A Short History of Forgetting (Gaspereau Press, 2010) is Paul Tyler’s initial collection of poems. Here’re some thoughts on all of them in the order they appear.
ADAM NAMING THE ANIMALS
The opener is in six parts. I like that the voice isn’t identified as God. As the poem develops, the insistence on naming the animals becomes a baffling, physical struggle. It ends with, “the animals leapt away”. A thoughtful explanation on the search and desire for language as both song and necessary re-enactment.
IN PRAISE OF THE BANANA SLUG
Much humour and fun. The plentiful descriptors come tumbling -- or perhaps sliding -- out: “slick oil-skinned sea captains”; “heavily-spotted gummy glutton”. I’m partial to poems simultaneously lighthearted and reverent. Tyler aces the emotional complexity, and he also implicates himself into the scene without dominating it.
A deftly contoured exploration on the dual trade between work and sex. (What? It’s just a nature poem?) I enjoyed the title link with “little socialists”, and am trying to think of a diminutive British-Trotskyist athlete.
The description here is OK, but a concatenation of images -- unless superlative-- usually isn’t enough to carry a poem in and of itself. Even so, the tight observational parade of movement would have at least kept the poem afloat absent the jarring spiritual conclusion (“which is joy”) and the inflated cosmogony (“hum/of the beginning,/which is all that ever was.”)
The naming “Adam” here is Tyler, and “the animal” is the “co-evolved wiggler”. Fun with assonance in a curt but prolific list of designations.
A PRACTICAL APPLICATION FOR BEES
The successfully rendered tone is much like that in “In Praise of the Banana Slug”: warmth and worship. Here, the rhetoric is cranked a few notches, and bee applications are nicely incorporated into the attitude of gentle awe.
WINTER CHICKADEE OFFERING
The tight, nervous phrasing follows the cautious movements of the eponymous bird. The compound “prairie-licked, numb-knuckled”, “wind-pounded”, as with earlier entries, reverses the subject-to-object duality, and the curious relationship is comically defined in the last line (not given here) with an implied contrast to St. Francis of Assisi.
GOLDFINCH MISTAKEN FOR A SWALLOWTAIL
This didn’t work for me at all. The diction is unremarkable and the images are depleted to make way for a philosophy of reaction, the watcher of the watcher. Too removed.
The same operation here as in “Silverfish”, with similar, pleasing rhythms. The hyphenated word combining of “froth-whipped”, “, ”crud-fix”, “snail-slicked”, “hop-busking” again mimics the birds’ quick movements, and it’s clear Tyler has fun with these tags, much more so than poor Adam who had to start from scratch. I just hope the author doesn’t become too cosy with representation as procedure and statement.
When the subject is pets, I’ll take the simplicity of a Roethke lyric over the overreach (and overworked sentiment) expressed here.
This disturbing poem about abbatoir and prep cruelty and insensitivity is all the more disturbing for the curious absence of its speaker. The inhumanity rendered in eidetic bluntness calls out either for contrasting intervention or anguished impotency. And it doesn’t matter if the poem was -- to use that obnoxious, reverent phrase -- “based on a true story”. Whether true or imaginary, autobiographical or other-voiced or an amalgamation, I’d rather have a troubled speaker involved in any number of conflicting and conflicted options if it meant the opposite procedure in a few other good-as-is poems such as “In Praise of the Banana Slug” where the speaker appears in a meditative relationship with the observed. Blood spills; cynicism reigns. But despite hooking the reader’s pity effectively by image and beat, Tyler’s voice choice of disembodied narrator results (ironically) in a clinical dissection ending with the oft-used, trite profundity-variant, “its smile that won’t thaw”.
WINTER MOOSE, ALASKA
The ambiguity here makes for a better poem than “Pig”. The stanza breaks enhance the shift in focus.
LAST POLAR BEAR
Some deeply etched imagery here, striking, but also subtle in several places: “Cars jerk down streets like damaged cells”; “sheets of iceless light”; “rough-skinned drum of inlet”.
