Breaking ground, breaking rules:

ground_rules_thumbrob mclennan, ed. Ground Rules: the best of the second decade of above/ground press 2003 – 2013 (Chaudiere Books 2013).

There are a lot of Canadian (& other) poets who are grateful rob mclennan runs above/ground press & somehow manages to publish a huge bunch of chapbooks, magazine, & broadsheets every year, no matter what else he also gets up to. And he’s been doing so for more than 2 decades now. In Ground Rules, he offers up a generous sampling of what above/ground does for those readers who just haven’t been paying attention or else couldn’t keep up.

Some critics & poets argue that eclecticism makes for weak editing, but mclennan, who has also spent all that time learning as much as he can about (especially) modern & contemporary Canadian poetry, has made it into a virtue. He likes & publishes a very wide range of poetry, but, if this anthology is anything to go by, he has a pretty good sense of what works in any particular area. Ground Rules has a smattering of single poems, including a couple of concrete beauties from derek beaulieu; but the anthology really shines in its many & varied chapbooks. These range from Nathanaël’s gender bending self-examination, ‘what exile    this,’ through the faux (& witty) ‘Text Panels’ of Lisa Samuels’s ‘The Museum of Perception,’ to Rachel Zolf’s lovely minimalist homage, ‘the naked & the nude'; & that’s just the first three.

mclennan appreciates poetic comedy: see Sharon Harris’s ‘more fun with ‘pataphysics,’ with its ‘amazing’ (& always amusing) ‘findings’ & ‘experiments in progress'; or Stephen Brockwell’s ‘Impossible Books (the Carleton Installment),’ which includes (‘From Metonomies: Poems by Objects Owned by Illustrious People‘) these lines by ‘Stephen Harper’s Shoes': ‘Long days holding up the country, / short nights breathing fresh air,’ & ‘My steel / shank would never pass security / if the face did not control it personally,’ in which the ambiguity of that pronoun speaks volumes.

mclennan appreciates the elders: see, among others, D.G. Jones, with the sly & sophisticated lyrics of ‘standard pose,’ & Robert Kroetsch, with the subtle & actively probing wit of his letters to other poets in ‘Further to Our Conversation’ (one of his last chapbooks, generously offered to various small presses). He also appreciates formal experiments, such as Emily Carr’s ‘ ] / & look there goes a sparrow transplanting soil / ] /[3 eclogues]‘ or Gregory Betts’s deconstruction of the Canadian documentary poem in ‘The Cult of David Thompson.’ I also especially enjoyed Monty Reid’s striking serial poem, ‘cuba  A book,’ Marilyn Irwin’s ‘for when you pick daisies,’ Natalie Simpson’s ‘Writing the writing,’ Julia Williams’s ‘My City is Ancient and Famous,’ & many of Eric Folsom’s ‘Northeast anti-ghazals.’ No anthology can satisfy everyone, but Ground Rules has a higher percentage of the worthwhile than most; I found all of the chapbooks worth my reading time.

As a valuable overview of the kinds of poetry above/ground press publishes or just of the kinds of poetry being written in Canada (or North America) during the first decade or so of the 21st century, Ground Rules has much to recommend it. Because it gives each poet real room, & also because it publishes new work, it provides a genuine insight into a lot of what’s happening now. Anyone interested in getting a sense of what a number of our most interesting poets have been up to recently will find Ground Rules offers a terrific introduction to their work.

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bpNichol & Wayne Clifford’s long collaboration: Theseus.

201406_LbpNichol & Wayne Clifford. Theseus: A Collaboration (BookThug 2014).

From the beginning, bpNichol was an avid collaborator, a believer in the multi-inscribed (& he assumed that even so-called solo writing was multiply authored by the many selves we perform). With The Four Horsemen in sound poetry, Barbara Caruso, among others, in visual work, Steve McCaffery in TRG as well as various sound performances, Nichol could ever be found working/playing with others. One of the first such collaborations began with his meeting Wayne Clifford, his first editor at Coach House in 1966. The idea to use the myth of Theseus as a structural starting point appears to have been Clifford’s, & Nichol soon invited 2 west coast poets to join in the fun. That didn’t work out, so eventually the two poets constructed ‘Part I: Ariadne‘ of Theseus: A Collaboration out of all that had been written by then. Some 10 years later, they picked up the thread of this a-maze-meant & began a long correspondence of writing & rewriting ‘Part Two: Minotaur.’ Then bpNichol died suddenly, far too young, & Wayne Clifford, one of his many best friends eventually wrote ‘A Part Last: Labyrinth‘ as a late collaboration with other writings by Nichol, most especially the martyrology, & as an elegy to one more poet died young.

