Elements of Craft

Reviewed by Jim Johnstone

By the end of the twentieth century, Canadian poetry was on autopilot, its shapeless fuselage rendered in roughhewn vernacular. It was in this climate that John Reibetanz published Ashborne (1986), a poetic debut notable for its persuasive monologues and craftsmanship. An anomaly at the time, Reibetanz’s work has transitioned seamlessly into a body of literature that’s been transformed by a new generation of Canadian poets including Russell Thornton, Alexandra Oliver, and Peter Norman.

Reibetanz’s eighth book of poetry, Afloat, is a collection of elegies where natural order is unified by the classical elements, particularly water. In keeping with its title, Reibetanz opens the collection by proposing that “all nature wants to be water,” from “curled tongues of fire” to the human body. He extends this notion to the eye in “Floater,” continually shifting perspective to mimic the need to refocus to see anew. Of course, the adaptions necessary for the development of the eye are often used to illustrate evolution, and Reibetanz finds a kindred spirit in Charles Darwin, evoking his theory on the transmutation of species where “reptiles leave to return as hummingbirds” in “To Darwin in Chile, 1835.” Afloat transmutes formally as it proceeds into its second and third sections, eschewing traditional punctuation in favor of spaces that serve to freight the poems with breath. While this slows the reader and brings focus to the environmental implications of the Three Gorges Dam examined in “Lament for the Gorges,” it also blurs the boundaries between poems, generating a homogeneity that distracts from individual denouements. This homogeneity extends throughout the book as a whole; Afloat is masterful yet painstakingly slow to reveal the depth of its ecological metaphors. Reibetanz is best when anchoring his work with concrete images such as the bone flute that ends the collection as “a wing once more / to ride to paradise.”

Russell Thornton, like John Reibetanz, is a poet concerned with scale.Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain opens with a squall “[t]hat is the wet ghost that will ride / along the edges of the flesh,” and Thornton’s vision only grows from there. Elemental hyperbole contributes to the magnitude of poems like “The Oldest Rock in the World” and “Aluminum Beds,” the latter expanding into a “core of blackness not burning, / within the beds’ angular emptiness / because of the love meant for us.” Here Thornton finds security in beds welded together for he and his brothers, likening them to an embrace in his father’s absence. The urban and industrial worlds clash often in Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain, playing off one another to create a portrait of western Canada. “As if the ships were the same ships / that sat there twenty-four or forty-eight hours ago. / As if, in the middle of the night, the ships did not / arrive and drop anchor at exact latitudes and longitudes” Thornton writes in “Burrard Inlet Ships,” a poem that traces the origins of a seemingly unchanging landscape. While such scope can be extravagant, Thornton’s rhetorical precision saves him from oversentimentality, and lends the collection a sense of balance.

After beginning her career as a slam poet, Alexandra Oliver has become one of Canada’s most electrifying new formalists. Her poems are distinguished by both their strict rhymes and inventive diction, which regularly coalesce to produce aural pyrotechnics. Consider the description of the conductor in “Party Music”: “He reeked of fame, / wore grey ostrich shoes, a beaver hat / tipped on a sweep of hair now going white, / a coat in astrakhan.” Written in terza rima, Oliver bends the poem’s meter to suit the off-kilter appearance of the musician, and this is highlighted with the assonance of words like “reeked,” “beaver,” and “sweep.” Thematically, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway is chockfull of domestic parables built on everyday events. In the title poem, the narrator is confronted with a group of her childhood tormentors in a supermarket, and remembered humiliations are used to diminish the impact of finally meeting them in the present, their “joyful freckled faces lost for words.” It’s an outstanding sonnet—driving, rhythmic, and self-aware in its payoff. Oliver’s strengths can be her weaknesses however; rhyme often forces her into awkward word choices (coop / poop), and her habit of contrasting high and low culture can lead to overblown stanzas like:

“I told him that he whispered pleas
and vows into her chilly ear.
He answered, where’s the damn remote,
and who forgot to buy the beer?”

Taken from “The Classics Lesson,” these lines lack the restraint necessary to modernize the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. Despite the fact that some of her verse can be overwrought, Oliver is a first-class wordsmith.

Peter Norman begins Water Damage by travelling backwards, talking the reader out of the highway collision he describes in the first stanza of “Up Near Wawa.” The poem is an allegory for memory—the way trauma can embed and confuse, imparting only “winking glimpses of the broken line” on the road. Memory is the antecedent for many of the poems in Water Damage, which questions authenticity in self-deprecating, often surreal lyrics. “Hear that? The grinding of teeth in the wall?” Norman asks in “What I Meant,” evoking the failure of memory in contrast to the ethos of modern living. Norman is a subtler craftsman than Oliver, favoring plainspoken over elevated language, the latter of which he uses sparingly to signal shifts in logic. “What I Meant” is a fine example of Norman’s formal control—written in tercets, the poem is an exercise in blank verse that devolves into monosyllables to emphasize the narrator’s sincerity when he promises that “we’ll sit there. We’ll eat,” responding to the chaos of earlier reasoning. Norman’s verse has a tendency to unravel without structure, as evidenced by the “The Flood,” the 6-page love poem that ends the book. It’s ill defined and ineffective—schmaltz compared to Norman’s more calculated emotional displays. But when Norman is on, his technician’s eye ranks him with Reibetanz, Thornton, and Oliver as one of the best of the current cohort of Canadian poets.

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