A SHORT HISTORY OF FORGETTING
The titular poem that begins section two is formed in long lines, and with twenty-five of them of similar length, the stretched-out voice (over twenty syllables in several linear unspoolings!) worked more as an obstreperous run-on than the mood (reflection) the speaker wished to evoke. And for a poem relying a good deal on a list, much of the detail was too general to be of interest or enlightenment (“things taken”, “belongings”, “pieces of the disorder”). And “no longer/recognizable” isn’t an excuse since minute surprise can still attach to indistinct objects. But after reading the poem many times, it became clear that Tyler’s objects are introduced more as stand-ins for an organizing idea (memory vs. forgetfulness). It’s a dialectic, unfortunately, in the Kantian, rather than Hegelian, sense. That is, memory has already been corrupted, but it’s certainly not true that “everything is forgotten”. To that, it’s also useful to quote E. D. Hirsch, who opposes the attitude which “mistakenly identifies meaning with mental processes rather than with an object of those processes.” However sincere the speaker or experiencer, Tyler’s objects appear as props, and have then to be inflated to achieve their transferring power.
SHORT HISTORY OF A WEDDING PHOTO
This is the poem “A Short History of Forgetting” could have been or could have become. Rich in speculation, sharp in image, and best of all, psychologically wise in its “sequel” life to the aforementioned poem, this rumination on an old café photo pulls the reader into another world while noting the larger and present world’s indifference or incomprehension.
THE FATHERS ARE DYING
I enjoyed the particularities here which actually blend into a believable fatherly Weltanschauung.
THE LIST OF WHAT WILL LAST
Subverting the speaker’s self-assurance with the same person’s list of memory evaporation -- “and certainly not the list” -- this litany is appropriately subjective though the turn would have been more effective, entertaining, and startling with a longer (if not Whitmanesque) roll call.
SHORT HISTORY OF TWO BUDDHAS
An enjoyable blend of image and rhetoric, I had problems with the tone initially (speaker-inserted, yet cool), though the gathering contrast of spiritual constancy with political/religious intolerance won me over with the buried rage (“buried, wide open”?). I would have liked, however, the two countries named (if the locales are indeed removed one from the other). Afghanistan and Sri Lanka? It’s understandable that poets, at times, shy away from the temporal, but I’ve always believed that the universal is more often than not enhanced by references to the particular. It’s often not necessary, but political context would have been appreciated, as well.
SHORT HISTORY OF FERDINAND VON ZEPPELIN’S DREAM
Unlike the previous poem, this is situated. Images are alive -- (“fat handshakes/of flame”; “twenty men, sudden sticks of light”) -- and Tyler’s typically terse phrasing amplifies the narrative force.
CANDLES IN THE SNOW
Syntactic twelve-line reordering which would have benefitted from a three-quarters or two-thirds paring.
Many poems (not just in this book) are either too short or too long for what they need to accomplish. Just as “The List of What Will Last” is too brief to work as reverie or counterpoint, “House Smash” (though a shorter poem) is pointlessly detailed, and because of its bloated cataloguing, increases the egregious glare of the abstract apex -- “This is how we fail the world”.
IF I WERE A PAINTER
This is nothing but catalogue, and it’s not redeemed by the vague and unearned last line, (“I’d paint this for all our dislocated gazes, for our half-intentioned lives.”)
Wonderfully evocative, exactingly shaped. I particularly liked the assumed emotion attributed to the players from the speaker/fan.
THE SAD BAKER
The transitions in this prose poem were difficult, perhaps purposely so. Unfortunately, those narrative segues blunted the emotion of what, at least, was a good idea. Hence -- (I can’t resist) -- the object didn’t rise.
This poem reminds me of Tyler’s titular effort in that the grasp is inadequate to the reach. I often trumpet ambition, especially so amongst contemporary self-congratulatory frippery, but if a poem fails its difficult scope, I at least prefer that it does so while going all in. “Sophisticated Sex” sets up an intriguing discrepancy, (different in each partner), between coital fulfillment and reality, but, unlike similar territory in novelist James Baldwin’s wise and fearless Another Country, the secrets droop in jarring poeticisms (“mind’s plush foyer”, “splayed plums”), dull, general revelations (“what matters shows”, “the body not a simple story”), and clichés (“The chorus hides sweetly in the wings”, “years bitterly/swallowed like stones”). The poem needed either a double shot of adrenaline or a fine psychological investigation.
