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Archive for June, 2007

Adventures in the Reviewing Trade

Alex Good discusses reviewing at Canadian Notes & Queries:

I suspect a large part of this failure to engage a wider debate is the fact that so few Canadians have actually read the books being reviewed. And without that sense of a shared culture to feed on, reviews become only another disposable form of infotainment and advertising tossed into the void. This in turn leads to a downward spiral as reviewers both in print and online attempt to become the next Oprah or Richard and Judy and demonstrate their “power” to sell product, something they can only do by selling out.

To summarize: You’re seeing as much book reviewing in print, and probably even on the internet, now as you are ever likely to see. We’re not getting any more. There aren’t going to be more book reviews unless there’s a demand for more book reviews, and that demand does not exist. You aren’t going to get better book reviews unless there is a real critical debate about the quality of today’s book reviews, and that debate and that critique do not exist.

So, what do you think? CNQ doesn’t seem to have a comment system, so feel free to come back here and share your opinions.

(Via Bookninja)

1 comment June 29th, 2007

The Rush to Here by George Murray

rush to here

Title: The Rush to Here
Author: George Murray
Publisher: Nightwood Editions
Year: 2007
Pages: 79

Review by Alessandro Porco.

George Murray’s fourth collection of poetry, The Rush to Here, is a collection of 57 sonnets that employ a poetic device Murray describes as thought-rhyme. “Instead of rhyming ‘night’ with ‘fight’,” explains Murray in interview, “I can ‘rhyme’ it [night] with any of a series of [word] associations.” For instance, “night” may rhyme with “the synonym ‘evening,’ the antonym ‘day,’ the homonym ‘knight,’ the anagram ‘thing,’ a synonym of a homonym ’soldier’ (for ‘knight’), a homonym of an antonym ‘dais,’ [and even] across phraseology and idiom ’silent,’ etc.” Thus, the “sonic” value of rhyme, whether euphonic (perfect-rhyme), dissonant (half-rhyme), or somewhere in-between (assonance), is no longer a determining criteria for rhyme-word selection. In fact, Murray’s use of thought-rhyme is prompted by a general dissatisfaction with what he refers to as “the faux Elizabethan sing-song sound” produced by the more-commonly deployed conception of rhyme-as-aural-phenomena (”Interview,” Northern Poetry Review). Before discussing some of collection’s recurring ideas and its better poems, I would like to begin by briefly illuminating philosophical-aesthetic issues underpinning Murray’s though-rhyme device.

First, as scholars such as Henri Meschonnic and Marjorie Perloff have argued, sonic- and thought-rhyme are not necessarily exclusive of each other: sound interpenetrates denotative-connotative word-meanings (Murray’s thoughts) and vice versa; one does not preclude the other. Purposive semantic connections are intentionally made via sound affinities, resulting in puns, irony, paradox, dramatics, sentimentality, and absurdity. Even in the case of non-semantic or purely affective rhyme-patterning, with the word reduced to its non-semantic materiality, interpenetration of sound and sense is an inevitable felicity of language that cannot be prevented. Second, Murray incorrectly determines rhyme to be indicative of antiquated poetics out of sorts with our particular epoch’s speech patterns. Consider the polysyllabic rhymes of Paul Muldoon or Ghostface Killah; consider Robert Pinsky’s slant-rhyme translation of Dante’s Inferno. Sonic rhyme does not hinder a contemporary poet’s speaking to his epoch’s concerns. That said, Murray’s desire to un-shackle thought-rhymes held prisoner within each word is, in large part, very commendable; as Baudelaire writes, “every poet who does not know how much each word includes rhymes, is incapable of expressing any idea whatever.”

Murray wants new rhymes; as Meschonnic argues, “poetry is not poetry unless it invents new rhymes.” New rhymes “[transform] reason.” By transforming reason, rhyme transforms living and, consequently, may be understood as an “ethics” (”Rhyme and Life” 95; 107). But I qualify these last commendations with two points: first, while Murray’s sonnets are the first extended engagement-in-praxis of thought-rhyme I’ve encountered, the theory itself, of thought-rhyme, is not new. Emerson’s “Merlin II,” from his Poems 1847, includes his musing on the very concept:

Like the dancers’ ordered band,
Thoughts come also hand in hand;
In equal couples mated,
Or else alternated;
Adding by their mutual gage,
One to the other, health and age.
(94; emphasis mine)

For Emerson, as it is for Murray, thought-rhymes exist in symbiotic relation within a larger sophisticated living thing we refer to as the “poem,” full of denotative and connotative organs that allow it to succeed or fail. Second, and more importantly, it’s important to understand that thought-rhyme as a poetic device does not ensure with absolute certainty the production of “new rhymes.” In fact, when relying too much upon unfiltered associative processes, Murray at times slips into “cliche” correspondences that are as uninteresting as the worst sonic rhyme — let’s say “death-breath.” “Mind / heart” (17, 46); “you / me” (46); “day / night” (25); “paradise / bliss” (41), “self / other” (20); “water / fire” (20); and “air / earth” (20) — these are the uninteresting by-products of the collection’s technological determinism (i.e. thought-rhyme).

