Lyrics in Flight
- Ray Hsu (Author)
Anthropy. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jan Zwicky (Author)
Robinson's Crossing. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sue Sinclair (Author)
The Drunken Lovely Bird. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gillian Jerome
In Lyric Philosophy (1992), Jan Zwicky argues that philosophy must expand its self-definition beyond analysis if it is to be true to its own ideals; for Zwicky the poem is a means of making philosophy by lyric invention—“a flight from the condition of language.” In her book Wisdom & Metaphor (2003) she expands this idea of the poet as philosopher by speaking directly about the power of metaphor to enable poets to think “truly” because “their thinking echoes the shape of the world.” Sinclair, Zwicky, and Hsu are poets of philosophy who wrestle with the limitations of language and human history. Sinclair and Zwicky try to make lyric sense of the world by stopping and wondering at places of beauty and loss; the poems of Hsu and Zwicky reflect philosophical minds rigorously (and passionately) engaged with questions of history, although Hsu’s poetics are far more postmodern.
In Sue Sinclair’s third book of poetry, The Drunken Lovely Bird, the speaker meanders through urban landscapes, divining the everyday: white flowers fall like lost gloves and streetlights arch their long necks like waterbirds. Many of the poems explore solitude through short enjambed sentences saturated with metaphors. Many of the lines are remarkable for their ethereal resonance, as in the opening “Lilacs”:
For those who have lived
where lilacs bloom, who have lost
to idleness and wander through
doorway after doorway
when the lilac trees open their infinite
mauve rooms. For those
who give in and glide a little behind
their lives, a hand trailing
in the water
behind a rowboat.
The most resonant poems in my mind, “The Bather” and “June”, describe everyday subjects, namely an older woman wading into the ocean, and a group of young men playing basketball outside the poet’s window. The success of “The Bather” is achieved through exposition and spare, but inventive imagery:
She is not young and has no waist,
her bosom rests on the bulge
of her midriff. But the ocean barely notices her.
She slides into it like a slip,
though it’s more like undressing, a slip being removed.
The meditative poems in the book move slowly, their tone dolorous. At times Sinclair’s vision suffers from an existential despair that seems comical. In “Jellyfish” for instance, the sea creature is compared to an overweight, emotionally reticent man. In other poems, the accretion of grief doesn’t always culminate in a satisfying breakthrough; instead, characters are weakly represented, or the poem becomes another account of the poet and not the environment. However, there are great triumphs when the speaker comes to life in poems like “Refrigerator” by turning a wry eye on loneliness. Sinclair’s best poems offer paradox and wit to temper the pathos.
In Robinson’s Crossing, Jan Zwicky returns to her family homestead in Northern Alberta and in particular to Robinson’s Crossing, described as the place where the railway ends and European settlers, including her great-grandparents, had to cross the Pembina River and advance by wagon or on foot. Zwicky takes us to the liminal space of the frontier to reconsider the New World, the problems of Canada, and of philosophy, history and art, that dog us still after 500 years of colonialism: Who are we? Where are we? Why have we come here? And, in coming, what have we done?
These poems are finely tuned to the intricacies of space and language, with lines that play against themselves in varying pitch and tone. In the first poem of the book, “Prairie,” Zwicky articulates what Gaston Bachelard calls “a phenomenology of the soul” as she dwells in the intimacies of home. The first lines deliver a slow accretion of the details of encounter until the momentum turns on “sun,” and the pace of longing quickens, driven by the landscape and the body’s desire:
And then I walked out into that hayfield west of Brandon,
evening, late July, a long day in the car from Nipissing
and long days in the car before that; the sun
was red, the field a glow of pink, and the smell of the grasses
and alfalfa and the sleek dark scent of water nearby.
The speaker continues to describe her childhood memory of the “big hasp” that held the leaves of her farmhouse table together. Something as simple and familiar as a table’s hasp evokes the domestic geometry of childhood imagination, and so the hasp’s opening simulates an ontological shift in the speaker that resonates throughout the entire collection as a metaphor for nostalgia which we experience both as loss and revelation.
In “Robinson’s Crossing”, the centrifugal poem, Zwicky narrates the family legend of her great-grandparents arriving in Alberta from England, living in a shack, buying some land, and putting down roots. The adult speaker returns to her homestead to trace the family history from the beginning; while raking the grass for her mother she discovers that the “musty sweet / dank, clay-ey; green” earth is the same smell as her family: “the body’s scent, the one / that’s on the inside / of your clothes, the one a dog/picks up.”
