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In the Old Country of My Heart by Agnes Walsh


Title: In the Old Country of My Heart: poems written and read by Agnes Walsh (CD)
Author: Agnes Walsh, with two unaccompanied ballads by Simone Savard-Walsh and nine musical pieces by George Morgan on pump organ and Fisher-Price Roly Poly Chime Bell
Publisher: Rattling Books
Year: 2003
Pages: 58 minutes

Review by Maria Scala.

Agnes Walsh, recently named by the City of St. John’s as their first Poet Laureate, is no stranger to the charms of oral history, since she also works as an actor and playwright, and founded the Tramore Theatre Troupe on the Cape Shore of Placentia Bay. The poems from the CD In the Old Country of My Heart (originally published as a book in 1996 by Killick Press) are thus well-suited to the audio form, as Walsh performs them with the same conviction and precision with which she penned them more than a decade ago. Like one of the more memorable lines of the Celtic ballad about a herdsman’s daughter “Aililiứ Na Gamhna” (offered in a sweet rendition by Walsh’s daughter Simone Savard-Walsh) “The magic music of the world / Always around me,” Agnes Walsh imbues the everyday with drama and depth, in poems such as “You Drive the Truck,” “Our Boarder Alfred,” “Tea Ceremony,” “Fiddlehead,” and “Percy Janes Boarding the Bus.” In the last poem Walsh recalls waiting for the number 5, on her way to the mall for a kettle, and spotting the famous writer trying to catch another bus:

I jumped to life, beat on the bus door,
said to the driver: “Mr. Janes.
Mr. Percy Janes wants to get on.”

He raised a “So what?” eyebrow.

Mr. Janes straightened his astrakhan hat,
mumbled thank you and stepped up.
As the bus rumbled on
I continued under my breath:
“Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Percy Janes,
Newfoundland writer, poet,
just boarded the number something-or-other.”

If this was Portugal,
a plaque would be placed
over the seat where he sat.

As it is, you have me
mumbling in the street
like a tourist in my own country.
(Track 30; Page 32)

The way Walsh delivers that last line—“tourist” sounds like “taurist”—reminds me of an earlier track on the CD, “The Time that Passes.” Here, the poet bemoans the growing homogeneity of the spoken word, but her mother reminds her that even she can’t escape correct speech:

But you watch it, my mother said,
it’s your tongue too that was dipped
in the blue ink, and do go leaking iambics
all the day long.
(Track 9; Page 1)

“In the Snapshot” is another poem in which Walsh’s mother makes a spunky appearance; this time she’s scolding her daughter for asking about a photograph of herself and a mystery man who looks like Trotsky: “…“Facts,” she said. “Oh my, / why do you always need the facts, / you with all these photographs?” (Track 13; Page 36) “In the Snapshot” is not only worthy of note for that frank last line, but also for the evocative depiction that precedes it, of a woman frozen in time:

In the snapshot she has her sweater
pinned at the neck,
but her arms aren’t in the sleeves.
This strikes me as unlike her
so I look for more.

It is some sort of courtyard
where she stands, drooping veronicas
lined against a black fence.
Her smile is a question of delight,
like when someone says You are beautiful
and you say What?
because you want to hear it again.
(36)

This is a trademark of Walsh’s writing, this mingling of the lyrical with the conversational, and she does it again in “Storm,” a poem recounting the death and life of her father. In hospital, as Walsh’s father is coming out of the anaesthetic, she finds him making curious movements, his arms stretched overhead. Someone behind her says, “Don’t worry, love. / He’s mending sails and then he’s tacking home” (Track 42; Page 60). As Walsh reaches the sombre conclusion to the poem, the words themselves seem to get caught in her throat, rendering “Storm” that much more affecting:

My father so tiny in the bed. Time stealing him from me.
I sat and listened to him and the captain
talk of weather, fish, and old schooners—
what he had talked of all his life.

He’d call tonight a bad one.
Hurricane Louis would drive him from his bed
send him down the hall in his stocking vamps
checking the stove, the doors and windows
making us warm and watertight.

