Earth Enough and Time
- Eric Ormsby (Author)
Facsimiles of Time: Essays on Poetry and Translation. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- P. K. Page (Author)
Planet Earth: Poems Selected and New. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Kevin McNeilly
Planet Earth, Eric Ormsby’s selection of Page’s poems nominated for the 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize, pays tribute to her restless and uneven genius, as it draws out a dominant formal and thematic tendency that has also shaped Ormsby’s own writing for more than a decade now: the challenge of keeping time. "Page’s gift," he enthuses in his brief foreword, "has always been too protean, too mercurial, for the coarse mesh of our categories." Her words will not let themselves be kept or contained, either by an editor’s formal arrangement or, even as single poems, by the fictions of their own structural integrity. Perusing this selection, I found Page returning to the difficulty of being in time, as she describes the gently shocked recognitions of a mind unable to stabilize itself in neatly turned lines a self always excessive, living on beyond the finite capacity of a cluster of subjects and verbs to say what they might mean.
Intentionality, the pull of a consciousness trying to come to terms with its sensed exterior, emerges as the key concern throughout Page’s work, as she coaxes a voice toward reflexive side stepping: "I think, I talk, I walk, I this, I that" ("Alphabetical"). The repetitive firmness of an end stopped iambic pentameter such as this one is diffused by the slurry runons, by the pronominal vagueness ("this" or "that") gradually supplanting the Cartesian fixity of the first foot as we move from thought to language to action to nothing in particular and by the unstressed position of the subject trying to assert itself. Time draws her on, despite her efforts to hold fast with metrical pattern; her finest poems, like "Stories of Snow," often shift between clockwork time and a fluid inconstancy. This tensioned subject emerges in the final line of her "Address at Simon Fraser," as Page makes her valediction hover, while she reworks Rainer Maria Rilke, between affirmation and imperative: "Art and the planet tell us. Change your life." Her uncertain syntax is more than technical cuteness; the world and its representations, Page asserts, have the capacity to change your life, even as they also tell us to change. Perlocutions such as this push listeners and interlocutors beyond themselves, beyond what gets said, toward an active and lived relation with planet earth. Her poetry finds trajectory and rhythm, a temporal relation, in this unrelenting gesture outward.
Ormsby arranges the poems neither chronologically nor thematically, but in seven sets that appear designed to produce resonances and cross fertilizations. If Page understands her voice not as "single" but more "a crowded room," then the seven movements of this suite draw out pluralities in her work, but also show how intimately interlinked those diversities are; diversion, from a Latin root meaning to turn apart or to differ, is exactly what Page’s poems delight in. There are a few failures, and Page occasionally lapses into a grating, overwrought prettiness, but this selection is the record of effort and process, and the failures ought to stand. These misfires are offset, anyway, by a preponderance of masterpieces, from "Arras" to "The Permanent Tourists," poems that never fail to astonish and nourish. Their gift to us, however, is not self satisfaction but an unflinching eye and ear for the lovely dehiscence of language.
Ormsby frames his selection with two poems: Page’s fine glosa on Neruda, "Planet Earth," and "Journey." The latter presents more of a non conclusion, as it voices a surreal and lyrical exhortation never to "resist the going train of the dream"; what sounds like an oblique manifesto against rigidity, calling for a deliberate release of imagination into the improvised happenstance of dreams, turns into a set of modified Sapphics, affirming the stability of line and stanza even as, in subtle skews and shifts, it unknits the syllable-counted regularity of the ancient forms. Page’s verse finds its moment by locking into tempo exactly in the flirtatious dismantling of time itself: "Oh, do not lag behind the syringe of whistle / douching your ears; on spongy fingers / number the revs, per min. / They are your tempo." The controlled fall in the cadence of this last line arrives by successive rhythmic trimming signaled, for instance, in the gentle arrest of the incomplete abbreviations (shouldn’t that be r.p.m.?), which briefly puzzle both eye and ear as to how to say them, whether to expand or contract, to unpack or to distill as the stanza collapses downward. If Page can claim to refuse the verbal lag built into such dysfunctional particles as "oh" and to arrive at a stable "number" in her lines, her poetry still consists primarily in the fine sponginess, between lag and coincidence, a supple dissonance that gives her words their unmistakable push. Page’s call to "[c]hange your life" echoes W. B. Yeats’s late imperative to sustain the vital work of poetic revision, the fracturing and shaping of words as they butt against his unruly existence: "Myself I must remake." Her poems enact this recurrent catch-and-release of a mind searching out world enough and time.
