House of Anansi Press - June 29, 2006 - 98 Comments

Airstream Land Yacht

Airstream Land Yacht by Ken Babstock

Reviewed by Jenn Houle

I think it might be best to read Ken Babstock’s Airstream Land Yacht in the morning.  I made the mistake of first cracking it in the evening, and I ended up unable to sleep.  Could be that it was the seasons changing, my circadian rhythms glitching with late spring dampness and fog, but I am nearly certain Babstock’s poems played a part.  Some of the poems in this collection are just so surprisingly beautiful, so stunning and viscerally interesting, that it actually takes your brain a little while to apprehend it.  Something like when you have a near collision in the car, and the details of the near-miss only fill themselves in later, once you’re already long past the yield sign and cruising safely.  As I read along, I kept turning back to previous poems, and then trying to catch up with the collection’s flow all over again.  I kept flipping to the back page and staring at the author’s photo, thinking:  What?  How?  Really? Who is this person and how did he manage to articulate that?

It is not my intention to praise the collection unreservedly, because there are a few places in which a little more clarity, a little less allusiveness, and little more assertion might have benefited the whole.  There were places in this book that I got absolutely lost, places where, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what Babstock’s scheme was.  Should I have studied Post-Modernism more profoundly? Or Modernism?  Am I thinking of Marianne Moore or Ezra Pound, here, or��� ?  This feeling of being adrift occurred intermittently throughout the four part collection, in poems such as “The Sickness Unto Death and Harris on the Pig. Found.”


People do neither one nor the other; they shriek that help is
impossible without ever taxing their minds, and afterwards they
ungratefully lie.  To lack possibility means that everything has
become necessary or that everything

may be described as long and deep in the carcass, full in the ham,
admitting of no neck, dish face, and an easy taking on of fat.

I was never sure if it was a poem about exposition, ekphrasis, illness and excess, or a purely conceptual poem, or maybe, all of the above. It is certainly another poem which asks the reader to make sense of an odd juxtaposition.  There might be something brilliant in it I was unable to put together.  But, this is a collection that deals consistently with consciousness and our attempts to make discernments, to connect things — and here, I’d jolt from my alpha state thinking of E.M. Forster, my entire English literature education re-asserting itself with a vengeance — to establish cause and effect, and to understand ourselves and the world. 

Whenever I found myself lost, I would turn back to poems which staggered me with their simple beauty.  “Marram Grass,” a love poem, is my favorite in the collection, and I turned back to it at least five times.

I’ll pass this sight of you—soggy, in love
with me, bent to inspect and feel
the petals of something tiny, wild, nestled
among the roots and moss—over
the projector of my fluctuating self if ever
life’s thin, rigid narrowness
requests my heart be small.  You taught
and teach me things. Most alive when grit
makes seeing hard, scrapes the lens
through which what’s fixed is seen to weaken.

I feel about this poem the way I think I used to feel about certain formulaic power ballads when I was in high school.  And I don’t intend that as a trivialization of the poem, or as a piece of self-deprecating nuance.  I mean, I kind of swooned at how. . .beautiful and spot-on it was about the memory of the relationships which most mark us.  Oh?  Is it Neruda he reminds me of, then?  And, of course, every time I re-read it, I would flip to the last page again.  Is he like Byron?  Is he mad, bad and dangerous to know?  Babstock hints at past misdeeds and failures of conscience and character, throughout.  He writes of feeble attempts at restitution:

from my seat, I went and faced a woman whose caress

had eased my passage through some months I couldn’t pass
through on my own, she’d been more than kind, I’d
found I couldn’t love her at the time, and fled.
So, I faced her and apologized as best I could, given the mass

of people in the pub. ‘This is a poem,’ she said, ‘and that’s not
good enough.  Around here, we don’t let art, no matter
how acutely felt, stand in for what’s necessary, true and right.
Next time you face me, maybe leave you here.  End quote.’
(“The Minds of the Higher Animals” 49)

Art should not serve as apology, of course.  But it should also not have to apologize for itself, and thankfully, this collection doesn’t. It grapples with the issue of flawed cognition, dulled senses, and the simple, human desire to understand ourselves. This is shameless poetry, so painstakingly crafted in places, the seams show.  Seams.  Well. . .  but the seams don’t run straight and the neck is stitched to the wrist button, and sometimes.  .  .  Maybe that’s what it is:  Babstock has made a really weird sweater out of human consciousness and I can’t get it on right.  Well, who could?  You see, I really, really couldn’t get to sleep that first night with the book and I came up with things both trite and fascinating to me.  My mind was playing with itself, and aware that it was doing so.  Usually, our minds only play with themselves in dreams, but poetry, I’ve often thought, is what you get when your mind is able to play while still awake, when self-consciousness is there to mitigate and get us to try to impose a bit of order. This collection inspired that urge in me.  I wanted to get up out of bed and write things down at 3am.

