- David Zieroth (Author)
Crows Do Not Have Retirement. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jon Whyte (Author)
Mind Over Mountains: Selected and Collected Poems. Red Deer Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Martin Gray (Author)
Modigliani. Ekstasis Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- John Livingstone Clark (Author)
Stream Under Flight. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Adam Dickinson
Despite divergent stylistic and imaginative points of departure, these four highly accomplished books of poetry interrogate the mental and physical landscapes of being at home with oneself and at home in the world. Whether it is poems written from a shack on the prairies, a meditation on the omnipresence of a ravine in a neighbourhood, a historical, polyphonic long poem about the Rockies, or an epic poem on the life of a modernist painter, the question of representing place—be geographical, mental, or corporeal—is addressed in ways that attend to the shapes and spirits that we find ourselves at home amongst. What part do we play in the creation of where we live? These four books offer rewarding ruminations upon this question.
Stream Under Flight, by John Livingstone Clark, is a kind of pointillist journal in the form of sectioned prose poems that catalogue time spent on the prairie "alone," as the author notes, "for the first time in over fifteen years." What emerges is a personal land ethic centred on an aesthetic engagement with the landscape. "Seeing is all that really matters," the speaker of these poems claims. At the limits of sight, however, at the limits of description, one arrives at silence, "that great begetter of mysteries, of demigods, inquiries, postulations, anxieties, and rebirths," Clark writes in his "Epilogue." It is these circumstances that provide the meditative space necessary for a humble attention to the landscape and to living: "let silence bring us back to zero, in that shadow of desire something new comes to mind." If at the limits of description and words there is silence, then at the limits of use and value there is what we sometimes hastily take to be garbage. One of the most interesting concerns of this book is Clark’s recurrent fascination with a former garbage mound that has been converted into a ski hill. This composite of detritus is at once an eyesore, "ripe like a pimple on the fair skinned prairie," and also a gathering place of much redeeming natural detail:
but willow and aspen skirt the lake at its feet, graceful, slender through all the seasons, and trout, pickerel, whitefish, jack: they brighten twilight with sleek silver backs, the thought of fish is much on your mind, as clouds with cowls peer through windows, they murmur "empty hands, drop your fists." receive in silence what can be given.
The well-textured language and keen imaginative topography of these poems underscore the attention to detail that is required in order to be open to the offerings of quietude. One has the sense when reading that rather than resisting the changes that befall a landscape and a person over time, what is required is a complimentary gesture, a "stream under flight"—a different way of living in the world that looks into the places of silence and finds, even among refuse, the gifts that affirm a home.
Like Stream Under Flight, Martin Gray’s Modigliani is a book-length poem with a similar emphasis on sight and seeing. The focus on "place" and "landscape" in these poems is in part on the urban intellectual environment of fin de siècle Paris, but it is, more concertedly, on the fascinating struggles of the artist himself to address the problems of representing the body. Gray constructs a highly engaging biography in lyric that resonates formally with its subject matter. These cantos, with their short lines and generally spare and clear diction, are shaped in a way that seems sympathetic to the artist’s fondness for elongated heads and sparse detail in his portraits. Moreover, there are occasional syntactic inversions and grammatical puzzles caused by selective use of punctuation: "This favoured view of his / he made a painting of / unfortunately lost / in one of many moves." These punctuated tensions make one aware of the sculpted quality of the language and the omnipresence of the pressures surrounding various attempts at form, both thematically and structurally. The poem puts Modigliani forward as a figure similarly tensioned and directed:
Selection is the key
so leave out everything
that does not have effect
making the picture real
but also fantasy
as we need both of these.
In recounting the details of Modigliani’s life, the cantos often hover in this part-real, part-fantastic realm of drugs, destitution and artistic devotion. The result is a map of a mind struggling to be at home in the world. There may be, as Modigliani claims in Canto cxxxii, "no charm in landscape"; however, Martin Gray’s epic poem is a finely balanced work of selectively tuned moments that offers a sensual, panoramic glimpse of a mind obsessed with human form.
