Supreme Fictions and Strange Relations

  • Kim Trainor (Author)
    Karyotype. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Johanna Skibsrud (Author)
    The Description of the World. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Gregory Scofield (Author)
    Witness, I am. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • John Pass (Author)
    Forecast: Selected Early Poems, 1970-1990. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Emily Nilsen (Author)
    Otolith. icehouse poetry (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Daphne Marlatt (Author)
    Reading Sveva. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Joe Denham (Author)
    Regeneration Machine. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)

When scholars and teachers of Canadian poetry confess their vocation to new acquaintances, the responses range from quizzicality (“Is there any?”) to apology (“I was bad at English”) to telling silence. Such reactions are entirely justified. When poetry inches into the public arena, it is easily ignored. A poet’s obituary is skimmed or skipped; the poems slinking among advertisements on the bus go unnoticed by harried phone-checkers. Only Cohenesque fame or Griffinish lucre makes poetry truly newsworthy. And not only in Canada. Whether the genius of Robert Allen Zimmerman is comparable to that of Eliot, Jiménez, Miłosz, or Montale can be debated, but there is no question that Bob Dylan enjoys a greater audience than the other laureates combined. What that other Dylan called the “sullen art” is a taste seldom acquired, its appeal unpublic.

I recently taught a course on modern Canadian poetry to a terrific group of students. They willingly devoted a few months to Atwood and Avison, Layton and Livesay, Page and Purdy, Waddington and Webb—and they were keen as well to seek out other poets’ works, to examine the omissions in the field as it has been conventionally understood. The students’ enthusiasm was good counsel—literary importance need not be measured only in terms of sales and reputations—but I was nagged by doubt. Would our spirited conversations about “[t]hose blessèd structures, plot and rhyme” (127), in Robert Lowell’s indelible phrase, make a lasting impression? Or was poetry only a flirtation, like gin and Gauloises, before graduation and the onset of adulthood?

I kept passion and the public in mind while reading the seven books under review, which are impressive in myriad ways. Characterized by imagination and insight, and often by a remarkable obscurity, they raise fundamental questions: for whom is contemporary poetry written, and to what end? Books will find their rightful readers, but this assortment sometimes left me adrift and wondering what the poets themselves, accomplished practitioners of a rigorous but almost invisible game, hoped to realize. Surveying recent books of Canadian poetry for the University of Toronto Quarterly, Richard Greene expressed mild surprise: “[m]y sense is that far more Canadian poets than I supposed are writing well. We have a cadre of gifted, passionate, and persevering poets, whom readers and critics must follow on their eccentric journeys” (245). That is one answer to the question of difficulty: good writing exerts itself irresistibly on readers, whoever they are, who must take in stride whatever obstacles appear—technical, conceptual, or otherwise. In his elegy for Yeats, Auden suggested that all will be forgiven if the writer can write:

Time that with this strange excuse

Pardoned Kipling and his views,

And will pardon Paul Claudel,

Pardons him for writing well. (90)

On to the books at hand, then, with trust that poets will in their nearly private pursuits revivify the language or convey an idea in singular terms. And with a dash of uncertainty, too: Auden, remember, deleted his lines.

* * *

“A karyotype,” Kim Trainor writes in her book of that name,

is the characteristic chromosome complement of a species; there are twenty-three paired chromosomes in the human karyotype. The word karyotype also refers to the iconic arrangement of these paired chromosomes in a black and white photograph. (93)

Karyo- derives from the Greek for nut or kernel, and a karyotype promises to show what lies at the core—whatever makes something essentially itself. The word suggests that Trainor’s poetry is preoccupied by potential or destiny, and by the representation thereof. In “How to make a human karyotype,” she provides detailed instructions: “Draw 10 mL of venous blood. Follow the protocols for lymphocyte separation and inoculation and the incubation of cultures” (61). But then Trainor implies that laboratory procedures are insufficient, and that other protocols are required to make sense of things: “Write one word after another / and then another, these stitches of ink, / these seams of fractured light” (61). Karyotype dwells on the Beauty of Loulan, one of the so-called Tarim mummies, and on “the attempt to extract intact DNA from the bone and tissue” (93) of ancient bodies. From this point of departure, Trainor lands upon conflicts and atrocities historical and contemporary, and engages poets of the past both distant and recent: Ovid, Callimachus, Sappho, Edward Thomas, Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński. The result is a meditation on loss, recovery, knowledge, and identity. The web of allusions is forbidding, but Trainor also writes delicately of her own time and place:

Another storm comes in tonight

off the Pacific. Thrum of rain

so insistent on the skylight’s

 

resonant skin. It tamps me down

into the darkness of this night

till I am ossicles of sound,

small drops of swiftly falling rain. (14)

Ossicles are bones of the middle ear: the poet, it seems, is at once a listener and a speaker, a figure attuned to the world’s upheavals who also embodies the downpour’s rejuvenating promise.

