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Ink Monkey by Diana Hartog

hartog inkmonkey

Title: Ink Monkey
Author: Diana Hartog
Publisher: Brick Books
Year: 2006
Pages: 144

Review by Jennifer Houle.

Ink Monkey is Diana Hartog’s first volume of poetry in over 13 years (as indicated on the back jacket), and as one would expect, each word is carefully measured and well-considered. Obviously in the Imagist tradition (although not Imagism, quite), each piece is cut as precisely as a diamond, and indeed, the collection contains a suite of poems inspired by Japanese prints.

There is a tensile quality to the poems here, the sensation that what is being said is being communicated from a great distance, Hartog having pulled back from her material—both physically and temporally. There is recalcitrance, a hesitation between stanzas, an unwillingness to comment which, of course, is a key tenet of the Imagist school: no passion. Calm, clear, precise. The image speaks for itself.

On the back jacket: Robert Stroud compares Hartog’s work to a plunge “into an ice-cold mountain stream: the old familiar world is washed away, and we are startled into a fresh, new clarity.” He likens her ability to meld the ordinary with the visionary to Emily Dickinson’s, and I would agree, although the Dickinson line that occurred to me over and over as I read the pieces in Ink Monkey was “After great pain—a formal feeling comes.”

There is a great formality to these poems, tremendous consciousness, and, at times, the formality is almost too much for the subject matter, as in the collection’s title poem, “Ink Monkey.” The poem is inspired by tiny monkeys once thought to be extinct but recently rediscovered in China, and as Hartog explains in an introductory note,

The ‘ink’ or ‘pen’ monkeys were once kept by scholars to prepare ink, pass brushes and turn pages; the highly intelligent creatures, who slept in desk drawers or brush pots, evidently added to a scholar’s reputation for eccentricity.
(37)

The tone of the poem that follows can only be described as tongue-in-cheek reverence. Told from the point of view of the ink monkey, a doddering old scholar is described as

A strange hunched creature, trembling at every task.
He can’t write.  Not poetry.
Oh, he can wield a brush
and stroke a character
		—even  a string of characters—
rewarding himself with a raisin for every page
turned.  Scribble scribble.
Scribble scribble scribble.  Off in his own world.

(39)

I believe that Hartog intends the reader to believe that the speaker of the poem is the scholar. That way, later, when the poem shifts, and it becomes clear that the monkey is the speaker, describing his master, we’ll have to double back and reread. I won’t spoil the ending. The trick is just not quite pulled off. There has been too much formality leading up to it, not enough jocularity. Hartog hasn’t done the work of befriending the reader, instead remaining detached. What we have been shown is a series of still-lives, with very little commentary on what we are being shown. Suddenly, there’s point of view trickery going on, and the point being made is just not clear, particularly after the very formal introduction we’ve been given to the titular creature, via the introductory note. This lapse in tone weakens the collection as a whole.

And yet, what a fascinating little creature. Fascinating sights and scenarios abound. They’re just very poorly tied together. They drift, like the lone moon jellyfish in “Section IV: Jellyfish Suite.”

A Moon Jelly

Rare—since they commonly drift in swarms—
To view a lone moon jelly

The whitish-opaque bell
doubly veiled: picture

a light mist across
a moon
seen through eyes
clouded; one’s thoughts elsewhere.
(51)

There’s no denying this poem’s accomplishment — it’s simple, beautiful, analogy. In fact, the collection is worthwhile for the Jellyfish Suite alone, striking image following striking image. In “Quince Jelly”:

. . .the thinnest of skins, the membrane between
being and nothingness: transparent,
or opaque

is compared to paraffin wax, cooling and hardening, the jelly

pale and translucent,
the colour, say,
of the soul

freshly entered through the top
of an infant’s skull,
the soft fontanel finally closing
to the light streaming down
as the bones knit together: That will have to do.
(50)

There’s no arguing Hartog’s ability to convey her images just so. The technical control, and the precise, imaginative attention she brings to her subjects, is impressive. The book’s back jacket makes a point of informing the reader how long it has been since Hartog’s last excursion into poetry, and positioning the work as such places the contents of this collection under tremendous pressure, and the contents, as it turns out, are very fragile. Fragile in the way that beautiful things often seem fragile; that they could be held together just so—infant’s scalps, jellyfish, curious, miniscule creatures. Hartog hones in on these small images, and takes great care to describe them exactly.