As for the sonnets generated, well, a handful of very good ones are present. Here’s “Many Worlds,” in toto, the final poem in The Rush to Here’s second section:

Sure, there may be other universes,
as many as there are options at all

given moments, branches from branches
until choice becomes more bush than tree,

but in some ensuing universes
most everything stays the same as in this one.

a butterfly tilts to another bearing,
the old lady turns left instead of right,

you spend an extra night alone with the lust
that keeps you lonely, and nothing new comes

of it, no catastrophic difference
felt, no recognizable consequence made.

There are many worlds we can’t tell from our own
because some choices don’t matter at all.
(38)

The poem is concerned with the relation between the singular whole (sameness, stasis) and its plural parts (difference, action); or, the rather Neo-Platonic-like enfolding of the latter into the former. If one breaks down “universe” into its constituent part (uni and verse), thus, recognizing the root-word “verse” (literally meaning “to turn”), then the fourth couplet’s “turn” towards navigational terms becomes all the more effective: “tilts,” “another bearing,” “turns,” “left,” “right” — these “turns” are the decisions that we all like to think make some difference within our respective universes, as if we could each will our imminent futurity. But, as Murray intimates in his delicately stated yet harrowing-in-implication epigrammatic finale, “some choices don’t matter at all.” And though it’s perhaps comforting to fancy other universes to which escape may ultimately lead to a more fruitful existence, it’s more plausible that escape leads to a world or “many worlds” no different than our own. I appreciate Murray’s easy manner as he tackles grand ideas: the colloquial touch of “sure” or “most everything” or “nothing new comes of it” is particularly effective. And I appreciate a hesitancy on the part of Murray to insist upon an easy answer to the poem’s existential problem: If our choices here hardly matter, and if our choices in an elsewhere “universe” are equally impotent, how is it that we might come to “feel” as if we exist? He accords himself well as a contemplative poet.

Another fine poem is “Days of Glass” (14): “These are the days of glass, each pane clear / enough to show what’s beyond, yet stacked up / against one another, they begin to blur” (14). The poem, like many others in The Rush to Here (see, in particular, “Distilled Water” [20], “Reno” [29], “Push” [46], “Line of Sight” [47], “Erode and Flow” [52], “Exit Strategy” [69]), is concerned with phenomenology and the epistemes both at work within, and which might possibility be derived from, our subjective perception-experiences. For Murray, nothing is transparent ergo nothing is absolute (”It’s difficult to be sure everyone / sees the same thing” [47]); and there are limits to the value of our perceptions (”His self-image can’t be shared with anyone living” [20]). Returning to “Days of Glass,” it’s worth noting the pun in the title: “days” / “daze” — the latter indicative of sight (i.e. dazed off into the sunset) and a stupefied mental or physical condition. Also, in the passage quoted above from the poem, “each pane” also reads as “each pain” (i.e. the hurts we suffer), which, over a life-time, pile up. “Each pane” of experience “[stacks] up,” and it is with difficulty through such a pile that we experience everyday living and phenomena. Yet, as Murray points out, the piled panes become a “barrier to sense.” One’s sense of the world is always skewed and peculiarly one’s own and, in fact, not quite living.

There are a couple more fine poems, most notably, “Truck Stop Gothic” (31) and “Erode and Flow” (52). But, for the most part, Murray’s sonnets tend towards disappointment because, often, they do not fulfil their initiating premises’ promises. For example, “The Revolution” begins with these wonderfully enticing lines:

What I don’t understand is how to decide
between beauties, how to know if the best choice

for the empty plot is an English garden
or a uniform bed of French poppies.
(15)

Unfortunately, this line of thinking is immediately abandoned. And, sometimes — at least, for this reviewer’s taste — Murray’s guiding conceits are too abstract (”Your actions like invisible dog tags” [12]) and often mixed (”a submarine breaching the ocean’s skin in a flower of froth” [16; emphasis mine]). But, to end on a more positive note, Murray does have a penchant for constructing wonderfully closing couplets that, despite their occasional failure in terms of adequately responding to or filling out the sonnets, are interesting in and of themselves:

Everything can’t stay this way forever,
but that doesn’t mean it won’t be this good again.
(”Half-a-Wit” 13)

Common sense says from this point the rules may vary.
Things are never the same, but even that may change.
(”Tear-Water Teat” 43)

There are so few barriers to proper sense,
but sense is among them, if you get my drift.
(”The Corner” 33)

Are such couplets enough to recommend the book? Not entirely, no. But the occasional success and Murray’s experiments with thought-rhyme merit at least some looking into.

