Breakwater Books - December 02, 2007 - 5 Comments
The March Hare Anthology edited by Adrian Fowler
Reviewed by Lorette C. Luzajic
The March Hare Anthology is the kind of book you leave casually atop your table while sipping a pint of Keith’s Red in hopes that someone will walk by, take note, and join you in pointing out favourite poems or newly discovered writers. There’re plenty of delicious tidbits to relish and dissect until the wee hours over a few shots of good liquor. Celebrating nearly 20 years of Atlantic Canada’s largest poetry festival, this keeper volume is edited by Adrian Fowler. You may or may not recognize Fowler for his now-vintage work with Al Pittman, who was one of the founders of the March Hare event.
I wish I were there to witness Agnes Walsh reading “Homecoming to the End” — but no matter: this poet laureate of St. John’s spins a story so vivid that I’m a part of it, right there in the boat with her and her daddy.
I told him I was going to marry a sailor
and go away. He said, “Go away?
To where you know no one?”
That stopped me, made me lonely
before I’d made the steady plans.
“It’s your life, and you can always change
your mind,” he said.
He made it difficult to rebel.
Further on, I can feel the poet rocking back and forth with an intense grief as the shock of losing her father’s world tears through her. But in the way he raised her, she lets that moment be a moment, and moves forward the way the living must.
In the morning, before dawn, a light touch on my head,
a blur of white mist in the room, the faraway words trailing off:
“Get up, now, and let me rest. Go on and help your mother, now.”
I threw back the blanket and stumbled into the grey light of day.
Grief finds us again in Susan Musgrave’s “The Room Where They Found You”, a room that “smelled of Madagascar vanilla” (248). Musgrave describes her attempt to recall the feeling of water on her hands after touching her husband for the last time: “it was like trying to remember/thirst when you are drowning” (248). This poet really lets loose in “No Hablo Ingles,” where the anguish and confusion following her husband’s arrest for bank robbery and attempted murder flows rapidly from her heart. This poem is especially challenging — everyone knows kooky Suzie married in his prison a member of the illustrious, ingenious Stopwatch Gang, a crew of bank robbers known for their clever planning and total heist over $15 million. She mentored Stephen Reid’s writing, and they had two children together. Sadly, Reid’s earlier struggles with cocaine and heroin flared up in the late ‘90s and he was hospitalized again and later arrested. Here she laments “I must be / some kind of case to stand by a man who steals / honest money from an ATM to make ends meet” (246). I’ve nothing against bank robbers personally, but I don’t think “making ends meet” was the motivation of this particular crook’s career — he’s also known for making brilliant escapes from prison. Regardless, I’m drawn to Musgrave’s peculiar insanities — a few of us poets have stories that’ll make your hair stand on end, and I like to hear them. It’s called poetic license for a reason.
It’s especially juicy that Stephen Reid, who writes for Maclean’s and more from behind bars, also has a terrific prose poem in the anthology. “There are no Children’s Books in Prison” (129) takes us into the bucket library. Taped to the door of that room is a folder with crossword puzzles to keep inmates sharp. “I don’t take one, but a friend of mine, an avid puzzler, wrote to tell me I was last week’s answer to ‘17 Down’”, (129) Reid writes, revealing that at least part of him is still reveling in his scandalous notoriety. Later in the poem, I’m shoved off of my smug self-righteous platform when Reid writes “A friend sent me a book, ‘When Things Fall Apart’, written by a Buddhist nun named Pema Chodron. Although Jesus and Buddha teach the same lesson — to learn to live compassion for all things, I am compelled toward the Buddhist approach” (131). This is the same book, thin and pale yellow, that I carefully selected, underlining the most important parts, for a man I loved while he was an inmate at Toronto’s Don Jail. Damn that Buddhist truth — we are all one.
Though these bits of historical soap opera-poetics glitter enticingly among all kinds of necessary Canadiana themes like our diverse landscape and more diverse peoples, with east coast sailors and Vancouver addicts, Bobby Orr, caribou, rolling wheat and salty shores, some of the most beautiful moments in the anthology are when Canadians look outside. Lorna Crozier imagines New Orleans native Louis Armstrong’s voyage to Chicago in “Leaving Home” (83), a stunning portrait of a man who “could blow his trumpet/ and be heard across state lines” (83). Crozier’s story here hinges on Armstrong’s trout sandwich — a small detail that makes the jazz great’s lonely voyage on the train north tangible to strangers like us. Michael Redhill reels at the staggering emptiness of a city in “Viewing Detroit”: “An entire downtown core, empty. Every day. Always” (127). We head south from Detroit, past Armstrong’s New Orleans, right into Mexico with Pamela Ollerhead, with whom we share “sex above the sheets” (“One November in Mexico” 232) and “the truth that always lay on the other side of town” (232).
The collection might feel like a who’s who of Canadian poetry, and that’s what it essentially is, but there’s no sense of contrived arrangements, only a body of stellar work with lesser-known names supported by staples. The variety of topics and formats makes the book “much the most interesting” (to quote Alice in Wonderland on the March Hare). Al Pittman, an integral part of Canadian poetry publishing, opens dutifully and segues into a bursting cornucopia with Patrick Lane, Michael Ondaatje, Lynn Coady, Wayne Johnston, Glen Sorestad and Alistair MacLeod, to name just a spattering. The best part is that The March Hare Anthology quietly reveals the madness that lurks so well disguised behind the staid and dour faces of Canadian poetry, wreaking havoc on Alice’s hopes that the Hare “won’t be raving mad.”