Garry Thomas Morse’s Prairie Harbour: anti-colonial collage goes wild

9780889229402Garry Thomas Morse. Prairie Harbour. (Talonbooks 2015).

Although at 160 pages Prairie Harbour already feels like a big book, it’s actually much larger as a reading experience, a whoppingly huge act of synthetic imagination, & an exciting example of the modernist (& post-) collage long poem. The solid, thrumming core of the book, split into two long sections, ‘Prairie Harbour 1-12’ & ‘Prairie Harbour 13-24’, surrounds the more precisely satiric poems of ‘Company Romance.’ The range of references, the imaginative leaps, the interweaving of so many cultural & social historical events & attitudes add up to a monumental investigation of the ways European & First Nations worlds collided & connected, & still do, notably for this particular poetic sequence, on the Saskatchewan prairie, & in the mixed heritage of the writer. No single review can begin to do justice to the extent of Morse’s literary & cultural reach in Prairie Harbour, but I will try to suggest just a bit of what this extraordinary long poem does (& note here that scholars will be delightedly commenting on all its many allusions & references for years).

‘Company Romance’ begins with ‘Henry Hudson   worming through   ice   flows / to prove that Empire is odyssey   perhaps’ & moves through a litany of names associated with ‘the West,’ the Hudson’s Bay Company, & eventually the poetic maker of the Indian Act, all the way to ‘The Present   Missing.’ Along the way, Morse introduces many famous & infamous names, & mixes sly impressions with shifty quotations to represent a history continually undermining its own heroic tale, as in ‘Corporate Saboteur 1.1’: Ersatz atavism and the spectre of random / violence had become the perfect product / of North America, the kind of open-air / theatre that was good for business, and / any accord that was reached between the / Company and the Métis was quashed by / the North Westers who demanded that / Assiniboia be destroyed on the spot. // To be continued … ‘ And, he does continue, through Riel, contemporary ‘global macrocannibalism, from / Cree Wihtikow to Kwakwaka’wakw / Bakbakwalanooksiwae, ravenous / eater of initiates, leeching culture, / language, and song from the poor / sap subject’ all the way to ‘but whether dead or vanishing / in the age of mechanical repo- / traction / the living are somehow / missing / from our syrupy hockey / rioting six-packing cultural whoop / still not finding quite the right role / in our red-hot company romance.’ All of which is fairly straightforward, a slash & burn rhetorical savaging of conventional settler-colonial history.

‘Prairie Harbour 1-24’ breaks the pattern at every turn, & where the individual poems of ‘Company Romance’ present as an attack on specific historical persons & events, the sequence slips in & out of many ‘I’s & other, usually admired, figures, & their various ways of being in the world. Art, as a major aspect of that way of being, appears & disappears throughout, a flame flickering across space & time. It begins in

‘this have- / not province’ with a Renaissance painting & soon slides from ‘here   waiting / for you like Saskatchewan’ through a myriad of further referential moments to no clear conclusions, as will each further section, yet adding up to a massive collection of one sensibility’s connections across all the cultures that now make such a person possible. Even this first poem, just beginning the sequence’s trippy quest(ioning), covers a lot of ground: ‘speak through the flame // and I will forgo / spectres / plaguing Europe / & shadows cast / across “primitive” minds / & concerti in the kaffeeklatsch / where even a secular musical /orgasm could not secure / a spot / wiping tables’.

In ‘Personal Signature,’ one of the ‘Company Romance’ poems, Morse quotes Bill Reid: ‘I would trade the whole of Haida art for the Mozart horn concertos.’ One way of reading the complexities of ‘Prairie Harbour’ is as an attempt to explore the cultural/historical ramifications of that remark by one of the greatest Haida artists. Morse, himself, obviously knows & loves the classical music of Europe, & his collage poem alludes to various representative examples throughout, most especially Shostakovich’s string quartets toward the end, when it also takes up the Holocaust as well as Stalin’s purges in relation to white European dealing with First Nations here in Canada. Of course, to put it that bluntly is to ignore the complex subtleties of this long poem. What Morse has done in both his earlier Discovery Passages & Prairie Harbour is to radically complicate both the representations of & his readers’ responses to that history while also offering a fascinating reading experience to any willing to give these poems a go.