There is so much more I should mention. There is a great deal in here about a sojourn in Iceland, the Nordic landscape, the feeling of a society on the edge of the sea.  There is much mist; much difficult and dodgy industry. There is false advertising, played against real and difficult beauty.  There is darkness and much groping around in that darkness. There is the masterful poem “Ataraxia” (52), which should be read seven times in a row, at least.  The back of the book contends that “the clutch of love poems contained within are key to unlocking the larger collection—itself a love song to the wordless world.” 

And there is definitely something here to unlock.  The book contains six poems entitled “Explanatory Gap” (17, 40, 44 and 60, 78, and 100, respectively), and while they are phenomenal poems, I admit, there are still some connections between these, and other individual poems that I haven’t quite made. For instance, I am not quite sure yet about the relationship between poems entitled “Essentialist” (13), “Pragmatist” (38), “Materialist” (62), “Verificationist” (87) and “Compatibilist” (107), all excellent poems in their own rights.  In my defense, I have only been sitting with the book for a month, and I have been shamelessly rereading “Marram Grass” instead of trying to really crack the code. 

This was my first exposure to Babstock, and, mild insomnia notwithstanding, I am grateful for the exposure.  It reminded me why I still love poetry as much as I do. It gave me a kind of ataraxia (I am ashamed to tell you that I had to Google this word—and I thought I knew my Greek ideology).  I will certainly read the collection again, hoping to make more connections between the poems.  I hope, I hope and pray, that very, very savvy scholars will publish articles about these connections and that I will chance upon these articles and be floored with fleeting feelings of really understanding.  I hope someone posts a comment underneath this review, elaborating on something I missed.  This collection is a love song to human consciousness, adrift in the “worldless world,” and I was utterly seduced.  So, while, some moments cast me just a bit too far adrift for me to praise it unreservedly (I mean, none of us like to be thrown out of a moving vehicle), I still recommend it unreservedly.  It is worth the price of admission solely for poems like “Ataraxia,” “Marram Grass,” “Palindromic” (27), and the “Explanatory Gaps.”  And for the poem “Epochal,” which offers us two images, culled from different forms of visual media, which seem, at first, utterly unrelated to one another.  Babstock then demands that we “connect them” (50).  Oh. It is worth the price of admission just to be invited to try.

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.


On July 04, 2006, joe beaupre said:

What a smarmy weak review.  Sound to me like you should marry Babstock.  What his poems are is earnest and rhetorical; he knows he sounds he way he does, but that does not diminish the lack of sincerity and truth in this work.  Reviewers like you should save your breath.  At least come up with one f**king critical thing to say or don’t bother.  If I wanted a love song to Ken Babstock I’d read his poems which read like love song to Ken Babstock.  Boo.

On July 04, 2006, Eric Barstad said:

Thanks for the feedback, Joe.

Your critique seems to hit at the heart of reviewing in general ? the struggle of objective analysis vs. subjective response. Obviously this review is more personal, but I definitely don’t think that makes it a weak review. On the contrary, if Babstock’s book can evoke such a personal response, doesn’t that in itself merit attention?

Besides, the reviewer doesn’t claim that the book is perfect or beyond reproach (she highlights the poet’s penchant for the obscure, for example) ; she simply focuses on the poems that are the most moving for her.

In the end, if you think Jenn’s review is overly biased toward the positive, write your own review and I’ll link to it as I’ve done with the Globe and Mail and Quill and Quire reviews above.

On July 06, 2006, The Harbinger said:

Joe - first off, if you are going to bash a reviewer about their literary abilities, you might want to either do some proof reading, or get yourself a full version of MS Word and use the spell check feature.

It SOUNDS (yes joe, SOUNDS, not SOUND) to me like you have a touch of the sexist-envy in you and, relying on cheap shock tactics to get yourself notice simply because YA JUST AIN’T GO “IT”.

(Also sounds like you may not be “‘getting any” either, but I digress?)

The girl read a poem, and it moved her and she reviewed it, making mention of the PERCEIVED not-so-strong moments, all the while focusing on the good moments.

Call me crazy, but I fail to see the problem with appreciating someone’s great work.

Then again, one should expect no less from a hack who, at best, MIGHT find his niche writing Andy Capp comics.

It bothers you that a creature with ovaries has probably accomplished more while doing a crossword puzzle than you ever will on a 5 day sleep-deprived bender, jacked up on Winstons and Red Bull, doesn’t it?

