- Anne Wilkinson (Author) and Dean J. Irvine (Editor)
Heresies: The Complete Poems of Anne Wilkinson 1924-61. Signal Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Peter Van Toorn (Author)
Mountain Tea. Signal Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Barry McKinnon (Author)
The Centre: Poems 1970-2000. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Iain Higgins
Not much happens in the eleven pieces collected in The Centre: Poems 1970-2000. Their author, Barry McKinnon, sometimes drinks beer in seedy stripper bars or coffee at Tim Horton’s, shops at Sears, drives his truck somewhere, cuts wood, paints his house, marks essays. The real action takes place inside his head, for the pieces collected here are all sequences and serial poems recording the play of their author’s consciousness, a brooding, often emotionally evocative play that makes pleasingly heavy weather of the clouded mind as it registers social and natural as well as psychological phenomena. Not quite a poet of negative capability, except for his habit of remaining broodingly happy in doubt, not quite a poet of the negative way, except for his habit of tracing the paths and particulars of diminishment, McKinnon is the traveller—the mental traveller—of the epigraph borrowed from Robert Creeley’s “Poem for Beginners”: “it is the road / and its turnings that is the traveler, / that comes back and remains unexplained.”
“Somebodies walked in the woods,” McKinnon says in the opening line of the opening poem (“The North”) of the opening sequence (The Death of a Lyric Poet)—and in the streets and in the malls too—and some of them, all named McKinnon, kept a partial record, taking the notes that make up the sequences of The Centre. Here is one example, from the same opening sequence, called “In the Face of It No One Would Touch Her,” which records impressions of an afternoon in a stripper bar: “the weight of it is, the afternoon disappears. / reality is a G string, the rest is imagination or” McKinnon’s own particular imaginings. These imaginings range, by free association, from the sordid and the pathetic to the poignant and the searching. The poem’s opening thought of cheap sex leads to the price of popcorn and chips, which leads to the price of beer, which leads to the matter of paying the band, whose singer has a terrible afro, which image leads back to the G string that started this chain of associations: “or her pubic hair curled at the edge of a / G string // (she spreads her ass / & we laugh. all our teeth are / crooked. . . .” The parenthesis does not close, in the manner of Charles Olson, whose Maximus mode is here rejigged to suit a kind of minima moralia, perhaps to suggest an unfinished train of thought, the open-endedness of musing. In any case, this parenthetical turn takes us to the heart of the poem and McKinnon’s gift as a poet, for in the turn we register how as well as what McKinnon sees—not, or not only, the displayed crotch, but also the laughing mouths and the crooked teeth. The potential sentimentality or banality of the juxtaposed orifices disappears in the resonant detail of the crooked teeth. We know now who the onlookers are: a group marked by poverty and necessary indifference to cosmetic perfection, or, in another idiom, unmarked by shifts in social consciousness and advances in orthodontics.
At his best, which happens frequently if also irregularly throughout The Centre, McKinnon makes his particulars pay their way; they are not there for the free ride of local colour.
In subsequent texts, the poetic texture tends to thicken, and some of the perceptions change as the poet ages—musing on Sex at 31 and Sex at 38 and Arrhythmia—but the book presents what is essentially an oeuvre, an interrelated body of works bound together by a presiding multi-faceted consciousness whose manifesto is announced in the closing lines of “The North”: “a kind of ownership / not to care.” As these various quotations suggest, ordinary economic life and its sometimes harsh consequences are often at the centre of McKinnon’s poetic attention (the prices noted in the various poems comprise a small history of the Canadian economy over three decades), and the result is a set of works pretty well unique in Canadian poetry—borrowing the misprision of someone at a reading, McKinnon wittily calls his sequences “traumatic monologues” (author statement in The New Long Poem Anthology, ed. Sharon Thesen). How well this serial monologue by an alert “human mind poking here & there for possibilities” (“Journal” from Thoughts/Sketches) will hold up over time is hard to say, but the fact that the earliest poems in the collection do not yet read as dated augurs well for the whole.
The consciousness at play in Peter Van Toorn’s Mountain Tea is every bit as engagingly idiosyncratic as that in McKinnon’s The Centre, but it is hard to imagine two collections more different from each other. If McKinnon’s master is Charles Olson, downsized from his large, somewhat slow-footed American embrace of the world, the traditional lyric “I” still central but now dispersed serially, Van Toorn’s is the entire European lyric tradition, the expected “I” variously stolen or absent, and the tradition itself remade in a style all his own, line after scintillating line supercharged with hot-footed jazzy verbal high-jinks. Originally published in 1984 as Mountain Tea and Other Poems, and nominated for the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry, the book and its author have since disappeared from the radar screen (despite brief appearances in anthologies edited by Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee), so this Signal Edition revised reprint is most welcome (the revisions consist of poems both added to and ped from the two parts of the book, “In Guildenstern Country” and “Mountain Tea”; according to David Solway’s appreciative and insightful Introduction, Van Toorn has written no more poems besides the eight added here). Twenty years on, Mountain Tea has lost none of its invigorating kick, and I can think of no better antidote to the numbing effects of the tepid, watery concoctions that now pour endlessly from small presses across Canada.
