Fear of Doorknobs
- Susan McCaslin (Author)
A Plot of Light. Oolichan Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Susan Andrews Grace (Author)
Flesh, A Naked Dress. Hagios (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Olive Senior (Author)
over the roofs of the world. Insomniac Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Amanda Lamarche (Author)
The Clichéist. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Anne F. Walker
In over the roofs of the world, the poem “The Dance of the Cranes” appears in the section entitled “A little bird told me,” a section that largely narrates birds’ stories. Other sections include “Islanded” and “Penny Wheel,” and employ a variety of poetic structures. “The Dance of the Cranes” depicts a shift in what it can mean to narrate where story, architecture, and the body’s movements are overlapped:
Ancient Priestesses schooled
in dance notation
copied down the mating
dance of cranes to use as blueprints
so initiates might wind their way to ecstasy.
The idea of crane mating dance notation transferred into a maze is an evocative and unique vision of narration and its effect. The language of the last line weakens a potential effect of the piece, as does the logic that a mating dance for cranes would evoke ecstasy in a woman walking a structure built on that pattern. The poet’s reliance on shaky, or not thoroughly worked through, assumptions decreases the poem’s impact, as does the repeated reliance on abstract nouns such as “joy,” “ecstasy” and “magic.” I want joy, ecstasy, and magic in a poem, but not in the empty envelope that abstract nouns alone create. I want them specific and clear enough that I understand the feeling without indistinctness. I want distinction in poetry. This poem illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the collection as a whole, where the poet’s desire to narrate crucial impulses needs to be sculpted more carefully to integrate the impact of content with aesthetic expression.
I found more linguistic distinction in The Clichéist, for example, in the final poem, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth.” More on that in a moment. The Clichéist also uses the technique of a themed first section. The theme is fear, and the fears are unique, odd, and given tangible details which evoke clear sensations of unexpected directions. “Fear of Doorknobs” reads:
Say what you will
or when, or how
loud. The doorknob,
the hand to the glass
handle, the bowed latch
catching will always
be the last thing said
in the cold room.
Each line leads to the next through unexpected and yet fit links that switch sensibilities. The simple idea that the click of a latch makes a doorknob a fright-fest is unexpected. The language and flow of the poem is somewhat mimetic to that which it describes: circular, clear, movable and usable. The language in the final poem, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth,” also demonstrates some of the strong style present through the collection. “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth” starts out “she herself can never know so // she scouts // his yard.” The poem rolls forward using assonance and alliteration to link line to line, image to image, in a satisfying, grounded manner. It is a strong note on which to end.
Each section of Flesh, A Naked Dress begins with quotations that set the stage for the poetic exploration of the human condition. These sections—“Erasmus in the Kootenays,” “Joy of the Proper Tool,” “A Sometime Gravity—Thomas More,” “Flesh, A Naked Dress,” “Luther in the Desert,” and “An Event in the World”—explore and narrate philosophic viewpoints, often engaging with the ideas of Erasmus of Rotterdam, Thomas More, and Martin Luther. While these philosophies are important to the creative impulse of the collection, the sections more sensory or tactile in their orientation are stronger in their music. Section “15” in “Joy of the Proper Tool” connects abstracts into a concrete framework of sustained metaphor:
Lay out that intricately woven life,
its warp necessity, its weft circumstance:
is like that: relentless in the way it argues
unto death, undoes a white silk ribbon
unfurling its narrow good.
These lines integrate abstract ideals of life, good, and permeability in a kind of intellectual Möbius strip that resonates with lines such as at the beginning of “A Sometime Gravity—Thomas More”: “—What shifts under the rug is still under / the tightly woven wool of enclosures, poverty, excess / vanities swollen in the worst citizens.” When tangibilities are touched on, and are connected to ideas of what it means to be a social being, this poetry sounds an acute intellectual chime.
A Plot of Light works with highly contained structures as it explores through the sections “A Brevity of Visions,” “Transcultural Poetics,” “Contemplation in a world of busyness,” and “Main Street Elegies.” The collection uses couplets extensively and has a small suite of sonnets. Often where there are not couplets, there is a repeating first word or phrase through the poem. The impact of these highly visible structural techniques is to set a forerunning tone of formal control. When I see repetitions I think of bpNichol’s visions of repetition as a constant mutation. As Christmas gifts in 1991, Ellie Nichol sent out “Ad Sanctos,” from The Martyrology Book 9:
No path but the true path
should be taken. No road but the
holy road, the way. All other roads are
mistaken. When the true path is
taken, the way is clear, tho
the true path be not the near path
& the price be dear,
no path but the true path
should be taken. No road but
the holy road, the way. All other roads are
mistaken & when taken
lead to loneliness, lovelessness,
lead to emptiness, bitterness,
lead to nothingness, lead away.
Repetitions in A Plot of Light are more consistently frontloaded. “A Cylinder of Light” makes “like” the first and last point of reiteration:
Like a swirling tube of blue light
like a milk bath in the head
like suddenly being lighter
like being inside a pipe organ
like light improvising
like a gentle cooing of doves
like a natural hot spring
like resting in energy
like something else doing the work
like pulsations with pinions
Some of these images work more than others. A “gentle cooing of doves” is a difficult line to read in serious poetry. The concluding “like / like” without punctuation might be the strongest part of the poem, but only because of the weight of that which has come before. The flow of images suddenly absent, the suspension of two “like”s alone in their own stanza, the lack of end punctuation all form a lyric conclusion which is a pleasant mutation of the repetition. They simply enact the sentiment of the bpNichol lines “lead to nothingness, / lead away.” It is not that the poems are telling the same story; they are ending the stories with a letting go facilitated in the poetic structure by the repetitions previously used.
- Cross-cultural Exchanges by Roseanna L. Dufault
Books reviewed: Frida: Paint me as a Volcano/Frida: Un Volcan de Souffrance by Keith Garebian, Made in Auroville, India by Monique Patenaude, and Contes iraniens islamisés by Shodja Eddin Ziaïan
- Aesthetic Distances by R. W. Stedingh
Books reviewed: A Second Earth: Poems Selected and New by Harold Enrico, Collected Poems by Eldon Grier, and Tom Thomson and Other Poems by George Whipple
- Ivory Thoughts by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: The Last Canadian Poet: An Essay on Al Purdy by Sam Solecki
- What Poetry Does by Aaron Giovannone
Books reviewed: Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City by Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, Forage by Rita Wong, and Muybridge's Horse by Rob Winger
- Valuable Confessions by Stephen Cain
Books reviewed: Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer by bpNichol and Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer by Stuart Ross
MLA: Walker, Anne F. Fear of Doorknobs. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #193 (Summer 2007), Canada Reads. (pg. 131 - 133)
***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.