Two Weddings and a Funeral
- George Slobodzian (Author)
Clinical Studies. DC Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- rob mclennan (Author)
Manitoba Highway Map. Broken Jaw Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- John MacKenzie (Author)
Shaken by Physics. Polestar Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Andre Furlani
Studies, physics, a map: George Slobodzian, John MacKenzie, and Rob Mclennan are evidently after more than mere poetry. The son of a Saskatchewan doctor and a nurse, Slobodzian is a wry researcher into the vicissitudes of the flesh, writing a hymn to “our lady of excrement,/ of multiple comings/ and goings, generation/ and decay, perpetual/ motion, wholly cloacal.” In physics the Prince Edward Islander MacKenzie finds such decay writ cosmic, from entropy and the Heisenberg principle to the periodic table: “As if on a lave, the earth turns and turns/ Against the sun.” Driving across the prairies the Ontarian Mclennan charts the decline of rural Canada, “the disappearance /of the prairie/ grain pool, elevator totems/ between long flat winds.” Disintegration may fascinate all three, but they write about it in distinct ways. Slobodzian offers a colloquial stanzaic verse, as direct as Catullus in bed or Frank O’Hara at lunch; MacKenzie prefers a formal and gravely meditative style, a poetry of statement, while Mclennan writes in sparingly punctuated, imagistic abridgements.
Mclennan’s Manitoba highway map is the most intriguing of these three books but the least accomplished. The sequence records a 1998 cross-Canada reading tour undertaken with four other young poets to promote their Broken Jaw Press anthology Open 24 Hours. Free verse in a variety of typographical arrangements, the brief fragmentary poems are justified to the bottom of the pages, accentuating space and culminating in two blank (Shandyesque?) pages. Mclennan inserts found materials (e.g., rig stickers, billboards,), clichés, word games played in the poets’ car, and lists, among the discontinuous reveries, diatribes, and distillations.
Mclennan is “making poetry from something/ that is already there”—out of the routines, distractions, exhilaration and ordeals of the road. From Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North to Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” and John Ashbery’s “Grand Galop,” this form evokes the cacophony of mundane particulars interacting with a larger intuited concord. Basho’s is a particularly relevant comparison, especially given the haiku-like condensation attempted in much of Mclennan’s sequence, and the fact that Basho too crossed a large stretch of his native land in the company of a fellow poet.
Mclennan drives through a more diffuse, less intelligible world than Basho walked, larger and yet more homogeneous. The contemporary pilgrim seeks not a church but the “temple / of the golden arches”—and in Canada the pilgrim need not search long. Note is regularly made of what, in another lame pun, Mclellan calls “a sigh of the times”: potash lines are “a wound / across the prairie,” while forces unnamed are “exploiting saskatchewans / number one resource, / people // strip mined / & broken / into bits.”
Mclennan declares “every moment in here, a re/ learning, re/ vision,” but whatever is learned in the car does not make it to the page. The banal civic laments (e.g., jeremaids about the airport improvement fee at Vancouver International) punctuate a sequence that is primarily impressionistic, expository, and elliptical—not unlike most undistinguished apprentice poetry. Mclennan, however, is the author of several volumes of poetry, as well as the editor of Written on the Skin. “I make out of everything, a whole / lotta something, / not nothing,” he declares, yet as the noun whole pivots into a Led Zeppelinesque-adjective, the prospect of a Basho-like intimation of immanent pattern recedes before mere profusion. “Words happen/ in no particular order.” This too is an order, of course; as much as Mclennan hazards.
George Slobodzian is, if anything, a more unillusioned materialist than Mclennan, but he is a much more pungent, funny, and visceral poet. His faith in the guarantees, welcome and unwelcome, afforded by genital, oral, and anal constants could not be confused with prurience, and lends an unblushing integrity to Clinical Studies.
In “Art Class” the poet has “trouble with the vulva,” but what he can’t paint he will venture, usually with a salty humour, to describe: “Entering You,” goes the title of one punning poem, “is like visiting a country / with no indoor plumbing, / a small corrupt police force, / cultic activity to the South, / exotic cuisine, friendly / though stand-offish natives . . . .” In another comic allegory the speaker guides us through an exhibit of age, “with the young Polyp having / his freshly circumcised glans / cauterized at the hands / of the old crone Arthritis.” The tang and tangibility of his verse do not falter before death. Ignoring the bishop’s prayers at his mother’s interment, he thinks of “her body / acquiring, degree // by slow degree, / its new / ungodly temperature.” In a graveyard fantasia he and his child fail to find a trace of the dead, “so I changed her / on my mother’s grave and left.”
