Exploratory Operations

  • Erin Robinsong
    Rag Cosmology.(purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Emily Izsak
    Whistle Stops: A Locomotive Serial Poem. Signature Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Moez Surani
    ةيلمع Operación Opération Operation 行 动 Oперация. BookThug (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Carl Watts

The jury’s out on whether there’s a hard distinction between experimental and not-experimental poetries in Canada, but the three collections under review negotiate innovation and tradition in a way that both denies and reifies this distinction. Moez Surani’s Operation showcases a conceptualism that is entirely removed from the author’s past writing; in Emily Izsak’s and Erin Robinsong’s debut collections, markedly experimental techniques are respectively appended to and interspersed with more conventional verse.

I approached Operation with a degree of skepticism. Surani, whose previous work consists of writerly lyric poetry, here provides only a list of names—those of government operations carried out by member states of the United Nations. Surani’s introduction dispels some of these doubts: it describes the UN’s shift from preventing conflict to intervening when a government endangers its citizens, makes a case for the project’s revelation of the violence on which the international community has “inadvertently collaborated,” and outlines constraints in operation naming suggested by Winston Churchill.

The list itself yields a minimalist topography of postwar geopolitics. For example, an influx of Hebrew names (transliterated and not) marks the establishment of Israel in 1948. Not all major historical developments are spelled out with this kind of textual-visual patterning, however. Upon reaching 1950, the year the Korean war broke out, a reader finds not a similarly identifiable swath of names but still more Anglo-Americanisms—indicative, perhaps, of the extent to which this so-called civil conflict resulted from foreign intervention.

The book yields many similar revelations. Deep into the 1960s, sequences like “Dazzlem (1967-1968) / Blue Max / Banish Beach / Night Bolt” and “Inferno / Scrotum II / Velvet Hammer” sound more like discographies of hair-metal bands than lists of names conforming to Churchill’s statement that such missions “ought not to be described by code words which imply a boastful or overconfident sentiment.” The timeline of these arbitrarily selected reference points outlines US foreign policy’s descent into irresponsible machismo, and Western popular culture’s subsequent reflection thereof. Associations like this render the book much more complex than its simplicity may at first suggest.

Surani’s framing is less than airtight: his introduction discusses the names’ reflection of “a nation’s dreams of purity,” leaving unacknowledged that the book focuses on the corrupt and warlike nature of governments as opposed to national-populist bigotries. But such flaws don’t change the fact that Operation demands more active reading and yields more vigorous discussion than one might expect.

Whistle Stops, meanwhile, is part of an experimental tradition—the serial poem—that doesn’t require surrendering the poet’s voice to the same extent as conceptualism does. According to the book’s press sheet, Izsak “gives us an unapologetically female addition” to the masculine genre of railway poetry. Its succession of always similar, always different train rides (each titled by date, route, and time) sometimes leaves off with an image that’s picked up in the next entry, such as when “Sept 16th 72 to Union Station 11:02” ends by mentioning “marbled vapours / of no specific harm,” only for “Sept 17th . . .” to begin, “Landfills brag / to consecutive stints / in allocution.”

The capacious tradition of the serial poem organizes Izsak’s verse without limiting the smart, lively style of her 2015 chapbook, Stickup. The speaker sometimes drifts through sections of prose or freer lines like “Beside the arrogant motion of form / our holes configure a dugout / the roof a milky macho slant.” Elsewhere, Izsak’s lines obey the relentless pace of the railroad, appearing in interruptive units that pass by more quickly than the content seems to demand:

Slapstick lapse in gorgeous

matters of swears

basks in dangerous hours

near ballast

a body for spite[.]

Izsak departs for the more outwardly experimental in the book’s brief second section, after which a set of notes explains the method behind each poem. This section is sometimes indicative of the perils of dealing in experimental formats in their entirety (an “H track” mesostic, built from bpNichol’s Martyrology, seems like an exercise in a simplistic and overused mode). Still, moments such as the arbitrary “censoring” of words from Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings” (“Wide canals with floatings of $#@*^& froth; / A hothouse flashed uniquely / *&$#@ dipped and rose”) reveal the layers of humour and self-reflexivity in what by now seem like hallowed experimentalist forms.

Robinsong’s Rag Cosmology pulls off a similar combination of radicalism and traditionalism. Environmental poetry is well positioned to speak to this synthesis: ecopoetics articulates the exigencies of the Anthropocene, but broadly nature-focused writing is as old-school as Canadian poetry gets. And indeed, the collection’s treatment of ecological and personal subject matter at first retains the feel of lyric; “Vibration Desks” recalls what Sina Queyras has described as the lyric conceptualism of Lisa Robertson, interspersing italicized quotations (“who lived in this house and how many worlds?”) with the lines of a looser long-poem format (“Just as we know the universe from its folds”) to produce both juxtaposition and complementarity.

Rag Cosmology’s blurring of the particular and the universal also makes for some compellingly self-reflexive pieces. “It Is No Good and I Continue” breaks up single lines with virgules (“To be one’s own limit / and to perceive beyond it / is what I do all day”), only to reduce itself to a series of placeholders: “Personal universes flicker like PRONOUN NOUN VERB VERB.” In “I’m Working on It,” the lines “When I went to parties and would end up onstage naked reading poems // to crowds of brilliant people” fold the social network (and, perhaps, contemporary poetry’s seeming lack of a non-writerly audience) into Robinsong’s negotiation of details and systems.

These moments produce an immediacy that doesn’t always come through in the book’s more abstract moments. Still, when a visual piece consisting of scattered letters arranged into PINE, FIR, and YEW assembles itself in the following poem into lines like “Pine   fir   yew / fir, yew // yew knew I / new   you, knew   aye,” Robinsong weaves processes of writing and revision into her repeated crossings of fragment, utterance, and idea. This kind of complexity suggests that, even if such identifiably abstract approaches appear to interrupt the larger sweep of a collection or poetics, Robinsong, like Surani and Izsak, has a considerable range and a compelling desire to innovate.

This review “Exploratory Operations” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 149-151.

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