests of their audience, like bullets, resulting in a populace that believes “in nothing” is an apt introduction to the mindless slaughters and cultural destruction Brand’s nameless witness will watch and tally in later sections. The effort to witness and record everything is almost Dantean: of course, Brand’s witness does not actually attempt to traverse the hells she sees, only to report them, to keep watch, to remain sensitive to them in an era where “the news was advertisement for movies/ the movies were the real killings” (22). One hour’s vigilance enables the witness to report:

– twenty-seven in Hillah, three in fighting in
Amariya, two by roadside bombing, Adhaim,
five by mortars in Afar, in firefight in Samarra

two, two in collision near Khallis, council member
in Kirkuk, one near medical complex, two in
Talafar, five by suicide bomb in Kirkuk, five

by suicide in Shorgat, one in attack on police…
(23)

And the list goes on. Brand juxtaposes all of this against “sleek, speeding cars,” “burgers,” and “breaking celebrity news.” Her contempt for the American media is clear, yet she is awash in it, adrift in the stories this media is delivering. She is watching intently and yet trying valiantly not to be sold any point of view but her own:

she’ll gather the passions of women,
their iron feet, their bitter hair, their
perpetual nuptial assignment

to battered kitchens, and rooms
radiant with their blood vessels

their waiting at doors…
(31)

Brand’s assessment of the modern world focuses on its rushed rhythms, its impatience, its lack of compassion:

Let us not invoke the natural world,
it’s ravaged like any battlefield, like any tourist
island, like any ocean we care to name,
like oxygen

let’s at least admit we mean each other
harm,
we intend to do damage.
(42)

This is a depiction of humanity, red in tooth and claw, heartless, exhausted, and all out of empathy. Perhaps the saddest moment in the entire collection comes toward the end when Brand, trying to inventory the things in this world that remain good, lists:

some lovers, of course, the way they made you
laugh, the way they held their heads,
then too the relief of their leaving, of course.
(99)

And this relief, the relief of no longer having to nurture, to tend, to hope, to believe in anything, is at the core of Inventory. It explores the difficulty of remaining interested, remaining invested in a world that seems to be racing, senselessly, toward a self-wrought oblivion. The apparently random, casual cruelty of an overheard cell phone conversation — “Tell that dumb bitch to get it” (71) — aptly illustrates the feeling of being surrounded by a teeming mass of unfeeling people who, if they do not quite consciously intend to do harm, certainly intend to do no good. She reveals how the world, as it is now, is pushing human nature to its raw edge, an edge so raw it has gone numb.

Inventory is not a collection that is easy to grapple with and read as a citizen of the world Brand is attempting to describe. It is mercilessly realistic. It reminds you of all the times you turned away from hard news in favor of fantasy, reminds you why it is that human kind cannot bear very much reality. Because, of course, if this is reality, who would ever really want to engage with it? Fairy tales, lies, and monolithic, linear narratives would almost seem a kindness, if of course they didn’t so utterly disempower us. Brand insists on atheism in the face of Hurricane Katrina. God’s wrath is no explanation. Reading this collection, I could only imagine it being read by future generations attempting to understand the first years of this millennium. It made my heart hurt. There was beauty in the collection, but a sort of only half-grasped, half-apprehended and hurried beauty. A failed love affair runs through the poems, the gut-wrenching sensation of dashed hope and ambivalence ever after. The lover gone is a relief, as it would be a relief if Brand’s witness were to turn off her television, stop gathering facts, stop collating statistics, stop paying attention and just turn the channel back to the old, simple dichotomies of American movies. We certainly do live in a day and age when it is difficult to care. How can anyone pick what to be devastated by: Katrina, peak oil, war, war, war, war everywhere? Terrible reality television, mass-marketed ailments, bloody leads ad infinitum and everyone broke? How to remain awake?

