Stephen Cain raises his ante & his anti- in False Friends

Stephen Cain. False Friends. (BookThug 2017).

In his first full length collection in over a decade, & playing off the multilingual opposition contained in his title, Stephen Cain offers hifalutin (& low) games, lots of play on & with various ‘friends’ in literature & art, & a decisive retort to the personal lyric. As he says in the first sequence, ‘Stanzas,’ which is, he acknowledges, a kind of ‘allusive referential reduction on “Rooms” by Gertrude Stein’ (one of the avatars of this book), ‘Starve the saccharine smiths,’ possibly with ‘Minimal music, rapid repetition.’ One of the things that happens in this piece, as it stretches out, there are many such phrasings that more or less make sense, but they’re part of of a whole that keeps stopping doing so: ‘Nano nexus next strike, some storm, contain the converse more measured’ or ‘Missing kitten altered ivory smoking area.’ The whole holds one’s attention because each sentence or fragment thereof catches the (inner) eye, but the accretion resists interpretation in any ordinary sense.

This is generally true throughout False Friends, although some pieces are more accessible than others – to the reader who knows more or less what Cain knows. That isn’t necessary to enjoy the various pieces, but it definitely helps. For example, as someone who taught Canadian Literature as he does now, I can really enjoy ‘Mod Cons,’ in which he ‘revisits poems by A. M. Klein, Irving Layton, F. R. Scott, Earle Birney, & W. W. E. Ross.’ That they are all men is deliberate, I believe, & these rewrites offer sly critiques of that situation & their easy acceptance of poetic privilege in their day. They’re all sharp, although I like the visual synopsis, so to speak, of Birney’s ‘Vancouver Lights’ the best.

‘Idiosyntactic ‘ has more games with language & artistic inheritance. Here Cain takes on clichés of all kinds, but especially those of ‘the writing life.’ Especially in ‘Sportstalk,’ with its long list of things writers say & think: a hoot. But once again, a reader’s knowledge helps. Putting Gertrude Stein & Oscar Wilde together on fictional lecture tours in ‘Geniuses Together’ works for anyone, but adds a certain piquance for those who have read these writers & the book from which the title is taken. Knowing who Adorno was & his comments on jazz & the US lack of culture will make the addled review article on the (not music but the article reads like something from a pop music mag) group, ‘Adorno Hates Jazz,’ & their generally bad (according to the reviewer) releases. Because I am a big Gibson & cyberpunk fan I get those allusions in ‘Cyberpunk,’ but because I never paid much attention to it, I miss many of those to punk music. That is how most of these poems work.

On the other hand, everyone will get & laugh with the visual ‘signs’ in “Wordwards.’ But you really need to know your bpnichol to get much of ‘Etc Phrases,’ which he calls ‘an ekphrasic translation of bpNichol’s “Allegories”.’ They’re brilliant, & can certainly be read & enjoyed as sharp examples of the anti-lyric, singing & stinging, & not ever rendering the emotions of an ‘I’. Any one would do to show how they work, each line apart & a part, as in ‘Etc Phrase’ #21’ (where we are meant, I think, to hear ‘phase’ as well): ‘Return to the slippery trope. / Basic Buddhism. / Half-baked Hinduism.. / All the syncretism you can stand.’ Here again, as throughout, we see Cain’s almost alchemical addiction to alliteration in False Friends.

Indeed, it’s one of Cain’s major forms of sounding in this collection, &, as the penultimate sequence, ‘Zoom,’ a weird ‘translation’ (the term almost meaningless when dealing with sound poetry) of sound poems by Hugo Ball & others, alliteration & repetition form an important aspect of allowing sound to make a hash of sense. What’s interesting about ‘Zoom’ is that Cain has ‘translated’ these sound pieces by writers of other mother tongues into mostly English words, but run these together in a way that forces any reader to default to something close to mere sound anyway. Cain closes False Friends with the comic flourish of ‘Proverbs for the Jilted Generation,’ all of which slide away from any helpful advice. All in all, False Friends offers intellectually stimulating & formally complex delights to any reader willing to take a chance on such chanciness.

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Firebreaks: John Kinsella’s eocpoetic homecoming.

John Kinsella. Firebreaks. (Norton 2016).

