Distance from the Locus by Murray Reiss

Distance From the Locus

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

I have a special spot in my black heart (also two sizes too small) for chapbooks, partially because I got my start in one (declaring a competing interest: I edit for Frog Hollow Press), but mainly because the chapbook offers something trade publications can’t.

There are two main items:

(1) Chapbooks, due to their smaller size, are more intense. They’re a kin to short stories, and like a short story, it has to be gripping, it has to have a cosmos, it has to be a fully-realized world. Missteps are magnified due to concentration; just as a novel can have substandard patches but still be, in the final analysis, “good,” so can a trade publication of 80 or so pages have a few duds littered throughout. Not so the chapbook: it must perform in the small space allotted to it. If I had to cite the most glaring example of this, look at Joe Denham’s Night Haul, Morning Set, a perfect little book dedicated to documenting the work of Maritime life, and cannibalized in the imperfect Flux, a trade collection that could only be justified as a book in that it contained Night Haul, Morning Set.

(2) Chapbooks can be much more beautiful than trade collections. Now, bad chapbooks can be egregious in a way trade collections can’t: mimeographed papers, staples, etc; you know who you are. (Some would defend this mode of publication as democratic; I still think it shoddy.)  Great chapbooks beat the pants of the mass-produced trades. Marnie Parson’s Running the Goat is a great example of a magical little press that produces books as art.

I’ll get to (1) and Murray Reiss in a moment, but let me linger a bit with (2) and (m)Other Tongue Press. A reviewer knows one is dealing with a serious chapbook maker when one reads the colophon, cribbed directly from the website:

Cover 6″ x 8 1/2″ with French flaps. Paper: Environment Smooth Natural White 80lb, 100% recycled, 50% sugar cane fiber. Cover blind-embossed on flap with “island poets” in 48 pt Palatino. Title and author hand-set in metal type and letterpress printed by Peter Haase on a 100-year-old C & P platen press. Type: Italian Old Style Roman 36, 30 & 24 pt. cast by Jim Rimmer of Pie Tree Press. Two colours of ink handmixed (reddy browns). Linocuts created and printed by Peter Haase; store dummy in a window and colour sweep across bottom of cover. Endpapers handmade by Reg Lissel: 100% deckled cotton with pieces of summer seaweed, dried arbutus & wasp nest, harvested on Salt Spring Island. Vat sized and air dried. 2nd endpaper: Environment Desert Storm Smooth, 60lb, 100% recycled, 50% sugar cane fiber. Text paper: Concept Vellum, Sand, 60lb, acid-free. Text set in Aldine. Layout by Mark Hand Design. Book designed, edited and constructed by Mona Fertig. 28 pages. Handsewn with brown embroidery thread from France. Inside text printed by Imagine That Graphics — Salt Spring Island — on a Xerox Phaser 7750GX. Chapbook comes in bi-orientated polyproylene acid-free bag.

It’s a kind of cribbed poetry, isn’t it, this summa of how a beautiful little object is made; it’s embarrassing, really, to compare trade books to such artistry. But then such a comparison isn’t fair: trade books do have their place, they do disseminate the art. Because of their expense, good chapbooks have small runs, and thus, in a strange sense, are more temporary than trades, though their production values are more permanent.

But I digress. The tale is told in the colophon: Mona Fertig is a serious chapbook publisher, and she has produced a serious chapbook in what she calls the “Island Series,” a series of chapbooks dedicated to what I assume are the bards of Salt Spring Island, where the press resides. This is a beautiful book, from the colors to the substance of the materials to the font, and I imagine Riess must be thrilled he received such an objet from the press: likely he’ll never get such treatment again.

But what about (2)? Reiss is interesting: he treads the swamp of anecdote and abstraction of lyric deftly, creating poems that step in both, using one to enhance the other. There is a lot of autobiography here; childhood is mined. In “Sarnia 1948” the Second World War is deftly handled; a father, seemingly damaged, is mentioned; a mother, industrious, cares for her son, and they both play a game involving a world map made from sewing scraps, blue and red for the dangerous parts, scarce green for the safe zones. Then the poet builds on the color theme with a moment with war-scarred Dad, who instructs:

The perfect stone, once you find it, will skip
itself. The perfect stone
is flat and thin. It’s light, but not too light,
heavy enough to skip, light enough
to float, it fits snug
between your thumb and index finger
when you’ve stretched them as far apart
as they can go. The perfect stone
is green.
The lake is blue. The sky
is red…

Menacing, this little vignette, charged with symbol. But I always look for a poet of imagination, of the unexpected, and Reiss qualifies later with

…We wait for the lake to part,
we wait for the dolphins. We wait for his brothers
to break the waves, bareback on their soaring
stallions, yelling, laughing, exultant,
their six-guns blazing back at the blazing sun.

It’s this whimsy, but whimsy tainted with the whiff of the dead, with elegy, that makes Reiss a poet of power: he transports us to childhood and wonder, he instructs us in death with colour, all in the same poem. Fertig’s policy of publishing one’s neighbours may prove to be a dubious strategy; but not here.