David Zieroth’s sixth book of poetry, Crows Do Not Have Retirement, is full of poems sensitive at once to the physicality of their anecdotal circumstances and to the larger topological questions they provoke. Moving from events and places such as the childhood killing of animals, to encounters with ghosts, to the ravine in his neighbourhood, Zieroth demonstrates his skill at being able to unearth startling estrangements and affirmations in intimate and quotidian affairs. Many of these poems shift remarkably from concrete, innocuous settings to questions of belief, beauty and obligation: "Is my soul a cup of milk / that once taken / spreads into every capillary / giving me a personality / to fit Friday / or Monday with all its moods?" ("Question"). Similarly, the speaker observes in "The Gulf of Heaven" that "I have begun to believe / in the breast stroke and the butterfly stroke / because of their beautiful names / and because heaven must be / perfectly conjured and framed."
The book is divided into five sections with its middle section, "Ravine: I," consisting of three ambitious and well-crafted long poems that operate as poetic walking tours through the anxious, dream-ridden and spirited grounds of family life and neighbourhood. For all the anxiety and despair that is an important part of many of the poems in the collection, however, there is also a generous amount of humour and fun.
The imaginative leaps in Zieroth’s poems and the often musical measure of his lines transport one to the places and emotions he explores. However, the ontological questions that are continuously raised in poems such as "Sounds Like," remind us that "presence is enough / while we wait." The poems in this book, among Zieroth’s strongest work, are an excellent resting place.
The book that most sprawlingly employs all of the poetic strategies of personal land ethic, lyric biography, and poetic walking tour is Jon Whyte’s collection, Mind Over Mountains: Selected and Collected Poems. This is a smartly designed book and a worthy homage to an innovative and multi-talented Canadian poet. Editor Harry Vandervlist offers a helpful, unobtrusive introduction, providing a brief sketch of intellectual preoccupations that anticipate themes and devices central to Whyte’s poetics. In addition, the photography that is scattered throughout the book is stunning—mountain vistas and boreal wetlands thoroughly add to the physical and emotional settings of the writing.
The central concern of these poems, as the eloquent foreword by Myrna Kostash proposes, is a commitment "to the challenge of recreating homeplace as a literary subject." Whyte is profoundly interested in the mind’s encounter with landscape. What this amounts to often for him is an encounter with the mechanics of metaphor. There is frequently an explicit attempt in these poems in the very form of their presentation to reconsider the manners and commonplace strategies of association and resemblance. One is often productively disoriented as a reader, forced to pick among the fells and scree of words spread over the page in order to follow the poem as it inhabits the prairies, barrens or mountains. A small portion of "Homage, Henry Kelsey" is a case in point:
Time vanishes in the flow of metaphor
Tone slows lean in richness
margin zone of grey disappearance
We are introduced to Whyte’s interest in concrete poetry, typography and spacing early on ("When the World was Five Years Old," "Poem in form of labyrinth"), which prepares us in part for his ambitious manoeuvres in the long poems "Homage, Henry Kelsey" and "The Fells of Brightness." The strength of these longer poems lies in the inventiveness with which Whyte combines voices from different historical periods creating something resembling a polyphonic fugue. In "The Fells of Brightness" these parallel voices unite momentarily, reinforcing "The transcendental function of a pass, / the whither which becomes a thither / in a moment but a scramble from crevasse / which dizzily we reach—a dither."
Whyte’s interest in exterior and interior landscapes, his interest in the structure of history and his devout attention to form and design share much in common with the works by Clark, Gray and Zieroth. This selected and collected edition of his work is a beautifully designed tribute to an artist who observed his home with an infectious lyrical scrutiny.
- The Questions Posed to Life by Death, A Canon for Three Voices by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: Things that Keep and Do Not Change by Susan Musgrave, What the Living Won't Let Go by Lorna Crozier, and Kaddish for My Father: New and Selected Poems 1970-1999 by Libby Scheier
- Culturally Bound Illness by Anna Cooper
Books reviewed: Gout: The Patrician Malady by Roy Porter and G.S. Rousseau, Illness and Culture in the Postmodern Age by David B. Morris, and Wishbone Dance by Glen Downie
- Breathing Lessons by Andre Furlani
Books reviewed: declining america by Rob Budde, Pause for Breath by Sarah Robyn, and Swim Class and Other Poems by George Whipple
- Serious and Frivolous by Bert Almon
Books reviewed: Anatomy of Keys by Steven Price, Writing the Tides: New and Selected Poems by Kevin Roberts, and Dominican Moon by Ken Norris
- Par-dèla la frontière by Anne-Marie Fortier
Books reviewed: Audioguide by Bertrand Laverdure, La leçon du silence by Nicole Richard, and Vigile by Jean Gagnon
MLA: Dickinson, Adam. Lyrical Scrutiny. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 129 - 131)
***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.