- Clint Burnham (Author)
Be Labour Reading. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Nelson Ball (Author)
The Concrete Air. Mercury Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Michael Holmes (Editor)
The Last Word: An Insomniac Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Poetry. Insomniac Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Stephen Ross
Clint Burnham’s recent volume, Be Labour Reading, represents an approach to language of Joycean playfulness; reading it is much like watching television when someone else has the remote. Drawing heavily on what he calls the "homolinguistic similarity" between words, Burnham juxtaposes images and phrases with the apparent carelessness of casual media surfing. Read the
poems more than once, though, and the comparative richness of Burnham’s pairings and oppositions becomes apparent.
Rather than simply reproducing the randomness and thoughtlessness of channel surfing (or even of watching one channel continuously for that matter),Burnham manages both to capture and to give significance to the leveling of the tragic and the ridiculous that characterises much of the media- and information-glutted culture in which we live. Burnham’s conception of "homolinguistic similarity" is underwritten by a sensitivity to the semantic richness of ordinary words that lends an added dimension to his poems each time they are read.
A prime example of Burnham’s use of this technique occurs in the opening poem, "Gorde Hunter":
b.u.m. equipment, coke, 3-in-1 oil
cancer of the mouth
three born premature
serial killer, pension, it’s a wonderful life
In this excerpt the sense of watching someone channel-surf through our culture takes on the sinister suggestion of a haunting discrepancy. With the speed of a cable internet connection Burnham takes us from the sanitized world of Wal-Mart product shelves to the often frightening realities of medical treatment and the "universal" healthcare system. Then, just when we begin to get our bearings, he rockets us into a surreal telescape where serial killers, pension plans, and snippets of Hollywood nostalgia are punctuated (though only parenthetically) by the "realities" of a Third World. At their best, Burnham’s poems are lucid definitions and ironic critiques of our simulacral culture.
Burnham does not stop at thematic exploration of these issues, though; he also consistently deploys a variety of narrative and structural techniques to enhance his thematic exploration. Among the most noticeable of these is his use of unclosed parentheses and subjectless or objectless verbs, to convey a sense of unfinished thoughts; they are the poetic transcriptions of cultural attention deficit disorder. Add to these techniques the apparently aimless progression of images and themes that shift in mid-stride and you get a powerful commentary on the consequences and dangers of an obsessive media culture (the separation of the subject from its verbs often feels violent and jarring in a manner that suggests more than a simple analogic relationship between linguistics and ontology). By forcing us to scrutinize language and the ways in which it is used, the poems in Be Labour Reading draw our attention to the underlying messages emitted by the exoskeletal structure of language.
In contrast to Burnham’s political and difficult approach, Nelson Ball’s The Concrete Air is made up of a selection of epigrammatic poems, the central theme of which is the "uneasy fit" between human culture and the natural world. Drawing effectively on techniques of concrete poetry, Ball insists on the symbiotic interrelationship between words and worlds, revealing the closeness with which language can be made to resemble that which it represents. In poems like "Raindrops" and "Paris," Ball consciously combines form and content to enhance the significance and effect of each; "An Exercise" actually leaves the reader breathless without feeling inconsistent or jerky:
The repetition of "rapid" works with the positioning of the words on the page to convey a sense of flow that occurs in fits and starts; that the poem looks like a series of rapids only adds to the overall effect, connected as it is to the larger theme of the interconnection between humans and nature, language and reality, words and worlds. The companion pieces "Invocation to the Muse" and "Intent" demonstrate the centrality of this theme to Ball’s artistic project as they declare the experimental and ambitious nature of his attempt to strip down language, to make it communicate more than it says by drawing on all its formal features in addition to its discernible content. Ball also acknowledges the potential for conflict between his artistic ambition and his other great theme, the need to move "toward / a restoration of balance," as in "Conflict of Interest":
We fell trees
to feed the pulp and paper mills
then write poems on paper
Ball produces a series of variations on this theme, in some cases narrowing in on the kind of intimate interrelationship we have with the world around us, as in "Clouds": "I breathe in very deeply. / Did that cloud move closer? / Have I inhaled a cloud I didn’t see?" The sense of the overwhelmingly intricate and complexly ordered natural world with which we interact even at our most unconscious is further complicated by the speaker’s fear that he has unwittingly done something that may damage the natural world around him, a fear which in turn gives rise to the concern that any such witless destruction as the inhalation of a cloud may hurt him just as much: "Would that hurt it or me?"