Unremarkable yet effective in a character-scoring by compressed detail, I wanted more personal involvement here. What are some contrasts or similarities between and with the neighbour and the speaker?
“It’s prowling promise/to outperform desire.” Yes! And there are several other phrases almost as good. I also liked the strong, quick stresses of “near liquid slant-six pumping angel wings for/plugs.” Delightful from starting gun to end line.
The first poem in the “Urban Night Longing” section is faithful in mood to that header. But just as “If I Were A Painter” is all list, “Ante Meridiem” is all mood, and because of its narrow angle, an attempt to heighten that mood or introduce other elements into the mix could have popped the top off the perfume bottle. Instead, the result is an exercise, not a mysterious evocation, and what’s more, the too-frequent Canadian predilection for the precious first-person plural voice -- combined with the stock epiphanic diction of “moon”, “stars”, “alley”, “sleeps”, “opening”, “listen”, “wind” -- make this the weakest poem in the book so far.
THIS BOOKISH NIGHT
Tropes were strained and murky. At times, an obvious parallel was drawn (“Glowing paragraphs of high-storeyed/buildings”). What irked most, however, was the assumption that open-endedness, suggestion, in itself, somehow equals profundity or (at least) fascination (“you are stitched by possible endings”).
Inferior to Tyler’s “In Praise of the Banana Slug”, this commemoration is overwritten, the voice unconvincing. There’s nothing wrong with burning the midnight oil for a string of fortnights, but the lamp-marks shouldn’t be visible on the page.
The word “old” in the second-to-last line ruins what would have been a good phrase (“Perky old ninety-somethings”). The similes and metaphors, I suppose, attempt to mimic humorous flights of fancy by nectar-infused recipients (“greedy little bankers”; “like a hundred drunken Hemingways”), but I just found them disconnected, unimaginative, unfunny.
Similar to “Ante Meridiem”, “Tree Faith” dispenses with development, but, in its hushed, skeletal structure, offers little in the way of elemental idiosyncrasy or surprise. “Something crawls/around in you” is supposed to echo the branches “weave into air”. It’s, all of it, suggestion without power or believable connection.
I keep coming back to that “Banana Slug”. That’s a plus here because “Manitoba Maples” follows the same descriptive profusion, and is crafted with good cheer (“bug havens, bird bramble,/messed-up misshapen bouffant heavies”). It could have been a developing minus in that Tyler has found a cupola and is mining it with the energy of the workers in Emile Zola’s Germinal. No one should be typecast after acting in his first movie. And the poet’s first-book gaze shouldn’t be filtered through a glaucomatous aperture, so its heartening to see the observational highlight, here -- maples -- er … break new ground.
A SHORT HISTORY OF OUR FUTURE WITH THE ALIENS
A pallid, empty, unfunny sci-fi proposal.
CREATURE OF WORK
The psychological portrait is individuated though glancing. The subject matter cries out for narrative exposition, but I’m not sure Tyler cares (or is able) to develop human complexities with the same panache he lavishes on animals, insects, birds, and natural phenomena. And even in this truncated characterization, lines repeatedly trip over one another (“nothing/touches him. Rain arcs around him on his/cruel commute that never takes him home.”)
The shorthand declaratives (“Forget it, scooter”, “Listen, lightweight”) don’t have the snap of similar aggressive voices in poems by Karen Solie and Ken Babstock, for example. And the tone doesn’t earn any force because of the inadequate context. The sound here is akin to a carefully produced cover of an original, all the informing passion and rough edges muffled in an unintended caricature.