P.S. This is the part (and I’ll save you the trouble by typing it myself) where you respond with “tough words coming from someone who doesn’t even have the guts to post his real name”.

On July 30, 2006, Shane Neilson said:

Like Jenn, I found a lot to like in this book. I’d even say it was the best book of Canadian Poetry I read this year. But since Jenn praised the book so well, I’ll leave the praise aside and mention a few things that I found marred the book as a whole. First of all, Babstock has got to dispense with the itinerary poem. So many of them are what-I-did-today compendiums that are plain boring. Second, there are some absolute throwaways in this book, lots of poems that should have been culled. “The Lie Concerning the Work” is but one example. Third, it’d be nice if Babstock bothered to write about something important for a change. He comes closest when he writes about philosophy, but these sections were problematic in that they appeared grafted onto their poems.
  If the question had to be asked, “Where is the poet of Mean?” I’d have to say that Airstream Land Yacht shows him maturing, even improving in some respects (the love/relationship poems are killer). Is there a but in there?


On August 01, 2006, Zach Wells said:

?but with that maturation, I think urgency and immediacy have been to some extent sacrificed. The poems in ALY feel hyper-mediated to me. The persona is more or less the same from Mean thru DIFS to this book, but it’s as tho that persona has been wrapping itself in an increasingly dense verbal cocoon. I guess I’m wondering what sort of critter will emerge from that metamorphic chamber.

That said, I think that “Hub of the World” and “Palindromic” are among the very best poems he’s written, and might not have been possible without the shift in style. Ultimately, the reputation of any poet is going to rest on his best poems and not his individual collections, so any book that adds to the roster of top-notch efforts is a good one.

At any rate, although ALY’s good and brilliant in spots, it’s not the best new book of Canadian poetry I’ve read this year. Patrick Warner’s “There, there” (tho I first read it in December, I think it still counts) and Steven Price’s “Anatomy of Keys” are both better books in my opinion.

On August 01, 2006, Zach Wells said:

Okay, it turns out I read Warner’s book first in May 2005, but it’s still so fresh in my mind that it must have been that good.

On August 02, 2006, Jennifer said:

Hi Shane,

I’m entering this fray at the risk of seeming like a chat-board talker-backer which is what I wanted to avoid, before, and besides, why dignify?  But now you’ve said something interesting: 

“. . .it’d be nice if Babstock bothered to write about something important for a change.” 

Is this like pornography?  How can we decide what is important in poetry, or do we just know it when we see it?

Is philosophy more important, than say, a plum, a wheelbarrow, a peach? do I dare, and do I dare.  .  .?

I’m not trying to be comparative, and am mixing metaphors, but. . . how can anyone decide? How do you (or you)?  Personally (again with the personal slant, I know, I know. . .I’d better duck) Personally,  I find too much of the actual feel of life, the world of things, of stuff, of to-do lists missing from poetry, and it strikes me, very often, as a kind of corporate exclusivity? “do not mention your pets and babies at your job interview”?  like Szymborska wrote “shoe size, but not where you’re off to”  . . .this belongs, this does not.  This is fit, this not.  Which is not to say I could tolerate a poet really small talking (Unless, I guess, it’s in a weather poem).

I agree with you about “The Lie About the Work”, sure, so much disjecta? I could also have done without any and all poems involving pigs?  but I absolutely agree with Zach that a poet has to be measured by her/his best, and as far as the excess goes? well, that’s how you get to the palace of wisdom, no?  And, also, who knows what we might find in the trash that might help us really understand what’s going on in the bigger picture. . .illuminate a feature, trigger a thought, an insight. . .  Though, you are right? filler is filler.  And with poetry books costing what they do now, we probably don’t deserve filler.  Its just, well its the same as with anything? one man’s filler . . .

I think amazing, amazing things are happening in poetry right now (this site a good sign, and all three of you who have commented here, among others)  but I do fear the risk is run of poetry getting just a teeny-tiny bit too professional and executive and unforgiving?  I think sometimes, like Zach said, you need those throw-aways to get to the really good stuff? its process. That can be interesting too. 

Ummm (processing word if ever there was), I think that’s everything, but also would like to underline that just because I don’t think its necessary to go in like an inspector looking for code violations, I also think it is important to keep that critical eye trained and report findings accurately.
Which is what this site’s guidelines underscore, anyway.  So thank you guys for stepping up and reporting. . . I admit I was a bit too blown back by the architecture to notice ( at first) that sometimes functionality was sacrificed, or space unwisely used.


On August 03, 2006, Shane Neilson said:


  Thanks for your response. There’s a lot there?

