The Poet's Novel (Un)framed
- Ian Rae (Author)
From Cohen to Carson: The Poet's Novel in Canada. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Kevin McNeilly
Ian Rae’s impressively cogent book aims to realign our critical approaches to the Canadian poet’s novel—a sometimes tenuously, sometimes tendentiously hybrid form, practiced by writers from A. M. Klein to Anne Michaels, that has become an uncanny staple of the contemporary Canadian canon. Rae asserts that, instead of concentrating on how the poet’s novel fractures conventions of genre, we would do better—as he does, with considerable detail and care—to address how such writers establish distinct sets of methods and conventions. The poet’s novel is not necessarily a genre unto itself, but Rae claims it’s also important not to regard it simply as a dilution or a fracturing of novelistic narrative by lyric; rather, the poet’s novel becomes, in various instances, a re-imagining of narrative temporalities in and through the figural. And the key figure running through all of the work Rae encounters and reads here is the frame.
At the book’s core are a set of five case studies, of Leonard Cohen’s The Favourite Game, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, trilogies by George Bowering (Autobiology, Curious, A Short Sad Book) and Daphne Marlatt (Frames of a Story, Zócalo, Ana Historic), and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Rae’s reading list seems at first glance to be genetic and linear, tracing the recent development of the genre in historically successive texts, but this impression is deceptive: his investigation of what amounts to a non-linear temporality brings out not influences or successions among these writers, but resonant assemblages of shared compositional tactics. Rae’s critical style is not especially postmodern or post- anything; the generic blandness of his title suggests that if we open the book, we’re likely to encounter another thematic study in Canadian cultural nationalism—although, thankfully, this is not so. One of the blessings of Rae’s work is his ability to handle the fraught complexities of our latter-day cultural hybridity with a deftness and directness. The trope of the frame, which he appears to take from Marlatt, is neither simply theme nor trait, but amounts simultaneously to figure and disfigurement, at once delimiting and unknitting representational economies: in these texts, each
act of framing is also for Rae
an act of unframing—and his insistence here on the kinetic, on a phenomenology of the act, is significant—
because, he writes, these moments of framing
reconfigure previous stories and narrative techniques, as well as undermining their own media. This double movement, which (in a brief but necessary gesture of terminological wit) he names (un)framing, comes to involve the creative exploitation by these writers of the
instability of the frame as a structure to discover a means out of the thoroughly reified and thoroughly commodified form of the late twentieth-century novel. (As analogues, the work of Jacques Rancière on the image or of Jean-François Lyotard on the figural come to mind, although Rae appears to have encountered neither when he wrote this book, nor does he choose to take up their continental idioms.) His extended close analyses of these five poet-novelists are impressively detailed and thorough, and Rae’s intention is clearly to demonstrate how those deconstructive doublings play out in practice.
In each study, he attends particularly to the writers’ engagements with visual media, particularly painting and photography, although he does begin with a discussion of serial form that collides Jack Spicer and Pierre Boulez—a musical gesture that points toward the undoing of a spatial-temporal antinomy within such media, and within these texts. It seems to me that despite his insistence on a fractured visuality, Rae is actually interested in how narrative time can be poetically thickened, to create what he calls
a sense of duration, an attenuating of the lived time of speaking subject, which is a particularly pressing critical concern in the context of a North American culture of distraction, in which reading time, or even simply taking a moment to attend to our lived and living spaces, is increasingly rare and dissipated. Anne Carson offers the principal impetus for all of Rae’s readings, when she asserts (and Rae quotes her) that
to keep attention strong means to keep it from settling. Despite their bookish exterior, their contingent frame, Rae’s readings make a strong creative virtue of unsettling us.
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MLA: McNeilly, Kevin. The Poet's Novel (Un)framed. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 2 May 2012. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #212 (Spring 2012), General Issue. (pg. 173 - 174)
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