The Australian writer, John Kinsella, has earned an international reputation as a poet both progressive & traditional, exploring innovative or more conventional forms, depending on what each book ends up being, ‘about’. Firebreaks, his latest, is big, 284 pages, & expansive, charged with personal as well as public ambition. I guess it could be called a kind of ecopoetic diary/memoir-in-verse(s), as it registers his (& his family’s) life in England, then back ‘home’ in the land he owns (inherited?) in Western Australia, Jam Tree Gully, land which they are striving to protect & preserve, against the encroachments of modern Oz & the up-to-date farmers in the surrounding area, who love their machines, their Monsanto, their shooting of roos. The poems emerge as a complex argument with both others & the self, also as containing, if only by implication, a kind of manifesto for the organic way of life.

Kinsella is a highly eclectic writer, & in Firebreaks, he opts to explore & rehabilitate through generic play a variety of traditional modes: he takes up the narrative lyric, the lyric dialogue, the poetic essay, the ode, & many others, & weaves them into a sort of domestic epic, a compilation of complicated perceptions & arguments, including a ‘(frequently oppositional) dialogue I’ve had with Ovid’s late works of exile, Tristia and Ex Ponto, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and The Psychoanalysis of Fire.’ And that comment certainly sets a kind of rhetorical standard for the book.

The various sections register the real ‘exile’ of living in England for a time, away from Jam Tree Gully & thus unable to protect it in person; but when he returns, he still feels he’s in ‘internal exile,’ & rages against both his own people who refuse to see how the planet (more than the world) is changing, or being changed by their efforts, for the worse. His ‘envoy’ to ‘Internal Exile,’ the first half of the book, ‘(out of Ex Ponto IV, XVI, line 47-52)’, demonstrates the kind of directness he achieves at various places in Firebreaks, though more often it’s a descriptive directness, while here it’s a polemical one: ‘Unbearable blue / crouching over / incendiary breeze / to inflict wounds / where there’s no room / for further wounds; / but none compares / to loss of land / or land degraded / so even the dead / are troubled; / the malice / of profiteers / loving conversion / of land into commodities / in this golden age / of the consumer. / Iron rods in puppets. / My alienated ‘belonging’. / The small choices I have. / The Gall. The pall / of this western subject. / Forgive me, you / who have lost / so much more. / I sign over these words. / Ash on the page.’ But this short lined poem only arrives at the end of 147 pages of carefully wrought exercises in seeing & feeling one person’s embodied relations to the land & the people, surrounding where he lives but, living in their different ways on it. There are poems of lament, of simple delight in natural beauty, of anger at those who not only dismiss that beauty but take great pleasure in destroying it for what they see as simple ordinary & necessary progress.

The 2nd half of Firebreaks, ‘Inside Out,’ takes a more personal look at living in this small place during a ‘time of “mouse plague” and fire.’ The poems here delve into the difficulty his family has in trying to live as close to their little piece of land as they can. He achieves some fine social/cultural/agricultural comedy, as well as gorgeous representations of the Australian landscape, both native & changed by the European colonists, even on a small, & apparently still untouched, ‘block’ of land. The descriptions of flora & fauna, those eagles both native & introduced, for instance, the little dramas of encounters with mice or other people, the representations of the fires attacking the land: Kinsella handles all these set pieces with energy & élan; these are story poems in the best sense. But the anger is real too; how to deal with it, with them, these others: ‘And the cruel are out there killing roos / with arrows snapped off near hearts. Violent weekend parties / calling time on nature in the valley. On the other side of the country, / Queensland farmers are chomping at remnant bushland. That’s regional / and that’s national: accumulation of like-mindedness. Like mining; / it leaves nothing for anyone.’ Here we see Kinsella the rhetorician utilizing the long line for argument, yet the sensitivity to sound (as sense) remains.

Firebreaks is, as said, a big book, a series of intense images & insights, yet also a single, & singular, work. It demands careful reading, but it repays with a complex, often profoundly personal, representation of one aspect of our (failing) engagement with the natural world we too easily forget & so devalue, & so lose. If that makes it sound too didactic, it’s not; rather it’s a carefully woven poetic tapestry of well wrought tales that draw you in to one man’s continuing attempt to live as fully as possible what he has concluded is the good life, against all the (ordinary) odds arrayed against him, is family, & their home place.

 

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For Claire Kelly, maunder is an active verb

Claire Kelly. Maunder. (Palimpsest Press 2017).

According to The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, ‘maunder’ refers to both speaking & walking, the former ‘in a dreamy or rambling manner,’ the latter ‘listlessly or idly.’ Well, the poems in Maunder, Clair Kelly’s first collection, definitely ramble & often have the intense visual specificity of dreams, & they do wander over a large territory in the apparently rambling manner of the flaneuse, but they are not idle at all.

