Len Gasparini's 1993 Selected Poems encases his best material from earlier volumes. Gasparini is a firm believer in marinating the juice of composition in a long-cooked stew before offering it for sampling. And it pays off. Like any collection, even a Selected, some poems work better than others. But there are very few clunkers in the book.
Disclosure: I know Len (though we haven't corresponded for years) and so don't proffer objectivity (which doesn't exist anyway). And I was excited by the poetry before I met the man.
Gasparini's range is wide, which might be a surprise for those who know his obsessions primarily through his short stories. When anyone writes of personal travesties in dark bars, rooming houses, and roadside diners, the temptation is to put the narrow bars of "confessional angst" around his or her efforts. In Gasparini's case, as with others he reminds me of (in different ways), this view is both premature and uninformed.
The long career of this underrated Canadian poet has seen subtle and blunt lyrics spanning the bawd, God, and sod; punks, skunks, monks, and funks.
A few snippets from a wide range of poems and subject matter:
"I forget the actual number of editors
Slumped over desks, pumped full of poems.
Rejection slips were their death warrants." --from "I Was a Poet for the Mafia"
"She pressed her lips against the glass
But left no breath.
Soundless words she mouthed.
I felt like a ventriloquist,
On a street of death." --from "Mannequin"
"Yesterday I should have taken her diary,
Said something cruelly apropos;
But the engagement ring on her wormwhite finger
Contained my hate in embryo." --from "Written on a Paper Napkin"
"His finger resembled
A crimson asparagus tip." --from "The Accident"
"A phantom Daphne embraced by branches.
If suicide is a spurious valor,
To die alone in a tree
Transcends all knowledge of good and evil." --from "Elegy"
".... antlered elk
Drinking the summer moonlight from a mountain stream
That sang in its stony bed." --from "Wyoming"
" .... There is a tremor
Of genitals, like sea anemones
Sucked at by an undertow." --from "Adult Entertainment"
"You pop a Valium
And feel its white fuzz
Floating your nerves
Like a parachute." --from "After the Divorce"
"A titmouse whistled. Caw! cried a crow.
Chirrup cheree! preached a vireo." --from "Mockingbird"
The range is impressive. But what is more impressive is the authority of experience which informs every line. And speaking of every line, Gasparini's poetry has the mark that separates quality from dross: every word has the feel of being the right one in the right place. It quickly gives the reader confidence that an honesty of form and meaning informs the construction.
What the reader also quickly recognises is that, in a retrospective tome covering decades, a fascination and deep involvement with people is prevalent. Gasparini's poems are choc-a-bloc with friends, acquaintances, family members, strangers in bizarre circumstances, historical/literary mentors, and Jesus as flesh-and-blood sufferer, not as vague and warm idea. I can't begin to rave about how refreshing this simple fact is to me. It should be commonplace for poets to not only infuse their poems with all sorts of people -- noble to despicable -- but to do so in an idiosyncratic and passionate revelation. But Canadian versifiers, in the aggregate, prefer the regurgitations of the nebulous narrators' spirit; the deaths of animals; the redrawing, as pale fiction, of famous figures from the past; the colouring of nature in emotive terms ala Ruskin's pathetic fallacy; and the "safe" working, via anthropomorphic anemia-deflectors, of grandiose OR modest mythic suggestiveness. In other words, poetry as a retreat from life (at worst), or a half-life of cloistered spiritual wisdom (at best).
Gasparini's rhythms are subtle, and it's easy on a first read to downgrade any thrill with a feeling that the narrative progression is simple, even breezy. The sound-patterning, though, is pleasing, thought-out, organic, and complementary to the emotion of the experiences related. ("Under wet black umbrellas/The bewildered immigrants/Huddle together/Holding their heavy luggage" --from "Union Station:Toronto").
If one were to try to decipher a "thematic undercurrent" in Gasparini's poetry, it would be the daily and constant struggle to become or remain human in a world seemingly mocking and/or belligerent in its attempts to deny that possibility.