And though her analogies are invariably spot-on, at times the strain of it is palpable, particularly when Hartog attempts to use Imagism to depict moments of human interaction. In the poem “Cup,”

Tears serve a woman less as weapon
than a means to cup pain, and hand him the cup—to quaff
before he goes.

And:

When a man is moved,
he will sometimes sit terribly still
and look away. No, he isn’t thirsty.
(14)

Somewhere, you’d think, the poetry would have to burst the banks, spill over and gush for even one moment. So much is repressed here. Usually, we criticize our poets for saying too much, going too far, telling instead of showing. Does anyone ever get it just right? When will Imagism and Romanticism unite?

Perhaps I am uncomfortable with human emotion being “imagized”; it seems something is lost there, anesthetized. Imagism’s power lies in its ability to elevate an object, or a scene, beyond the ordinary. But in the passage above, the opposite occurs, and the potency of the moment is, effectively, diminished, much in the way a photograph can cheapen a memory.

Overall, the collection is quirky—unevenly paced for a work in which each individual piece is so carefully controlled. Nevertheless, it is worth the read simply for the mastery of “Jellyfish Suite,” where Hartog’s economical technique is put to its best use.

Jenn Houle lives, works and writes in Shediac, New Brunswick. Her work has appeared in several Canadian literary journals, and is forthcoming in Carousel and CV2. She is currently working on her first collection of poems.

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Add comment February 19th, 2007

In John Updike’s Room by Christopher Wiseman

wiseman

Title: In John Updike\’s Room
Author: Christopher Wiseman
Publisher: The Porcupine\’s Quill
Year: 2005
Pages: 224

Review by Shane Neilson.

I must admit to a strange lacunae regarding Christopher Wiseman: I’d never heard of him before this review, which is especially strange considering the blurbs on the back of the book by two non-slouch adjudicators, Carmine Starnino and Don Coles. I was further embarrassed by his bio, which pits him at near the centre of Canadian Literature for decades. (He’s won a number of provincial awards for his poetry, his criticism is celebrated, he was the founding presence behind the University of Calgary Creative Writing program. Well, one can forgive him for that.) Yet, in my defence, he’s never won the big prize – a GG – and so isn’t by default required reading. Furthermore, he is from a different generation than my own. But then so is P.K. Page, still alive, and Shakespeare, who is dead. At any rate, In John Updike’s Room was published by the Porcupine’s Quill, for my money the best press in Canada. I took it on that basis.

It turns out that this is the perfect volume to get me up to speed. This is a Selected Poems, even though it’s not announced as such on its front cover (though the inner fly-leaf admits as much). It consists of poems from all of Wiseman’s eight books, and also front-loads 18 new poems to whet the appetite of those, unlike me, who are already steeped in Wiseman. It must be mentioned that there is already a Wiseman Selected out there, Postcards Home: Poems New and Selected (Sono Nis Press), but it was published in 1988 and three full-length collections have been released since then. Besides, it’s out of print.

