Flights of Verse
- Anne Carson (Author)
Autobiography of Red. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Frank M. Tierney (Editor) and Angela Robbeson (Editor)
Bolder Flights: Essays on the Canadian Long Poem. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Ian Rae
Bolder Flights represents the latest contribution to an ongoing critical enterprise that articulates why, as Michael Ondaatje stated thirty years ago, "the most interesting writing being done by poets today can be found within the structure of the long poem" (The Long Poem Anthology). Editors Frank Tierney and Angela Robbeson follow a strain of critical thought through Dorothy Livesay, Michael Ondaatje and others that sees "the long poem as distinctively Canadian in its documentary aspects, often serving a topographical and memorial function." While the notion of a "distinctly Canadian" genre is disputed by one contributor (Margot Kaminski) and has been the target of parody from long poem writers such as George Bowering (in The New Long Poem Anthology), Bolder Flights nonetheless addresses a range of issues pertinent to the study of the long poem in Canada.
If there are any doubts about the omnipresence of the long poem in Canadian literature, D.M.R. Bentley dispels them in "Colonial Colonizing." Bentley ’s introductory survey begins with "Now Reader Read... ", the "Jonsonian verse epistle in which Henry Kelsey recounts his journey in 1690-91 from York Factory (Churchill) to the Canadian plains" and argues that the oscillation between lyric and epic features in Kelsey’s verse typifies a concern for balancing personal and communal expression that extends across three centuries of writing. While Bentley is necessarily cursory, the temporal range of his survey and the 128 works cited in his 17-page essay set an impressive standard for critics wishing to make comprehensive claims about the long poem in Canada.
As the collection shirts to more focused inquiries, however, the boldness of Bolder Flights comes into question. Already in the preface, the editors cast doubt in this direction when they state that their collection "extends and revises previous analyses by the leading scholars in the field." If this collection is radical, it is radical only in the sense that Charlene Diehl- Jones employs the term in her essay on "Fred Wah and the Radical Long Poem": "Radical: from the Latin, pertaining to the root."
In fact, many of the essays aim to check overbold assertions—such as the "unmappability" of the long poem—in Smaro Kamboureli’s On the Edge of Genre. Sandra Djwa challenges Kamboureli’s dismissal of E.J. Pratt in an insightful essay that is, none the less, firmly grounded in a defence of early modernism. Similarly, Gwendolyn Guth re-assesses the picture of Pratt as "a bard banished to a poetic point of no return, with his clutch of unfashionable poems" by favourably comparing Pratt’s Brébeuf and His Brethren to Eldon Garnet’s 1977 A Martyrdom of Jean De. Further contributions include Stephen Scobie on definitions of the long poem, arguing for the inclusion of Bronwen Wallace as a "short long poem" writer. In a more poststructural vein, essays on Fred Wah, David Arnason, Kristjana Gunnars and Dennis Cooley focus on the long poem among Prairie writers.
Carson’s novel in verse, Autobiography of Red, creatively engages with the Greek lyric tradition. A classics scholar, Carson has elsewhere cast new light on the works of Sappho, Mimnermos and Simonides of Keos, to name a few. This time she brings her talents to bear on the work of Stesichoros, most ’"Homeric of the lyric poets,’ according to Longinus." Carson revisits Stesichoros’s Geryoneis, the fragments of which relate the story of Geryon, "a strange winged red monster" who dies protecting his mythical herd of red cattle from the covetous Herakles. In her proem, Carson writes that "the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat." Carson creates an analogous mix by adding a palinode, a mock interview, testimonia and translated fragments, to her core romance-in-verse, "Autobiography of Red."
The romance at the heart of the roman recasts the Geryon myth as a contemporary homosexual love affair. In Carson’s retelling, Geryon, not Herakles, provides the narrative focus. Plagued by shyness and acute sensitivity, Geryon resembles other artists-as-young-men except for a unique attribute: Geryon has wings. The wings play a largely metaphorical role until the story’s conclusion. For the most part they symbolize Geryon’s alterity, a difference he feels painfully when he meets and falls in love with Herakles. Not surprisingly, Herakles has his way with Geryon and then leaves him. At this point the narrative faintly echoes the "erotic sufferings" of ancient Greek romance. The echoes grow stronger as the Geryon-Herakles romance turns into a love triangle, a contest to which the winged monster is ill-suited. Geryon yearns for the soaring heights of love, but he achieves those heights only through art.
As befits the contemporary long poem, Carson combines poetry and narrative with references to visual media. The poet converts fragments of lost texts into "photographs" through the studied refinement and clarity of her lyrics. Yet Geryon begins his autobiography as a sculpture, a medium that underscores both Carson’s sensitivity to classical form and her metafictive play fulness. As subtle fissures in the story widen and Gertrude Stein resurfaces from the proem to answer questions on Stesichoros in the final interview, one looks at the interviewing "I" and asks, "Autobiography of Whom?"
- Body, Mind, and Spirit by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: What My Body Knows by Lynda Monahan, The Dwelling of Weather by Hilary Clark, and At the Mercy Seat by Susan McCaslin
- Daughters, Fathers and Other Fauna by Sonnet L'Abbé
Books reviewed: Cleaving by Florence Treadwell, Paper Moon by M. E. Csamer, Bonding with Gravity by Colleen Flood, The Weight of Flames by Bernadette Rule, and The Parable Boat by Hannah Main-van der Kamp
- Vies précaires by Mariloue Sainte-Marie
Books reviewed: Les espions de Dieu by André Roy, Le Livre Des Absents by Hugues Corriveau, and Agonie d'André Breton by Jean Yves Collette
- First and Last by Alison Calder
Books reviewed: Out to Dry in Cape Breton by Anita Lahey and When Earth Leaps Up by Mark Abley and Anne Szumigalski
- Poésie et pauvreté by Antoine Boisclair
Books reviewed: L'échelle de l'olivier by Jocelyne Felx, Les Abattoirs de la grâce by Fernand Durepos, and Comment serrer la main de ce mort-là by Francois Hebert
MLA: Rae, Ian. Flights of Verse. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #169 (Summer 2001), (Blais, Laurence, Birdsell, Munro, Jacob, Chen). (pg. 185 - 187)
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