I find it heartening & exciting that both Prairie Harbour & Steven Ross Smith’s Emanations reveal their writers’ continuing adherence to the Olsonian sense of the page as field, with the poems ranging across the page so as to draw us away from the conventional look of lyric: along with certain others, they are stretching the concept of the poetic out again. As with The Maximus Poems, for example, I read Prairie Harbour often knowing I’m not getting everything (there’s so much there), but finding the lines so engaging I just want to keep going, hanging on in its wild ride, ‘the senses sped / on with spiritual / excitement stretched / out to almost painful length / over faintest apparition’.

The deeper into the poem you go the more there is to take in, & toward the end the art of Agnes Martin (born in Saskatchewan) & her thoughts about it inflect the whole enterprise, as they & so many other quotations behave in a Benjaminian manner, slowly collecting a number of possible ways of seeing, of being, into this never quite complete enterprise. I expect we will see more of this kind of work from Morse, & it will be just as difficultly exciting, but for now Prairie Harbour offers readers an engagement they will not soon forget.

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Steven Ross Smith goes for deeper Emanations

9781771661522-190x253Steven Ross Smith. Emanations: fluttertongue 6. (BookThug 2015).

Definitely one of this Autumn’s poetry books to add to the library, Emanations: fluttertongue 6 is, as its subtitle says, the latest addition to Steven Ross Smith’s adventurous, engaging, & always changing life-long poem. Over the past 5 volumes, Smith has found many different formal ways to write his life & live his writing in the complex construction of book-length works that are also parts of a longer, always-under-construction yet exploratory work.

Emanations, among many other things it does, is paying a kind of homage to many of those Robin Blaser called ‘companions’ – those fellow poets one admires & converses with in one’s own writing. Here the conversation, so to speak, made specific in the notes: ‘The source poems that seeded this work and then disappeared back into their own lives are listed below. There has been no attempt to imitate or trace, but rather to simply leap off an edge each source supplied.’ How each poem ‘leaps’ is Smith’s doing, & then, in the formulation of the poems, he also inherits formal possibilities from lots of others beyond ‘the many’ he ‘writes with.’ Pound, Williams, Olson, Creeley, Stein, are just a few of the great modernists whose technical discoveries Smith has taken in to his own poetics. Yet the poems, in all their formal variety are very much Smith’s own.

Emanations: fluttertongue 6 begins with a frog (& a nod to the most famous one in Basho [& then also bpNichol]), found in a raucous poem of natural sounds & sights that also announces the paradoxical nature of the whole book: having (re)presented how ‘On a long thin frond beside an ambling feeder stream / green frog gleams, sheen and / pock, journey scarred,’ the poem insists, ‘A frog, nonetheless, is not a poem / though a poem may have legs, may leap / – the poet has witnessed – the frog-leg flip from pond to plate.’ There will be many ambiguous binaries throughout Emanations, none of which will hold. This is a book of unravelings, questions leading only to more, some of which touch lightly & sprightly on our deepest ecological fears indeed, a poem like ‘Tailwind’ displays the kind of wry wit at work on such themes as appear, often simply by implication, throughout: ‘Forget lumbrous giants / of the Pleistocene / hidden in shale, yet / shaped in plastic figurines // No, do remember, make your mind a museum shop.’

As these excerpts reveal, although these poems sidle up to a number of serious concerns, not least our relation as humans with the natural world, they delight in word play, puns, internal rhyming, & much more in the language-game repertoire. Take ‘North,’ for example, which begins, ‘Even in the dark the drag- / line bucket shuffles / clicking chancy operations / over flute and bassoon’ & continues through various guttings of ‘north’s pristine / patient / last geology,’ to ‘Hope holds / its alchemy / a landscape of where / revealed // Fenced compounds over there / burlaped, ask dwellers what / botany whispers.’ These stanzas truly do leap, around & above simple statements & they also sing.