On to the poetry. Wiseman is a playful poet; he casts inanimate objects – like the washer and dryer in “In the Basement” – as having a secret life. But at the same time he’s brutally honest about the world and about himself, like in “Philistine at the Ballet”:

Soon it will be over
And I’ll escape
Awkward, trousers flapping,
Clumping on heavy heels,
I’ll walk the dull grey streets
To my untidy flat,
My monstrously pregnant wife,
And the world I live in.
(48)

It’s this alternating tone, this multifaceted ability, that does a rare thing: the poems actually play off of one another. Too often I read poem after poem in collection after collection wherein no thought is paid to juxtaposition. Wiseman has this trick down cold. His poems can be menacing, they can be tender, they can be comic, they can be serious. Theme ricochets off of theme; and I suppose this effect must have been amplified in the individual collections themselves for it to be preserved in a Selected. Each of the poems, though, are similar in one respect: they take a premise – be it the washer and dryer being lovers, be it the Dracula legend – and expound upon it. They use their premises as a launching ground for insight. Often small insight – Wiseman isn’t a master of leaping logic, of transcendence — that’s perfectly suited to the little moments he creates in his poems, little vignettes. For example, in “Dracula,” the poem ends with Wiseman disagreeing with the happy ending of Dracula’s destruction, writing,

No. The story went too far.
For even now, at night, safe
And secret under blankets, I know
The fabulist was wrong, when something
Hideous and familiar appears,
Parting the mists and coming towards me.
(51)

Wiseman doesn’t do the obvious thing and argue that Dracula is legend only; he uses the premise that Dracula is real and from there explains the nature of his fear. It’s child-like, of course, but in the way that children have an intact sense of wonder. Wiseman isn’t saying that Dracula will get you; he’s saying that all fear has root cause, and why not trace it back to the stories we tell children, those who are “safe / And secret under blankets”? Which may be saying too much, for the poem is a poem, after all, and not a message. But it illustrates Wiseman’s preoccupations with magical thinking, with “What if?” premises, and with childhood in general.

Perhaps the most arresting poems, though, aren’t the ones borne of imagination. I think the love poems are Wiseman’s true calling. Consider “Past Loves”:

Their bright colours have faded.
One by one they have
Been refined by the years
Until they are no more
Than curious and mingled
Scents, caught only faintly
Yet known for what they are.

Farewell to all of them,
Half-forgotten, but deeply
Part of me, like those flowers
Of a country childhood –
Colesfoot, centaury, loosestrife –
Whose names come back from where
No winters were, or thorns.
(55)

It’s a masterpiece. The diction is simple and unassuming; there are no pyrotechnics, no rapidly beating bulging heart. But that makes the emotion that much stronger; the love mentioned begins as “faded” colours, and is then conflated as “faint” scents. But Wiseman has no more of this; this is indeed a love poem. The scents are “known for what they are,” a bold statement, a statement that inverts the initial premise of the poem – a receding marriage or a spent affair – and says, no there is still something here, something important. The second stanza builds on this inversion, this reversal, admitting “farewell” while at the same time acknowledging what they remain, which is “deeply part of me.” And the closing lines are beautiful – even Shakesperean, whom I’ve already mentioned. The love is idealized, it becomes perfect – and the manner of expression is so powerful, one can’t help but agree. Sure, the earlier lines of the poem admitted it nearly gone, but the closing lines refute that entirely. That’s a lot of work to accomplish in such a short piece.

There are many, many more love poems of this quality in In John Updike’s Room, poems divorced from sentiment by skill, poems that affirm love as flawed but worthwhile, poems not afraid to say the way it is while also keeping an eye towards how it could be.

When it comes to technique, Wiseman has an uncluttered style. He’s almost Nowlanian in his directness, in his I-think-this-about-thatness, yet he doesn’t overindulge in his own grand pensees. Unlike Nowlan, Wiseman doesn’t believe that, just because he has written about it, his writings constitute a poem. In short, he usually doesn’t inflict himself on the reader. His poems, minor or major, do some kind of poetic work. It’s true that this is a Selected, and if I were reviewing an individual collection I might not feel similarly. Yet it’s interesting to see how Wiseman navigates the troubled waters of anecdote, infusing in just the right amount of lyric to take what might be considered a rather ordinary description and make it a poem. His playfulness and magical thinking also help in this respect.