Word-crazy, yet clear-eyed, the poems in this book hold their own with anything produced in English in this century. “In Guildenstern Country,” for example, is a very different poem from Basil Bunting’s “Briggflatts,” but it shares with that northern English masterpiece the virtue of making its local language seem like God’s own tongue, so fine is the fit between sound and well-stretched sense. Nor will quotation do the poem justice, since part of its triumph is its jazzy improvisation as the rich play of sound, sense, and line provoke further play, but here’s a small sample: “Right off / wawa / slaps a skin on you: / butterfly eggspit, cobweb, gumsawgrass. Shake’n’bake. / Flips you up on / pingo—just to mash your knuckles, / rush them / like windblown spuds.” Against such virtuoso horn-play, whose semantic colourings sound faintly like surrealism, one can also set quieter lines, moments as subtle as some of Miles Davis’ solos in Sketches of Spain: “To make the old river come back to life, / we’re going to throw iron stars in it— / to shine all night long like warm green coral” (“Mountain River”). These lines, incidentally, like the poem that contains them, are remade from the French of Sylvain Garneau. Many of the poems in Mountain Tea are thus remade in English (poems by Tibellus, Ronsard, Goethe, Heine, Baudelaire, Ungaretti, amongst others), and it is one of the many virtues of the book that familiar authors suddenly look strange again, as if you had met them for the first time and not where you had expected to. Once again, though, selective quotation cannot really do justice to Van Toorn’s gift, since, like the very different Barry McKinnon, he is not a poet of the Palgrave flower, or a maker of palm-sized poetic touchstones. A tonal trickster, he is rather a master of the extended jam session, riff-raffing and mischievously tom-fooling his long-playing way through the startled ear to the still susceptible heart. There are the odd squawks, clumsy fingering, and sour notes, yes, but who could not be charmed by a poet whose rich and diverse oeuvre includes a serio-comic hymn to “The Cattle” that is surely unrivalled in world literature?—“[f]or breathing steamy up at the cold steerhorned moon no peers[!]”
Cows come in for no such highfalutin praise in Heresies: The Complete Poems of Anne Wilkinson 1924-1961, but she shares with Van Toorn and McKinnon a deep love of the natural world that manifests itself throughout her work. Not quite as neglected as Van Toorn, in part because of feminist interest in her work, Wilkinson nevertheless deserves to be better known and her poems more widely available. Dean Irvine’s new edition ought to help serve that end, since it brings together all of Wilkinson’s known poetic work, renovating A.J.M. Smith’s 1968 collected edition (reprinted in 1990 with a biographical introduction by Joan Coldwell) by adding 46 previously uncollected poems. In addition, Irvine has written an insightful biographical and literary-historical Introduction and appended copious textual notes that trace the composition, revision, and publication of the poems now collected. The latter will probably be of interest only to scholars, but between the introduction and the notes an alert reader will learn, for example, how Wilkinson found herself reluctantly following Louis Dudek’s advice that she truncate her beautiful long “Letter to My Children” to a mere three stanzas; Smith published the poem in two parts—the first bodiless, the second headless—but Irvine has rightly reassembled it, so that the reader can appreciate both the bodiless version that appeared in The Hangman Ties the Holly (1955) and the latest full-bodied version that Wilkinson continued to work on in her copy books. If nothing else, the episode that thus emerges from Irvine’s sleuthing in the historical record shows the obstacles Wilkinson faced as a woman publishing her poems in the 1950s. Irvine also brings together in one place the poems that Wilkinson was gathering for a third volume, tentatively titled Heresies and Other Poems, showing the stage she had reached as a writer before her untimely death prevented its publication.
What matters ultimately is the poetry, of course, and this edition makes it abundantly clear that Wilkinson’s poetry still matters. Some of her early work is a little too besotted with Dylan Thomas to be fully engaging, but there is enough strong work here to show that Wilkinson is a poet to return to. Her deep involvement with her children colours much of her work, as she borrows from nursery rhymes and fairy-tales and other so-called children’s literature to make her own very grown-up verses. The result is often a pleasing simplicity of form with an affecting complexity of tone that makes the poems resonate long after in the reader’s head. Here, for instance, is the very Blakean first stanza of “Nature Be Damned” from the incomplete Heresies and Other Poems with its provocative, almost proverbial closing line: “Pray where would lamb and lion be / If they lay down in amity? / Could lamb then nibble living grass? / Lamb and lion both must starve; / For none may live if all do love.” Such deceptively simple sing-song is Wilkinson’s preferred manner, and it may well have prevented her from being seen as the sharp-eyed, canny-eared poet that she is, but she can do other voices too, like this from “Greek Island”: “These male and muscled hills trace their line / Back to the smoking draughtsmanship of Zeus.” More than anything else, though, whatever her tone, Wilkinson is a consistently engaging poet of the immediate physicality of mindful bodily existence, and Heresies offers readers the welcome opportunity of either re-acquaintance or a first meeting.
- Being Raven by Jo-Ann Thom
Books reviewed: Sojourners and Sundogs: First Nations Fiction by Lee Maracle
- Ducharme le ferrailleur by André Lamontagne
Books reviewed: Réjean Ducharme: Une poétique du débris by Élisabeth Nardout-Lafarge
- Canadian Identity: Maples and Chinatowns by Jennifer Jay
Books reviewed: Maples and the Stream: A Narrative Poem by Lien Chao
- The Language Around You by Adam Dickinson
Books reviewed: Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation by Tim Bowling, The Matrix Interviews: Moosehead Anthology #9 by R. E. N. Allen and Angela Carr, and Vis à Vis: Fieldnotes on Poetry & Wilderness by Don McKay
- Soothsaid Verse by Tim Conley
Books reviewed: Cometology by Stephen Brockwell, Torontology by Stephen Cain, and The Invisible World Is In Decline, Book V by Bruce Whiteman
MLA: Higgins, Iain. Recollections. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #189 (Summer 2006), The Literature of Atlantic Canada. (pg. 139 - 142)
***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.