Sunday, August 24, 2008

rob mclennan; John B Lee; Martin Espada

Accuracy is one of the many qualities which, when nailed, makes poetry the highest form of word art. From accuracy comes clarity. And only with clarity comes communication.

The postmodernist stance not only doubts the possibility of clarity, but despises it, calling its virtue a useless anachronism at best, and a lying egotistical habit at worst.

rob mclennan has fun with words. I envy him his blithe composition. How does his verse translate to the listener? In our hypersubjective world, all we can do is "try to understand what the author is saying from his or her own perspective" to quote the frequent mantra from the "anything goes" crowd. Anything is valid. Or is it? And what is being said?

"water
trickles down

mistaken array
of stars

& giants made,
withering

w/heat marks,
trembles"

(from " 'discipline as famous' " in Aubade.)

I can't do anything with that, not as enjoyment or understanding. (And I'm not singling this out inappropriately. This is one pea in a whale pod.) It might have significance to mclennan, but it's lost on me. But it's a win/win situation for the "language as relative experience" crowd. If you get it, you're an important initiate; if you don't get it, then "get with the program, man". It's the listeners' fault, then, for not being sensitive enough to forego "ego" and freefloat with the words. And what an attractive formula that is. Responsibility is permanently sidestepped.

I can't find a context in many, if any, of these verselets. Call me "square", "narrow-minded", or pick another epithet, but poetry, to me and a few others, is grounded (even when airborne) in reality or convincing imagination.

And I'm a sucker for tone in poetry. If I find the tone passionate, engaging, or at the least honest and unique in some way, I'm likely to overlook (though not necessarily forgive) many other transgressions. Tone and voice hook me. I can't find any recognizable human tone in these offerings (Aubade and bagne). Most read like they were threshed through a processor with malfunctioning syntactical tics.

But, relatively speaking, we live in a relative world, and I trust and know that others than a few sympathetic relatives must enjoy and "get" it.


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I'd read a few scattered efforts by John B. Lee before, mostly in online zines and lit journals, and wasn't much impressed. He's churned out many books, though, so I thought I'd pick one at random -- (The Pig Dance Dreams) -- and root around for nuggets.

I was pleasantly surprised. Thematic consistency isn't easy in a book of poetry clocking in at 95 pages, and Lee succeeds, with experienced images and with a surprising mix of historical and imaginative material.

"The Connection" is my favourite poem, a recollection of horror not yet impinging upon the innocence of a boy: "We hang the hog from a lynching tree/for being what he is/ .... "and cannot manage the connection/...."

Images are crisp, and are not afraid, akin the pig, of getting dirty: "her young already glutted/flung like wineskins in the heatlamp". That last simile works, but it's unfortunate that Lee chooses to use the as/like comparisons in runaway glee. Many others are not only distracting by their puzzling connection ("while each corn stalk shook its tambourine/like a narrow-hipped girl/learning the tune of summer."), but weaken the image, which standing alone would be much more powerful. I use the intensifiers in irony; the only explanation I can see for their rampant lushness is that Lee perhaps isn't quite confident with letting the images work as is. Pity.

I'll be picking up more from Mr. Lee (John, not Dennis, but that's another story for another time).

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American poet Martin Espada's City Of Coughing And Dead Radiators combines Latin American underground history with contemporary, personal New York street life. He reminds me by contrast, because of subject matter, of so many poets who fail to transcend racial roles and stereotyping, victim-identification and a complacency to continue in that role. Espada challenges circumstance, and though at times he elevates his (but mostly others') experiences into hard-fought victories, those experiences are believeable. From "Day of the Dead on Wortman Avenue": "Halloween in Brooklyn/ .... bedsheet ghosts pounded doors/that opened on a leash of chain,/then banged shut to shield hermits/with white hair and burglarized faces,/stunned at night by the slapped-mouth madrigal/...."

There are too many other gripping lines and scenes which work from beginning to end (lyricism welded to narrative), but I'm typed out for the day. Off to Vancouver till Monday night.

2 comments:

Zachariah Wells said...

Espada's one of my favourite contemporary American poets (tho I have to admit knowing only a sliver of what's going on down there). His book Imagine the Angels of Bread is particularly good.

brian palmu said...

Though the U.S. has ten times the population as Canada, they also have far more versifiers per capita than do we. It must be impossible to catalogue with any comprehensive analysis what's happening there.

I discovered American poet Leland Jamieson a while back. Traditional sonnets, has a book of them out, apparently. Here's one.

(from "Ascent Aspirations" site):

Nowhere to Plant the Feet

We learned, mid-Eighteen-hundreds, to attach
a dashboard to the front of newer surreys
so water, mud, snow, ice and wads of thatch
and horse manure dashed it, not us. What? Worries?
In Sunday-best, we'd all drive off to face
our preacher's god and get our week's remorse.
It was, besides, a board our feet could brace
against when reining in a bolting horse.

Today the dashboard's like an alter-top
behind two hundred horses -- bric-a-brac
of patron saints and maps and snacks which flop
through my right hand, while in my left I yak
into a cellphone as I hold the wheel
with my left knee . . . uncertain what I feel.

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Apologies for the cramped and incorrect formatting.