A Knack for Anachronism

Reviewed by Carl Watts

Mark Callanan’s Romantic draws on, according to its press sheet, “Arthurian myth, the Romantic poets, the ill-fated ‘Great War’ efforts of the Newfoundland Regiment, modern parenthood, 16-bit video games, and Major League Baseball.” It’s not fair to read too much into promotional text, but foregrounding these at once disparate and fairly commonplace topics raises some questions. Given the mass of diffuse cultural references past and present that makes up pretty much any effort at writing poetry today, is it really so notable that a collection deals with a good variety of stuff? To whatever extent the statement’s arrangement of terms implies a mix of “high” (Arthurian and Romantic poetry) and “low” (video games and, I guess, sports), this form of supposedly transgressive boundary crossing has also ceased to be out of the ordinary.


Reading the poems themselves, one finds that Callanan is in on the joke. The book’s first poem, “Arcane,” physicalizes the conceit:


                        You waved a wand

that made a man appear

to walk across a screen,

drawing out a string

of foes that issued

from the lines of code

concealed within

the program’s sleeve.


After more sleight of hand, heroism, and spellcasting, the poem’s conclusion wraps itself up with a take on self-fashioning that acknowledges the universality of the practice while also imbuing it with nostalgia: “We were golden, then, / and took the shape / of anything we chose.” “Cliché” does something similar, its layers of technological obsolescence cascading in varied grammatical moods:


                        Came a time, the web

of self-delusion set its net

worldwide. Dial up. Early

Internet. You remember.

Then the tone switched

from sacred to paranoid.


“Romantic” expresses this swirling anachronism stylistically. “Gawain,” it almost exhorts, “accept his dubious challenge, / then hack the very head off him— / off him who now stands up,” coming across like contemporary English twisted into Arthurian shapes. “Cyclic” deals in a similar mock-heroic register as it describes the monotonously shifting landscapes of suburbia: “but from the rubble / rose a grocery store / whose produce, / if not great, is passable.” It often seems like the most notable heterogeneity in the book is its style and register, not the grab-bag of topics in the promotional text. “The Odd Couplets” is, despite its rendering in oddly stately language, a stripped-down take on the mundane dissonances of a relationship. Two-line comparisons like “He read her journal while she slept; / she hates it when he gets half-slapped” give way to the concluding statement that “they talk of kids, but not right now,” which is followed by the standalone line “The flat’s too small. There isn’t room.” The asymmetries are again physicalized, the poem a manifestly made thing the purpose of which is to show a marriage, half-made as it is, nevertheless in the process of being unmade.


Jason Camlot’s Vlarf, as indicated by the title, mines the discourses of the Victorian world in the same way that flarf harvested the textual junkyards of the early internet, in the process rehabilitating sentiments that today might seem anachronistic or shameful. The result is a form of avant-lyric that might bring to mind Sina Queyras’ ideas about Lyric Conceptualism. And the steady pace of opening poem “Lost Days” gives the impression that Camlot is recreating period verse more systematically than does Callanan:


                        The Victorian period is alive today.

The sandwich men are lurking in the streets.

They invented new machines for threshing wheat,

hammers for pummeling men back into clay,

systems to guarantee that workers pay

with lacerated hands and blistered feet.


But Vlarf also uses found text and actual mining (as opposed to the fundamentally lyric practice of just choosing some words and not others). In being more systematic it’s also more alien, its overlaying of styles generating awkward Tennysonian clumps that fall and linger like Tetris blocks amid the book’s more synthesized swaths. See, for example, “Men of Letters,” which draws on John Stuart Mill’s and John Ruskin’s autobiographies:


                                    In a monthly repository he stored

ideas about the intuitive truth of some words.

His father had raised him as an experiment

in education, and had taught him the uselessness


of wild imagination.


“In the Criminal’s Cabinet, Sherlock Holmes Discovers Himself” is situated at a natural confluence between the Victorians and flarf, with the cabinet of curiosities aligning naturally with the crass pop-info overload of early Google: “snuffed tapers and chandeliers, / and beneath a glass table top, / instruments for the manipulation of teeth. / Holmes admired the Japanned goods.” “The Fruit Man,” a long Rosetti reimagining, employs repetition in a way that’s both affecting and too much, its excessive end-rhymes reducing hybrid style into hyper-doggerel:


                        My mother alone

in the paisley kitchen,

talking on the phone,

one of her sisters wishing

calamity upon

her other one

as far as I can tell,

from my little room upstairs.