Theseus: A Collaboration is many things, then, not least a wonderful gift to Nichol’s many readers, so long after his death. Clifford & Nichol shared much in their poetics, &, at the beginning, shared also a modernist-Romantic vision that served them well in that first section. It begins: ‘I learn nuance / I gain a sense / of echoes'; soon followed by a questioning of both the ‘I’ & the ‘you’ of the expressive forms of love. A moon appears in the poem, a mirror & a river almost the same, & a quest which is, not so simply, the writing of the poem. The mainly short lines, the spacing, & the yearning felt in the verse all bespeak the poets’ youth. I certainly hear echoes of their early books here, as I also hear echoes of what they had written in the 10 years or so before they began their work on Part Two in that section.

By the time they began to work on ‘Part Two: Minotaur,’ Nichol was deep into the early books of the martyrology & Clifford had moved on too, into the complexities of GlassPassages. It doesn’t matter who says ‘that when I opened your envelope, odour of old words / led me empty-headed to the source again'; it does matter that the poem swerves further from that source in myth to the ‘real’ lives of the writers & the real life of writing.

That means they brought their other writings into this collaboration as well as little reminders of the first part, as when the poem interrogates the security of the self where ‘his voice breaks    confusion / confession    these postures /patterns blurred by self pity’ leads to ‘Arrogant, this you? angry and stupid? / (Nuance. A sense of echoes.)’ A dream or vision of past stories or future meetings invokes 2 old men arguing, friars or saints, or just poets, it doesn’t matter. The echoes come from within & without:

  • “‘The sea is also a garden.'”
  • Voice doubled,
  •                             a man & a woman
  • speaking years apart,
  • We speak her speaking of his heart.

There’s also a playfulness readers will recognize from their other writing of the time, as ‘fingers / & what lingers is / the ryme’ soon entertains ‘as f to l shift’s the spell / gesture completes’. Which in ‘A Part Last: Labyrinth,’ Clifford will echo ( along with that early moon & river) in ‘f to l/in/ear’ — a perfect homage to Nichol’s punning in parts of the martyrology. But in this labyrinth of loss, he will also admit, ‘It was mistaken  / of us to use / Theseus as thesis / , wrong of me.’ And then demonstrate that this collaborative poem was always more specific, more now, ‘there no(t) here // The distinction between the faces blurred / in the moon, mortal at last no less than // is // us // yes’. Yet at the end, the poem (Clifford’s now if in response to Nichol['s writing]) returns to that thread (of what: love? discourse itself? Nichol’s famous ‘speech / each / to / eech’?) & finishes ‘yes you feel it / here / in your h and’. A final lovely & loving bow to his friend.

Theseus: A Collaboration is many things & will repay the returning reader, but it is perhaps most forcefully a gift of friendship, as true collaboration always is.


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Brecken Hancock’s exciting debut

9781552452882_Hancock_BroomBroomWebBrecken Hancock. Broom Broom. (Coach House Books 2014).

Somehow I’ve managed to miss Brecken Hancock’s work in magazines & chapbooks, but her bright, fizzy, fast & furious book, so full of energy, wit, & odd & jarring juxtapositions, definitely announces a talent worth paying attention to. Broom Broom sweeps aside a lot of conventional cobwebs while offering a richly bracing series of views of history (through bathtubs), family troubles, & the usual mix of love, friendship, anger, etc..

From its 2 epigraphs (Swinburne’s on ‘the great sweet mother,’ the sea, & Yoko Ono’s ‘Mommy, I’d rather have you dead than crazy’) onward, despite its many turns away into eccentric side streets, the main thoroughfare Broom Broom treads leads always back to the mother & her disappearance into dementia, leaving all behind, most especially the daughter who appears as a series of not-quite-the-same ‘I’s:

  •  I won’t pull myself together,
  • I’m my own distraction.
  • There’s a widening gulf
  • between each brazen
  • erection of I-I-I,
  • a whole brood of knockoffs
  • infecting me.