These are important questions, and I believe this collection will remain very important far into the future (if, oh, if, we actually do have a future, and the nihilistic reality inventoried here is only a prelude, a dark interlude, a chaotic and terrified interregnum). It is impossible to gauge the full extent of Brand’s accomplishment here from any reference point I might have as a citizen alive in 2006. Time will tell. It is tempting to say that all Brand has done here is state the problem without pointing to any type of a solution. But as her constant witness asserts:

I have nothing soothing to tell you,
that’s not my job,
my job is to revise and revise this bristling list
hourly.
(100)

And of course you want to throw the book across the room, a testament to its power. Cruel witness. Heartless bystander. Somebody else “just doing their job,” half asleep, and emotionally disengaged. But that is precisely Brand’s point: we have become a society of uninvolved witnesses, numb and raw, and full of bristling lists. If there is an answer to any of the issues Brand has highlighted here, the implication is that none of us have them. Our only alternative is to tune out, and by tuning out, spacing out to celebrity news, we are only perpetuating a culture that believes in nothing, and knows even less.

Usually, lists are comforting. Things are ordered, summed, chronicled. This list is not comforting. It is extremely difficult to get through; it is difficult to remain focused on and it is difficult to absorb, but Brand has to be applauded for getting it down. Because no one really has gotten it down quite this way before; no one really has juxtaposed all the things that need to be juxtaposed quite so deftly. And, one only hopes that in her next collection, the incredible articulateness with which she catalogues the present chaotic and frightening state of things, she will be able to begin taking inventory of a few small victories, a few concrete examples of benevolence, re-assuring things from the real world that do not blight our senses, but awaken them. This collection is certainly a wake-up call, a reminder that comfort is not our due, that joy is hard-won, and usually at someone else’s expense, and that mere survival is a very limited goal. Instead, we should be focusing on the “moments when you rise to what you might be” (90), although, if this collection is any indication, what we might be is rather disconcerting too.

Jenn Houle lives, works and writes in Shediac, New Brunswick. Her poetry has appeared in Lichen (winner of 2004’s serial poetry contest) and is forthcoming in Arc and The Antigonish Review. She is currently working on her first collection of poems.

Add comment May 17th, 2006

Hot Poppies by Leon Rooke

0889842639

Title: Hot Poppies
Author: Leon Rooke
Publisher: The Porcupine’s Quill
Year: 2005
Pages: 96

Review by Greg Santos.

Leon Rooke is the Governor General’s award winning author of a number of novels and story collections. Hot Poppies is his first book of poetry and it is certainly an intriguing late addition to his repertoire. I should add that I have not had a chance to read much of Rooke’s fiction; therefore, I will be unable to compare this collection to his previous works. However, because they are Rooke’s first published poems, it is important to read them based on their own merits rather than in comparison to his earlier prose.

The first poem establishes the unusual characters that occupy Rooke’s world, such as the women who are “marooned on a thousand dark isles” to discover “they’d been impregnated by the same dark man” (“Everything from Her Mouth” 11). His strength as a writer lies in his ability to create characters familiar to the reader, but who are also odd and unique.

This collection is rife with surrealism, humour, and popular culture, with poems that include public figures such as Princess Di, Martha Stewart, President Bush, and the most unlikely muse, Britney Spears. Rooke is a writer who does not see high-culture and popular-culture as being in opposition; he embraces both, writing about Lassie on one page:

     The Not-Lassie dogs
     used to talk about this among themselves,
     how to recognize who the bad man was
     and how to slobber at the bad man’s
sleeve without the real Lassie telling them
how disgusting the whole thing was.
(“A Bleak Situation” 20)

and Heidegger on the next: “Being is the unbeing being unspun/ was how Heidegger saw the matter” (“Phenomenologists” 21).

Despite the originality of the collection, it is sometimes difficult for Rooke’s poetry to make a deep emotional connection with the reader. In the poem “Jasper Johns,” contemporary artist Jasper Johns and experimental musician John Cage go in search of a blue dog in caves occupied by musicians and painters:

Jasper Johns followed the trail
of the blue dog, coming at last
to a cave so low in a wall of caves
not even John Cage could stand up.
(“Jasper Johns” 16)

The abstract nature of some of the themes as well as the lack of context in some of the sections (such as in “After-Dinner Speeches at (Lord) B.’s House”) make it difficult sometimes to grasp what Rooke is trying to convey to the reader. Still, it is fitting that Rooke chose figures like Jasper Johns and John Cage to write about because perhaps he noticed his surrealistic poetry shares a kinship with the avant-garde artistic styles of those artists.

