Monday, December 8, 2008

Chris Banks' "Bonfires" and "The Cold Panes Of Surfaces"

It's not often I concentrate fully on a book (or books) of poetry, and still come away empty and bored. There're often a few redeeming features in many poetry collections: after all, one benefit of poetry over a novel is that if the latter is bad, you're stuck with 200 + pages of bad. A bad (or competent but banal, which amounts to the same thing) poem is no great loss. Another one is just a page turn away. But Chris Banks' first two volumes of poetry left me emotionless.

A frequent set-up of Banks is to start with a mild anecdote, and then build it into a spiritual, difficult "truth". This is so typical of contemporary poetry that to do the popular conceit any justice would need a compelling slant, a profound and startling conclusion, a unique musical intertwining with the emotional barrenness he (in this instance) is trying to (re)create.

One of many examples (from "Apple Tree", from The Cold Panes Of Surfaces):

"while I await you here, watching this apple
tree fall into ruin. And to look at all this

but not think of loneliness is difficult, for
we come to know the limits of who we are

through those we love, and when they leave
we have only absence to make its home in us"



Decaying nature is associated with the absence of one's love. OK. That's been done a million times before, but I don't mind. It's what one does with a common, oft-used link that matters. The first thing that strikes me is the banality of the language. The common response to this charge is that this is "language that honours its emotion by its conversational simplicity". Or, to put it another way, it's a conversation, not art. The latter is not the former. Art adds and subtracts. It's shaped. It manipulates language and emotions. It's self-conscious, and uses a grab-bag of effects to startle and sing.

The above extract? Overreaching for a profundity that is not evoked by the language of the poem, or by its occasional relating. As well:

People don't "think" of loneliness, they feel it. Or, rather, if they (only) think of it, it occurs as a shallow idea, not a powerful emotion.

"We" don't come to know the limits of who "we" are. Don't speak for me. Only yourself. You can't even speak for your absent love. I don't come to know the limits of who I am by who I love. Possibilities amplify and expand when in love. When I feel limited, it's because of an existential lack (not the situational lack of a loved one). I've felt elated, many times, both in and out of relationships; I've also felt free and lonely at different times in the same, and different, relationship(s). Lack is not conditional on loving someone. "when they leave/we have only absence to make its home in us" is trite, a cliche of cliches.

I was promised "humour" by Emily Schultz on both books' blurbs. (The second blurb was a word-for-word recycle.) In fact, humour and breathlessness were combined in "way(s) that Canadian poetry seldom does".

I didn't find a sliver of humour in either book, unless you count the reporting of his father's " "I wanna be a cowboy./Let's get hitched" " (from Bonfires).

And I didn't detect any "breathlessness", though why that should be a stand-alone descriptor for merit is beyond me. (How do you measure breathlessness? I would think by a lack of commas, periods, by long sentences, by conversational enjambments, by long lines, by heightened or unneccesary emotion. I didn't see many of those elements in either book; most long sentences were broken up by short lines.)

And I reject the communal suffering the books encourage and exalt (however subtly).

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