  What I meant by the “important” bit is that Babstock is obsessively interior, he’s not public, he’s personal, he’s observational, and though his little insights do explode into larger understanding, I think their cumulative effect is somewhat muted by his subjects. There is no “project” in Babstock, no higher purpose. The collection as a whole has no direction.
  No, I don’t think writing something “important” is pornographic. I think it’s a matter of civic engagement- I"m stealing Zach’s term here, from a private conversation. Babstock should open up his poems, he should talk about something. It’s about immediacy, it’s about ambition. This isn’t whoring oneself to a buch of subjects, it’s about deeming something important enough to talk about: to write poems about. Politics is an obvious example; but so is architecture, hot-air balloons, history? basically anything that has the hew and heft of everyday life, as you say.
  As to what’s “important”, I’d say anything that matters to someone else, anything that ventures beyond the relentless self. Babstock’s all self, all persona. His poems are about his place in the word. What about the rest of us?
  I’ll stop myself here.

On August 03, 2006, Jennifer said:

Hi again,

So, his imagination is a monastery and he is the monk then?  Interiority is such a big issue now (still), isn’t it?  It can get one in so much trouble, make one the object of such sarcasm and vitriol.  But do you think interiority is okay if it is at least fascinating?  He is very allusive, though, and I think that is certainly a mark of interaction with the wider world? albeit at a remove. 

Do you ( and I hate to use that personal pronoun here, because I find in a forum like this it can come off accusatory, and that is not my intent), but do you altogether not think that interiority, the deeply personal, the observational, unprojected is enough for a poet?  I think that style can shed amazing light on a poet’s (i.e. the inidividual’s) relationship to the world. . .even if it is a difficult one.    And while I don’t think Babstock’s poetry in this collection necessarily accomplished this, I do think the personal has been kind of unfairly branded? Couldn’t it be considered the height of conversation (if well done), of engagement with the world on a level finally beyond the collective, the superficially social?

I hope I made it clear that I referencing that old saw about pornography?  you know,  how do you draw the line between it and art. . . .and that guy who said “well, I don’t know how you define it, I just know it when I see it”?  would it be that way for what is considered important in poetry?  how can we define what is important?  Civic engagement? but then some of us are so frickin’ sick of being civically engaged by the end of the day, what wouldn’t we give for a really weird and meandering conversation?  Why couldn’t this be considered an important function of poetry as well?  Or even project?  Its really hard to attempt to know thyself in this day and age when we ae bombarded with pop psych and platitudinous insight.  I think the attempt is a worthy one. . .as long as the stuff is good? and I only know good when I see it, I don’t think I would even want to attempt to define it.

I will try to follow your lead and stop myself here, because I know I go on for too long?  I blame it on my lingering sense of urgency?  but I think the points you raise are very important, because I think reviewing and criticism are such overlooked arts, and one could just as easily accuse anyone who deigned to criticize another artist’s work an egotist? but what I think is so vital is that we engage with one another at all, read and think, and so, then write about what others are saying? steal each other’s words?, and that, to me is a pretty big project too. . . 

I, suffer from a terrible interiority complex, myself, sometimes too. . .

K, I really will stop now?  always interested to hear your thoughts.


On August 03, 2006, Jennifer said:

Or, sorry,  maybe I am finally getting you now:  Is it that you dislike the almost complete segregation of inner and outer worlds?  Because I think I would really agree with you there.

Do you see how much crap I had to write to get to what may still not even be insight?  If only I could learn to do that in silence, but for some reason, I rarely get there unless I have written or ranted.  Henry Miller? now he was personal?  he said he sometimes had to write 50 pages before hearing the fetal heartbeat of anything. . .  Would a writer like Miller also fail your litmus?  Just une curiosite, because why can’t the personal still be political? (I’m not saying Babstock’s was, just askin’ hypothetically)

On August 03, 2006, Zach Wells said:

This is a really thorny issue, one I confront every time, as a reader, I have the reaction: “I wish X would do more of Y.” It’s tricky because I know from my experience as someone who not only reads poems but tries to write them now and then, I can only write the poems that it’s in me to write. Whitman wrote Whitmanian poems and Dickinson Dickinsonian ones, right? What we value, ultimately, is the peculiarity of their individual genius. So is it reasonable to expect Babstock, or anyone else for that matter, to write anything other than what he’s written? Maybe.

