But Enough About You

Reviewed by Tim Conley

Gaspereau Press certainly does produce handsome volumes, but the poetry so bound shows how treacherously fine is the line between precarious and precious.
Tim Bowling’s title is not The Annotated Bee & I—not, one suspects, because he is averse to grammar but because the rhyme in The Annotated Bee & Me is so gosh-darn homey. More literally, though, there’s the inspiration and object of his “annotations,” a 1961 chapbook from his “Great-Aunt Gladys Muttart” about the family history of beekeeping, an object which apparently requires annotation because it can’t speak for itself. Bowling tries to balance the cloying with the profound as he admires his museum piece: “The provenance is intimate, contained within a family. / The annotation is intimate, contained within a language.” The irritation is intimate, contained within a parody.
A prefatory note called “Propolis” (defined –and thereby annotating the annotating preface to the annotations—as “a mysterious substance produced by honeybees”) details this provenance in prose, not trusting the verse to convey the facts, and concludes by declaring this book “sometimes dark” and “whimsical,” itself “a kind of honey whose presentation pays homage to the vast and short distances between the generations of every family.” If you can’t find this honey in the Mixed Metaphor aisle of your supermarket, try the Nostalgia department’s freezers:
And now? The prospective groom will flash the question
on the giant electronic scoreboard at some stadium,
although it is more accurate to say that permission
is no longer either a correct or incorrect fashion
and likely neither bride nor groom will be a virgin—
much more than the hand has already been given.
Moreover, no hand today would enact a construction
like “asked permission of.” That just isn’t written.
And since a regular rhyme scheme is also verboten,
I’ll end clumsily: the young still fall in love.
Kids these days! Not only do they not respect conventions like rhyme and chastity, there’s even the chance that they might look askance at clichés (the use of German “verboten”) and stentorian euphemisms (“much more than the hand”—tee hee!).
Johanna Skibsrud has a better title: I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being. The emphasis is still intractably on the lyric self (two Is to Bowling’s single Me), but in fact it operates as a hermeneutic shell: this happened to me, and because I am so very deliberately a singular I, you cannot gainsay this, never mind conceivably participate in this song for my voice. Others need always to be qualified: in “You Spent All Day in the Water,” all observations of “you” (or others) are interrupted with “to me” and “I thought” and “I think” and “So I understand it” with a rhythm that leaves no doubt about how unimportant it is what you spent all day doing, except that “I” took notice of it. And the poem ends with a pious acceptance of the sublime (here the ocean) that is in fact a narcissistic assimilation:
I had all along, imagined it, and from
an early age so that—although still
inscrutable and vast—it became for me an
agreeable incomprehension, which
I accepted; like heaven.
That’s badly punctuated prose, and too much of the book is made up of it.
I Do Not Think begins with a self-conscious reminiscence of canoe trip (“Which begs the question: / Why write this poem in present tense, / knowing what I know?”) and ends with a narrator alone atop “high mountains” contemplating how she might speak of otherwise unspeakable mysteries. Poetry for Skibsrud seems to be a way of not talking to others, of getting distance from experience and the world, and though several of the poems might fairly be characterized as “love poems” in some sense, the remote control of the whole only occasionally, indirectly questions itself:
It would be a sad life, though, to
sustain myself this way, only abstract
rose to rose, and, next year would settle for some
less than perfect offering.
Leonard Cohen, thou shouldst be reviewing at this hour!
“As first collections of poems go,” its back cover copy tells us, “Paul Tyler’s A Short History of Forgetting is remarkable.” One feels a little sorry for a poet so damned with faint praise by his own publisher, but also for the glum sort of inevitability that drives (if that is the word) so many of the book’s poems. This is occasional verse that presents “short history” as a narrative model keen on snappiness and tight closure. The title poem is, aptly, about packing to leave and an observance of man who “knows the line between stealing and archaeology,” though the observation makes it “easy to see the border / between memory and history.” Snug abstractions.
Tyler enjoys (enjoyably) lists of objects, discreet manifests of curios and detritus, and (perhaps less enjoyably) pithy consolations. Watch for war mementoes and the snows of yesteryears. In his portraits of the inhabitants of a nursing home, each dutifully concludes with a poignant brushstroke of pathos: “it sounds like forgiveness”; “his forgetting gently consumes him”; “You are the last one to say her name.” An account of late-night reading demonstrates his manner as well as his mind:
Stay a little longer, the story goes. Half-
read, you are stitched by possible endings.
There’s that sound, repeated in your ear,
a crisp turning of hours; it keeps you here.

This review “But Enough About You” originally appeared in Prison Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 208 (Spring 2011): 136-138.

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