A Quintessence of Poetry

Reviewed by Travis V. Mason

In A Walker in the City, Méira Cook takes on the old boys’ club of poetry in playful and patricidal fashion. Cook’s eponymous walker, variously named Mia and Ms. Em Cook (and, by extrapolation, Méira Cook) measures life in feet, [t]he foot a precise / approximation of length. Walking and writing share tongues and feet; both acts allow Cook’s Girl with a name like a shrug, a termagant who has turned being written to her advantage by writing her way out of others’ narratives, to establish herself as one of the most enigmatic and powerful characters in Canadian literature. Escaping the confines of literary girlhood imposed by the old poet F. Kulperstein, himself the invention of Felix Kaye (for whom Ms. Em Cook was amanuensis), Mia et al. participate in a layered mystery of authorship of Nabokovian proportions. (Taken together, Felix Kaye and F. Kulperstein suggest felix culpa, the fortunate fall associated with original sin and, in more literary terms, the happy resolution following unfortunate events.) But the allusions don’t stop with Pale Fire; Mallarmé, Nietzsche, Dante, and Lewis Carroll, for example, inform Cook’s long poem in more or less direct ways. The opening section thrums with Alice in Wonderland verve—Callooh! Callay! arias she out (but soft / away), providing both allusion and inverted syntax that privileges action words—and introduces characters as subjects and agents. While the style of energy changes from section to section, the play between and among its conflicting figures maintains a momentum that matches, at least, the cadences of walking in a city, into a life beyond the page. As Dante walks into a forest primeval at the start of his Commedia, so Cook’s walker steps out of a literary tradition darkened by a domineering patriarchy.

George Murray writes personal poems attuned to environments indoors and out. Whiteout opens with a poem revisiting the first fifteen lines of Canto 24 of Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s Shepherd, who in the original balks at having to lead his flock in the early morning cold, in Murray’s poem embodies the quotidian act of walk[ing] to the bank in the rain. The dual nature of the landscape that causes Dante’s shepherd to fret persists in Murray’s shepherd’s hands, one of which remains protected in its sleeve only to emerge once inside the bank. Such revisioning of classical material doesn’t so much jar as it does serve as a reminder that the lyric remains a malleable and viable poetic form in twenty-first-century Canada. If Murray successfully translates fourteenth-century Italian poetry into present-day Newfoundland, he likewise telegraphs local vernacular as vital element of lyric tradition, whether in the sing-song rhymes of Song for a Memory (The old men are proud of their jukebox picks, / Humming in time where the words come unfixed) or the philosophical familiarity of St. John’s (Your future could lean in that door and you / might not recognize it as anything / but the next in another series of nows). The collection’s two Ligature poems—Ligature ( ) and Ligature (&)—succinctly articulate Murray’s poetic in Whiteout (a condition during which sea, sky, and land have no discernible lines of demarcation). Signalling the poet’s fealty to linguistic marks and sounds, these poems employ ligature as metaphorical conjunction of two bodies come together as something resembling an us that just might make a shape of life. That some ligatures last longer than others—the ampersand’s almost infinity, or infinity’s / shape, almost is a typographical reminder of its longevity—reminds how ephemeral links between people can often be and how enduring some links between ideas, words, and books. Inwardly and outwardly, ligatures dissolve and hold as arbitrarily as the weather (which is to say for reasons beyond our control, if not entirely beyond our ken).

In her debut collection, Michelle Smith looks even further back than Cook and Murray to shape her attention to travel and reading as vocations. The Greek myths that inform dear Hermes… function both as a device for crafting lyric apostrophes and as a mode of travel that embraces the newness of otherwhere alongside the promise of imagination. Three pages of explanatory notes attest to the breadth of cultural forms Smith engages in this slim volume. Greek gods receive letters from The Traveller who identifies herself in the opening poem, The Traveller Writes by the Light of the Liar’s Star, as Hermes’ mercurial daughter. Despite the possibility that the traveller might be Angela, the spirit of messages, Smith writes in the notes that she is pure invention. She also appears in a few poems as the poet, whose missives address more earthly folks. All of the speakers, though, share a similar voice, whether in the numerous ekphrastic poems or in poems of romantic love or in apostrophes to the gods. All evoke the various places to which the speaker has travelled, literally and otherwise. An uneasiness resides in these poems between playfully anachronistic lyric and earnestly recollected themes from ancient myth, with the balance tipping more toward the latter. For every dear Persephone— / it wasn’t the pomegranate, was it? / c’mon, confess, ’cause the jig is up, an O! Thoughtless Child who unleashed / the wrath of winter upon us all, who ensures / April is ever the cruellest month offers a counterpoint in universalism; for each Dear Nike— / Oh, to write you an ode, a sonnet, a rock song, a his voice travels in waves / of heat that gather in the ear, thick as sticky hot honey appears to undo with what feels to be a forced fealty to assonance at the expense of cadence. Still, for a journey into the heart and mind of a world-loving, word-leaving new voice, dear Hermes… proves aptly attuned to the inner and outer workings of story.

