In John Updike’s Room by Christopher Wiseman


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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…

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.