Alessandro Porco\’s first collection of poetry, The Jill Kelly Poems, is published by ECW Press (2005). Currently, Porco attends the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he is completing a doctorate on Hip-Hop Poetics. A second collection of poetry, titled Augustine in Carthage, is forthcoming from ECW Press in the spring of 2008.

Other Online Reviews

1 comment June 26th, 2007

Two or Three Guitars: Selected Poems by John Terpstra

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Title: Two or Three Guitars: Selected Poems
Author: John Terpstra
Publisher: Gaspereau Press
Year: 2006
Pages: 155

Review by Shane Neilson.

A Selected Poems is a celebration of a poet’s career, a summa of their achievement; but it is also something much more democratic, for it offers the reader, heretofore unfamiliar with the mid- or late-career poet (Terpstra is the former), a crash course. I myself have seen the odd Terpstra chapbook over the years, the occasional publication in a periodical, and for purely professional reasons (I double as a doctor) I read his touching prose memoir The Boys, a book which described the life and inevitable demise of his wife’s three brothers to muscular dystrophy. The image of the poet which I had cultivated was a genial guy, a gentle ironist (no savage Swiftian stuff), a versatile poet who could go long in line length, but who could also hem things short. In my estimation, Terpstra was a very comfortable poet, one who wore well, though there wasn’t anything I could recall, a perfect poem or two, that I instantly thought of when his name came again to my attention. But I figured that was probably due to my pathetically limited exposure, and I turned to Two or Three Guitars hopeful that my limited appreciation would be rehabilitated.

And it was. Let me first say that I respect Terpstra’s selection ethic. This is not an omnium gatherum of scrabbled bits and epigrams, of doggerel and failure; Terpstra carefully chose which poems he wanted to include. This is a kind of reverse generosity that is too infrequent in Canadian poetry nowadays (think of Christopher Wiseman, whom I reviewed on this site, or Don McKay’s bloated opus, which Zach Wells took on, also on this site). It’s a trick more mature poets out there could learn. The mathematics: one of Terpstra’s six books has a low of six poems included; the maximum is ten. Thus all of the poems that Terpstra included had to be competitive, had to perform; by being so hard on himself, he chooses the best ambassadors, and as a consequence he improves his reception.

Which is where I come in. Terpstra mostly avoids the lyric, preferring anecdote. He is very careful about his phrasing; he really wants you to pause after a line break, which is just as it should be. If his poems could be described in a word, it’d be quiet: no pomp or circumstance, but just good, honest observation mixed in with insight (and especially closing insights) carried off in a way that’s not quite workmanlike, for there is an intelligence here, an artifice, that would be slandered if I called it such. Yet there’s also no pyrotechnics, no power chord. The best metaphor I can think of is buttoned-down, but only in the way an Armani suit is buttoned-down. And the real accomplishment is that the same style is in evidence in poem after poem, and I still don’t crave a split seam. The poems are longish, the anecdotes take their time in unraveling, but good time is made.

If I had to complain, perhaps only for the sake of complaining, I’d say that Terpstra overdoes it a little with the natural world. Tree, temperature, weather, water, etc; they’re stock characters in Terpstra’s poetry, suggesting an old bag of metaphor he keeps reaching into. He’s right when, in “Hypotheses,” he writes

These are, of course, preposterous hypotheses, and it is
likely that only those who are willing to admit to an uncommon
empathy with trees would ever entertain them.
(63)

More compromisingly, his anecdotes could use some punching up: the wisdom he tacks on at the end of poems; for example, the parting shot of “Quantification,” where he writes

Outside the car the trees are taking back
their buds, and all the world is stretching
wider in between and all the world is homelike
alien
      resistable as spring

(21)

might have used some help earlier on in this detail-heavy poem. One rather wishes, after much straightforward exposition, that a little more wisdom was leavened into the poems. I appreciate the juxtaposition of “homelike” and “alien,” I like the idea of comparing Spring and the world; there’s something mysterious at work there, something poetic. I just wish there were more of it. But do I also wish there were more verbal ruckus, more rhyme concatenation? Well, that would be to wish Terpstra to become the kind of poet he is not, and his stateliness more than redeems his overweening control, for a Terpstra poem is cohesive, it progresses to a point, usually at the end of the poem, where some notion is put forward, often beautifully. So to suggest that Terpstra should unbutton himself seems to fault him for what he does well.

