Mapping the Arc of Desire
- P. K. Page (Author)
Kaleidoscope. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Charles Noble (Author)
Sally O: Selected Poems and Manifesto. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Anne Simpson (Author)
The Marram Grass: Poetry and Otherness. Gaspereau Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Kaya Fraser
In reviewing these three volumes, I find myself in a similar position to the writers and editors of each of these books, trying to present and synthesize a collection of different written artefacts, making a case for their grouping while acknowledging their discreteness. This is a task that each book lays bare in its own way, as it struggles (like any selected or collected volume) with the problems inherent in anthologization. How do the selected texts suggest new meanings when re-grouped this way? Why this way and not another? What has been left out and/or changed, and why? What audience does this selection serve or speak to? Two of the three titles—the poetry collections—are relatively explicit in addressing these questions, while Simpson’s volume, which is unaccompanied by any apparatus such as an introduction or afterword, must suggest its answers implicitly. On the surface, these are quite dissimilar books; but there is common ground among them, beyond the fact that they are collections, and as such participate in the special rhetorical complexities of that form. They all also document a striving toward a new poetics. The precise natures of those new poetics are different in each volume, as these are three entirely distinct poetic sensibilities. The striving is what they share. Each collection presents its author as dedicated to the quest for a new level of perception and artistic utterance.
Noble’s work was the least familiar to me as I approached this review, I will admit. The sometimes-used epithet for him,
the farmer-poet, is only literally true: Noble is a poet who also happens to be a farmer. What one might expect from that nickname, however, is not exactly what one gets from his writing. This is not nostalgic, agricultural lyricism, but rather complex, postmodern inquiry into perception and place. Noble reveals in the book’s
Earlier I was sometimes tagged with ˜farmer-poet,’ which sometimes I kind of liked wearing, albeit with some embarrassment, being always a little too alien for ˜salt of the earth,’ ˜whole-some’ never quite adding up. What does add up, from the crazy arithmetic of Noble’s verse, are witty, arresting descriptions that put Noble in league with Kroetsch (when he’s not being hyperintellectual) and Purdy (when he’s not being sentimental). There are also shades of early Ondaatje, particularly in the longer pieces.
Afterword is an interesting addition to the text. Partly a spoof of jargon-laden, name-dropping theory-prose, the text is (deliberately, I’m sure) nearly unreadable. But the joke is also not a joke. In some of its lucid moments, the
Afterword reflects on the collection, presenting Noble as self-effacing and not entirely convinced that this project is merited:
A selected, let alone a collected, poems had not interested me, on the one hand, for the problem of so many long to book-length poems, and, on the other hand, because I saw so much of my past work as failure, and just in a conventional sense of that word, he writes. It was in part Jon Paul Fiorentino’s thoughts on
a poetics of failure, explored in an issue of Open Letter, that inspired him to think that a collection could be viable. What if, instead of looking at a collection or anthology as a carefully chosen
bouquet of successes, we saw it as an archive of interesting failures? The idea is intriguing, and although it perhaps does not make up for the arduousness of reading the
Afterword (to my mind the joke went on a bit too long), it nevertheless puts this record of Noble’s work in a fresh context, suggesting a poet who has successfully pursued failure—that is, perhaps, a poetics of incompleteness, and therefore of possibility.