All the putrefaction should not mislead, for Slobodzian exuberantly affirms “this wretched world.” Overhearing teens filling out a Cosmopolitan questionnaire, he realizes that “love must be / a stalwart beast / to haul such crap / and remain intact.” Graphic, profane, and caustic, Clinical Studies (which is dedicated to his family) is in fact a tender book, children, parents, extended relations, and lovers filling its pages with their heat.
While on his desert island Slobodzian’s “Castaway” welcomes gravity—“in the morning/ my bowels say hello/ to the familiar tug/ of gravity and all/ is not so bad”—on Prince Edward Island, John MacKenzie stoically deduces that it is “gravity’s gift. . . /to turn us into dust.” That marked difference of sensibility persists. In Shaken by Physics (especially the modified sonnets of its title sequence) he conjures the implications of subatomic physics with the existential agony of Hardy’s sonnet “Hap.” In a grim anti-theophany, faith is a crude transposition over “ubiquitous hydrogen”: “We tore the stuffing out of nothing/ And said we’ll make a face . . . of God upon/ The unmarked grid of coordinated space.” Ignorance defines us: “We are/ Caught between water and sky. Unable to know/ Both.” When, in the coda to the skillful sequence of thirteen-line “dissonnets,” relief comes, it takes the form of disbursements and forfeitures:
When gravity pushes your face to the
And pulls all the water from your eyes
To the sea,
And all the words you have left behind
Like bones of small animals
For time and inclement memory to strip
To leach out minerals and rhythm,
You will know the voice of God.
It is this silence you have felt stalking you
Like a cat,
Each flick of its tail marking off
Days relentless as a pendulum.
MacKenzie’s attitude to language oscillates between irrepressible confidence in the bounty of its powers to anguished resignation before its impotence. Words work feverishly to convert experience into meaning, but those very meanings often chastise the poetry for its pretensions: “The poem, caught/ Between thought and word, shatters/ Against the anvil of itself.// The shards rust/ on the page.”
In one of the fine “Black Feather Poems,” MacKenzie finds the ideal implement for delineating the island in the bloody feather of a dead crow. It is the totemic creature of Shaken by Physics. “Three weeks/ Since illuminations harsh as sandpaper or/ A crow’s morning voice showed how/ Anything we make, crumbles.” The bird both embodies poetic sense and sets a limit on that sense. His crow is both Dickinson’s ascending Hope (“the thing with feathers”) and Yeats’s foreboding falcon (“turning and turning above autumn’s baring”), and it tries, with surprising success, to avoid the atavistic anthropomorphism of Ted Hughes’s famous precedent. But, for all its vigour and clarity of expression, MacKenzie’s poetry risks a monotonous earnestness. He is as absorbed in the pitiless inferences drawn from physics as Slobodzian is in those drawn from medicine, but he is without the latter’s gusto and cheer. An epithalamium ends on a typical note of masochism: “If I need to (I have decided) / I will burn out my eyes looking / Into the sun / For you.” At a wedding this strain must be as discordant as performing “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Slobodzian has a more festive epithalamium, celebrating his father’s remarriage, beginning: “Observe the old bull / in his winter meadow, / balls hanging low and blue.” What mars Slobodzian’s verse is the mawkishness that incongruously accompanies his corrosive and comic fascination with the body. The poem ends: “In his heart// he is thinking/ of spring.” This is a bit too close to “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
- Family Albums, Poetic Genealogies by Kegan Doyle
Books reviewed: Blue Marrow by Louise Bernice Halfe, Big Breath of a Wish by Richard Harrison, and The Canadian Girl by Shannon Stewart
- Supporting Ourselves by Andrea Wasylow Sharman
Books reviewed: Treading Fast Rivers by Eleonore Schonmaier, A slow dance in the flames by Lynda Monahan, Quintet: themes and variations by Jean Mallinson, Sneaking through the Evening by Maureen McCarthy, and My flesh the Sound of Rain by Heather MacLeod
- La beauté est nue by Kevin McNeilly
Books reviewed: Illuminated Verses by George Elliott Clarke
- Il y aura une fois by Swann Paradis
Books reviewed: Héritages du surréalisme by Claude Beausoleil
- Language Movements by Aaron Giovannone
Books reviewed: Rental Van by Clint Burnham, yes / no by Dennis Lee, Expressway by Sina Queyras, and Mosaic Orpheus by Peter Dale Scott
MLA: Furlani, Andre. Two Weddings and a Funeral. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 149 - 151)
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