Reviewed by Rob Taylor
“People who just want to enjoy what follows should skip this preface,” opened Earle Birney in the introduction to his 1977 Ghost in the Wheels: Selected Canadian Poems. It is a preface reused in his newest, posthumous Selected, One Muddy Hand: Selected Poems, and it seems, likewise, an appropriate opening to any review of that book. If you have read a good deal of Birney’s work in the past, this new offering will provide you with little more (the vast majority of the collection being a reprinting of Birney’s 1977 Selected). If you have not read much Birney, for goodness sake, you had better be getting on with it, and One Muddy Hand, being the only Birney collection in print, seems like a good place to start.
A Birney Selected has one clear advantage over the collections of many of his peers and students (Birney being the founder of the University of British Columbia’s Department of Creative Writing): it never gets boring. Or at least, if it does fall into a rut, it climbs its way back out of it fairly quickly. While most poets seem to find a style and pocketful of themes that become their canon, Birney’s work is always discovering and rediscovering itself. This is because Birney, who declared “Living art, like anything else, stays alive only by changing,” (198) was open to influences from the “cutting edge” poetry of the day. In One Muddy Hand, more formal lyrics give way to sprawling satire, which in turn lead into visual poetry. Some of Birney’s “makings” (a word he preferred to “poems,” in order to avoid pretentiousness), especially those from early in his career, seem archaic, while others, such as “Billboards Build Freedom of Choice” (96-7) could receive top votes at a poetry slam (and maybe even the third place consolation prize of ten bucks and a free drink). You might be interested in reading another poetry review from Rob Taylor.
In fact, it is the attempted simplification of Birney’s varied writing in One Muddy Hand that is my one concern with the book. Editor Sam Solecki has produced a strong and considered collection, in which selected notes and essays of Birney’s help the reader garner a better sense both of his poetics and his life. Solecki, though, admits that he has removed from the collection a pair of visual poems that had been included in the 1977 Selected, without including any new visual poetry to take its place. This certainly leaves a rather meager number of visual poems in the collection, weakening its diversity. Likewise, Solecki’s strong emphasis on the poem “David,” “one of our few undoubted classics” (Editor’s Foreword, 10), seems to overshadow the diverse nature of Birney’s work. Referred to twice on the back page blurb, multiple times in the Editor’s introduction and returned to in a four page essay on the poem by Birney himself, the collection might well be better titled, as was his first book in 1942, David and Other Poems. This is unfortunate, but is truly only a minor concern in regards to what is generally an excellently compiled and edited text.
What One Muddy Hand does best is let the poems breathe freely. Where Birney speaks of particular “makings” in his preface and other writings, he does so carefully, supporting, while not dissecting the pieces. The poems, then, are allowed to take center stage, and many shine in that spotlight. Perhaps strongest of all are Birney’s many travel poems (in his life, he circumnavigated the world three times). “The bear on the Delhi road” and “A walk in Kyoto” probably stand out first and foremost in most readers’ minds, but many others make a great impact as well, collectively constructing the image of a man struggling to connect, and connect with, a disconnected world. This is well exemplified by the lines in “Cartagena De Indias, 1962” where the speaker laments,
Somewhere there must be another bridge
from my stupid wish
to their human acceptance
but what can I offer –
my tongue half-locked in the cell
of its language – other than pesos
As Birney’s poems move over space to the other side of the globe and back again, so to do they move over time. While historical stories and artifacts are explored in many poems, such as “Mappemounde” and “Charité, Espérance et Foi,” Birney really earns his credit as a historian when his narratives wind the past and present together in an ever-connected patchwork:
canoe route the Hurons found
& showed the whites –
the way to the west silks buffalo
vietnam the moon
shines over the middle of nowhere –
dumb as the trees
(“Way to the west” 129)
With his wide array of artistic volleys, it’s doubtful anyone but the most devout of Birney loyalists will find themselves fully satisfied with One Muddy Hand. Likewise, though, I would be quite surprised if anyone was not charmed or challenged by Birney’s diverse helping of “makings.” Enough with the preface, though. Find the book, and enjoy.
Rob Taylor lives in Port Moody, BC and recently released his first chapbook splattered earth. He just learned how this blog thing worked and is giving it a shot: rollofnickels.blogspot.com.