That from ‘Evil Brecken,’ a long & highly internally-rhymed song of her selves matching the slightly demented lullabies that open the collection. Here she tells us ‘I need protecting…’; every one of the ‘I’s protesting their fate in that off key song of selves under attack.

The attacks come from the mother lost & savage portrayed in both sly little haiku (‘Hush now, Mama, don’t / say a word. Daughter’s gonna / drink until you’re cured.’) & the long prose poems ‘Her Quiet Not Quite Not Her’ & ‘Once More,’ harrowing portraits of the loss felt by both the narrator & the mother figure as she descends into dementia. A barely contained & deeply clarifying anger fuels many of these poems, while a kind of wry archivist’s irony pervades others. ‘Once More’ oddly, beautifully represents that anger, inner-directed as much as at fate. It also takes up the challenge to write a ‘confessional’ piece without falling into the genre’s dangerous simplicity of sentiment. ‘Disconnected from language, from subjectivity,’ the mother ‘still ached for home. She forgot her name, forgot her pronoun: adopted the neuter “it.”’ As the piece accumulates its rage against this dissolution of the mother, it takes up many positions, noting how ‘Before the disease rendered it completely dumb, it was abusive.’ Or; ‘I married my second husband six months after the death of my forty-thousandth mother. There is no first.’ There is a hard factuality here, but as the argument (& it is one, with fate, with Roland Barthes, with the selves warring within her) gets ever more complex, it also escapes mere personal memoir into something harder, deeper, & a part of the larger argument that is the whole book.

Thus, what a different kind of essay-poem (for that is what these longer prose pieces can best be described as), the eerily cheeky historical overview of ‘The Art of Plumbing,’ has to do with these more personal essays into family history becomes clear in its final 2 entries, set in the present & the future, where the narrator enters into watery contact with her mother, potentially only, of course.

Many other kinds of poem knock into each other throughout Broom Broom, presenting a contemporary version of metaphysical conceits, apostrophes to whomever, footnotes to articles on plumbing history we’ll never see. In other words, Broom Broom offers a wide range of poetic delights, yet different as many of these poems are, they all circle around the empty abyss of the mother-gone-too-soon & the daughter angrily mourning that loss, however ironically sometimes. Broom Broom invites while pushing away; in that ambiguity lies its power.

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Sina Queyras & Elegy in the 21st Century: M x T

9781552452905_MxT_Queyras_webSina Queyras. M x T. (Coach House Books 2014).

How write elegy in the 21st Century? One way is to go back through all the layers of inscription to the beginnings (which in a way Ann Carson does), but the weight of eons of such works is heavy indeed. And perhaps individual loss has lost some of its lustre as we watch each day the thousands dying around the world. Yet both our sense of loss & outrage at death both personal & public invites the writer to respond. Sina Queyras accepts that to elegize one is, now, in some way to have to elegize all, past & present — the huge death toll of our world, our culture(s), our histories. So M x T speaks individually, yes, but as a floating ‘I,’ overseeing a vast graveyard, remembering, in a way, for the multitudes that ‘I,’ as written, contains. ‘Water, my dead ones, and you with your ravaged look.’

M x T is a complex & complexly organized book; no single review can cover all that its various pieces do. But even as many of those pieces, mostly prose, dig deep into the emotional dirt of grief, it also sets up baffles to mere sentiment, as one of the sly illustrations that seem to come from some postmodern How-To volume of machined grieving suggests. These arcane little documents, with their instructions (‘Direct Mourning is the gold standard of consumer grief. The first line above measures time, the second line measures current. With direct mourning there are no surges of feeling, no outbursts; it is unidirectional, a consistent, even, unconscious current.’), head each section of M x T, providing a bit of high tech ostranenie before the following poem explores an other aspect of loss & the grief attached.

The impersonal personal, then: Queyras finds so many ways to express deep emotion, to catch our breaths with the potency of elegiac speech; yet she never falls into confessional emotionalism. This is a high wire act carried out with great craft & sensibility. And as a woman artist, she speaks especially to honour other women artists, the dead, & those who, like us all, will die (perhaps most so in ‘Of the Hollow’ but elsewhere too). Not exclusively throughout, but still, when she writes of ‘The Dead Ones,’ for example, who assemble ‘in the centre of any city,’ & who are rather noisy — ‘The humming silence is their slow, methodical dance. The dead have no weight but they stomp nevertheless. They hold hands in long lines; they are determined to be heard, to be seen: look at me, they say, diving in and out of the earth like porpoises, look at me.’ — it is Lee Miller of whom she asks, ‘what city does she haunt?’