The Mommiad seems to be a book that Gilbert felt he had to write in order to come to terms with his mother’s death. His conflicting feelings stemming from a conflicted relationship—he fears, he loves, he desires, he becomes (when in drag) his mother—dominate the memoirish entries, which occasionally give up trying to be poems and resort to prose accounts of incidents and psychological insights. Written in a voice that sounds stagey—that is, a voice not overly concerned with syntactical or grammatical precision, a voice desperate to speak without benefit of editorial hindsight for fear of either losing the memories or of deciding not to share the memories at all—the book often seems glib in the face of such serious material (alcoholism, infidelity, physical abuse, sexual identity). Still, for readers it’s hard to tell whether the glibness is intentional or a result of careless editing. I can put aside my preference for pronoun agreement, which is ignored in such sentences (lines?) as She moved my sister and I up to Toronto and When I was about fourteen years old my mother gave my sister and I a sex manual, or for proper conjugation, which is missing in a reference to David Carradine who, according to Gilbert, hung himself while trying to get an erection—such inaccuracies and their concomitant unsophistication might be intentional. But the phrase [f]or she leaved in a dream strikes me as unfortunate, as does the narrative cliché contained in the lines [b]ut she was a good mother / Or was she? Given Gilbert’s prowess as a playwright (and the fact that The Mommiad is published by Playwrights Canada Press), these poems (or whatever they are) succeed as monologues more than as poems. I suspect, too, that they would benefit from a professional reading/performance, which would imbue the memories with a humour and poignancy the words themselves struggle to convey.

If Gilbert’s monologue-poems falter on the page, Phil Hall’s self-described essay-poems in Killdeer, the fourth release from BookThug’s increasingly necessary Department of Critical Thought, accomplish something at once prosaic and poetic while eschewing prose-poem and lyric conventions. Using lines within lines—a seeming marriage of Emily Dickinson’s dash and Sue Goyette’s long lines—Hall crafts narrative essays out of epigraphs and epigrams, aphorisms and memories. Take these lines from Disclosure, one of the book’s shorter entries: The poem about me as a boy shooting the dog when my dad told / me to // Didn’t ring clear in its flaw-rhythms – until I scraped down to the / rage-line // Nothing but nothing would be beneath me (MCHUGH). He revisits his childhood in rural southern Ontario—a topic he covers in Trouble Sleeping (2000)—and details his writing life, including encounters with some of the most influential Canadian writers of the mid-twentieth century. The anecdotal account of Hall’s pilgrimage to Margaret Laurence’s house in 1973 alone makes Killdeer compulsory reading for lovers of CanLit and aspiring writers. Its humour puts the lie to the notion that Canadian writing is patently humourless, which is not to say Becoming a Poet and Twenty Lost Years (a loving paean to the underappreciated poet Bronwen Wallace) are not without moments of seriousness. But the moments feel honestly rendered—thoughtful reminiscences acknowledging one artist’s debt to others and evoking the best of high-minded conversations past:

I have built a way forward with poems using doubt

But I have Bron’s absolute confidence in all of us with me each
day as I tinker

She believed in a unified front against despair – because she did –
I do – mostly

Sometimes – even now – 20 years later – when I’ve finished a
poem – or think I have – I think – Bron would like this

Or – I’d have a fun old time arguing with Bron about this one

And so, despite the often dark subject matter—poverty, fear of failure, loss, death—Hall’s Governor General’s Award winner offers a fun old time with poets and thinkers past and, thankfully, present.

This review “A Quintessence of Poetry” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 151.

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