Reflective and Surreal
- Stuart Ross (Author)
Hey, Crumbing Balcony!: Poems New and Selected. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Fred Cogswell (Author)
Later in Chicago. Borealis Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Brian Bartlett (Author)
Wanting the Day: Selected Poems. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gregory Betts
The poems that make up Brian Bartlett’s Wanting the Day move carefully through the physical landscape with a gentle prosaic determination. The diction feels carefully selected for reflective precision, building up trustworthy moments of intimacy with nature through straightforward, linear telling. The poems record pleasant scenes of quiet, personal wonder, or poignant observations of intriguing detail. A calm narrative voice records his personal experiences with comfortable but disruptive phenomenon. Yet Bartlett distinctly distrusts the moments of disruption he records, and steers the poems away from confrontation to stress stasis and resolution: as he writes in “Bluegrass in Japan,” “Day ends / with everything finding a new home.” In three other poems, the cyclist emerges from the dark tunnel, the mole rediscovers “the familiar dirt,” and “we still go hush, desperate / to bring back the loved song.” The return to order that Bartlett consistently depicts corresponds with his conventional poetic form. The carefully constructed coherence circumscribes compositional tension and poetic intensity. As the poet writes, “Even to my love / this trip is familiar” (30). Poems such as “A Basement Tale” and “An Imp Tale” enliven the linguistic force by embracing mythopoetic technique and exploring metaphoric fantasies reminiscent of James Reaney. Such pieces, most common in the selections from Granite Erratics, escape the calculated musings of the author and enter the delightful instability of words on the page, of words that are alive and limited only by the author that deploys them.
In this regard, Fred Cogswell’s Later in Chicago occupies even more conservative and constrained terrain. Reminiscent of the lyrics of Wilson MacDonald and Bliss Carman, or even the nostalgic post-First World War works of Charles G.D. Roberts, Cogswell writes with reflective simplicity of the small truths he has found in the world. The myriad of aphorisms, trite observations, and romantic reminiscences throughout the collection herald a time when newspapers published occasional poetry for pleasing witticisms and sensitive – but always unthreatening – social commentary. Indeed, the collection begins with a defence of traditionalism by George Woodcock that must surely be taken as an apologia for the work that follows. Woodcock’s preface links Cogswell with a tradition of poetry from Shakespeare, momentarily obscuring Shakespeare’s radical innovation in Elizabethan arts. Cogswell, for his part, writes like he was a contemporary of Canada’s Riel Rebellion poet Charles Mair. The title of the collection, itself, comes from an American poet’s 1893 lament that Christian influence was fading in that country for the “hungry, soulless dynamo” of the machine age. But the machine age has come and, after a century of unprecedented mechanized and horrific violence, transformed into the computer age with its own particular ontological and metaphysical crises. Cogswell, with his cheerily rhymed quatrains, turns back the clock one hundred years and strives for a guileless voice to overturn “this world’s gross and soul-clogging ways” – perhaps, ominously, in favour of the era “of red horsemen in savage bands . . . . cowboys outside their grounds.” Romanticising cowboys at the expense of “red horsemen” went out with the popularization of terms like “genocide.” If the world’s ways have changed over the past one hundred years, however, a reader would find scant evidence of its decline, or rise, or even shift in Later in Chicago. Approximately 50 years ago, Adorno said there could be no poetry after the Second World War, presuming as he did that no poet could ignore it – and all else since.
The poems in Stuart Ross’ Hey, Crumbling Balcony! also look like conventional poems, appearing on the page very similar to Cogswell’s and Bartlett’s regular verse forms. The poetic object remains intact. Furthermore, the narrative voice extols in linear, grammatical fashion the details of particular narrative episodes in the world. Despite the structural calm, however, Ross’ poems construct the world in a strange way that integrates and utilises poetic disruption. The scenes and phenomenon that Ross describes in his poetry contravene reality and overwhelm logic by literalizing complex metaphorical allegories into concrete events. Consider one example: in “The Shopping Mall,” an anthropomorphised shopping mall grows sad and leaves its lonely parking lot, crawling into the bedroom of a seven-year-old boy, wrapping itself around him as a beard. The boy returns to the parking lot whereupon shoppers resume their shopping: “Shopping at the boy / is not as convenient, / but humans are clever . . . . They adapt.” Such moments of textual surprise playfully reject realist and confessional modes, and create a delicate tension against the calm, conversational tone of the narrator. Though Ross’ work is often described as “surrealist,” this is not the strident surrealism of Breton or Borduas, but rather, as in the example above, a jubilant treatment of the familiar through the bizarre – somewhat akin to meeting Frank Kafka in Narnia. In different poems, the narrator’s tongue turns into a camera, he levitates amidst immortal lizards, his living room floor melts into a ten-storey-high building ledge, and he becomes a common housefly: “imagine that!” Ross concocts delightful nuggets of layered verbiage and creates new, delirious connections between the absurd and the mundane – always hinting at elusive, crumbling allegories. The rational structure opposes the irrational content, and a poetic enchantment emerges in the mischievous negotiation. Or, as French poet Paul Valéry once put it, a poetic enchantment can emerge in the space “between pure and impure, order and disorder . . . . [to] act on us like a chord of music.” The calm voice of Ross’ poems elicits an ecstatic, enchanting song through a wonderful/terrible perversion of language.
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- Peeling Back the Skin by Emily Wall
Books reviewed: Quick by Anne Simpson, songs for the dancing chicken by Emily Schultz, and High Speed Through Shoaling Water by Tom Wayman
- Blk, Wht, Read All Over by Crystal Hurdle
Books reviewed: Blue Feast by Shawna Lemay, Sooner by Margaret Christakos, and This Way the Road by Nina Berkhout
- Sous le signe d'Hermès: voyages poétiques... by Mélanie Collado
Books reviewed: Ce que vous ne lirez pas by Nadine Ltaif, Italie et autres voyages by Fulvio Caccia, and Miniatures sidérales by Teymour Toutounji and Mona Latif-Ghattas
- Poetry of Faith and Loss by Barbara Pell
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MLA: Betts, Gregory . Reflective and Surreal. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #187 (Winter 2005), Littérature francophone hors-Québec / Francophone Writing Outside Quebec. (pg. 104 - 105)
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