Poetry's Where is [T]here?
- Cara Benson (Author)
(made). Book Thug/Literary Press Group of Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Barry McKinnon (Author)
In the Millennium. New Star Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Lorri Neilsen Glenn (Author)
Lost Gospels. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Eve Joseph (Author)
The Secret Signature of Things. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Crystal Hurdle
The “train’s whistle” of Neilsen Glenn’s “Home” and Joseph’s “You Crossed in Winter” and “On Schedule” provides an ululating call of connection, of loss, in at least three of the four volumes.
Benson’s (made) equates time with the act of making: “Morning arrives. // and the book begins[.]” The frequent single words (“moist”; “wobble”; “say”) on single pages are precious and suggest that what had been a chapbook has thus been padded into a wee volume, but interesting juxtapositions exist elsewhere, such as “the local five and dime o’clock news” and the clever prose poem “billboard.” What seems straightforward becomes a puzzle: “This required grandiloquent effort not to see before them that which was becoming behind them behind them.” Exploring commodity versus the act of making, “Real Estate” fixates oddly and intriguingly on an apple.
Where is here? “The hole of course will overflow with such obfuscation. An absconding to return to.” The volume considers what constitutes reality, creation versus existence—“If this is in your hands, it is only here because you hold it. When you ‘put this down’ [a euphemism for killing?] what will become.”
This implicit question is answered in Joseph’s sumptuously titled The Secret Signature of Things, nominated for the 2011 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and shortlisted for the 2010 Victoria Butler Book Prize. “White Camellias” (winner of The Malahat Review’s 2010 P. K. Page’s Founders’ Award for Poetry), in a series of personifications, creates droll accounts for poems not written. What’s tenor, vehicle? Her children “too, are not written.” Protestations to not read too much into the portents of spiders and owls, for example, compel the reader to do just that. “The ship is not a metaphor,” at the same time that it is. Snowdrops are like “brides left at the altar.” The power of figurative language (with homage in “On Beginning” to Lorca, Neruda, Amichai, and “Whitman and the beautiful uncut hair of graves”) is made obvious, yet it is incapable of saving the lost aboriginal women in “Tracking,” the final melancholic poem sequence. Death is stronger. Time erodes and changes; the tone, wistful, not sentimental.
The seasons winter and spring set up the cycle of rebirth. The poems “Old Age” and “Convalescence” focus on the body’s physical losses, as does the splendid “Arrhythmia,” which seamlessly melds provocative scientific fact with poetic language. The haunting collection begins with the Menagerie series, equating nature with creativity. Of “The Violet green Swallow,”
above the trees
As with Joseph, Halifax’s former poet laureate Lorri Neilsen Glenn situates her collection Lost Gospels in winter and spring. She evokes the prairie life of her childhood, a dislocation of time and space. Despite many poems of loss (the Notes mention several to be in memory of different people), the collection is life-affirming. Several poems give the quality of being plunked down with another’s family albums and scrapbooks, beginning with an implicit understanding of the homely dynamics.
Language is a tracking device (shared with Joseph) that “parses birdsong.” Verge, a lovely sequence on the lost lilies of her childhood, uses epigraphs from nature books. Ethnographer Neilsen Glenn, standing on the shoulders of the greats, invokes a wide cast of characters: writers (Homer, Yeats), literary theorists (Irigaray), philosophers (Herakleitos, Heidegger, Pythagoras) and goddesses (Hera, Mnemosyne), along with a motley crew of musicians (Puccini, Neil Young, Billie Holliday): “We are all songs of imperfection.” A disarming sequence, “Songs for Simone [Weil],”addressed to the French philosopher, ties together many of the plangent collection’s themes. “Grief has more seeds than flowers do.” Writing is “prayer,” perhaps even more so when combined with music, the lost gospels of the title: “I am ready as a tuned string/ to witness what is ravenous, mythic.” Beautiful.
Barry McKinnon, in In the Millennium, details the disintegration of BC cities, Tumbler Ridge, Giscom[b]e, and even his native Prince George, subject of two long poems. As the body is equated to the city (“man a city”), the privation is even greater. This is a collection about the loss (and wisdom) that ageing brings: “cruel that body and mind sense their own demise. the city is organ. it sees itself. disintegrated.”
Antidote to dislocation is his wife, central figure in “Joy (an Epithalamium)," as well as “Sex at 52” (part of a continuing series). Her pragmatism charms: of foreign places, McKinnon notes, “I write, ‘a bit under construction’. Joy says, ‘a rathole.’”
Consolation is also in other people, especially writers (as with Neilsen Glenn), especially poets, especially Canadian. In an assemblage about a trip to Bolivia (which won the bp Nichol chapbook award), he notes the previous presence of Al Purdy and Earle Birney. Other poets invoked, quoted, written about, responded to, include Sharon Thesen, Ken Belford, George Stanley. McKinnon situates himself as a piece of poetry’s history; such is his place.
The most intriguing piece, “Head Out (a Letter, Essay, Poem—to Cecil Giscombe),” consists of the six-page “Head Out,” accompanied by fifteen pages of Preface, Endnote, Notes / Works Cited for Head Out and Endnote, Post Response: Supplement to Philly Talks #18, Works Cited for Post Response, A Note on the Photographs [taken by his wife], and three separate appendices: a literary Ouroboros. In it, McKinnon asks and attempts to answer, “What is it to be out of dislocation?” building on the work of American poet Cecil Giscombe with whom he did a talk in Calgary a decade ago. He writes of the precipitating event, “our answers, or at least mine as I remember them, went out by the seat of my pants.” He is able in this sequence to answer more reflectively, more fully.
McKinnon says, “The poem is verb,” and “once a thing ceases to move it is easier to kill (literally or metaphorically)—the poet included.” Fascinating.
For McKinnon, where is there is here—in Canada, the body, in the now, “where desire contains / the description of its loss.” Such might be the case for the cryptic Benson (“Cold axis. Interminable trip”), but it is certainly the case, too, for both the beautiful Joseph (“the way a body / relinquishes its hold as it / sinks, unguarded, / to the earth”) and the evocative Neilsen Glenn (“We can’t track this country; / It’s our lonely planet”).
- Contemporary Poetry by Kathleen O'Donnell
Books reviewed: The Moment Coming by Margaret Christakos, blood, love & boomerangs by Catherine Jenkins, and Epitaph for a Good Canadian by Nicola Vulpe
- Images vives de la mort by Ghislaine Boulanger
Books reviewed: Aeterna: Le jardin des immortelles by Nancy Vickers and noir blanc nabis by Diane-Ischa Ross
- Canadian Antimodern by Brian Trehearne
Books reviewed: A Reassessment of Early Twentieth-Century Canadian Poetry in English by Alexander Kizuk
- Going Beyond Prose by Douglas Barbour
Books reviewed: Red Lacquered Chopsticks by Betty Warrington-Kearsley, Newer Lies by Dan Jalowica, and Vermeer's Light: Poems 1996-2006 by George Bowering
- Indirections by Stephen Guy-Bray
Books reviewed: Contra/Diction by Brett Josef Grubisic and Written in the Skin by rob mclennan
MLA: Hurdle, Crystal. Poetry's Where is [T]here?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #212 (Spring 2012), General Issue. (pg. 127 - 128)
***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.