All of this is not to say that there’s no life in a Terpstra poem beyond barometers and plant biology. There’s music, there’s conversation, there’s love, dancing, music, sports, travel, wildlife, history, elegy, and much more. From the perspective of a reader, and not a reviewer, I would (and will) recommend this book to friends just for sheer enjoyment, for the anecdotes are interesting in and of themselves. Terpstra does some interesting things with his poems, but then he also does some interesting things. Yet, beyond a sheer content perspective, what about the nature of the poetic endeavor? What about an overall judgment? There’s a definite intelligence at work, a canniness; the reader climbs a sturdy scaffolding to get to the top (a conclusion). But what’s most interesting about a Selected in the final analysis is not what’s in it, or what’s not in it. It’s about evolution — how that poetic intelligence progresses, matures. Do the poems change? Do the poems get souped-up or more spare, are there any new tricks?

If anything, Terpstra becomes more confessional as time passes. He toys with longer line lengths, and flirts (but does not completely go over) with lyric. His poems get longer, but do not get flabby (in fact, it I could offer Terpstra a challenge, it would be to write a lyric, and to do so briefly, if only to show versatility) and it’s a matter of special achievement that this is so, because the usual formula in Canadian poetry is to underwrite the long poem, to overstuff, to fill. Terpstra’s most comfortable at moving towards his inevitable conclusions, and it’s a delight to report that he gets better from book to book.

I do have one serious reservation, however. There is no signature poem in this volume, no anthem. A poet has to have something to be known by, and this was suggested initially by the fact that I knew Terpstra, had read Terpstra, but could recall no Terpstra. Admittedly, the long form does not help him in this regard; something short and snappy would be more digestible. But even his long poems, which deserve to be known, just don’t have that otherness, that trademark idiosyncrasy, that mandate possessed by a poet writing as no one else does. Reading Terpstra, I don’t get the sense that he’s writing something that couldn’t have been written by anyone else. Which is to say: I think Terpstra good, I’d even nominate him as the best long-poem poet in the country. But there’s a reason I didn’t quote much from Two or Three Guitars in this review: It’s because there’s not much to quote in isolation. Terpstra’s poems are wholes, and as such aren’t amenable to selection. Here’s one taken at random, to give you an idea:

It may as well have been for forty days
and nights that we were on the long Atlantic.
Two by two, with children most of us
we packed out bags, walked the gangway, waved
and leaning on a deckrail watched the sea rise
up behind us, top the dikes and take the lives
of loved ones…
(“Forty Days and Forty Nights” 33)

Or how about this:

A sapling is no more than a tapered tube, a two-by-two. Six feet
up from the ground it projects awkward-looking sticks left and
right that end in bursts of leaf, bigger than expected. The leaves
themselves seeming oversized, out of proportion to the skinny
branch.
(“Adolescence” 59)

As anecdote or data they set a scene, but are hardly memorable, and can be thought of as functional only, and therefore don’t do justice to a poet who is saying something through an entire poem, and not part by part. Terpstra ambles, but calculatedly; one has to see the whole finessing performance – especially the end credits — to appreciate it fully.

The end? I doubt it. Tersptra has gotten better with age; he’s focused on what he’s good at; and he’s collected together a very good book. I suspect that, given another decade or two, we’ll be treated to another of these Selecteds. I’m sure his signature will be on it.

Shane Neilson is a writer from New Brunswick.

1 comment June 14th, 2007

I Cut My Finger by Stuart Ross

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Title: I Cut My finger
Author: Stuart Ross
Publisher: Anvil Press
Year: 2007
Pages: 80

Review by Nick Thran

The 2003 publication of Stuart Ross’ Hey, Crumbling Balcony! Poems New and Selected was met with the sort of mixed reception one would expect from such an alchemical poet. One had the sense that, while admiring his achievement, reviewers still refused to see him as more than a sort of eccentric uncle of the Can-Lit scene — a little too earnest for the staunchly avant-garde, a little too wacky for the more traditional camps.

