That Tyrant, I
- Mitchell Parry (Author)
Tacoma Narrows. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- David Zieroth (Author)
The Village of Sliding Time. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Iain Higgins (Author)
Then Again: Something of a Life. Oolichan Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Rick Gooding
Early in the autobiographical Tacoma Narrows, Mitchell Parry proclaims his distrust of autobiography: “First remove that tyrant, I. / No plucking, no coddling—no time / for gentlessness. Knock it out, / chip free the stubborn tooth.” The moment, like the later claim, “I’m still learning to let lost things stay lost,” is partly disingenuous. Parry’s debut collection excels in retrieving lost moments—if not lost things—and uses autobiography to surprisingly expansive effect. Candidly but without bitterness, Parry chronicles loss, recounting the failure of a marriage and the death of a father. Yet there are also very funny moments, notably in “Drunk, with Axe,” and times when Parry all but disappears as he contemplates the losses of others.
Much of Tacoma Narrows has appeared in Pottersfield Press, Malahat Review, and Antigonish Review, but the collection feels remarkably coherent. In “On Sparrow Song,” lines on a Nick Drake recording enrich a reference to the songwriter in “St. Pat’s,” and a description of verglas establishes the private background and central metaphor of the mournful “Sang d’encre.” But while the collection’s title piece acquires much of its force from earlier poems, the close connections between and among poems are not invariably successful. More than half of the collection deals with birds—some 20 different species—and the references eventually become tiresome. Moreover, the interconnectedness of the poems virtually insists that we follow the autobiographical thread running through the book, but that thread is not always clear, and I often found myself checking the acknowledgments to fill in details.
Many of Parry’s best poems are meditations on visual arts—a painting of a goldfinch by Dutch master Carel Fabritius, a photo by Vancouver artist Jin-me Yoon. Parry deftly teases out the implications of images, most movingly in “Burn Unit,” a touching meditation on a photo by photojournalist Raphael Gaillarde which explores the complex trust between a burn victim and the three men who carry her down a hospital corridor:
In the end, it’s the body
we come back to—rags, bones,
flesh. Picture her rising from the tub,
held up, supported by water’s
buoyancy. When they lift her
back into herself. She knows
this is a kind of love, these hands that
wrap her with a tenderness difficult
Parry’s approach to lineation and stanza form is less confident than his visual sense. There are experiments with set forms—the sonnet, the ghazal, the rhymed stanza—but Parry displays a preference for unrhymed couplets and tercets that are so heavily enjambed that the forms remain purely visual. The lack of a clear poetic idiom seems the one clear indication that Tacoma Narrows is a first collection.
David Zieroth’s first poems appeared more than 30 years ago, and his work has been widely anthologized. The Village of Sliding Time, Zieroth’s tenth book, reveals its strengths more slowly than Tacoma Narrows, but his handling of lineation and metre is sure-footed, and patient readers will be rewarded. The long title poem, an exploration of Zieroth’s childhood in Neepawa, is bracketed by “How I Came To Be,” which traces the circumstances of the poet’s conception, and “Had I Stayed on the Farm,” both a poignant evocation of a life not lived and a deftly understated affirmation of the actual course of events.
In the title poem, the poet answers a knock at his apartment door to find “a younger / teenaged boy / come to take me back // and guide me through / what I thought had gone.” The poet and his younger self return to the Manitoba of Zieroth’s youth, before negotiating their way through contemporary North Vancouver, this time with the mature poet guiding the youth through “towers / even his spacey dreams / could not foresee.” At times Zieroth silently interrogates his younger self, wondering “what skills of his / I’ve lost,” but the emphasis rests firmly on the landscape and community of Zieroth’s childhood—his family, the immigrant farmers, Métis trappers, townsfolk, the men and women who sought to leave, and the ones who were destroyed by staying. What emerges is not so much how Neepawa made the poet who he is, but the circumstances that created a longing to leave.
Precise and minimalist, emotionally restrained, and alliterative, The Village of Sliding Time depends for effect on sound and connotation rather than conspicuous figures of speech. Zieroth’s preference for long vowels and short lines in which lineation does the work of punctuation imposes a slow, deliberate reading which reflects the sometimes hesitating exposition of the poet’s memories. The death of Delbert is fairly representative: the lineation, the tendency of alliteration to span line breaks, and the two-to-four beat lines culminating in the series of heavy stresses that close the episode:
later word came back
he broke the bank somewhere
his luck manic till the end
the manager sure he was cheating
and later his body returned
down from that coolness
into the corner of a quarter section
its tidy fence
against which the summer
beat until the wood went white
Iain Higgins’ debut collection will likely attract a narrower audience. Consisting of short poems and prose poems followed by the lengthy autobiographical title piece, Then Again: Something of a Life is a less rewarding exploration of self and community than Zieroth’s book, while the collection as a whole is less coherent and has fewer memorable moments than Parry’s. The poems abound in allusion, wordplay, and neologisms, and Higgins often plays with clichés—“The new Kingdom Come: virtual smorgasmopolitanism”—but the devices often seem clever for the sake of cleverness. To my mind Higgins’ best poems—for example, “Field Notes for My Sons”—explore fatherhood, and they succeed because the subject matter restrains Higgins’ verbal exuberance. Elsewhere, the language borders on the kind of obscurity I associate with the eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart: Higgins’ rarified verse may be intellectually adventurous, a virtuoso performance, but appreciating it depends on a specialized background that perhaps only Higgins possesses.
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MLA: Gooding, Rick. That Tyrant, I. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #192 (Spring 2007), Gabrielle Roy contemporaine/The Contemporary Gabrielle Roy. (pg. 158 - 159)
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