- Fred Wah (Author)
Alley Alley Home Free. Writing West Series.. Red Deer College Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Tom Wayman (Author)
My Father's Cup. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Patrick Friesen (Author)
the breath you take from the lord. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by R. Alexander Kizuk
The second half of the last century saw Canadian poetry diverge along two paths: an experimentalist project and a more traditional poetics. Until recently, it has been the latter that has wanted wear. Near the beginnings of modernist poetry in Canada, A. J. M. Smith labeled these lines of development “cosmopolitan” and “native.” When modernism in Canadian poetry entered its post-structuralist phase, the Tish poets of Vancouver Americanized the notion of an “outlaw,” cosmopolitan Canadian verse while at the same time belittling the native, more traditional vein as Universalist. Despite having inspired Michael Ondaatje, bpNicol, and Frank Davey in the early 1970s, the outlaw idea never really caught on in Canada. Nonetheless, the poetry of Fred Wah, a student of Olson and Robert Creeley, is best understood in this context. The theme of deceit or Faking It , pervasive in Wah’s work, is related to this poetics.
Wah has carved out a position for himself in western Canadian literary culture that is all but unassailable. Reminiscent of A. J. M. Smith or Louis Dudek in another place and in a previous generation, his influence is significant. Among his former Tish confreres, furthermore, he is perhaps the finest poet. Certainly, the lyricism that subsumes his verbal exuberance rings true consistently in all of his work. Alley Alley Home Free is a continuation of the earlier collection of poems and prose poems Music at the Heart of Thinking (1987). Taken together, these texts invite an audience that is highly educated and hip to the latest developments in literary theory-in other words, eclectic, detached and academic. The gesture here is to subvert formal meaning to create a series of linguistic “surprises.” This is the outlaw gesture that Wah took from his American teachers. Yet the profoundly Oedipal nature of this gesture in American poetry is absent here. If the waywardness of the signifier is an emblem of castration anxiety, Wah’s poems are remarkably unanxious. Perhaps he can break the vessels because they are not his. But like a cat landing on her feet, Wah always comes back to the “speaking singing / soul carried forward / lines of a life, truth written / in the lie of a word” (Music at the Heart). “Sometimes all it is is a simple interpolation,” as he says in the new book,
not so falsely drawn from the laws of narrative since you don’t name her her perfumed head… but maybe reading her she’s my girl this pursuit meant to include marriage… car job house… all the happinesses prior to life and death love’s same old story could be that’s when meaning starts.
One might think that the poetry of Tom Wayman would fall into a category opposite to Wah’s experimentalism, native as opposed to cosmopolitan, yet the assumption would be inaccurate. Wayman’s poems have been delightfully plain and Purdyesque from the beginning. But this folksy, colloquial style also serves to subvert formal meaning, and, as in Wah’s poetics, the intention is ideological. Wayman is Marxist or socialist in his move against the Father; Wah is post-Universalist or posthumanist. Of the two, Wayman is perhaps the more original, as Milton Acorn was always more original than Smith, even though Wayman’s linguistic astonishments are more low key. Wah would deny the veracity of the origin entirely. Wayman is not so sure; he wants to see the Phallologocentric Origin struck down with his own eyes. He’s got Him in his sights. And that’s the problem.
Wayman’s My Father’s Cup is a hefty volume of poems that is generally elegiac in tone and mature in execution. If Wayman began his career as a gormless leftist ingénue, here he is serious, dignified and moving. At the heart of this book are poems in which he responds to his father’s death. There are poems on the deaths of both parents, but it is the father who takes pride of place, as we see in “Absence”:
If my parents had to be lost,
I wished for them to go missing together
like the elderly couple found dead
in their overturned car down an embankment
of a mountain highway.
But my father lived on by himself
when there was no more news of my mother,
heating his lonely can of soup at noon.
This emotional current bears upon its proudly blue-collared back several other elegies including “In Memory of A. W. Purdy” and “Cup,” the poem from which the book takes its title. The Father passes on His cup to the son, and it contains darkness, as we see in “The Anti-Prometheus,” that is anxious, edgy,
and new things will be created
and expand under these conditions, things
that would have been better had I not taken with me
Patrick Friesen is more traditional than Wah or Wayman, though he has some stock in the experimenalist project. Friesen’s subjects are traditional-love, nature, domestic life, creativity, God-but his poetic has been spare, unpunctuated, lapidary. Over the years he has evolved a long, supple and sinuous line, and his new book uses this long line to beautiful effect. The book is divided into two parts, a series of twenty-six “clearing” poems and a sequence of fourteen “day dreams” or traumerei. The first poem in the book sets the tone for what follows:
you know how it works how you have to stand still letting the light climb up your trunk
you have to forget most things human this is not a place where anything has happened
you are a man you don’t know how else to say it you are a man who has always sought god
In each poem in the first part of the book, a clearing is made in the poet’s awareness, where Friesen attempts to find truths to live by. These are poems of acceptance and consolation, and the series ends with an answer: “who is it you hear speak as you speak sing as you sing what voices live in you? / a harsh call in the clearing and that breath that deep breath you take from the lord.” The traumerei are winter poems that celebrate family and nature. In “kaddish for the old man,” Friesen longs for an absent father, “I wonder who you are or where because I can see you’re not there you’re lost and I have no father.” Then he realizes that “you are my father calling me into the world the world you are so afraid of,” and he consoles the old man. The breath you take from the lord is a well-constructed book of poetry, very readable and well worth the investment of a little time and money.
- Valuable Confessions by Stephen Cain
Books reviewed: Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer by bpNichol and Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer by Stuart Ross
- Black Like To Who(m)? by Julian Manyoni
Books reviewed: 49th Parallel Psalm by Wayde Compton
- From Blood to Ideas by Michael Roberson
Books reviewed: By Word of Mouth: The Poetry of Dennis Cooley by Dennis Cooley and Nicole Markotic, The Crisp Day Closing on My Hand: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane by M. Travis Lane and Jeanette Lynes, and All These Roads: The Poetry of Louis Dudek by Louis Dudek and Karis Shearer
- Crossing Boundaries by Pilar Somacarrera
Books reviewed: Imaginary Origins: Selected Poems 1997-2002 by Cyril Dabydeen and Play a Song Somebody: New and Selected Stories by Cyril Dabydeen
- Exercising Maleness by Brent MacLaine
Books reviewed: Change Room by Mark Cochrane, Autodidactic by Don Kerr, and His Life by George Bowering
MLA: Kizuk, R. Alexander. Absent Fathers. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #185 (Summer 2005), (Stratton, Compton, Morra, Wylie, Gordon). (pg. 186 - 188)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.