These poems range too widely to cover all they cover in a review. The idea of the poet, engaged, wishing ‘poems echoed, choate or in-, shone / like sprigs, tentacles of multiplication, earnestly adult / mathematics’ surfaces again & again. They insist on the ways in which other writing forms as much a part of ‘experience’ as any physical engagement with the natural world yet must be encountered in the rich apprehension of that world. They remember, most stringently & strongly in ‘Staged,’ a beautiful elegy for his friend & fellow writer-&-performer, Richard Truhlar. Here a series of short subtle lyrics, with their hovering ‘Moth, fated to flare’s / smoke-knotted hiss / wind-whisper, ashen’ & ‘light’s failure,’ & other such images emanate & animate essential loss.

Emanations: fluttertongue 6 is a book that will reward rereading, yet offers so much on first perusal. Steven Ross Smith, in his continuing fluttertongue project, of which this is a significant addition, is slowly constructing one of the major contemporary long poems.

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Pearl Pirie at play in the fields of language

the-pet-radish-shrunken-Pearl-Pirie-Cover-510Pearl Pirie. The Pet Radish, Shrunken. (BookThug 2015).

After two books, Pearl Pirie already has something of a reputation for verbal pyrotechnics, & her eccentrically titled new collection will definitely further burnish it. The Pet Radish, Shrunken is a wide-ranging potpourri of various & varied poems full of (often cutting & sardonic) wit, punning, & delight in the odd & transgressive: ‘catch my flown meaning, the broken sticks / that used to be letters you could make sense of.’

She’s insistent: ’sense is as sense does. Sense is as sense is made.’ And her poetic makes a lot – of different things here. Pirie plays with various forms, a kind of wild ghazal, prose poems, little playlets, sheer joyful & willful language games. The Pet Radish, Shrunken is a bit of a literary roller-coaster. Not everything works (for me), but there’s more than enough I can praise here.

Although many of these pieces seem to fly beyond the ordinary, the local & political world hovers nearby, & sometimes impinges in a cutting manner. There’s a pertinent impertinence to such poems as ‘but here are you from, really?’ with lines like ‘absence makes the heart grown nomads. we are cheerleaders / standing on the pyramid of temporary workers,’ etc. Or ‘the hem in them’ (& she just loves to find the words within words that set up contradictions): ‘childhood betrothal shifts its weight on another foot / when nationalists come calling to collect us for their wars // their values.’

I like the way in which Pirie can shift, within a line, from the personal or local out, to the planetary or cosmic: ‘lose an evening chez chefs / their red snappers, ocean wars’ or, all too much to the point at this political moment, ‘when it wasn’t up to multinationals like ikea to support refugee camps. / when we compare ourselves with gods our losses are less small.’ Point of view, as many of these poems suggest, is variable, even within the singular poet.

Pirie is a master of the sharp one liner, as in this bp-ish little take: ‘pr is the inevitable start of any time / of prayer.’ Elsewhere she is heavily into portmanteau hyphenated constructions which she then wrestles into different syntactical usages: ‘re-lifestyle the monkeymind’ for example. Or she takes words apart, for similar purposes.

Yet for all this play, she can also turn to a metaphysical poetics of existential awareness, as in ‘scratch the surface.’ One of my favorite poems in the book, it’s beautifully modulated in its almost cosmic understatement, as it moves from ‘a white line along the forearm’ to ‘we, that storm of particles refilling earth. // we, hills, moving, with spines running thru / don’t return to dust. have never left.’ The Pet Radish, Shrunken offers many moments that hold a reader tight, slightly off balance, & glad to be so.