While the family is connected to the earth, so too is the family embedded in the hostile culture of empire. The poet gazes at a photo taken in the 1930s of a summer camp on the river flats between her family’s farm and the town, and sees “at least a dozen tipis; horses; smoke.” The displacement of the First Nations people is never sentimental; the poet posits herself, her family, and all European settlers on a continuum that reveals itself in cultural genocide and ecological despair. And, yet, the problem of history, for Zwicky, is complicated by the poet’s love for her family and her family’s love for the land, and so these poems combine personal history and a complex understanding of the colonial experience.
Ray Hsu’s Anthropy reminds me of Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, with its disjunctive narrative style and figurative language. Just as Ondaatje writes a poetic historiography of Buddy Bolden, Hsu recasts the life story of Walter Benjamin. He integrates references to Benjamin as well as James Dean, Dante, Daedalus, Odysseus, Dostoyevsky, Virgil, James Joyce, Diomedes, Menelaus, Helen, Kenzaburo, Midas, Chet Baker, and Fernando Pessoa. This crowd of historical figures is brought to life: the famous interact with each other, other characters, real or imagined, and the poet himself. The result is a surreal commingling of times, people and places, a dream of apparitions.
Clearly Benjamin’s work shapes the book, and most specifically Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a history of nineteenth century capitalism; by its very form Benjamin’s book poses a radical philosophy of history akin to what Hsu attempts with this book of poetry. Hsu’s book, like Benjamin’s unfinished project, is fragmented and often elliptical.
Anthropy is divided into three sections, Third Person, Second Person and First Person, that reflect Hsu’s aesthetic preoccupations. Hsu’s entries form a multifarious collection of fragments (poems, prose, monologues, epilogues, film scripts, interviews) that examine perspective, continuity, memory, authorial authenticity, translation and the objectifying limitations of language it’s a book about language, but more so about history: how we go about defining it, recording, and retelling it, especially in times of war. It is also an attempt at depersonalization and the fracturing of the self: the poems that invoke anonymous personal history (perhaps not the poet’s) are placed alongside, for examples, a found translation of Dante’s Inferno (XXXII-XXXIII) and an invented, cinematic recounting of Benjamin’s suicide in the voice of his ex-wife Dora Kellner.
Hsu’s epilogues on Benjamin read like the dream-like sequences of an experimental film. He recasts episodes between 1939 and 1940, the most dramatic time of Benjamin’s life, and arguably, of the twentieth century, when the writer escaped Nazi Paris and traveled by foot with a group of refugees through the Pyrenees to Spain, carrying only a valise which held the Arcades manuscript. After being stopped by Spanish authorities in the village of Port Bou and threatened with deportation to France, Benjamin overdosed on morphine. The epilogues capture this time in disjunctive fragments such as “1.” which projects Benjamin into the war-torn Paris he escaped:
Benjamin crouched beneath the rotting metal.
Here, there was no such thing
as brick. They had forgotten how wooden planks,
slatted together, made boxes,
made brick. A city of wood could burn
to the violence of a fiddle.
In “6.”, a prose poem, Hsu reinvents Benjamin’s experience of walking through the Pyrenees on his way to Spain:
In the Pyrenees, he said, you can hear the loneliness of a bridge. You can hear pure resistance to soft insects in the evening. Go quietly: you may see where passing water unwraps the hard pattern of the stilts.
This is not garden-variety Canadian lyric narrative. It’s a hard book, but the poetry is simple at times and the lyrics beautiful, as in “An Epithalamium”:
The music is an echo of your body
I brought it in from the
rain, arriving behind us.
It is the mirror of your ear
the pattern of your steps and
You make me
silent with love.
This book might be challenging to the reader unfamiliar with Benjamin’s theoretical work and biography, but Benjamin’s ascent and popularity in academic circles during the last two decades likely ensure that this book will find an appreciative audience.
- Three Men and a Feminist by Emily Carr
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
- Seams of Language by Bert Almon
Books reviewed: The Man from Saskatchewan by Gerald Hill, A Blue with Blood in It by Elizabeth Philips, and The Fifth Window by Russell Thornton
- Encountering the Other by Mary Jean Green
Books reviewed: Writing in the Feminine in French and English Canada: A Question of Ethics by Marie Carrière and Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion and Romantic Obsession by Rosemary Sullivan
- The Printed Page by Susan Fisher
Books reviewed: Alphabetical by P. K. Page
- Spectres et vertiges by Noële Racine
Books reviewed: Fantômier by Marie-Andrée Donovan, Centrifuge. Extrait de narration. Poésie faite de concentré by Éric Charlebois, and First Fire/ Ce feu qui dévore: Poems/Poèmes by Andrée Christensen, Jacques Flamand, and Nadine McInnis
MLA: Jerome, Gillian. Lyrics in Flight. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #186 (Autumn 2005), Women & the Politics of Memory. (pg. 179 - 182)
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