Early on, in the delightful sequence, ‘Keeping Track, Keeping Pace,’ Kelly explores variations of walking: ‘Swagger’ (‘a tear to the target’; ‘John Wayne advertising adventure wholesale’); ‘Shuffle’ (‘Here’s an army of slouch and grimace’); ‘Promenade’ (‘Pretend your partner is a stable / influence: hook arms and match pace’); ‘Lurch and Reel’ (‘you stutter-step on too / shadowing some off-kilter scent’); ‘Hobble’ (‘spasmodic rhythm: / crimson marionette with / a snagged string’); & finally ‘Strut’ with its ‘Cluster poise and cluster pose’ & final

Strobe. Muybridge sequence:

a horse galloping. In slow-mo.

The variant phrasings in this series provides a neat introduction to Kelly’s wide-ranging interests & the vocabulary that attends them.

This certainly applies to Kelly’s titles, which often startle (‘Apollo in a Sulky,’ ‘I Dreamt I Could Fly; I Awoke Encased in Lead,’ ‘In the Torso of a Great Windstorm,’ among others) & offer strange doorways into the poems that follow. ‘In the Torso of a Great Windstorm,’ for example, apparently having something to do with Emily Carr, is filled with oddly appropriate images, such as ‘Airstream gale whipping / the pinprick stars into dashes,’ a lovely shift from visual to written. Many of the poems in Maunder demonstrate a fiction writer’s sense of catching the action of a moment in an ongoing narrative, except the narrative can only be sensed hovering somewhere behind the poem’s specific perception of the imaged now.

Kelly happily shows off some of the writers & artists she finds inspiring in her epigraphs, & quite rightly for a maundering poet, she includes that lunchtime New York walker, Frank O’Hara, who clearly acts as a spiritual guide in ‘Street Haunting,’ with its ‘inner walk gone wrong: / my mind, a gymnast’s spiraling ribbon, / something loose and beautiful about / the planned       the lack of plan, / as if, here, the only message is to maunder.’ The final sequence of this collection that wanders in its planned-unplanned way across a wonderfully eclectic range of topics,

Maundering,’ is a series of crisp ghazals, the leaps from couplet to couplet quick & sharp: ‘Your friend’s grandfather clock stops working. / A stilled scythe in a museum case. // Three right turns and you’re speeding eastwards again. / The sun resolute as a gobstopper stuck in your throat.’

Maunder is a fine & wide ranging volume that suggests Claire Kelly will be walking her poetic lines for a long while yet.

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Sandra Ridley does the elegy as dark construction

Sandra Ridley. Silvija. (BookThug 2016).

About midway through this volume of shorter serial poems making up a single longer one, we read: ‘Decide what to keep.’ In many ways this is the mandate of the whole book, a book the back cover announces is ‘a sequence of feverish elegies, . . . a linguistic embodiment of the traumas of psychological suffering, physical abuse, and terminal illness.’ Elegy has been an important form recently (see Sina Queyras’s MXT, for example), & yet the title slyly alludes to another tradition of memory (of) loss, referenced in the first epigraph, a definition of ‘Silva,’ both a ‘wood, forest, woodland’ & ‘in poetry, a piece composed, as it were, at a start, in a kind of Rapture.’ Which leads to the 2nd epigraph: ‘That they with Joy their own Requiem might sing, / And close their eyes’ – a note of that Rapture, yet with a sense of ghostly return, that here only the dead might sing their elegies, themselves.

There are a lot of such selves in these poems, many in pain. Five sections, all but one a separate piece yet linked by that trauma of loss & of deciding what to keep of & in such loss. Linking them, in pieces between each section, the carefully titled ‘In Praise of the Healer.’ Thus the book itself begins, ‘Swallow the word. // Swallow the tongue.’ Yet ‘Farther/Father,’ the first section refuses to swallow any of the punishment that figure forces on everyone about him; rather it deliberately & resolutely parses it, while insisting elegy is the way to do so:

Our dead call out our dead / …

From the old butcher / your leather strap / unbelted

Crescent buckle for a skinning / hiding / each of us/

Slickened with blood / held down in your hinterland

Each barren mile unabating / say mercy

The shifts of focus, the puns so painful, each line a stanza to slow the reading of the pain down, as it came upon the ‘we,’ the ‘I’ remembering after the father’s death & always the one who’s ‘been meaning to say,’ among other things that, ghostly,

we find you not as we want

You / still where you are / dead on the floor / facing down

The long shadow / incalculable

The prose of the following ‘Clasp’ evokes a bitter & brutal relationship, also dead, yet even so mourned, somewhat. In between each section a page of ‘In Praise of the Healer’ offers something of succor: ‘Breathe you in.’ ‘After the long sought // reckon — // surrender.’ ‘Vigil/Vestige’ then seems to enter & entertain personal loss, illnesses that strike both speaker & the natural world. There are ‘The scripture of leaves’ & the ‘shy sweats / and the cold we’re night-blind by’; & then, ‘Our after-dream terrors / of a slaughterhouse — / or a labyrinth / akin / to a slaughterhouse.’ These poems move with great force to cement love & suffering: ‘We ghost-slip out from the drowning.’ Yet in the end, ‘Press deep and rest in me — / there is space enough for us both to die.’

