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.
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.
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.
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.
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
a sailboat from toothpicks,
books from the wings
of an aphid.
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.