In the four years since Hey, Crumbling Balcony! and this year’s recently published I Cut My Finger, Stuart Ross’ influence has been felt more than ever. Younger poets in Canada publishing books of a decidedly surrealist nature (Kevin Connolly’s drift, Jason Heroux’s Memoirs of an Alias, and Elizabeth Bachinsky’s Curio: Grotesques and Satires From the Electronic Age, to name just three) are often blurbed by Ross, or cite him as a direct influence. Many of these books have been met with a wide readership, glowing reviews, and major awards. Where the Americans have always had practicing surrealists like John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Tate to look up to, young poets in this country wanting to bend, cut, and paste the language, to risk including the humorous and the bizarre without sacrificing the heart required of what I’ll reluctantly call “serious” poetry, have not, until now, had that sort of figure. And what’s more, they don’t have to hunt down his work at small press fairs and online anymore, but can merely go to their local bookstore and pick up this readily available, handsome new volume by Anvil Press.

Whereas Hey, Crumbling Balcony! served as a fine catch-all introduction for many of us, I Cut My Finger finds Ross further honing his craft and contortionism. It should confirm his reputation as a poet whose work is an open door out into some fresh air for readers who might feel a little claustrophobic within the confines of Canadian poetry. And what do I mean by “an open door”? Well, consider the first poem in the book, “The Door”:

I approach the door.
The door approaches the Welcome mat.
The Welcome Mat approaches the stairs.
The stairs approach the flagstone path.
The flagstone path approaches the curb.
The curb approaches the street.
The street approaches
the topic gingerly,
cowering behind the bushes
that hide the naked dog.
(9)

Here we have a typical surrealist “poem as process” — the patterned series of introductions, the absorption of the “I” speaker into the world of things. The poem, as an opener, doesn’t set out with a statement of intent, or announce the arrival of the authorial voice upon his subject so much as it presents the reader with a cross-section of sedimentary layers. Each self-contained statement is an essential part of the poem’s whole. What sets this poem apart is the unnamed “topic” which the street (the poem’s direction?) approaches “gingerly.” That gingerly approached topic is buried underneath the previous lines, each one up until then finishing on an end stop. While Ross doesn’t explicitly break from the pattern set out, the “topic” seems to almost shiver up through the rest of the poem. This shivering is embodied by the image of the naked dog. The “I” of this poem is merely the froth on the surface. Things have their place here. Yet there are stirrings. When these stirrings are felt, as they are, through each image, through each layer, through the curb at the street just as much as the “I” at the door, the poem’s own mystery extends out further into the world, like an earthquake might, as opposed to a panic attack.

If I’m getting a little carried away, let that stand as an indication of the sort of exuberance the best poems in this book inspire. From Andre Breton onward, exuberance has been a hallmark of those poets who fall under the loose term “surrealist.” Sometimes, to achieve this, Ross employs outright absurdist bombast, such as in “How I Became Exquisite:”

I let Misery have one
right in the stomach…

…He crumpled and fell
to the peanut-shell-strewn floor, and I,
having punched out Misery
divested myself of my mortal clothes
and draped me in a robe of Magenta.
(18)

All of this is good tongue-in-cheek fun, and Ross is never a timid fighter when he puts on that particular set of gloves. Nor is he when he decides, as in “Mary is the Merry One,” that he will build an 11 stanza poem entirely of bizarre non-sequiturs:

Frankenstein wore a hideous mask.
The robbery was a hoax.
No girl wishes to be homely.
A hobo does not work.
(50)

The response to poems such as these will largely be a matter of the reader’s personal taste, but I felt in certain poems that I was watching the poet’s stretching exercises as opposed to the actual race. Of course, the argument could be made that these sort of openly visible gimmicks and games are an absolutely essential and valid part of a writer’s body of work. That is, I’d venture, the argument being made by Ross’ inclusion of them here.

What I personally found myself most drawn to, however, were the poems (and there are many) where the imagistic bravado and willingness to play are married to a deep sense of mortality and quiet grace. It takes a special sort of poet to make a reader feel profound empathy for the shattered dreams of a young hamburger, as he does in “Because One Thing Bumped Into Another”:

…Someone once told me

of a thing called love, and also
a thing called lightning, and I
watched the skies for both.
(88)

Stuart Ross is, above all, a heartbreaker. Take this passage from “Others Like Me”:

Others like me appeared,
coughing, snickering, crying.
We fought, fucked,
built a society,
and set out
to construct
a sailboat from toothpicks,
books from the wings
of an aphid.
(34)

It’s the sort of image a poet must have lived a long time and worked damn hard at his craft to arrive at. I Cut My Finger is a strange, beguiling and beautiful book that stands as evidence of both.

Nick Thran grew up in western Canada, southern Spain, and southern California. His work has appeared in a number of literary magazines, including Grain, The Fiddlehead, and The Malahat Review. He currently lives in Toronto.

2 comments June 1st, 2007

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