Seams of Language
- Elizabeth Philips (Author)
A Blue with Blood in It. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Russell Thornton (Author)
The Fifth Window. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Gerald Hill (Author)
The Man from Saskatchewan. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Bert Almon
A poetry collection entitled The Man from Saskatchewan sets up expectations: the reader assumes that the poetry will be studded with the word "prairie" and that images of sun and wind will abound. The expectations are increased by Courtney Milne’s striking cover photograph of a very long human shadow cast over a texture of dried and cracked mud, a picture from his W. O. Mitchell Country. But the photo is part of the postmodern subtlety of the book, for the shadow is clearly the photographer’s, which literally creates a reflexive stance, a portrait of an artist creating art, and the visual mosaic of the cracked surface is more interesting for its composition than for its prairie subject matter. Hill’s book has the predictable prairie poems, concentrated in the last two sequences, but he goes beyond recording prairie life. One sequence is a tribute to Robert Kroetsch’s Stone Hammer Poems and the other (the title sequence) has the obligatory poems about hockey and prairie baseball games. But like Kroetsch, Hill is concerned with the structure and point of view and often "bares the device" in a Russian Formalist way, letting us know that he is not merely an observer of landscape. Rather, he is the controlling figure in the setting, which he creates as he observes it. The first poem in the book, "A Poetic," undercuts the notion that it is enough to reflect reality uncritically: he begins with a prose paragraph: "Much is said about place or voice or story as if a poem were a town on the Trans-Canada Highway or a simple man shouting from a tree or a continuous passage of words...." The succeeding sections, "Town," "Man" and "Word" demolish this idea. The "Town" is a place where poetry walks the side streets; the "Man" utters an empty parenthesis; and "Word" presents an ordinary rhubarb plant in a set of witty images. The rhubarb plant, we are told, grows next to the home "Grace" next door, whose name is probed for its sweetness, and the poet concludes, "I leave life in a small town, / the webbed hands of rhubarb / dishing out the sun." A rhubarb plant is, in John Bunyan’s phrase, grace abounding.
The best work in the book is "Life as a Visual Man," a sequence about a painter, which carries out a sophisticated inquiry into the nature of representation. The painter himself becomes a "painted man quite literally when he tries to paint himself. Hill probes at the relationship between painted image and the word, which paints images in a different way. He also has some fine love poems, anti-love poems in a way, in his "No Way to Talk of Love." He misfires occasionally, as in his poems about the terribly limited life of a very ordinary character called Spike: the pathos aimed at never quite comes off. His set of poems about eyes—false eyes, snake eyes, wandering eyes—picks at the seams of representation in a way that, without seeming derivative, evokes Kroetsch. Hill has waited sixteen years to publish his second book (Heartwood appeared in 1985). He is now writing at a much higher level. We should hope that the third book appears with less delay.
Elizabeth Philips calls Andrew Marvell to mind: the great English poet used gardens as a symbolic locale in several of his finest poems. The garden is an interface of the real and the mythical, of nature and order, of immediacy and memory. Some of the gardens she describes seem literal, planted with seeds out of some of those seed catalogues which Robert Kroetsch made us all so aware of as a Canadian institution. At other times she creates a bush garden, a place where the blueberries are wild, not cultivated (usually the Qu’Appelle Valley), and the gentians have "a blue with blood in it." In one of the best poems, "The Clearing," a pregnant pioneer woman pauses in her housework to watch a bear grazing on berries, a spot of time where the sight of another creature "eats her loneliness."
Philips also brings the garden of Eden into her work, but transformed in subtle ways. In "The Garden, Remembered," the Eve and Adam figures are not quite the Biblical ones: the poet describes a male figure "discoursing" on hybrids, as if naming the Creation were an academic lecture. Her Eve is not concerned with theology but with gardening and regrets that she did not bring any seed heads along. In "A Woman Walking," the Eve character has a baby on her hip and a load of firewood on her head and the Adam is preoccupied with his walking stick; her "elegant gait" is disturbed by the thought that the staff will give rise to terrible inventions. It might seem that the old story of lost Eden had been worked out, but Philips can revive it. Her book has other subjects: she writes a fine monologue by a soldier who survived D-Day, and her elegy for Gwendolyn MacEwen ("In This Country") is a rich and disturbing work. The diversity and inter-textual qualities of this outstanding collection are hard to suggest in a review.
Russell Thornton’s book, The Fifth Window, suffers from prolixity. He almost always says too much, and says it with adjectives, not often vivid ones. Sometimes the prolixity arises from a desire to write long, sinuous sentences drawn out of many lines, the Miltonic strategy, but too often the effect is lost. He does have some good scenes of Greece in the second part of his book, but even in those the poems need compression. The best poems in his book are the unrhymed sonnets, "Lazarus’s Songs to Mary Magdalene." The fourteen-line restriction keeps his point of view focused, and he has some rich imaginings of the post-death experience of the man brought back to life by Jesus. And he is able to exploit the complex legend of Mary Magdalene at the same time: the symbol of contemplation, the reformed prostitute endlessly weeping, the eyewitness of Christ’s resurrection. The pacing of his utterances is controlled by the four, four, three, three stanza pattern: he has important choices open to him about making each unit open or closed to the one after it. After so many centuries, the sonnet still offers fine structural possibilities and Thornton uses them well. Perhaps formal verse is a direction he should pursue. Hill and Philips make good use of formal freedom, inventing patterns suitable for each work.
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MLA: Almon, Bert. Seams of Language. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #180 (Spring 2004), (Montgomery, Carson, Bissoondath, Goodridge). (pg. 141 - 143)
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