It’s a familiar note in the collection — “The Mannequin’s Graveyard” begins “My father buried his brothers / under the basement of his store,” “Dead Tongues” begins “In the cradle of my skull I hear / dead tongues. My father’s barbed / wire Yiddish…,” “Uproar in the Attic” begins, “Not long after my father dies” — this innocence/death/death of innocence theme, but a very effective one, and I say this not to fault Reiss, but to commend him, for chapbooks are best if they are all of a piece, if all the poems are working towards the same goal; I often look for full-length collections to show range and versatility, but chapbooks are best if they are one movement, one charge, one obsession, one story.

And this is the story of one boy burdened with loving parents who have been irreparably damaged by the Second World War; Reiss uses domestic anecdotes as portals into understanding woundedness; his mom can be sewing, but metaphorically she’s creating a narrative, a world. Thus the seeming day-to-day actions of the characters of this book have a greater significance. Even inconsequential matters are invested with meaning: In “Dead Tongues,” the iron “hisses / in the night like the whispered / orders of men gathering at the door.” This family is, frankly, terrorized; and it’s this mixture of terror and Reiss’s child-self’s innocence held in terrible balance that makes this chapbook compelling. And this book does get compelling: just so the stakes are made clear, Reiss mentions Jewry and the Holocaust in “Station, Scarecrow, Twin,” a poem that doesn’t need to name the Holocaust in order for us to get the idea. He writes chillingly of the train system that the tracks “shine with a second skin / of bone-white ice.” Horses “haul this winter’s dead, our perennial crop.” He tells it slant; there are no been-there-done-that anecdotage poems in Distance From the Locus; there are only poems with intent, pressingly.

But if there were a dominant relationship in the book, it’s not mother-son, where one detects unmediated love. It’s the one between father and son, a much more complicated relationship, one with love, but obscured love, a marred love. In “Bair for the Hook” Reiss uses the word “shadow” to describe the relationship; he writes,

Closing his eyes a man decided to go
fishing for a word. The worms he uses
were passed down from his father.
He’s angling for a word to impale
on his hook…

Now I urge everyone reading this to buy the book on the strength of what the poet does afterward, but look at the quoted section: what better metaphor for a poet trying to describe his father in poetry? The acknowledgement that the father shaped him, that gave him the very vocabulary to describe him? But read the rest of the poem to apprehend a rather shocking turn of events, a rendered shocking, not a direct confrontation as in much confessional poetry. There’s something elusive about the father, just as, in this poem, the son tries to find the right word, and comes up with approximations. Grief, though, would be a good one.

If I had to criticize, and I would be a hard judge to do so, I would say briefly that Reiss’s strength lay outside the realm of prose poetry. It’s this threnody of rather soft, prosy efforts (“Paging Dr. Brown” and “I Stood On Guard” and “Tiny Pink Needles”) that stop the momentum of the collection. These aren’t bad, mind; but they don’t have the talismanic power that Reiss’s poetry otherwise provides. They freight too much data (and contain too much politics); poems have their necessary simplicity. I’m reminded again of short story, which these little fragments could comprise one day:

When I returned the summer my father died, I was hired to guard the
border. They gave me a badge and a shiny uniform and let me keep the
shirt. Like every Canada Customs Guard I had power. When we worked
to the book the Bluewater Bridge groaned all the way to Port Huron under
the backed-up traffic’s captive weight. We had codes to calculate the duty
on every synthetic fabric known to Ottawa- rayon, nylon, banlon, all the
iridescent polyesters. Just down the St. Clair River, Dupont’s chemists were
Stirring their cauldrons of compliant polymers into long complicit chains,
While at Dow, the next plant down, they studied napalm.

The only other cavil is the bizarre inclusion of a poem about poverty in Africa and North American poverty and mental illness and (whew) the Robert Picton massacre in this book that is, really, all about the relationship between a son and his parents. It’s jarring, to have this overtly political poem in the book, let alone let it serve as the closer, and provide the book’s title:

She says, “I knew women at the pig farm,”
And everyone knows what she means…
we’ve come
to hear about the poor, not from them,
we’ve come to hear the policy analyst
from the famous Canadian family,
his sister writes bestsellers from the fault lines
of globalization, her husband’s a TV talk show host
and producer, and his father’s the UN’s Envoy
to Africa for HIV-AIDS…

It goes on, clumsily, political poetry at its worst, namely the setting up of bugaboos. It’s certainly not satire, and so obviously the target of that Sesame Street game, “One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong Here,” that I wonder why it was included at all. Reiss needed a concluding poem, one that wrapped up the loss that is childhood in one sad summation; what we got was an impoverished poverty PSA. It’s a distraction, but not a fatal one. All told, this book is a success, both in terms of production and in terms of the writing; and I’m surprised, based on the strength of the writing, that Reiss hasn’t dabbled with the dark side of trade publication yet. I’m certain that he will, soon.

Shane Neilson is a writer from New Brunswick.