Johanna Skibsrud’s The Description of the World is no less ambitious than Karyotype in premise and range of references. In the book’s notes, Skibsrud ventures from Marco Polo (the source of her title) to Charles Olson to Pablo Neruda to Plato to the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas: “I . . . started to see how all the ideas I had so far come up with for the poem I wanted to write had to do—as everything has to do, perhaps, eventually—with the bomb. Here was pure spectacle: the dramatic split, literalized in the material itself, between the actual and potential power of form” (81). Skibsrud’s wildly associative method is intriguing yet challenging. The book’s twenty-seven poems linger on the theme of the relation of dreams to reality, and of perception to representation, but it is often difficult to identify a poem’s particular subject. The first pages of The Description of the World contain a series of imperatives:

Dream a narrowing; dream: a clenched fist, a hollow.

Dream blood, now; dream bones.

Dream flesh for bones, and veins for blood to travel.

 

Let each dreamed thing become that thing. (3)

The widely spaced lines are ethereal, their meaning elusive. Elsewhere, Skibsrud writes intimidatingly dense passages, as in this excerpt from “The Real Is That Which Always Comes Back to the Same Place,” a poem with a title borrowed from Jacques Lacan:

For the thought to exist singly, as for itself. For distances

to collapse, be made arable, assembled in rows—

 

along which one might even travel, unhindered, and from

that perspective begin to see the way that the farthest

visible point from the thought itself is not a limit, but only

the point at which the thought, extending itself infinitely

in that direction, encounters itself.

For it to become the sudden violence of that encounter.

A legion of scattered forces, already begun at a charge.

A final, continuous, attempt to take the last line. (34)

Such waltzing is not easy, and Skibsrud’s affinity for abstractions and fragments makes patience a readerly virtue. An investigative, inquisitive impulse runs through the collection; in “Ars Poetica,” she contends that a poem “[s]hould unfurl slowly, not knowing what— / until it is that thing—it will be” (71). Skibsrud favours propositions, and the connections between her assertions must be pondered. “To be born is the supreme loneliness” (69), she writes. “To be born is to be the first creature” (69). “To be born is to long, suddenly, to be born again” (70). I was reminded of Wallace Stevens while perusing The Description of the World. The third canto of his “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” concludes with a sibilant line that surprises with its clarity: “Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation” (331). Yes: Skibsrud’s book is consumed by the strange relation of ideas to ideas, and of ideas to things.

By comparison, Joe Denham’s Regeneration Machine is distinctly recognizable in form and theme. A book-length elegy, it bears the double burden of a sensational subject and the weighty literary past. The book’s cover explains that two decades ago the author’s friend committed a robbery and then, having been pursued by the police, shot himself; the poem treats the inexplicable details sparingly and obliquely. Denham’s drawn-out sentences make Regeneration Machine virtually unquotable in a short space, but a late passage exemplifies his tone and technique:

I strip down to my pinstriped boxers and dive face-first

into the cold Salish Sea, let the green deep remind me

that right here the world is, right now the senses are,

as the skin of the arbutus is curling back, drying black,

the season stuttering on, unsettled, the garden gone

to seed as this northern land leans back into winter’s

anteroom, apprehension. (49)

Alliteration and insistent rhymes, whether simple (“Sea”/“me,” “back”/“black”/“back”) or subtle (“stuttering on”/“garden gone”), propel Denham’s compelling but rarely pretty lines. Here “strip” is cleverly made to reappear, the short vowel lengthened, in “pinstriped”; the speaker’s deshabille is neatly mirrored by the flensed, naked arbutus.

The salty sea is no straightforward consolation. Denham frequently writes of fishing on the open ocean, the cruelty and peril of that occupation suggesting forcefully a universal precariousness:

We were nearly two hundred miles offshore when the blood

started heaving up from my gut this past summer, there was

no stopping the rhythmic convulsions, the tunas’ blood and mine

bile-laced, intermingling on the old fir decking, the sea

in it too, everywhere, the endless blue and high westerly waves

towering over us hour upon hour unceasing . . . (35)

Anchored in northwestern seascapes, Regeneration Machine is a poem of severe self-criticism, a memorable lament for the “brutal, unkind, / beautiful” world (54). The dedication—“In Memoriam Nevin Sample 1973-1995”—inevitably brings to mind Tennyson’s poem of grief, and Denham’s digressive, associative style is cousin to the comprehensiveness of In Memoriam A. H. H. The sagacious A. C. Bradley observed that Tennyson’s poem presents impediments to comprehension:

Just as Adonais contains allusions which would not be fully intelligible to a reader ignorant of the literary history of the time, so In Memoriam contains references which can be understood but imperfectly from the poem itself; and as in this case the persons and events referred to belong chiefly to private life, the reader cannot be assumed to have any knowledge of them at all. (2)

Elements of Regeneration Machine “belong chiefly to private life” too, and Sample’s actions remain forever unfathomable. Yet Denham’s self-scrutiny illustrates the stern reckoning that all lives face when crisis descends.

