The Poet's Quandaries
- Raymond Souster (Author)
Sparrow Talk. The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- A. F. Moritz (Author)
The Sentinel. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
A.F. Moritz's The Sentinel, a 2008 Governor General's Literary Awards finalist, and Raymond Souster's Sparrow Talk, the second book of Souster's "Up to Date" series, are both collections of poetry dealing with questions of progress, nature, war, art, time, mortality, justice, and other seemingly timeless subjects. Although each collection is a worthy addition to the existing oeuvre of these accomplished poets, they confront similar subjects rather differently and with varying degrees of success.
The Sentinel opens with the evocative "The Butterfly," before presenting the rest of the poems in three sections named "Better Days," "In a Prosperous Country," and, again, "Better Days." "The Butterfly" presents a futuristic vision of the world, but very much grounded in the realities of the present-war, violence, competing utopian and dystopian visions, and a desire for political and social transformation. The poem introduces one of the book's dominant themes, the intersection of the personal and the political in imagining a collective future that is more just and responsible, for us and for future generations. Moritz writes on a range of topics: the construction and narration of history, the disenfranchised and war, the politics of memorialization, our vexed relationship with urban spaces, the trials of youth, the human body's mortality, the process of poetic creation, and the relationship between personal time, nature, and collective history. His butterfly poignantly reminds us of the "butterfly effect" and is like his canary in the coal mine-the harbinger, the prophet, and the poet. The Sentinel's title poem, appropriately situated in the middle of the book, addresses similar connections between past legacies, present conundrums, and future visions. The sentinel, like the butterfly, represents the prophet-poet, caught between protecting the "old guard" of tradition and civilization and trying to anticipate and shape the future. His dilemma crystallizes our own tremulous position between hope and fear. Moritz is at his best when he combines his poetic sensibility-his ear for rhythm, precise phrasing, nuanced shifts in tone and register, and lyrical imagery-with his knowledge of mythic and literary conventions and his cogent political and philosophical observations.
Souster's collection, Sparrow Talk, explores many of the same issues as The Sentinel, such as mortality, technological progress, war and violence, and nature, but in a radically different style. Most of the poems are short, no longer than one or two stanzas, and many are only one to five lines long. Souster eschews the metaphors, allusions, and lengthier reflections that characterize The Sentinel, and opts instead for the speech of ordinary conversation, direct and declarative. Whereas The Sentinel is organized into sections, Sparrow Talk reads more like a stream-of-consciousness whose poems are organized chronologically and continuously follow one after another on the same page, like the entries in a journal. Souster's strength resides in his seemingly inexhaustible capacity for witty aphorisms and humorous revisions to conventional ways of thinking. Like The Sentinel, Sparrow Talk hinges on the interplay of hope and fear, but contains more humour than the former, which is more melancholy though it contains flashes of modern comedy in poems like "Busman's Honeymoon" and "The Titanic." Yet, resignation, cynicism, and nostalgia seem more prominent in Sparrow Talk even though Souster writes that he sings of hope; his final poem "Old Fools Like Us" illustrates this. Moritz at times sounds post-apocalyptic, yet he usually avoids the nostalgia that in Sparrow Talk risks spilling over into conservatism and tends to create a sense of debilitation and paralysis. Sparrow Talk has the quality of avian conversation, consisting of brief, sharp insights into human behaviour, but its best moments of unique wit, irony, and understatement are punctuated by slightly tired and banal lines, making the collection somewhat uneven and disjointed in tone and affect. Souster does very well in capturing our gut reactions to and feelings about current political and social crises, but in comparison to Moritz's nuanced observations and balance between complex ethical quandaries and emotion, they can come across as simply righteous, indignant, and regrettably simplistic.
Thus, while each book has its own merits, The Sentinel accomplishes with greater dexterity what Sparrow Talk aims for but does not quite reach, which is the combination of formal attention and studied reflection in appealing to both reason and emotion.
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MLA: Lim, Amanda, Lim, Amanda, Moritz, A. F, and Souster, Raymond. The Poet's Quandaries. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #200 (Spring 2009), Strategic Nationalisms. (pg. 177 - 178)
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