The essays and autobiography gathered in Ormsby’s Facsimiles of Time represent a specific preoccupation with temporality and form in literature, frequently signaled by terms like "discipline," "shape and order," and "formal dexterity." In extended reviews of David Solway, Geoffrey Hill, Pat Lowther, and Roo Borson, in reassessments of Hart Crane, Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and Eugenio Montale, and in a pair of essays on Arabic poetry, Ormsby pleads for a renewed formalism, worrying over the amorphousness of the confessional and the given. "Happenstance," he notes, deriding Borson’s looseness, "does have its magic, but it is an incomplete enchantment"; "we wish the poet would resist her own impulses more, would oppose form and pattern to happenstance, would not merely succumb to the inconsequential pulses of her own indiscriminate inspiration." He complains about "the gassy pontifications of literary theorists which inevitably, and by design, distance us from the original texts themselves." While such backhanded polemics appear to sow dissent where none really exists pontificating is hardly limited to • unnamed "literary theorists" and to produce naive mystifications of "original texts," Ormsby’s thought is really more acute than such careless claims initially suggest.
His readings evince the tensioning found in the best of Page; he discovers in Hill’s The Triumph of Love a "wrangling" of "raw feeling" and "polished erudition," informing a voice that manages with Page-like contrariety "to falter so expertly." Offering a critical vocabulary of alterity, he notes in Robert Musil’s diaries the "strange melange of vehement emotion coupled with dry scientific curiosity," while he claims that the "rhythm of Borges’ language, even more in the prose than in the poetry, is I do not know how else to put this at once arid and incantatory." His self deprecating aside is not fawning formality, but figures genuine scepticism over his preoccupation with discipline, as the collection’s closing memoir makes overt, when he falls back on confession to describe how his domineering grandmother reared him on quotations from Shakespeare: "I disliked and mistrusted the way my grandmother reduced everything she saw to some sort of poetic form; disliked and mistrusted it, even while I myself possessed and nourished the same instincts as she." Such contradictions, often despite Ormsby himself, are not overcome in poetry, but instead constitute its essential value.
This emphasis on process pervades his most compelling essay, a review of the Cornell variorum edition of Yeats’s Last Poems. Ormsby wants to "demonstrate with exactitude just what we can ascertain about the literal writing of poems," and to describe the "incipient music" of Yeats’s best work, the poems’ reflexive coming into being in the "weight and cadence" of language. Ormsby’s fine ear picks up "raw impulse grappling with disciplined expression" in Yeats’s lines, as "what was inchoate before slowly assumes shape." Such a reading points not to elegant geometries or to cognitive closure, but to the discovery of what Yeats called harmony in struggle, the resurgent wrangling between the lived and the made that gives poetry its heft. Sadly, Ormsby seems unwilling to pursue with "exactitude" the formal and ethical consequences of his reading, and retreats into a neatness that belies critical rigour: "To understand a poem means first and foremost to come as close as is possible to a grasp of its complete configuration as a physical pattern in which sound, sense and objective reality seamlessly coincide." Yeats’s late poetry, if it accomplishes anything, undoes and reknits those seams; it consists in inconsistency and incompletion, as reshaping rather than shape, a stylistic fact that has profound implications for how one approaches the other and the worldly through language. It’s too bad, really, that Ormsby drops the ball, because his work is so rich, I think; to have such focused attention paid to the "pulse beats" of words is for me a rare pleasure among critics. Ormsby claims not to be "a teacher of poetry," but poetry is inflected for him by an essential pedagogy, a crucial form of listening that can, as he says in his opening foray into "Poetry as Isotope: The Hidden Life of Words," "lay bare" an "affinity between things" as it discloses "a congruence between words." While such correspondences may become a bit lapidary as he works through his material, Ormsby’s writing nevertheless points, sometimes despite itself, toward a vitality he calls the "shimmering motility" of poems.
- Rambunctions by Laurie Ricou
Books reviewed: Cavatinas for Long Nights by Jim Christy, Water Stair by John Pass, There are Many Ways: Poems New and Selected by Peter Trower, and Sidewalks & Sidehills by Peter Trower
- That Tyrant, I by Rick Gooding
Books reviewed: Tacoma Narrows by Mitchell Parry, The Village of Sliding Time by David Zieroth, and Then Again: Something of a Life by Iain Higgins
- Verse in the Bush by Warren Stevenson
Books reviewed: Jean Baptiste: A Poetic Olio, in II Cantos by Levi Adams and Tracy Ware and Poetry by John Strachan by Wanda Campbell and John Strachan
- Subversion by Sound by Chris Jennings
Books reviewed: Electra by Anne Carson and Sophocles
- Contemporary Sensibilities by Eric Trethewey
Books reviewed: A Dream of Sulphur by Aurian Haller, With Averted Vision by Hannah Main-van der Kamp, Blue by George Elliott Clarke, and The Asparagus Feast by S. P. Zitner
MLA: McNeilly, Kevin. Earth Enough and Time. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 168 - 170)
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