And tonight
I feel like howling into the fury
to bring him back safe to me.
(60, 61)

Similarly, three poems in this collection stood out—the emotionally charged “In The Old Country of My Heart,” “Weather Moving,” and “Oderin.” In these three, Walsh digs deep into her past, exploring her identity as both a writer, and as a Newfoundlander. “Oderin,” the final poem on the CD, is a hauntingly picturesque remembrance from Walsh’s childhood, in which she was “Shipped out to old people who were childish / they didn’t know a five cents from a ten” (Track 44; Page 63). You have to hear Walsh read these sorrowful lines, in that voice that moves seamlessly from dead-pan to tender to ironic, to feel the full impact:

Can I walk anywhere without voices?
Although it is the voices I came here for.
Now they cut too near the bone,
too much inside the soundbone
thump thumping into the blood.

And that other balance upset by coming here
kicking at sleeping dogs, turning over tired bones.
These goddamn ghosts rattling under broad daylight.
Knowing summer is short they
shake their fists both day and night.

The hot potato tossed
from one generation to the next,
burned holes in my palms, left smoulders aching.
I watched tranced by the cult of blood.

I ask strangers: Was she cruel?
They turn away. Stare across the meadow.
Fidget with pipes and bandannas.
Then, finally:
Well, girl, she had a hard life.

So, she was cruel.
(63)

There’s another striking voice on this CD—that of Simone Savard-Walsh. She sings a cappella on two tracks, the aforementioned Celtic ballad “Aililiứ Na Gamhna,” and the tragic folk song “Fair Fannie Moore.” I would have enjoyed hearing more from Savard-Walsh, in exchange for a little less pump organ and chime bell from George Morgan. While tracks such as “Don’t Know What This Is” and “Melancholic” complemented the mood created by Walsh’s poetry, others like “3 Blind Mice” and “Rodent Anthem” were a bit jarring. Taken as a whole, however, the music and ballads do provide ‘listening room’ between readings, for this is a weighty and dramatic body of work from a poet, who, in my opinion, deserves her own plaque on the bus.

Maria Scala is a freelance writer and editor living in Scarborough, Ontario. Her poetry and non-fiction have appeared in Descant, Literary Mama, Pagina/12, Magizone, Between O and V, among others. Her blog is http://mariascala.blogspot.com/

Add comment January 29th, 2007

Stones Call Out by Pamela Porter

stones

Title: Stones Call Out
Author: Pamela Porter
Publisher: Coteau
Year: 2006
Pages: 80

Review by Jenna Butler.

Pamela Porter’s Stones Call Out details the struggles, grief and grace associated with bearing witness. Far from being inscribed in the personal, Porter’s poems reach out into the larger world – Latin America, mining towns in the Midwest – blurring the lines between the act of witnessing as personal and as universal.

Although the subject matter in the majority of the poems is difficult in an emotional sense, Porter resists the urge to pass judgment on the events she describes. Rather, much of the imagery in the collection concerns a wordless bearing of witness:

the iron bed on which he lay
moaned and murdered the silence.
(3)

Although it might be tempting in such a collection simply to focus on human events, Stones Call Out courageously delves into the way in which one can also bear witness to aspects of place:

[…] Oscuro, town
forsaken, hangs by wind’s grace:
the church bell worked loose of its rope,
howl of smokestack, cemetery gate.
(5)

Place itself is given a persona in Porter’s work. It suffers its own duresses, its own evolutions and stagnations. This persona, like a human persona, also grows and develops. Far from being static, it, too, possesses the potential to change:

Ritual rhythms fill the kitchen: a car’s
far-off growl, the pat between his palms
of tortilla Raúl watches grow round, bright
like a moon, a soul, a little sun
there among the decaying walls.
(6)

These changes, small evolutions within both people and places, are revealed as being simultaneously generative and destructive acts.

What is clear in this set of poems is that the act of witnessing is not always a choice; that it is, all too often, thrust upon us, and that we are left to deal with its vagaries as best we can:

What the hell have you been
chosen for, had birth thrust upon you,
death lifted from reach?
(11)

In situations such as these, witnessing is an unwilling act, but a necessary one. The book is permeated with the sense that the act of witnessing gives clarity to events – there is a subtle hint of the idea that witnessing allows an event to occur which would not otherwise exist or be acknowledged.

At the same time, there are instances when one chooses to act as witness; when one becomes complicit in an act that later serves to separate one from everybody else. As one of Porter’s poems admits, “I walked into that darkness on my own” (16).

