Reviewed by Richard Stevenson
Inkling Press is one of those wonderful micro presses that arise from time to time out of a perceived need among the local literati for a creative non-profit publishing company that specializes in books which have a limited market. In this instance, editor E.D. Blodgett, Professor Emeritus of The University of Alberta, has convened an able Board of Directors that looks at the work of poets ready to publish their second or third book. Moreover, Inkling always works with a sponsor/author with whom the financial responsibility is, more or less, equally shared.
That doesn’t make Inkling a vanity house. In fact, the opposite is true: as both authors and editors have a vested interest in the product, great care is taken in both the editing and production. Indeed, in some instances, Inkling operates in conjunction with its affiliate, Magpie Productions, to produce high quality ancillary CDs. Indeed, it was the excellent anthology and CD package, Countless Leaves, a collection of award-winning and commended poems from the North American Tanka contest conducted in 2001 that first drew my attention to this press.
Before my readers and fellow poets get too excited about a new press that somehow escaped their radar, however, let me hasten to add the notion that unsolicited submissions are not encouraged. Queries, yes; full-length mss no.
But on to the poets!
Hitchhiking in the Hospital by Shirley A. Serviss
Shirley A. Serviss is a writer, editor, writing instructor and Artist-on-the-Wards at the University of Alberta Hospital. Her first poetry collection, Model Families (Rowan Books, 1992) was short-listed for Alberta Book of the Year. Her second collection, Reading Between the Lines (Rowan Books, 2000), was nominated for the City of Edmonton Book Prize and was awarded the Canadian Authors Association’s Exporting Alberta Award. This, her third full-length collection, focuses on her search for meaning and the healing capacity of poetry in an acute-care hospital.
Serviceable is the first word that comes to mind, if you’ll pardon the terrible pun, for the poems here are, for the most part, no-nonsense anecdotal realist pieces that “score” their effects with a well-timed ironic parting shot or image; they don’t get bogged down in the materiality of language or indulge in metaphor or indirection for their own sake. I get the impression that Ms Serviss would make a great nurse because the added value of good listening skills and empathy run throughout the text. Ms. Serviss is a poet you can trust, just as I assume her patients trust her with their sad tales and confessions, or her direct observations.
The art here is in the concision and timing. The lines are terse, the few metaphors and similes carefully chosen to undergird the narrative or close the focal distance on a telling and apt detail. Here’s “Magician’s assistant” in its entirety:
She could have become a magician’s assistant,
parading lovely long limbs across
the stage, slipping nimbly into boxes
to be sawed in half, merging intact to the
applause and amazement of audiences
all over America.
So where is the magician now, when
even the surgeon can’t cut her apart
and make her whole. What kind of trick is this
to operate for gall bladder and discover
tumor after tumor like an endless
string of scarves.
The assonance of those soft i sounds in the first stanza, combined with the gazelle-like gait of alliteration afforded by the l sounds in lovely long limbs is mellifluous and beautiful – and sets us up nicely for the horror of the metastases image in the closing stanza.
Nonce form free verse, shape poems, prose snippets, triplets, distiches, numbered imagist sequences, even an open form (multiple margin) free verse poem that echoes the shape and subtle dance of patient and IV pole walking down the hospital corridor: the poet ably experiments with a number of different forms and stanza patterns that hold the reader’s interest throughout. This is no-nonsense poetry, supple and pleasing to the eye and ear. A sustained performance and rewarding read. Most of the poems don’t run to a full page, yet almost every poem delivers a sudden sharp close-up or ironic understatement. This is a book full of compassion and wisdom.
Drops From Her Umbrella by Laura Maffei
Laura Maffei’s first collection of tanka is also excellent. A long-time editor of one of the best tanka journals in North America, American Tanka, Ms Maffei holds a B.A. from SUNY-Binghamton and M.A. and MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. She has worked as a technical writer, a corporate “communications specialist,” and a teacher of literature and writing at various US colleges and universities. No denizen of the musty stacks, however, Ms. Maffei is a poet of the quotidian, the domestic; a poet of nature and relationships. Her mastery of the form allows her to pare the traditional 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern down to an even more abbreviated poem, and she likes to experiment with the distribution of stress and placement of long and short lines. Likewise, she often abandons the bipartite construction familiar to readers of haiku and senryu, in favor of continuous syntax. In each poem, however, she delivers an extreme close-up or bon mot or subtle surprise that makes us smile in recognition:
plays his guitar
through the wall
and I am three chords
how much laundry
is too much?
the dark tangle
of many sleeves
inside the machine
That second tanka could almost be an ars poetica: the movement from literal image to metaphor is subtle and arresting, invites many interpretations. Vive the extra two lines on the haiku, I say. Sometimes it allows the poet that little extra breathing space and those precious extra words, so that she’s not forced to squeeze an epiphany out of the juxtaposition of meagre phrase and fragment; sometimes, however, she achieves the concision of haiku regardless:
in a new cemetery
each letter of each name
The poet’s line breaks, rhythmic control, and timing are impeccable.