Each section begins with a page in italics that addresses the reader more directly on the matter at hand. As, for example, this: ‘I said, Write all the names, melancholy, primordial ecology, streams of echo, the affective fallacy is precise, not like memory, a chiasmus lit with electric eels, but memory doesn’t work that way, to remember is singular, breathes through wood. Under each rock a signature. Remember them one at a time but not in the same spot.‘ Here is a good example of the wide & wild palette Queyras draws on; one of the delights of M x T is its mastery of a myriad of styles, each suited to its particular place in the whole work. Toward the end, she does write a number of short elegies, but each one differs to match its titular figure, Sylvia Plath (elegizing herself), Jackson Pollock, Alice Martin (a grid of ‘whitewords’ for the painter of white grids), or the ‘Elegy Written in a City Cemetery,’ in which every phrase is footnoted to some earlier elegy.

There’s so much more one could say about the various darkling glories of M x T. Let’s just say it’s a brilliant & moving work that, in its contemporary exploration of the continuing power of the elegy, will repay repeated readings & should be on every reader’s bookshelf.


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Chus Pato with Erin Moure: an incredible ongoing conversation continues in Secession/Insecession

201403_LSecession by Chus Pato with Insecession by Erin Moure. (BookThug 2014).

This book (these books) asks a lot of its (their) readers, but it gives so much more in return. Chus Pato (always here ‘Translated from the Galician / into Canadian English / in Montreal and Kelowna / by Erin Moure’) calls Secession a ‘biopoetics'; Moure calls Insecession ‘An echolation-homage and biopoetics.’ And thus, on the very first pages of Secession/Insecession, both writers suggest just how multiplex & involving the prose fragments that follow will be. These writers engage writing itself, memory, each other, & most definitely their readers in a subtle & powerful investigation of the body in time, the body connected to mind in composition, & the body of/in writing.

What is ‘biopoetics’? Only each complete example of such may suggest a version of an answer to this question. Certainly, biopoetics includes an aspect of memoir, of remembering one’s own past, the life lived so far. And one of the best things about Secession/Insecession is the way both texts display important moments in the life (& especially the writing life) of its authors. Both Pato & Moure understand that memory is treacherous. And definitely not linear: the lie of autobiography. Biopoetics insists on fragmentation & redundancies, the made (up). So both ‘books’ are collections of moments — of memory, of thinking about remembering & remembering thinking, of that action (of thinking) now, in this (moment of) writing. And this writing of these moments is visceral, fully embodied.

Both these texts are so rich, it would be impossible to truly describe all that is going on in them in a review (there will be articles galore I have no doubt). For one thing, although they are in their ways highly theoretical, with doffs of the hat to many of the most important theorists of the past century, such as Agamben, Barthes (lovingly (mis)translated in the epigraph by Moure), Benjamin, named, &, in a more allusive manner throughout, so many feminist writers, both Secession & Insecession are very warm texts, proffering a greater sense of the person behind the writing than a lot of their previous works have done (clearly I can say this more certainly of Moure than I can of Pato, whose other works I only know in Moure’s translations of a few). The memories they both find & write are only partial, for that’s how memory works, yet they offer such a felt sense of being there, in that place at that moment, that they seem to offer a glimpse of each writer’s ‘real’ life. On the other hand, as they state in a number of places in this book, no ‘I’ can be trusted to represent anything other than a momentary presence in a text, yet one after another ‘I’ speaks to us about her past, her life, her writing, in these fragments (& I havent even mentioned the ‘we’ they also parade).

Both writers are poets, & although Secession/Insecession is made up of prose fragments, it is definitely poetry, with all of poetry’s demands on its readers, most especially, & for the reader delightfully, that it be reread. Most likely in a different way. For one thing, you can return to any section on its own. Or you can read the whole book but in a different way. The text has been set in a fascinating manner. If you read it straight through you would read a page of Moure, then a page of Pato:this would as a first reading prove somewhat confusing I think. On the other hand, Moure has set her sections (of which she says, ‘Each text in Canadian English responds to a Pato text, with one added Chinook wind’) before the Pato text to which it corresponds, thus setting up one more baffle against lyric response for the reader. If you read the book as laid out, each Moure text before the Pato text, something strange & wonderful happens: Moure is both responding to Pato’s fragments & evincing her own (Canadian, Albertan, prairie?) takes on those subjects we are about to read in Pato’s writing. When we then read Pato’s subtly politicized memory plays, in her Galician context, we also reread the Moure pieces read before but written after, in newly politicized & psychologized ways. The whole book becomes a double helix behaving like a Möbius Strip.

