- Allan Brown (Author)
Frames of Silence. Seraphim Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Zaid Shlah (Author)
Taqsim. Frontenac House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Barry Dempster (Author)
The Burning Alphabet. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Chris Jennings
These three books share only superficial aspects of their poetics; each tends toward free verse shot through with awareness of traditional poetic resources. Each buttresses poetic structure with other disciplines: music, prayer, medicine, and shooting. In their individual ways, though, these very different books come back to the authority of a life over lyric expression. Zaid Shlah’s Taqsim engages Arabic traditions in the English language and Western positions on the Arab world in the voice of a Calgary-born Iraqi-Canadian. Allan Brown’s Frames of Silence selects from the last twenty-five years of Brown’s published poems apparently to make a career-defining statement; the photo on the book’s cover expresses the author-as-subject by having the white-haired Brown staring out, book in hand. In Barry Dempster’s The Burning Alphabet, a finalist for the 2005 Governor-General’s Award, the threat to life posed by serious illness centres the book and defines its emotional space.
Shlah’s Taqsim, originally published in the United States, has been reprinted by Frontenac House, and several of the poems have been anthologized or broadcast including “Asking Iraq to Comply” on New York’s Radio Tahrir. That address to multiple audiences suits the hyphenated perspective of Iraqi-Canadian Shlah. “Asking Iraq to Comply” expresses most directly Shlah’s investment in his Iraqi heritage. The poem catalogues Iraq’s ancient history and central place in the rise of human civilization: “Iraq is Assyrian, is Mede, is Persian, / is Babylonian, is the origins of human / narrative flowing into the Tigris, / flowing out of the Euphrates, / flowing into Eden, into Genesis, into Adam and into Eve, into Ur and its Kings; / Iraq spans the lives of the oldest traditions.” Of course, Iraq is also none of these things as an artificial construct forced on a region of multiple traditions following the First World War. This, of course, is one reason the West must “make amends.” “Leaving Iraq, Entering Alberta” explores similar territory on a more personal scale: “If my prairies sound semitic, or the color of my / city is olive, whose borders are they?” Shlah frames the cultural content in parallel musical conceits: a taqsim (“[i]n Arabic music, free form melodic improvisation”) and a fugue; “Taqsim” begins the book in self-awareness—images and impressions bound by a voice looking to create an “Opus.” The fugue, “Seasons of the Imperial Imagination,” completes a formal circle by answering the taqsim, but feels much less essential to the book’s engagement with its contemporary moment.
More than any subject, Allan Brown’s work revolves around his persistent challenges to grammatical and syntactic coherence. In the seventh section of “Nocturne Sequence,” subtitled “(Ars Poetica),” he writes: “[w]e come to our selving / accidentally, it seems; / and here an hour or so / as the decorous jaw line / of the long sky equally / in unexpected stars / thickens another name to be.” The neologism “selving” works because it draws on a precedent in transforming a noun to a natal verb-calving. The conceit in the third clause (counting “it seems” as the second) is more difficult to fathom because the grammar suspends the action until the final line of the first stanza where the verb “thickens” casts back four lines to find its subject: “an hour.” Zeugma then links the intermediary lines by supplying the verb necessary to complete their grammar: “jaw line . . . [thickens] in unexpected stars.” The image of thickening stars makes sense; you can picture the deepening night revealing a denser concentration of stars. The thickening of the “name to be” perplexes because the conceit offers nothing substantial to picture—so perhaps identities congeal like oatmeal. In the last stanza, selving is compared to “deer moving dusk-wise / out from an evening mist / to follow some further / my forms and symbols, where they lead,” and the concern for symbol, for an exchangeable thing rather than grammatical action, seems central to Brown’s poetic. Not all poems follow this method—“The Gift of the Earth” for example veers into dramatic monologues and Arthurian subject matter—but the majority resist intuitive syntactic patterns as much as rhyme or rhythm. This persistence isn’t always successful, nor is the reason for it generally clear as a personal poetic project.
In The Burning Alphabet, Barry Dempster employs a colloquial voice, subtle slips into rhyme pushed off the line endings, and a framing apparatus of literary quotations to explore, most thoroughly, most memorably, the very intimate perspective on life and the body conferred by chronic illness. The result is neatly poised in the contradictions of illness’ gravity and poetic levity—more lightness than humour. And there is, like most subjects defined by epigraphs, a kind of desire to embrace the subject as an experience. The results, even apart from the fifteen ways of looking at illness (kudos to Dempster for eschewing the Stevens), are oddly, pleasantly delicate: “In the morning I’m weak, / nerves whispering that they have / something inconsequential to say.” There are three ideas here, and all are important. The speaker’s weakness leads to a dissociation from the body recorded as a body/mind split and culminates in the nerves suffering their own self-effacing impulse. This is being diminished at almost a cellular level. The “Sick Days” sequence has a number of such moments, and its vulnerability will cause it to overshadow (as here, I’m afraid) what may be the better sequence: “Bad Habits.” Based on tags drawn from www.bullseyepistol.com, the sequence is a crafty elegy shot through with repetitions that link the sections with key images—a phoenix, a secret window—that speak as much to elegy’s reviving of an absent subject as to the subject himself. The result offers little in the way of sentimentality while establishing a complex sense of relationship and inheritance in the repetitions, and that subtle intimacy feels more authoritative than either personal politics or personal poetic.
- Paths within the Onion by Uzoma Esonwanne
Books reviewed: A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada by Cecil Foster, Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature by George Elliott Clarke, and North: New African Canadian Writing, a Special Issue of West Coast Line: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and Criticism 22 (Spring/Summer 1997) by Peter Hudson
- the edge of knowing by Anne F. Walker
Books reviewed: Obon: The Festival of the Dead by Terry Watada, Decked and Dancing: Poems by Christine Smart, and Loving the Alien by Laurie Kruk
- Symphonie des mots by Sylvain Marois
Books reviewed: 40 singes-rubis by Marie-Hélène Montpetit, Le cycle des migrations by Madeleine Ouellette-Michalska, and Lumières des puys by Germaine Monard
- Supporting Ourselves by Andrea Wasylow Sharman
Books reviewed: Treading Fast Rivers by Eleonore Schonmaier, A slow dance in the flames by Lynda Monahan, Quintet: themes and variations by Jean Mallinson, Sneaking through the Evening by Maureen McCarthy, and My flesh the Sound of Rain by Heather MacLeod
- A Poetics of Spatiality by Michael Roberson
Books reviewed: Annihilated Time: Poetry and Other Politics by Jeff Derksen, The Enchanted Adder by Rona Murray, and Shadows on a Wall by Charles E. Israel
MLA: Jennings, Chris. Personals. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #195 (Winter 2007), Context(e)s. (pg. 177 - 178)
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