The Home Place: Essays on Robert Kroetsch's Poetry. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Exuberantly, Dennis Cooley marvels at the “exuberant outpouring” of Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue: “In a flurry of hope and protest [Kroetsch] speculates, irrepressibly, brilliantly, on what might be done, rejoices in the force of what is near, or happening, and what is yet to come. How do you . . . ? he asks again and again.” Cooley celebrates Kroetsch’s “discover[ing]” for its “profusion.” Profusion. Outpouring. Terms that might also describe Cooley’s critical writing—and his poetry. Or mixing with his challenging poetry, Kroetsch’s poetic criticism. Again and again. There is no end to it.
So, it’s not easy to summarize this critical approach. It rests somewhere in that con-fusion of poetry and criticism. Cooley reads with a scrupulous, tactful, alert sense of his own vocabulary, of his subject’s languaging. He muses for a full paragraph on the multiplicity of whispering in Seed Catalogue. He illuminates the poetry hiding in the bland census document quoted in The Ledger. He teases biography and psychology out of the lyric “Keyed In,” twelve short lines of “unelaborate” diction. He shrewdly explicates “bullshitter” by not finding the word in dictionary or thesaurus. “This is criticism,” Cooley enthuses about a Kroetsch essay (he devotes sixty and more pages to the essays), “with the tightness and force of poetry, Kroetsch’s own kind of wisdom poetry, a fascination with words that skitter and spark and fit.” Just such a collision of verbs—rhyming and alliterating and doubling as nouns—typifies the irrepressible flurry of Kroetsch writing to Cooley writing to Kroetsch.
Let me sober up for a moment and reflect that I am in the process of giving away my library. I just counted thirty books by and about Kroetsch into a box to give to David Eso, who recently completed an MA thesis on Kroetsch. But I still have twenty-five or more I can’t bear to part with. I’ve written several essays on Kroetsch and a bunch of reviews. Bob was a good and dear friend. And still page after page I found Cooley riddling nuance and gap to surprise me with a meaning I’d never contemplated, a measured un-meaning. He embraces Kroetsch’s “grammatical twiddling” with affectionate care. He patiently engages Kroetsch’s lingo and its talky syntax. When he slides (rarely) close to highfalutin pretentiousness, he playfully mocks his own commentary.
And the irrepressible registers as “amplification” multiplied by “gusto.” But then the profusion will also be inflected by withdrawal/shyness. The Home Place echoes the explicit back-and-forth syntax of The Sad Phoenician: that is, for every “and”—some enthusiastic bulging list—there is a beguiling “but”—a reconsideration, a reticence, a moment of bemused self-criticism. So Cooley depends on questions as the core of his explications. The myriad interrogatives embed a way of understanding, even migod a meaning, while hesitating: “Making meaning is easy enough,” Kroetsch begins his poem “no ideas but in things,” “but making the meaning mean is tough.” “Always: ‘how?’” Cooley notes just after quoting the full litany of absences in Seed Catalogue. “Not: ‘why?’ That question is not even asked. The real question is: ‘how’ do you do it?”
The poet-critic makes for good reading. His vocabulary provokes and amuses. A list of folk remedies in Seed Catalogue cluster in a “brassy collection”; Kroetsch’s Phoenician is a “badly shaken clown.” Cooley responds to George Bowering’s describing Kroetsch as “the most readable critic” with spare appreciation: “Darn tootin’.” “Being over taken, taken over by words. Daring to be carried away.”
Lest this tribute imply The Home Place is all wordplay with poet playing poet, I want to recognize how adeptly, if obliquely and subtly, Cooley sets his subject in resonant contexts. In his sudden turns and ample footnotes, he is also writing valuable essays on the local (“alert to the potential in what he happens upon”), on Alberta as a home, and on writing West. Cooley keeps happening upon CanLit connections, and posing questions about the hows of a nation, its modes and voices. He tests analogies and influences: Williams’ Paterson, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Eliot’s Prufrock, the Book of Ezekiel. Much of his method, again mirroring Kroetsch’s, trusts in juxtaposition. Particularly so, perhaps, in his engaging the “high seriousness” of critical theory: he takes a germane quotation and sets it without transition next to a quotation from a poem, or a passage of explication, not arguing cause and effect or explanation but inviting speculation, or even a detour. So for Bakhtin on masks, Ovid and Barthes on love, Marjorie Perloff on the ordinary world, and Kroetsch himself on William Gass on “and.” There is no end to it.
In the midst of much “rambunctiousness,” Cooley pauses to startle us, and maybe himself, with a realization: “Regrettably, the tenderness in Kroetsch’s writing has not received a lot of critical attention.” The observation makes explicit a muted but vital strain in a book whose title highlights the home that both lures and frustrates. Somewhere, The Home Place wants to be a biography, Cooley, the long-time colleague and close friend of the writer, paying tribute, writing “in memory of.” Much of the criticism he cites comes from readers who would call themselves good friends (of Kroetsch, of Cooley, of both) and more. So the life story insists, if somewhat secretly, because Kroetsch kept writing his friends into his work, and was so ready to offer friendship almost immediately he met someone. We friends, thinking we are insiders, pause on the moments not just of tenderness, but of loneliness, of longing, of Kroetsch’s “[fleeing] to the edges of people.” “Chillingly” is a descriptor Cooley uses several times. We are surprised, puzzled, by the “anguish,” “desolation,” even “abjection,” and then we are moved by the “inexplicably moving.” So, as much as the book turns toward the unknowing, the instability of a postmodern language and outlook, we want to know more of the life than Dennis hints at in the early sections of his book. I am not sure I want a Kroetsch biography. But if I dream the one I might like to read I’d like it to be written with the playful irrepressibility of Dennis Cooley. I’d like to read a much fuller version of the paragraph in which he ventures to sum up the writer’s “personality,” the “presence”: there he pours out in an exuberant list more than thirty modifiers layered into a dozen snapshot moments. Such amplification fills every page. Reading The Home Place, we believe we know more about writer and writing—and about the home place. Even if what we know is the “immense unknowing.”