The Sincerity Test
- Crystal Hurdle (Author)
After Ted & Sylvia. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Philip Kevin Paul (Author)
Taking the Names Down from the Hill. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- John Thompson (Author)
The Gates of Even. Ekstasis Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Bert Almon
Ted Hughes used to complain about what he called the “Plath Fantasia,” the attempts by outsiders to exploit the tragedy of Sylvia Plath no matter what emotional damage might be done to him and their children. The American poet Robin Morgan once published a poem about her desire to castrate Hughes and “liberate” his children. Now that Hughes is dead and has no way to defend himself in the courts, there are no limits to the exploitation of this painful story. Hurdle’s poems assume that she can speak for the living children, who are adults and could speak for themselves. The book is described by her publisher as incorporating a literary ménage à trois. Necrovoyeurism would be a better term. “The Sylvias: a Fantasy” imagines father-daughter incest in disgusting detail. There is no evidence that incest took place between Otto and Sylvia Plath, but anything can be said if it is called a fantasy. The poems rely on hectoring rhetorical questions about facts and blame rather than on sympathetic identification. Hurdle’s verse is undistinguished, the best images coming from Plath’s work in a kind of pastiche. Those battered old symbols, Ken and Barbie, are dragged out of the toy box to make a feminist point. Taste aside, Ezra Pound once observed that technique is the test of sincerity, and Ted and Sylvia fails that test. This poet has not earned the right to address Plath as “Sivvy.”
Kevin Paul’s book meets the test of technique. His poems are superbly crafted and show an extraordinary lyric tact. The tone is sometimes celebratory, sometimes elegiac (which is another kind of celebration). He is a member of the WSÁ,NEÄ (Wsanec, or Saanich) Nation. His poems explore a web of relationships with family and with nature. He can recreate a traditional dream vision (“Deer Medicine”) or recreate the flight of a bird (“Pheasant on Deer Mountain”). He shows equal skill in evoking the lives of human beings. He is aware of the inevitable pain that attachment to fragile lives entails, but as he says in the refrain of “The Cost: a song,” “love outweighs the cost.” He also has a sense of humor, as in “Belly Button,” a poem about his mother’s discomforts during her pregnancy with him. The book has not been assembled hastily: he was one of the stars in the 1995 anthology, Breathing Fire. The wait was worth it: the poems manifest stylistic maturity, succeeding through superb images and a grasp of form (he is especially skilled in the use of stanzas). One of the most interesting poems, “What We Call Life,” explores the meanings of three important words in Wsanec, words with spiritual and moral weight, thereby revealing the cultural wealth that he can draw on for his English poems.
John O. Thompson’s first book, Echo and Montana, appeared in 1980. This second book is a curious mixture of the academic and the lyrical. The poems are often jottings or notations. It is possible that the hesitant, labored technique of many of the poems shows the uncertainty of a poet starting to write again—or perhaps he has assembled occasional efforts at writing over the last twenty years. He doesn’t hesitate to lecture the reader on film, postindustrial society and the thought of Fredric Jameson: hence the academic label. Tutorials, conferences, threatened Departments and Ph. D theses are possibly subjects for poetry, but not in this collection. Some of the poems are rhymed, though Thompson assures his readers in a superfluous afterword that his allegiances are not traditionalist: he likes the Pound-Zukofsky-language poetry lineage and the Tish poets. There is a wavering line in postmodernism between the creative word game and the contrivance. Thompson is often on the wrong side of the line, showing misguided technique: archness that doesn’t go anywhere. Once in a while lyric poetry asserts its presence, as in “Dryden, Ontario”:
White water, and a long freight train
inching above it; I on a rock watching
the water gash itself on its own rocks, the white
wounds healing as it winds beyond my sight.
It would perhaps be academic to trace this poem back to a fine predecessor, A. J. M. Smith’s “The Lonely Land” (“This is the beauty / of strength / broken by strength / and still strong”). Thompson has real talent both as a lyric poet and an intellectual satirist, but neither talent gets properly exercised in most of these poems. Now that the poet has cranked up the old machinery, something better might be produced.
- Elizabeth Bishop At Home by Sara Jamieson
Books reviewed: Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares by Neil K Besner and Carmen L. Oliveira and Divisions of the Heart: Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Memory and Place by Sandra Barry, Gwendolyn Davies, and Peter Sanger
- Art of Translation by Tanis Macdonald
Books reviewed: Volta by Susan Gillis, Colville's People by Carol Malyon, and From Dark Horse Road by Ellen McGinn
- Poet on Point by Brian Henderson
Books reviewed: Ursa Major by Robert Bringhurst
- The Daring Wager by Linda Quirk
Books reviewed: Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women's Poetry by Di Brandt and Barbara Godard and My Beloved Wager: Essays from a Writing Practice by Smaro Kamboureli and Erín Moure
- Exit/Enter bpNichol by Kathryn Grafton
Books reviewed: Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol by Roy Miki and bpNichol Comics by Carl Peters
MLA: Almon, Bert. The Sincerity Test. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 145 - 146)
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