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Ottawa poetically perceived: The Collected Poems of William Hawkins

hawkins_coverWilliam Hawkins. The Collected Poems of William Hawkins. Edited by Cameron Anstee. (Chaudiere Books 2015).

In 1971, at the end of his first decade of publishing, in his first Selected Poems, The Gift of Space, William Hawkins wrote: ‘I write about what I get into. I did not invent / death.’ It’s a neat, if somewhat morbid, summary of one young man’s poetic vision, & by that time he had moved through a highly lyrical, modernist, passage of poetry writing in Canada & Mexico (which he had visited on a Canada Council grant in 1968, & where he wrote most of the death haunted poems of The Madman’s War). The poems of that first decade take up two thirds of this lovingly edited collection of the Ottawa poet’s work, & it’s arguable that much of his best work also appeared in that period.

As the editor points out in a useful if short introduction, ‘Living Now in Ottawa: William Hawkins at the Margin,’ Hawkins was one of the young poets Raymond Souster included in New Wave Canada, which so shook up the Canadian poetry scene in 1966. Like many of the others there, he had read & been influenced by both the Beats & the New American Poetry. But he was also something of an outsider, living in Ottawa, far from both Toronto & Vancouver, where most of the others in that anthology lived, wrote, & communicated with each other on an almost daily basis. That distance had both positive & negative effects I suspect, one of the latter being his turn to silence in the mid-seventies, a silence that lasted for 2 decades, at least in poetry (he is also a songwriter, & his work has been performed throughout his life, I believe).

This huge Collected, then, contains poems mostly from the poet’s twenties & thirties, the years (especially at that time) in which a young male poet full of piss & vinegar would write a lyric, however modern, in which is own personality thrived. That his can be witty, sharp in its observations of life (mostly in his city, the capital of Canada, & therefore always open to lively critique on many levels. And in which, the young poet also pursues his lovers, in the traditional poetic manner. His book, Ottawa Poems (1966), testifies to all this: ‘The crazy river-abounding town / where people are quietly / following some hesitant / form of evolution / arranged on television / from Toronto.’ And there he is, casually prescient about some other young punk in the future he could not have imagined as he wrote: ‘someone will come & take me away. / For smoking shit or pissing on the / War Memorial.’ And yet, in that city he also thinks of ‘You in the morning,’ for whom he ‘would like, to // charge time with love.’ Even when ‘everyone’s a Trojan Horse / filled with tender & vicious weapons / & no openings, no / apparent openings.’

Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind hovers behind a lot of the early poems, not a direct influence so much as a way of seeing & writing about the city in which Hawkins lives. Yet, his early long poem, Louis Riel, is very much a Canadian product, a sly & sideways take on the documentary, & something special for a writer in his mid-twenties. It’s one of the best things in this Collected, & makes a reader just a bit sad that Hawkins never tried anything like it again. His visit to Mexico later in the decade led to a small book that certainly holds together as a single experience notated in a series of small poems, full of ‘certain /peculiar shadows / only we seem aware of / and admit.’ And it’s there that, knowing ‘nothing of love, there’s nothing to know, / You never see it coming, nor see it go,’ the young songwriter/poet offers a lyric cry: ‘Today I am left with struggle, / trying to create / a new myth for males.’ Perhaps it was all too much, or just couldn’t be done.

There are some fine poems in the last part of the book, but some of the most interesting, like the ‘Mysteriensonaten’ series are from the mid-sixties. Although as a young poet he disdained rhyme, he uses it quite a bit in the new poems, perhaps a crossover effect from the songwriting. Certainly, the newer poems approach the fact of mortality from a new, aging, perspective, but there is nothing to match, say, John Newlove’s brilliant & bitter poems on the subject.

All in all, however, The Collected Poems of William Hawkins is a most worthwhile endeavor, a reminder to some & an introduction to many others, of a witty, sardonic, voice from outside the main centres of Canadian poetry in the late 20th century. It would sit nicely on a bookshelf with Stephen Cain’s edition of bp:beginnings as a significant pointer to how much some young poets accomplished in that now golden time.

