Monday, May 11, 2009

Vancouver Poetry

There're a couple of recent anthologies of Vancouver based poetry out, neither of which I've yet had a chance to read. But since I'm soon to write a review of three recent collections of poems that are set in the Lower Mainland, each by a single author, I thought it interesting to go back to an earlier anthology -- Vancouver Poetry -- edited by Allan Safarik in 1986.

Roughly chronological in outlay, Vancouver Poetry at times scuttles this approach to interface poems with the same locale, theme, and/or image(s). Red Lane's "Death Of A Poet" and Milton Acorn's "Words Said Sitting On A Rock" have each author commemorating their effort to the other. Speaking of Acorn, there's a hilarious five page passage by Joe Rosenblatt, more correctly described as a short story: "Milton & The Swan", the highlight being, " 'Did you know that the first case of bestiality occurred with Leda and the swan and that ...'/'Forget it, Milt,' I said. 'I FEEL DEPRESSED.'

I like Safarik's catholic approach of allowing "furreners" into the mix, since the anthology focusses on Vancouver as nebulous backdrop or initial motivation, not in-house birth certificate-stamped clubbiness and intercity xenophobia. From this, we get (of all people) Blaise Cendrars' "Documentaries: VIII. Vancouver". The poem is pedestrian (or perhaps simply poorly translated by Monique Chefdor), but the ending -- with narrator on ship --is lovely: "on the/starboard quarter Samoyed dogs are climbing up/Flaxen in the grey-white-yellow/As if fog was being taken in freight." Unfortunately, in the same vein (or is that "vain"), we have an entry by Jack Spicer entitled "Seven Poems For The Vancouver Festival" where his faux-vatic somnolence- inducing poetics masquerading as poems litter the whiteness: "Nothing but the last sun falling in the last oily water by the docks/They fed the lambs sugar all winter/Nothing but that. The last sun falling in the last oily water by the docks."

An eclectic stew of nuggets (or, rather, chestnuts), curios, and needles in haystacks (more on that at post's end), this collection is what every honest anthology piecing should be: an adventure, a risk-taking. Yes, there is Pauline Johnson's "The Lost Lagoon", with its fascinating mix of deft phrasing, colour, and straining sentiment ("I dream tonight that my paddle blurs/The purple shade where the seaweed stirs,"), rightly included. But there is also the (at the time) unpublished poet Tim Lander's mini-"Howl", the eight-page "Gods". Concise, yet honestly spilling along in terse-lined emotional enjambments; metaphorically simple yet apt, and unfolding in sinister detail and entrapment; prophetic and historically wise at the same time: "Gods" is a found gem by an editor who cares enough to dig up neglected or unseen keepers, and who then has the courage to print it, knowing that the solidified weight of collective belief always prefers what others have already enshrined. Bravo, Safarik.

Vancouver poetry has been infested with Olson-Duncan poetics, as brought to town by the aforementioned Spicer in the early 60s. Unfortunately, that line was dominant from that time through to the 80s (the "ousiders" of poetry? Not in these parts). And the documents are recorded herein: the unmusical turgid musings of Robin Blaser's "Image-Nation 15"; the simpleton politics of bill bissett's "Killer Whale"; the pretentious, joyless, boring, poorly integrated metaphors of Brian Fawcett's "Summer Solstice".

Yet who cares if the quality is sporadic. It's that way in any locale, and at any time, even in selected retrospectives, (unless one's compiling an international canon). For every dull, self-important and bloated Kerrisdale Elegies (eight pages of Bowering's "best" is included in this book), there're Peter Trower's "Annie Of The Corridors", Clement Stone's (who?) "Noon On Water Street", where "freight/Creaks in the winch; smoothly a sea gull slips/Down waves of air,", and the following "I Have Walked Down Into This City" (reproduced here in full) by another poet I'd previously been unfamiliar with: Tom Osborne. (The poem's slightly reminiscent, in sad yet defiant manifesto, of Milton Acorn's "I've Tasted My Blood", and though not approaching that classic, is still a lasting contribution.)


I have, says Sonny
walked down into this city
without a dime in my pocket
and come out with the night
drunk and fed
thirty dollars left ...

I have figured it was no more go ...
curtains, lead-filled overshoes
blood in the eyes
a kid on the way ...

I have been refused death
and service
beer and money
and sometimes love ...
a place to stay ...

I have been given warm full days
round woolen nights
the soft curl of a lover's arm
and the eight ball straight in ...

I have never lived with the matadors
or the Arab tribes
the anaconda
of the tigers of Bengal ...

never accepted the bad with dignity
or the good with content.
I have done nothing about famine
or slaughter --Expo '86 --
these leavings of the slipper
wicked sisters
pumpkins at midnight.

I have, it seems sometimes
not done much more
than walk down into this city
without a dime in my pocket
come out with the night
drunk and fed
thirty dollars left.


Anonymous said...

Geesh, your sour-grapes bitterness about the Vancouver avant-garde is really getting the better of you just hate Spicer, Olson, Duncan, Blaser, Bowering? Everything they wrote? Every word? Not a single poem in there worth your time?

Pretty small book shelf ya got there!

brian palmu said...

No sour grapes, anonymous. It's a personal assessment, that's all. And "hate" is a strong word. It figures that if one is less than enamoured of Olson (for instance), then it's likely that Spicer, Blaser, and the others they're tight with will also be a pass for that person since most of it's dominated by theory or obsessed with the "problems" of language as accurate communication. I have zerp patience with that tack.

My book shelves are full, thanks, and I explore new works all the time.

As for "not a single poem worth [my] time", I suppose you missed the very kind words I had for a Duncan effort.