Whether chosen or imposed, the role of witness is a position that is paradoxically both unifying and isolating. In the one sense, the bearing of witness brings one into closer, more intimate contact with the world:

Some grief ancient to her own
will brood in her and swell
the shrouded town. All
the moonstruck, splintered houses
will hear it
calling itself
to itself.
(14)

In another sense, the very distance (emotional, physical, or both) required to act as witness is instantly very alienating. As one of the poems claims, “I would be, therefore, a measure out of place” (35).

The exceptional nature of this book is found in the fact that, while bearing witness to events in the world and within others, the poems also delve into the notion of bearing witness to one’s own changes. These changes serve to estrange oneself from all one has previously known to be true, and also to bring one closer to the outside world:

I sang in front of the bathroom mirror
and it was lost, that innocence
which I can never recover.
(38)

Stones Call Out is a powerful and deeply resonant collection. It moves with a haunting grace over a subject about which other books might be tempted to fall into criticism and judgment. Porter’s poetry honors experience and memory, much as the Mexican people commemorate the roadside sites of emotional events by each bringing one stone for a small cairn. I am reminded of Harriet Doerr’s Stones For Ibarra:

Stop, she wanted to call out. Stop for a minute. Look through these gates and see the lighted house. An accident has happened here. Remember the place. Bring stones.
(214)

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.

Add comment January 22nd, 2007

Home of Sudden Service by Elizabeth Bachinsky

0889712123

Title: Home of Sudden Service
Author: Elizabeth Bachinsky
Publisher: Nightwood Editions
Year: 2006
Pages: 78

Review by Liam Ford.

“Welcome to the Valley Gothic,” smirks the inside cover flap of Elizabeth Bachinsky’s Home of Sudden Service, like a greasy, ursine man in a dirty white cube van (with tinted windows) prowling the local high school. Turn the pages and you’ll find all the horrors that fill the minds of overworked and overwrought suburban parents: teen pregnancy (“For the Teen Moms at the Valley Fair Mall”), murder and abduction (“Wolf Lake”), missing children (“Sometimes Boys Go Missing”), teen sex (“Of a Place”), young love (“Outcasts,” “For the Punk Rock Boys”), more teen sex (“At Fifteen,” “St. Michael”), juvenile deliquency (“To a Future Delinquent,” “B & E”), and even more teen sex (“The Diner of Her Heart”). Surprisingly, you won’t find the unctuous pedophile, but the other caricatures of suburban personality types will seem familiar to anyone who has seen Fubar, watches the news, or The Trailer Park Boys.

Home of Sudden Service is a fitting title. It bespeaks the empty promises of life, as in the title poem. A young mother brings her child to his father’s body shop. They stand unnoticed

in the office. There’s a sign out front that reads
Home of Sudden Service, but sometimes
it takes him a while to notice us.
(25)

Throughout this poem, the speaker rationalizes her decisions. For quitting her first job: “I quit that place for the coffee shop with / the medical/dental” (11-2). For moving in with her boyfriend: “got an apartment / with Angel right away, which was about time” (12-3). For getting pregnant: “Didn’t seem to be any reason not to, especially / with the mat leave” (20-1). For why she loves the smell of him when he comes home from work:

			he smells like my father
used to when he came home from work.
I don’t know… is that fucked up? I don’t think so.

(25)

These are examples of either the author’s skill at character development, or the degree of insight she attributes to her subjects. A case could be made that Bachinsky is continuing the tradition (attributed to the Romantics) of glorifying the down-and-out, giving a voice to the voiceless. Given the benefit of the doubt, such a job is better left up to a different medium, like television.

Unfortunately, a TV show written as a poem is still a TV show. “Sometimes Boys Go Missing” is a nine part poem that reveals little the television couldn’t and omits much that it could. It’s like a transcription of a TV news investigative report, yet struggles to achieve anything insightful or affecting. Part “I” is a “(Prologue)” (1). Clearly, from the title, a boy has gone missing, and here the family reacts with paper:

    Staples stuck in telephone poles, Xerox gone

To tatters after one good rain. That can’t-make-out-
His-face-anymore-the-sun’s-gone-bleached-it-out

Decoupage / paper pileup where his face once was
On the corkboard at the grocery store.

