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NeWest Press - February 09, 2006 - 1 Comment

were the bees

Were the Bees by Andy Weaver

Reviewed by rob mclennan

Some of us have been waiting years for a first collection from Edmonton poet Andy Weaver to appear, and finally it has, published by Edmonton’s NeWest Press in spring 2005 as the collection Were the Bees. Weaver’s poems are almost a bridge between the prairie lines of Robert Kroetsch, the current trends of more traditional Canadian lyric modes and the considerations of the Canadian avant-garde. An admirer of the work of Don McKay and Jan Zwicky, for example, Weaver holds as much appreciation for the work of, say, derek beaulieu and Louis Cabri, all of which he has brought to Edmonton as part of his former involvement (as founder/organizer) in the monthly Olive reading and chapbook series.

The strongest section of the collection has to be the thirty-part “Were the Bees,” a sequence reworked from an interview George Bowering and Robert Hogg did with American poet Robert Duncan in the late 1960s. Weaver is very aware of form and tradition, and has been slowly learning to manipulate forms to suit his own ends. As he writes in the “notes” at the back of the collection:

“Were the Bees” is a cut-up sequence based on George Bowering and Robert Hogg’s 1969 interview of Robert Duncan (Beaver Kosmos, 1971). A base text was formed by taking the corresponding line from each page of the interview (for example, the base text for the first piece contained the first line from each page, the second base text contained all the second lines, etc.). I then removed words from the base text until the piece voiced its own concerns.

Robert Duncan has become more of a topic again lately, what with the conference on Duncan in Vancouver through the Kootenay School of Writing that happened at the beginning of April 2005, tracing and exploring his influence through the Vancouver poetry scene from the late 1950s onward, as well as New York poet Lisa Jarnot’s forthcoming biography of Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus. Considered one of the three main components of the San Francisco renaissance of the 1950s, usually the attention has focused on Jack Spicer, or Vancouver resident (since the 1960s, when he moved north to teach at Simon Fraser University) Robin Blaser.

11.

tradition is clear enough, especially when you
print at my expense.  in
increasing part, the autobiography composes
me. summers when I was perhaps.
The idea of individuality
concentrates much on the ritual, the dance. I had
the field, I
measured space all the time.
Great messages
always get sent by
content.
Study language or general principles,
I must be viewed as
the concert’s apprehension of
sleep not discovered.  Being a poem, I
asked him to explain a poem.  What
alternates between things that are not enigmatic.
I don’t think a third alternative
was observed as late as our time–the sun goes
in arms along with sky.

Before hearing him read from his “Were the Bees” sequence in Edmonton in spring 2004, I had considered his poem “Three Ghazals to the constellation Corvus (The Crow)” to be his strongest published work. Since east coast resident John Thompson’s posthumous collection Stilt Jack (House of Anansi, 1978) appeared, bringing the ghazal, an ancient Persian form, into Canadian poetry, the prominence of the form was increased, through the publication of Phyllis Webb’s Sunday Water: Thirteen Anti Ghazals (1982), Douglas Barbour’s more recent Breath Takes (2001), and younger poets, such as Eric Folsom, Catherine Owen and Weaver, working with the form.

The ghazal, according to Thompson’s Stilt Jack preface, was “the most popular of all the classical forms of Urdu poetry,” and is built of five couplets that have no re-occurring connection, whether narrative or lyrical, distinguishing itself from the English classical form, the sonnet. It seems interesting that Thompson would have made a point of mentioning the five-couplet structure and then not kept to it, whereas Barbour and Webb stuck close, and called theirs “anti ghazals.” In Weaver’s poem “Three Ghazals to the constellation Corvus (The Crow),” every couplet is punctuated, clipped with a wry ironic sense, tongue planted firmly in cheek, as he references Crow, a trickster creation god along the lines of Coyote, or Raven.

Every line evokes more than it has space to tell, but tells enough, from youth writing, bad luck and injury to drunken hope and hopelessness, turning the poem in on itself by the very end, a mixture of wit and education, and the kinds of learning that only the bars of Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue can provide.

Three Ghazals to the constellation Corvus (The Crow)

I

The woman was my gateway drug to bad poetry,
she sits in these words like a wound.

Snow petals back from the rocks,
a thousand dead nests on the ground.

Ravens sing their Spring love song,
crack the notes open to hear them bleed.

She is gone and I am healing:
always healing, never healed.