Rooke’s surreal flourishes and sense of humour are reminiscent of American Surrealist James Tate. In fact, Tate’s work is directly addressed in two of Rooke’s poems: “Continuation of the James Tate Poem ‘The Condemned Man’” and “Continuation of the James Tate Poem ‘Peggy in the Twilight.’” This nod to Tate is an important detail because, while readers who enjoy traditional lyric verse may find the surrealism in Hot Poppies difficult and pointless, those who love experimentation with language and images will find much to appreciate.

Greg Santos is a Montreal based poet/writer/artist.

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Add comment May 10th, 2006

Re:Zoom by Sheri-D Wilson

Re:Zoom cover

Title: Re:Zoom
Author: Sheri-D Wilson
Publisher: Frontenac House
Year: 2005
Pages: 101

Review by Marissa Ranello.

Re:Zoom is a highly readable journey into a cultural labyrinth. Sheri-d Wilson does not blanch from crossing the imaginary line between Canada and the United States. Her poems are both as American as apple pie and as Canadian as Alberta beef. In “Viva Las Vegas” Sheri-d writes:

What do you do when Uncle Sam wants you?
What do you do when the steaks are high?
(53)

The ingredients of a North American fete: Wilson cooks up a splendid dish of urgency and folly and adds a dash of danger for extra flavor. Recklessness and absurdity are the writer’s home-grown ammunition. An example of this can be found in “Re:volver Religion” which begins:

You are wearing a bandoleer
of bullets
     it is after 911
     you have carried
the bandoleer of bullets
     across the border
     from Canada into the USA
no problem
     they confiscated your
     nose hair clippers
     but overlooked the round of bullets
entrenched in your suitcase.
(62)

Each word penetrates, as each bullet will the victim. Naturally, in a democratic society, there’s a blur between human action, law and religion. Wilson successfully clarifies that distortion by sharpening her focus on alarming current events. She becomes the lens of a camera as she homes in on a quixotic world filled with cryptic people. This technique tantalizes the voyeur within all of us.

Re:Zoom is a feminine playground of poems that pulls at your heart and mind. Sheri-d Wilson’s world is one which embraces displacement, darkness, and domineering truth. This can be seen in lines of “Re:panty portal” which begins:

I stand over your grave
open my legs,
show you my panties.
(85)

The depravity is awesome and curious. Her words are invigorating to the love-starved dame and the undersexed masochist alike. Wilson utilizes a harmonious marriage of Anglophone and Francophone throughout her poems. This too can be seen in “Re:panty portal” when she pleads with the deceased lover, “mange toi.”

Although there’s a strong commitment to being multi-voiced, Wilson’s poems valorize the importance of history and the roles that women assumed throughout it. In addition, this collection seems like a self-exploration of her own roles as a daughter, granddaughter, lover, and wife. The discourse is perplexing. A strong voice radiates from the ‘softer sex’ in lines like those from “Re:quest of a alpha bet eristic un-”:

I’d rather be your whore
than your wife
sentence,
Life.
(92)

Wilson favorably transforms the language of text into a universal tongue that lashes out at xenophobia. Her creativity and use of sounds and imagery celebrate authenticity. This collection convenes a considerable range of activity and rejoices in the truth.

Marissa Ranello currently resides in Saskatchewan with her family. Her poetry has appeared in: Ultraviolet Magazine, Cross Connect (University of Pennsylvania), In The Fray, Grimm Magazine, Dead Drunk Dublin, East Village Poetry, Unlikely Stories, Niederngasse, Comrades, Naked Poetry, Verse Libre Quarterly, and Thunder Sandwich.

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1 comment May 7th, 2006

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