It’s also true that Wiseman is a very elegant poet. He’s not particularly enamoured of sound; he doesn’t force words into place. He does write clearly and cleanly, without obfuscation. It’s a mode that he employed from his first book on. I think this is a tightrope – some poets, like Steven Price, fall off on the side of sound. The words run thick like molasses. Other poets, to reuse Nowlan again, fall off on the side of “direct speech” that often sounds banal and empty like a bad paragraph can. Wiseman walks this tightrope. His “unflashiness” in this respect can instead be thought of as very much flashy in the way a tightrope walker can walk a tightrope and you can’t. It’s this seeming absence of craft that is instead an absence of overt craft.

Which is not to say that there isn’t a false step. Some of the poems fail. One could mistake “The Field” as something Nowlan himself could have written to his son Johnny:

That’s where
I saw the Lysander crash,
I tell my son,
when I was about your age.
It came straight down
when I was playing.
There were two men in it,
both killed.

But it’s flat, he says,
just a flat field.
Where’s the hole?

I drive on
hunched tightly around
that scarred place inside me
I can never show him.
(67)

Well, this is sentimental in the extreme. We have a father talking to his son about an incident that happened to him as a child. People died. The son questions the father. All of this isn’t particularly offensive until the concluding stanza that is completely unearned. How did the incident “scar” him? Why can’t Wiseman “show” his son why it hurt him? What isn’t said is, I suppose, meant to be implied, but I object to the manipulative way the poem concludes. It is in soft focus, and it doesn’t help that the entire poem’s prosody, qua Nowlan, is slack. Here is an instance where Wiseman falls of the tightrope.

There are other instances. In “To a German Pilot,” Wiseman even becomes mawkish:

You hit no military target that night
but your mission accomplished something
if only that a hundred people would never be
the same. I still dream of you and your black plane.
I dream of the world ending in noise and flame.
(68)

Obtrusive rhythm, obtrusive sentiment, obtrusive rhyme (plane/same/flame) – it’s not simplicity, it’s simpleton. It’s demonization. It’s terrible.

But what about the new poems? Well, they mine nostalgia for sentimentality. Wiseman writes of a childless widow in “Margaret Gill’s Quiet Life”:

Or what it took away when that huge sea
One day gulped down her chance to live the way
She hoped, the way, for God’s sake, she’d hoped for,
Pulled from her all her babies and her youth…
(15)

The italics are mine, but one wonders how this got past an editor. Poets just have to do better than telegraph such sympathy. And, sadly, there is much more of it to be found. As Wiseman aged, his sensibility aged too, and his poems are more than a little creaky as a result. What do I mean, exactly? Well, consider the concluding lines to “When my Parents Danced the Tango”:

How glad I am they danced clear through the rules!

Fires, lust and daring! My dear lost fools!

Creeeeaaak! Sadly, I’d have to say that it’s past achievement that Wiseman will be remembered for, not the current poems on offer. Wiseman’s earlier reconnasiances into childhood – merciful, monstrous – are here unadulterated nostalgia, a highlight reel of sentimentality. What’s worked best for him in the past – the past – has become his most glaring weakness. What Wiseman needs, emphatically, is an update. Not John Updike. Michael Houellebecq, perhaps.

I’ll conclude by stating that this Selected is an excellent introduction to those, like me, previously ignorant of Wiseman. There are many excellent poems to be found, and there’s a technique on hand – colloquial, familiar without breeding contempt – that would do well to be emulated nowadays. The book is generous in that it’s over 200 pages long. It’s biggest deficiency is that the new poems, meant to rope in Wiseman fans, are abysmal. In them, blood can be “on fire.” Nights can be “wild, hot and noisy.” A woman’s leg is “curved and shapely.” There is a “wall of silence.” I shall now myself become silent.

Shane Neilson is a writer from New Brunswick.

31 comments February 9th, 2007

Sporatic Growth by Jay MillAr

sporatic growth

Title: Sporatic Growth
Author: Jay MillAr
Publisher: Nomados
Year: 2006
Pages: 28

Review by rob mclennan.

