Phil Hall. Killdeer: Essay-Poems (BookThug 2011).
And this one won the 2011 Governor general’s Award for poetry, which is interesting as it raises necessary questions about what we acknowledge as ‘poetry.’ As the sub-title & the tag on the back cover – Department of Critical Thought No. 4 – suggest, this collection of fragmented prose is as much an ‘essai’ in the sense that the epigraph from Hélène Cixous implies (but then many poets read Cixous & others as if they write a kind of poetry as much as theory or whatever.
At any rate, Hall has written a number of fascinating pieces in Killdeer, which explore possibilities of writing, & of having written (a kind of odd memoir hides within this collection, as titles like ‘Becoming a Poet’ & ‘Twenty Lost Years’ indicate). In ‘Becoming a Poet,’ Hall (or ‘the author’) tells us:
The previous winter I had finished my first year at the University of Windsor – where my English professor – Dr Huong – had said – without any hint of a question – You don’t know how to write a sentence do you
Hall seems to have taken this as a challenge, & as the slightly fragmented, laced with dashes articulation of that passage & most of the rest of this book demonstrate, this not writing a sentence has become a form of poetics for him. What we get in Killdeer, then are not so much sustained critical/theoretical arguments as something like a series of musical sustains; & there’s at least part of what makes Killdeer poetry. I think of Pound reminding us that poetry should be at least as well written as prose, & of Marjorie Perloff further reminding us that Pound found a way to bring prose information back into poetry. Hall joins a long line of modernists who have done just that.
Killdeer is full of information, then, much of it concerning Hall’s concepts of how poetry does its job, both for the individual writing it, & as a part of a communal attempt to articulate possibilities of living & communicating among our fellows. Thus the importance of fellow writers who share(d) his ideals, Margaret Laurence, Bronwen Wallace, & in a slightly different way, Nicky Drumbolis. These pieces articulate a politics-as-poetics of community in a nation (he says is) lost in the world of NAFTA, etc. So, ‘Bombarded by business-as-heroism – we crouch – our ears blown – or numb.’ And what we, his community, needs is found in such as Wallace: ‘As you can see – one of Bron’s talents was for weaving disparate types into community – the interaction of substances in a mutual irritation’ . . . And he seeks to be clear about all this, but ‘Clarity is not pure – it’s intricate’ And the process never ends, hence the lack of periods, of even that closure, throughout.
Having spoken of Bronwen Wallaces’s ‘I’ as her, Hall appears to follow her lead in these ‘essay-poems,’ inviting us to take his ‘I’ straight: this is the writer, inviting us into his memories & thoughts. And thus part of the pleasure of these texts is in following the wanderings of an active mind thinking through. Toward the end, it feels like that ‘I’ becomes ever more personal (not ‘confessional’ in the sense that terms has been used, but definitely confessing the difficulties of answering the questions, How can I write? How do I?
There’s a lot of savvy humour here, not least in ‘The Bad Sequence,’ a sometimes savage blast at man recent examples of such. Still, even there, he can also, as he has throughout, pay homage to the writers who count (because they care?):
Carl Sandburg’s lie is that The Simple are simple – Lorine Niedecker’s truth is that Complexity can be a local god
Well, anyone who recognizes Niedecker’s truth & importance is okay with me. Killdeer is a complex weave of a book, a series of prose-poem sequences that makes up its own, dare I say good, sequence demanding we pay attention & think about the consequences of writing. Those who haven’t read it yet: a rewarding experience awaits you.