By Our Lack of Ghosts
- Sam Solecki (Editor) and Earle Birney (Author)
One Muddy Hand. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Daniel Burgoyne
Find pnomes jukollages & other stunzas (1969) (good luck doing that) and then go dig up David and Other Poems (1942). Begin there. Or, I suppose, begin here with One Muddy Hand, Earle Birney’s selected poems, edited by Sam Solecki. In this reincarnation of Ghost in the Wheels, Birney’s 1977 self-chosen selected poems, Solecki has slightly compressed the selection and drawn from three other McClelland & Stewart collections of Birney’s poetry, including Last Makings (1991). Birney’s original preface from Ghosts recurs here too. Beyond a handful of earlier poems well worthy of inclusion, the main addition to this selection is drawn from a series of love poems written for Wailan Low. Low, Birney’s literary executor, provides the biography for the volume as well. Solecki’s choice results in a sense of the later Birney’s writing, and I agree with Solecki that there is a distinct style that emerges in this series, a frank intimacy, that does provide insight into Birney. And yet, I wish more attention was given to Birney’s concerted experimentation with visual poetry prior to 1970; he is one of the first Canadian poets to produce and write about concrete poetry, and his work with bill bissett and bpNichol strikes me as fundamentally important. To his credit, Solecki retains a few poems like “Epidaurus” (1963), “To Swindon from London by Britrail Aloud / Bagatelle,” and “Window Seat” (1969). But he removes other visual poems that Birney had included in Ghosts.
Solecki has also included about 15 pages of Birney’s prose writing, from The Cow Jumped over the Moon (1972) and The Creative Writer (1966). With their focus on “David,” these will be of use to teachers, and they invite more exploration.
The collected poems of a writer like Birney are notable for how they reflect more than half a century of Canadian writing. Here are four glimpses of Canada:
1. “Standing bare-assed in the arctic winds” (dressed in a Mountie uniform, pants slipped) in 1985
2. In 1973, “Hung up on rye and nicotine,” “Inside his plastic igloo now / he watches gooks and yankees bleed / in colour on the telly”
3. Back in 1945: “Parents unmarried and living abroad.”
4. Earlier, one might say the poetic childhood chaperoned by F. R. Scott, “only / silence where the banded logs lie down / to die” in “North of Superior.”
For those unfamiliar with Birney, Solecki’s balance between respecting Birney’s own selection of his work and somewhat extending it makes One Muddy Hand a useful introduction. For vintage readers, this volume is a timely reminder of Birney. It doesn’t contribute much new to our sense of the poet. But it’s important to see him back in print.
- On Life, Love and Cats by Heather Sanderson
Books reviewed: White Madness by Alden A. Nowlan and Selected Poems by Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, and Alden A. Nowlan
- Uncomfortable Angels by Daniel Burgoyne
Books reviewed: &: A Serial Poem by Daryl Hine, Downriver: Poems with a prose memoir and a story by M.T. Kelly, and Patient Frame by Steven Heighton
- Quêtes by Emmanuel Bouchard
Books reviewed: Epiphany, Arizona by Pierre Barrette, La lenteur du monde by Michel Pleau, and Les Yeux sur moi by Martin Thibault
- New Canadian Anthologies by Alexis Kienlen
Books reviewed: Half in the Sun: Anthology of Mennonite Writing by Elsie Neufeld, New American Writing 23 by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover, and The Journey Prize Stories 18 by Steven Galloway, Zsuzsi Gartner, and Annabel Lyon
- Vocations: First Nations Voices by Madelaine Jacobs
Books reviewed: she walks for days inside a thousand eyes: a two-spirit story by Sharron Proulx-Turner, Skin Like Mine by Garry Gottfriedson, and The Lil'wat World of Charlie Mack by Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy
MLA: Burgoyne, Daniel. By Our Lack of Ghosts. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 104 - 105)
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