The plundering eventually gets a little less systematic. “Lines Left” resembles a Victorian diary entry as much as a throwaway LiveJournal confession from the early 2000s, reading, in its entirety, “I had a string / of futile-feelings / about the dabchicks. / But no longer”; “Limerick of the Sea,” from “Two Limericks,” twists up the doggerel one turn further (“A wrench his skiff he liked to twist with. . . . Then a rag the tool he’d wiped forthwith with”).


“Why I Am Not a Modernist,” depicting an encounter with Hugh Kenner, is a humorous celebration of the verbosity of Victorian texts—about two-thirds of it consists of the preposterously long-winded title of the speaker’s 39-volume masterwork (“The Queen of Autumn’s Sepulcher: / A Study of Inscrutable Codicils, / with Official Tables Appended, / Summarizing the Report . . .”). Its opening and closing lines, meanwhile, manage to parody and contain the existentially blunt, self-defeating minimalism of the modernist, with Hugh Kenner beginning an essay (“I sip; we sip. I look / down. ‘You have MODERNISM in it’”) and the poem eventually ending, “And one day in a little magazine / I see Hugh’s essay, called MODERNISM.” The poem also reconciles the book’s different registers and techniques, in doing so articulating what might be Camlot’s organizing take on voice, sentiment, authenticity, or whatever poetic language is or might do. The notes reveal that it’s a cut-and-replace of a Frank O’Hara poem; these more haphazard methods complement Camlot’s “purer” uses of found text, like erasures.


A little less varied is Kevin Irie’s The Tantramar Re-Vision, which, the resonance of its title with Charles G.D. Roberts notwithstanding, takes its primary inspiration from John Thompson’s Stilt Jack. While Thompson’s 1978 volume took part in the sometimes-maligned loosening of the ghazal form into free verse, what stands out about it today is its strings of monosyllables that trace out fragmentary images, shift among grammatical moods, and imbue objects with a physical weight even as they’re left lingering agrammatically. Lines like “On the hook, big trout lie like stone: / terror, and they fiercely whip their heads, unmoved” continue to surprise; one can understand why Irie chose it as an access point into one of Canadian poetry’s most written-about landscapes.


The Tantramar Re-Vision’s first poem, “Recognition,” provides a smoothly prosaic evocation of the weighty particles one finds in Thompson’s ghazals: “Fog finds its shape in the bodies that breach it— / a cow, a leaning barn, a man.” But the enjambment into the following line (“coming closer to just being seen”) saps it of Thompson’s gravity and pacing. A little of the latter shows through in the following stanza—“You know him by the way he walks, stands, / and how it is not the fog that contains him”—but, given the simplicity of the images, the patterning doesn’t achieve Stilt Jack’s level of disorientation.


“The Tantramar Re-Vision” does something similar, presenting a succession of spare images. Stretches like “just a trail / straight as a finger that points from no hand” spread Thompson’s loose ghazal even further, making some use of white space as well. Much of the poetry parses grammatically—it’s free verse, but it could very well be reformatted as standard prose. “Crossing Tantramar Marsh,” for example, is close to disorienting; it begins, “Bales of rolled hay large,” its monosyllables culminating in the awkward physicality of the final term. But, despite the hanging indents of the subsequent lines, the image ends as straightforward simile: “as industrial oil drums.”


Irie’s lines coil up a bit more tightly on occasion, like when the end of “Welcome to the Marsh Visitor Centre!” approximates Thompson’s shifting grammatical moods with narrative twists (“This marsh keeps to corners you’ll never reach, / knows not even Nature // can hold on to its looks”). “Red Alert” does something different by fixating on “That cyst / on your otherwise flawless back, / which never had acne but burned so easily,” balancing the weightlessly philosophical sections with a blunt corporeality one also finds in some of the book’s uncomfortably direct references to Thompson’s alcoholism. By “Blasphemies: Erasures/Extractions from John Thompson’s Stilt Jack,” however, the careful pacing and manifold disorientations of its inspiration are flattened into a straightforwardly prosaic series of images (“The moon / in its right place lives / in darkness”). It reverses what the erasure technique usually does in that it’s the source poems that are unpredictable and the vignettes revealed by the erasure comparatively conventional. The Tantramar Re-Vision is smoothly systematic in its use of a source text and hallowed poetic landscape, but it leaves one wondering if the ugly composite voices of Callanan and Camlot are more valuable as core samples.



This review “A Knack for Anachronism” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 2 Nov. 2022. Web.

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