Going Beyond Prose
- Dan Jalowica (Author)
Newer Lies. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Betty Warrington-Kearsley (Author)
Red Lacquered Chopsticks. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- George Bowering (Author)
Vermeer's Light: Poems 1996-2006. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Douglas Barbour
Back at the beginning of the twentieth century, Ezra Pound demanded that poetry be written at least as well as prose; well, that’s the gist of “Don’t imagine that a thing will ‘go’ in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose.” It seems as strong an admonition now as it was then. He also said, quoting Eliot, ”No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” How soon we forget.
Betty Warrington-Kearsley has many stories to tell, especially of her extended Chinese family and its history, and some of them are fascinating. Indeed, the best pieces in Red Lacquered Chopsticks have to do with her grandmother, her parents, and her own early life in Singapore. These, at least, support Armand Garnet Ruffo’s comment that her poems “cross time and cultures” and express “a vision that draws from a tradition of storytelling.” Her poems are generally narrative, personal or journalistic; at their best these stories catch the reader’s imagination.
Too often, however, this reader can’t see why these pieces have been broken up to look like verse. They almost all move through standard sentence structure, and the line breaks make little rhythmic sense. In some there are occasional rhyming couplets and triplets, but these are seldom set in a continuing pattern from stanza to stanza. The poems tend toward clear sharp closure, often as if to close an argument. In the service of storytelling, this is fine, but I prefer a poetry that remains open, in process; too many of these pieces, especially those attempting to argue a case, as many based on headlines do, fall flat.
In the poems about her grandmother and her way of life and belief, Warrington-Kearsley achieves a power lacking elsewhere in this book; they at least tell fascinating stories. But on the whole, Red Lacquered Chopsticks lacks poetic force.
Newer Lies is Dan Jalowica’s third book of poetry, and it demonstrates Jalowica’s love of the epigram and the aphorism. He cuts his sentences and sententiae to the bone, playing with fragments throughout: ‘Summer. No music. / No touch-tone friendship. / No storm.’ What verbs he does use tend to be strong active ones. He only falls into the softer copula in some of the apparently more personal poems, where the lyric ‘I’ (or ‘we’) speaks.
What exactly are the ‘newer lies’ Jalowica parses and passes on in this series of small poems? They are most often the lies of progress, good government, technological assumptions, but often tied to the lies of the self that accepts or resists. This can lead to a hortatory tone, addressing a ‘you’ who might be someone within the poem or the reader. The tone tends to a certain sameness, but individual poems have a definite power:
I need your love. I need
to throw down roads
across these painkilling continents
with their soft illogical music,
their frightened animals,
their moody heartbeat not yet
my own. Not yet possessed.
Vermeer’s Light: Poems 1996-2006 offers up a large, generous, and varied selection from our first Poet Laureate. No one ever accused George Bowering of lacking chutzpah, and in Vermeer’s Light he happily ranges from the slightest joke to powerful elegiac works and a complex essay on poetics, ‘Rewriting My Grandfather,’ illustrated with a series of re-writings of one of his most famous poems. If some of the lighter poems seem throwaways, they still entertain, and many others offer up the riches of a lifelong pursuit of a wide open and demanding poetics that refuses to allow the writer any easy outs.
Bowering has long been fond of what he calls ‘baffles’ for his poem, those stringent little, made-up rules that force a writer away from the usual lyric egotism. This does not mean that powerful, and deeply personal, emotions don’t get into the poems, but it does help to stave off the kind of emotionalism or sentimentality that can creep into unthinking lyricism. Thus ‘A, You’re Adorable’ takes on a female author, Ellen Field, as well as working off each letter in turn. ‘Sitting in Vancouver’ specifies each site in which the poet looks outward to what can be reported from that spot. There’s a series of ‘sentence poems’ about other Canadian poets, in which the style attaches to some particular aspect of that poet. It’s worth noting that Bowering insists that his prose poems be as good as other prose, let alone his verse.
‘Imaginary Poems for AMB’ is the true elegy for Angela Bowering, and one of Bowering’s finest and subtlest works; the ‘imaginary’ in the title applies on many levels, all catching the sense of loss the poem seeks to assuage and knows it must fail to do.
I am surrounded by ghosts
here in this ghost world.
They are all alive
they say, you are looking good
I don’t tell them
I only want to be where
I can look at you, even
from a distance
if there is distance there
and that is not
what I want here.
But to suggest how life does continue, there are the first few poems of what Bowering promises will be an ongoing series for his new sweetheart. All in all, then, Vermeer’s Light offers just the kind of sense of poetic possibility that keeps a reader interested, intrigued, and off balance. Writing of all its anthology appearances and of the ways “Grandfather” has been interpreted, Bowering says, “But we are in a new century now, free to talk about how poems are written, rather than about what they are used for by their readers from time to time.” Which is why he puts his poem through new paces while explaining how it happened. With its wide range of poetic possibilities, and its insistence on composition as process, Vermeer’s Light is a delight.
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Books reviewed: We Are Here by P.K. Brask, Patrick Friesen, and Niels Hav, Notebook of Roses and Civilization by Nicole Brossard, Robert Majzels, and Erin Mouré, My Human Comedy by Gerald Hill, and Repose by Adam Getty
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Books reviewed: Mon temps d'éternité by Sylvie Maria Filion and Sous la lampe-tempête by Michèle Blanchet
- BC Lit in Extra Innings by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: The Fed Anthology by Susan Musgrave and Baseball: A Poem in the Magic Number 9 by Claude Boisvert
- Il y a des chemins... by Estelle Dansereau
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MLA: Barbour, Douglas. Going Beyond Prose. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 185 - 186)
***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.