Secession/Insecession is so full of engaging writing, it seems unfair to quote even a small part of it, yet it would also be unfair not to offer a taste of both these writers’ extraordinary poetic thinking (I am reminded of Jan Zwicky’s praise of what she called ‘lyric vision’ in her Lyric Philosophy: Pato & Moure have that vision in spades). Although both poets write a lot about their personal lives if in a most allusive & often elusive manner, they also, as writers thinking about writing, have much to say about writing & the written. Moure tells us this:

        Poetry, it is said by this me which is not me, is a conversation, or a texture like a shawl and each one of us weaves our own particular corner, or the bit where we gently hold the edge, aware that others are gently pulling as well on the surface of the textile, contributing their own gesture to the whole. And none of us produce the whole, not on our own, not with our friends alone. None of us are this whole nor can any of us speak for this whole that is poetry, we can only bring our hands’ work into the conversation, and raise not just our voice but our ears to it, to listen,


     Translation is about this too, this listening. it is a hearing and transferral into the pen of rhythms and an exactitude of meaning . . .

Pato says this, as part of what Moure is responding to in the quotation above:

Writing evokes, evokes the voice that in humans is that of an animal that learned language, various languages, all of them articulated. As for the voice (to read aloud, present a poem), nothing brings it closer to the text; a text is complete in its writing, and writing is an absence, a forgetting. This dismemory (the forgetting of winter, of the bird snare, of angels running when they meet the gaze) of the voice that speaks or reads the poem is what makes writing possible. These are the letters, the rough draft; but precisely for this reason, because this base is where letters emerge, writing is the sole possibility of remembering the voice, the voice that in humans is the  voice of an animal that learns an articulated language. In this way, each poem would be a letter in an interminable ABC that calls constantly through the voice, through the lost moment in which someone articulates a voice in speech. Afterward, a silence exists to speak the world, then all speak, then time and history and grammar arrive.

But a taste, as I say. Secession/Insecession is as rich a feast as can be imagined. It’s not just a further introduction to the writing of a major European writer, but a collaborative act of the anti-insular imagination by two of the finest poets writing today. Get it: it will repay you a thousand times in a thousand ways.

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The early bpNichol available again!

201009_LbpNichol. The Captain Poetry Poems Complete (BookThug 2011).

bpNichol. bp: beginnings. Edited with an Introduction by Stephen Cain. (BookThug 2014).201407_L

Over & over again, in various ways. bpNichol declared. ‘The poem is dead. Long live the poem.’ These two books, both from BookThug’s delightfully named ‘Department of Reissue,’ demonstrate the many ways Nichol killed off & resuscitated ‘the poem’ in his early works. They also remind older readers of his work, most especially The Martyrology, & will show new readers just how quickly he became a master of what he called ‘trad poetry’ (mainly in the lyric tradition), sound poetry, & concrete poetry, all three of which, along with some of his comix inflected drawings, are on display in these two books.

The Captain Poetry Poems first appeared in 1971 from bill bissett’s blewointment press. In it, as Nichol later stated, he was mounting ‘an attack on the macho bullshit tradition in Canadian poetry where if you were male & wrote poems you had to make damn sure you could piss longer, shout harder, & drink more than any less obviously effete (i.e. they weren’t writing poems) on this national block.’ As this suggests, a kind of black comedy was at work here, as well as an eccentric homage to the superhero comics he also enjoyed.