One encouraging sign is that Babstock’s not repeating himself too much from book to book; he’s clearly not settled into a rut. The problem with having as much talent as Babstock does is that readers are always going to want more from him. We have higher expectations for a writer of his skills than for most. But a highly skilled poet is not always going to be a major poet. Something Shane and I were discussing a few days ago was precisely the professionalism evident in Babstock’s work, particularly in the two books since Mean. It’s hard to imagine Ken Babstock badly flubbing a poem, failing spectacularly, to borrow Shane’s phrase from that discussion. And that might be a problem. An awful lot of my favourite poets and an awful lot of poets we can without great debate call “major” have published more than their share of incredibly bad poetry. Risk is a word I’m not too fond of, because I find it’s overused and doesn’t accurately reflect the mindset of a poet at work, but it has its uses. A major poet risks falling on his or her face because s/he ventures to say something, to express an opinion, to create a universe. Major poets tend to be the opposite of professional. And that’s the principle reservation I have about Ken Babstock’s poetry; for all the brio and panache of the language, the content tends to be conservative, cautious, held in check. And this isn’t necessarily a question of subject matter; rather what he says or doesn’t say about his subjects.

At any rate, I think poets should be chary of embracing Big Topics for the sake of being Big Poets. It’s something I criticized in Anne Simpson’s _Loop_; if you’re going to write poems about 9/11 or any other major current event, you’d better not fuck it up because there’s a lot more on the line than if you’re writing about your cat or garden. (And in a sense, it was precisely Simpson’s awareness of not fucking it up?as manifested in the highly mediated form of the poem cycle in question?that made the poems inadequate.)  I don’t mean to advocate the PC stance about appropriation of voice, but if you have no personal stake in what you’re writing about, the poems will almost always betray it. You can’t just write a poem about war or genocide. You have to spend a great deal of time figuring out how those poems can be written and it’s hard to do that if it’s not part of your immediate (i.e. unmediated) reality. You see it in the compressed obliquity of Paul Celan’s verse and in the slightly surreal directness of Goran Simic’s. These are poets who didn’t choose to embrace Big Topics; they found themselves in the middle of them, with little choice but to respond in the best way they knew how. So in a sense, the problem with Babstock is the problem with Canadian poetry more generally; how do you write important poetry when poetry isn’t important and when life on the whole is pretty okay? I think it was Milosz who said something to the effect of: “When people have shoes, they don’t need poetry.” He would know. Most of us wouldn’t.

On August 04, 2006, Jennifer said:

We may not know what it is like to be without shoes, we certainly do get blisters from them.  We live in such a tightly

We may not get to access those dark places when you’re brought to the very outer reaches of consciousness just by the difficulty of survival. . . but, also, what hell is it to go through life half asleep at the wheel?

To quote Szymborska again, if but from memory, she said in her Nobel speech that poetry was, for her, born of a persistent “I don’t know”. . .  and in this know-it-all society of ours, I think that I- don’t-know is pretty vital.

I think its really interesting what you’re saying about Babstock being held in check, impossible to imagine flubbing a poem.  Maybe that held in check quality is a challenge?  What onus lies on the reader? 

The poets I have loved the most would probably be considered spectacularly bad in this company ( but I swear Rod McKuen isn’t one of them?when I think “bad” that’s whose name immediately populates the field)  and, oh, god, writing about anything for the sake of anything other than feeling compelled to. . . christ.  In a society where no one bothers to kill poets? “its enough to let them rot in universities, undead” (Erica Jong), who would pursue a Big Topic in poetry just for the sake of Bigness. . .I mean how crazy would they have to be?  Don’t answer that.

On August 04, 2006, Jennifer said:

I’m really embarrassed by how many typos I have here.  And I lost a paragraph of text from my last post somehow.

On August 04, 2006, Jennifer said:

My lost paragraph:  it said something about while we are lucky enough to be shod, sometimes our shoes constrain us, keep us from sensing the things right under our feet. . .and that in a country like ours, I would think an important function of poetry would be to get us out of our shoes, kind of, to have us be fully engaged with the world around us, use all of our senses?  Use muscles we didn’t know we had?  Make multi-dimensional connections?  How is this accomplished?  I don’t know. . .

On May 02, 2007, Skhi said:

About a month ago, a friend casually mentioned she was in love with a poet, one Mr. Babstock. I had no idea who this person was and wanted to learn more. So, I was searcing for information on Ken Babstock and came upon this page. I am not an avid reader of poetry and I do not really know too much about the subject, so I won’t pretend to. Although, I must say that this review, while partly over my head, (Through no fault of the writer!) was well written, honest, and passionate. I felt compelled to write or create after reading it. I also felt the need to read Ken Babstock’s work. (Since the reason I had began to look him up in the first place was to find out about his work.) I look forward to reading this work and I hope to reply here and tell you what I thought. Thank you for turning me on to poetry!

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