For Emily Nilsen as for Denham, the crucial geography is western and coastal. In Otolith, her first book, she explores the possibility of anchorage—of shelter, protection, respite from travel. The dictionary lets slip that an otolith is a piece of calcium carbonate in the inner ear that assists in the sensation of gravity and movement. In the first of two poems called “Otolith,” Nilsen defines the term somewhat differently: “Ear Stone. Annuli within vestibule. / Age concentric, dark-light, dark-light, / each season encased in the next” (25). Her poems, sensitive to contradictory desires to leave and to roam, to be balanced and to be unsettled, record geographical and meteorological details. “Fog” is only a list, but it is no ordinary list:

Eight-headed fog, plate rattling

fog, dirt under the nails fog, fog

of unseen trees where the blind

follow creeks, fog fattened

by memory, flip-sided fog

and swimming on land fog,

throat-bellied fog of the broken

hearted, night fog that slipknots

three moons to the dock[.] (15)

And so on—for another two dozen lines. Throughout Otolith, Nilsen depends on repetition and sequence. Ten poems are titled “And What of the Fog?”; three “An Address to Dusk”; three “Pre-Dawn Walk”; and three “Float House.” Eight titles begin with the word “Meanwhile,” and six with “Fragile.” Topics and words recur as if to suggest that observers and poems consistently fail to capture a vital quality—to land the slippery trout. Another walk, another foggy phrase, is always needed. Otolith is an evocative paean to settings named and anonymous: Kingcome Inlet, the Broughton Archipelago, “Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Traditional Territory” (84), “the alpine meadow / beneath a ridge” (51). Nilsen’s images depict a condition of in-betweenness. In the first “Float House,” one world impinges on another: “This house contains both / land and sea, its floorboards tickled // by stickleback and herring” (16). And in the third “Address to Dusk,” evening darkens into night:

                             Moon rises bent

like the rib of a deer. Stars begin

to peck at the sky, cleaning

and drying bones

of the day. (51)

A covenant between poet and place, Otolith attends almost obsessively to such commonplace and astonishing moments.

John Pass’ Forecast is likewise tied to place and time. As the author explains, the volume brings to light writing that has been all but invisible:

The poems in this book are selected from work written in the 1970s and ’80s that was published in small literary journals, in long out of print chapbooks and in my first full-length trade-edition book in 1984. With the sudden demise/restructuring of its publisher, the original Coach House Press, that first book went out of print nearly as quickly as its shorter predecessors. (11)

The resuscitated poems, youthful in subject and spirit, reflect a past that today seems far removed: “I came of age,” Pass writes,

in a society devolving into conformity and anxiety, but British Columbia’s southwest coast felt simultaneously timeless, gorgeous, spacious—a lagoon of potentiality welled within wild borders of vast geography, unopened history—and my path was lit with the time’s late flare of Romantic idealism and Modernist authority. (12)

The settings of various poems—Wreck Beach, Stanley Park, Upper Levels Highway—will be familiar to Lower Mainlanders, but this Vancouver belongs to a sleepier era. Echoes of Tish sound in early works, and Earle Birney’s example registers, especially in poems of location and environment. Yet “Taking Place,” the first section of Forecast, is not entirely representative; the collection spans twenty years. Poems of married life and fatherhood, of homebuilding and home-tending, prevail. Pass is typically playful, his short lyrics wry and witty. A poet of careful observation, he writes with admirable clarity and, as in “Renaissance,” a honed sense of what bears saying:

Behind the Madonnas and the Saints

the monumental clutter of the centuries

finally it’s the landscape the eye moves to—

a refuge, a vestige of Florentine hills

evergreen surviving marble

and metropolis. (22)