And in that break before the last longer piece, ‘Courage — / stay in my arms / until / you can’t.’ ‘Dirge’ does what it says, echoing much of what has come before, sifting & shifting through the themes: ‘The undaunted / spectral’; ‘fear departing as soon as it’s spoken’; & ‘the essential / sylph / shadow / detached from // A great shade / shale eyes /released to darkening // Night // only you are present when the heart stops.’

And then the final statement of ‘In Praise of the Healer’: ‘What I mean is this is where I choose to die.’ As a reader I cannot know how much of Silvija really relates to its author’s life (the ‘Notes’ tell us that various sections were written in response to requests or to gallery installations), but I do see how carefully the ‘I’s of these poems have been constructed, partly to deal with/ speak to their ‘you’s. Beautifully designed, Silvija is a structural whole, a beautiful web of language, doing elegy as a constrained & compelling dance of words.

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Kate Sutherland draws the reader in to a dark rhinoceros history

Kate Sutherland. How to Draw a Rhinoceros. (BookThug 2016).9781771662604

Kate Sutherland is a scholarly lawyer with a troubling sense of mission, almost obsession, concerning the now nearly extinct rhinoceros, & in How to Draw a Rhinoceros she has constructed a complex compendium of historical rhinoceros lore, which when read in that context becomes a fascinating & deeply troubling introduction to a hidden history of colonial exploitation. What she has made is a kind of book length documentary-(become-near-or-wholly-) found poem, although only one poem, ‘Great Family of Giants,’ is forthrightly distinguished as such, perhaps because it’s the only one ‘with all of the text taken from a single nineteenth-century circus poster.’ For the rest, her general notes about ‘Fragments of text borrowed from…’ serves to warn the reader of just how much of this text is, indeed, other texts she has sought & found in archives around the world.

How to Draw a Rhinoceros is a good title, because it seems no one knew how back at the beginning of its introduction to the European world in the renaissance & later. So the first piece, ‘A Natural History of the Rhinoceros,’ presents a series of contradictory descriptions (not the last: a major aspect of the book has to do with how poorly ‘western man’ perceived the rhinoceros [& its countries &, if we but make the imaginative leap, the people thereof]). The poems entertain, as did the exhibitions of Clara, the famous first one in the 18th century, & the others brought to England & Europe in the 19th.

Sutherland is somewhat sneaky here. She presents the presentations, the comments by important viewers, the slowly expanding tale of exhibitions of the exotic, without comment, & it is kind of easy to read these with that pleasure of knowing better & seeing the past as simpler & less sophisticated in its understanding – of biology, geography, etc. The many false (the ‘fake news’ of the time) reports of Clara’s death suggest an historical comedy of errors, but the final one, & the poem’s uncertainty about even that, remind us of how she was used: ‘London / died unexpectedly / at the Horse and Groom / may or may not have been stuffed / by a pioneering taxidermist / and continued on tour’.

How to Draw a Rhinoceros slowly builds a lawyer’s case that, like many such, takes in a much larger situation than the singular one it seems to be about. Readers (like me, perhaps like you) can enjoy the early sections, the historically distant stories of this extraordinary animal (& seen as such, then), being transported across Europe & put on display for the amazement & amusement of the locals. Only a few, & look at how they fascinate. But, as How to Draw a Rhinoceros draws nearer to the present, with the chilling descriptions of such hunters as President Theodore Roosevelt, King George V, & Ernest Hemingway & his friends, laid before us with a dryly nonchalant tone that dissolves into a sardonic accusation, what came before falls into its proper perspective. The section of the Roosevelt poem that repeats the ‘I’ over & over again as ‘I put both barrels into and behind the shoulder / I fired into the shoulder again’ devolves into pure slaughter on the male egos behalf. The even darker repetitions of ‘Officials said,’ a wonderfully (de)constructed series of broken reports in which the repetition of poachings overwhelms formally as well as factually. The lovely lyrics, sort of lovely lies, about Clara as a star, eventually an astronaut, with her final comment (‘from a very early Buddhist text known as the Rhinoceros Sutra’), ‘wander alone / like a rhinoceros,’ cannot undo the knowledge of colonial destruction How to Draw a Rhinoceros has slowly built throughout. Like many documentaries, it entertains with its arcane knowledge, but it packs a dark political punch.