(33)

The unrhymed couplets resemble paper snipped to make tear-off stubs, on which a cash-starved student has put a phone number offering tutoring, editing or proofreading services. There’s no crying mother, no forlorn father, no description of the boy. “II” adds a bit of intrigue. Imagine a news reporter’s voice reading the lines about how “the business of teaching boys to transport goods from small / town to small town likes to remain small and unnoticed” (6-7). The plot thickens. “III” offers the logical, probable explanation. Imagine a re-enactment, à la Crime Stoppers, narrated in sober tones. The boy, out for a walk along the dike by the airstrip, “slips / on the muddy bank, cracks his head on a stone and drifts away” (17-8). In “IV,” the calls come in. Imagine a camera close-up of a youthful, baseball-capped face. A buddy reminisces about some harmless drunken tomfoolery. For “V” the investigative reporters have consulted a conspiracy theorist, who claims “there have always been rumors of cult activity near this river, / and the rumours make sense if you think about them long enough” (2-3). Part “VI” cuts to the anguished girlfriend who says,

it just makes me sick, your conspiracy
theories. Like you’ve got to have a reason. Well,
sometimes there isn’t a reason. Sometimes boys go missing.
(38)

“VII” likens the disappearance of the boy to a salmon returning to spawn. Cut to a darkened room, blinds pulled; a shadowed figure sits in the corner of a room, unidentifiable. For “VIII,” the investigative reporters have tracked down someone who will speak on behalf of the smuggling business alluded to in “II” “(in a voice distorted so as to become unrecognizable)” (1). The last part, “IX,” is an “(Epilogue)” (1). Another segment of the interview with the baseball-capped buddy:

	I never got back the router I lent him
to do the edging on his mom’s new kitchen cabinets.

		It’s a damn shame
what happened to him.

What happened to him?

He was a good guy to have a beer with.

Anyway, the router’s gone.

(41)

That’s the end of the poem. The paucity of words gives space for the imagination to picture what’s happening, but for the most part, the reader’s left wondering what the point is. Little is revealed about the boy or even his family. We’re given glimpses of the thoughts of friends, but what they say leaves us shrugging our shoulders. Is that all this is about?

I offer an alternate title for Home of Sudden Service: “a trailer park fire of the mind” (“Valley,” 7). This line squeezes together two of the book’s prominent features: The subtle allusion to Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind echoes the poet’s efforts to pay homage to poetic predecessors. The term trailer park, which conjures images of Julian, Ricky and Bubbles, echoes the subject matter of many of its poems. This title would draw further attention to the perpetual celebration of a less-than-desirable lifestyle and, in doing so, resonate with a number of Canadians who fit such a celebration into their definition of culture.

Still, Bachinsky attempts to elevate her subject matter through experiments with what the inside cover flap calls “punk rock villanelles,” pseudo-Petrarchan sonnets, and even a glosa based on a poem by the Canadian Queen of glosas, P.K. Page. She name-drops Layton, samples Millay and, most successfully, Blake. In “Of a Place” and “Of a Time” she starts to spin Home of Sudden Service as her own Songs of Innocence and of Experience with great, but unsustained success. The experimentation continues with “Drive,” the long poem placed at the end of the book, which is written as fifteen sonnets, where each line of the first sonnet provides the first line for each of the succeeding sonnets. Despite exciting and excellent experiments in form, Home of Sudden Service lacks something. The characters are entirely unsympathetic. They accept their lots in life and do nothing to change.

What it lacks is hope. Even in “Drive,” the most freeing poem, the speaker completes a cross-country drive just to hop a plane back. This sensational Babylon of false stereotypes and empty caricatures doesn’t even end up flooded, as in “Wolf Lake” where “the place had been / a valley, before the dam, before the town” (47-8). Maybe the reason can be found in “Valley,” a peculiar play on a Petrarchan love sonnet.

Instead of eyes like diamonds or hair like golden flax, “cold suburban cartography / falls where it falls, like breathing or wind” (3-4) from the Valley. She looks something like “Kathie Lee [Gifford?] / meets corned beef hash” (8-9). This is no ideal lover, that sounds like “the scream of a swing set / rusty from years of schoolyard piss and shit” (9-10). Nevertheless, the form is satisfied because the speaker is in love, in some depraved, stripper-obsessed way:

I long for you each moment
I’m away. I want your legs as far apart
as the poles. Sick, I’m sick with longing for
some punk midnight vandal, some bleach-blonde hair.
(9)

What is it about the Valley that the speaker loves? Perhaps it’s in this: “Yours is the landscape of my youth” (1). Despite the piss and shit and corned beef hash, despite the hopelessness, the depravity, the fervent sex, the shamelessness, the crime, this is youth as the speaker remembers it. The trailer park fire burns in the mind, warming the speaker with sweet memories of youth and fueling the hopeless present. Fire consumes all, and though she can escape the trailer park, she cannot escape the memories.