Nichol is all over the place in these poems & ideopoems (the whole section, ‘The Unmasking of Captain Poetry: a series of stills,’ is made up of single ‘frames’ of drawings that will become a continuing aspect of Nichol’s concrete output through the years). Most of the actual poems raise the Captain only to pull him down; as a hero he tends to failure. Really, all that happens is ‘heroes return. heroes die.’ Or, in an even more slapstick sequence, ‘captain poetry walks down the street’ & all he manages to do is he ‘pulls out a gun & shoots off his feet   fires into the air / & dies.’ He’s really just a rather lousy ordinary lyric poet as the sequence, ‘Captain Poetry   In Love,’ shows, most especially in the sonnet for ‘madame X’:

  •  Look how the sun leaps now upon our faces
  • Stomps & boots our eyes into our skulls
  • Drives all thot to weird & foreign places
  • Till the world reels & the kicked mind dulls.
  • Drags our hands up across our eyes
  • Sends all white hurtling into black
  • Makes the inner cranium our skies
  • And turns all looks sent forward burning back.
  • And you, my lady, who should be gentler, kind,
  • Have yet the fiery aspect of the sun
  • Sending words to burn into my mind
  • Destroying all my feelings one by one;
  •      You who should have tiptoed thru my halls
  •      Have slammed my doors & smashed me into walls.

This is parody at its cleverest, both administering trad lyric & undermining it at once, & demonstrating that Nichol could do it if he thought it mattered any more. But Captain Poetry exists partly to tell his (its) readers that it doesn’t, not really, there are other ways to explore the world & its always present emotional events. It’s still terrific fun, & we owe BookThug thanks for putting The Captain Poetry Poems Complete out there once more.

And even more so for bp: beginnings, which ‘collects bpNichol’s early major sequences – including lyric, concrete, and sound – which have been out of print for more than 40 years,’ as Stephen Cain announces in his useful & informative ‘Introduction,’ which pretty well sums up all that I might say about them. Many of us who have loved & lived with Nichol’s work since it first appeared will have most of these, but will also appreciate having them all together in a trade edition rather than in small, often carefully preserved copies. For younger readers & writers who may know The Martyrology, or the various selecteds that have appeared over the past couple of decades, the opportunity to see these works as conceived will allow them so see how carefully Nichol worked the concept of ‘the book’ (however small) from the very beginning. They can be called ‘apprentice works,’ but as Cain points out they ‘are in no way juvenilia, and are only apprentice work in the sense that Nichol always claimed that he was a lifelong apprentice to language,’ a statement of purpose he made many times in many places.

So here are the visual sound poems of Cycles Etc (1965), then ideopoems of eyes (1967), the wonderful comic of The Year of the Frog (1967), the ‘dirty concrete’ of Kon 66 & 67 (1968), the sound poetry of Ballads of the Restless Are (1968) & Lament (1969), as well as the lyric sequences, the carefully arranged books, JOURNEYING & the returns (1967), Beach Head (1970), & The Other Side of the Room (1971). In those days, Nichol said his work in concrete & sound poetry was a way of learning thing with which to energize & expand his trad poetry, push the boundaries.

One need only read (especially aloud) Ballads of the Restless Are & then turn to the poems in the three lyric volumes to see how Nichol’s explorations of pure sound contributed to his writing in the more traditional forms (I call them ‘more traditional,’ because Nichol had already learned a lot from both the New American poetry as well as some of the European avant garde). George Bowering, in a review in 1967, suggested that what Nichol had written in JOURNEYING & the returns ‘is very well written, with a sure understanding of notation, with a remarkable ability to make notation induce rhythm.’ I’d only add that his ear for connecting sounds to sense ability in his poetry was already acute & would only get sounder as he continued his innovative writing in (mostly) The Martyrology. Certainly, these are a young man’s poems, & he can’t escape a certainly youthful romanticism, but he also see clearly, hears possibilities many other young poets could not, & follows language’s guiding hand as he moves the poem forward, as in the delicate repetitions & line breaks here:

  •  outside my room, my room
  • my window shows to the world, the world
  • is a screen of moving shadows

In this subtle movement room becomes window, world screen, screen but shadows, of what was, of love lost, of so many possibilities, for in JOURNEYING & the returns, Nichol explores place, the natural world as itself rather than just mirror of one’s emotions, & the place of friendship in a time of changes one cannot control. Nichol already worked in the sequence, or the book, because he understood that life & art are far too ambiguous to be caught in one, neat lyric closure.