The book is divided into five sections: “Office Job,” “Infant Batman,” “One Leg Unshaved,” “Chalk Dust,” and “Summer of Nipples.” Together, as one critic has pointed out, they comprise a memoir of sorts. Nice trick that. I suspect the poet has done a lot of winnowing to come up with such a gallery of telling portraits.
Speaking Flowers by E.D. Blodgett
Finally, we come to series editor E.D. Blogett’s “nontraduction” of the book Ce que dissent les fleurs by Quebecois poet Jacques Brault, Speaking Flowers.
What’s a non-traduction, you ask, and why would the poet leave the term untranslated?
A non-translation, except that the book is a translation of sorts, the poet explains in his afterword; left as is in homage to the poet. The process, near as I can gather from the poet’s fascinating explanation, is rather like Robert Lowell’s transliteration: that is to say, the object is not so much to render the most precise trot one can muster, but to incorporate elements of homolinguistic translation and come up with original poetry that is faithful to the spirit of the original, not just in the denotative and connotative aspects of the target tongue, but also to body forth the same, or proximate rhythm, melody, and metaphoric reach. The process is all about reaching beyond the quotidian; to widen the area of reference and make the new poem work on its own terms in its own language.
One begins in precision, but one doesn’t stop there. Better to seek cognate sounds than bog down in prosaic trots: the poetry must be at least as interesting and suggestive as the original. To give an example, one could translate the words arachnéenne chimère (spidery chimaera) as spidery shimmer. (I’m working from the author’s epilogue here; my own French is restricted to what I remember from high school – not much!)
But what of Blodgett’s poetry then? Gnomic is the first word I’d reach for here. That is to say, the poetry is more metaphoric and suggestive, less descriptive of externals than the work of the previous two poets under discussion. While drawing from the same deep well of imagistic, haikai technique – that is from concrete perception, tight phrasing, image juxtaposition — we’re not restricted to perception or verisimilitude. Each page after the initial single distich epigraph features two distiches that leap playfully between literal context and metaphysical image:
spidery shimmer the dandelion
frees into the air its spore
clouds over a world carrying before
more clearly the fire haunting the cold
The lack of traditional punctuation allows for lexical and syntactic ambiguities to occur, while maximizing the suggestive capacity of the imagery. This requires more work of the reader, of course, but the generous spacing of two distiches a page, coupled with the Chinese ideogram at the foot of the page representing, but not directly portraying, a particular flower, allows the imagination more free reign.
The individual pages work like little symbolist poems, but the whole can also be read rather in the manner of a Persian ghazal – as discontinuous distiches held together by tone rather than narrative continuity. In short, this is a small book – less than sixty pages, counting the six-page afterword/epilogue and French original which comes after it rather than enface, but not a slight book. The reader will find him- or herself returning to ponder each distich carefully again and again, without exhausting the penumbra of reference.
Inkling Press then: a noble experiment that is exploring some of the back tributaries of mainstream Canadian poetry, and doing it well. Would that more literary presses in Canada would explore the possibilities of the haikai tradition, or take the time to produce books whose design so nicely compliments the contents. Inkling doesn’t yet have a substantial backlist of titles, but nor is it hidebound by a particular poetic. I’ve liked everything I’ve seen, including the three titles here.
Richard Stevenson lives and teaches in Lethbridge, AB. The most recent of his twenty works of poetry, jazz poetry performance, and creative non-fiction include a memoir, Riding On a Magpie Riff (forthcoming from Black Moss Press this fall), a children’s picture book in rhyming verse, Alex Anklebone & Andy The Dog (Bayeux Arts, 2005), a book of lyric/narrative poetry, Parrot With Tourette’s (Black Moss Palm Poets Series, 2004) and several collections of haiku, senryu, and tanka.