Yet Ball is not simply concerned with the microcosmic effects of our interaction with the natural world around us; the poems in The Concrete Air do not constitute a self-serving lyrical contemplation of the individual’s importance in, and effect on, the cosmos. Rather, in poems like "Accidents," he broadens the scope of his considerations to the point where human agency and understanding are seen as mere components in a system infinitely beyond our comprehension:
There are no accidents
in this world
we simply don’t
The anxiety over unwitting destruction of nature evidenced in "Clouds" is answered with the declaration that our failure to understand fully the workings of the cosmos is not to say that those workings are random; human pride in reason and technology is taken down a peg, and we are reminded that we are part of the overall system despite all our attempts to examine it as if from without. The closeness and dialectical interrelationship between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic elements of human existence in the universe are clearest though near the collection’s end, in two poems that treat with similar gravity the deaths of a common fly and of 100 people in a plane crash ("The Fly" and "Flight 607, Montreal to Toronto, July 5, 1970). The positioning of these poems within a couple of pages of each other invites comparison and provides a glimpse into the breadth and sensitivity of Ball’s vision.
The Last Word: An Insomniac Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Poetry, edited (with considerably more bravado than necessary) by Michael Holmes, provides a strikingly eclectic contrast to the volumes by Bell and Burnham. This collection of new work by lesser-known poets lives up to its stated aim to "represent the best of the wide range—in terms of style, thematic concern, political and theoretical intent, and voice—of poetry currently being written in Canada." It is a wild and eclectic sampling of a tremendous variety of poetic techniques and concerns that, though it certainly cannot (nor does it attempt to) satisfy every reader all the time, manages to speak to just about every conceivable poetic preference at one time or another.
From Sonja Mills’s no-holds-barred "My First S+M Experience" to Robyn Cakebread’s quietly powerful "Now I’m Burned" and Ahdri Zhina Mandiela’s startling "Dark Diaspora," this collection celebrates newly liberated voices without ignoring more traditional poets.
Unfortunately, the attempts of some of the poets to write about that which they truly know best, the writing process itself, at times slip into self-indulgent self-characterisation, as with Neil Eustache’s "or class and race"; however, it must be said that Matthew Remski’s meditation on language, "The Pipe Organ" demonstrates the range of talent represented in the volume by undertaking a similar theme with much more subtlety and flair. The focus of many of the poets on language itself is balanced by such political works as Michael Turner’s "Orientation #6: The Iron Chink" and Steven Heighton’s "The Machine Gunner."
Mixing the innovative concrete poetry of DamiÃ¡n Lopes (who turns "do not readjust your set" into "do not just read your set") and the defamiliarizing techniques of language poet W. Mark Sutherland, with the lyrical "Lily Marlene" by Sina Queyras and the lightly ironic "She Evaporates with Drops of Water Flung from her Hair" by Louise Fox, this collection ultimately delivers on its promise to put on display a range of new poetic talent, much of which will figure importantly in Canada’s literary landscape.
- East-West Imagination by Roseanna L. Dufault
Books reviewed: Unexpected Affinities: Reading across Cultures by Zhang Longxi
- The Daring Wager by Linda Quirk
Books reviewed: Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women's Poetry by Di Brandt and Barbara Godard and My Beloved Wager: Essays from a Writing Practice by Smaro Kamboureli and Erín Moure
- Façonnages et refaçonnages by Patricia Godbout
Books reviewed: L'armée de terre cuite by Gary Geddes and Nisan by John Mikhail Asfour
- Through This Glass Eye by Diane Stiles
Books reviewed: P.K. Page: A Special Issue by Jay Ruzesky
- Attending to Tensions by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: At the Edge of the Frog Pond by Nelson Ball, Go Leaving Strange by Patrick Lane, and Haunted Hills & Hanging Valleys: Selected Poems 1969-2004 by Peter Trower
MLA: Ross, Stephen. Culture Surfing. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999), On Thomas King. (pg. 175 - 178)
***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.