- John O'Neill (Author)
Criminal Mountains. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Stephen Bett (Author)
High-maintenance. Ekstasis Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Evan Jones (Author)
Nothing Fell Today but Rain. Fitzhenry & Whiteside (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Chris Jennings
In each of these very different books, influences or (O invidious suggestion!) ‘schools’ ground the idiom and sense of poetic form, marking the poems without necessarily individuating them. That distinction depends more on the energy they bring to their inherited methods.
Stephen Bett cultivates a rebel’s persona. His fractious and sarcastic idiom seems to call for free forms. Syntax accelerates, and euphemisms and paragrammatic substitutions indicate likely targets – surfing the web becomes “vapid transit / E-Zee one-stop ‘thought-shrinkage,’” for example, in “News From the Frontal Lobe II.” Poems spiral from this kind of observation through implications and afterthoughts. They work largely because the familiar poetic cues the blend of pop-culture and politics in the subject matter. Bett follows the cues; the book is what it is. Some tautologies are unfairly maligned.
The benefits of a familiar mode vanish when the poems are too familiar, like “21st C. E-/Voice Mail Excuses for Missing Class,” which never escapes the shadow of Tom Wayman’s widely anthologized “Did I Miss Anything?”. The outsider edge dulls against several poems that rail against bureaucratic, culturally-sensitive terminology, and the found-language humour of bumper stickers and ‘Pornstar’ shirts falls increasingly flat over eighty pages. His riffs usually work as comedy, but the comedy lacks the backside insight Bett’s rebel stance and poetic promise.
John O’Neill’s poetic language is less frenetic than Bett’s, less stylized than Jones’s. Narrative holds the book together far more than the (very) free lines. Several poems refer to a larger narrative behind the discrete moments O’Neill chooses to record, including the final poem “Outside,” which links back to the opening “Patricia Poems.” In fact, when Jones switches modes and amplifies his imagery or strings together a series of descriptive clauses, the poems become self-conscious, hiding the simpler strengths of O’Neill’s story-telling.
Not that a good narrative poem is simple. The best example from O’Neill of how much a good poet can do with narrative is “Selected Bear Attacks.” The bears are naïve, natural, but the poems are about their more complicated and culpable victims. O’Neill sketches out a few details of their lives, a few thoughts before, during, and after the attack, and creates textured character pieces out of trauma. The strength of “Selected Bear Attacks” is diffused in “Funeral Diary” by scale and by the first-person, but the attention to suggestive detail is striking there too. O’Neill is most poetic when unabashedly prosaic.
Evan Jones alternates between sharply juxtaposed, axiomatic lines and surreal dreamscapes that suspend both logic and syntax. In the first case, the poems shift quickly between observation and intimate confession, implying various cause and effect connections that are never fully confirmed and so seem like the result of emotion on perception rather than vice versa. The effect is dramatic; Jones’ personae perform for an audience rather than turn inward on themselves (Eliot’s second voice of poetry, if anyone still cares). These poems appear to be free with frailty and, paradoxically, exhibitionist with their authority over anecdotes and arcane facts. Anne Carson hovers, particularly over the “Oneiropoems” (similar in many ways to Short Talks), “A Poetics of Highways,” and “Open Guidebook.” A.F. Moritz (whom Jones acknowledges) seems more distant in the surreal poems, but still present.
This strange blend makes sense because both modes depend on the logic of perception to recombine their world. Both draw energy from the poet’s ability to recreate the internal state of a perceiver by projecting that state in images of a world and then matching the idiosyncrasy of the perception in the density or diffusion of the language. Both are hard to do well without sounding conspicuously like established models (Carson, Moritz, etc.). Jones manages it in part because he moves between the two modes (and a third – translations of Andréas Embiricos), adding another dimension of juxtaposition. His success made the book, the most energetic of these three, a contender for the 2003 Governor General’s Award.
- Porter le deuil by Luc Bonenfant
Books reviewed: Si tu allais quelque part by Paul Chanel Malenfant, N'y allez pas by Jacques Ouellet, and Poèmes de veille by Jean Royer
- Deixis / Dreams by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: A Suit of Light by Sheila Fischman and Anne Hebert, Installations (with and without pronouns) by Nicole Brossard, Robert Majzels, and Erin Mouré, and She Would Be the First Sentence of My Next Novel / Elle serait la première phrase de mon prochain roman by Nicole Brossard and Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood
- Crystal Methods by Ian Rae
Books reviewed: Crystallography by Christian Bök, Dummy Spit by Mark Laba, and Hammertown by Peter Culley
- Blissful, Messy, Impermanence by Sonnet L'Abbé
Books reviewed: moving to the clear by Jason Dewinetz, Shadowcrossing by Lea Harper, Full Magpie Dodge by Lyle Neff, and The Well: New and Selected Poems by Kenneth Sherman
- Compelling Spells by Lally Grauer
Books reviewed: The Quality of Light by Richard Wagamese and Love Medicine and One Song by Gregory Scofield
MLA: Jennings, Chris. Inherited Methods. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #187 (Winter 2005), Littérature francophone hors-Québec / Francophone Writing Outside Quebec. (pg. 105 - 107)
***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.