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Jake Kennedy dances sideways in his own Merz Structure

Jake Kennedy. Merz Structure No. 2 Burnt by Children at PlayMerz-Structure-No.-2-Burnt-by-Children-at-Play-Jake-Kennedy-Cover-5101. (BookThug 2015).

The title of Jake Kennedy’s 3rd book has to do with his having accidentally burnt down an abandoned house when a kid, then later discovering how Kurt Schwitters’s Mertz Structure No. 2 was destroyed after some children playing with matches accidentally burned the building in which it has been constructed down. At least so the back cover copy tells us. What it doesn’t tell us is that this tale, like so much else in this collection is a slyly devious subterfuge, a nifty sleight-of-hand.

Somewhere toward the end, someone or something tells us that ‘Galeano believes in language. We do not believe in language. We have not had to believe in language . . . asked, maybe, to live the very opposite: that language does nothing at all.’ Given all the ‘language’ this text has thrown at us in a variety of modes, this should bring us up short, but it feels like just another feint, & like all the others, has a certain energetic frisson. Kennedy can jump all over the place in these pieces, but he doesn’t bore or offer the obvious. So, is this a simple attack on the viability of politically engaged writing or, more complexly one of many sly takes on the difficulty of same in a North American society all too happy to just get along, ignoring politics or ignorant about it. After all, later in the same piece, ‘Mishaps Or,’ another figure says ‘the real,’ like art, is both grace & shame, & this book suggests we live in that contradiction (or dyad).

There’s a little bit of everything in Merz Structure No. 2 Burnt by Children at Play: prose poems, one-liners printed in huge font (‘Impromptus,’ but really more prompts for whatever: ‘Accept art as hysteria’ or ‘Suffer as paper above flame’), what appear to be going to be ekphrastic poems but diverge into surreal little monologues; all delivered with satisfactory wit. In the verse-shaped poems, line & stanza breaks always serve both rhythm & concept: ‘where “” are the talons / of one of Stevens’ blackbirds // above the sea / the sea as – wait for it – // that fallen theatre curtain / and the audience, rapt // covered in its hush.’ How this moves across textual & conceptual borders so easily.

Merz Structure No. 2 Burnt by Children at Play is a kind of portmanteau book, full of disparate goodies, all of which tantalize the taste buds. It does, well.

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Joseph Massey is very much to the point.

Joseph Massey. At the Pointt_223_4159. (Shearsman Books 2011).

There are just too many books of poetry for anyone to keep up with, which means even the most dedicated reader misses some very good work. I’m grateful, then, that a friend (friends whose taste we trust are one way of finding out about writers we might otherwise never know) sent me a copy of Joseph Massey’s wonderfully maximal minimalist At the Point, a collection not to be missed.

One aspect of contemporary poetry has to do with the difficulty of approaching the lyric now while evading an almost built-in redundancy. Refuse it is one solution. Or find some way to stringently utilize it without falling into its various worn-out conventions. Joseph Massey has found a way to do this in his tight taut little poems.

For one thing, he has a great ear, a mastery of concise repetition, of line breaks as both rhythmic intensifiers & torques of meaning. Take this lovely tiny move, for example: ‘measure the afternoon’s / accumulations – // the overcast / undertones – // this slow vacillation.’ Or there are the sound patterns & rhythmic jumps of ‘Gnats / knot sun’s / white flush’ or ‘—crow sounds assemble / a sustained syllable / open as the light     opening / slit by slit / around it.’ Formally decisive in all senses.

He also has a very precise eye, & the understated language to express perception of the material world in a manner both fresh & unpretentious. He makes us see anew too. And when he uses the ‘I,’ he carefully places it in the context of presence the poems seek continually to engage (no egotistical sublime; in fact little sense of ego at all).

