Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Margaret Christakos' Welling

"Dip down into the cavity
of dreams identify the image

most pendant. Can't, can you,

there's a blend, vacuum

& glut. Too much happens of anything

to report or order. Time

throbs & writhes"

The preceding lines are from Margaret Christakos' "Gulls", from Welling, her 2010 collection of poems. Her concerns, despite their anchoring in postmodern fascination, anguish, or flippant tom- (and jane-) foolery regarding the impossibility of accurately noting our own observations or (at least) of transcribing them to another, are nothing new. W. G. Sebald, in his extraordinary The Rings of Saturn, speaks from the perspective of another in conversation who noted "the scruples which dogged Flaubert's writing, that fear of the false which ... sometimes kept him confined to his couch for weeks or months on end in the dread that he would never be able to write another word without compromising himself in the most grievous of ways. Moreover ... he was convinced that everything he had written hitherto consisted solely in a string of the most abysmal errors and lies." Sebald, later in the same chapter: "The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond."

I'm sympathetic to this obsession (and though Christakos changes things up by an interesting and ambiguous mix of imagined audience for the speaker, the thematic fixation remains), but I'd take issue with some of the quoted material in "Gulls". I agree that "Too much happens of anything/to report or order", but I don't see why observation has to be comprehensive. Boring into the corner of a Michelangelo is just as important as a distant, global sweep, is it not? Or from the painter's perspective, getting that corner to a place of great clarity (without ever succumbing to the complacent conclusion of perfection) is surely enough? Think of Madame Bovary, and then think of Flaubert agonizing for months about telling the truth.

Though I don't share in the idea of futility and anguish over ever revealing "the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth", I admire Christakos' different approaches to it. Unlike so many other dreary poets who keep the poetics in the realm of the suffocating classroom, she occasionally gets outside and integrates her ideas with spurs from nature, of the landscape and human variety. From the sub-poem "Birch" in the section "Barrel": "I turn & chafe. I misbeget the fruit of the other trees./Turdish shapes, all of you. A filament of sun widows me,".

From "The problem of confessionality":

"I don't think any of
us, even the "best" poets
among us, do more than signal
a portal that would
open on a room full of
squirming words."

To which I hasten to add: But when it's good, what wonderful squirming!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rob Budde's declining america

The best description of Rob Budde’s 2009 “declining america” comes from the author himself in “Tattoo”: “spreading a fanciful indulgence”. I suppose I could be accused of taking the quote out of context. Fair enough. If anyone wants to enlighten me on the actual context to the poem, though, I’m all ears. (Oh, context is a patriarchal anachronism, canon-fodder? Okeydokes.)

Not confident enough in letting his poems speak for themselves, Budde, in his “about the author” back-pages byte, reveals his credo: “He believes that counter-colonial, pacifist, anti-homophobic, anti-racist, feminist, and vegetarian thinking is the best path to planetary health. Rob was born in America but is working it out.”

The first section, “My American Movie”, eschews almost all punctuation for the (I suppose) creative diatribe of America as evil incarnate. It must take a particularly uncloudy mind to reduce the infinitely complex matrix of world politics and cultural interpenetration down to a blackened thumb over one specific section of the globe. I agree broadly (oops, is that sexist?) with some of his simple arguments, and disagree with others. However, there’s no nuance, context, expansion, or development in these viewpoints, which makes them uninteresting. But this is supposedly poetry, so let’s move on from the pulpit and enter the grove, study, or basement. Then again, the pulpit in this book seems to be portable, unfortunately.

“ “democratizing” the arab world into subservience a british imperial first strike toward a would-be world hegemonic megalomania it is not simply fantasy it is policy and legally (in florida at least) elected by corrupt business oligarchies so keep on trucking the expenditure for or against ruling all, cutting to the chase standing for thee”

And some people said subtlety went AWOL in contemporary poetry.

It’s not until Part Three’s “Assuming Depth” that the tap of poetics is cranked to full throttle.

"The word is combustible; odd, worn, ignored, and not absolutely sure of what it is referring to."

Thank you, third-hand Roland Barthes omniscient speaker.

"Passion, passive, past."

Smugness, mug, ugh!

This is easy, can anyone play?

Next section is titled “Software Tracks”. From “Rash”: “awry on the rocks”. Ha ha. How clever. A rye on the rocks. Get it? But wait. Wouldn’t the actual quote be redundant? Picky, picky.

The following poem is “Nausea”. Here’s an excerpt, without commentary. Enjoy! (Oh, I know, that word is now forever linked to capitalism’s phony fawning waiter bringing you the goose, stepping over the homeless people in the doorway, all of it cooked by illegal immigrants hectored all day on their twelve-hour shifts.)

"Unfashion-hypen-able. The real “thing”. Too much aboutism. Stand back. Let the subjunctive relieve the pressure, tantamount to contempt but the rain continues and there is no reason to stop. Categories everywhere and not one has galoshes. Debit card carrying unionist. No wonder lunch is hard. This is the end. Death synthesizes the least possible courage."

Would that the second-to-last sentence were so. But then I should be more mature and take Mr Budde’s advice from “Indices: Second Quarter Returns”: “it might just not be for you; let it go --” Or he could take his own advice vis-à-vis his caricature of America. There is some tag-end stuff to do with the idea that the tentacles of American culture have crossed the 49th and have already become ensconced in the Canadian psychological fabric. (Surprise! Olympics and an orgy of lumber.) It’s too late, I suppose. We’re all infected. At least barbeque season is over.

