Artistry to What End?
- Adam Dickinson (Author)
Cartography and Walking. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Michael Bullock (Author)
Colours: Poems. Rainbird Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Gary Hyland (Author)
The Work of Snow. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by R. W. Stedingh
In the Foreword to Colours: poems, Michael Bullock, Canada’s high priest of surrealism, equates deadly nightshade with the rose. The comparison is key to understanding his seductive methods and poetic vision, which is augmented in this book by eight plates of his colourful paintings and one black and white print entitled “Blackfish,” which in contrast is a kind of portent. In addition, Bullock’s poetic vision is clearly indicated in the titles of his 38 books of poetry and fiction, especially Green Beginning Black Ending and Black Wings White Dead, which denote an ominous transformation and a preference for the dark, a powerful darkness which manipulates the colours in prismatic sunlight to its own ends. While Bullock admits to using a “simulated synaesthesia,” an old surrealist ploy designed to confuse the senses, as a frequent method in these poems, his free associations are anything but free. They are controlled, deliberate, and therefore telling. In “Rainbow,” the first poem in the book, colours rise “into an uncontrollable crescendo / beyond reach of reason” [italics mine]. The same hocus-pocus is flagrant throughout this book, but in “Green I” it ends with ironic foreboding:
In its flow the river
gives off a green sound that mingles
with the green scent of the
water to induce a trance
that transports the watcher
to a realm beyond time and space
ruled over by naiads
hidden behind a curtain
of hanging moss
waiting to pounce on the dazed intruder
This “dazed intruder” might well be the writer speaking from experience, or more likely, the unsuspecting reader trusting in all the seeming and feigned “delight in disorder” of these poems and the poet’s repeated counsel: to believe in mystery, magic, and darkness, and to distrust reason. This leitmotif against “daytime’s / pilfering fingers” and “the principle of conceptuality” appears in no less than seventeen of these poems. This necromantic advocacy of ignorance and anti-rationalism is an incremental refrain throughout Bullock’s alluring poetic oeuvre. The same is true of his painting. The drawings in this book consist of abstracted figures in dazzling hues often contrasted with black. Each has the character of a Rorschach blot presented for specific, directed, manipulated interpretation, which is in almost every case Freudian with all the necrophilia implied.
While Michael Bullock’s texts are masterful artifices with albeit questionable motives, those of Adam Dickinson in Cartography and Walking are aesthetically flawed expressions of his map of the interface between man and Nature. Divided into three sections, Escarpments, Cordillera, and Standing Water, this first collection is a detailed chart of the emotive and intellectual geography of alienation. The result is often labyrinthine, as convoluted as the contours of the human brain, but fraught with cul de sacs. Too often, these poem-maps are blurred by an abstract diction. The leaves and grains of hardwood trees, for example, frequently occur as symbols but are left unqualified, and the mind gropes in vain for a denotative or connotative significance in context. Unlikely metaphors also prevail leaving one lost without a compass in a wilderness of words, as in “Rejoinder”: “Her outstretched legs / were the lifted necks / of mallard ducks, / as they beaded and fled / in the kicked-up light.” Come again? Mixed metaphor perhaps? This same nonplussing effect is continuous in “Or Was It the Smell of Cut Wood”:
The rain organizes itself on the pavement,
the clouds are burned towels draped
over the oven doors of buildings
above the grey, milling sidewalks of town.
. . . a dangerous proposition: too little and the boreal
loses its fear, too strong and the conifers rally,
withdraw their concessions, plug the town with pitch,
emerge in the cleared grounds of parks and yards,
and swing their black bats about the oven doors
breaking ranks with their granite trust.
The use of metaphor, especially personifi- cation, in this poem is typical of most poems in Cartography and Walking. The relation between primary and secondary elements in the comparisons is viscerally, logically, and imaginatively non-associative. The inquiring mind continually reels but draws a blank. One of the most frequent causes is Dickinson’s use of abstract nouns. His attempts to concretize them in extended metaphor is unique, but too often the pathetic fallacies are too pathetic, the effort to clarify obscures, and the effect, while novel, is oblique if not obtuse. While this technique is flawed, it has organic potential, for alienation is Dickinson’s major thematic concern, a theme that has everything to do with the failure of articulation. If there is a justification for continuous stupefaction, this is it.
Or is it?
Or is it just a bad joke? If a poem as a work of art is intended to communicate, is a poet’s refusal to do so legitimate? There must be an improvement on the blank page at all costs, and the reader shouldn’t have to wrack his brain trying to make sense of incoherence. Having to do so violates the writer-reader contract, which is dependent upon a mutual trust.
Gary Hyland’s The Work of Snow, on the other hand, is an auspicious book that similarly sets out to map the emotional latitudes and longitudes of a personal cartography. However, he does so skillfully and is a master of his craft. In poems that reflect on childhood, marriage, the seasons (with the accent on winter), the earth, Al Purdy, Anne Szumigalski, and John Hicks, the nostalgic tone, often elegiac, dominates. Although maudlin at times, Hyland’s diction evokes a sense that the poet is beleaguered by an enormous sense of loss. Yet it is his laconic memories associated with people and places, physical and spiritual, that sustain his sense of belonging, and to the extent that he charts this territory successfully, he gives us the blueprint of a ground we all share.
This common ground has everything to do with empathy and feeling, even sentimentality, that mortal sin in the canons of Modernism and Post-Modernism, which Hyland has studied and wisely ignored. Especially in the elegies, Hyland recaptures the spirits of the dead and makes the burden of their loss lighter. In “Audrey” he remembers a feisty waitress in a border town who gave her tips to runaway girls and whose humour was either self-deprecating or, when directed at the poet, outrageously offensive. In “Angel Bees,” he recalls Anne Szumigalski in a parable about poets being stung in honeycombed brains by bees the size of hummingbirds. In “November Waltz,” he likens memories of his deceased mother, father, and grandparents in a graveyard to a dance with vanished bones left in his arm’s embrace. In “Lament for Purdy,” Hyland blesses “with gruff praise” a man who did the same and remains for many the personification of Canada. But the best of Hyland’s elegies is “Air for One Just Fallen,” dedicated to the memory of John Hicks. It is superior for its avoidance of lugubrious praise. It ends as follows:
No matter. Art
never made substance of sentiment
without a flaw in the dance.
in your new
But this book is not all lamentation. There are lively, admirable poems here, extended personifications of winter, spring and the earth, for example, which are vivid, lyrical allegories of great power. And there are poems like “Practice of Great Harmony” containing true wisdom and advice for any writer or reader:
Move while rooted. Walk as a tree might walk,
directed by the trunk, to where the light draws.
A tree that seeks the image of a long intent, without stutter, without pause.
Be like the tree that thinks leaf and moves
because it hears inside itself a slow green song.
- L'Élan et le décours by Nelson Charest
Books reviewed: Poème du décours by Robert Berrouet-Oriol and Prière à Blanc by Michael Deslisle
- a blizzard in my eyes by Jon Kertzer
Books reviewed: The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood and Charles Pachter
- Poète de l'entre-deux-mondes by Denise Rochat
Books reviewed: Rouleaux de printemps by Patrice Desbiens
- Fooling Around At Last by Susan Ellis
Books reviewed: The Colours of the Forest by Tom Wayman
- The Sincerity Test by Bert Almon
Books reviewed: After Ted & Sylvia by Crystal Hurdle, Taking the Names Down from the Hill by Philip Kevin Paul, and The Gates of Even by John Thompson
MLA: Stedingh, R. W. Artistry to What End?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 102 - 104)
***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.