O Crow, life ain’t about winning,
just losing as slowly as you can.

II

Birdshit hits rock, throws
open its loving arms.

Asshole, she called me, in her stetson hat. Cowgirl,
I loved you and the horse you rode in on.

History is a predator,
the past is its prey.

Bird-thought, the stutter-step
into flying illumination.

O Crow, these women sit sober in the bar
and refuse to find me charming.

III

And what the hell is this,
fict or faction?

Her touch on my chest, simplicity–
the bend in the Raven’s wing in flight.

Old scars bloom on my tongue.
I will not whisper her name.

Down the darkened alley, the streetlight
burns out as I walk by.

O Crow, up there silent in the sky, why
are you smiling?

Built out of three numbered sections, the first part of were the bees contains a mass of shorter pieces, with the second as the thirty-part “were the bees” poem, and the final a collection of linked ghazals, “Small Moons: Ghazals.” It’s in the first section that the reader finds Weaver’s interest in the non-linear as well as the romantic lyric, and poems written on visual art, other writers and philosophy, and interested not only in the process and the movement of a poem, but the painstaking craft, as in this fragment from the poem “My ignorance of Mina Loy,” that reads:

amative coquette kohls her eyes
the aniline in the air enervates our breviaries

in the vestry, sarsenet mitre is postulated
with avidity, infructuous agamogenesis
almost carnose in the cyclamen

the antipodean question silences the loquent

In 2001, Weaver and I drove down from Edmonton, Alberta, to Vernon, British Columbia, to read at the greenboathouse books reading series run there by Jason Dewinetz. From that, Weaver wrote a version of the events, in the third section, “Small Moons: Ghazals,” as the first half of the poem “(2 for the greenboathouse)” writes:

a washroom and a          gift shop
where they drove in          the last spike

outside the city          the stars know you
as well as          heraclitus

the late          night collectcall
is the drunkards         sonnet sequence

what wooden          train tunnel
will save you          from this          avalanche

who looked at the stars
and felt          the need          for narrative

here i am too          drunk to see the forest
fire for all          the trees

a baccus          youd think id notice          the embers
burning two holes          in the crotch          of my pants

the morning after          waking up in a little slice of bc paradise
jasons asleep     robs still drunk          mike searches the firepit for his glasses

the quail and the ducks make short work
of our leftovers     regrets and promises

a couple gaze          at the mountains          for a photo
touched          by the moments          aweinspiring          cliché

like i told rob          if you ever         see me jogging          start running yourself
theres something          really bad          behind me

driving through the mountains          the big horns     are only an     obstacle
proof          that even lovers     must have moments           of reason

no one knows          what             theyll be doing          in ten years but
the lucky ones     have a good idea     who

For me at least, the amusing part is being able to see the other side of the same situation, from a poem I wrote on the same experience, very shortly after it happened.

poem

cold lake & the threat
of an empty dress

1950s dream
& wwI bombers
stalk the shore

a towel
that doesnt cover everything

to be made of stone
& endure forever

burning a hole in
bare pant legs

vernon, bc

In a brief introduction to his section in the anthology evergreen: six new poets (Black Moss Press, 2002), Weaver wrote:

I’m not even certain that I write anymore. It feels more like I just cobble together lines that I’ve put down in the little book that I keep in my right pocket. Which feels better, in a weird way, than when I was naive enough to believe all that crap about inspiration and genius and whatnot. To misquote Frost, which is fine ‘cause he’s dead, one could do worse than be a cobbler of words.

This is a sentiment shared by the late John Newlove, who kept found lines on organized stacks of blue file cards, for him to later include in his own poems, even going so far as to write about that theft between stolen lines in the poem “White Philharmonic Novels” from his collection The Night the Dog Smiled (ECW Press, 1986):

Look, nobody gets wise writing
  Now I must be making
  pretty manners
  at you
  It’s necessary to realize that all these phrases
  are stolen. The arrangement is all.

rob mclennan lives in Ottawa, even though he was born there. the author of twelve trade collections of poetry, most recently name, an errant (Stride, 2006) & aubade (Broken Jaw Press, 2006), he is currently working on a number of projects including a non-fiction book for Arsenal Pulp Press, Ottawa: The Unknown City (2007), a poetry collection, The Ottawa City Project, & finishing a novel, Missing Persons. He often writes, reviews & rants on his clever blog — robmclennan.blogspot.com.

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