the book of smaller. University of Calgary Press
“What if I forget how to write?” worries rob mclennan (27), quietly disclosing his vulnerability in “Lament,” one of 108 prose poems from the book of smaller. This sentence, like other anxious sentences in mclennan’s latest collection from the University of Calgary Press, is surprising given that he’s one of Canada’s most generative and generous writers, editors, and publishers. He has authored more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction and over one hundred chapbooks; he has published countless other authors of emerging, mid-career, and established status. If mclennan worries about the act of getting words on the page, what does that mean for the rest of us? While I risk a critical faux pas by conflating the author and the poem’s speaker, the coalescence of author and persona is one of the unforgettable features of the book of smaller. These are poems of quiet modesty, of service, of distraction, of sincere reflection. These are poems that observe and capture the act of observation itself. In the book of smaller, mclennan writes the poem as it is meant to be, as a place for life and living.
The title of the collection, the book of smaller, invites an array of thematic engagements. These are prose poems of near molecular scale—not quite in Aram Saroyan’s sense of minimalism—but in their brief, aphoristic style. There are almost as many pages in this book as there are poems, with each taking up no more than a page and each being equivalent in length to a short paragraph (or shorter). Yet, as mclennan writes in his reflection on minimalism, “Compactness / breeds” (18). No poem, regardless of its brevity, is ever small in its ideas or feelings, and the book of smaller is a testament to this as it spans the complexities of familial relations, restful moments during a child’s nap, quiet self-reflection, pop culture’s omnipresent noise, the powers of prime ministers and presidents, and heinous displays of white supremacy. The subject matter of these poems, each assembled in seemingly paratactic arrangement, encompasses the chaos of contemporary life as experienced by the poet who is not necessarily trying to make sense of it all but documenting its swirl: “The children asleep. This stew in the slow cooker. Focus now on what crumbles. Aleppo. You are history. It is painful to be so dismissed. A conversation on beauty. The fresh breath of airports, unsealed” (14). Representative of the collection’s style, these few sentences offer fragmented visions of home life, personal insecurity, aesthetics, and geopolitics that are pressed together to form one of two of the collection’s title poems. Perhaps this indicates, as the first sentence of the poem suggests, “Everything had to be broken” because even now, years after this book’s composition, it feels only possible to make sense of the world by attending to its fragments (14). This tension between the fragment and the whole animates much of the book.
Offering advanced praise for the collection, author Lisa Fishman identifies the “rhythms of domesticity [that] underlie the book’s music” (“book of smaller”). While the poems rove in their subject matter, looking forward and back, mclennan’s life at home is a near constant. He tenderly admires his partner, “Christine, the light that threatens shadow” (79), and appreciates the inimitable chaos of child-rearing: “The days prolong, in fragments. First thing. Children banter. Cereal, milk. Preschooler’s laugh . . . Beyond the frame: Christine’s work-prep. Liner notes. An ache, to dispatch. Empty driveway bins they feel such rain. Banana handful to the baby’s mouth” (72). (The children, of course, are also the “smaller” that the book’s title gestures toward.) Small moments with cereal, milk, and bananas are moments that some might discount as the necessary minutiae of experience, worthy of only a fleeting glance, not a poem. Yet, for mclennan, these moments are just as—if not more—important than the poem itself. They lead to the moments when “A small word, finally. Grasps the pen,” which can soon give way when “The outlet, curls” (76). In the book of smaller, living gives the poem life and life gives the poem a living. After all, for mclennan, the poem begins long before writing; “The poem begins: when you are born” (47). In the book of smaller, mclennan shows us just how much life a paragraph, a sentence, a single poem can hold.
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