Evelyn Lau's Living Under Plastic

What a timely contrast to Sharon McCartney’s For and Against. The back cover promo for Living Under Plastic says that this 2010 collection “represents a major departure from Evelyn Lau’s previous poetry books”. Wrong. Though the scope is, on the surface, wider, the “obsessive focus on relationships” remains, and that focus is where it always was -- on herself. Poems as seemingly diverse as “Grandfather”, “Blindness” (about father), “Vancouver Special”, “The Burning Desert” (death by disease of a loved one); “Water Damage” (death of another by house fire), and most annoyingly, “The Pickton Trial”, use their ostensible subjects as launching pads for a pitying blather on the woes and foes of the speaker. From “Water Damage: “I wanted to set my home on fire/as if to burn down my very life --/I imagined the building ablaze”; from “The Burning Desert”: “The day your obituary ran in the paper,/I lay buried in bed/as if stuck in sand at the edge of the shore”; from “Quayside: “After hearing the news/of your cancer, for days I felt hungry”; from “Blindness”: "if he leaves me alone with her,/I will never make it out of this house alive."

The language is dead, the narrative unfocussed, the emotions histrionic (“facing a future which came to greet him/like the military tank in the photo of Tiananmen” from “Father’s Day”). In “Return to Monterey Bay”, we have “I could not tell whether the storm brewing/in my body was discontent,/or disease, or the usual creeping fog/of malaise, if this fatigue was a virus,”. How can a storm be compared to “the usual creeping fog”, and to “fatigue”? But perhaps Lau realizes that dullness of limb and spirit doesn’t always translate into a drama worthy of the relentless repetitions in this book and in its even more dreary predecessor, Treble, the latter running on from the 27-45 line poems in Living Under Plastic to a frequently bloated 5 or 8 pages. As usual, the best storms in poetry are either truly lashing, or scary by their subtle or complex build-up and release.

Humour is only apparent unintentionally -- from “Mosquito Season”: “so full it burst with a wet sound/and a red splash between my palms.”; from Grand Canyon”: “the canyon exhaling next to us,/softly, the way water breathes,/dreaming in its sleep.”

The only poem I liked was “The Drowning”, and perhaps not coincidentally, it was the only poem which concentrated on the subject and not the comparative pain of the speaker. Even in its best lines, though, an egregious repetition mars what I’d hoped would be error-free: “the salt breeze/stirring circles into the sand, saffron smoke/from a lit flare smoking across the hills.”

I wouldn’t have spent even this much time on this book but for two reasons: I’ve already promised to at least mini-review every book I’ve read, or will read, on 2010’s GG longlist, however that plays out; and ever since Lau’s hugely popular Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, published when she was 18, she’s achieved the status of literary untouchable. That happens to many writers, of course, but especially when it happens to one so young, it’s almost impossible to question praise heaped on oneself.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sharon McCartney's For and Against

Since poetry is driven by emotion (despite a tradition of French and French-affiliated word-poseurs, both modern and postmodern), and since roughly 50% of married couples eventually divorce while a significant segment of the remaining duos live in quiet desperation, you’d think there’d be more books of poetry -- or at least more individual poems -- concentrating on that dark reality. Sharon McCartney, at least, doesn’t shy away from recording the diurnal drudgery, break-up, and aftermath of a twenty year marriage in this year’s For and Against. The autobiographical material would, at first pass, call to the danger, frequently succumbed to in confessional poetry, of hysterical egotism -- ‘me and my troubles‘. One element that saves this book from that charge is her concentration on fleshing out the “other”, and others, both in her remembered rounds and in deft literary and pop ruminations (Lady Chatterley, Anna Karenina, George Eliot’s narrative voice, Snow White, and The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy). But the main reason to disagree with those who may turn up their noses at the rough and tumble of a relationship dying in colours dramatic, somber and dull is the writing itself.

McCartney has shown a delightful felicity in previous books with stapling phrases into the memory. For and Against expands this strength with different material, and it’s a testament to her talent that rawness isn’t diminished by an attention to fluency: “lipping the languid/ sandbags staggered”; “Doc baffled, Bashful asserting himself,/Happy rabid.”.

Anger, disgust, depression (well, OK, that one gets plenty of play in many books), black humour, desperate longing, bitter denunciation: Canadians are much more comfortable in their reading and composing habits with the more muted dark emotions of regret, pensiveness, alienation and heightened self-pity. But McCartney is driven by a concern for connection and has little patience for the bogus compensations of "who needs it" pride or unearned hope. If the book is at times too unformed (“And leaving becoming/the only way to get anything back”), and hence, too driven to vague summation, it’s a small price to pay for the many more searching pieces of wise recrafting of disharmony.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Inspector Palmu

Palmu is a rare name even in Finland. The character sounds like a great guy!

Runaway Jury Award for the Poetry GG

I enjoyed sparring and agreeing with Alex Good and Jacob Mooney. And it was the first time I've read all of the books on the final five for the poetry Gov-Gen. This space has been busy gathering moss and mildew, and a few crickets continue to rub their legs in the vicinity, but I plan to let work taper off until the new year, so I'll be taking time to read some of the many other titles on the year's GG longlist. I'll be posting mini-reviews of them here.

Congratulations to Richard Greene on Boxing the Compass.