Against the Grain
- Sharon McCartney (Author)
Karenin Sings the Blues. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Wayne Clifford (Author)
On Abducting the 'Cello. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Brook Houglum
Wayne Clifford's inventive sonnet sequence On Abducting the 'Cello exhibits amorous linguistic play, ironic examination, and allusive engagement of characters including Rilke, Kodály, and Daffy Duck. Clifford's line is carefully controlled but not static, and his sequence of fifty-two sonnets and an envoi invites readers to "reperceive" familiar meters through creative employment of Petrarchan, Shakespearean, unbroken, and alternately arranged forms. The sequence enacts transitions from the speaker's desire to play a cello he sees in a shop window, to passionate and musical interactions, to the speaker's final leaving of the cello to share rent with a piano. Humour, frequent interrogation of the solipsistic "I," and facility with a musical lexicon charges the love affair with precision and nuance. An erotics of cello study through lessons and practice produces lines of contact and collaboration where "furtive gladness . . . draws a simple song / out of body, his or its" and "a dust clings / naked to his fingers from her strings." Clifford aligns the cellist with the cello through the instrument’s material – spruce, maple, and heartwood – as a vehicle for intimacy, for understanding "what beneath the varnish marks the wood." A kind of aubade marks the height of the tryst:
At dawn, drowsy after play, he left her
on her side and went out to the porch. The maples ped
flowerhusks among dried leaves. The soft
percussion tingled up his spine. Maples' grain
flamed in her ribs . . .
Cello lessons also effect the frustration of cramped fingers, clumsiness, and tuning inabilities; a sonnet beginning "A Bach transcription for beginner" outlines the "one part wood / and one tired arm" playing under critical scrutiny. This sonnet 13 also exemplifies Clifford's mastery of the form, as the tension, stops, and starts of cello practice enable open space between words and lines until the poem visually resembles free verse. Balance between taut rhyme and meter and occasional variance, between language of musical theory and popular crudity, marks Clifford's collection. He uses traditional form and narrative framework to raise questions about ideas of Wagner's impact on German nationalism, the doubling and splitting of an ego, and Elmer Fudd's sentimental mirroring of everyday romance. The delight and the challenge in On Abducting the 'Cello crystallize in the peripheral scope of the well-crafted, tightly tuned lines.
Sharon McCartney's Karenin Sings the Blues writes not against a traditional form, but a classic text; the title section of the collection rewrites character voices from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. In this suite, McCartney lends sharp, precise diction to primary, incidental, and inanimate characters including Karenina's unfinished novel, who laments that after Anna's demise it has nothing now but:
astronomy, the contemplation of corners,
angles, my night sky of wooden boards,
planed and fitted, each whorl, each eddy,
a galaxy's gored skirt flaring in the grain.
McCartney’s poems engage the gaps, multiple angles, and intertwined spaces of Tolstoy’s characters through cataloging objects and layering details. To the stationmaster at Obiralovka, who witnessed the leap in front of the train, Anna Karenina’s love is a “landscape in oils, a sculpted torso, / machinery, engine and engineer.” The baroque aggregations and alliterations in the sequence, which includes lists such as “a ladder, a footbridge, a stile” and ends with the phrase “my lord the locomotive looming,” are countered by stark meditations on death, class, and religiosity.
Each poem in Karenin Sings the Blues assumes the first-person perspective of a different persona, exposing their motives and sentiments as well as insightful opinions about other characters. Metaphorical language also intersects as the poems build on one another, so that following a poem written from the voice of Vronsky's dying horse Frou-Frou, Princess Sorokin names her hopes for marrying Vronsky: "unseated, a rider thrown in the mud." McCartney’s investigation of character construction culminates in “Levin’s Complaint,” which interrogates Tolstoy’s creation of Karenina, Vronsky, and himself as “agents, in the estates of pain,” stating “you might have made me less awkward, / more generous.” Sensitive examination of character also drives the final two sections of McCartney’s text. “California” and “Persuasion” are made up of poems indexing familial figures from the author’s childhood. The mother in particular emerges in textured relief as the poems engage the aphorisms, contradictions, and interiority of a “resolute” woman who warns the speaker as a girl “not to beat [her] brother too often / at Ping Pong.” Drawing material from both Jane Austen and popular television, the final section ends with self-examination while “reading Anna Karenina on a blizzardy afternoon,” a fitting end to a solid, provocative, and sustained inquiry of human motivation and interaction.
- Formally Enlightening by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: A Pirouette and Gone by E.D. Blodgett, Apostrophes VII: Sleep, You, a Tree by E.D. Blodgett, and Praha by E.D. Blodgett and Marzia Paton
- Organic Re-membering by Jes Battis
Books reviewed: Blessings by Bernice Laver, Bones About to Bloom by Shari Andrews, Concrete and Wild Carrot by Margaret Avison, and Snow Formations by Carolyn Souaid
- L'Élan et le décours by Nelson Charest
Books reviewed: Poème du décours by Robert Berrouet-Oriol and Prière à Blanc by Michael Deslisle
- Three Canadian Poets by Kristen Guest
Books reviewed: Visible Living: Poems Selected and New by Marya Fiamengo, Janice Fiamengo, Seymour Mayne, and Russell Thornton, Let Me Go! by Nora Alleyn and Anne Claire Poirier, and Take Us Quietly by Tammy Armstrong
- Against the Grain by Brook Houglum
Books reviewed: On Abducting the 'Cello by Wayne Clifford and Karenin Sings the Blues by Sharon McCartney
MLA: Houglum, Brook. Against the Grain. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #187 (Winter 2005), Littérature francophone hors-Québec / Francophone Writing Outside Quebec. (pg. 117 - 119)
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