Exploring Amazement: New and Selected Poems. White Mountain
Full disclosure: in Canadian Literature #50 (Autumn 1971), I wrote a review of several books by Montreal poets, including Alan Pearson’s 14 Poems. It was his first book; it was my first review for this distinguished journal. Now, an unbelievable 42 years later, I have been asked to review Exploring Amazement, his New and Selected poems, which appears, sadly, posthumously.
I re-read my old review with amusement, and some amazement. With an authoritativeness far beyond my years, it is relentlessly judgmental. It’s not so much a review as a report card. “Practically none of the poems comes off,” I assert. “Poems which appear to be going places get lost in the middle; others arrive, but at no place in particular.” Nevertheless, I generously conclude that Pearson is “really capable of writing,” and I end by saying (in what I admitted was a cliché) that “I look forward with interest to his next book.”
So here I am, with interest, reviewing not quite his next book, though it is the next for me. Forty years on, I expected to be much less censorious. Yet I found many of these old criticisms persisting through Pearson’s subsequent volumes. I still think that his poems work better in individual touches (images, descriptions, metaphors) than they do as a whole. I still note a tendency for flat, weak endings, when quite decent poems stumble over a banal final line. (One striking exception, among the “New” poems, is the brilliant and entirely satisfying ending of “The Go-between,” by far the best poem in the collection.)
But I now notice other things too. The poems have a strong attraction to the natural world, which is always presented as rich, exuberant, and dynamic. For a native of bleak northern England, Pearson has a remarkable affinity for the Mediterranean. He loves things (and people) which are exuberant, assertive, and proud. In this aspect, he reveals the continuing influence, as acknowledged in his Introduction, of his early mentor, Irving Layton. Perhaps only Layton, among all other Canadian poets, could not only have written a poem which celebrates (without, as far as I can tell, a trace of irony) the wounded and defiant Conrad Black, but also have placed it, with equal defiance, as the first poem in the definitive collection of his life’s work.
Or consider the poem “How to Look at a Painting,” which begins “First you step boldly into the frame,” and then does so itself, immersing the reader in a Mediterranean scene by Matisse, luxuriating in the colour and the light. Now, I happen to think that this is entirely the wrong way to “look at a painting”—for me, painting is all about the frame, and I disapprove of anything (like 3D in cinema) which dissolves the frame—but I can certainly respect this opposing view, and I see its attraction.
These are the moments when Pearson is at his strongest and most distinctive. He is much better when he steps boldly into the frame than when he falls back on pallid conclusions. This book stands as a worthy summation of a poetic life spent exploring what that bold step might mean.