Finally, Massey has constructed an almost camouflaged meta-textuality in At the Point. Throughout the book, the field of nature, perceived, is also the field of the poem on the page, as the first poem, ‘The Process,’ announces: ‘There’s the bay, / highway slashed / beneath; water // a weaker shade / of grey than this / momentary sky’s // widening bruise. / The page / turns on the table, bare // despite all / I thought was / written there.’ Yes, these poems do invite quotation.

There’s an interesting conundrum around the concept of ‘influence.’ When readers speak of seeing it in a particular writer’s work, are they his or hers or are they what any one of us, with his or her history or reading in mind, perceives there. I, for example, hear/see such writers as William Carlos Williams (whose life & work inspired the sequence, ‘From a Window’), Robert Creeley, possibly Lorine Neidecker, her small sharp observations of the natural world, in Joseph Massey’s minimalist verses. And behind them all, those ancient Chinese poets who saw nature as clearly as they saw the worldly world. He ties them together, now, as in ‘No Vehicles Beyond this Point’: Tape unspools from a cassette, / collects – a nest – between two / pieces of driftwood, measures / the wind’s direction. Wind pinched / with skunk, sea salt, gasoline.’ This beautifully demonstrates Massey’s quiet strengths. At the Point is full of such moments.

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DearLeaderCHBcovSmallDamian Rogers. Dear Leader. (Coach House Books 2015).

The very title of Damian Rogers’s Dear Leader announces a volume of apostrophes, but to & from whom, & why? This marvelous gallimaufry of dissociated verses answers those questions, in its own way, by refusing to answer anything directly, & by addressing a wide range of listeners from an equally wide choice of ‘I’s. It’s something of a wild ride, but readers will come to trust the driver even if she shows herself to be rather culturally dangerous.

Rogers has mastered the poetic sentence, finding interesting ways to both mass & mess with them in either short or long lines, & she deploys them with a generous & sometimes harsh wit. The first 2 poems demonstrate this ability well. ‘From the Window the Alley’ begins, ‘Some days / I’m not on.’ In ‘The New Monuments,’ the ’I’ shifts with every sentence, & in the middle it announces (making only the first of many of this kind of statement), ‘I don’t want to go on forever, exactly like this, always a Damian.’ Or, as ‘The Trouble with Wormholes’ puts it, a little later, ‘It occurs to me I don’t have to be so many people.’

As you might have noticed, she has a way with titles, too. They reveal a dark sense of humour that also plays across many of the poems. Take the highly factual, but you have to guess, ‘Poets in the Public Domain,’ which simply lists the many ways a number of poets have died. Of course, she constructed the order, & the final entry, & that is a highly ingenious poetic act.

Because Rogers decided to make this 4 part collection a bit of a hodgepodge assemblage, with many different kinds of writing, she can switch tone from sardonic to sympathetic, theme from satiric to lyric, &, because she handles all the various kinds of writing she offers here with real skill, readers will, I believe, follow wherever she leads. She can offer a truly chilling yet marvelously sarcastic ‘Curse,’ which both accuses, with details, & attacks, including this fabulous line, ‘Look at your works, you asshole, and despair.’ And she can then break your heart with a poem like ’52 Notes for the Products of Conception,’ a profoundly moving fragmented narrative of a dangerous stillbirth. Within each poem, she proves a master at the quick shift, the disconcerting juxtaposition, yet she also constructs endings that instead of turning us back into the poem turns us out into mystery.

Part Four takes up the titular figure in a series of sardonic addresses from a ‘I’ trapped by the power of tyrannical language, striving to escape but always caught in the oceanic swells of Dear Leader’s spin doctoring. Of course, she’s not alone: ‘See the daughters of the screenshot / arrange their arms like / the ladies in major paintings // for an online salon.’ In the end, perhaps there is no escape, but one can try: ‘Bring me he who / would fight the Administrator and that stinking counsel of lies. / Send the Marine to protect me. Let me go forth to happy day.’

Dear Leader invites you in, but you’d better be prepared for a choppy ride. It offers much, but doesn’t give anything away.

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