Beach Head is full of loss & youthful lament, written in those short lines Duncan said were ‘for candor,’ & Phyllis Webb added ‘Or terror,’ while Nichol in a later note said that the poems had ‘the panicky short breath line i was in at the time,’ but in that line he manages subtle shifts of perspective on the self:

  •  tense (as
  • I was
  • then in
  • my speech
  • even) uneven
  • the rhythm
  • broken by
  • the to & fro
  • motion of
  • the eye
  • lid
  • as I hid
  • the light
  • from myself
  • saying
  • others
  • had done so

As Cain points out, ‘friendship’ is a central theme throughout these early books, & is often signalled by the dedications, of both books & single poems. It’s also interesting to note that Nichol chose among his mentors some major women writers like Margaret Avison & Phyllis Webb, to the latter of whom he dedicated ‘seaquence’ in The Other Side of the Room, where a longer line began to emerge, as well as a further push of the projective pun:

  •  a new beginning
  • begging
  •                   for an ending

This is a definitely a book of new beginnings. Not least in the way that Nichol handles the lyric I. Sometimes it could be the poet speaking, others it has to be just another lyricist, as in his various sly songs, such as ‘green lady grocer early morning song,’ with its nifty allusions to blues (‘for a / green     lady’), & the rocknroll of the time, as it slides toward its cutting ending:

  • goodbye baby
  • i’m heading cross an ocean
  • to an eastern shore
  • it’s been a
  • long and a
  • losing
  • war
  • **
  • got up and
  • raised my head i’d
  • left it on
  • the bed
  • threw it out
  • the window but
  • it didn’t
  • grow wings
  • one of those
  • things baby just
  • one of those
  • things

There’s so much in bp: beginnings to revisit with pleasure or to discover, oh lucky readers, for the first time. A necessary book.

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Sarah Lang’s For Tamara: post-apocalyptic poetics

978-1-77089-367-2_tSarah Lang. For Tamara. House of Anansi Press 2014.

That For Tamara was published in the same month as the I.P.C.C. released its latest statement on the looming crisis of global warming seems only fitting. Whatever broke the narrator of this powerful fragmented tale, a war, storms that destroy cities, something else, she lives, & writes note to her daughter & her missing husband in the stark aftermath.

Lang has created a fascinating form here, of quickly dashed off thoughts (by the narrator, not the writer), scatter-shot bits & pieces of her memories & ideas. She attempts to remember useful information for survival, makes references to the lost past, & declares her love for Tamara, & for her missing husband, who ‘worked all over the world. / CERN, LHC, Arecibo / and a handful of National Labs where he is now,’ & where she hopes he is still alive & trying to fix things. But, as the title implies, she is writing all this as a kind of survival guide for Tamara, who she hopes will read it all sometime in the future, & who may well have heard much of it as she grows up in a new wilderness full of the remnants of humanity who may have gathered around her, because, although ‘Before this, your Mother was a writer. / Now she is a doctor & teacher. / I suppose this still counts as writing.’

The person we only know as ‘your Mum’ tries but knows she is failing to give her daughter all the information she needs. Like most urban people, she has snippets of useful facts in her head, but like us all she expected that she could always look such stuff up. There are some drawings, obviously the best she can do in pencil, of a bare bones map of North America, of the stars, of Chamomile, among other things. Paper & books (she has a few on medicine & a few other things) are scarce, but then so is everything, especially drugs & hospital equipment, as all power is gone. She does what she can with her ordinary faulty memory, but she is definitely not one of those survivalists most of us only read about.

Smart, sarcastic, trying her best, the narrator swerves from helpful hints to loving gestures to sardonic quips, to terrified memories:

I saw whole cities being destroyed. / T., I never want you to see that, ever. / Rebuild, always. / At least my thumb is healing.

Find yr grandfather’s radio that says “Fisher-Price” on it; those things will outlive most other tech. / Good luck with finding batteries.

There is no normal narrative development, no obvious plot, but as we read on, we feel the years pass, we note that some of these notes are direct addresses to others in the small community Mum has created around her hospital & school, & we understand that Tamara is growing up & helping out. Some entries suggest various crises of health, food supply, possible fights or collaborations with other groups. For Tamara refuses any easy conclusion; everything is up in the air: this is a text of determined indeterminancy.

I have never been able before to categorize a book as both poetry & SF&F, so it delights me to be able to name For Tamara both. Despite its unusual format, it is highly readable, each fragment adding to a slowly developing complex configuration of a human being responding as best she can to ultimate crisis. Sarah Lang shows in this, her second book, that she has a vibrant & off beat imagination. For Tamara is a keeper.

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