The changing of the seasons is such a staple of the poetic landscape that to write on that theme now is to go beyond cliché, beyond kowtowing to the canon, beyond rearranging the furniture, to a zone only successfully negotiated by ironic self-consciousness or dramatic new metaphors. Tyler opts for the latter (with one three-word exception, mentioned later), but the metaphorical thrust is a maladroit list (his fallback modus operandi) which culminates in a terribly integrated mythical enactment (“Cronus eating his children. The shattered house/of Job. Kali beading her tether of skulls.”). Yes, the first snow is sometimes a harbinger for fatal accidents amd hypothermia. And that first flake -- that’s one small flake for a person, one giant mound for personhood -- contains multitudes, to mix poetic allusions. But the pathetic fallacy of the oak, the overblown proportion of “pissing/jet cold brew down chimneys”, and the self-regarding wink “Proto-poetic provocateur” bury this poem in a winter of its own making.
How far Tyler’s come from naming the animals in that strangled linguistic garden. The relentless compounds pile up like the abused spring snow the poem’s addressee -- the plow -- shoves along. I like “climate abscess” and “synthesized sludge”.
THE HOUSE AT THIRTY-TWO BELOW
The personification of the house is much better than that of the oak in “First Snow”, though a few similes puzzle (“Ice brittles, shrinks like a clerk”; “shingles/rough as North Sea skin”).
“Rubbing snow’s grief into our flesh”. Ugh! To be grossly pedantic, snow is crystalline ice water and has never been known to harbour or express grief. Do “we” become “as snow” under certain temperatures and conditions? That insight has been logged before Eric the Red brandished his sword. If there’s grief, it’s experienced by the “rubber”, but this would mean creating characters, a complexifying and emotional challenge that is sidestepped throughout this book in favour of the “safe” route of nature-and-object personae. I realize metaphors are involved. But a successful metaphor has to work on both sides.
The first of nine poems in the section “Home” which close out the book, “Dressing Arthur” is convincingly consistent in tone throughout. There were problems with a few details -- I’ll never believe an invalid can muster the strength to let go “obscenities … from his gut” -- but their recounting in mundane sharpness (“V-neck wiped/with dinner”) is a welcome change from the proclivity outlined in the commentary of the previous poem. I also like that Tyler is a definite presence in the poem, though a proportional one.
THE WORDS OF PHYLLIS
Phyllis was nearing “the end of language”, but there’s no excuse for the clear-minded observer to cloak this poem in generalities (“Scripts, and snippets of songs/play through her”) and awkward metaphor (“the end of language,/its crumbling walls reveal her/spitting the gravel of her name.”).
GWEN ASKING THE TIME
After reading “Gwen Asking the Time” many times, lines and phrases refuse to be retrieved. The poem feels like it was created through a processing plant: attention to detail is exacting, but the sound is lifeless.
One of a handful of this book’s keepers, “Feeding Rena” is strong in metaphor and image, with fine summation (“her eyes, stones on a prairie road, watch everything and nothing.”). Rena will live.
The Wile E. Coyote-one-second-pause-mid-air-off-a-cliff enjambments are appropriate and highly effective. It’s not easy representing these lives, and interiors must be sought and conveyed with subtlety and clarity. That Tyler has gone three-for-five so far in this section is to his credit.
Good. I can see many things here. And with clear vision (either in experience or imagination), a transforming space is created for the reader. “[H]e staggers/toward you, ready to timber”, “tilts that boulder of a head”, are strong entries, presaging both mild fear and sadness.
SOME THINGS I KNOW ABOUT JACK
Jack's an interesting person, all right, perhaps one still in the early stages of dementia, though it's obvious he still possesses a strength of character lacking in many others of sound mind and body. And that's the good news, here. The details, "as is", didn't make it as a poem.
The run-on block paragraph is the perfect form for the frantic Alzheimer’s patient in this poem. A terrifying experience, Tyler chooses wisely by letting the scrambled narrative run its course. Excellent bites include, “our hands group like fish to catch her” and “the ground a narrow beam”.
“She wants to lead/you someplace holier.” “Want” is a sublime word choice. Powerful, understated, honest, concise, “Violet” is an obvious choice to close out this very good final section.