Perhaps the sentiment would have resonated with Sveva Caetani (1917-1994), an Italian Canadian painter who lived in Vernon, BC. Daphne Marlatt’s Reading Sveva begins with an extended introduction to Caetani’s life and works, and a statement of authorial intention. Marlatt explains that her archival research in Vernon led to an unusual intimacy between the living poet and her subject, to whom the poetry is often directly addressed: “In these one-sided dialogues with her, I have tried to read some of the energy of her questioning, reconsidering, and appraising ‘self’” (8). Marlatt’s introduction is followed by a long poem, “Between Brush Strokes,” which has something in common with Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue. Kroetsch asked “How do you grow a poet?” (38) in Heisler, Alberta, and Marlatt asks “how does a painter grow?” (16) in the equally improbable Vernon. She replies indirectly in the poem “gifts”:

given linguistic

ebullience

 

given Italian, French, English

some Hebrew, a little

Arabic

 

given inner restraint

given laughter, light[.] (63)

The shorter poems in Reading Sveva are generally ekphrastic, describing the practices of looking and reading as well as the works of art themselves, six of which are reproduced in colour. Probing the possibilities and imprecisions of language, Marlatt is perpetually curious. “[W]here words meet paint,” she writes in “driving at,” the final poem, “two subjectivities meet / tangential stories seep across / discrete lineages” (71). The textual convergence of strangers gives rise to a fascinating account of a poet’s reading of a painter’s life. Marlatt’s interpretation is governed by “the ontological question expressed in much of [Caetani’s] writing”: “What is the role of human consciousness in the larger orders of the cosmos?” (7).

Unlike the other volumes under review, Gregory Scofield’s Witness, I Am is decidedly public in orientation. Its lyric forms and mixing of languages present no great interpretative difficulty. The subject matter, however, is difficult indeed—painful, in fact, and urgent. The biographical note states that “Scofield is Red River Metis of Cree, Scottish and European descent whose ancestry can be traced to the fur trade and to the Metis community of Kinesota, Manitoba” (91). (“[N]ot the little m Metis / not the accent é Mé-tis” [84], he writes in “Since When,” “but a stand-my-ground Metis / lay my bones at Batoche Metis / kill-me-if-you-can Metis” [85].) Scofield is an observer, especially of tragedies, and his poems explore, with speech that verges on song, the meaning of knowing one’s place in the world. “Muskrat Woman,” the first section of Witness, I Am, is a long poem about a flood—in Scofield’s words, “a retelling, a reimagining of a much longer âtayôhkêwina—Cree Sacred Story” (9). Haunted by allusions to missing and murdered Indigenous women, it laments injustices and envisions the world’s recreation. Violence, Scofield implies, is deeply rooted. Having created the animals and people, kise-manito (“The Creator”) instructs niskam-nâpêw (“First Man”), whose disregard for sacred wisdom has dire effects:

Take good care of my people,

And teach them how to live. Show them

The plants and roots that will kill them

Teach them to respect my creation.

Do not let the animals, the people quarrel.

 

But he didn’t listen. He let creatures

Do as they wished and soon there was

Much quarrelling and shedding of blood. (17)

After “Muskrat Woman” comes a series of short, generally autobiographical lyrics grouped in two sections, “Ghost Dance” and “Dangerous Sound.” The poems concern the living and the dead—those who have survived forms of colonial brutality, and those who must be remembered. Scofield’s distressing acts of testimony, mourning, and dissent suggest convincingly the importance of the literary arts to public discourse about matters of grave consequence.

As these seven books attest, there are many splendours in contemporary Canadian poetry—countless whorls and zigzags of language for commentators to follow. When the ineluctable anthologists come, collecting specimens for new Oxfords and Penguins, they will find no shortage of fantastic creatures whose private faces deserve public places.

Works Cited

  • Auden, W. H. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Selected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 2007. 88-91. Print.
  • Bradley, A. C. A Commentary on Tennyson’s In Memoriam. 2nd ed. 1902. London: Macmillan, 1907. Print.
  • Denham, Joe. Regeneration Machine. Gibsons, BC: Nightwood, 2015. Print.
  • Greene, Richard. “Poetry.” University of Toronto Quarterly 85.3 (2016): 224-48. Print.
  • Kroetsch, Robert. Seed Catalogue. 1977. Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2000. 29-46. Print.
  • Lowell, Robert. “Epilogue.” Day by Day. New York: Farrar, 1977. 127. Print.
  • Marlatt, Daphne. Reading Sveva. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2016. Print.
  • Nilsen, Emily. Otolith. Fredericton: icehouse, 2017. Print.
  • Pass, John. Forecast: Selected Early Poems (1970-1990). Madeira Park, BC: Harbour, 2015. Print.
  • Scofield, Gregory. Witness, I Am. Gibsons, BC: Nightwood, 2016. Print.
  • Skibsrud, Johanna. The Description of the World. Hamilton, ON: Wolsak, 2016. Print.
  • Stevens, Wallace. “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction.” 1947. Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. New York: Library of America, 1997. 329-52. Print.
  • Trainor, Kim. Karyotype. London, ON: Brick, 2015. Print.


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