B

ebb uterus   larvae gesture
in it is an alley    in it is alive laying
redistributed i shed    great by
dared kinetic relish old low    street change in gifts
    think     converting excrement
larvae gestures            dead is how
even if their    content varies exam in ate
a thread distance health    inside
part ice culinary lying oval void continues vexed
    the inside      holds lower
    could never express
  holy low wing

After years of producing work in books and chapbooks, it seems as though Toronto poet and publisher Jay MillAr is coming into his own, much the way Prince George poet Rob Budde has over the past few publications out of his own British Columbia north, both working in their own relative obscurities in publishing for years before striking out in new territory and appearing, fully formed, on the other side. For MillAr, the real strength of his work began in his False Maps for Other Creatures, and continues in his new chapbook Sporatic Growth: being a third season of 26 fungal threads from Peter and Meredith Quartermain’s Nomados Press (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2006). The author of three poetry collections — The Ghosts of Jay MillAr (Coach House Books, 2000) and Mycological Studies (Coach House Books, 2002) and False Maps for Other Creatures (Nightwood Editions / blewointmentpress, 2005) — as well as a number of poetry chapbooks, including accumulation sonnets (BookThug, 2004), Jay MillAr is also the author of the new collaborative work Double Helix (with Stephen Cain) that just appeared with The Mercury Press, and publisher/editor of the book and chapbook series BookThug.

Even as the back cover blurb by Kemeny Babineau attests, MillAr is a big follower of tradition, and has previously riffed off works by bill bissett, Gerry Gilbert and Victor Coleman. Written as an abecedarian, MillAr’s Sporatic Growth: being a third season of 26 fungal threads is no different, and follows in the tradition of a number of previous works in Canadian writing, including the recent George Bowering chapbook A, You’re Adorable, that he originally published under the name Ellen Field (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 1998/2004) that he later reprinted in his Vermeer’s Light: Poems 1996-2006 (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2006), and Victor Coleman’s MI SING: LETTER DROP 2 (BookThug, 2005) and LETTER DROP (Coach House Books, 1999), not to mention earlier works such as A by the late American poet Louis Zukofsky. In these poems, MillAr also has a wonderful use of spacing that is rarely used, or used so well, almost existing as a prairie spacing, referencing perhaps the works of Dennis Cooley, Birk Sproxton, Karen Clavelle or Sylvia Legris, but could also recall, through his combination of space and working biological elements, Toronto poet and editor angela rawlings’ own Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2006).

F

    square mute legs lasting for list ate
lasting for lineage teams               nodule purple ray
    olive ace our snot (disk or dears
we ate her    gorillas   old ivy ace our   sweat her      gorillas
        fun do her     wheat he       ran dead are lying
             a node    no trace rely      on lice acts when our     sin
                gorillas     distort under sun) planets convince
                                                                           exclaim  notes
                  edition bleed           it bleed thins           odd erosion
                                no televised        eel

For years, much like friend and collaborator Stephen Cain, MillAr has worked in series, sequences and sections as opposed to individual poems, and the poems here are no different, working an alphabetical suite of sweeps in their lovely evident of spacing across the page that exist almost as naturally as the biology he writes. Not that this is the first time MillAr has referenced any part of fungal in his writing, it exists as a thread through his published work, which isn’t hard to imagine, considering that he was raised by a zoologist and spent over a decade of summers collected data on white-footed mice in a woodlot near Tilbury, Ontario for a population Biologist. Unlike his earlier works on biology, the twenty-six poems here are far more mature, working through the content instead of attempting to manipulate it, and the poems work wonderfully through the flow. I look forward to seeing where exactly he might go next.

rob mclennan lives in Ottawa, even though he was born there once. The author and/or editor of innumerable books and chapbooks, his thirteenth trade poetry collection is The Ottawa City Project (Chaudiere Books, 2007). He often posts reviews, rants and other nonsense on his increasingly clever blog: www.robmclennan.blogspot.com

Add comment February 2nd, 2007

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