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Anthologizing the energetic Calgary writing scene

calgaryrenaissancederek beaulieu & rob mclennan, eds. The Calgary Renaissance. (Chaudiere Books  2016).

In his piece, ‘Dawn (from the Day Book),’ Jordan Scott asks, ‘Who has faith in the arbitrary?’ & one answer, given the alphabetical ordering of writers in The Calgary Renaissance, is that the (lower-cased) editors (& many of the writers) do. How else would we have gotten such a perfect first piece in an anthology that celebrates the amazing energy emanating from the Creative Writing Program at the University of Calgary & the combustible community of writing surrounding it in the city over the past 2 decades or so. Hollie Adams’s delightfully snarky ‘Project Description by: Jenny Weingarten,’ a sardonic subversion of one possible CW situation, is precisely the very funny introduction this anthology desired. It bursts open the doors to this wide-ranging sampling of the work of a large number of writers, many of whom are well known by now, although I’m willing to bet that every reader of The Calgary Renaissance will find at least one writer new to him or her.

The ‘arbitrary’ plays a role in many of these writers’ work, for example Louis Cabri, Weyman Chan, Susan Holbrook, Nicole Markotic, Nikki Sheppy, among others. It hovers nearby in a lot of the writing herein (there’s certainly a sense of it in Helen Hajnoczky’s ‘Other Observations,’ a sharp & snazzy feminist takedown of Eliot’s ‘Prufrock,’ that wonderfully captures the vocal tone of the original). It plays out in a wildly different mode in Paul Zits’s evisceration of the simile in ‘The Destructive Impulse Becomes Automatic.’

Many of the writers included in The Calgary Renaissance have long left Calgary & gained a reputation elsewhere; some like Suzette Mayr & Christian Bök came there & added much to the Creative Writing Program at U of C. With these two, as well as some of the others, their contributions should lead readers to their books (all helpfully listed in the ‘Contributors’ section at the end), another thing any good anthology should do. This is a highly eclectic one, & the writing within reflects the breadth of the various poetics shared among the writing community in Calgary (& reflects the generosity of spirit in one of this ‘renaissance’s’ godfathers, Robert Kroetsch). As a great introduction to what’s been happening in the city over the past few decades, The Calgary Renaissance is something of a Calgary cornucopia.

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Adrienne Gruber’s craftily controlled buoyancy

9781771662222Adrienne Gruber. Buoyancy Control. (BookThug 2016).

That cover illustration, the octopus arms writhing, is more than a little suggestive of the fluid shifting about of concepts, motifs & motives inside this provocative assemblage. The concept of body (leading to mind) transformation is central to the poems (& poetics) of Buoyancy Control. As the speaker in ‘Mimic’ says in ‘The Freak Show,’ ‘I regenerate lost limbs.’ And these poems keep telling us of how many losses we can sustain & recover from. But she adds, ‘I’ve got resources. / I’m just saying.’ And she keeps ‘saying’ things metaphorically (although the extended simile—‘tears that flow like glacial melt, where, as kids, / we’d place our warm sodas to cool’—also gets a workout), shifting the ground, or rather the lake or ocean, under the reader in almost every line.

So the world is fluid in Buoyancy Control, definitely including sexual identity & the pulls & pushes a fluctuating sense of self invokes; the borders will not stay in place: ‘Insomnia tonight, rebellion tomorrow. / Pulling teeth. And still, they insist, / the heart is the measure of success.’ Gruber sees the world, perhaps, through water, the light refracted, & thus her descriptions, so to speak, get at things at an angle: ‘Dirty pond browning in the sink. / The sinkhole in the dark // is his cleft of hip. / Count ribs with a drift of index finger’ (& I love the spark of that ‘drift’ in that line).

Gruber gets the comedy of errors that desire portends, & she writes with wit & humour, even when, perhaps most when, attempting to catch the conflict embedded in love & desire, ‘How furious you are’ one moment, ‘Your face like a clown, laughter / between my legs’ the next. The ‘Intertidal Zones’ sequence, a series of prose poems about why to choose certain sea creatures as lovers, or not, demonstrates just how successfully she controls the buoyancy of both language & love/lust. Like so much of this intriguing volume, it unsettles while drawing us in.

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