Peeling Back the Skin
- Tom Wayman (Author)
High Speed Through Shoaling Water. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Anne Simpson (Author)
Quick. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Emily Schultz (Author)
songs for the dancing chicken. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Emily Wall
Anne Simpson, Emily Schultz and Tom Wayman are all lyric poets that share a propensity for beautiful image work. All three new collections have a delicious richness in store for readers. And yet all three also suffer from being a bit too tidy, accomplished, too academic. While the poems in all three books deal with loss, none of them really provides the blood and bone feeling of a painful, personal book.
“Let’s say you had three wishes” begins Anne Simpson’s poem “Mayfly.” Simpson’s newest collection, Quick, is a balance of despair and fear with hope and wishing: “we’re surrounded by the living. At the hospice, the man dying of esophageal cancer asks to see the ocean once more.” These new poems are darker than her early ones. Here, she has collected images of ambulance drivers, suicides, a man in a wheelchair. She turns our attention to the sharp edges of life, and she does it with language that juxtaposes beauty with death, creating internal tension in the poems. Simpson looks at death and loss with an unsentimental eye: “During chemo, she studies lymph nodes in the ceiling tiles.”
If there is one thing lacking, it’s a distancing of the speaker, of the poet, who says in one of the rare uses of the first person, “I’ve turned to ice.” While Simpson has admirably avoided any melodrama or self-obsession, the reader rather misses the emotional intensity that might accompany such images if the “I” were allowed into the narrative poems. We are given no indication how we should feel about the man in the wheelchair. His image is beautiful but opaque. While we admire the images, we don’t feel that old skin touching skin that poetry often provides—a touching of hands across the space of language when a poet reveals him- or herself enough to be vulnerable and remind us of our own humanness. At times we feel as if we’re standing in the back of the room, as if at a funeral of someone we don’t know.
“Hell. What else is there?” says the speaker in the poem “Better Hell” in Emily Schultz’s new book of poems, songs for the dancing chicken. This question underscores the questions raised in many of these surreal poems. The speakers in the poems both look for connections between things, people, ideas, and reject them at the same time, bowing away from any easy links or moments of simple clarity. songs for the dancing kitchen chicken is a book of loss, absences and wished-for connections.
Schultz relies on rich images to collage her poems. One might add her to the group of neo-surrealists in the tradition of Dean Young, for the way her poems make surprising leaps and turns. The juxtaposed images create postmodern fragmentation: “The bald man with long fingernails. The dirt. / And vermin.” This underscores the book’s themes of loss and disconnection we feel from one another and from the world. The collection also suffers from the common surrealist problem of trying to find a way to hold itself together, while providing surprising subconscious links. The balance between surprise and randomness is not quite achieved here: “A thatched-roof boat / rowed out from the dark. / Horses drinking champagne.” Rather than feeling the pleasure of a surprising leap, the reader struggles to find the links between the images in many of the poems, and the reading then becomes an academic exercise instead of a physical, emotional journey. While surrealists aim to leap dream-like from image to image, the reader should find some small link, some shade of connection, between the images, which is the pleasure of surreal poems. In many of Schultz’s poems, that link is too buried for readers to find, leaving us wandering in a dark alley littered with interesting, but seemingly random images.
Tom Wayman’s High Speed Through Shoaling Water is a quiet, accomplished book. The poems deal with aging, with the teaching life, and with the writing of poetry itself. The opening of “Poem Lullaby” characterizes the tenor and the persona speaking in this book:
yet unformed, I
have other work
on the world-ridge
and ask you to lie down
Wayman, as an accomplished writer and teacher, knows his craft. He also has some rich moments of ridicule and sarcasm that give the book a sense of humor. For anyone in the academy reading this book, both “Carrot” and “Postmodern 911” will provide a laugh and a nod of recognition as Wayman pokes fun at the establishment. The language in “Postmodern 911” is a perfect parody of the academy he is ridiculing: “Of course, if you can legitimately define yourself / as colonized, discriminated against, or / identified as Other with respect to—.”
While the discussion of the academy might provide a laugh for select audiences, it also limits the book. Many of these poems are of a writing professor: safe, well-constructed, but also “academic” in the very way the poem above critiques. In “Journal,” we are told:
Its poems flow with the relentlessness
of freeway traffic speeding through farm country:
declarative statement after declarative
The poems are about writing poems, about teaching them, and they only lightly touch the real world. Even those that strive to do so—several pieces about blue collar workers—feel strangely removed. Poems like “Employment Application” and “Ballad of the Brotherhood” philosophize about the working world, but with a certain academic distance.
All three collections have luminous moments that make them well worth reading, although the reader could wish for more risk-taking in the work. As Wayman tells us in “Shift”: “the tight knot of every plum / loosens a little each day,” and we could wish these collections of poems were less tightly knotted, giving us more access to the richness lying just under the skin.
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MLA: Wall, Emily. Peeling Back the Skin. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #195 (Winter 2007), Context(e)s. (pg. 178 - 180)
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