Poems of Sensual Clutter

  • Heather Spears
    I Can Still Draw. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd.
  • Vanessa Moeller
    Our Extraordinary Monsters. Signature Editions
  • Rob Winger
    The Chimney Stone. Harbour Publishing
Reviewed by Emily Wall

Heather Spears, Rob Winger, and Vanessa Moeller have written books full of sensual clutter. All three poets, like magpies, collect images and words and pile them in shining, enticing heaps around us. At times, we feel buried—we can hardly feel the floor beneath our feet. We walk between the towering walls of words, syllabus, and images, looking for some kind of foothold into story or meaning, and only sometimes do we find one. It’s best to read these poems with eyes closed, hands out, letting our fingers rather than our hearts and minds read.

Heather Spears’ poems are a curious blend of the distanced speaker and a sharp look at the reality of life.  Her poems swing between minutia—poems full of images we are told are unimportant—to powerful poems about war zones, and the suffering of those distanced from us. The poet avoids sentimentality when writing about stillborn babies or those dying in ambulances in Gaza, but in doing so she also sacrifices any access to deeper emotional resonance. We sense the speaker standing back, sketchbook in hand, objective, dry-eyed. She tells us not to pay too much attention to the suffering of the world. And we admire that lack of sentimentality. But at times her poems become almost cold—she chastises a mother of a stillborn child, who is “leaking grief” and refuses to leave the hospital. She dismisses the image of a girl killed in the poem “Lockerbie”: “Now after all this time/even if she’d lived, taken/say another flight/it’s not that big a deal./And as I find my seat/it’s fairly easy to shut her out.” In the end, we’re left holding nothing but her dry, disapproving voice, and her ability to dismantle the world.

In “The Chimney Stone” Rob Winger writes a series of ghazals, or variations on the ghazal. In the true nature of the ghazal, he lets each couplet stand alone, connecting them with the merest thread of recognition. His strength as a ghazal writer is his ability to connect these couplets, these disparate images, with pure intuition. We make those illogical leaps with him, from country song lyrics, to political moments, to the birth of a child, in a nearly invisible way. If we try too hard to find the connections, though, we’re lost. “We rise from marinas into melodrama. / On the counter, the Macallan’s half-full. / I want to write war novels and drink, sucker-punch the busboy; / which bits of men are worth applause?” The dislocated nature of the poems echoes in the book as a whole. He seems intent on telling us, again and again, that no true meaning exists, that we are adrift in a world of random moments. The message of the book feels true, but the reading of it is as complex as wandering a foreign marketplace without a map. The weakness of these ghazals is his overuse of allusion—literary, pop-culture, lyrical. The poems are almost found poems at times, and it’s nearly impossible to read them without web surfing each poem. It creates an interesting experience, but also a disjointed, strained one. In the end, we feel the dislocation the writer and the form aim for—it’s illuminating, but mostly just along the skin of our thoughts. No deeper emotional response or resonance is possible, in the cacophony of this landscape.

If the other two have collected images, Vanessa Moeller collects words and facts. She translates her own poems, and even the poems in English feel like collections of words—esoteric, rich words collected and pooled on the page. “A pentatonic scale of metatarsals, / slight glissando shifts as I carve / ocean with board fins, etch curves across / fluid viridian rising above me, over me,/down.” The early poems in this collection have a seductive plethora of facts: the way divers used to gather oysters, the length of veins in a human body, the mythological names of winds. These facts compel us to pay attention—to see our bodies and the world around us in a fresh, vivid way.  The latter half of the book is all about correspondence—postcards, letters, and “found” scraps of writing. We can see a loose thematic connection of correspondence through the book, but it feels as if we’re seeing parts of the whole—entire letters, entire stories, are missing. The partial letters, the brief postcards, the moments of memory are enticing enough that we want the whole picture. Ultimately these poems are satisfying one by one, but taken as a whole, make us hungry for what’s missing.

All three poets remind us of what a chaotic world we live in, and how easy it is to disconnect ourselves from any true sense of connection: to each other, to our own bodies, to language, to one another’s stories. We cannot deny the honesty of these poems, but the reading of them ultimately leaves us searching for a path out of the chaos, for some kind of order to the piles of glittering objects heaped all around us.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.