P.K. Page was seeking quite nearly the opposite—or at least this is Zailig Pollock’s view, in the introduction to Kaleidoscope—when she fell into her famous
silence in the middle of her life. Rather than fertile incompleteness, Page desperately sought completion: the missing piece for her was a
third way between or beyond the sensual/intellectual dichotomy that bedevilled her early work, and that arguably stymied her poetic voice for a decade. Pollock contends that it was Page’s discovery of Idries Shah’s brand of Sufism that unlocked this third element, spirituality:
Sufism rejects all forms of dualism in favour of Page’s ˜Triclopic view’ of the unified self consisting of nafs (sensation), qalb (understanding) and ruh (spirit). . . . The spiritual discipline of Sufism, which Page took very seriously indeed, sanctioned her celebration of the sensuous world and provided her with an intellectual framework for this celebration. While some might accuse it of being overly schematic, this argument bears out well in the work collected in Kaleidoscope. The poems are presented in order by date of composition (or editorial best guess), making the totality of Page’s oeuvre, with its changing concerns and methods, clearer than in any previous collection. Pollock’s editorial practice is sound and respectful, creating a text that fills a longstanding void in studies of this eminent Canadian modernist: a good, scholarly collection of Page’s poems. The Hidden Room, a two-volume set also published by The Porcupine’s Quill in 1997, is aesthetically pleasing but contains several editorial stumbling blocks. The poems are undated, for one thing. But more problematically, the copy texts are also questionable: Pollock finds that The Hidden Room
uses versions of poems from the earliest collections in which they appear, rather than the latest, even when Page had revised the poems for later publication and had repeatedly authorized their reprinting over the years in the revised versions. Pollock addresses this problem, having consulted with Page before she died in 2010 in order to choose source-versions with her assent; but more importantly, Pollock maintains a rigorous transparency and consistency about those choices. The book also provides tools useful to any type of reader approaching these poems: it not only has its own apparatus (introduction, textual note, composition dates, explanatory notes, title index, index of first lines, and short biography), but it is also to be accompanied by an exhaustive hypermedia edition of Page’s work—although frustratingly, no details of this edition are to be found either in this book or on the publisher’s web site. Still, even on its own merits, this collection is by far the most comprehensive and useful edition of Page’s poems that I have yet seen.
Anne Simpson’s book of essays is somewhat loosely collected under the idea of its subtitle: Poetry & Otherness. Very readable, interspersed with line drawings by the author, it meditates on language and the creative impetus in elegant, simple prose. The first essay,
A Hundred and Fifty Psalms at Twilight, is one of the most engaging ones in the collection, as Simpson considers what the language of the natural world might be, and how poetry might take this language into account when it tries to speak of the nonhuman:
In order to talk about the wild, we may need another way of speaking, or of writing . . . Or perhaps we simply need to expand our notion of language. But what would it be like, this enriched language? It would have an intimate connection with the body and the space inhabited by the body. It would embrace multiplicity. . . . Such a language is a richly textured tapestry of speech, a caterwauling of sounds. Simpson identifies poetry as the mode of human communication that allows the nearest proximity to this wild, or as she calls it,
tawny language. The essay is thought-provoking, but problematically leaves out one important mode of expression that falls between the structure of language and the wildness of noise: music. It seems a curious lacuna in her argument, one that a more seasoned essayist (Jan Zwicky comes to mind) might not allow. The rest of the essays in the collection are similarly preoccupied with what poetry is, and its potential to supersede the boundary between self and other. This is sensitive and, at moments, poignant creative non-fiction. I fear, however, that it dallies with theory in a way that will probably make it dismissible to some academics. Indeed, the question of the book’s intended audience is vexed. Assiduous footnotes and references to numerous theorists suggest it is intended for academic reception. Some of the
explanations given in the essays, however, are aimed too low for this readership (eg. referring to
the epic poem Beowulf). This uneasiness may eventually relegate The Marram Grass to a readerless limbo, which would be unfortunate. There is much merit in these essays, even if they raise further questions (and shouldn’t an essay do just that?). Like Noble’s and Page’s, Simpson’s collection probes the failings and possibilities of poetic language, not coming to a final conclusion, but
mapping the arc of desire that keeps the pursuit possible.
- Against the Grain by Brook Houglum
Books reviewed: On Abducting the 'Cello by Wayne Clifford and Karenin Sings the Blues by Sharon McCartney
- Pièces détachées by Vincent Charles Lambert
Books reviewed: La Suite informe by Mathieu Bergeron, Autoportraits-robots by Thierry Dimanche, and L'Arbre chorégraphe by Larry Tremblay
- L'exigence littérale du Messie by Stéphane Inkel
Books reviewed: Poétiques du Messie: l'origine juive en souffrance by Anne Elaine Cliché
- The Use of Beauty by Wilhelm Emilsson
Books reviewed: A Different Silence: Selected Poems by árni Ibsen
- Signifier Desire by Gregory Betts
Books reviewed: The Only Poetry That Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing by Clint Burnham
MLA: Fraser, Kaya. Mapping the Arc of Desire. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #212 (Spring 2012), General Issue. (pg. 170 - 173)
***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.