Equine, Bovine, Divine

  • Jan E. Conn
    Botero's Beautiful Horses. Brick Books
  • Robert Moore
    Figuring Ground. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd.
  • Bruce Meyer
    Mesopotamia. Your Scrivener Press
Reviewed by Owen Percy

Botero’s Beautiful Horses is the latest in Jan Conn’s unique body of poetic writing that blends science, history, image, and dream into what she calls the “[s]trange embrace” of the surreal, the concrete, the visual, and the intellectual. Conn’s verse here is terse and aphoristic as often as it is lush, evocative, and ornamental. Opening with epigraphs from Pessoa, Page, Lispector, and Paz, and often revolving ekphrastically around the paintings of Remedios Varo, the collection as a whole takes up the speaking consciousness of a North American literati (allusions and references to Al Purdy, Malcolm Lowry, Michael Ondaatje, Charles Olson, and others abound) wandering wide-eyed in a magical, transhistorical Latin America. The first section, “The Light of Poinsettias,” explores the beauty and sublimity of Mexican and Venezuelan geography and history from a consciously outsider perspective in poems like “Ahora” and “Angel Falls.” The poems in the second section, “Cosmological,” act as our tour guides through a violent pre-contact Aztec empire, which is good, because “[c]oming here alone is not recommended.” The poems in the subsequent sections “Blunted Gold” and “Amazonia” return mostly to the present, and offer the collection’s most outstanding verse (particularly the Mars-landing poem “Signs of Water” and the eloquent elegy for the speaker’s mother “Belém”). The collection’s closing sections “Absolute Love” and “Harmonium” seem in many ways like the beginnings of another book entirely. They are comprised of several dense, intellectual, and scientifically savvy poems that muse upon desire and environmental apocalypse. At 124 aesthetically Brick-beautiful pages (not including 10 pages of notes and acknowledgements), the collection tends to drag in the final two sections only by pulling us in markedly different directions than we had been going. The (very strong) poems seem to be the “extra dimensions required of string theory demanding / labyrinthine mathematical structures for sustenance,” and might have better begun a different book devoid of the hazy, beautiful dream-like sensuality of the rest of Botero’s Beautiful Horses.

Robert Moore’s latest book, Figuring Ground, is a collection of memories, anecdotes, and meditations on everything from lust to livestock. Moore’s background in theatre is immediately evident; one often feels, in fact, that Figuring Ground is more of a one-man show with a cast of dozens than just a boring old book of poems. The book’s first two sections contain conversational contemplations of death and dying (including a particularly evocative series of lyrics about the speaker’s dying father in poems like “Visitation” and “History”), lovely non-Romantic love poems like the standout “The Anniversary,” and postmodern meditations on signifiers and signifieds like “Reduced to Parts of Speech” wherein the tongue-tied speaker muses, “I had nothing to do with the death of Custer. Until just / now, I mean. Ah, but it feels substantive, this being / implicated!” The twenty-three page section “Excerpt from The Golden Book of Bovinities” that closes the book offers a suite of poetic fragments that are “pretending to be cow” in their aphoristic and often hilarious meditations. In all its punny play and brash political self-reflexivity, though (“After you’ve been branded, / had the living horn sawn from your skull / and seen your little ones sold into confinement / or death, you start to think it couldn’t get any worse. / But then, life comes along and hammers you / right between the eyes”), the sequence manages regular moments of musicality, aural pleasure, and metaphysical weight with its realizations like “[e]very cow carries the entire history of civilization / around all day in its mouth. It tastes like grass.” The book’s curtain falls, thus, on a surprisingly fresh and engaging note that warrants a hearty round of genuine applause for the thought and sound of Figuring Ground.

Bruce Meyer’s newest collection, Mesopotamia, is one that hearkens back to varying degrees of imagined antiquity and divinity. The poems often wander the contemporary world in a state of anxiousness, “wondering if we hadn’t already had the answer / and discard[ed] all answers because we couldn’t be sure,” and saying such un-pomo things as “The truth is the truth / no matter how garbled.” Taking its epigraphic cues from Eliot, Shakespeare, and the Book of Genesis, Mesopotamia is a text that yearns for a kind of past golden era of simple morality, and that, perhaps to its detriment, takes itself very seriously as literature. Poet Richard Harrison recently dubbed Meyer a “contemporary formalist” and quoted him in Freefall magazine (20.1) as saying that “writing in form gives one the sense of writing against something.” Most of the poems in Mesopotamia, though, seem to strain under such overt and orchestrated formalism. Along with the glossary of forms in the back of the book and an “After Note” that is ostensibly a defence of rigid, traditional form (and that shirks its own very sensible opening assertion that “A poet should never try to explain his poems”), Mesopotamia as a book allows formality to become a distracting rubric that takes several of the poems hostage. The subtler bright spots in this collection, thus—the Don McKay-like “Shingling,” for example—are often overshadowed by didactic ultra-Canadian patriotic flag-wavers like “Ultracrepidaria” and “The Last Veteran of World War One Died in His Sleep This Morning.” The book would serve as a textbook example of both so-called ‘CanLit’ and so-called ‘neo-formalism,’ but not consistently, I’m afraid, to its, or their, credit.

This review “Equine, Bovine, Divine” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 153-154.

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