Maybe the longing is ironic. After all, the speaker can’t seriously be “sick with longing for / some punk midnight vandal, some bleach-blonde hair” (13-4). How then, are we intended to read this poem, and the rest of the volume that it introduces? Is it an ironic eulogy, an insincere tribute? Or is it really a paean to youth, to a simplicity perverted by misunderstanding minds, by a world that won’t let kids be kids? Unfortunately, I have no answer. And it is this uncertainty that leaves Home of Sudden Service flickering weakly with poetry, or roaring with it.

Liam Ford lives in Coquitlam, BC. His blog is http://handicapramp.blogspot.com/.

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1 comment January 15th, 2007

Merrybegot by Mary Dalton

merrybegot 1

Title: Merrybegot (unabridged audio edition)
Author: Mary Dalton
Publisher: Rattling Books
Year: 2005
Pages: -

Review by Melanie Maddix.

When I first read Mary Dalton’s Merrybegot (Audio Book | Print Version), I was immediately taken in by its musicality. This book loves language. The idioms of Newfoundland take some getting used to, and I must confess that I still don’t know what they all mean. For the most part it can be guessed at by the context, or if you are the studious type, Dalton provides a web link for The Dictionary of Newfoundland English.

A few poems are taken directly from the dictionary. Dalton formed “She” from a usage example for saucy:

Was as good a gun
As ever was put to your face,
And she could kill anywhere.
All you had to do
Was hold her straight. But
She was miserable saucy.
She’ve had me shoulder
Beat all to pieces.
(58)

Although Dalton cites the dictionary as a major influence, the heart of Merrybegot lies in the people. Each poem is a short monologue that, when tied to the others, paints a picture of a unique community, one that is tightly knit but also somewhat judgemental and suspicious of outsiders. Outsiders can take the form of a single person, as in “The Doctor”: “Barked out his verdict: / Nothing to be done for them. / Was off in a flash” (26), or the entire government, as in “Federal”:

Some fellow in Ottawa
Eyed a dot on a map,
Signed a few papers and
We’re left with the rubble.
(30)

Merrybegot is at its best, however, when the characters turn their eyes inward. Some bluntly state their tragedies, like this man describing his wife’s death in childbirth:

She welcomed
Each youngster that came,
But the ninth tore her open –
Now she’s in the ground.
(“The Cross-Handed Bed” 22)

Others shy away and wrap themselves in myth and superstition:

Tea-leaves and the old woman’s warning:
Beware the man with gimlet eyes –
He’ll sing for you a deadly tune.
The day I got the scar
The wind faffering on the water
Died into a mauzy blue calm.
(“Fairy-Struck” 29)

Since this review is supposed to be about the audio book, the real question is: What does hearing Merrybegot read out loud add to the experience? Singer and former CBC host Anita Best reads the collection, with Patrick Boyle providing accompaniment on trumpet and flugelhorn.

Best has a lovely smooth reading voice, and does a little bit of singing on “The Water Man” (mp3 | 1.38 MB). After first reading the poem, she then sings it beautifully as a soft lullaby. Patrick Boyle fills the space between readings with improvised bits of what I can only describe as a combination of traditional east coast music and jazz. He really caught my attention on “Burn” (mp3 | 256 KB), the three-part story of a salter interspersed with Boyle’s mournful sea longing trumpet. The music is an inventive blend of styles that works well with the collection. I highly recommend checking out Boyle’s solo work as well.

Strong poems like “The Water Man,” “Burn,” and “Fairy-Struck” are even better in performance. It is the weaker poems that suffer here. The lack of depth in “Devil-Ma-Click” stands out as an example: “Stop and sit down, him? / He doesn’t know how / to buckle his legs” (24). Despite Best’s enthusiastic reading and Boyle’s perky sound effects, it falls flat.

My only real complaint with the audio book is the occasional whispering gibberish between tracks. This doesn’t add anything to the reading, and I kept finding myself wanting more music and poetry rather than the distraction of noise experiments. This is very minor, though, and should not deter anyone from purchasing the audio book.

Merrybegot is refreshing and lively, and is sure to become a classic in Canadian poetry.

Melanie Maddix lives in Richmond Hill.

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Add comment January 11th, 2007

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